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By Laksiri Jayasuriya

The spirited revival of interest in Buddhism in the West1 is due to a variety of reasons, and foremost among these are the contradictions arising from the juxtaposition of present day scientific achievements such as the genome project or the new science of cosmology), and the conventional religious systems, fractured with cults, sects, and fundamentalism; and, the profound disenchantment with the new cultural ethos of unfettered greed and selfishness pronounced in the post-industrial globalised world. The new social ethic of these societies represents an attitude of mind born out of perverse forms of selfishness, ruthless competition and an excessive and unmitigated ideology of individualism. These are clearly defining features of many old and new societies driven by the twin forces of a Wellsian godless scientific ethos (Wells 1921) and a market dominated neo-liberal social and economic ideology.

A dominant response in the West to this cultural and social malaise has been a renewed interest in the scientific humanism inherent in Buddhism in confronting meaningfully within the acceptable realms of scientific discourse, the challenges presented by contemporary culture of selfishness and greed characteristic of capitalism in postmodern societies. This derives mainly from the causal mode of analysis adopted by Buddhism in understanding the human condition and arriving at an appropriate formula for overcoming the strains and stresses of modern living. What this mode of analysis and method of discourse signifies is the indisputable fact that there is no qualitative difference between the rational empiricism of the western scientific discourse and the Buddhist metaphysic

Indeed, Buddhism stands unique among the mainstream religions of the world in been unaffected by the long standing ‘cold war’ between science and religion. The Buddhist emphasis on man’s ability through reasoned and critical inquiry to discover the Truth testifies to the congruence between the Buddhist approach to knowledge and understanding of the material and non-material world. Put simply, Buddhism stands out a profoundly subversive force in post modern consumer society (Coleman 2000) by virtue of being ‘more congenial to western rational thought than western religious beliefs’ (Fromm 1953 )

Not surprisingly, many western intellectuals who may have turned to Buddhism, because of its congeniality with the western intellectual tradition, have also been attracted by the deep and abiding interest of Buddhism in the pursuit of human welfare and well-being. As Walpola Rahula (1978) reminds us, Buddhism was a powerful ‘spiritual force against social injustices, degrading superstitious rites ... the tyranny of the caste system ... [advocating] the equality of all men ... [and emancipating] women’ This important but oft ignored aspect of Buddhist thought has recently been highlighted in the path finding study of Kancha Ilaih (2000)2 who according to Omvedt (2001), makes the pointed observation that the Buddha, ‘far from being a ―religious’ thinker, was pre-eminently a social thinker. This tradition of social thinking in Buddhism is exemplified in the historic edicts of Emperor Asoka (Thurman 1988).and is best understood as presenting a ‘civilizational view' (Ling 1973).

The social ethic inherent in Buddhism has been reaffirmed in the tradition of contemporary Buddhism known as ‘Engaged Buddhism’ This descriptive term, coined in 1963, originates from the work of the well known Vietnamese Buddhist Teacher in the West, Thich Nhat Hanh who has along with others such as Sulak Sivaraksa, A T Ariyaratne, and Master Chen Yen framed the principles and practices of ‘Engaged Buddhism’.3 This Buddhist tradition seeks to apply the values and teachings of Buddhism to the problems of society in a non violent way, motivated by concern for the welfare of others, and as an expression of one’s own practice of he Buddhist Way’ (King 2005: 5).

The logic and rationale of ‘Engaged Buddhism’ stands in sharp contrast to those theorists who from a standpoint of a limited anthropological discourse, rejects a ‘world- affirming’ view of Buddhism.,This understanding of Buddhism in the Western Academy,originating from the by Max Weber’s interpretation of Buddhism has led

discussions on the encounters between Buddhism and the western world has led some recent theorists to regard ‘Engaged Buddhism’ as a late twentieth century development’ uniquely framed by the cross fertilization between Buddhism and the discourses of modernity’ (McMahaon 2008: 250). In other words, Engaged Buddhism is regarded as a way of accommodating Buddhism to the dominant Judeo-Christian ethic associated with the Western intellectual tradition as a response to modernism. This point of view is also evident in the use of the term ‘Protestant Buddhism’ by scholars such as Gombrich & Obeysekera (1988) to describe contemporary Buddhism in countries like Sri Lanka (Bond 1992)

This interpretation of Sinhalese Buddhism as ‘Protestant Buddhism’ has according to Bond (1992) ‘undoubtedly overstated the extent to which early Buddhism was ... a religion of individual salvation striving ascetic monks’ (Bond 1992) Similarly the view that Buddhism is a philosophically incapable of expounding a ‘social ethic’ has also been disputed sharply by Holt (1990) and others on philosophical/doctrinal and empirical grounds. Without entering into the philosophical niceties of this somewhat radical interpretation, it will suffice to see how Western Buddhists have, more so than the traditional adherents of Buddhism (e.g., in countries like Sri Lanka, Thailand or Burma) understood Buddhism as a moral philosophy based on wisdom, love, and compassion capable of dealing with questions of social morality and ethics in an age of selfishness.4

