The Social Dimension of Buddha's Teaching

3 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



With these theoretical foundations of Buddhist social thought as a basis, we can apply them to different  areas of social concern, to moulding and transforming society.

Codes of conduct

From the Buddhist point of view, society itself is an abstraction, not a reality. Society is a collective whole made up of individuals, and the quality of society reflect the individuals who compose it. If the individuals are corrupt the society will be corrupt and if the individuals are noble society will be noble. Since society merely reflects individuals the Buddha aimed at transforming society by giving individuals new standards  of conduct, new ideals and patterns of behaviour that can elevate and transform their conduct.

There are various codes of conduct taught by the Budda that fulfill this requirement.  These codes were designed originally for individual observence, but when put into practice bring about far-reaching changes in the social order. These include:

The five precepts
The abstinence from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, false speech and intoxicantion. Though they help improve our individual conduct, when they are observed by many people throughout the society  then they purify and elevate the society

The ten courses of wholesome action
Innumerable instances of unwholesome and wholesome kamma can be cited, but the Buddha selects ten of each as primary. These he calls the ten courses of unwholesome and wholesome action. Among the ten in the two sets, three are bodily, four are verbal, and three are mental:

  • Destroying life
  • Taking what is not given
  • Wrong conduct in regard to sense pleasures
  • False speech
  • Slanderous speech -- Verbal action
  • Harsh speech
  • Idle chatter
  • Covetousness
  • Ill will
  • Wrong view

The ten courses of wholesome kamma are the opposites of these: abstaining from the first seven courses of unwholesome kamma, being free from covetousness and ill will, and holding right view. Though the seven cases of abstinence are exercised entirely by the mind and do not necessarily entail overt action, they are still designated wholesome bodily and verbal action because they centre on the control of the faculties of body and speech.


The unit of society upon which the Buddha places the greatest emphasis is the family.

The Buddha deals with family relations  under two major headings: the relations of husband and wife, and the relations of parent  and child.

Husband and wife

Parent  and Child

Monk  & Layman

Turning to society at large, the Buddha sets out basic social relationships in terms of different classes of people, such as between friends, between employer and employee, teacher and pupil and monk and layman.

The Buddha places special emphasis on the relationship between the Buddhist monk and householder. The bhikku or the Buddhist monk is not an intermediary between the laity and a higher spiritual  being such as a god or a deity. The monk is a person who  has left the household life to practice the teaching of  the Buddha and to help to sustain the teaching, to keep  it alive in the world.

The Buddha teaches that these two have to co-operate to preserve and to propagate the Dhamma, to make the liberating truth available in the world. For this, each has a set of obligations to the other.

The monks and lay people should, the Buddha says, help and assist each other, so that both will be able to cross the floods of Samsara and reach the far shore of  Nibbana.