Social Relationships and Responsibility

19 June 2524

Social Relationships and Responsibility

Within the Monastic Order

In comparison with society as a whole the sangha, or monastic fellowship, is a very small community. It is intended to be the completing segment of society. Relatively speaking, it is an independent community that points toward a transcendent aspect of life. Its essential task is to maintain the dhamma for the society. As mentioned above, Buddhist monks cannot live an absolutely solitary life because they are required by the discipline to maintain good relationships both among themselves and with the lay society. The lives of the monks bound to the sangha are regulated by the disciplinary rules so that they will live in concord and harmony, pay respect according to seniority in the sangha, divide all gains and acquisitions equally among the members, and decide all legal cases justly. The supreme authority remains in the hands of the sangha itself, or the meeting of the community. Even the most solitary monk has to attend the fortnightly meeting of the sangha and any meeting of the sangha convened for the performance of a formal act.2 The spirit of the vinaya that is most stressed is the supremacy of the sangha as a whole and harmony within the order (see, e.g., A.III.330; A.V.74ff.). Causing schism in the order is viewed as one of the most heinous crimes (A.III.146). Historically, as the sangha grew larger, the Buddha himself held its voice in high regard (A.II.21). The ordination ceremonies today still represent this passing on of the authority of the Buddha through the order (Vin.I.27).

This emphasis on the sangha as a whole and its cooperative parts can be illustrated by the six virtues of fraternal living:

  1. To be amiable in deed, openly and in private;
  2. To be amiable in word, openly and in private;
  3. To be amiable in thought, openly and in private;
  4. To share any lawful gains with virtuous fellows;
  5. To keep without blemish the rules of conduct along with one’s fellows, openly and in private; and
  6. To be endowed with right views along with one’s fellows.

The seven conditions of welfare are another good illustration:

  1. To hold regular and frequent meetings;
  2. To meet together in harmony, disperse in harmony, and do the business and duties of the order in harmony;
  3. To introduce no revolutionary ordinance or break up established ordinance, but train oneself in accordance with the prescribed training rules;
  4. To honor and respect those elders of long experience, the fathers and leaders of the order, and deem them worthy of listening to;
  5. Not to fall under the influence of craving which arises;
  6. To delight in forest retreat; and
  7. To establish oneself in mindfulness, with this thought, “Let disciplined co-celibates who have not come, come hither, and let those that have already come live in comfort.” (D.II.77; A.IV.20)

Although these virtues were originally intended for the monks, they have been recommended in the Thai Buddhist tradition for adaptation by the laity as well.

Between the Monks and the Laity

According to the vinaya, a monk is dependent on the lay people for food and other material necessities. The monks get their food for daily meals during the morning alms round, but they are sometimes invited to the houses of donors, or the latter may also present food to them at the monastery (e.g., Vin.I.58). This practice binds the monks’ life to that of the lay society and keeps them in daily contact with lay people. As the Buddha himself says, “my livelihood is bound up with others” (A.V.87).

Monks are exhorted to contemplate this fact again and again, so that they will be earnest both in their exertion for their individual perfection and in working for the good of the laity. The daily alms round reflects the reciprocal nature of the relationship between monks and laity (e.g., S.II.270), a reciprocity emphasized by the Buddha in these words:

Monks, brahmins and householders are most helpful to you, since they support you with robe and bowl, with lodging and seat, medicines and necessaries for sickness. Ye, also, monks, are most helpful to brahmins and householders, since ye teach them the dhamma that is lovely…. Thus, monks, this holy life is lived in mutual dependence, for ferrying across the flood, for the utter cessation of suffering. (It.111)

Monks perform this task for the good of lay society not only as an act of returning favors, but out of their own virtue of compassion for the people. Such compassion was stressed by the Buddha when he sent out his first group of disciples to teach the dhamma in the first year after his enlightenment: “Go, monks, on your journey, for the profit of the many, for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the welfare, the profit, the happiness of gods and men” (Vin.I.20). The monks’ task of working for the good of the people both as an act of compassion and in terms of the necessarily reciprocal nature of their relationship is also brought out in the Buddha’s admonitions to the young layman Sigāla as reported in the Sigālovāda-Sutta:

In five ways a clansman should minister to monks and priests as the upper quarter:

  1. By kindly acts,
  2. By kindly words,
  3. By kindly thoughts,
  4. By keeping open house to them,
  5. By supplying them with their material needs.

