Category Archives: Buddhism

The Social Aspects of Buddhism

The social aspects of Buddhism are basic to Buddhist philosophy and practice.

In Buddhism, all things are interrelated (not just people). In fact, according to Buddhism, nothing exists except in relation to all other things.[1] Because of this interrelationship, all things affect each other. As this arises, that becomes. As the sun rises, flowers open. As we act kindly, we benefit others. [2]

King Radical

Buddhism also stresses the importance of living in accordance with Dharma, the universal  law affecting all phenomena. [3] Dharma can be translated in many ways into English but here, I refer to it as a universal moral law.

The above Chinese character (which means ‘king’ in Chinese) is a good way to think of Dharma. The three horizontal strokes in the character represent heaven, earth and humanity. In classical Chinese thought, the “king” was thought to be the one who connected heaven, earth and humanity. Likewise, Dharma can be thought of as that which connects the universe, the world and humanity.

At the day to day level, Dharma manifests itself through one’s moral actions (karma), and, in particular, through one’s moral obligations toward others.[4] In fulfilling one’s obligations (based on non-violence, kindness etc.), one helps build a society based on love, compassion and fellowship.

In short, the ideal Buddhist society is one which nurtures each individual in progressing toward goodness and happiness, in other words, toward the end of suffering. [5]

NOTES

[1] Even monks, hermits and recluses can’t escape the basic laws of nature (i.e. hunger, aging, illness or death).

[2] Sigalovada Sutta (169), Digha Nikaya, XXXI.

[3] Buddhism accepted the idea of living an ethical life in the world (as opposed to the monastery) early on in its history through its acceptance of the Indian institution of the “householder” (P. gahattha, Skr. grhastha ), i.e. the person who lives in the world and raises a family.

[4] For instance, through pancasila or the first four of the five precepts . Elsewhere, Buddhism refers to one’s obligations to one’s family, friends, co-workers and others in society. See the Sigalovada Sutta, Digha Nikaya, XXXI.

[5] Sutta Nipata (Khuddaka Nikaya), 136; Majjhima Nikaya, 2.147. Although Buddhism did not abolish the caste system in India, it emphasized the moral equality of all individuals and their capacity for attaining enlightenment.

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Buddhism and Wealth

buddhist land transaction

“For the good of the many, for the happiness of the many, for the welfare of the world …”  (‘Bahujanahitāya bahujanasukhāya lokānukampāya’)
– Anguttara Nikaya 2. 146).

In ancient India, the good life was thought to consist of the pursuit of the “four ends of life” (Skr. purushartha). The four ends of life consisted of:

  1. “dharma” (virtue, morality and obligation);
  2. “artha” (wealth and material prosperity);
  3. “kama” (love and pleasure) and
  4. “moksha” (spiritual liberation).

Despite the orientalist perceptions of India as a land of ascetics and wandering holy men, most Indians seem to have preferred a worldly existence. Indeed, the institution of the householder (Skr. grhastha), and the associated institutions of marriage and family life,  were considered the ideal to live by.

The Buddha and the early monastic community (Skr. sangha) were forced to confront this basic social and cultural reality. In fact, they realized quickly that a community of lay followers was needed if the Sangha was to survive economically. If only tacitly then, the Buddha accepted the institution of the householder as a legitimate way of life for the Buddhist layperson.

The Buddha was accordingly forced to address questions of family life, wealth and worldly happiness or artha. In one discourse, he speaks of the following four types of worldly happiness: [1]

  1. the happiness of acquiring economic security and sufficient wealth through just proper means. (artha sukha);
  2. the happiness of spending that wealth liberally one oneself, one’s family, friends and on good deeds (bhoga-sukha);
  3. the happiness of saving so one is free of debts (anrna-sukha);
  4. the happiness of living a pure and faultless life (anavadhya-jiva).[2]

The following four factors would also help the householder attain that happiness:

  1. to work or to be skilled, efficient, earnest and energetic in whatever profession one is engaged, and to know it well (utthana-sampada);
  2. to preserve one’s income (arakhsa-sampada), viz. to save that which one has earned justly and through one’s personal efforts;
  3. to associate with good company (kalyana-mitraka);
  4. to live within one’s means (samajivika).[3]

The pursuit of arthain Buddhism, however, is always subject to the considerations of dharma. That is one’s activities in the world should conform to a moral standard including such values as tolerance, non-violence, and compassion for others.

