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

3873 words

Part Two of Two


The Law

Elections and Assemblies

Seven Conditions for Society to Prosper

The Significance of Right Action

The Power of Truth

The Law

Punishments were severe. The King or the judiciary could order those convicted of criminal offences to be executed, roasted alive, maimed, tortured, speared to death and paraded around the streets before execution. Criminals could have their heads shaved and deprived of all possessions. The Buddha and his ordained Sangha shaved their heads and faces in defiance of the tradition of yogis, who grew long hair and full beards.

Criminals were taken to the southern gate to face public execution. (D ii 321. Vin I 344. 345). They could be thrown into a pit of burning charcoal, strangled, boiled in oil, cut from the middle of the body or flogged. (D iii 332—8, A I – 48, A ii 122, M I 87, M iii 164. Vin I 74). Imprisonment included being housebound, bound to a town or jailed. Some prisoners were branded. The lawmakers believed the severity of the punishments worked because of the fear, personal and social, instilled in the people of the painful consequences of breaking the law. (It. 36. A ii 878). Judges would also banish citizens for anti-social acts.

One King, sympathetic to the Sangha, said the monks/nuns should not have to face punishment if they had broken the law. The Buddha told King Bimbisara that those who ordained in his Sangha also had to be held accountable. The Buddha rejected the King’s view as it would attract criminals to escape from accountability and would bring a ‘bad name’ to the Sangha. (Vin 176)

The Buddha said that greed caused crime, which brought about corruption/stealing, lying and punishment. (D iii 92). The most common crimes were burglary, stealing and highway robbery. Adultery was viewed as a major crime. Adulterers faced punishment ranging from beheading to confiscation of property or banishment (M i 87, M I 288, 404. D i 52 , D I 166, S iv 349). Adultery consisted of illicit intercourse with girls in care of parents, incestuous relationships and one already pledged to another. The King had the power to order the punishment. (M I 87, 404. Ii 88, iii 183, A I 47. Ii 122).

One adulteress ran away to Savatthi to try to take ordination with a sect but the sect refused her request. One nun gave her ordination. Her husband wanted permission to kill his wife for sleeping with another man. The king refused to give husband power of life and death over her. (Vin iv 225 and 226). The most infamous robber on the road, Angulimala, wore a garland of fingers through cutting of a finger of each of victims. (Vin I 74-75 M ii 97-102). The Buddha faced up to Angulimala who acknowledged Gautama’s fearlessness. The meeting changed the life of Angulimala.

Judges ordered the punishment of thieves by flogging with whips, beaten with cudgels, maimed, tortured or had their eyes gauged out. (M I 383). The society believed in punishment and deterrence rather than inner change and rehabilitation.

The Buddha advocated inner change and subsequent rehabilitation. His Sangha attracted a wide range of men and women with different histories, social backgrounds and psychological issues.

People could receive heavy punishments for crimes of patricide, matricide, corruption and bribes.  Gamblers were looked down upon. (D iii 183). The Buddha did not consider suicide an anti-social act or a sin against God but an option for those suffering from different forms of illness or in great pain. A  handful of his Sangha committed suicide owing to unbearable pain.

Disputes were taken to the Office of Justice. A panel decided the outcome of court cases. Places for judgement included the king’s court, assemblies, a guild, family meetings and caste assemblies. The Sangha also assembled to decide the faults of monks and nuns and take modest steps to apply discipline and practices to resolve the faults. King Pasenadi said to the Buddha that many witnesses lied (S i 74) in the civil courts.

The Buddha travelled extensively through the three powerful countries of Kasi with Varanasi as its capital, Kosala with Savatthi as its capital and Magadha with Gaya as its business and administrative capital. The Buddha pinpointed human desires that brought about the pursuit and clinging onto more than what was needed as a major cause for suffering and conflict. Greed generate corruption, lies and punishment and leads to war.

