By harmlessness one becomes a noble
He is not therefore an Ariya in that he harms
living beings; through his harmlessness towards all living beings is he
called an Ariya. (Dhammattha Vagga - The Dhammapada)
Social communication in Buddhism
Excerpts from a paper presented at the "Roundtable" on Social
Communication in Religious Traditions of Asia, held at Assumption
University, Bangkok, Thailand.
By their very nature, all religions aim at epitomizing the positive
and wholesome urges of life. Spiritual leaders, each in his own way,
have made it their noble mission to illuminate the path of mankind's
progress out of the morass of ignorance into enlightened thinking. Most
religious systems unerringly identify the need to guide the masses
towards a wholesome worldly life, as a means to achieving the upper
reaches of spiritual experience.
Such spiritual systems as Buddhism, that believe in the recurrence of
births, teach the people to make a success of the present existence, to
ensure a better life in the world to come. In effect, the worldly life
is thought of as the spring-board, that will propel men and women
towards the ultimate liberation - moksha, nibbana, eternal bliss or
total spiritual happiness.
The implication of this situation is that, all religions concentrate
on forms of social communication, calculated to transform their follower
into individuals capable of leading a virtuous life - both as laymen and
The Dispensation of the Supreme Buddha is distinguished by a system
of Social communication deriving from a high spiritual pragmatism, that
is uniquely his own. Prince Siddhartha, who was later to evolve into the
Supremely Enlightened Buddha, was born in an India that was a hotbed of
conflicting religious systems, creeds, beliefs and exotic practices.
To persuade people towards his enlightened vision, in such a complex
and troubling context, the Buddha had invariably to resort to a form of
social communication, that was, to a great extent, unprecedented.
Some episodes that reflect the Buddha's surprising grasp of the
theory and practice of social communication, have been recorded by
commentators with unabashed astonishment and adoration.
The Buddha's spiritual mission of 45 years, yields a rich harvest of
stirring instances of the social communications system utilized by the
Supreme Buddha, to bring about human transformation.
From the earliest days themselves, the Supreme Buddha clearly
recognized the need for organized and formal social communication. When
the Sangha (The Brotherhood of Monks) was still in its incipient and
formative years, he instructed his pioneering monks in these words: "Charatha
Bhikkhave Charikam, bahujana hitaya, bahujana sukhaya.
(O monks, Wander forth, for the well-being of the many - for the
happiness of the many.) The Buddha, in his compassion, felt that the
contemporary society should be alerted to his new system of religious
thought, enabling mankind to benefit from his enlightened vision.
To maximize the benevolent results of the travels of the monk -
communicators, he insisted that two of them should not take the same
path. This initiative establishes beyond doubt that the spirit of social
communication assumed a centrally significant position, in the Buddha's
system, from its first days.
Besides, this move indicates that the Buddha was preoccupied with the
need to conserve scarce communication resources.
In modern communications, an adequate awareness of the "background of
reference" of the target audience is quite essential to make a given
communication quite effective. J. R. Bittner, a Communications expert of
our own day, introduces this concept of "the Background of reference" as
a guide-line for modern communicators, to achieve the aim of
In his social communications, the Buddha frequently adopted this
method of being mindful of a receiver's background of reference, before
he communicated his message.
On one occasion, when he was about to deliver a sermon, he noted that
a villager, whose wisdom was sufficiently ripe to benefit from the
Buddha, joining the assembly. Fully aware that the peasant was exhausted
and hungry, he had the man fed, before he embarked on his sermon. The
Buddha, has on many an occasion demonstrated that the preparation of the
proper communications setting, was essential for a social communication
to be effective.
The inner-essence of the Buddha's social communication, consisted of
his attempt to enable even the ordinary folk, view human issues under
the aspect of eternity. If, for instance, people could be made aware of
the universality of death-that particular understanding will diminish
conflicts and disharmony.
