A Journey Into Buddhism – Part 8 Buddhism and Social Justice

by Elizabeth J. Harris

Part 8 – Buddhism and Social Justice

Among such humans, brethren, there will arise a sword period of seven days during which they will look on each other as wild beasts; sharp swords will appear ready to their hands, and they thinking, “This is a wild beast,” will with their swords deprive each other of life.

These words from the Pali Canon come towards the end of the Cakkavatti Sihanada Sutta of the Digha Nikaya. Here the Buddha describes the process whereby a society slides into a state of absolute anarchy and violence, reaching the point where all respect for the preciousness of human life is lost and humans kill each other without guilt or remorse. Stealing appears first, then murder; false speech and sexual promiscuity follow. Religion is undermined; respect for elders disintegrates; human life loses its worth. It is a horrifying picture of growing bestiality that is as relevant today as it was when first spoken.

When I first met Buddhism, an important question for me was what Buddhism had to say about the problems of violence and injustice, problems which affect every nation. The classic formula at the heart of Buddhism is that it is tanha, craving, which lies at the root of the world’s misery. Often this is seen in a very individualistic way. The Buddhist path is held up as an escape route from suffering through withdrawal from society and through mental culture. I do not downplay this emphasis. The importance of mind-training was central to the Buddha’s teaching. It holds the key to the liberating insight that can transform human life. Yet I have found that individual psychological factors are not the only ones emphasized in the Buddhist texts. The texts do give pictures for anyone concerned with justice and harmony within the body of society.

In the text I started with, the chain of causality which results in bestiality goes back to the State, the king, who forgets one of the duties ascribed to a just ruler in Buddhism. It is this: “And whosoever in thy kingdom is poor, to him let wealth be given.” By overlooking this, the king denied the poor a living, and from this — a refusal to create economic justice — flows stealing, murder, lying, immorality, and bestiality. What I find interesting is that the accusing finger is pointed at the structures of power and not at evil qualities in the ordinary people. And the message is: violence and social breakdown are inevitable if people are denied the means to live with dignity. To use a Christian term, the poor in the myth are “sinned against” by their ruler. They are victims of structural injustice and their urge to survive corrupts the whole fabric of society.

The story within the Cakkavatti Sihanada Sutta, however, does not end with the sword period. When the depths of brutality have been reached, there are some who see the enormity of their fall from humane values. They go into retreat — into caves, jungle dens, and caverned tree trunks — and emerge to embrace one another and to restore harmony through the recovery of moral sense. A deterioration from the state downwards is transformed into a regeneration from the bottom upwards, through the will and discernment of the people themselves.

The message of this sutta challenges all those who see religion purely in individualistic terms. It demonstrates Buddhism’s very real concern for social justice and also the stress it places on analyzing the root causes of disharmony and violence. It presents society as a net of interacting, interdependent beings who are helped or hindered from living wholesome lives by the forces which flow from the state or world structures. In Sri Lanka, I have met groups seeking to find elements in Buddhism relevant to social issues. This mythological story is one of them. It can be a resource to all of us. It urges us to look at the society in which we live critically and to ask, “Is there a deterioration of human values?” If so, we must ask further, “Does our society create the conditions in which each person can live with dignity?” If it does not, then Buddhism encourages not only a path of individual mental culture but also the kind of social involvement which recognizes the ability of ordinary people to change their situation and which seeks to struggle for a more just world where none is denied resources to live.

Copyright 1994 Elizabeth J. Harris / enabling.com

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