This mode of thinking, characteristic of ‘Engaged Buddhism’, invariably suggests a shift from self to ‘other regarding’ sentiments. This, of course, immediately introduces questions relating to the alleged selfishness in Buddhism or that Buddhism is inward looking. This, view of course, is reflected in the frequently made criticism that the Buddhist code of morality or ethical conduct is selfish or egocentric (Toynbee 1956) or that Buddhism as a religion is passive, otherworldly, and even escapist.5 Other more discerning exponents of this view maintain that this applies only to the other worldly philosophy distinctive of the Theravada tradition which is regarded as being highly individualistic and concerned predominantly, if not exclusively, with personal salvation even at the expense of concern with others Stated differently, this refers to the reclusive Buddhism practised by some monks or the self-awareness training (e.g., through retreats and meditation centres) of the laity found among some adherents of the Theravada Tradition

The criticism made is that, unlike the Mahayana influenced forms of Buddhism, the Theravada tradition is highly individualistic and concerned predominately, if not exclusively, with personal salvation at the expense or neglect of others Kalupahana (1995) is dismissive of this charge arguing that the individual in: early Buddhist thought is:

neither a totally independent entity with absolute inalienable rights nor one that is totally determined by the society with no claims to rights. ... society is neither a mere conglomeration of individuals without any relations nor an absolute reality imposing its authority on the individual without restrictions (p. 58).

In other words, as Wijesekera (1960) has observed in a different context, the social philosophy of Buddhist and other Indian religions places its ‘primary emphasis on the individual and ... social consequences follow from the centre of the individual’s own psychology’.. What is significant for the conceptualisation of a Buddhist morality and eventually a Buddhist social philosophy lies in its ability to show that the Buddhist code of conduct, the Path for individual betterment and salvation, is not narrowly confined to one’s self interest.

Morality, after all, provides us with ‘action guides’ for dealing with the ‘problems of living’, usually focussed on how we deal with human interactions (Kraft 1988). Our moral statements or actions, and the rationale that justifies and validates these blueprints are concerned mostly with how we relate to one another, and in general, guide us as to how we can live together with others in peace and harmony — be it in the family, the workplace, or the wider community. It is simply a prescriptive guide, not just for one’s individual betterment or perfection, but for the good of others. In other words, ‘Engaged Buddhism’ as expounded in a Buddhist social philosophy, is able to demonstrate that the analytical mode of reasoning crystallized in the Four Noble Truths and Eight-fold path is equally concerned with one’s self as well as a sense of social awareness, a concern for others

However, as Kraft (1998) rightly observes, the principles and even some of the techniques of an Engaged Buddhism, despite the fact that these were evident in the earliest teachings, have been latent in all traditions of Buddhism. While there may be differences of emphasis in the practice of Buddhism between the main traditions of Buddhism (East Asian, South East Asian and Tibetan), there is, however, a common heritage found in the shared foundations of the Buddhist ethic shared by the different traditions and several schools of Buddhism (Jayatilleke 1967; Harvey 2000; Gethin 2000

Accordingly the Buddha, while acknowledging the role of social and environmental factors, always emphasised the subjective aspects of his social ethic. As an illustration, Wijesekera (1960) points out that ‘peace in the general social sense is only the end result of the cultivation of peace-mindedness by the individual who is the ultimate unit of the social community’ (Wijesekera 1960: ) In other words, by asserting the centrality of the individual or the principle of moral autonomy is not one of an absolute independence, Buddhism recognises the complex and interdependent relationship that exists between individuals and society, or the self and the other. The notion of individual identity is a complex and difficult question bearing on how we understand the Buddhist concept of the Self and No-Self (the Anatta doctrine).

Without embarking on an exposition of the philosophical basis of the Anatta doctrine it will suffice to recognise that what is denied is the ultimate reality of a permanent immutable self (e.g., as in atman), not the existential reality of the conventional concept of self, nor the operation of ‘self-interest’ or the perceived sense of individuality (Gethin 1998). Buddhism, however, does not commit the error of reifying the self and celebrating the self as an independent entity. Similarly in ‘humanistic psychology (Brewster Smith 1974) self understanding is not loaded with a ghost in the machine such as a reified self as agent; rather it is concerned with dispositions such as wishes, intentions and feelings. This is exactly how the self-interest functions in Buddhist psychology - i.e., through a stream of conscious acts, motives and volitions (citta and cetasikas).

