The Buddha’s Campaign to Change Society. Part One of Two

Part One of Two

4477 words


The Social System

The Rich

The Powerful

The Vision

“What are all these titles and races? They are a mere name.” (Sn 648)

The Buddha gave his teachings in a highly developed and cultured society. Written some 300 to 400 years after the death of the Buddha, the Pali texts, a written record, we are told,  of the Buddha’s teachings and culture, reveal a society with an advanced economic system, deep cultural/religious foundations, an active commercial life, a vibrant agricultural system plus trading between the nations of north India.

The society certainly had its weak links – such as the power of the patriarchy, Brahmin priests, the caste system and the brutality of sentences upon those convicted of crimes.

Along with the five volumes of the Teachings/Disciplines (Dharma Vinaya), the 10,000 discourses of the Buddha shed an immense amount of light on the daily life of citizens of India. The Buddha addressed Kings, Queens, Brahmins, caste system, judiciary, the lifestyles of the wealthy, the poor, culture and lifestyles. He outlined radical changes motivated by a determination to create a harmonious society between people, animals and environment. He sought an end to war and unhealthy social divisions.

The Buddha questioned the ways of life and attitudes influencing the rich, the powerful, religious authorities, householders, yogis and seekers after truth. He offered clear and direct teachings to end greed, violence and fear in society. He offered the Noble Eightfold Path as the basis for a life of collective wisdom. He expressed doubt about unproveable religious beliefs.

In terms of religious exploration, spiritual enquiry and philosophical investigation, the Buddha and contemporary teachers of varying spiritual/religious/philosophical backgrounds revealed a society more advanced than the fifth century BC cultures of Greece, Persia and Egypt. Ancient India had a wealth of religious texts and codes of social  behaviour. A diversity of gurus, masters and teachers offered teachings and practices unmatched elsewhere in the world.

The Dharma teachings in India explored mind/body/consciousness, relationship to the environment and transcendent issues. Unlike ancient Greece, the teachers of ancient India did not make the intellect the primary tool to establish views. The teachers of India made the priority the application of experiences, depths of meditation, practices, methods, techniques and inquiry into heart, mind and consciousness. They pointed the way to authentic knowledge about reality.

There were hundreds of Sanghas (assemblies) of teachers and spiritual/religious/secular practitioners sharing their experiences. They explored the nature of self in the world, self and other, non-self and non-other, and the place of the heart/mind in reality.  They meditated upon the deepest issues around what it means to be  a human being with all of our potential and limitations. The Buddha ordained women into his Sangha enabling them to live a nomadic way of live in the company of other women and men. Women knew they had an option to being wives, mothers and servants. With women walking out of these set roles, the Buddha delivered a punch in the eye to patriarchy.

Of course. readers can find in the old Pali texts statements attributed to the Buddha that seem incongruous for an awakened mind to say. The Buddha gave priority to squeezing the honey (to use his own words) out of teachings or experiences.  He said to see what feels ‘true and useful’ and apply. This is principle in the teachings.

You could get the impression from Buddhism (and contemporary spiritual organisations quoting the Buddha) that the Buddha only taught the transformation of the individual. Far from it. ‘The changing of the inner life of individuals is a worthy task but changing society does not happen through a number of individuals changing themselves. There is no historical evidence for it. The capacity to change society needs a different response. This response transforms the structures, formations and values of the major institutions, including collective political/social/banking/business/ secular/religious beliefs.

The Buddha tackled equally the personal and the political, the inner and the outer. Far too many of today’s spiritual businesses concentrate on the inner without  mentioning the external pressures, demands and ideologies impacting daily on people’s lives. People refer to engaged Buddhism because the clear majority of Buddhist/spiritual practitioners can appear disengaged – a  growing number of critics see mindfulness/meditation as a sort of expanding navel gazing club with growing attachment to self-compassion. This is an unfair perception ignoring the beneficial power of mindfulness/meditation practices.

