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
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.
Myth of Cakkravartin and Present-day Global Problem-Solving
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.
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.
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 contemporary society.
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.
Asia, Buddhism lost much of its true essence to Confucianism
or Shintoism, even before the arrival of western influences.
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 negative elements.
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 also interesting.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 midair 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.
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 midair
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.
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 away."
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).
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.
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.
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
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."
Role of the Sangha
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.
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.
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 landowning
elite with its own selfish interests and tremendous cultural
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 injustice.
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.
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.
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.
of the local and agrarian societies still have nonviolent means
of livelihood, and respect for each individual as well as for
animals, trees, rivers and mountains.
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.
Importance of Socially Engaged Spirituality
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
A New Interpretation
of the Buddhist Concept of Interrelatedness and the Application
of the Five Precepts to the Contemporary Situation
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
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.
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.
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.
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:
Hanh revised the traditional five precepts to address issues
of mind, speech and body:
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.
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."
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.
Network of Engaged Buddhists:
A Hopeful Beginning for Global Problem-Solving?
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.
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,
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:
(1) to identify
urgent social problems which exist in one's own country as well
as those affecting other Buddhist communities;
(2) to explore the ways in which participants could cooperate
in acting on these issues; and
(3) to establish a network among engaged Buddhists on a global
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
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 future.
that this newly-established network will collaborate meaningfully
with our host organizations in applying Buddhism to global problem-solving.
Buddhism and Global Nonviolent Problem Solving - Ulan Bator
Explorations (August 1989), Edited by Glenn D. Paige and Sarah
Gilliatt, University of Hawaii (1991).