- Global Problem-Solving: A Buddhist Perspective
- Sulak Sivaraksa
To be honest and to begin by getting right to the point, I must state
plainly that there is no serious contemporary Buddhist perspective for global
The World Fellowship of Buddhists, with its headquarters in Bangkok, has entirely avoided
political, military and economic issues. It has not even dealt with environmental or human
rights crises, nor has it promoted human cooperation. Members meet every few years to
reaffirm how wonderful we Buddhists are.
Although the World Conference on Religion and Peace, with its head
offices in Geneva and New York, has strong Buddhist financial support, especially from the
Rishokoseikei in Japan, this body passes resolutions on global matters without doing
anything significant from a Buddhist perspective. Indeed, contemporary Buddhists seem to
be interested only at national, local, or denominational levels.
It is gratifying to learn then that the Asian Buddhist Conference for
Peace is organizing a fourth International Seminar on Buddhism and Leadership for Peace.
Efforts by the United Nations University
Other organizations, as well as the ABCP, have attempted to promote the
development of a Buddhist approach to global problem-solving. For example, the United
Nations University is currently supporting a sub-project on Buddhist Perceptions of
Desirable Societies in the Future.
At a meeting in Bangkok in 1986, a number or leading scholars and
practicing Buddhists came together to examine how religious thinkers and activists
perceive the current human predicament. The framework of the meeting was divided into
three main parts: 1) a diagnosis of current problems, 2) an examination of specifically
Buddhist responses to these problems, and 3) a projection of how it might be possible to
progress from the contemporary situation towards a more desirable society.
At the meeting apathy, confusion and selfishness were identified as the
main causes of the hopelessness that engulfs so many of the world's people, although these
were not explicitly related to religion. At one point, the slogan of the French
revolution, "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity," was discussed. Why did the
Buddha not preach these values, rather than the Four Noble Truths--the existence of
suffering, the causes of suffering, the cessation of suffering and the Noble Eightfold
Path leading to the cessation of suffering?
The three values of the French Revolution are idealistic. The Buddha
taught people to come to terms with, and surmount, the reality of human existence--the
unavoidable problems of pain, loss, suffering, sickness and death. This approach was felt
by many at the meeting in Bangkok to have a great deal to offer those engaged in solving
contemporary global problems.
After the Bangkok meeting, the United Nations University set up a
subcommittee which identified ten relevant issues to be tackled by Buddhists in order to
move towards a more desirable future society. They were: the individual and society in
Buddhism; universalism and particularism; existing social practices which may lead to a
more ideal society; sangha, state and people; Buddhism and the evolution of society;
Buddhist eschatology, millennialism and the Buddha land; Buddhist education; Buddhist
approaches to war and violence; science, technology and Buddhism; and women and family in
Buddhism. Hopefully, the United Nations University will publish the relevant articles on
Recently, the United Nations University called for yet another meeting
in Bangkok on the same theme of perceptions of desirable societies, but this time with
respect to different religious and ethical systems. The conclusions were as follows:
We have reviewed briefly the position of different religious currents
in terms of their beliefs and values regarding:
- Welfare and development,
- Justice, equity and human rights,
- Peace, reconciliation and nonviolence, and
- Identity, authenticity and universality.
It is important to realize that many of the divergencies existing among
religions are often complementary visions, which should not be seen as conflictual, but
rather as differences which lead to deeper and more universal positions through a process
of dialogue. It is crucial then that this process is guaranteed to take place by the
religions, their institutions, and by society and the state.
These divergencies do not necessarily represent different religious
beliefs but rather the positions of the religious thinkers or activists who choose either
to be part of society, to accept its fundamental dynamics in order to transform it from
within, or to stand outside it to develop a transcendental critical view of its values and
I feel that the United Nations University's efforts are relevant to the
theme of our international seminar.
