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Religion Library: Buddhism

Vision for Society

Written by: Julia Hardy

This Buddhist vision for society evolved as the religion expanded; it was not part of the Buddha's original vision under the Bodhi tree. The Buddha had been seeking a path to enlightenment and escape from samsara, and his focus was on sharing his insights with the renunciants who followed him.

As conflicts and problems arose among his followers, the Buddha dealt with them by establishing strict rules of discipline on a case-by-case basis. Strong lay support soon put the Buddha in a position of also having to create social structures beyond his monastic order. As he had with the renunciants, the Buddha established rules of appropriate behavior. He also urged his lay followers to respect and have compassion for all beings.

Alliances with local rulers furthered the Buddhist social order. According to Buddhist texts, at first the Buddhists were seen as a potential threat. They had been given a considerable amount of land, making the organization quite wealthy. To minimize this fear of political rivalry, the Buddha stated that any monk or nun who engaged in any sort of political activity, even as tenuous as carrying messages or running errands for a lay person, would be banished. The threat was further mitigated when two of the most powerful rulers in the area became disciples.

The Buddha did not attempt to gain political control, but he did have ideas about how rulers should govern. He taught that they had an obligation to the people they ruled. He taught that in the ideal society rulers would be fair and obey their own laws, and would freely provide grants to their subjects so that they could set up businesses.

Ashoka, who ruled most of South Asia a few centuries after the Buddha died, put these and other Buddhist ideals into practice in the lives of ordinary people throughout his empire, creating a model for future Buddhist kingdoms. Ashoka took responsibility for the well-being of his subjects. He had trees planted and wells dug to provide places of rest for travelers. He provided medical treatment for them, and even for their animals. He also instructed his officials to be fair and impartial, and sent inspectors to make sure that they were.

Ashoka placed edicts all around his empire and beyond, encouraging his subjects to be respectful and obedient to parents, elders, teachers, and religious leaders, and also to treat friends and servants with respect. He instructed them to cultivate positive moral qualities such as kindness, honesty, and frugality, and to avoid character flaws such as cruelty, arrogance, and laziness. He also advocated religious tolerance. Ashoka was later known as the "Dharma Raja," the king who rules according to the Buddha's teachings.