In six ways the monks and priests, thus ministered to as the upper quarter, show their love for him:

  1. They keep him back from evil,
  2. They encourage him to do good,
  3. They feel for him with kindly thoughts,
  4. They teach him what he has not heard before,
  5. They correct and clarify what he has learnt,
  6. They show him the way to heaven. (D.III.I51)

Among the Laity

Whereas practical instructions for the regulation of the orders of monks and nuns are contained in a specific part of the Pali Canon called the Vinaya Piṭaka, for lay society there is no special collection of instructions as such. The Five Precepts of abstaining from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, false speech, and taking intoxicants are accepted as the basic moral rules for lay people, but they do not form a part of a collection or code. Although the Buddha’s admonitions in the Sigālovāda-Suttta are rendered by the Great Commentator, Buddhaghosa, as the Layman’s Code of Discipline, they have been preserved as a sutta delivered to a specific person on only one occasion and are not framed as a general code of discipline for the laity. Similar moral instructions can be found scattered in other parts of the Sutta-Piṭaka. The ethical admonitions in the suttas were thus given not as disciplinary rules enforced with authority as is the case with the vinaya of the monks. These facts support the conclusion that the wider lay society was so open to the changing circumstances of space and time that the monks did not consider it as a subject appropriate for fixed rules. Consequently, only some basic rules and general principles were stipulated. Beyond that, it should rest on the people subject to different circumstances to formulate detailed moral codes, based on those basic Buddhist rules and principles, and to suit them to their own society.

In the search for general principles the Jātakas are a good source of Buddhist social ethics for lay people, but the teachings therein are scattered and unsystematic. Among other sources, the Sigālovāda-Sutta, attributed to the Buddha himself, can serve as a typical example of the Buddhist code of social ethics. The teachings in this sutta consist of:

  1. The avoidance of the four vices of conduct (corresponding to the first four of the Five Precepts).
  2. Doing no evil out of the four prejudices that are caused by love, hatred, delusion, and fear.
  3. Not following the six ways of squandering wealth, viz., addiction to intoxicants, roaming the streets at unseemly hours, frequenting shows, indulgence in gambling, association with bad companions, and the habit of idleness.
  4. Knowledge of how to distinguish among the four false friends, viz., the out-and-out robber, the man who pays lip service, the flatterer, and the leader to destruction, and the four true friends, viz., the helper, the man who is the same in weal and woe, the good counselor, and the sympathizer.
  5. The amassing of wealth and the fourfold division of money into one part for living and doing duties toward others, two parts for business, and one part for time of need.
  6. The covering of the six quarters of human relationships and their attendant mutual responsibilities, viz., child–parent, pupil–teacher, husband–wife, friend–friend, servants and workmen–master or employer, monk–layman.
  7. The four bases of social harmony, viz., giving, kindly words, life of service, and impartial treatment and participation. (D.IIL180–93)

What is worthy of special notice is the frequent mention the Buddha made of friendship and association. In the above sutta alone friendship and association can be found at least five times: association with bad companions as a way of squandering wealth, how to distinguish between false and true friends, the friend–friend relationship, the ways the monks and priests show their love for lay people, and the four bases of social harmony. Advice on friendship and stories illustrating the dynamics of good and bad social relationships can also be found in many parts of the Jātakas. Given this guidance and the oft-stressed advice on the importance of good friends in the development of the Noble Eightfold Path, we see that the theme of association with good friends and of a good social environment generally occupies a very important place in Buddhist ethics, both at the mundane social level and at the level of spiritual endeavor for individual perfection.3

On the one hand there is a close correspondence between the ways monks are to treat the laity and the image of a “friend of good counsel.” And on the other hand there is a correlation between the four bases of social harmony and the ways lay people are to treat their friends. Friendship is thus the model for social harmony in the mundane sphere and the model for spiritual encouragement of the laity by the monks in the transmundane sphere. We might conclude that in Buddhist ethics everyone is a friend, meaning that everyone should be treated as a friend.

