Fundamental View: Talk 4

Presented at the Buddha Center, Second Life on July 6 and July 9, 2013.

Talk 4

The Dharma of Community

Om Ah Hung Benza Guru Pema Siddhi Hung.


The Buddha believed in tradition, fairness, equality, and social justice, as well as skillful intelligence, practical and simple living, and co-operation. It should not be surprising to discover the Buddha expressed a political philosophy. The Buddha was a khattiya, a member of the ruling military caste, by birth. Dhamma unites ethics and ontology. If ethics are fundamentally “given,” so are politics. Freedom requires structure in order to function. Dhamma defines the necessary structure of freedom. It is the delusion of the West to think absolute freedom can be a fundamental political principle.

Dhamma is not merely the foundation of the spiritual life. It is also the foundation of the ethical life and the life of the householder – life in the world. Dhamma is

the essential truth of the fundamental core of everything. Dhamma includes civil society, politics, and government. How can there be any separation between the spiritual life and the worldly life? The state must have a standard higher than its own power if it is not to fall into tyranny. Therefore, the dhamma is the standard of the state, the ultimate authority to which power must yield, the universal authority of truth and righteousness itself.  As such, it can only be enforced on the individual by the individual, and by individuals on each other in their personal immediacy. Dhamma can be told but it cannot be forced. Enforcement is an attempt to hold time in stasis. It is adharmic because it is impossible.  The Buddha said the imposition of law and order on society by force would never work. The Buddha was anti-military.

The dharmic state benefits its citizens and all beings, including the physical environment, through the provision of fundamental protection, shelter, and safety for all. This includes national defence, infrastructure, and police and other legal regulatory authorities.

The Buddha’s concept of the state is social democratic in principle. The state builds and maintains the social infrastructure. It recirculates capital through the system to maintain trade based on the rule of common law. The Buddha advocates government control of land, resources, the circulation of money, social redistribution of wealth, and a large public service with generous wages and liberal laws. I think the Buddha would recognize that social vitality requires a “wholesome” level of competitiveness. I do not think he would make competition or money moral absolutes, as has been done today. Therefore, they cannot be the essential social or political principles either. Although the Buddha recognized the necessity and even the social value of trade, he distrusted money and business and forbade the monks from trading or handling money. The Buddha identifies parenting, teaching, family, friends, employees, and students and followers of the spiritual life as activities that should be protected by the state.

The Buddha held that by providing for the fundamental needs of all, the Buddhist republic would exhibit strong social cohesion. This would make it resistant to decline. The Buddha took as his model of the ideal middle-way society the Vajjian confederacy of northeast India. He applied the same principles to his own organization, the sangha. The Vajjians lived to the southeast of the Buddha’s own Sakyan country. In fact, the Vajjian confederacy is the translation of the Vajji Sangha. The Vajjians, like the ancient Greeks, conducted numerous public assemblies. They made decisions collectively. Such a process ensures everyone is included; everyone has a voice and stake in society.

The Buddha taught seven principles to ensure the stability of society: collective public decision-making, co-operation, a common tradition of law, respect for age, respect for women, a living private spirituality, and a public spiritual organization. The Buddha’s social and political ideas are similar to those of certain Chinese and ancient Greek ideals, as well as the modern philosophy of anarcho-syndicalism (e.g., Chomsky). The Buddha’s teachings are obviously in the same vein as those of ancient Greece. All lead toward a revolution in thinking that would lead to the transition from the autocracy of the individual king to the autonomy of the universal individual. Thus, the Dalai Lama can say he is a Buddhist Marxist.[1]

Dhamma is a spiritual world that exists in the minds and hearts of the citizens of the Buddhist commonweal. It is exhibited by means of speech, body, and mind. The Buddhist community exists in a similar relation to society. The self-vigilance required to follow the dhamma in this way is the essence of the system of rules of organization of the Buddhist monastic community, the Vinaya. If it is pursued with the right attitude, it can become a means of spiritual development. The notion that the Vinaya is essentially ethical is dispelled by the Pali etymology. Vinaya means something more like self-control than ethics.[2] The actual benefit of the Vinaya is that it imposes a system of “hyper-vigilance” that in turn facilitates the development of concentration and mindfulness.

The Buddha’s Attitude toward Caste

The Buddha’s attitude to caste is preserved in a famous conversation he had with the Brahman student Assalayana. This took place in the ancient Indian city of Sawatthi. It was one of the six largest cities of the Buddha’s time. It was located just south of Kapilawastu. The Buddha’s family had their seat here. Assalayana was a kind of Brahman child prodigy. It appears he secretly favoured the Buddha. It seems he had to be pressured by his Brahman peers to question the Buddha about what he thought of the Brahman’s claim to innate caste superiority.

