Foundations of Buddhist Social Ethics

19 June 2524

Although the ethics of Buddhism is widely discussed today, its treatment is frequently misconceived or lopsided, even when offered by Buddhist scholars. In order to gain a more accurate picture of Buddhist ethics, it would be helpful to avoid certain mistakes from the start.

First, Buddhism has been characterized by some people as an ascetic religion. In reality, asceticism was experimented with by the Buddha and later rejected by him before he attained enlightenment. As far as Buddhism is concerned, the term is ambiguous and should not be used without qualification. Also, since the western term monasticism has been applied to the way of life and practice of the Buddhist bhikkhus, or monks, they have been misunderstood by many as living apart from society in isolation from the world. In principle, at least, a Buddhist monk cannot live even a single day without contact with lay people.

The way of life and practice of Buddhist monks, furthermore, have been mistaken by some interpreters as the whole content or the standard of Buddhist ethics, whereas in fact monks are only one part of the Buddhist community and their ethics are only one component of Buddhist ethical reflection. Buddhism is the religion or way of life not only of the monks, but of the laity as well.

A different sort of problem results from the history of Buddhist studies in the West. It seems that most of the books on the doctrinal aspect of Buddhism written by western scholars deal mainly, if not exclusively, with metaphysical and spiritual teachings, with the mind and meditation. Very few treat the daily-life ethics of the common people. It might be that Buddhist metaphysical and spiritual teachings are what make Buddhism unique or different from other religions and philosophical systems, or it might simply be that these writers are especially interested in such subjects. Whatever the case, this slant has lured many into thinking that Buddhism is merely an ethics of the mind and that it lacks concern for social and material welfare. Although Buddhism does emphasize the cultivation of certain mental states, it teaches that human consists of both mind and body, and it states flatly that a necessary degree of material and social well-being is a prerequisite for any spiritual progress.

It is common, furthermore, for scholars of Buddhism to confine themselves to the dhamma, or the doctrinal portions of Buddhism, whereas Buddhism in its entirety consists of the dhamma and the vinaya. In other words, the dhamma, or the doctrine, and the vinaya, or the discipline, make the whole of Buddhist ethics. The dhamma deals with ideals and principles, whereas the vinaya deals with rules and circumstances in which these ideals and principles are practiced and realized. The vinaya here denotes not only the monks’ or nuns’ discipline, but also the spirit of these rules and regulations. Without taking into consideration both of these components, the dhamma and the vinaya, no adequate idea of Buddhist ethics can be reached.

Some scholars tend to regard the traditional exposition of the teachings in the Visuddhimagga (the Path of Purification), authored by Buddhaghosa in the fifth century C.E., as the standard summary of Theravāda Buddhist ethics. The Visuddhimagga, however, is a standard text only for the yogis, or the monks, who are engaged in concentrated spiritual endeavor. Used exclusively, it provides an incomplete and misleading picture of Buddhist ethics. To avoid such misunderstandings, it is best to begin by remembering that the whole of Buddhist ethics is contained in the doctrine of the Middle Way and its prerequisites. This doctrine of the Middle Way teaches that both the extreme of asceticism and the extreme of sensual indulgence are to be avoided. It emphasizes that even the lives and practices of monks who live austerely should not be excessively ascetic, and the life of even the most lax Buddhist lay person should not be so pleasure-oriented as to become an object of attachment. These two extremes can be seen as the most individualistic and selfish ways of life, with their pursuers being overly concerned with either self-mortification or sense-gratification.1 In avoiding these two extremes, the extent of the Middle Way is vast, wide, and very flexible, depending on such circumstances as one’s point on the path and stage of maturity.

The extent of justifiable latitude in the Buddhist Middle Way applies also to the matter of the individual’s responsibility for himself or herself and for the sharing of social relationships. There are some things that no other person or any external power can do for the individual, both in his or her everyday life, such as walking, eating, listening, and sleeping, and toward his or her spiritual perfection, such as the application of the mind to good or bad thoughts and the development of wisdom and insight. At the same time, there are many things for which one has to depend on others, one can do for others, and which others can do for someone else. Even with regard to individual perfection, there are many things that a good friend can do to help in the development of mental qualities, in meditation practice, and in the cultivation of wisdom by teaching, inducement, advice, and other skillful means.

The most basic point to be made about Buddhist social ethics is that in keeping with the Buddhist doctrine of dependent co-arising, individual betterment and perfection on the one hand and the social good on the other are fundamentally interrelated and interdependent. For example, a society in which all individual members are self-sufficient or self-sustaining can be called happy and secure to a large extent. Also, a secure and peaceful society is favorable to individual intellectual and spiritual pursuits. The Buddhist standpoint here is that a minimal amount of responsibility to oneself for betterment and perfection is required of all individuals, and at the same time they must maintain an appropriate degree of social responsibility. Beyond this minimal requirement, the range of variation in an individual’s specific responsibilities is very wide, depending on his or her place in society, relationship to others, aptitude, and mental inclinations. Buddhist monks may be regarded as the most aloof from society of all Buddhists. They may be recruited from those people who love a peaceful and solitary life. The style of monastic life differs greatly, however, ranging from town monks who are in a close day-to-day relationship with all sorts of people, to forest monks who spend almost their whole lives in seclusion. Yet even the most solitary forest monks have to be in regular contact with and are responsible for the well-being of a community of monks. Moreover, the monks must also meet with villagers on their daily food rounds when they receive physical nourishment and in turn share their spiritual attainments by teaching the dhamma.

It is a natural impossibility that at any given time all people can be found at the same level of maturity or stage of development. But it is also a natural truth that people are educable. Accordingly, all people should have the opportunity to be trained and educated and they should be allowed to develop according to their training or education and their individual effort toward attainment and perfection. Thus the Buddhist community or society consists not merely of the monks alone but of the Four Assemblies of monks, nuns, lay male devotees, and lay female devotees. Monks and nuns on the one hand and lay people on the other lead different daily lives with different responsibilities and duties and enjoying different kinds of satisfactions. There is some variation in development among the monks and great variation among the lay people. This Buddhist principle of the Four Assemblies shows clearly that the monks and laity are intended to be seen as complementary sides of a single moral community (see, e.g., A.II.132; D.III.125). In sum, a moral community is diversity in unity. Harmonious diversities or variety make a complete whole. Hence monastic and lay groupings, not to speak of many minor ones, are intended to continue in harmony as necessary components of a society, and it is with their continuity that a good society is maintained.

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