Buddhism in modern society | Daily News

Buddhism in modern society

The ultimate goal of any Buddhist is the attainment of inner peace through the experience of enlightenment; this is described as nirvana. Because of its emphasis on individual salvation, Buddhism is often seen as a quietist religion that fails to consider societal problems and related solutions. This, of course, is not correct.

Today, our globalized world is confronted with many social conflicts. Problems appear in many shapes and proportions. When we pay attention to Buddhist discourses, we realize that even in the society in which the Buddha emerged in the sixth century BCE, there were many such social issues.

One major issue was social discrimination. Poverty, theft, and murder were also common.

The Buddha noted the crucial importance of eliminating poverty and suggested solutions to the feudal rulers. In the discourses, he shed some insights on the significance of morality in wider society in the preservation of civil liberties, freedom and safety. The Buddha also reiterated the importance of fair distribution of economic resources among people as a necessity for creating healthy societies, which is a necessity of good governance.

Excess greed

In the sphere of social justice the Buddha pointed out that, while it is normal for people to want to experience the pleasures of life, when greed becomes excessive it creates conflict. This conflict is rooted in the reality of limited resources: the earth is generous and abundant, but can only supply so much. When some decide to take for themselves beyond what is reasonable, others go without. Thus inequality is born, from which stem jealousy, distrust, crime, and violence.

It is primarily the responsibility of the ruler to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the people and the environment, ensuring that poverty does not become excessive due to unreasonable levels of inequality.

This is based on the notion of dharma, which means that one’s life should follow the principles of nature and accord with what is right. A truly noble and righteous ruler would live in accord with dharma, ruling without violence or coercion.

In Cakkavattisihanada Sutta Buddha says to the monarch, “Let no wrongdoing take place in your territory; if there are poor people in your territory, then give them resources(to develop themselves). The ascetics and Brahmins in your territory, who abstain from drunkenness and negligence, who practice forbearance and gentleness, each one conquering himself, calming himself, quenching himself, you should go to them from time to time and ask “What, sir, is “wholesome”, (kusala) What is unwholesome What is blameworthy, what is blameless What is to be practiced, what not Doing what would lead to happiness and benefit for me and the country in the long run You should listen to them, and avoid what is unwholesome, (akusala); you should take up what is good and do that.”

This is a comprehensive explanation of what the dhamma is for n ruler or a modern political leader and how it may constitute the policies of good governance. The emphasis on the prevention of injustice taking place in the administration is a crucial point highlighted. Attention to the levels of poverty is also included as an aspect of compassionate policy. From time to time consultation with stakeholders (in this case, wise and spiritual persons) is also an important strategy and good corrective governance. This reliance on righteousness (dhamma) in the statecraft enables the ruler to manage more effectively the disunity and chaos that will typically arise in any circumstance of governance.

Social equality

Several discourses in the Pali canon testify that the Buddha considered the caste system imposed on society by Brahmanic hegemony as the gravest social problem plaguing the Indian society.

Using observable data, the Agganna Sutta analyzed the origin and development of caste system, in a critical manner questioning its very foundations. Buddha rejected the caste system and its associated social stratification as unfounded. In rejecting the caste system Buddhism produces various arguments to establish the oneness of humanity. In the Vasettha-sutta the Buddha produces arguments from history, biology, psychology and ethics in support of the fact that all human beings belong to one group. The underlying assumption is that as human beings, all human beings must be treated alike. He rejected the prevalent Hindu view of inherent inequality of human beings.

In the Kuṭadanta Sutta the Buddha narrates a story in which the kingdom of King Mahavijitavi was ravaged by thieves and brigands and was advised to hold a great sacrifice to remedy this menace. However,his chiefRoyaladviser advocated the king to implement an effective economic plan to overcome the crisis of the state plagued by poverty and the resultant crime.

The economic plan recognized the crucial importance of both the ruler and the state to implement it. It was the ruler that had potential to initiate the process of generating income. The plan encouraged further investment and rewarded those who worked hard and invested in the production process. Fair distribution of resources to the needy was maintained and justified while creating employment. Within months, good results began to surface.

Reformative punishment

The Buddhist monastic Vinaya is another obvious instance where one would expect considerations of social justice to become highlighted. In giving reasons for the promulgation of disciplinary rules (sikkha-pada) the Vinaya refers, among others, to the following two considerations: Dummankunam puggalanam niggahaya: ‘for the censure of those who are not disciplined’ and pesalanam bhikkhunam phasuviharaya: ‘for the wellbeing of those who are disciplined’. This suggests that the system was meant to deal with those who are ill-behaved and by doing so, to make the life of those who are well-behaved easy.

Censure of the ill-behaved basically refers to punishment. The modern theory holds that the purpose of the punishment is retribution. From a closer look we may see that theBuddhist theory of punishment is not retributive but reformative. In such a theory there cannot be underlying concept of justice similar to one operative in a retributive system of punishment.

This does not, nevertheless, indicate that there is no concept of justice operating here. Even for reformative purposes punishment has to be in accordance with the degree of the gravity of the offence. The nature of the punishment is determined in accordance with the nature of the violation. It is clear that there is a sense of justice underlying this process. The concern for justice is further seen in seven procedures of conflict resolution (satta adhikarana samatha) adopted in the Vinaya rules.


In the Sigalovada-sutta there is a passage of the Buddha’s discussion on social relations. Six kinds of social relations have been enumerated there. They are the relation between parents and children, teachers and pupils, husband and wife, friends and friends, employers and employees and religious people and their supporters.

The Sigalovada sutta talks about mutual duties and responsibilities inter se each of the six groups. The word used is ‘sangaha’ meaning to minister or treat well. The mutual duties and responsibilities of those in each groupbeen conceptualized as a direction which has taken as a religious connotation. Taking ‘care’ of these six directions has been described as ‘honouring’ (namasseyya).

Buddha also condemned maltreatment of servants in every form. Buddha may be declared as the pioneer of abolition of slavery. In Sigalovada Sutta, he avers five ways in which a master should serve his servants. These are (a) work should be assigned in proportion to the employee's health, (b) due food and wages be given to them, (c) proper care should be taken in his sickness, (d) specially tasty luxuries should be shared with him and (e) holidays should be given to them at due intervals. Buddha was so much compassionate for the working class that he stressed that they be treated with as much consideration as a member of one’s own family.

Again, at the time of Buddha the status of women had considerably gone down. Buddha elevated the status of women. He recognized the individuality and independence of women, and their parity with men.

The establishment of the Bhikkhuni Sangha, in the 5th year of the Buddha's ministry, really paved the way for full religious freedom for women in the days of the Buddha.

Modern democracy and respect for social justice, however imperfectly realized, offer new opportunities for understanding the broader implications of social justice in Buddhist teachings. Buddhism is thriving today because its basic principles remain just as true as when the Buddha taught them.

If we try to find direct answers to our social problems in Buddhist teachings, we will be disappointed, because those teachings were intended for people living in very different times and places.

But if we ask what basic Buddhist principles imply for modern people and societies today, we may find that a Buddhist perspective has quite a lot to offer.


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