Since we all share the same, inescapable human destiny of death, it
is futile to be violent to each other, in this fast-fleeting moment of
Some tend to characterize certain social communication aspects of the
Buddha's teachings, as being over - pessimistic, since he dwells on the
reality of Death somewhat emphatically. His realistic views relating to
life and death, invariably ensure social harmony, engendering a
pervasive sense of compassion among men, as all are fellow victims of
the fell and relentless Death.
Once life has occurred either in human form, or in myriads of other
versions, it is fully under the sway of Death. Universally, Death is
relentless - unpredictable and irrevocable. No one can stand in its way.
Death does not brook any obstacle. It has no regard for quality.
It is no respecter of age, sex or rank. Death lurks everywhere. Life
may come upon Death in the most likely of places - in a battle-field, or
in combat - or, on the other hand, in the most unlikely of places - in a
charming garden, at the top of a mountain - peak, or in one's own
comfortable bed at home. One is equally likely to meet it right at the
center of a busy high-way amidst the rush of traffic.
This area has to be stressed as this forms a major idiom in the
Buddha's social communication. Besides, this has elicited
misunderstanding, as many cannot fully appreciate the tremendous social
benefits of an adequate awareness of the ephemeral nature of life.
In the numerous contexts of social conflict, that plague today's
human society, this kind of communication can bring about a sobering
effect, leading to greater give-and-take between men and women.
In his teachings, the Buddha compares life to the flame of a lamp in
the wind-pavata dipa tulyaya. The social Communications efforts of the
Buddha, at times, take on the semblance of therapeutic exercises. His
method of social communication, on many an occasion, resulted in the
self-realization of persons driven to extremes of anxiety.
An oft-quoted instance of such therapeutic social communications, by
the Buddha, pivots round the story of Kisa Gotami - a young mother from
an affluent family. Her only child, was dead. He was still in his
infancy. She was sorely distressed and would not accept the reality that
her infant was dead. She went to physician after physician seeking a
All these attempts failed. Directed to see the Buddha, Kisa Gotami
begged him to bring back her infant to life. The Buddha immediately
realized that a discourse on the nature of life and death was not at all
the right communication to meet this human crisis.
He requested her to bring a pinch of mustard. But, he imposed a
condition: "This pinch of mustard must be from a household, where death
had never occurred. She went from house to house seeking the prescribed
mustard. But, she could not find a single household where death had not
occurred. As she kept on going from house to house, the truth began to
dawn in her mind slowly, but surely, "Death is universal". Reconciling
herself to this universal truth she attained sainthood.
In his social communications strategy, the Buddha resorted to a
method, which quite vividly displays his supremely enlightened attitude
to the technique of taking a message to the masses. He selected certain
terms, that evoked resentment, disgust and derogation in the society of
his day. Vasala (outcast) was such a term that evoked deep disgust in a
society, the central organizing factor of which, was caste-hierarchy.
The Buddha, administered a daring assault on the citadel of caste -
Centuries ahead of the modern attitude towards liberal thinking, the
Buddha, in his Discourse to the Kalamas, quite clearly enunciated a
sophisticated programme for liberal and unprejudiced thinking. "Do not
believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in
anything because it is spoken of and rumoured by many. Do not believe in
anything because it is found written in your religious books.
Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers
and elders. But, after observation and analysis, when you find that
anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of
one and all, then, accept it and live up to it."
In a way, it is unbelievably surprising that the Buddha, could
proclaim such a programme of liberal thinking, at a time when the world
of Indian philosophy and religious thought was overwhelmingly dominated
by restricting views.
This atmosphere of liberal thinking, led to an unprecedented social
discourse. This new era of liberation, openness and free thought, led in
turn to such social values as tolerance, non-violence and wholesome
The climactic point of the Buddha's enlightened social communication,
is represented by the regime of Dharmasoka, who established the only
Moral Empire of the whole of human history. Weapons of Destruction were
replaced by thoughts of non-violence. Here at this Roundtable, I deem it
our duty to devise a mechanism, by which it would be possible for us
once again to uphold those high values of social communication, to
enhance tolerance and wholesome understanding between religions, creeds
and beliefs, ensuring human harmony.