The Myth of Cakkravartin and Present-Day Global
Unlike Muslims and Christians, contemporary Buddhists have no vision
for global problem-solving. This is partly due to the fact that prior to western colonial
expansion in the last century, Buddhism was divided into many schools, all of which were
attached to national cultures and/or nation- states, each with subdivisions into various
denominations or sects. Western Christianity, on the other hand, especially with its ties
to the building of great empires such as the Roman and British empires, has evolved such
that the white men's burden includes caring for the world as a universality or
catholicism. Although Protestantism was divided very much like Buddhism, it managed to
pull together, with all its differences, to work on global issues, especially since the
creation of the World Council of Churches.
The spread of Islam increased side by side with Arab commercial success
and the advancement of scientific knowledge, especially after the collapse of ancient
Greek civilization. Although the Europeans replaced the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth
century, the rise of nationalism, pan-nationalism and economic success in the Middle East
encouraged Muslims to have a more global outlook.
Although former Buddhist kingdoms in South and Southeast Asia have
regained their independence from the west, they have lost the Dhammic essence of their
national identities. They have retained only state ceremonies which are often more feudal
than Buddhist. They blindly adhere to outmoded customs which are irrelevant to
Despite the fact that Siam was not subjugated politically, she was
colonized intellectually, culturally and educationally. The effects of this type of
colonization are almost impossible to reverse.
In East Asia, Buddhism lost much of its true essence to Confucianism or
Shintoism, even before the arrival of western influences.
The lofty Buddhist spirit remains in Asia only in small pockets for
individual or local development where human needs are placed ahead of material or economic
gains. At the national level, most people think only in terms of economic development.
Hence, the rich get richer and the poor remain so, or become poorer. This is true for
nations and individuals. And of course, no one is happy. The present social development
systems lead to human rights abuses, a widening gap between the rich and the poor,
environmental degradation and the aggressive destruction of natural resources.
Unfortunately, it seems that Buddhist development models have not been established and,
overall, responses from the Buddhist communities have been insufficient to counter these
Before attempting to deal with the above-mentioned issues, we ought to
look into our Buddhist traditions to see whether such a global concern for social justice
existed in the past, in order to apply it meaningfully in the present and in the future.
In my opinion, it is very worthwhile to examine the Buddhist
mythological tradition regarding kingship and the universal monarch who ruled for the
well-being of all. How the myth was applied by Buddhist rulers of later generations is
The Aggana Sutta of the Digha Nikaya begins by portraying an ideal
world of natural effortless existence. Ethereal, self-luminescent beings live in bliss and
know no discrimination between polar opposites such as male and female, good and evil,
rich and poor, ruler and subject. The earth itself is made of a delightful soft edible
substance that looks like butter and is as sweet as honey.
Gradually, however, because of karma remaining from a previous world
cycle, this Golden Age comes to an end. During a long period of decline manifest in the
world and its beings, greed, grasping, sex, theft, violence and murder are introduced.
Finally, sheer anarchy prevails, and in order to put an end to it, the beings get together
to select from among their ranks a king to rule over them and maintain order. This is the
Mahasommata, the Great Elect, and in return for fulfilling his functions as a monarch, the
beings each agree to pay him a portion of their rice.
Such is the myth of the first kingship. The record also relates the
legend of the Cakkravartin, (wheel-turning emperor), or universal monarch. A basic version
of this appears in the Cakkravatti Sihandada Sutta, also of the Digha Nikaya.
This text, too, begins with a description of a Golden Age, the starting
point of the world cycle. During this time, beings had beautiful bodies, life-spans of
eighty thousand years, and wonderful effortless existences. This time, however, the
Cakkravartin, Dalhanemi by name, is present from the beginning. He is, in fact, very much
a part of the Golden Age for his presence is instrumental in maintaining the paradisiacal
state. Because he knows what is good and rules through Dhamma, poverty, ill-will,
violence, and wrongdoings do not exist in his domain.
Traditionally the Cakkravartin is portrayed as an extraordinary being.
