- Kamma on the Social Level
- Bhikkhu P.A. Payutto
1. Kamma moves outwards
In practical terms it can be said that the human world is
the world of intentional action. Human beings have a very sophisticated level of
intention, which, in conjunction with their thought processes, allows them to achieve
things which would be impossible for other animals. Although the lower animals, too,
possess intention, it is limited to a nominal degree, being largely on the instinctual
Human thinking is guided by intention. Intention is what
fashions the thinking process and, through that, external conditions. Our way of life,
whether on the individual level or on the level of societies, both small and large, is
directed by intention and the thinking process. It would not be wrong to say that
intention, being the essence of kamma, is what decides our fate as human beings.
Now let us look at an example of how intention affects
society. Intention on the negative side is that which is influenced by defilements. There
are many kinds of defilements. When these defilements enter into our minds they colour the
way we think. Here I will mention three kinds of defilements which play an important role
in directing human behaviour. They are:
a. Ta"nhaa: craving for personal gain.
b. Maana: desire to dominate.
c. Di.t.thi: clinging to views.
Normally when talking of defilements we tend to summarize
them as greed, hatred and delusion, the roots of akusala. Greed, hatred and
delusion are more or less defilements on the roots level. Ta"nhaa,maana and
di.t.thi are the active forms of defilements, or the roles they play in human
undertakings. They are the form defilements most often take on the social level.
The way these three defilements direct human activities
can be seen even more clearly on the social scale than on the individual level. When
people's minds are ruled by the selfish desire for personal gain, aspiring to pleasures of
the senses, their actions in society result in contention, deceit and exploitation. The
laws and conventions formulated by society to control human behaviour are almost entirely
necessitated by these things. And in spite of all efforts these problems seem to be almost
impossible to solve.
A simple example is the drug problem. People have a
tendency to be drawn towards addictive things, and there are a great number of people who
are trapped in this problem. And why is it so hard to deal with? Primarily, because of the
drug peddlers. Their desire for the profit to be gained
from the drug trade gives rise to the whole industry, and thus to the corruption, the
gangs and so on. The industry has become so extensive and complex that any efforts to
rectify the situation, including efforts to broadcast the dangers of drug abuse, are
rendered ineffective. This problem of drug abuse, which is a problem on the social and
national scale, arises from ta"nhaa.
Pollution is another case in point. When the
indiscriminate dumping of chemicals and waste products presents a danger to the
environment and public health, the government must create laws for the control of
factories and waste disposal. But those running the industries are not inclined to give up
their profits so easily. They find ways to evade or blatantly break the laws - in
which case we find examples of government officials operating through selfishness. With
minds dominated by greed and guided by selfishness, instead of carrying out the task
expected of them, they take bribes. The law breakers go on unchecked, as does the
pollution, causing strife for the whole of society. Both the presence of pollution, and
the difficulty encountered in preventing and controlling it, arise from craving.
Corruption is another social problem which seems
impossible to eradicate. This condition fans outwards to cause countless other problems in
society, which are all in the end caused by craving. It is impossible to list all the
problems caused by ta"nhaa.
Ta"nhaa also works in conjunction with maana, the
craving for power and influence. From ancient times countries have fought and killed each
other through this desire for power; sometimes at the instigation of one individual,
sometimes through a faction, and sometimes collectively as whole countries. Coupled with
the craving for personal gain, the craving for power gives rise to the exploitation,
nationalism and expansionism in the world with all its subsequent chaos. You could say
that the world turns almost entirely at the instigation of ta"nhaa, craving,
and maana, pride. Human history is largely the story of these defilements.
2. The importance of di.t.thi in
the creation of kamma
However, if we look more deeply into the processes taking
place, we will see that the defilement which exerts the most influence is the third one di.t.thi.
Di.t.thi is view or belief, the attachment to a certain way of thinking. The type of
personal gain or power and influence aspired to are decided by ways of thinking. When
there is the view that a certain condition is desirable and will provide true happiness,
craving for personal gain is biased toward that end. Craving and pride generally play a
supporting role to one di.t.thi. Di.t.thi is therefore the most important and
powerful of these three defilements.