The Interdependence of Individual Perfection
and the Social Good: Monks, Kings, and Laity

As mentioned earlier, individual perfection and the social good are interdependent. The society that is made up of people who can depend on themselves and are freed from attachment can be peaceful, stable, and secure to a large extent. Also, a peaceful, stable, and secure society is ideally favorable to the individual growth, development, and perfection of every person. If society is in turmoil, suffering from instability and insecurity, even the monks who are engaged in the task of individual perfection, not to speak of other more materialistic people, may have to stop or suspend their efforts. As the Pāli Canon notes:

Monks, there are these five unfavorable times for (spiritual) striving. What five? Herein a monk is old…. A monk is ill…. There is a famine…. Fear is about, perils of robbers, and the country folk mount their carts and drive away…. Again, monks, the Order is rent; then there is reviling … accusation…. Monks, there are these five favorable times for (spiritual) striving. What five? Herein a monk is young…. A monk has health and well-being…. There is no famine and crops are good, food is easy to get…. Men dwell in friendly fellowship together…. Again, monks, the Order dwells in friendly fellowship together…. (A.III.65f.; cf. A.III.103)

There are some things which no one else can do for the individual and for which one has to be responsible to oneself. Every individual, however, also acts directly or indirectly for the benefit of other people. Each person should take some responsibility for the good of his or her society, for maintaining the society in a condition favorable to the common well-being, development, and perfection. The practice of responsibility varies among different individuals according to the extent, degree, and character of the actions, depending on various factors including the mental inclinations and free choices of the individuals themselves. However, every person is at least responsible to the society for his or her own well-being and perfection in order to become a good member of society. It is at this point that the Buddhist principles of being a refuge to oneself (attanātha) and of training, taming, or educating (dama) are required.

One should be a refuge to oneself. In order to be a refuge to oneself, one must make oneself dependable. To make oneself dependable, one has to train oneself in virtue, learning, energy, mindfulness, in the development of wisdom, and so on. One should also associate with good people, should be amenable to correction, and should readily give a helping hand in the affairs of one’s fellows in the community.4 At this point individual responsibility to oneself and good social relationships are closely related or interdependent. To be able to help others, furthermore, one must be dependable and have an inner strength and stability. Again we turn to the Pāli texts:

How, monks, guarding oneself, does one guard others? By practice, by development, by continuous exercise; in this way, monks, one guarding oneself also guards others. And how, monks, guarding others, does one guard oneself? By tolerance, by nonviolence, by having a mind full of loving-kindness, by care; in this way, monks, one guarding others also guards oneself. (S.V.169)

When the monks of the most seclusion-loving type go out on their daily alms rounds, they come into contact with the lay society. When they teach the dhamma to the villagers, every stage of their progress in individual perfection benefits society. In other words, effort toward individual perfection and acting for the social good proceed together. Moreover, the donated food generally benefits not only the monks, but also a number of people who come to seek shelter in the monasteries. This tradition is said to have originated at the time of the Buddha, and in the course of time monasteries have become places where the destitute, orphans, and students live, obtain sufficient food, and receive moral and educational training from the monks.5 It may be desirable to improve or modify this tradition to suit the current circumstances, but in any case it affords an example of the monks’ contribution to the well-being of society.