He is said to exhibit the thirty-two bodily marks of a Great Man (Mahapurusa) and to be
endowed with the seven jewels, or emblems of sovereignty, the most important of which is
the wheel (cakka). In the Sutta, this magnificent wheel appears in mid-air before
Dalhanemi at the beginning of his reign as a sign of his righteousness. It then leads him
in a great cosmic conquest of the four continents.
It takes him East, South, West and North as far as the great oceans,
and, where the wheel rolls, he encounters no resistance. The power of his Dhamma,
symbolized by his wheel, the Dhammacakka, is such that local kings immediately submit to
him. Finally his wheel leads him back to his capital at the center of the world, and there
it remains, miraculously suspended in mid-air over the royal palaces, as an emblem of
sovereignty. After many years of reigning in peace over a contented and prosperous empire,
however, Dalhanemi's wheel of Dhamma begins to sink. This is a sign of the approaching end
of his reign, according to the Buddhist law of change (anicca), and when the wheel
disappears altogether into the earth, the wise king entrusts his throne to his son and
retires from this world to live as an ascetic in the forest.
It is important to note that the wheel of Dhamma is not automatically
passed on from one Cakkravartin to the next. Dalhanemi's son must, in turn, prove worthy
of his own wheel by calling it forth with his own righteousness. This fact sets the scene
for the rest of the myth, which, like the story in the previous Sutta, traces the gradual
degradation of this world and the beings in it.
After a long succession of Dalhanemi's descendants who are perfect
Cakkravartins, there comes a king who fails to follow Dhamma, and for whom the wheel does
not appear. Consequently, there is resistance to his rule. Friction develops; the people
fail to prosper; the universal monarch fails to support them; and one thing leads to
another, as it is stated in the Sutta: "From not giving to the destitute, poverty
grew rife; from poverty growing rife, stealing increased; from the spread of stealing,
violence grew apace; from the growth of violence, the destruction of life became common;
from the frequency of murder, both the life span of the beings and their beauty wasted
The myth then goes on to trace the further decline in the quality and
span of life, until a state of virtual anarchy is reached. In this respect, then, the myth
of the Cakkravartin is quite similar to that of the Great Elect (Mahasommata).
Contrasting the two Suttas, one can draw different conclusions. In the
former, the Great Elect is called upon only when the need for him arises. He functions as
a stopgap against further anarchy, but the Golden Age itself requires and knows no king at
all. In the latter, on the other hand, the ruler is a crucial part of the Golden Age. By
his very presence and by his proper rule, he ensures a peaceful, prosperous, idyllic
existence for all, and he will continue to do so as long as he is righteous enough to
merit the wheel of Dhamma, that is, as long as he truly is a wheel-turning Cakkravartin.
The conclusion one can draw from these two myths is that neither myth stops at the Golden
Age, but each goes on to describe in no uncertain terms what happens when a ruler does not
live up to the ideal.
The suggestion is made, therefore, that there are really two possible
types of rulers. One, a full-fledged Cakkravartin, is righteous and rules according to
Dhamma, and so like Dalhanemi, ensures a Golden Age. Indeed there is a saying by the
Buddha, in the Anguttara Nikaya stating that "A universal monarch, a righteous and
just king relies on the Dhamma. Respecting, revering and honouring the Dhamma, with the
Dhamma as his standard, he provides for the proper welfare and protection of his
people." The other, perhaps not truly worthy of the title Cakkravartin, is not so
righteous, fails to rule according to the Dhamma, and is responsible for a cosmic
catastrophe, the degradation of the world.
These two myths have greatly influenced Buddhist monarchs in South and
Southeast Asia. However, in history, Emperor Ashoka of ancient India was perhaps the only
one who could really be called a Cakkravartin, if one is to accept the prevailing world
view. He was the "universal monarch" who reigned as righteously as possible by
extending his empire across almost all of the subcontinent.
The Sinhalese, Burmese and Siamese kings were not, in fact,
Cakkravartins, but they all wished to imitate the Great Emperor, and tried their best, at
least in theory, to be just and righteous. In practice, however, it is questionable
whether they actually "respected, revered and honoured the Dhamma, while using the
Dhamma as a standard, as a sign, as a sovereign, providing for the proper welfare and
protection of the people."
