- Kamma on the Social Level
- Bhikkhu P. A. Payutto
The human world is the world of intentional action. Human beings have very
sophisticated levels of intention, which, in conjunction with their thought processes,
allow 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.
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 directs the unfolding of our human lives.
Now let us look at some examples 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 color the way we
think. Here I will mention three kinds of defilements, which play an important role in
directing human behavior. They are:
1. Tanha -- craving for personal gain.
2. Mana -- pride, desire to dominate.
3. Ditthi -- 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. Tanha, mana and ditthi, or craving, pride and views,
are the active forms of defilements, the roles they play in human undertakings and the
form they most often take on the social level.
The way these three defilements affect 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 behavior 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
attracted to 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 the corruption and violence it breeds. 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 tanha.
Pollution is another case in point. Since 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 circumvent the laws, and so we find examples of government officials operating through
selfishness. With minds dominated by greed, 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 tanha.
Tanha also works in conjunction with mana, the craving for power and
influence. From ancient times, people have gone to war 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 exploitation, nationalism and expansionism with all their
subsequent chaos. You could say that the world turns almost entirely at the direction of
tanha, craving, and mana, pride. Human history is largely the story of these defilements.
The importance of ditthi 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 -- ditthi. Ditthi is view or
belief, the attachment to a certain way of thinking. Our attitudes and ways of thinking
will decide the type of personal gain and influence that we aspire to. When there is the
view that a certain condition is desirable and will provide true happiness, craving for
personal gain is directed toward that end. Craving and pride generally play a supporting
role to ditthi. Ditthi is therefore the most important and powerful of these three
Social directions are decided by ditthi. A sense of value of any
given thing, either on an individual or social basis, is ditthi. With this ditthi as a
basis, there are efforts to realize the object of desire. People's behavior will be
influenced accordingly. For example, with the belief that happiness is to be found in an
abundance of material goods, our actions and undertakings will tend to this end. This is a
wrong view, thus any undertakings resulting from it will also be wrong. All attempts at
so-called progress will be misguided and problematic. Material progress always brings
problems in its wake, because 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 main forces behind the modern surge for progress.
The kind of civilization which is exerting its influence over the
entire world today is founded on the basic premise that mankind is separate from nature.
According to this view, Mankind is nature's owner, free to manipulate nature according to
his will. In the present time we are beginning to see that many of the problems arising
from material progress, particularly the environmental ones, are rooted in this basic
Guided by wrong view, everything else goes wrong. With right view,
actions are guided in the right direction. Thus, desires for personal gain can be
beneficial if they are founded on right view, but with wrong view or wrong belief, all
resultant actions become harmful. On the individual level, views express themselves as
beliefs in the desirability of certain conditions, which in turn lead to efforts to
effectuate them. On the social level, we find attitudes adhered to by whole societies.
When there is a conviction in the desirability of any given thing, society supports it.
This collective support 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
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 on our minds. From social values, ditthi extends 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 always products of the defilement of ditthi.
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 these ideologies. And now it seems that it was all somehow some
kind of mistake, we have to turn around and undo the changes. And this causes another
momentous upheaval for the population, as can be seen in Russia and the former Soviet
One of the ways in which ditthi causes problems on a social level is
in the field of religion. When religious ideologies are blindly clung to, 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 been a great bane to mankind
throughout history. The Buddha recognized the importance of ditthi and greatly emphasized
it in his teaching. Even belief in religion is a form of ditthi, which must be treated
with great 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 ditthi, and urged circumspection in relation to it, as opposed to blind
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 positive values, the resulting
events within society will take a different direction. And so we have the occasional
attempts to rectify social problems and create constructive influences and human society
does not completely annihilate itself. Sometimes human beings act through kindness and
compassion, giving rise to relief movements and human aid organizations. As soon as
kindness enters into human awareness, people will undertake all sorts of works for the
purpose of helping others.
International incidents, as well as relief movements, are results of
intention, fashioned by either skillful or unskillful 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 ditthi, whether as a personal view, a social value
or an ideology, cannot be overemphasized. 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 skillful action and inner well-being
as the foundations for true happiness.
External influences and
When people live together in any kind of group, they naturally influence each other.
People are largely influenced by their environment. In Buddhism we call this paratoghosa
-- literally, "the sound from outside," referring to the influence of external
factors, or the social environment. These can be either harmful or beneficial. On the
beneficial side, we have the kalyanamitta, the good friend. The good friend is
one kind of external influence. The Buddha greatly stressed the importance of a good
friend, even going so far as to say that association with good friends was the essence of
the Holy Life.