The Buddha shows the falsity of the Brahmans’ claim to be the children of God (literally, “sons of Brahma”). He also shows the extent of his international political knowledge when he refers to the Greek colony of Bactria on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan.[3] The Buddha shows Assalayana that the Brahmans are subject to the same law of kamma as all beings. Their rebirth is conditional on the quality of their kamma. All beings are capable of committing and experiencing good and bad kamma. The Buddha shows that all sentient beings possess the same spiritual potential to purify themselves of negativity. Gradually, the Buddha leads Assalayana to the realization the qualities he was attributing to Brahmans as a social class are potentially true of anyone; therefore, the doctrine of innate caste superiority cannot be true.

This story is also a classic example of one of the Buddha’s teaching techniques. He leads the inquirer from a question to a new order of understanding by showing the subtle meaning and implications of ideas in a progressive process of logical inquiry and analysis of underlying assumptions and inferences. In the same way, the Buddha found ethical reinterpretations of the traditional Indian ritual practices, like the worship of the six directions.

“Then Sigalika the householder’s son, having got up early and gone out of [the city] of Rajagaha, was paying homage, with wet clothes and hair and with joined palms, to the different directions: to the east, the south, the west, the north, the nadir, and the zenith.” In order words, the practice involved rising with the sun and performing a ritual ablution.

The palms are joined at the heart. This signifies the act of devotion. The directions start with the east. The east is the direction of the rising sun. They end with the north. The north is the direction of greatest darkness. This defines the horizontal plane.

The clockwise direction is the “positive” direction of circumambulation whereby spiritual beings are attracted. A vertical dimension is added. Verticality indicates the aspiration toward the zenith. The zenith refers to the sahasrara chakra above the crown of the head. The sahasrara signifies enlightenment.

It is characteristic of the Buddha’s methodology that, after asking Sigalika why he performed this practice (which was because it was the will of his dying father), he explains the practice in practice in ethical terms. Thus, the Buddha reinterprets traditional practices in symbolic terms and adjusts the context of his exegesis – in this case, ethics – to his audience, a householder.

The implication I have tried to draw is that the spiritual path proper to the householder is based on ethical observances and practices that affect his kamma. Thus, he can earn merit for his future well-being. The way of kamma is not the whole way of the householder. Spiritual development as such is not excluded; the Buddha also recommends the cultivation of faith and wisdom for the householder too. Clearly, the householder is involved with kamma. Therefore, karmic observances are of special relevance to him. It is also noteworthy that the Buddha recommends the cultivation of wisdom to women. Thus, he makes no spiritual distinction between male and female householders.

The Buddha attributes the east, the place from which the sun gives light and life, to the parents. The south – the ecliptic, the path of the sun and planets – is the teacher. The west, the complement of the parents, is the wife and children, the family. In addition, in the north, the complement of the guru, are friends and companions. The nadir is workers and servants. The zenith is spiritual practitioners and teachers. The Buddha elaborates the ethical implications of this reinterpretation. Kamma may be affected directly by means of ethical behaviour.

The Buddha never judges the ritual; he never advises Sigalika he should not perform it. However, the implication is that what is effective is not the ritual itself. Rather, what is effective is its meaning. In this case, the ethical implication of Sigalika’s performance is not the ritual. Rather, it is his pious adherence to the memory of his father. One should not take from this text that the only meaning of rituals is ethical, however. 

The Buddha’s Attitude to Women

The Pali Canon contains many conflicting statements about women. Bhikkhu Bodhi has noted in his introduction to his translation of the Angutta Nikaya that more liberal passages in the canon are incompatible with other passages that exhibit relatively hostile views to nuns (bhikkhunīs) and women in general. There are only two possible interpretations: either the Buddha changed his mind, or these views are additions to the canon. As for the motives for such an addition, a strong Indian and/or Sri Lankan male monastic tradition is a likely candidate. Indian society still suffers from a disparaging cultural attitude toward women.

According to tradition, there was a major rift among the male members of the first Buddhist council concerning the ordination of women. We know the sangha was divided on this topic. Nevertheless, it is clear the Buddha intended to institute such an order because he did in fact institute such an order. The Buddha also showed through his behavior that he wanted the monks and nuns to be equal. Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh discusses this point at length in her article, “The History of the Bhikkhuni Sangha.”[4] However, the Vinaya adds eight additional rules to the monastic order for nuns. The effect of these rules was to submit the nuns to the authority of the monks. The adoption of these rules appears to have been politically motivated.