The Role of the Sangha
The result was that the institution or the Sangha, the holy community
of brothers and sisters, was developed to teach Dhamma to the rulers and to facilitate
communication between the rulers and the ruled.
Unlike the lay community, the Sangha reverses the process of
degeneration of the human race described in the Buddhist creation myths: coercion is
replaced by cooperation, private property by propertylessness, family and home by the
community of androgynous wanderers, and hierarchy by egalitarian democracy. The Sangha
symbolizes the unification of means and ends in Buddhist philosophy. That is, the movement
working for the resolution of conflict must embody a sane and peaceful process itself. The
discipline of the early monastic Sangha was designed to channel expected conflicts of
interest among the monks and nuns into processes of peaceful democratic resolution. In
order to spread peace and stability in their societies, the monastic Sangha sought to
establish moral hegemony over the state, to guide their societies with a code of
nonviolent ethics in the interest of social welfare.
Since the passing away of the Buddha, some 2530 years ago, the
historical Sangha, however, has been divided vertically and horizontally by cultural,
economic and political alliances. Sectors of the Sangha in many different countries became
dependent on state patronage for their growing communities. With the growth of monastic
wealth and land-holding came the integration of the Sangha into society as a priest-class
of teachers, ritual performers, and chanters of magic formulas--a sector of the
land-owning elite with its own selfish interests and tremendous cultural power.
With centralization and hierarchization of the Sangha came increasing
elite and state control, so that instead of applying the ethics of nonviolence to the
state, a part of the Sangha was increasingly called upon to rationalize violence and
On the other hand, at the base of society, frequently impoverished and
poorly educated, there have always been propertyless and familyless radical clergy who
maintain the critical perspective of the Buddha. To this day, scattered communities of
Buddhists continue in a radical disregard, and sometimes fiery condemnation of the
official "state Buddhisms" with their elite hierarchical structures and their
legacies of secular accommodation and corruption.
In looking to the future of humankind, it is therefore necessary to
look back. The state and its elites, with their natural tendency towards acquisitive
conflict, should remain under the hegemony of the popular institutions that embody the
process of nonviolent and democratic conflict resolution. In traditional Buddhist terms,
the king should always be under the influence of the Sangha, and not vice versa.
For those of us who are lay intellectuals, I feel it is imperative that
we support the radical clergy to maintain this critical perspective of the Buddha. We
should wholeheartedly support the Sangha in its efforts to lead the local communities
towards self-reliance and away from domination by the elites and consumerism.
Indeed many of the local and agrarian societies still have nonviolent
means of livelihood, and respect for each individual as well as for animals, trees, rivers
Although the government and multinational corporations have introduced
various technological "advances" and chemical fertilizers and have advertised to
make villagers turn away from their traditional ways of life and opt for jeans, coca-cola
and fast food as well as worship of the state and its warlike apparatus, their efforts
have been successfully countered by those of the critical Sangha. Some of them have even
reintroduced meditation practices for farmers, established rice banks and buffalo banks
which are owned by the communities and benefit them, rather than the commercial banks
which link with international enterprises at the expense of the local population.
The Importance of Socially Engaged Spirituality
We should strengthen and extend the liberation potential within the
Buddhist tradition to allow each local community to gain a global perspective making each
aware of global problems, especially the suffering of the poor. If more people were
conscious of the problem, it could be solved more efficiently.
We should also promote exchange and learning between Buddhists and
non-Buddhists in order that they can cooperate meaningfully in a common struggle against
the oppressive social forces that cause suffering.
We should also try to enable peasants, fishermen, industrial workers,
women and all oppressed factions in any country to discover their faith and the roots of
their culture and draw inspiration and sustenance from them.