Jayatilleke (1967) has perhaps given the definitive Buddhist answer to the damaging charge that Buddhist individualism amounts to selfishness and indifference to human welfare and the improvability of society by arguing that this dilemma of the self is not simply a question of self or the other (egoism vs. altruism). The either/or fallacy inherent in this point of view is decried by Jayatilleke who rightly observes that there is ample evidence in the Buddhist teaching to demonstrate that the life of a Buddhist—be he a lay person or an ascetic—has to be lived partly in a social as well as a personal dimension.

A Buddhist desires happiness in this world and the next, and the moral path to this happiness is founded partly on the notion of the perfectibility of the individual and partly on the notion of social concern. This follows from the basic character of the moral path that leads to salvation eventually. The Path specifies a gradual progression of practice extending from the cultivation of virtue (sila) through the practice of the virtue (samadhi) and understanding the truth of existence (panna). This could also be expressed as a movement through generosity (dana), good conduct (sila) to meditation/concentration (bhavana). It should be noted, however, that these aspects of the Path are not linear but operate ‘in a reciprocal relationship, mutually dependent’ (Gethin 1998).

Importantly, the practice of this Path is not concerned with oneself (e.g., refraining from deeds harmful to one), but is also oriented to others. This is because the virtues depicted by the Path are governed by four mental states - attitudes or states of mind—all of which denote a concern for the other: Loving-Kindness or friendliness (metta); Compassion (karuna); Sympathetic joy or altruism (mudita); and, Equanimity (upekkha). Thus, in the practice of good conduct, one begins with the wish for one’s well-being as well as that of others (loving-kindness) and this is extended to others through compassion. It is compassion which opens oneself to others so that when one practises mindfulness we acknowledge that ‘we notice another person suffers’ (Thich Naht Hanh quoted in Toms 1998).

In striving for right conduct the cultivation of moral virtue is an integral element in the foundation of meditative contemplation — be it meditation of calm or insight. In traversing the Path, it is apparent that in this regard, one acts, not in isolation but in association with others. While this way of thinking about Buddhist practice is more true of the laity than of the monastic order, the latter too did not live idly in isolation. The stories of the monks and nuns during the days of the Buddha as recorded in the Thera- and Theri-Gathas bear witness to the social character of the moral path for monks and nuns (Oldenberg and Pischel 1993).

Clearly, there is no conflict in pursuing both the reform of society and the salvation of the individual. This interdependence of individual and society is well understood in the Buddhist texts which states that no one can help or save another unless he has ‘saved himself’, i.e., free from mental burdens and stresses. This is also made explicit in the Buddha’s exposition of four types of moral charactereology, namely, the amoralist, the altruist, the egoist, and the enlightened egoist (see Kalupahana 1995, Chapter 7).

According to this valuation, the highest and best person is the ‘enlightened egoist’, i.e., the one who works for his own good as well as the good of others. In such persons, there is no necessary conflict between the individual and social welfare, particularly when the good happens to be moral and spiritual. Stated differently, ‘Buddhism is concerned with the reformation of society as well as the salvation of the individual’ (Slater 1950).

The Buddhist prescriptions for living built around the Four ‘Silent Abodes’ – loving- kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), sympathetic joy (muditha), and equanimity (upekkha), pertain to individual as well as social conduct and are well documented in the texts (Mendis 1993; Kalupahana 1995). For example, the ‘Discourse on the Admonition to Sigala’, the (Sigalovada Sutta) contains a broad spectrum of social relations governing relations between different categories of persons, e.g., parent and children, teachers and pupils, marital relations of husband and wife, friendships relations and the laity and clergy. All of these recognise mutual responsibilities — e.g., parents and children, and recognises above all that pursuit of individual happiness and welfare is inextricably linked with the welfare of others.

The Buddhist notion of welfare is also fully explained in the comprehensive description of the moral virtues provided in the ‘Discourse on Brahma’s Net’, (Brahmajala Sutta) (Discourse No. 1, Walshe 1987). This important discourse makes a reference to the practice of the seven virtues by ordinary laymen, that is, refraining from taking life, stealing, confusing, malicious, harsh speech, frivolous talk and being detached from vulgar sensibility. In other words, the ultimate good is one which includes one’s own welfare as well as that of others.

A concrete example of the social relevance of the Buddhist ethic is also found in the famous ‘Discourse on the Lions Roar on the Turning of the Wheel’, the Cakkavattisihanada Sutta (Discourse No. 26, Walshe 1987) which extols, among other things, the Buddhist conception of the economic life of human beings.7 For example, it is observed that when there is an economic downturn, adverse economic conditions are likely to lead to a lack of opportunities, and poverty becomes rampant. Consequently, those distressed by poverty, it is observed, resort to crimes such as lying and stealing and even commit acts of violence. Interestingly, the blame for this is not exclusively placed on the individual but on a society as a whole, that is, on structural factors.

