The Social Dimension of Buddha's Teaching

1 of 5

Qualities of the Dharma
The Four Noble Truths
The Noble Eightfold Path
The True Nature of Existence
  The Five Aggregates of Clinging
  Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta
  Dependent Arising
  Kamma, Nibbana and Rebirth


The Sangha
The Buddhist Sangha



Is renouncing the world the only way?

In the past, Buddhism has often been represented as an exclusively other-worldly religion, a doctrine directed solely to a transcendental goal without any concern for this world other than its abandonment.

Some say the only authentic way to follow the teaching of the Buddha is to renounce the world, become a monk, and retire to a forest in order to practice meditation. In the view of these writers Buddha does not offer any teaching that is of relevance to a person in the world for resolving difficulties of the social, economic and political life.

These views reflect serious misunderstandings. We have stressed in this course that the ultimate aim of the Buddha's teaching underline the transcending of the world. On this point there can be no hedging or compromise, nor is there any need for apologies.

Life in the world is not unrelated to our spiritual quest but can become part of the path which leads to awakening.

Nevertheless, while the Buddha teaches that the transcendence of the world is the ultimate goal, he treats this goal in relation to the totality of human life in all its manifold aspects, as one of the three types of benefits of the Dhamma. For every aspect of human life is connected to the other aspects; no aspect can be treated in isolation from the whole. Life in the world is not unrelated to our spiritual quest but can become part of the path which leads to awakening.

In this lesson we explore some of the ways the Dhamma, in addition to influencing personal well-being, promotes economic andsocial justice and harmonious relations between people.

In the world, overcoming the world

The Dhamma has dimensions of depth and breadth.

  • In its dimension of depth, the Dhamma leads to the overcoming of the world.

  • In its dimension of breadth, it embraces all facets of human existence and shows how all these different sides of human life can be transformed, elevated and ennobled — and finally absorbed into the comprehensive path leading to liberation.

A doctrine for monks & nuns, a doctrine for laymen & laywomen

Well-being: the foundation for spiritual development

Because seeking material or economic welfare alone degrades the potential value of human life, the Buddha teaches that the economic and social stability that come from the application of this teaching should serve as the foundation for higher spiritual development.

But while economic and social benefits are of secondary value, they are nevertheless indispensable for the practice of the path. In order to practice the Dhamma properly a secure material foundation, a peaceful and beneficent government, and a free society are required. Therefore material well-being and the pursuit of the spiritual goal are mutually supportive.

Although Theravada Buddhism is often portrayed as a self-centered doctrine, the Buddha teaches that there are two types of good that we have to take into account — one's own good and the good of others — and that there are four types of people:

  • The person concerned with neither his own good nor the good of others. It is said such a person is like a stick which on one side is burning and on the other side is smeared with fllth.
  • The person concerned with the good of others but not his own good
  • The person who is concerned with his own good but not with the good of others
  • The person who is concerned with both his own good and the good of others. This person is said is like purifed cream of ghee

It is the fourth type of person the Buddha prounces the most excellent.

Householder, just as from a cow milk is begot, from milk curd, from curd butter, from butter ghee, from ghee the cream of ghee and the cream of ghee is the foremost. In the same manner, householder, of these ten enjoying sensuality and evident in the world, the one enjoying sensuality earning money righteously and considerately and with the money enjoying sensuality and sharing it with others doing merit, partaking it, not enslaved not bound not swooned, wisely seeing the danger and the escape from it, is the chief, foremost and the noble.

Reflection preceeds action
Again and again the Buddha teaches that you should always reflect before acting, while acting and after acting on one's own benefit and the benefit of others. These two ends both justify action. Both must be balanced and taken into account.

The Buddha also says that concern for the welfare of others has to be tempered by the recognition that we can only benefit others truly to the extent that we have benefited ourselve, to the extent that we have established ourselves on fimr ground.