The direction of society is decided by di.t.thi. A sense
of value of any given thing, either on an individual or social basis, is dit.t.hi. With
this dit.t.hi as a basis, there follow the attempts to realise the object of
desire. People's behaviour will be influenced accordingly. For example, with the belief
that happiness is to be found in the abundance of material goods, our actions and
undertakings will tend to this end. This is a wrong view, thus the undertakings resulting
from it will also be wrong. All attempts at so-called progress will be misguided and
problem-ridden. Material progress thus brings problems in its wake. It is founded on two
basically wrong and harmful views: 1. That humanity must conquer nature in order to
achieve well-being and find true happiness; 2. That happiness is dependent on material
wealth. These two views are the directors of the modern surge for progress.
Looking deeply into the kind of civilization which is
exerting its influence over the entire world today, we can see that it is founded on the
basic premise that mankind is separate from nature. Mankind was created to have dominion
over nature, free to exercise his will to manipulate nature as he desired. In the present
time it is becoming obvious that many of the problems arising from material progress,
particularly the environmental ones, are rooted in this basic misconception.
Guided by wrong view, everything else goes wrong. With
right view, actions are guided in the right direction. Thus, a desire for personal gain
can be beneficial. But with wrong view or wrong belief all actions become harmful. On the
individual level, this expresses itself in the belief in the desirability of certain
conditions and the efforts to obtain them. Such action has di.t.thi as its
foundation. On the social level, we find the attitudes adhered to by whole societies. When
there is a conviction in the desirability of any given thing, society praises and exalts
it. This collective praise becomes a social value, a quality adhered to by society as a
whole, which in turn pressures the members of the society to perpetuate such beliefs or
preferences. It is easy to see the influence social values have on people. Sociologists
and psychologists are very familiar with the role played by social values and the effect
they have. From social values, beliefs extend outwards to become belief systems,
ideologies, political and economic systems, such as capitalism, communism and so on, and
religions. When theories, beliefs and political ideologies are blindly adhered to they are
products of the defilement of dit.t.hi.
From one person these ideas fan out to become properties
of whole groups and societies. One individual with wrong view can effect a whole society.
A case in point is the country of Cambodia. One leader, guided by wrong view, desiring to
change the social system of Cambodia, proceeded to try to realize his aim by authorizing
the killing of millions of people and turning the whole country upside down. Another example is the Nazis, who believed that the Jewish race
was evil and had to be destroyed, and that the Aryan race were to be the masters of the
world. From this belief arose all the atrocities which occurred during the Holocaust in
World War II.
Then there are economic systems and ideologies, such as
Communism and Consumerism: many of the changes that have taken place in the world over the
last century have been based on belief in these ideologies. And now it seems that it was
all somehow some kind of mistake! Eventually we have to turn around and undo the changes,
which is another momentous upheaval for the population, as can be seen in Russia at the
One of the ways in which dit.t.hi causes problems
on a social level is in the field of religion. When there is clinging to any view, human
beings resort to exploitation and violence in the name of religion. Wars fought in the
name of religion are particularly violent. This kind of clinging has thus been a great
danger to mankind throughout history. The Buddha recognized the importance of dit.t.hi
and greatly emphasised it in his teaching. Even belief in religion is a form of dit.t.hi
which must be treated with caution in order to prevent it from becoming a blind
attachment. Otherwise it can become a cause of persecution and violence. This is why the
Buddha stressed the importance of dit.t.hi, and urged circumspection in relation to it, as
opposed to blind attachment.
On the negative side, intention works through the various
defilements, such as those mentioned just now. On the positive side we have the opposite
kind of influences. When people's minds are guided by good qualities, the resulting events
within society will take on a different direction. And so we have the attempts to rectify
the problems in society and create good influences. Human society for this reason does not
become completely destroyed. Sometimes human beings act through mettaa, kindness,
and karu.naa, compassion, giving rise to relief movements and human aid
organizations. As soon as kindness enters into human awareness, human beings will
undertake all sorts of works for the purpose of helping others.
