By Chan Master Sheng Yen
Buddhism Emphasizes Concern for Society
Religion is a social phenomenon and Buddhism is no exception. Although it has been over 2,500 years since the passing of the Buddha, Buddhism still has an extremely important mission in human society. One may even say that the world today and in the future will need the wisdom and methods of Buddhism more and more to help solve the social problems of humanity. From the perspective of the Buddhist scriptures, we may discern several strands of social thought and concern that make clear the relevance of Buddhism to the 21st century.
Modern society must be established on the foundation of equal human rights. In ancient India, society was comprised of four social castes, in which equality was not accepted. In spite of this, the Buddha was already advocating equality of the castes. For instance, in one of his sermons, the Buddha engages King Prasenajit on the problem of caste, with the King concluding that the castes should indeed be equal. In the Samyuktagama Scripture, a verse says, "Do not ask of someone's birth but of his actions. Fire may be produced by the friction of boring wood. A sage with steadfast character may be produced from among the low castes." Thus, the Buddha taught that a system that divides society into unequal classes is not reasonable. From the point of view of social evolution, this was a revolutionary human rights movement and still acutely relevant today.
Separation of church and state is an inevitable trend of the new era. If not, the linkage between the political system and religious organizations may lead political figures to manipulate the believing masses and give rise to a crisis of corruption and secularization for religious communities. Moreover, politicians will often, for their own interests, incite the religious masses to launch a religious war. For reasons like this, orthodox Buddhists should never be drawn into the whirlpool of politics.
In one of the scriptures there is a rule that monks not become close to kings lest there occur problems, disadvantageous to the monk and harmful to the Buddhist community. In another scripture the Buddha says to the monks, "do not praise or disparage a king's governance of his realm, and do not discuss which king is superior or inferior." This is because Buddhism is borderless, nonpartisan, and disapproves of involvement in political conflict. It is not that Buddhism does not care whether a country is governed well or poorly. Basically, these teachings exhort diligent governance, love of the people, and discussion of national affairs with a mind of harmony with political leaders. Further, they exhort solidarity of the people, peaceful interaction between those of high and low status, respect for the opinions of the elderly, observance of etiquette or established customs, upright implementation of the law, reverence for religion, and respectful making of offerings.
So we should employ religion to bless the nation and people and to settle people's minds; we should employ politics to govern the country, to protect the people, and to uphold religion. Buddhist monastics in any nation are patriotic; they care about politics, but do not seek to manipulate it. As to lay Buddhists, they not only care about politics but should also participate. They must not, however, use the religious community as a political tool.
Cultural diversity and religious tolerance are inevitable trends of the new civilization. Part of the founding spirit of America is the people's freedom of religion, which guarantees religious tolerance and diversity. Actually, the Buddha, in his time, already frequently admonished his disciples to respectfully make offerings equally to ascetic renunciants as well as to brahmins of all religions. That is to say, everyone should have religious faith, and serve and make offerings to religious teachers and practitioners, but needn't necessarily believe in Buddhism.
Buddhism holds that every religion should receive protection and respect as long as they do not contradict the virtuous teachings of the human vehicle (ordinary morality) and heavenly vehicle (virtuous deeds meriting reward). Although Buddhism holds the virtuous teachings of the human and heavenly vehicles to be fundamental, it does not hold them to be ultimate. Above them, there is still the path of liberation from birth and death, the bodhisattva path of awakening oneself and others, and the unexcelled enlightenment of buddhahood. Buddhism supports "seeking common ground while preserving differences," so it is able to accept other cultures and even use their good points to spread Buddhism.