He stressed the importance of observing the law, living an ethical life and for society to safeguard itself from suffering in the present or future. He mentioned regularly the consequences of actions (karma).

He referred to destruction of problematic deeds/actions (karma). D I 55 M I 93. M ii 214, 218. He showed how we find ourselves bound to the consequences of our action unless with come to depths of insight. The Buddha asked:

“Can your effort postpone to a future date the fruit of actions which ripen here and now?

“Can you change a painful result into a pleasant result or vice versa?

“Can you make a decision for what ripens in the present not to ripen in the present?

The Buddha concluded: “One cannot simply cancel the fruit of one’s actions/deeds. (M ii 220).

He warned that one can pursue the fruits of an action before the time has come. One must understand the importance of patience. We cannot will the fruit on a tree to ripen. The ripening of the fruit occurs owing the variety of supportive conditions. He told of a woman who knifed herself to find out the sex of her baby; she could not wait for the birth. Mother and the embryo died through impatience. Others demand to know their inheritance. In the future, those who live with ethics and proper conduct will ‘wisely await the ripening of actions.’ DN ii.332.

Elections and Assemblies

The Buddha regularly spoke to the rich, the middle classes and the poor, as well as the those in his nomadic Sangha. He named the responsibilities of kings, rulers, governments and the consequences of the abuse of power. He spoke to the rulers and the people of the importance of social harmony, family responsibilities, business ethics, livelihood and the importance of right action.

During the time and before the time of the Buddha, some of the nations of north India decided to elect a leader (Maha Sammat, the Great Elect). They chose between them the most capable among them, to protect them and to have the authority to censure those who brought suffering on the people. The Elected One later become known as the Raja (King). The people treated the king as the foremost public servant. In return, the people gave the king a small portion of their produce to the king and his administration for his service but corruption set in here as well when the kings determined their eldest child as the successor to the throne, which dispensed with the election of a new monarch.

Throughout his 45 years of teaching, the Buddha campaigned to transform society which ensured social justice, community co-operation and wise leadership as the norm. The Buddha told the rulers that if they become corrupt then the citizens would act in the same way. He criticised a way of life that promoted adharma (against the Dharma of ethics and wisdom).

He warned that the lives of those who lived greedily and selfishly would be ‘short-lived, weak and sickly.’ ((S i 58-59). Exploitation would have its impact on the environment. The Buddha predicted the seasons would lose their natural order and get ‘out of joint.’ The winds would blow strongly. There would not be sufficient rain. The crops would not ripen.” (AN ii 74-76.)

The Buddha said that the monarch, who followed the way of the Dharma, would support the needs of all the people in the city and countryside. The Buddha also gave teachings on the Dharma to countries in India considered republics. In the republics, people administered various offices in the running of the country for various periods of time. These officials held responsibility for the rest of the country. These republics held regular meeting in a Dharma hall (Dharmasala) offering an assembly (Sangha) for citizens to meet to make collective decisions.

The Buddha described Awakening, Dharma and Sangha as the three jewels of awakening. The Licchavi, the Koliya, Vajjis, Mallas and Vedeha were among the republican states. (The Buddha died in Kushinagara, a village in Mallas). Citizens also employed the concept ‘sangha’ – meaning assemblies of people. The Buddha applied the same concept to the four-fold type of people in his Sangha – monks, nuns, men and women who are householders. The four-fold Sangha presented a contrast to the four-fold caste system.

The Buddha adopted an empathetic view towards the republics and offered the republicans constructive teachings to support peace and harmony among the people. (DN ii 72). It would not have gone unnoticed along the royal families of the Buddha’s appreciation for the republics. His Sangha developed the first system of democracy with assemblies employing a voting system when they could not come to a mutual understanding. The Licchavi republic invited the Buddha to give talks on a wise society when the people opened a new assembly hall.