International incidents, as well as relief movements, are
motivated by intention, fashioned by either skilful or unskilful qualities, proceeding
from mental kamma into verbal and bodily kamma. These institutions or
organizations then proceed to either create or solve problems on the individual level, the
group level, the social level, the national level, the international level and ultimately
the global level.
The importance of dit.t.hi, whether as a personal
view, a social value or an ideology, cannot be over-emphasised. The reader is invited to
consider, for example, the results on society and the quality of life if even one social
value, that of materialism, were to change into an appreciation of skilful action and
inner well-being as the foundations for true happiness.
3. External influences and
When people live together in any kind of group it is
natural that they will influence each other. People are largely influenced by their
environment. In Buddhism we call this paratoghosa - literally, the sound from
outside, meaning the influence of external factors. Paratoghosa
refers to external influences, or the social environment. These can be either harmful
or beneficial. On the beneficial side, we have the kalyaa.namitta, the good friend. The good friend is one kind of external
influence. The Buddha greatly stressed the importance of a kalyaa.namitta, even
going so far as to say that association with a kalaa.namitta was the whole of the
holy life (brahmacariya).
Most people are primarily influenced by paratoghosa of one
kind or another. On the individual level this refers to contact with others, the influence
of which is obvious. Young children, for example, are readily influenced and guided
by adults. On the larger scale, beliefs, social Values, and the consensus of the majority
serve the same function. People born into society are automatically exposed to and guided
by these influences.
In general we can see that most people simply follow the
influences from the social environment around them. An example is India in the time of the
Buddha. At that time the Brahmanist religion completely controlled the social system,
dividing the whole of society into four castes - the ruling caste, the intellectual or
religious caste (the Brahmins), the merchant caste and the menial caste. This was the status
quo for society at that time. Most people born into that society would naturally
absorb and unquestioningly accept this state of affairs from the society around them.
But occasionally there arise those who dare to think for
themselves. These are the ones who will initiate action to correct the problems in society
by understanding how they come about. This is called the arising of yoniso-manasikaara,
skilful reflection, which sees the mistaken practices adopted by society and looks for
ways to improve them, as did the Buddha in ancient India,
seeing the fault of the caste system. The Buddha pointed out that a person's real
worth cannot be decided by his birth station, but by his actions, good or evil as the case
may be. From the Buddha's skilful reflection, yoniso-manasikaara, a new teaching
arose, which became the religion of Buddhism.
Without skilful reflection humanity would be utterly
swamped by the influence of external factors (paratoghosa) such as religious
beliefs, traditions and social values. We can see how traditions and customs mould human
attitudes. Most people are completely swayed by these things, and this is the kamma that
they accumulate. We could even say that traditions and customs are social kamma that
has been accumulated through the ages, and these things in turn mould the beliefs and
thoughts of the people within that society. These things are all social kamma.
Every once in a while there will be one who, gauging the
social conventions and institutions of the time with yonisornanasikjira, will instigate
efforts to correct mistaken or detrimental beliefs and traditions. These means for dealing
with problems will become new systems of thought, new social values and ways of life,
which in turn become social currents with their own impetus. In fact these social currents
are originated by individuals, and from there the masses follow. Thus we can say that
society leads the individual, but at the same time, the individual is the originator of
social values and conventions. Thus, in the final analysis, the individual is the
4. Personal responsibility in
relation to social kamma
How does a socially accepted view become personal kamma?
Personal kamma here arises at the point where the individual agrees to the
values presented by society. Take, for example, the case of an autocrat who conceives a
craving for power under the influence of maana. This is a condition arising within
one person, but it spreads out to affect a whole society. In this case, what kamma does
the society incur? Here, when the king or despot's advisers agree to and support his
wishes, and when the people allow themselves to be caught up in the lust for greatness,
this becomes kamma for those people also, and thus becomes kamma on a social
scale. It may seem that this chain of events has arisen solely on account of one person,
but this is not so. All are involved and all are kammically responsible, to a greater or
lesser extent, depending on the extent of their personal involvement and their support.