Most people are primarily influenced by external influences of one
kind or another. On the individual level, external influences are our 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 purpose. 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 Brahmanism 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 situation from the society around them.
But occasionally there arise people who know how to think for
themselves. These beings possess insight into society's problems and how they came about,
and will initiate action to correct those problems. This involves the use of yoniso-manasikara,
skillful reflection, which is the ability to recognize the mistaken practices within
society and look for ways to improve them, as did the Buddha with the caste system in
ancient India. The Buddha pointed out that real worth cannot be decided by a person's
birth station, but by actions, good or evil as the case may be. From the Buddha's skillful
reflection a new teaching arose, which became known as Buddhism.
Without skillful reflection, human beings are utterly swamped by the
influence of external factors, such as religious beliefs, traditions and social values. It
is easy to 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
Every once in a while there will be one who, gauging the social
conventions and institutions of the time with reasoned reflection, 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, 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
Personal responsibility and social
How does a socially accepted view become personal kamma? Personal kamma 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 desire to
create an empire. 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 becomes kamma on a social scale. It may seem that this chain of events has
arisen solely on account of one person, but it is not so. All are involved, and all are
kammically responsible, to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the extent of their
personal involvement and acquiescence. The views and desires conceived by the despot
become adopted by the people around him. There is an endorsement, more or less conscious,
of that desire by the people, allowing the craving for power and greatness to spread and
escalate throughout the population.
This agreement, or endorsement, of social values, is an intentional
act on the level of each individual, which for most is done without skillful reflection,
and for the most part without awareness. For instance, the concept of "progress"
so often spoken about in the present time is a concept based on certain assumptions. But
most people do not inquire 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, which has a dramatic effect on Thai society. Being exposed to this form of
belief, Thai people are led into believing that the material progress from the West is
desirable. 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 most people's
awareness. Most people follow the crowd. This is the way society usually operates, and
this is social kamma.
Responsible social action
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 for encouraging social concord, such as the four sangaha
vatthu, the Conditions for Social Welfare: dana, generosity; piyavaca,
kindly speech; atthacariya, helpful action; and samanattata,
impartiality or equal participation.
However, in Buddhism, all action should ideally arise from skillful
mental qualities. A seemingly well-intentioned action can be ruined by the influence of
unskillful mental states, such as anger or fear, or it can be tainted through ulterior
motives. On the other hand, simply to cultivate skillful 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. 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 applications of these skillful qualities, such as in the
four Conditions for Social Welfare. The two levels of virtue are interrelated.
The Four Sublime States are metta, goodwill, friendliness; karuna,
compassion, the desire to help other beings; mudita, sympathetic joy, gladness at
the good fortune of others; and upekkha, impartiality or equanimity.
Goodwill is a mental stance assumed towards those who are in the
normal condition, or on an equal plane with ourselves; compassion is a mental attitude
toward those who are in distress; gladness is an attitude toward those who are
experiencing success; equanimity or impartiality is even-mindedness toward the various
situations in which we find ourselves.
In practical terms these four qualities manifest as the Four
Conditions for Social Welfare. Dana, giving or generosity, is more or less a basic stance
towards others in society, an attitude of generosity, which can be based on goodwill,
compassion, or gladness, through giving as an act of encouragement. Generally speaking,
although giving refers to material things, it can also be the giving of knowledge or
The second condition for harmony is piyavaca, kindly speech, which
can be based on all four of the Sublime States. Friendly speech, based on goodwill, as
standard behavior in everyday situations; kindly speech, based on compassion, in times of
difficulty, as with words of advice or condolence; and congratulatory speech, based on
gladness, as in words of encouragement in times of happiness and success. However, when
confronted with problems in social situations, kindly speech can be expressed as impartial
and just speech, which is based on equanimity.
The third condition is atthacariya, helpful action, which refers to
the offering 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," and so is based on goodwill. Help can be
offered in times of difficulty, in which case it is based on compassion. Help can be
offered as an encouragement in times of success, in which case it is based on sympathetic
joy or gladness at the good fortune of others. Thus, atthacariya, helpful conduct, may be
based on any of these three Sublime States.
Finally we have samanattata, 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 join in with them, to be one with them. It refers
to sharing, cooperating and joining in. We could say that it means to be humble, such as
when helping others in their undertakings even when it is not one's duty, or to be fair,
such as when arbitrating in a dispute.
In Buddhism, while social action is encouraged, it should always
stem from skillful mental states rather than idealistic impulses. Any social action, no
matter how seemingly worthwhile, will be ruined if it becomes tainted with unskillful
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:
"Then the leaders among those beings came together. Having met, they conferred
among themselves thus: 'Sirs! Bad deeds 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