For instance, wealth is not legitimately earned by:

  1. killing or harming others;
  2. taking from others what was not freely given;
  3. engaging some form of sexual misconduct;
  4. false or injurious speech;
  5. selling or dealing in intoxicating substances.

In Buddhism then, the pursuit of wealth or artha provides the material foundation necessary for pursuing the good life – pursuing one’s moral and spiritual development for the good of the world.

Notes

[1] Sigala Sutra (Digha Nikaya, 31); Angutara Nikaya (Columbo, 1929), 232-233, 786; Jataka, I, 260, 399; II, 400; III, 274, 320; V, 119, 378 (cited in What the Buddha Taught, the Walpola Rahula, [Gordon Fraser: London, 1959], 78, 82-83, 84-85).

While the Pali Canon was directed mostly towards monastic life, the Buddhist monastic community was quick to recognize the benefits of having a well-off lay community and admitted several prominent householders into its fold while endorsing the legitimacy of the life of the householder (Skr. grhastha).

[2] Angutara Nikaya (Columbo, 1929), 786 cited in Rahula, 81.

[3] Angutara Nikaya (Columbo, 1929), 232-233, cited in Rahula, 82.

 

 

 

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Buddhist Political Philosophy (Karma)

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Karma. It’s a word that brings up ideas of cosmic retribution coming to us from past lives. It’s a metaphysical, even scary sounding concept, but not one you’d use to make sense of world affairs.

Personally, I can’t imagine explaining world affairs without karma. Everything in the world arises as a result of a set of causes and conditions and from everything that happens or comes into being, new causes and conditions arise.

Karma is the principle of actions and consequences. From a Buddhist perspective, karma refers specifically to human intention and the action accompanying that intention.

The Buddhist theory of karma assumes that:

  1. Human beings have agency;
  2. Human beings act by exercising their will;
  3. The actions of human beings have consequences for them.

In Buddhism, human will is subject to many physical, mental, emotional and environmental influences. Political entities are even more complex. The nation-state, for example, is made up of territory, population, government and international recognition as such.

It’s government, however, that ultimately influences what the state is and what it does. What government doesn’t affect its own people through its laws and policies? What countries don’t affect others through their choices in foreign policy?

Everything that becomes, or changes must do so owing to some cause;
for nothing can come to be without a cause
(Plato).

Karma also explains how the actions of nation-states affect both themselves and the world. The events of 9-11 and the policies of the Bush Administration squashed civil rights at home and devastated Iraq and Afghanistan. The rise of Donald Trump resulted from many conditions, including a severe recession, widening economic disparities, and the American electoral system.

But karma isn’t just something that happens to nations; it’s something that nations create. Getting the causes “right” moreover, produces the right effects. Economic growth and development in China, for example, came through a well-planned economic policy and strategy.

The state can produce good karma, that is it can act morally and produce positive consequences, e.g. prosperity, peace and stability at home and elsewhere. In Buddhism, this comes through the state following its dharma, that is in fulfilling its moral purpose of relieving people of distress and enabling their well-being.

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Buddhist Political Philosophy: Dharma

wheel of dharma
Dharma is of fundamental importance to Buddhist political philosophy.

Dharma comes from the Sanskrit “dhri” which means to support, to sustain and to uphold. It refers to the universal moral law which is also identical with our essentially moral nature as human beings. Acting in accordance with dharma means being good and doing good to others.

Socially, dharma is realized when we fulfill our obligations to one another. In Buddhism, this means treating one another with empathy, compassion and in a spirit of love, fellowship and brotherhood.

Politically, dharma is moral governance. Good government in Buddhism is moral government, that which relieves the suffering of the people and enables their well-being. This is accomplished by laying a strong economic foundation for the people and and ruling in a spirit of benevolence, justice and non-violence.