Unfortunately, development in the past has ignored this vital source of
human values. Indeed, activists, even those of agnostic tendency, should be open to the
liberating dimensions of religions and cultures. Of course, many activists are
anti-religious; perhaps against certain dogmas, forms, ceremonies or establishments;
however, perhaps buddhism, with a small "b" could help them to discover, develop
and strengthen a secular spirituality of struggle that does not make overt references to
one specific tradition, but nourishes him or her for greater authenticity.
For many of us who want to solve global problems there is the prevalent
social engineering mentality which assumes that personal virtue can be more or less
conditioned by a radical restructuring of society. On the other hand the opposite view is
that radical social improvement is wholly dependent upon personal and spiritual change and
changes in lifestyle. But a growing number of spiritually-minded people recognize that the
"inner" work is massively discouraged by the social conditions which are the
consequence of individual delusion and fear. Thus, an American Zen Buddhist poet and
activist, Gary Snyder, remarks that the so called "free world" has become
economically dependent on a fantastic system of greed that cannot be fulfilled, sexual
desire which cannot be satiated, and a hate which has no outlet, except against oneself.
Under these conditions, the odds are heavily against a spiritual lifestyle, especially
when one lives in an affluent society in the west. Yet the so called "socialist
societies" have, almost without exception, wanted to join the so called "free
world." This vicious circle must be broken socially as well as personally--a socially
engaged spirituality is needed.
Social activism in the past has been mostly preoccupied with what is
"out there." Opening up to what is "in here" and sharing it with
others can bring great relief, but it also brings a disconcerting awareness of how much
"I" need my busyness, our certainties or rationalizations and their malevolence.
Just to maintain awareness of the boredom, frustration, indifference, anger, hostility,
and triumph experienced by the activist without being carried away or cast down is an
invaluable spiritual practice. But this is only possible if there is an adequate balance
of daily meditation and periodic retreat, and also if there is awareness of social ills
outside ourselves. These practices slowly dissolve the self-need that feeds on hope,
setting us free to do just what the situation demands of us.
Through deepening awareness comes acceptance, and through acceptance
comes a seemingly miraculous generosity of spirit and empowerment for the work that
compassion requires of us. We can even take ourselves less seriously. With this critical
self-awareness, we can genuinely understand and respect others of diverse religions and
beliefs. We can even join hands with them humbly and knowingly in trying to develop our
spaceship earth to be peaceful and with justice.
- A New Interpretation of the Buddhist Concept of
- and the Application of the Five Precepts to the
Buddhism, through its insistence on the interrelatedness of all life,
its teachings of compassion for all beings, its nonviolence, and its caring for all
existence, has been leading some contemporary Buddhists to broader and deeper
interpretations of the relationship between social, environmental, racial and sexual
justice and peace.
In this area, we should be inspired by examples of such movements like
that of Ven. Bhikkhu Buddhadasa and his Garden of Liberation in Siam, not to mention the
meditation practices of Ven. Phra Ajan Cha Subaddho and the scholarly work of Ven. Phra
Debvedi (Payutto) which inspired not only Thai but foreign monks like Ven. Sumedho to
carry the Buddhist message with social concern to Europe, North America, Australia and New
Zealand. However, in this paper, I want only to concentrate on one Vietnamese monk, Thich
Nhat Hanh, who teaches us to pay close attention to the minute particulars in our actions,
as well as to the giant web of all life.
He particularly stresses nondualism in his teachings and speaks of
being peace in the moments in one's own life as part of making peace in the world. He
stresses the continuity of inner and outer, calling the world our "large self,"
and asks us to become it actively and to care for it.
