19 June 2524


The foundations of Buddhist social ethics can be schematized in the following diagram, which outlines the whole system of Buddhist ethics:

magga paññā Enlightened world view (based on insight into anicca, dukkha, anattā, and paṭicca-samuppāda—the keystone of the system)
samādhi Development of mental qualities (basis for virtues of outward expression)
sīla Moral responsibility toward others and society (virtues of outward expression or action)
pre-magga yonisomanasikāra Mental attitude toward environment
kalyāṇamittatā Influence from a good social environment and good social relationships


dhamma With stress on mind and the individual, bridging the transmundane, and involving personal maturity.
vinaya With stress on the environment, physical circumstances, society, and the surrounding system.

Centered on the mundane world and involving the social order.


Within this picture of Buddhist social ethics, the following three points deserve special emphasis:

1. The Buddhist ethical system is composed of the magga and pre-magga factors, and it is in the latter, especially in the first factor of good external influences or good association, that the principal theme of Buddhist social ethics can be found. The concept of kalyāṇamittatā (having good friends) should, thus, be more fully studied. In combination with the category of morality in the magga, it is the heart of Buddhist social ethics.

2. There is an essential relationship between the virtues that are qualities of the mind and the virtues for outward action. The former are the source and basis of the latter. In Buddhist terminology both kinds of virtues belong to the threefold training (sikkhā) or the three categories of the magga factors, the former being the category of mental discipline (adhicitta) and the latter the category of morality (adhisīla). The category of mental discipline is related in turn to the category of wisdom (adhipaññā), which is the mainstay and keystone of Buddhist ethics.

3. The dhamma as natural law and the vinaya as human law are complementary parts of the Buddhist ethical system. In the dhamma the individual has responsibility for his or her own development, whereas through the vinaya the community or society offers sanctions and rules to regulate the actions of individuals. With the vinaya the Buddha puts people into reciprocal or interdependent relationships, and with the dhamma the individual’s internal independence and freedom are to be attained and retained in the world of mutual dependence.

In Buddhist ethics individual perfection and social good are interdependent and inseparable. Even the monks, who are the most devoted to individual perfection, depend on the lay people for material necessities. These, in turn, can be readily and adequately supplied only by a secure and peaceful society, which the monks must help to maintain. At the highest level only the Buddha and the pacceka-Buddha (a self-enlightened Buddha) can be self-enlightened through their own wise, systematic reflection. Other people have to depend on the inducement, instigation, and instruction of good friends. Therefore, every average person has to maintain good relationships with others and has some responsibility to maintain the community or society in a favorable state. Conversely, the closer to perfection men and women are, the better they know what is really good for society and the better they can act for the good of society.

In Buddhist ethics wealth is only a means, not an end. It is a question not of the polarities of wealth and poverty, but of how to deal with wealth and when to be independent or freed from wealth. As long and as far as wealth is necessary as a resource, it should be used for achieving social well-being and, thus, for providing favorable circumstances for the individual development of all members of the society. As long as wealth is used in this way, it does not matter to whom it belongs, whether the individual, community, or society. Wealth can rightfully be personal as long as the wealthy person acts as a provider or resource of wealth for society or as a field where wealth grows for the benefit of one’s fellows. Without such a value, wealth is useless, the wealthy man is worthless, and the accumulation of wealth becomes evil. Wealth remains of merely instrumental value. In the community of monks, those who are disseminators of individual perfection for the good of all and whose material necessities are supplied by the lay society, life is to be lived independently of wealth. This shows that training for the realization of the goal (nibbāna) may depend directly or indirectly on wealth, but its realization proper is independent of it. Here also we can see a relationship between individual perfection and social good: by being used without attachment and for the benefit of oneself and others, wealth improves social welfare, thus contributing to individual perfection, which in turn leads to a greater social good.

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