History is full of examples of rulers acting in accordance with and implementing dharma. Cyrus the Great (600-530 BCE) and Ashoka (r. 273-232 BCE) proclaimed respect for all religions throughout their empires. The Han Dynasty sought to relieve famine through a granary system, while the Buddhist period of Chinese history saw the establishment of hospitals, dispensaries, orphanages and rest homes for the elderly.

… to be continued in Part III.

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The End of Suffering: Buddhist Political Philosophy (Introduction)

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I’ve long been interested in the idea of a Buddhist political philosophy.

Buddhism has long been criticized for being unconcerned with political or social reality. Indeed, most books written on Buddhism in North America today deal with psychic subjects like meditation and mindfulness, while others (Buddha in the Boardroom and The Buddha on Wallstreet) align Buddhism with modern day capitalism.

These questions have failed to engage with the deeper questions of Buddhist philosophy. They have also failed to question the basic premises of our liberal-democratic capitalist system. Such questioning is even more pressing given the loss of public confidence in our institutions following years of war, conquest, financial crises, bank bailouts and demagogues.

Buddhist political philosophy offers a new way and timely of thinking about and imagining our political reality. I look forward to writing more about it here.

 

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The Buddhist Diwali

 

diwali

Diwali is the festival of lights for only a few Buddhists in India and Nepal. There are reasons though why their brethren should look at Diwali in a new light.

Buddhists celebrating Diwali do so in remembrance of Emperor Ashoka (r. 268-232 BCE). Around the year 260 CE, Ashoka embraced Buddhism and adopted the principles of the Dharma as the basis for his governance of his empire.

The practice of government should not tolerate suffering.[1] Ashoka in his edicts emphasized the importance of humane government and the welfare of his people. His state built infrastructure and provided free medical care to his subjects. He advocated religious tolerance and called for harmony and respect between all sects in the empire.

He is considered by many Buddhists as the ideal cakravartin,[2] the universal sovereign who rules benevolently. Ashoka unified the subcontinent and and his policy of Dharma applied equally to all of his subjects. In preaching virtue and benevolence in government, he can be seen as a political counterpart to the Buddha.

In today’s darkness, the light of Diwali deserves to shine in Ashoka’s example.

 

[1] Mencius

[2] Skr. “wheel turner”

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A History of Buddhist India

Written by Randeep Singh

The Buddhist period of India’s history (c. 273 BCE-646 CE) refers to a time where Buddhism shaped India’s culture, religions, social and political institutions and its relations with other countries. The Buddhist emperors below ruled over multi-ethnic and multi-religious empires, and not over the monolithic Hindu nation India is imagined to be.

Ashoka (r. 273-232 BCE)

Ashoka was the last major emperor of the Maurya Dynasty (321-185 BCE). He unified most of the Indian subcontinent and helped spread Buddhism throughout his empire. His empire included Buddhists but also Jains, Brahmins and followers of different sects. His policy of “dharma” exhorted religious tolerance and expressed his concern for the welfare of his subjects.

Kanishka (r. 127-150 CE)

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Above: Map of the Kushan Empire

Under Kanishka, the Kushan Empire encompassed Bactria, Afghanistan, the Punjab and the Indo-Gangetic plains. Ruling from Purusapura (Peshawar), his empire was home to Zoroastrians, Brahmins, Jains, Buddhists, Greeks and other pagan cults. He connected India to the Silk Road and his patronage of Buddhism helped it spread to Central Asia and China.

Harsha (r. 606-647)

Harsha was the last great “ancient” emperor of northern India. He patronized Buddhist universities like Nalanda and established benevolent institutions throughout his empire. He established relations with China and welcomed monks like Hsuan Tsang (602-664) to his court. He was also, incidentally, a patron of Sanskrit literature and himself wrote plays.

nalanda

Above: Ruins of the Nalanda University. Nalanda was founded during the fifth century. Its subjects included Buddhist philosophy, logic, grammar and philology and medicine.


Dharmapala
(r. c. 780-820)

Dharmpala was a ruler of the Pala Dynasty (750-1174). His empire spanned Bengal, Bihar and central India. He founded the Vikramshila University which attracted students from across India, China, Tibet and South East Asia. The Buddhist architecture and iconography of his reign would influence styles found in Burma, Java, Tibet and Nepal.

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