on the Social Level
1. Kamma moves outwards
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.
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.
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:
Tanha: craving for personal gain.
b. Mana: desire to dominate.
c. Ditthi: clinging to views.
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 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
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.
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 tanha.
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.
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.
also works in conjunction with mana, 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 tanha, craving,
and mana, pride. Human history is largely the story of
The importance of ditthi in the creation of kamma
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. 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 ditthi. Ditthi is therefore the most important
and powerful of these three defilements.
direction of society is 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 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.
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.
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 ditthi
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
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.
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.
of the ways in which ditthi 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 ditthi and greatly emphasised it in
his teaching. Even belief in religion is a form of ditthi
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 ditthi, and urged circumspection in
relation to it, as opposed to blind attachment.
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 metta, kindness, and
karuna, 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.
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.
importance of ditthi, 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.
External influences and internal reflection
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 kalya.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 kala.namitta
was the whole of the holy life (brahmacariya).
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
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.
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-manasikara, 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-manasikara,
a new teaching arose, which became the religion of Buddhism.
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.
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.
Personal responsibility in relation to social kamma
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.
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
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.
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: dana, generosity: piyavaca, kindly
speech; atthacariya, helpful action; and samanattata,
impartiality or equal participation.
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 (Brahmavihara). 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 sangaha vatthu, the Foundations of Unity.
These two levels of virtue are interrelated.
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;
karuna, compassion, is a proper mental attitude toward
those who are in distress; mudita, sympathetic joy, is
the attitude toward those who are experiencing success; upekkha,
equanimity or impartiality, is even-mindedness toward the
various situations in which we find ourselves.
these four qualities, when looked at in practical terms, can
be seen to manifest as the Four Foundations of Social Unity.
Dana, giving or generosity, is more or less a basic stance
towards others in society, an attitude of generosity, which
can be based on metta, giving through goodwill; karuna,
giving through compassion; or mudita, 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.
second foundation of unity is piyavaca, kindly speech,
which is usually based on the first three Sublime States. Friendly
speech, based on metta, as a basic attitude in everyday
situations; kindly speech, based on karuna, in times
of difficulty, as with words of advice or condolence; and congratulatory
speech, based on mudita, as in words of encouragement
in times of happiness and success. However, when confronted
with problems in social situations, piyavaca can be expressed
as impartial and just speech, based on upekkha.
third factor is atthacariya, 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 metta, goodwill. Help can be offered in times
of difficulty, in which case it is help based on karuna,
compassion. Help can be offered as an encouragement in times
of success, in which case it is based on mudita, sympathetic
joy or gladness at the good fortune of others. Thus, atthacariya,
helpful conduct, may be based on any of these three Sublime
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 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.
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.
are some of the Buddha's words on kamma on the social
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'
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
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
Yoniso-manasikara 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.