His Tiep Hien Order, created in Vietnam during the war, is in the
lineage of the Zen school of Lin Chi. It is a form of engaged Buddhism in daily life, in
society. The best translation of Tiep Hien, according to Thich Nhat Hanh, is the
"Order of Interbeing," which he explains in this way: "I am, therefore you
are, you are, therefore I am. That is the meaning of the word interbeing. We
The Order of Interbeing is designed explicitly to address social
justice and peace issues, sensitizing the participant to test his/her behavior in relation
to the needs of the larger community, while freeing him/her from limiting patterns. Even
the way we take refuge in the Triple Gems is explained simply and beautifully:
I take refuge in the Buddha,
the one who shows me the way in this life,
I take refuge in the Dharma,
the way of understanding, and love,
I take refuge in the Sangha,
the community of mindful harmony,
Thich Nhat Hanh revised the traditional five precepts to address issues
of mind, speech and body:
First, do not kill. Do not let others kill. Find whatever means
possible to protect life. Do not live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and
nature. Second, do not steal. Possess nothing that should belong to others. Respect the
property of others, but prevent others from enriching themselves from human sufferings and
the sufferings of other species on earth. Third, sexual expression should not take place
without love and commitment. Be fully aware of the sufferings you may cause others as a
result of your misconduct. To preserve the happiness of yourself and others, respect the
rights and commitments of others. Fourth, do not say untruthful things. Do not spread news
that you do not know to be certain. Do not criticize or condemn things that you are unsure
of. Do not utter words that cause division and hatred, that can create discord and cause
the family or the community to break. All efforts should be made to reconcile and resolve
all conflicts. Fifth, do not use alcohol and any other intoxicants. Be aware that your
fine body has been transmitted to you by several previous generations and your parents.
Destroying your body with alcohol and other intoxicants is to betray your ancestors, your
parents and also to betray the future generations.
These precepts create a consciousness of, and a precedent for, social
justice and peace work, grounded firmly in Buddhist principles in our individual beings
and in our practice of mindfulness. As well, Thich Nhat Hanh often reminds us: "Do
not lose yourself in dispersion and in your surroundings. Learn to practice breathing in
order to regain composure of body and mind, to practice mindfulness, and to develop
concentration and understanding."
These guiding statements achieve an integration of the traditional five
precepts with elements of the Noble Eightfold Path, and I believe Thich Nhat Hanh's
decision to elaborate on the traditional precepts came from his observation that one can
interpret these to encourage a withdrawal from the world, a passivity in the face of war
and injustice, a separation of oneself from the common lot of humanity. In rewriting the
precepts, he is countering that tendency. In directing us to focus on our interconnection
with other beings, he is asking us to experience the continuity between the inner and the
outer world, to act in collaboration, in mutuality with others in the dynamic unfolding of
the truth that nurtures justice and creates peace.
Some of us are trying to meet this challenge, and I hope what some of
us are trying to do in connecting our being peace within to the outside world engagingly
and mindfully, will contribute to a better world, with social justice, nonviolence and
ecological balance--the Middle Way for each and for society at large, to live in harmony
with one another and with nature.
Groups of young people in the west who believe in these principles and
who try to act accordingly have established chapters of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship in
the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia.
On top of that, some of us also have tried to meet with fellow
Buddhists of like-mindedness in order to solve global problems concretely, taking some
relevant issues of social justice which are near and dear to us, which we feel we could
tackle individually and collectively with good friends (kalayamamitta) in other countries
and cultures. Thus, last February, in a small city outside Bangkok, some forty-five
Buddhists from all over the world, including a representative from the ABCP, met:
They set up four working groups to explore different issues: education,
women's issues, human rights, and spirituality and activism.
It is not appropriate to go into the details of this meeting here.
However, since some Buddhists have become aware of the shortcomings of the World
Fellowship of Buddhists and similar organizations, they are now determined to set up the
International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB), with the following objectives: to
promote understanding between Buddhist countries and various Buddhist sects, to facilitate
and engage in solving problems in various countries, to help bring the perspective of
engaged Buddhism to bear in working on these problems, to act as a clearinghouse of
information on existing engaged Buddhist (and relevant non-Buddhist) groups and
activities, and to aid in the coordination of efforts wherever possible.
They will initially involve groups and individuals working in the
following areas: alternative education and spiritual training, peace activism, human
rights, women's issues, ecology, family concerns, rural development, alternative
economics, communication, and concerns of monks and nuns. This may be expanded in the
I trust that this newly-established network will collaborate
meaningfully with our host organizations in applying Buddhism to global problem-solving./.