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The Ideal Society
An important conditioning factor in communal harmony or disharmony that goes beyond individual interactions and relations is certainly governance or the institutional structures of the society. This also was not beyond the Buddha’s purview, for the Buddha was the architect of a community, the Saṅgha of monks and nuns. It is instructive to see what kinds of choices the Buddha made to form this ideal society writ small.
In Gotama’s time, the Gangetic plain encompassed a number of small kingdoms and republics. The two dominant kingdoms of the region were Magadha and Kosala. The republics were largely lined up along the northern edge of the Gangetic plain in the foothills of the Himalayan mountains, which were coming increasingly under the dominance of the kingdoms. The westernmost of these was the Sakyan Republic where the Buddha-to-be was grew up. These republics were generally governed by an unelected assembly of elders from the khattiya or warrior/administrative caste. It is likely that the Buddha, as a khattiya, was familiar with matters of governance. This was also a patriarchal society that would become more patriarchal with time, such that spiritual practice and education were widely (though not entirely) considered masculine pursuits and women were generally subject in all stages of life to masculine authority.
Although there were ascetics in India before the Buddha, “… among all of the bodies of renouncers it was only the Buddhists who invented monastic life,”iv that is, who provided an organized institution capable of sustaining its practice and teachings. The Buddha never attempted to organize the lay community except indirectly by putting the monastic community in their midst and letting them sort out what to do about it. The monastic Saṅgha is a multi-functional institution, defined in the Vinaya with a mission statement, a code of conduct, rules of governance, guidelines for handling grievances and many other features.v
Some of the notable hallmarks of the Saṅgha as conceived by the Buddha are as follows: The Saṅgha observes no class distinctions and an exemplary level of gender equality.vi It is regulated in a way to avoid conflicts and maintain harmony, and observes procedures to negotiate disagreements should these arise. It rules by consensus of all monastics in a local community and, as such, is only minimally hierarchical. For instance, there is no system of pope and bishops, so that although monastics live under the code of the Vinaya, they are not subject to any distant centralized authority. Serious transgressions of the monastic code entail no corporal punishments, but rather sanctions, none more severe than expulsion from the local community. Rectifying transgressions is much dependent of acknowledgement of guilt. Committing one of the most serious offenses, for instance killing another person, is simply by definition no longer to be a monastic; if one hides the offense, one is impersonating a monastic. Aside from limited coercive control over each other, monastics have no coercive power whatever over the laity. There is, for instance, nothing like excommunication. Their authority derives entirely from the respect they receive as teachers and role models for those committed to the Dhammic life. In fact, the laity has significant coercive power over the Saṅgha, since a displeased laity can at any time withdraw the support on which the Saṅgha depends.
The constitution of the Saṅgha embodies so many social ideals that it might seem rather pie-in-the sky. But keep in mind it has outlived every other system of governance in existence at its birth, and almost every one that has arisen since. It has seen great empires come and go and persists to this day. This in evidence of the practical understanding with which the Buddha carefully constituted the monastic Saṅgha. It just keeps going.
The Buddha did not actively champion the similar reformation of civil society, but did have a bit to say about responsibilities of kings toward their subjects, sometimes describing the righteous or wheel-turning king as a kind of ideal. In DN 26 he even recommended that such a king seek ethical guidance from wise monastics:
“Whatever ascetics and brahmins in your kingdom have renounced the life of sensual infatuation and are devoted to forbearance and gentleness, each one taming himself, each one calming himself and each one striving for the end of craving, from time to time you should go to them and consult them as to what is wholesome and what is unwholesome, what is blameworthy and what is blameless, what is to be followed and what is not to followed and what action will in the long run lead to harm and sorrow, and what to welfare and happiness. Having listened to them, you should avoid evil and do what is good.”
This passage is significant in view of the common understanding that monastics should not get involved in political or social matters, and are perhaps ill-equipped to do so. It clearly opens a nonpartisan role for them as moral advisors. In DN 5 the Buddha describes a chaplain offering wise advice to a king concerning the relationship of crime, poverty and general prosperity:
“Your Majesty’s country is beset by thieves, it is ravaged, villages and towns are being destroyed, the countryside is infested with brigands. … Suppose Your Majesty were to think: ‘I will get rid of this plague of robbers by executions and imprisonment, or by confiscation, threats and banishment’, the plague would not be properly ended. Those who survived would later harm Your Majesty’s realm. However, with this plan you can completely eliminate the plague: To those in the kingdom who are engaged in cultivating crops and raising cattle, let Your Majesty distribute grain and fodder; to those in trade, give capital; to those in government service assign proper living wages. Then those people, being intent on their own occupations, will not harm the kingdom. Your Majesty’s revenues will be great, the land will be tranquil and not beset by thieves, and the people, with joy in their hearts, will play with their children, and will dwell in unlocked houses.”
We do well to note here and elsewhere a characteristic feature of the Buddha’s method of ethical scrutiny: its uncommon tolerance and forgiveness. He thereby maintains unwavering kindness for all common participants in human society, even thieves and brigands, whose worldly actions he sees as almost unavoidably conditioned by circumstances and as controllable to the extent that conditions can be changed, at least by kings. The advice to the king here is also an instance of the practice of appropriate attention (yoniso manasikāra), literally, “thinking from the origin”), a hugely important practice in early Buddhism which we will encounter a number of times in this textbook. The plague addressed in this passage arises directly from observable social conditions, not from some unseen unconditioned evil of thieves and brigands, which would be a more commonplace assumption, but one that would lead to a counterproductive and hateful response.