I would very earnestly urge this assembly to request the UN Secretary
General to initiate the setting up of an Apex body as part of the UN
system, to promote spiritual harmony of mankind, under the title
perhaps. The Inter-religions Council, where savants could represent all
religions, on an equal footing.
This could dispel once and for all, the myth that religions breed
terrorism. If religions breed terrorism, by this time some religions
would have vanished from the Earth altogether.
If religion plays a role in terrorism, it is entirely because of the
violent exploitation of religious feelings by unscrupulously politicized
groups. My own view is that we should take strong exception to this
despicable high-jacking of religion by terrorists.
By strengthening the esteemed aspects of social communication in
Asian religious traditions, we in Asia could once again bring about a
renaissance of righteous, tolerant and non-violent, social behaviour,
duly nourished by religious thought.
The historic Vikramasila Buddhist university
A few miles away from the village of Bargaon, where the Nalanda
University stood in the State of Bihar is the ancient site of the
Vikramasila University of Buddhist studies. Vikramasila and Valabhi
universities figure in the accounts of Chinese Buddhist pilgrim monks of
the 7th century A.D. However, there were other universities that
flourished after the heyday of these older universities.
Ruins at the ancient Buddhist site of Vikramasila
The Tibetan Taranatha's description in his work, History of Indian
Buddhism, in the early 18th century and other minor historiographical
works and from references in the colophons of a number manuscripts
recovered from Tibet elaborate Vikramasila was the greatest and most
famous educational establishment of the time. This university was
located on the right bank of the Ganges where the holy river flows
It was in the Augustan period of Buddhist Pala kings of Bengal
Vikramasila emerged the pre-eminent position in the contemporary
educational structure of the then India.
This stately educational establishment had six noble gates, each of
which was guarded by a scholar Buddhist monk officer of the university
designated 'Gate-keeper Scholar' (Dvarapalaka Pandit) who examined
applicants to the university. It is said that these entry examinations
were so tough that of ten applicants only three gained admission. The
university granted the degree of Pandit, equivalent now to Master of
The fame and prestige of Vikramasila are recorded in Tibetan records.
This institution had a large measure of association with the great
scholar Dipankara Srijnana (980-1053 AD), who having completed his
education at Odantapuri University, became the head of the Vikramasila
He migrated to Tibet and led a reformist movement of Buddhism, which
was then the state religion of Tibet. He was sixty years old at the
time, though he undertook this foot march to Tibet through the snow clad
hills and peaks.
In the biography of Atisa (Dipankara's Tibetan name) recounts the
difficulties he encountered going to Tibet across the Himalayas through
wind-swept mountain passes and the grand reception he was accorded at
the capital Lahsa.
He organized Buddhist and cultural activities in Tibet Dipankara's
chief Tibetan disciple Nagtcho's. After 13 years of dedicated service to
stabilize Buddhism in Tibet in the most severe cold terrain, he died
full of years at a very remote place in Tibet Nethan. His tomb still
stands at this place. A description and a pictograph of his activities
is given by Captain Wadelel who visited the tomb in 1905.
Dipankara is the founder of Lamaism in Tibet and now deified. At
Ghoom near Darjeeling (West Bengal) amidst monasteries stands a secluded
Tibetan monastery. There stands a solitary stone image of Atisa in human
In addition to Valabhi, there are two more university sites at
Jagaddala and Odantapuri, raised and patronized by Buddhist Pala kings
of Bengal. King Ramapala (1084-1130) built a new capital at the
confluence of the Ganga and one its tributaries, Karatoa and named it
Ramavali. Here he built the Jaggaddala Buddhist University. In its one
and a half centuries of existence though very brief, produced great
Odantapuri was also another university which had at one time, 1,000
monk students, prior to the Pala dynasty. But under Pala Buddhist kings
it reached fruition as a university, generously endowed by the royalty
The first Buddhist educational institute of Tibet was modelled on
Odantapuri. This university in later days carried on the Nalanda
university traditions, until Muslim reached the threshold of India, and
unleashed a period of destruction and genocide. The staff and the
students, fled and sought safe sanctuary in Tibet.
