Buddhist Social Principles

Buddhists are increasingly blunt about affirming the primacy of this present world rather than being “world denying,” to use Albert Schweitzer’s old phrase. Among Chinese Buddhists, this idea is connected most commonly to the reformer Taixu (d. 1947) who expressed it as Buddhism for human life (jensheng fojiao). More recently it is linked to the most eminent living Buddhist teacher, MasterYinshun (b. 1906), who uses the phrase “Buddhism in the human realm” (jenjian fojiao) in contrast to emphasizing Buddhism in preparation for rebirth in the Pure Land after death. Fo Kuang Shan Buddhists frequently call themselves “humanistic Buddhists” to offer a similar emphasis. And the largest Buddhist groups in America, namely, SGI-USA and the Tzu-chi Compassion Relief Foundation, also give importance to life on earth as the primary locus of practice.

In addition to being committed to improving contemporary society, Buddhist institutions in many Asian countries are now recovering from oppressive government control, and for the first time have an opportunity to meet together to reflect on their institutional procedures and methods of using power. Major new nonmonastic Buddhist movements have emerged in Taiwan (the Tzu-chi Foundation), in Sri Lanka (the Sarvodaya movement), in Japan (Soka Gakkai and Rissho Koseikai), in India (the TBMSG movement), and elsewhere. Based on the Buddhist principle of consensus, it is necessary for representatives of these and similar Buddhist groups to come together for dialogue to reflect on their own social procedures now being practiced and to seek some consensus on the priorities and principles for the future.

A popular starting point is the account in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta (Digha-nikaya 16.1) where the Buddha used seven criteria to evaluate the social strength of the Vajjian society. Certain of these rules are to be expected-such as, support for the sangha, respect for elders, and respect for women in other families-but there is a remarkable insistence on maintaining traditions, both secular and religious, including non-Buddhist traditions. This principle reinforces the exceptional nonsectarian nature of early Buddhist teaching. In addition, there is the insistence on regular and frequent assemblies conducted in harmony and leading to harmonious settlements. A similar norm was applied to sangha meetings that used the rule of consensus for all decisions, making the sangha the epitome of democracy since everyone had a voice and everyone had to agree on all decisions.

Compassion is a gift of the human heart, but social processes are necessary for helping people evolve a sense of trust and universal responsibility. The Buddha recommended “regular and frequent meetings” that are convened, conducted, and concluded with consensus. The modern code words for these values are transparency, diversity and dialogue. The requirement of twice-monthly uposatha meetings of the sangha where decisions are to be made by consensus implies transforming dialogue. Only through careful and penetrating discussion, sharing of motivations and mutual adjustment of participants to the values and needs of each other, can consensus arise and harmony result for the benefit of the common good.

To help out social meetings to take time to be inclusive of everyone means that individuals must learn to take time to find balance. Fortunately, the world has a model for building a commitment to mindful ness, inclusion, transparency, and dialogue by following the example of Dr. Puey Ungphakorn.
Santi Pracha Dhamma
Essays in honour of the late Puey Ungphakorn


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