The Buddha called for the redistribution of wealth. “To whoever in the country is poor, then give those people what they need.” (DN iii 61). He said the Great Elect had a single principle (eko dhammo), namely to be watchful (appamado) over all this people. (SN i.88). The King had to ensure that seeds, food, wages, capital should be distributed according to their needs to ensure the administration of justice. (DN iii 27). He called for the support of  “widows and orphans to protect people from the greedy hands of the rich. “

The Buddha told the Kings of the Dharma given to their royal ancestors:” If people come to you to consult what is wholesome and unwholesome, what is blameworthy and what is blameless, you should listen and tell them. That is the duty of a monarch.” The Buddha did not mince his words with powerful rulers and monarchs. He spelt out their responsibilities and duties in his determination to shift society to a wholesome and healthy basis. (DN iii. 62).

The discourses of the Buddha often confirm his vision for radical change to end corruption, greed and violence. Those who committed an offence would lose their primary role whether politicians, Brahmins, army generals or business leaders. The judges would take away their positions of authority and treat abusers of power as a ‘very ordinary human being.’ (M ii 88).

The Buddha encouraged transformation of society rather than detachment from it. He emphasised transformation of the collective, whether conventional society or the sangha rather than endorse a kind of self-help, self-acceptance, self-compassion and dominance to self-interest. This approach is  common in our contemporary society of rampant priority to the self in wealth, health and happiness. He said occasionally that when individuals found themselves oppressed with greed, blame and delusion around them, then they should take refuge in the themselves rather than submit to these oppressive forces.

The Buddha advocated that the wise ones among his nomadic sangha (monks and nuns) give teachings to householders regardless of their status or caste. Born into a royal family, himself, the Buddha had no inhibitions about speaking bluntly to kings and political leaders. He knew intimately their way of life. He reached the age of 29 years before he turned his back on the royal palace and his duties as a prince. In turn, the Kings took notice of him because they knew he was sharp, intelligent, a non-violent revolutionary and a person of royal blood.

The views of the Buddha have the same relevance today since there is little evidence that the inner life of humanity has evolved in the past 2600 years, Desires, greed, blame, violence and wars, civil, regional and global continue today with the regular use of weapons for widespread destruction of people and their habitats. Presidents and Prime Ministers today order the use of bombs, drones,  tanks and powerful weapons that destroy entire communities and heap terrible suffering on men, women and children. There is little sense of change in view or accountability.

Initially, the people in some of the nations of India elected their leader (Maha Sammata) but in the passage of time, the Elected Leader became a King. He identified with an hereditary system to enable his eldest son to take over upon his death regardless of the states of mind of his son.

To curry favour with the kings, the Brahmin priests declared that God created the King and his offspring. This meant that God (Brahma the Creator)  ordained certain individuals to be kings from one generations to the next. Thye claimed Brahma also created the Brahmins in the hierarchical chain to ensure continuity of the religious/social lineage with the caste system keeping everybody in their place. There are parallels to the class system in countries like Britain.

Brahmins also claimed that past lives determined the caste for everybody. Citizens could not move out of their caste. God sat at the top of the hierarchy. The Royal Family, the religious authorities, the rulers of the state and the holders of great wealth followed on in a descending order until the hierarchy goes down to the ranks to the poor, the homeless and the handicapped. Some 2600 years later, there is little in the way of evidence to show a dramatic change in view in various countries.

The Buddha rejected such a configuration of authority and power. He said the noble ones (Ariya) were those who lived deep ethics and  wisdom. Ariyans  understood the Four Truths of suffering, causes, resolution and the way to resolution. The Buddha  took a radically different position to galvanize inner and outer change. Fearless and outspoken, he called upon change at every level of society. He made many friends, while others regarded him as a threat to the established order. His cousin, Devadatta, tried to assassinate the Buddha and break up the ordained Sangha.

Seven Conditions for Society to Prosper

Prince Ajatasattu, the son of the King of Magadha, declared war on the Vajjis, a Republic country. The Buddha stepped in to try to stop the war to protect the Vajjis. He stated that if the Vajjiians upheld seven conditions they would continue to prosper. (DN ii 73).

