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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 level.

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.[1] 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.[2] 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 present time.

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.[3]

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 internal reflection

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,[4] 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,[5] 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 important factor.

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 equanimity.

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 States.

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 behind it.

Here are some of the Buddha's words on kamma on the social level:

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'[7]

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].



[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] In this context it is notable that religious wars have never been fought in the name of Buddhism, probably for the reasons given above.

[4] 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.

[5] 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.

[6] 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.

[7] Mahasammata, lit., the Great Elect.


Thanking Phramaha Somnuek Sakscree for his retyping this article.


Updated: 3-5-2000

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