The views and desires conceived by the despot become adopted by the people around him.
There is a conscious endorsement of that desire by the people. The craving for Power and
greatness thus spreads throughout the population and increases in intensity.
This agreement, or endorsement, of social values, is an
intentional act on the level of each individual, which for most is done without skilful
reflection. For instance, the concept of "progress" so often spoken about in the
present time is one based on certain assumptions. But most people do not enquire into the
basic assumptions on which this concept is based. Thus the concept of "progress"
goes unchallenged. This lack of reflection is also a kind of kamma, as it leads to
the submission to the social value concerned. Here in Thailand, we are accepting the
social values introduced to us by the West. This has a marked influence on Thai society.
Being exposed to this form of belief, the Thai people think that the material progress
from the West is a good thing. Adopting this way of thinking, their whole way of life is
affected, leading to a rejection of religion and a decline in morals.
It is not difficult to see the lack of reflection present
in most people in society. Even to understand the workings of things on an elementary
level, such as in seeing the cause and effect involved in personal actions, is beyond
normal understanding. Most people follow the crowd. This is the way society usually
operates, and this is social kamma.
All in all, contrary to the widespread image of Buddhism
as a passive religion encouraging inaction, responsible social action is rather encouraged
in the Buddha's teaching. There are numerous teachings given on factors encouraging social
concord, such as the four sa"ngaha vatthu, the Foundations for Social Unity: daana,
generosity: piyavaacaa, kindly speech; atthacariyaa, helpful action; and
samaanattataa, impartiality or equal participation.
However, in Buddhism, all action should ideally arise from
skilful mental qualities. A seemingly well-intentioned action can be ruined by the
influence of unskilful mental states, such as anger or fear, or it can be tainted through
ulterior motives. On the other hand, simply to cultivate skilful mental states without
resultant social action is not very productive. So we can look at virtue on two levels: on
the mental level we have, for example, the Four Sublime States (Brahmavihaara).
These are the bases of altruistic action, or, at the least, of harmonious relations on a
social level. On the second level we have the external manifestations of these skilful
qualities, such as in the four sa"ngaha vatthu, the Foundations of Unity.
These two levels of virtue are interrelated.
The Four Sublime States are mettaa, goodwill,
friendliness; karu.naa, compassion, the desire to help other beings; muditaa, sympathetic
joy, gladness at the good fortune of others; and upekkhaa, impartiality or
Mettaa, goodwill, is a mental stance assumed
towards those who are in the normal condition, or on an equal plane with ourselves; karu.naa,
compassion, is a proper mental attitude toward those who are in distress; muditaa,
sympathetic joy, is the attitude toward those who are experiencing success; upekkhaa,
equanimity or impartiality, is even-mindedness toward the various situations in which
we find ourselves.
Now these four qualities, when looked at in practical
terms, can be seen to manifest as the Four Foundations of Social Unity. Daana, giving
or generosity, is more or less a basic stance towards others in society, an attitude of
generosity, which can be based on mettaa, giving through goodwill; karu.naa, giving
through compassion; or muditaa, giving as an act of encouragement . Although this
giving usually refers to material things, it can also be the giving of knowledge, labour
and so on.
The second foundation of unity is piyavaacaa, kindly
speech, which is usually based on the first three Sublime States. Friendly speech, based
on mettaa, as a basic attitude in everyday situations; kindly speech, based on karu.naa,
in times of difficulty, as with words of advice or condolence; and congratulatory
speech, based on muditaa, as in words of encouragement in times of happiness and
success. However, when confronted with problems in social situations, piyavaacaa can
be expressed as impartial and just speech, based on upekkhaa.