  1. Met regularly in assemblies to support wise governance.
  2. To carry out undertakings agreed upon
  3. Would not enact something not agreed upon
  4. Would revere and support the wisdom of the elders
  5. Women and girls would be treated with respect
  6. Would honour and support the shrines, ceremonies and services
  7. Support people of profound wisdom

The Buddha regarded these seven conditions as indispensable for the welfare, harmony and social cohesion of society. The Buddha took the approach that the development of a strong civic spirit mattered. The people of India lived in a sophisticated, commercial, deeply religious and spiritually/intellectually developed society. The society held both conservative and liberal values – the wish to conserve the past, especially the religious culture and the wish to develop new ideas, forms and philosophies. Large meetings explored the diversity of views. The Buddha spoke of development (bhavana) for a wise approach to the inner and outer world. Regular assemblies (Sanghas) of local people could agree upon a wise way forward.

There was private ownership of property and land. Property and land could be bought and sold. People in a village had the final word whether to allow a person/family to move to the village or not.  Local communities supported personal ownership but ranked ownership alongside a  responsibility of those who moved in their area to meet with some of the locals. The locals would then decide to welcome the new person or family or turn down their request to move into their area. The meeting of  a prospective tenan/family or property owner.

The Buddha made it clear that people prosper through friendship and kindness with each other and much as through social/economic development. The economy developed because money primarily circulated within the village, town or city or country. In the present era, powerful national and global businesses sell their products in town and cities and promptly remove much of the profit from the local economy.

In terms of the environment, the rainforests, the richness of the soil and easy access to minerals offered a prosperous way of life. The arts, music, dance, paintings, sculpture and aesthetic beauty mattered a great deal to householders who endorse a wide variety of crafts, toolmakers and professions contributed to a love of nature and culture. Tantric practices, the Kama Sutra and erotic art confirmed a lack of sexual repression that developed in the Christian era.

Such a way of life continued until the start of the British occupation of India in the 18th century. The British plundered India. In the space of 200 years, India changed from the most prosperous country on Earth to one of the poorest. Little has changed for India’s poor since Independence in 1947.

The Buddha moved away from the application of any ritual, ceremonies or religious services in his teachings. He made decisive departure from the of religious gatherings and instead placed a priority on the assembly of practitioners to support each other awakening. The challenge of community life meant more than a collective engagement in ritualistic activities such as chanting, prayers, and hymns. He recognised the cycle of the moon through a commitment to offering a discourse on the days four times a month. Instead of religious beliefs, he advocated practices for the full development of the human through every feature of the noble path.

The Buddha also ignored the belief in a holy day, such as the Sabbath or a Sunday. He knew that religious devotees kept the rules of the holy days but would revert on other days to their habitual patterns and unresolved tendencies. The Buddha advocated purification of the mind rather than religious observances.

The Buddha said that harmful actions arose through the failure of the individual, group or nation to end unhealthy motivations. The four motivations, which give rise to suffering for others, are

  • partiality/prejudice
  • negativity
  • foolishness
  • fear.

Partiality includes various expressions of prejudice, such as a jaundiced view through stereotyping of the other that needs to the affliction of harm and pain. (DN vol iii P.182).

Negativity anger, violence express get used to justify the determination to hurt another through body, speech, mind and action. The Buddha warned about various other perils that harm others such as addiction to drugs, alcohol, association with people who endorse suffering,  false rumours, loss of wealth and loss of integrity.

The Significance of Right Action

In his determination to generate spiritual and social change, he shifted away from the priority of the preservation of religious beliefs and from the priority of the yogis sitting in meditation on a daily basis. He made right action one of the key features of his teachings whle showing the way to dissolve action (karma) that brough about problems for oneself or others. He rehected the view of non-action as a means to bring about an end to karma whether so-called positive karma or negative karma.