Many people worldwide live under the influence of the Western CULTure of individual-ISM and Secular-ISM. The Buddhist tradition and Western mindfulness practices support the individual and genuinely bring much benefit to individuals. There is a real place for these religious and secular practices to support people to work initially through their stress, unhappiness and pain. Traditional Buddhist meditation teachers and teachers of mindfulness do wonderful work to give people the tools to work with difficult circumstances.

Mindfulness has currently no significant relationship to the deep-rooted changes required in education, medicine, corporations, racism, Islamophobia, poverty, political institutions, institutional corruption,  climate change, and much more. A huge amount of stress, unhappiness and pain arises due to the lack of any real resolution of such social and global issues.

The founders of Western mindfulness have failed to address the OUTER application of mindfulness while engaged Buddhists campaigning for change make up a minority of practitioners. Religious Buddhists and mindfulness practitioners could learn a great deal from the Buddha, who tirelessly campaigned for real change at every level of society. It is not necessary to make reference in the teachings and practices to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, except when asked about the origins of the application such teachings in the contemporary world.

Wisdom  and compassion come first. A fearless inquiry into the causes and conditions that produce suffering pay due respect to the teachings.  The exploration of the inner upon the outer  and the impact of outer upon the inner leads to understanding the truth of a situation.  In his most famous discourse on mindfulness, the Buddha spoke of internal-external mindfulness. He saw the inter-connection between both.

Today, we need Agents of Change – committed to inner-outer change.

The mindfulness founders replaced the Buddha’s authority on the full application of mindfulness. They gave the authority to neuroscience. They confined their teaching and practices primarily to inner mindfulness.  The cup is half empty or half-full, if you wish.

The Buddha tackled many issues, personal, social and spiritual. He pinpointed 64 commonly-held views around the self, nature and God and the Gods. He felt many were caught up in a ‘net of views,’ secular and religious, upon which people built up an identity. He challenged all forms of clinging, conflict and offered the means to heal a wide range of problematic states of mind and the collective beliefs that caused suffering. (MLD1).

The Social System

Indian historians often regard this era of its history as one of its greatest chapters; no wonder the Buddha’s teachings spread throughout much of Asia. The Buddha’s influence now extends itself into Western society with his emphasis on nonviolence, right livelihood, mindfulness, love, compassion, seeing into the nature of things, deep values, liberation and a fully awakened life. The Buddha primarily discussed suffering, its causes and conditions, the resolution and the way to the resolution. His words strike a chord with countless numbers of people from every background.

The Buddha endeavoured to bring about a revolution to a sophisticated and highly evolved society with all its shortcomings, ideologies and conflicts and gave support to the uneducated and marginalised. He often challenged the rich and the powerful in his public talks, often given in in a Dharma hall He showed friendship and loving kindness (metta) to all without exception. (Dharmasala), public halls or in parks in the city centres. Monarchs, leaders, wealthy business people and Brahmins regularly came with their questions or to argue a point with him. Citizens, rich and poor, would gather around to listen to these dialogues. The Buddha also talked with the Brahmin priests, gurus and their disciples.

Families were born into the caste system. This ancient system fixed their duties, tasks and livelihoods. There were also three kinds of slaves – born into the family, taken in battle and bought from other wealthy citizens. Slaves were excluded from the caste system. According to the social order of the caste system,  the Brahmins placed themselves at the top followed by the military/nobles/rulers, then the business community/traders and then the workers confined to fields, factories and menial tasks. The Buddha rejected the cast system. He deliberately would change the order of the caste in his talks that upset the Brahmins; he placed the military/nobles/rulers above the Brahmins in a number of his talks.

The Brahmins claimed God created the caste system. The Buddha said a person was to be known by their actions, not by their birth – a bold and radical statement. His views undermined the social/religious orthodoxy. He is still remembered in India primarily as the leading critic of the caste system in the same way we remember Marx for his critiques on the disparity of wealth and exploitation of the workers.

