The Social Dimension of Buddha's Teaching

2 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



Foundations of Buddhist social thought

In order to understand the social applications of Dhamma, we should examine how they are directly grounded in the theoretical foundations of Buddhist social thought.

The concept of Dhamma

The word Dhamma means "that which sustains, that which upholds."  In its broadest sense it signifies the cosmic law which supports all phenomena, the law of dependent origination, the Four Noble Truths, the three characteristics of existence, etc. The concept of Dhamma also has an ethical dimension; it is the law of righteousness, the principle of virtue or moral  truth. Dhamma here is the moral law which protects  us, which upholds and safeguards us from spiritual  degeneration and from a fall into lower states of  existence. So the word Dhamma combines  these two ideas — the law of reality and virtue. Later we will see the particular applications of the concept of Dhamma to different types of human relationship. 

The  Four Noble Truths

We return again to the Four Noble Truths, which are a foundation for Buddhist social thought, particularly the second noble truth that craving becomes the source of suffering and misery in our social existence.

The Buddha says:

All of this, the Buddha says,comes about from craving for sense enjoyments. Alas in the modern world their is ample testimony of this.

Dependent arising

If craving is eliminated, all of these will be eliminated. For all the social problems come from the basic cause of craving.


Buddhism teaches that the idea of self is the root of suffering, for it lies at the base of all our selfish emotions and  defilements. To get free from the social  turmoil that comes from the defilements we have to uproot this sense of selfhood by beginning to act in ways which  contribute to diminishing the grip of the self idea. 

Ultimately the eradication of self comes through the wisdom that arises from meditation, but meditation cannot be sealed off in a compartment of its own separate from the rest of human life.

The four sublime states (the Brahma-Viharas)

These are four ethical attitudes, developed in meditation, can come to expression in concrete action in the social  economic and political spheres. These qualities are to be extended immeasurably to al beings, and so they are referre to as "the immeasurables."

Loving  kindness — metta
The wish for the welfare and happiness of others. As an ethical attitude and as a meditative state, it is to be developed to an immeasurable extent until it embraces all living beings.

Compassion — karuna
The feeling of empathy with others, the quality that makes the heart tremble with the suffering of others. This qualtity makes us identify with others and feel their suffering as our own. Compassion arouses the desire to alleviate the suffering of others; to take away the causes of misery.

Sympathetic  joy — mudita
Rejoicing in the happiness and good fortune of others. This quality tends to removes envy and jealousy .

Equanimity — upekkha
An attitude of impartial neutrality, non-discrimination between agreeable  and disagreeable situations and persons. We tend to favor those we like and to dislike those we think threaten us. With upekkha we cultivate a mind that doesn’t discimiate, which looks with equal friendliness on everyone.

These four ethical atttitudes are first developed in meditation but then can reach expression in concrete action in the social, economic and political spheres.

Ashoka offers a course on the brahma-viharas, taught by Sharon Salzberg, guiding teacher of Insight Meditation Society. You can enroll for this course at the Ashoka course catalog.