The third factor is atthacariyaa, useful conduct,
which refers to the volunteering of physical effort to help others. In the first factor,
generosity, we had the giving of material goods. In the second factor, kindly speech, we
have the offering of gentle speech. With this third item we have the offering of physical
effort in the form of helpful conduct. This help can be on ordinary occasions, such as
offering help in a situation where the recipient is not in any particular difficulty. Help
in this instance is more or less a 'friendly gesture,' thus is based on mettaa, goodwill.
Help can be offered in times of difficulty, in which case it is help based on karu.naa,
compassion. Help can be offered as an encouragement in times of success, in which case
it is based on muditaa, sympathetic joy or gladness at the good fortune of others.
Thus, atthacariyaa, helpful conduct, may be based on any of these three Sublime
Finally we have samaanattataa, literally, 'making
oneself accessible or equal.' This is a difficult word to translate. It means to share
with other people's pleasures and pains, to harmonize with them, to be one with them. It
refers to sharing, co-operation and impartiality. We could say that it means to be humble,
such as when helping others in their undertakings even if it is not one's duty, or to be
fair, such as when arbitrating in a dispute.
In regards to Buddhism, therefore, while social action is
encouraged, it should always stem from skilful mental states rather than idealist
impulses. Any social action, no matter how seemingly worthwhile, will be ruined if it
becomes tainted with unskilful intentions. For this reason, all action, whether individual
or socially oriented, should be done carefully, with an awareness of the real intention
Here are some of the Buddha's words on kamma on the
At that time, the leaders among those beings came
together. Having met, they conferred among themselves thus: 'Sirs! Bad doings have arisen
among us, theft has come to be, slander has come to be, lies have come to be, the taking
up of the staff has come to be. Enough! Let us choose one among us to admonish rightly
those who should be admonished, to rebuke rightly those who should be rebuked, to banish
rightly those who should be banished, and we will apportion some of our wheat to him.'
With that, those beings proceeded to approach one being of fine attributes, more
admirable, more inspiring and more awesome than any of the others, and said to him, 'Come,
Sir, may you rightly admonish those who should be admonished, rightly rebuke those who
should be rebuked, and rightly banish those who should be banished. We in turn, will
apportion some of our wheat to you.' Acknowledging the words of those other beings, he
became their leader ... and there came to be the word 'king'
In this way, bhikkhus, when the ruler of a
country fails to apportion wealth to those in need, poverty becomes prevalent. Poverty
being prevalent, theft becomes prevalent. Theft being prevalent, weapons become prevalent.
When weapons become prevalent, killing and maiming become prevalent, lying becomes
prevalent ... slander ... sexual infidelity ... abuse and frivolity ... covetousness and
jealousy ... wrong view becomes prevalent." [D. I. 70].
 Those who are involved in the industry often try to justify
themselves with the rationalisation that they are merely satisfying a demand, but Buddhism
teaches awareness of Wrong livelihood, the trade in things which will cause harm to other
beings. This includes animals (for slaughter), slaves (which could include prostitutes),
weapons and drugs and alcohol. From the Buddhist perspective, the trader is not immune
from blame for the damage caused by these things.
 Of course, that Pol Pot possessed such views was also largely due
to external influences. Thus, external influences and individual action are intricately
enmeshed. The kamma created in this instance would have been his conscious endorsement and
wholehearted support of these views.
 In this context it is notable that religious wars have never been
fought in the name of Buddhism, probably for the reasons given above.
 The'good friend'here is one who will guide one to betterment, who
can teach the Dhamma, rather than a friend as the term is normally understood.
 Yoniso-manasikaara must be naturally founded on internal
reflection. Thus it is not simply an intellectual consideration of social problems, but
must be incorporated into the entire stream of Dhamma practice.
 The so-called 'silent majority' is thus not free of ethical
responsibility. Such a silence, if accompanied by the resignation and acquiescence it
usually generates, is in itself a condonement of social values and events, conditioned by
the extent of apathy or lack of reflection involved.
 Mahasammata, lit., the Great Elect.
Thanking Phramaha Somnuek
Sakscree for his retyping this article.