The Sanskrit word for ‘caste’ is ‘varna’ – ‘varna’ means ‘colour.’ Some might see a hint of prejudice here. The Brahmins,  the rulers and the wealthy were protected from the sun by canopies and large umbrellas. From one generation to the next within the caste system, their skin gradually got lighter. Those in the lower caste and its sub-divisions spent their life toiling in the sun. Many had a darker skin.  Of course, there were numerous exceptions to this but light skin came to be regarded as a sign of prosperity. There were people excluded from the caste system such as the tribal peoples and those regarded as untouchables.

Ambattha, a Brahmin (DN 3), well-versed in the Vedas, met with the Buddha, regarded by many as an “incomparable religious teacher.” A rich and honoured Brahmin priest/guru. Pokkarasati, sent Ambattha, his leading disciple, to test the Buddha to see if he is truly incomparable. Ambattha noticed that the Buddha allowed young people to sit on the highest seats, a privilege usually reserved for elderly Brahmins. Ambattha blamed the Buddha and the Sangha for not showing respect to the Brahmins; he said the Buddha’s Sangha comes from low descent of the Sakiyan (the country of birth of the Buddha).

In response, the Buddha traced the family history of Ambattha showing his family went back to a slave who had sex with Kanha the ‘illegitimate’ son of a King. Ambattha felt full of shame and embarrassment to know about his past lineage (Kanha-yana) going back to Kanha. Out of compassion, the Buddha told Ambattha that Kanha lived the life of a great sage with wonderful powers of mind;  so he should be happy to be from the family of Kanha. The  Buddha made it clear to Ambattha that the actions of a person mattered – not whether they came from a slave and the ‘bastard’ son of a king.

Deeply touched and appreciative, Ambattha returned to his teacher, Pokkharasati and recounted his experience. Inspired by the report, the respected elder Brahmin and Ambattha joined the Buddha’s Sangha. Both Ambattha and Kanha realised that a Dharma way of life ranked far above caste and all human constructs of hierarchy. The current political/social debates around hierarchy and equality mattered little to the Buddha, who advocated wisdom and compassion as above such social constructs.

This discourse makes explicitly clear the Buddha’s emphasis on wise action in the world and his disregard for birth whether as a Brahmin, birth into a royal family or born into a rich household. Centuries later, certain Tibetan Buddhism lineages adopted a vaguely similar form of the Brahmin position of status through reincarnation. Certain religions and political ideologies have given priority to birth over behaviour/actions in daily life.

Disciples of their lama (religious teacher/guru) will choose a young child to replace their master within a few years after his death. Respected lamas would meet to select a small child, who they perceived to be the reincarnation of the lama who passed away. Lamas also consult an oracle for help with signs from the last holder of the lineage about the new incarnation. Some Tulkus dispute the claim they were a lama in their last life, disrobe and prefer to live in secular society.

The Rich

Anathapindika, a billionaire businessman and major benefactor of the Buddha’s Sangha, found a beautiful garden belonging to Prince Jeta who did not want to sell the land. The businessman wanted to offer the property to the Buddha and Sangha as their residence in Savatthi, the capital of the Kosala kingdom and one of the six great cities of northern India. Prince Jeta had initially declined to sell the land. Anathapindika had his personal staff cover the Jetavana Grove with a 100,000 gold coins (Vin ii 158-159) as a display of a portion of his personal wealth. The prince sold the land to the businessman. The Buddha and his Sangha spent more than 20 years in the park for a minimum of three months per year giving teachings.

The rich had great halls (mahasala) to entertain large numbers of guests. Some had many wives. Their elephants and horses were decorated with expensive plaited manes. Luxurious and ornate chariots used tiger skins as carpets. An extremely rich individual would use white horses, with a white chariot, white reins and white umbrella with the chariot owner dressed in white. (M I 178, 177. S.v.4,5). A very wealthy Brahmin, Janussoni, got down from his white chariot to speak with the Buddha, who showed to Janussoni how little his immense wealth and prestige mattered. True wealth lay elsewhere such as happiness and love within and the companionship of numerous close friendships (Sangha).  Janusson described the teaching as ‘magnificent’ and became a lay follower of the Buddha.