That they are authentic is suggested by the fact the more liberal traditions were left in the canon. Similarly troubling sayings were left in in the Christian New Testament; they were too well established to be removed. The evidence of the canon is there were many women in the sangha. The Buddha speaks with and teaches women, apparently on an equal basis with male monastics and householders.

This would explain the widely doubted conversation between Ananda and the Buddha in which the Buddha refused to ordain women but had to be persuaded to do so by Ananda, and the Buddha’s prophecy that the life of the sangha would be halved from 1000 to 500 years as a result. Many scholars consider this conversation to be an invention. There are many references to bhikkhunis all through the Pali Canon.

The most likely conclusion is that the Buddha, like Yeshua, was far ahead of his time in terms of his attitude to women. Probably he freely admitted women to the sangha, and conversed with them as equals, just as he did with the four castes of the Indian caste system, which he opposed. This seems to be the view of the right attitude to women most consistent with the tone and tenor of the ethical teachings in general, especially concerning caste. Within the sangha, the only proper separator was seniority.

Perfect Livelihood

Right livelihood (sammā ājīwa) is the fifth step in the Eightfold Path. It is the highest step of the middle, ethical (sīla) section of the Path, consisting of three steps. Right livelihood specifically addresses the dharmic way of living as a householder. The Eightfold Path begins with right view and the cultivation of wisdom. This shows that the experience of awakening is not exclusive of the state of a putthojana, especially if one accepts Peter Masefield’s sequential view of the path.

Awakening is sufficient to achieve enlightenment, though not identical with it. Therefore, the householder is not excluded from enlightenment. Formal chastity too is also not a requirement of awakening. The Buddha commended householders to practise self-restraint and mutual respect. The Buddha praised the love that arises from the state of being married. He declared such love could bring about a fortunate rebirth in a dewa world. He also preferred marriage based on love to arranged marriage. The Buddha considered arranged marriage to be a degenerate practice of the Brahmans. He also taught the practice of metta, “loving kindness.”

If there were any further doubt, one has the example of King Bimbisara of the Magadha Empire. Ajatasattu, his son, assassinated Bimbisara. King Bimbisara was both a householder and a king. Nevertheless, he achieved “stream entry.” Stream entry is equivalent at least to the attainment of Right View. I have called this “awakening.” Such an individual is automatically ariyan, if not arahant. Therefore, he is a member of the ariyasangha, whereas the ordinary sangha includes puthujjana. Dr. Masefield has documented this in detail. 

The Way of the Puthujjana

The Buddha was passing through the market town of Kakkarapatta, in the country of the Koliyans, one of the sixteen Himalayan countries of 5th century BCE India. A man called Dighajanu approached the Buddha. He asked him how he and his people, as lay people and householders, with children and families, engaged with all the things of sense, could benefit from the Dhamma, both in this life and in the next. The Buddha, in turn, taught him four things that lead to satisfaction in this life, and four more things that lead to satisfaction in the next life.

To obtain benefits in this life, the Buddha recommends learning a profession, consolidating one’s wealth, co-operating with neighbours, and living simply and frugally with self-restraint. To obtain benefits in the next life, the Buddha recommends following the Dhamma, practising self-restraint, being generous, and cultivating wisdom. He especially recommended the realization of the truth of impermanence and the chain of cause and effect (paticchasamuppāda). These realizations are widely considered the essential realizations that lead to the realization of emptiness and nibbana itself. The Buddha gives the same advice to women. The law of kamma may be used to benefit oneself in this life and the next. It is also a way of spiritual development that leads directly to enlightenment itself and not merely to some secondary state.

Living Magically

The law of kamma on the one hand, including mind in the six sense spheres on the other, gives mind the same ontological status as seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling. The recognition of mind as a “sixth sense” results in the realization that the individual can influence their experience of the world, and therefore the world itself, directly through the exercise of intention. Intention is the foundation of merit and of metta meditation. Therefore, it follows that, by a combination of self-purification and karmically beneficial actions, one can exercise a general influence on one’s future destiny. If one accepts that the puthujjana, the ordinary man, can do this, how much further can this be taken by the non-ordinary man, the bodhisatta, the arahant, or even the Buddha himself? In Tibet, one has the tulku tradition, in which the time and place of the future rebirth of a practitioner who has reached a certain level of realization can be predicted or discovered by intuitive methods.