For the monks, responsibility for the social good is mainly exercised through teaching the common people how to live good lives and how to conduct themselves as good members of the society, through the counseling of rulers and administrators to help them conform to virtue and to act for the benefit of the people, and through their own rightful conduct and practice toward individual perfection. On a practical level much of this responsibility for social welfare is mediated through political leaders, who traditionally carry a special burden for connecting the principles of the dhamma to the requirements of everyday life. Rulers and administrators are obligated to put the virtues and duties expected of them, into actual practice for the benefit of the people and to make a good society favorable to the individual development and perfection of every member.

In the Thai Buddhist tradition, the king is to observe and possess four sets of Buddhist virtues and qualities. The first set is called the Dasa Rājadhamma (“Ten Virtues of the King”): namely, charity, high moral character, self-sacrifice, integrity, gentleness, austerity (or non-indulgence), non-anger, non-oppression, tolerance, and non-deviation from the norm (J.V.378). These virtues are the best known and the most emphasized of the four sets of royal virtues.

The second set is called the Twelvefold Cakkavattivatta and consists of the twelve duties of the Universal Ruler as enumerated in the Cakkavatti-Sutta: the provision of right watch, ward, and protection for one’s own folk and the armed forces, for the nobles, for the royal dependents, for brahmins and householders, for townspeople and villagers, for monks and priests, for beasts and birds, prevention and suppression of unrighteous deeds, distribution of wealth to the poor, frequenting and seeking counsels from monks and the religious, abstention from unlawful sexual desire, and abstention from unrighteously coveting others’ property.6

The third set, the Fourfold Rājasaṅgahavatthu (four royal acts making for social integration), consists of shrewdness in agricultural promotion (sassamedha), shrewdness in the encouragement of government officials (purisamedha), binding the people’s hearts by vocational promotion (sammāpāsa), and kindly beneficial words (vājapeyya).7

The fourth set, the Fivefold Khattiyabala (five strengths of a monarch), requires strength of arms, of wealth, of ministers, of royal ancestry, and of wisdom. Of these five the last, strength of wisdom, is regarded as the most important quality (JA.V.120).

What is especially noteworthy about these virtues and duties is the emphasis on the absence of poverty. Poverty is regarded as the main source of crime and disorder as well as greed (D.III.65; D.III.92). This absence of poverty, the accumulation of wealth or economic sufficiency, is a prerequisite for a happy, secure, and stable society, favorable to individual development and perfection. It is required of the ruler to see to it that this desirable state of affairs prevails in his country.

Individuals as members of society are responsible both for their individual perfection and for the good of society through individual development and well-being and through helpful social relationships. People should first strive to be economically, intellectually, and morally dependable in order to be good members of society. To achieve this, many among the following selected virtues may be observed:

The Four Virtues Leading to Temporal Welfare

  1. To be endowed with energy, industry, and skill in management,
  2. To be endowed with watchfulness,
  3. To associate with good people,
  4. To have a balanced livelihood. (A.IV.281)

The Four Virtues Leading to Prosperity

  1. To live in a good environment,
  2. To associate with good people,
  3. To aspire and direct oneself in the right way,
  4. To have prepared oneself with good background. (D.III.276; A.II.32)

The Four Virtues for a Good Lay Life

  1. Truth and honesty,
  2. Training and adjustment,
  3. Tolerance and forbearance,
  4. Liberality. (S.I.215; Sn.189)

The Fourfold Deserved Bliss of a Layman

  1. Bliss of ownership,
  2. Bliss of enjoyment,
  3. Bliss of debtlessness,
  4. Bliss of blamelessness. (A.II.69)

The Four Virtues Leading to Spiritual Welfare

  1. To be endowed with confidence,
  2. To be endowed with morality,
  3. To be endowed with generosity or charity,
  4. To be endowed with wisdom. (A.IV.284)

On the social side, the individual should maintain good social relationships with other people and make his or her contribution to the maintenance and encouragement of a happy and favorable society by practicing such virtues as the Four Bases of Social Harmony or the Four Principles of Social Integration (saṅgahavatthu): giving, distribution, and charity; kindly and beneficial words; rendering of services; and equality, impartiality, and participation.8

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