As today, the super-rich feel a compulsive need to show off their wealth to other citizens. In India in ancient times, the rich enjoyed three palaces for each major season of the year – hot, cold and the monsoon. Large parties were held in the palaces along with invitations to beautiful women, musicians, dancers and personal attendants, including dwarfs, hunchbacks and others who appeared different. Young women looked after every need. The Buddha said one with insight understood the “causes of lust for pleasure, the gratification of such lust, the danger and the way out of such a fever for the mind.” (M I 504. A I 145, D ii 21, D ii 333). Rich men wore a turban, tunic, earrings, jewellery and the finest silks from Varanasi. Personal attendants held a canopy over their heads to protect their bosses from the sun, wind and dust every time they went outdoors. (A I 145).

The Buddha related his own similar experience in the Palace before leaving in the middle of the night to search for Truth. “I enjoyed myself with the four musicians, who were all female,” he recalled. Then he realised much higher forms of happiness. “I do not envy what is inferior,” he concluded.

As in the 21st century, the rich lived an utterly self-indulgent way of life. The Brahmins, the religious authority, never questioned the lifestyle, exploitation and accumulation of such wealth. The Buddha stayed singularly unimpressed with gross wealth and regularly criticised displays of ostentatious greed. He did not object to acquiring wealth provided business people acquired it through lawful means and through their own efforts. (A ii 67. A iii 45).

There are personal and social consequences for violation of ethics. Remorse, guilt, poverty, loss of freedom, mistrusted, disliked, fearful;  there is further rebecoming into an unhappy state. There are also painful outcomes for those who concentrate their minds on the pursuit of wealth as their primary action. Those whose minds are set on materialism and status ‘do not lend their ears to the teachings, cannot listen, do not arouse their mind to profound knowledge and do not associate with the wise.’

The Buddha gave teachings on empathy, compassion and responsibility to put an end to exploitation of workers and the environment. Business people could make wealth through wholesome means not through slaves, cheap labour and demands on the efforts of others. Businessmen should not engage in dealing in arms, poisons and harmful products. Taxes had to be paid. The Buddha also warned about the loss of wealth due to gambling, addictions, alcohol, harmful companions, laziness or wasting the wealth. (D iii 1520). Wealth could be lost through fire, floods, wars, robberies and appointing an unwise successor to the wealth. The Buddha also referred to the wise use of acquired wealth.

He said wealth must help the:

entire family,




yogis (A iii 259).

When the Buddha accepted an invitation from a desperately poor worker living in a slum, he said the wealthy have a duty to give support for the poor. (Vin iv 75). The poor included slaves, beggars and tramps (SN 100, 129) who lived on the remains of food (Vin. i.225) thrown away by the rich.

He recommended that money should be kept for four primary reasons:

  • present needs
  • future needs,
  • saved for an emergency
  • given to charity (dana) to support those in need

Citizens listened with rapt attention to the Buddha’s campaign for change in society. People travelled from all over India to ‘lend an ear’ on his teachings. People knew that the Buddha spoke up for them. It is no wonder that they referred to him as the ‘Awakened One,’ far more often than by his first name, Gautama. The Brahmins, the rich and the powerful had turned their back on the poor and the marginalised. Just like today, the privilege elite  had a personal threefold interest in wealth, health and happiness. The Buddha had little regard for such narcissism and the priests, gurus, meditation masters who pandered to the personal whims. Gautama described himself as a ‘good friend’ (kalyana mitta) and the people knew they had a good friend, who spoke up on their behalf.

The Powerful

Originally, no automatic hereditary line of fathers to sons existed in the royal tradition of India. There was a powerful group (rajakattaro) within the Kingdom called the King makers who had the power to choose the King and determine the administration of the country. Yet, they advocated so-called purity of birth from both sides of a royal family going back for seven generations. The powerful and wealthy made a point of remembering their family history for several generations.  The Buddha had no major objection to such recopllections. He recalled the Buddha’s of the past.  He also made clear the responsibilities of the monarch regardless whether a group elected the monarch or the monarch came about through birth into a royal family.