Right action plays an important part in the teachings of the Buddha but sometimes the place of meditation gets reified so often in the teachings that it leads to neglect of right action. Action serves as a vital step towards the resolution of suffering, inwardly and outwardly. The Buddha commented that there are four kinds of actions.

A person engages in

  • action that is dark and the result is dark.
  • bright and the result is bright.
  • dark but the result is bright.
  • bright but the result is dark.

For example, actions of body, speech and mind:

  • One engages in harmful (dark) actions which brings more suffering ( a dark result)
  • One engages in bright (non-harmful) actions which bring happiness (a bright result)
  • One engages in dark and bright actions which bring the same result
  • One engages in action neither bright nor dark action leading to the destruction of karma.

An illustration of four kinds of action. The first three kinds involve karma. The fourth kind show action without karmic consequences. The Buddha taught the end of karma, not the end of wise action. Here is an example

  • A bright doctor operates and the patient gets better (bright and bright)
  • An incompetent doctor operates and the patient dies (dark and dark)
  • A doctor operates with a mixture of bright and dark; the patient gets a mixed result (dark and bright outcome)
  • A wise doctor operates (acts) with wisdom and compassion. S/he is not identified with a bright or dark outlook. 

In a meeting with Prince Abhayarajakumara, the son of King Bimbisara, the Buddha explained to him that speech needs to be “factual, true and connected with the goal of an enlightened life so that one acts out of compassion for all beings.”

People give themselves up to a deleterious vision around material things. The primary purpose of life manifests as the maximisation of pleasure through the senses but this brings about resistance to the experience of the unwelcome, unwanted impact on the eyes, ears, nose, tongue and touch. The impact of the unwelcome generates stress, agitation and assaults the thinking process. Society fails to see that desire and craving acts like a dart. People suffer to a greater or lesser degree through their action revolving around making money, pursuing pleasure and getting what they want.

The Buddha compared this condition to a virus, an arrow and a knife bringing pain to the inner life, and affecting health as well. The wise realise that clinging to pleasure and pain is the root of anguish. Having understood that, practitioners explore the way for the destruction of clinging. The practitioner does not focus himself on clinging or devote his thought to it. MN 11 252-261. Desire and clinging contribute to grief, lamentation and despair.

He spoke to Pessa, the son of an elephant trainer. He said people torment themselves by dishing out the blame on themselves or torment others or both or neither. (DN 111 188-191).

Do we complain a lot?

De we find fault about a person close to us?

Do we realise that the person will eventually withdraw from us?

Do we only see what is wrong?

Do we take skilful steps to change a situation?

Householders who follow the guidance of the Buddha live a modest way of life, follow a quiet discipline and apply the teachings. The gap between householders and homeless Sangha has been made artificially bigger than the reality. The ordained Sangha may have grasped onto notions of superiority. The Buddha referred to four types of people in the Assembly of Practitioners, men and women who are householders and men and women living a homeless way of life.

The Power of Truth

The Buddha knew that people of any background have the capacity to make real changes within themselves  and to society. People need  a clear explanation of four significant truths

  • suffering, personal and social,
  • various causes for those problems,
  • resolution
  • way to the resolution.

He stated that the noble ones understood these four truth. He did not refer to the Four Noble Truths (as often stated today) but to the Four Truths of the Noble Ones. The distinction is important. There is nothing noble about suffering.

Human beings are prone to dwelling on the first truth at the expense of the other three. Some will touch upon the causes for the suffering but often in a simplistic way.

The noble ones see the resolution and explain the way. All four truths then feature equally in the teachings, practices and communication with others.

Liberation and awakening refers to the ending suffering  due to change within individuals and society.

The Buddha regarded inner and outer change as indispensable to a life of wisdom.

Part Two of Two
Sub-title. the hard core teachings.
76,000 words
Due to be published in April 2017.
Will announce on socia media

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