Ethics and Community

Vision for Society

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.

As Buddhism spread and expanded, many Asian rulers welcomed the Buddhist organizations because they encouraged people to maintain strict moral principles, and some followed Ashoka's model as rulers. Ideally, the people benefited from a greater concern shown to them by rulers who considered their needs. They also received spiritual guidance and practical benefits. Rulers received the advantage of a well-behaved populace, and the monasteries received financial support and official recognition.

This was the ideal, and, as is often the case, the reality usually fell short of the ideal. Sometimes rulers disregarded the needs of the people. Sometimes the monasteries became wealthy and corrupt. Sometimes there were monks or lay people who mistreated and exploited others. Many times, however, rulers, monks, and communities benefited from supporting and cooperating with one another.

The specifics of Buddhist social organization changed with time and place, but the central idea of social harmony and cooperation between all levels of society remained a focal point of the religion as Buddhism moved from country to country. The goal was to unite the entire cosmos and all beings within it — whether god or human, animal or plant, living or dead — into one harmonious whole.

Study Questions:
1.      Why where Buddhist social structures first created?
2.     What did the Buddha's teachings offer to politicians? Why were the teachings beneficial to them, as well as their constituents?
3.     What was Buddhism's goal as it expanded?

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