The Buddha knew that Kings often wage war. He told the story of King Mahavijita who gathered power and wealth. He King boasted: “I occupy a wide extent of land which I have conquered.” His advisor said to him: “Your country is ravaged and beset with terorrists. You will not end this plague of terrorists by executions and imprisonment. Those who survive will harm your people. Give money to support the shopkeepers and traders. Support those who grow crops and raise cattle. Give everybody a living wage. This will bring peace to the land. There will be joy in the heart of the people. People will play with their children and doors will be left open.”

He pointed out emptiness of those who have titles or identification with the nation state. “What of all these titles and races? There are merely a name. The designation of these names arose through common consent (Sn 648),” the Buddha told those who grasped onto their role.  In other words, the Buddha would endeavour to the puncture the ego of the rich and powerful.

The King accepted the wisdom of his advisor and gave support to all those in need who he and his armies had brought suffering upon. His compassionate actions  also inspired the wealthy and powerful people in his country to support the underprivileged far and wide.

The story carries an important message for rulers today. Every act of terrorism in the West bears a  relationship to the West’s waging war on other countries. Yes, the lone terrorist or group of terrorists must take responsibility for their actions, even if they have completely lost their moral compass. The same principle applies to those who order the bombardment of  villages, towns and cities from the air or launch attacks on civilians from the ground. The political leaders and commmanders have lost their moral compass.

Mahavijjita wanted to sacrifice 700 bulls, 700 goats and 700 rams to show his change of heart from man of war to man of peace. The Buddha said that the greatest gift for kings, the powerful and the wealthy shows in the sacrifice of making war/executions and the sacrifice taking of what has not been given (such as the conquering of other countries and exploitation of the people/resources). The Buddha added: “The ethics of this sacrifice is simpler, less difficult, more fruitful and profitable than all the others.”

The King experienced another change of heart: “I grant the animals life. Let them be fed with green grass and given cool water to drink and let cool breezes play upon them. “(DN 5).

With the support of elephants, horses and chariots, armies engaged in battles and endeavoured to seize control over regional uprisings. The soldiers used spears, swords, bows, arrows, shields, javelins and double edged swords. (M iii 133 A ii 116 M i 429). Some of the weapons were smeared with poison. A good soldier was regarded as an asset to the king. (A I 284). Soldiers went into battle with flags, drums and conch shells.

Strict discipline was enforced on the army. Some soldiers, who deserted the army, tried to take ordination in the Sangha. The judges passed a law that dealt severely with deserters. They announced that those soldiers who ordained would be beheaded, the ones in the Sangha, who announced the ordination, would have their tongue cut out and those who took part in the assembly at the ordination would have half their ribs broken. When monks started to ordain the soldiers who fled the army, the king asked about the punishment of the monks. (Vin i 73-74 Dh 256-7). Gautama then stopped the ordination of runaway soldiers. (Vin I 74).

The Buddha told a king that he should not forget three spots – the place of his birth, his coronation and where he won a battle. The Buddha said the king upholds the Dharma as his most important duty. He must keep a watch over all his citizens from every occupation, and over animals and birds. M ii 74-75. Vin iv 295.

The Buddha said a Dharma wheel/Brahma wheel turning monarch knows what kinds of action work for the benefit of all. The monarch teaches six precepts, non-killing, non-stealing, non-sexual abuse, non-lying and non-indulgence in drugs and alcohol. The Buddha added a sixth precept – eating in moderation. The Buddha told one king he was fat implying he needed to lose weight. The Buddha’s experience of fasting, plant based diet or vegetarian diet of the yogis gave him the experience to warn people of the consequences to their health of over-eating. The wealthy of ancient India believed that being overweight showed direct proof of their successful lives. They would not have welcomed the Buddha’s concerns about fat people. The poor would see the fat people as greedy rather than prosperous.