The economic prescriptions in this Discourse for alleviating poverty are also of interest - e.g., they point to the need for better economic opportunities such as increased capital and also a more equitable distribution of wealth. For this reason, it is suggested that cooperation between the government and people is desirable as a means of achieving a degree of economic and social security for the welfare of society (Schumacher 1973; Mendis 1993). Again, in another Discourse, the Kutadanta Sutta (Discourse No. 5, Walshe 1987), the Buddha attests that, having a meaningful employment is more important than the goods and services produced routinely by individuals because the joy of work is more conducive to moral progress. Here, it is also acknowledged that righteous economic conduct also refers to the means of acquiring wealth, e.g., avoidance of acquiring wealth by the sale of arms, killing of animals or other non- virtuous activities.

These Discourses show the extent to which the social and political philosophy inherent in the Buddhist teachings emphasise the moral values of frugality, resourcefulness, control over excessive craving and conspicuous consumption (Mendis 1993). In fact, there are many instances in the Buddhist texts testifying to the need for a balanced and moderate approach to living such that economic and material happiness is seen as a means to an end which is none other than moral progress and spiritual happiness in the striving for salvation. The manner in which economic or material well-being and moral progress or spiritual development go together is neatly explained in a Discourse where the Buddha addresses one of his wealthy disciples from the merchant class (Anathapindika) on what he describes as the four kinds of happiness: athhi-sukha (possession of adequate material resources) bhoga-sukha (the gainful use and sensible enjoyment of material resources); annana-sukha (the state of being free of debt); and, anavajja sikha (the leading of an absolutely blameless life) (Kalupahana 1995). These four forms of happiness refer to happiness of both oneself and the happiness of others, which also importantly includes animals.

In conclusion the foregoing is sufficient to refute the charge that Buddhism is a selfish and egoistic doctrine steeped in a sterile individualism divorced from the realities of social life. The ethical teachings of Buddhism derive from a conception of reality, a cosmic view of man in society, which is validated by a theory of knowledge. As a philosophy of religion—despite its varied presentations in different traditions— Buddhism attests to the value of an alternative path to individual salvation (Jayatilleke 1967). In this sense, Buddhism epitomises the essence of scientific humanism, that is, that ‘the good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge’ (Russell 1958).

The code of ethical conduct arising from Buddhist view of morality is both pragmatic and utilitarian. In other words, good is that which produces good effects and relieves one’s sorrows and stresses; evil generates ill effects and prolongs the agony of suffering and stress. The prescriptions for moral conduct are carefully laid out not as laws or injunctions to be obeyed as a matter of duty or obligation, but as rules or principles of conduct which flow from a theory of reality capable of validation and verification.

Given that the key tenets and principles of Buddhism extol the virtues of reason, human freedom and moral responsibility, man in contemporary society, especially in a highly scientific and technological age, can profitably engage in a meaningful dialogue with Buddhist thought and practice to determine its relevance to one’s individual and social needs. The crux of a Buddhist social philosophy lies on how one conceptualises the concepts of the individual and society, or the self and the other. Following Kalupahana (1999), this may be through the concepts of ‘self-interest’ and ‘mutual self- interest’ [to] provide a conceptual bridge between individual and society or self and other’. The basis of an ‘engaged Buddhism’ is firmly entrenched in a social ethic and a morality which integrates individual betterment or perfection with the good of others.


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See Batchelor (1994), Toms et al. (1998), Kulananda (1997), and MacMahon (2008), for discussions on the encounters between Buddhism and the western world

2 Illaih belongs to a new breed of Dalit scholars who, following Dr Ambedjar have sought to present the Buddha as a social and political thinker who ‘pre dates Socrates, Plato and Aristotle; (Ilaih 2994: 2)

3 For an account of Engaged Buddhism in Asian countries see Queen and King (1996), Eppsteiner (1998), and King (2005). For a similar account in the West, see Kulananda (1997).

This misrepresentation was also echoed by Pope Paul II when he characterised the Buddhist Enlightenment a ‘state of perfect indifference with regard to the world’ (Pop Paul 1994) stems again from Webers’s portrayal of Buddhism as an ‘other-worldly’ religion in contrast to the ‘world affirming religions such Christianity’.

6 See Jayatilleke (1955; 1961; 1967) for a probing account of the Buddha as a social thinker and theorist. In addition consider the recent work of Dalit scholars such as Ilaiah ( ) on Buddhism.

7  For a useful discussion of Buddhism and economic activity see Schumacher (1973), Gnanarama (1996), Mendis (1993), and Rahula (1988).

Setting up of this website was sponsored by SJ Mets Consultants PTY Ltd of Perth, Australia in memory of J.H.A. Gunadasa & S.T. Jayasinghe, beloved fathers of Sunil and Aruni.
May they attain Nibbana