When travelling amongst the Bhagga people, the Buddha was approached by the householder Nakulapita and his wife, Nakulamata. Nakulapita performs an act of truth. He affirms he has never wronged his wife, even in his mind. By this act of power, he declares the intention they should be reborn together in their next life. Nakulamata amplifies this act of truth by a second act of truth, identical to her husband’s.

Rather than rebuking the couple, the Buddha declares that a couple who formulates the strong intention to be reborn together should exist in a single harmony of spirit. By the force of their intention, they will achieve their will. Kamma is not something abstract or theoretical. It is vital, powerful, and influential. Kamma is the force of intention. The “power of truth” is an example of the dhamma that developed into Tantra. Keep in mind that this is an ancient text. Along with many other references, it shows that “proto-Tantra” reaches into the deepest strata of the Pali Canon.

This situation is like Christianity. Many Gnostic or proto-Gnostic texts have been discovered to be as old as or older than the most ancient canonical writings preserved in the New Testament, to the embarrassment of the Church. The Buddha also declared that this kind of love, which clearly includes non-celibate sexual love, purified by self-restraint and mutual respect, merits rebirth in a dewa world, that is, one of the higher, more spiritual worlds. Therefore, it may be used as a spiritual practice in its own right.

From this perspective, the otherwise bizarre “teaching” of the Buddha concerning the seven sorts of marriages may be understood. Sujata is the unruly daughter-in-law of the householder Anatthapindaka. The Buddha has come to his house for his morning meal. Sujata is spoiled and disobedient. The Buddha asks her what sort of wife she is. She replies she does not understand the question and asks the Buddha to explain the dhamma “in detail.” The Buddha describes seven sorts of wives: slayer, thief, tyrant, mother, sister, and friend, culminating in what Bodhi translates as “handmaid.” Sujata then enthusiastically informs the Buddha, perhaps with a sly wink, that henceforth she will be a “handmaiden.” Bodhi acknowledges in a footnote that this word means “a female slave” (dāsī).

Let us stop a moment and consider this text. Bodhi is quoting Sutta 63 of the Book of Sevens in the Anguttara Nikaya. In fact, Bodhi changed his translation of dasi from “slave” to “handmaid” for his anthology. What is one to make of this? It seems impossible to believe the Buddha actually advocated that a wife should be a slave to her husband or be willing to die rather than offend him. The subservience of women goes against the grain of all of the Buddha’s ethical teachings. The Buddha clearly opposed caste and slavery. On the other hand, the text was left unaltered after more than 350 years by the ultra-conservative Sri Lankan male monastics and is therefore canonical. Is this just another expression of anti-female anxiety on the part of the male monastics, or might it carry a deeper meaning, in the same way the story of the conversion of the mass murderer, Angulimala, in the sutta that bears his name seems to carry a deeper meaning, also involving sexuality?[5]  Sexual and shamanic teachings are also referred to elsewhere in the Pali Canon.

If one follows this train of thought, the implication may be that the highest type of woman is to act as a consort to an advanced spiritual practitioner who is also a householder. Monks are clearly restrained by the requirement of chastity. It is interesting that Sujata is described as independent and disrespectful – just the sort of woman who might fulfill such a role. The Buddha says such a woman merits rebirth in a dewa state. One finds teachings like this in Tibetan Buddhism too.

In fact, Anathapindika was the foremost lay follower of the Buddha. He was reborn in the Tusita world as a bodhisatta. Anathapindika’s attainment of the dhamma eye (dhammachakkhu) means he entered the irreversible stream of the path immediately during or just after his first conversation with the Buddha. It refers to the attainment of Perfect View. Anathapindika was a householder and a wealthy businessman to boot. He was a married man with two sons and three daughters. Clearly, he was not celibate. Subsequently, he was reduced to poverty and predeceased the Buddha. Thus, the context supports my interpretation. Anathapindika was not an ordinary householder.

[2] Ethics are little more than social conventions (from Greek ethos, custom). Compare morality (Latin mores, customs or manners).

[3] The Buddha argued that since the Greeks had two castes, masters and slaves, each of which were able to be demoted or promoted to either state, the Brahman claim of caste immutability is disproved. He may also be implying that the Indian system of four castes is arbitrary.

[5] See “Who Was Angulimala?” in Gombrich (1996), Chap. 5 and “Beyond Good and Evil: The Story of Angulimala” (Aug. 11, 2012), The Angulimala Sutta is Sutta 86 in the Rajavagga section of the Majjhima NIkaya.


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