The Buddha said the King should return half of what he received in taxes to the priests, recluses, paupers, cripples and beggars. (S I 58-59). The people would then regard the King as the best of men. The Buddha told all the people in the royal palace to give charity at the different gates of the capital. (S i 58-59).

If the King did not live a righteous life, he failed in his duty and becoming a disaster for his subjects. The Buddha made his concerns very clear of the importance of ethics for the King, and ministers, who run the country. If they became ‘unrighteous’ and unethical, then so would the Brahmins and householders in cities, towns and villages. Sun and moon would go on a wrong course, winds would blow wrong, out of season, there would not be enough rain.”

He said kings, who exploited the people, could then only travel with armed guards as they would need protection from citizens. They would have to live in a fort with high walls and travel hidden behind a screen. (D iii 194).  We see the same situation today. The King would also have to send his army to quell riots in the provinces (Vin I 74). Kings and Queen captured in battle faced torture and death. (Vin I 345).

The king gained his wealth trough taxation on goods through posts outside cities and towns; tax collectors had offices at the ford of a river, the gate of a village and the authority to stop caravans. Tax avoiders regularly asked yogis, monks/nuns to carry bags of goods through such checkpoints to avoid taxes. (Vin iii 62). The ordained faced punishment for smuggling goods.

There were also republics as well with urban councils, confederations and various sanghas. The Buddha especially praised the Vajjians who held regular council meeting that were peaceful and well conducted. They gave honour to their elders, respected women and the yogis. The Buddha said that if they kept their democratic practices, they would prosper (D ii 73-75 and A iv 16). Some Kings and political leaders would send the heads of villages to meet with the Buddha for teachings on ethic and wisdom. (Vin I 79ff).

The powerless were deemed unworthy of even being in the lowest caste, especially the slaves. Some slaves worked as slaves for set periods of time. Slave owners sometimes released their slaves but the Buddha declined to offer ordination to slaves who ran away and then asked for ordination. He refused to offer ordination to anyone in-flight from domestic situations, such as being in debt or not having the support for ordination of a close loved one, such as partner or parent. There had to be a deep motivation as a spiritual seeker to join the nomadic Sangha.

The Buddha regarded intention and motivation as an important factor in the psychological make-up of human beings. Is the motivation free from the desire to inflict suffering?Is the motivation fuelled by denial of responsibility?  Is the motivation sincere in its dedication?

The Vision

The Buddha’s campaign for change in society reveal a vision to bring the best out of humanity. His teachings emphasise a two-fold approach.  To change society and change individuals. He encouraged the noble ones in his Sangha to offer teachings and practices to householders. The noble ones travelled far and wide sharing their understanding of the Dharma – with the freedom to use the God (Brahma)/religious language and the freedom to use secular language. The teachings offer a genuine diversity of exploration rather promoting a conflict of views.

He gave equal priority to inner and outer change. Mindfulness/Deep Concentration/Meditation (samadhi) and right action mattered. One approach could not be at the expense of another. Dharma teachings engage in the transformation of unsatisfactory attitudes/beliefs in society and  unresolved problems in institutions.  The transformation of the unsatisfactory patterns of the inner life matter also.

The Buddha offered a depth of teachings to transform the inner life and society. He offered a remarkable message of awakening. We need to draw from his insights and inspiration.

1 of 2 parts. See next blog for Part Two.

 Chapter Two in

The Explicit Buddha

– to be published in April 2017 (75,000 words)


  • Dear Christopher,

    Thank you for this urgent and passionate message of the Buddha’s focus on social reform. Personal Transformation for Social Transfoprmation has been my theme for some time.

    Please see my essay ‘The River of Life’ on my site:

    I look forward to Part 2.

    Further to our previous correspondence last year I may be in UK some time in the latter half of May – will you be around in Totnes?


    David Beatty

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