O Vaisali, thou peerless city, home
Of wandering monk and mendicant, to whom
Thou hast been kind and hospitable e'er,
I wish thee well: for now from here I go
On this last journey of my final life,
To Kusinara, where I shall pass away:
Unchanging bliss awaits me there which none
Can take away. Through endless aeons I've toiled
To reach this day, and now at last it's mine.
The Blessed One then set off to Kusinara,
With Ananda and other faithful monks,
For well He knew that this day was His last.
Half way, He came to Pava where He stayed
In Chanda's mango grove, who asked the Lord,
"O may the Blessed One do me the honour
To partake of His meal tomorrow at
My house?" The Lord by silence gave consent.
Together with the brethren He went
To the smith's house and partook of the meal.
When it was o'er, the sublime Teacher made
The heart of Chanda glad with high discourse.
And when He came back to the mango grove,
He sat in thought for pain assailed Him sore,
But He set out without complaint, for He
Well knew that His last illness had begun.
But soon He had to rest beneath a tree
And slake His thirst. Once more He walked in pain,
And then afar He saw the tall Sal trees
By fair Hiranyavati's river bank,
In Mallas' grove. Once there, He bathed and sat
While Ananda prepared His resting place,
Between twin trees of Sal, with head due north.
The Best of Men then walked to His last couch,
And He lay there mindful and self-possessed.
He told the faithful Ananda that He
Would pass away that night to final peace.
With tears he asked the Lord His last commands.
He said, "Go now to Kusinara town
And tell the Mallas that I shall pass away
To Nirvana in the last watch of the night
It chanced the Mallas were in council hall,
And when they heard the sad news, they all wept,
And with their wives and sons lamenting came;
With anguish in their hearts they stood around
The Lord, who said, "Now in this hour of joy
You should not grieve. The goal is hard to win,
And long I've wished for it, and now it's near.
At Gaya I got rid of the cause of birth,
And now I shall this body too lay aside,
And reach Nirvana's peace, eternal bliss.
To the assembled monks He said, "All things
Compounded will dissolve; that's the law.
Life too comes to an end e'en if it lasts
An aeon. I have done all that I could
To myself and others. And to stay here
From now on would be without purpose.
My Dhamma will be with you
For a long time to come.
Do not be anxious, recognise the nature
Of the world where separation cannot be
Avoided. All component things decay:
Let the dhamma be your guide. Seek no refuge
In others, but be lamps unto yourselves;
And when ye realise the world is without
Substance, peace will come as life nears the end
And the long disease of life be cured at last.
Be ye mindful and vigilant, and with effort
Work out your salvation with diligence.
My entry into Nirvana has now arrived."
Then they trembled, kneeling about Him;
And the heavens burned with fire,
And firebrands fell.
Thunder crashed down on earth; and violent winds
Raged in the sky, and the moon's light waned;
An uncanny darkness spread everywhere.
The Sal trees showered flowers on Him
As He lay thus free from earthly bonds.
The Mallas came lamenting,
Having made preparation,
They encased the body of the Lord in new cloth,
Having clad themselves in garments fresh;
Eight chieftains lifted the Teacher's body
And bore it through their little town
Into their own shrine, and there with spices
And sandal wood, in the presence of the Order,
They did what was needful,
And the body of the Lord
Passed into grey ash, fulfilling all,
Thus have I heard, even to the uttermost.