On justice and activism in Pali Buddhism

My discussion with Justin Whitaker continues after my last post, which was a response to his original post about trans* inclusiveness in Buddhism.

There followed a discussion back and forth between Justin and myself. The discussion has moved away from anything to do with trans* issues, which is fine with me because my point, and I think Justin’s too, was about something bigger: the role of justice and activism in Buddhist tradition. I won’t try to recap the discussion here because the link is available for those who haven’t seen it. I’ll just refresh your memory by quoting Justin’s most recent comment:

I took it to be you that was introducing the ultimate/conventional split by suggesting that “Buddhism is supposed to be about things that are more important than justice.”

My suggestion was that if you’re only looking at this “supposed to be” then you’re probably ignoring all of the conventional aspects of Buddhism, which is “about” a lot of things that we could call mundane or conventional.

I keep pointing to instances of Buddhism being about “conventional” life and I’m not sure this should need to be spelled out in the suttas, i.e. “now I’m going to talk about conventional things, oh monks…” My point is that Buddhism isn’t just about awakening, or seeing beyond all duality, or getting past one’s problems in the external world. This (if I’m interpreting your above quoted sentence correctly) would be more of the modern projection I’d be worried about. Buddhism is also about dealing skillfully in society (or historically at least Buddhists did attempt this where ever they went).

Here is the crux of the disagreement: is it a “modern projection” to say that Buddhism is “about” awakening and not about justice? I continue to reply: no, the opposite. It is a modern projection to say that Buddhism is about justice. (This is a topic I developed in some length with reference to Śāntideva in the later sections of my Journal of Buddhist Ethics article.) There is one important caveat to be introduced here: the idea that “Buddhism is about” anything is in its way modern, since the term “Buddhism”, like “Hinduism”, is a modern one.

However, unlike for “Hinduism”, there is a premodern (or at least pre-medieval) referent close to the term “Buddhism”, which is buddhadhamma, the teachings of the Buddha. (Buddhadhamma is a Pali term; in Sanskrit it becomes buddhadharma, and any number of permutations in other languages. I will limit this discussion to Pali and Pali-derived tradition since Justin and I are both quite familiar with it, and since that’s where the discussion has gone so far.)

The difference between “Buddhism” and buddhadhamma, though, is that buddhadhamma refers specifically to the teachings attributed to the Buddha, the sutta, vinaya and abhidhamma texts; it does not mean “whatever the people we call ‘Buddhists’ happen to do.” If one wanted a wider equivalent, one could point to the tiratana or triratna, the “three jewels” of buddha, dhamma and saṅgha. Here the practices of Buddhists – the saṅgha – matter. But the saṅgha, traditionally, is the monkhood, not the householders. So no matter how “Buddhist” we consider them, the fact that “Buddhist” householders did something is in a premodern context not a reason to consider it “a part of Buddhism” or “something Buddhism is about”; it is not part of the buddhadhamma or tiratana.

That point may be somewhat tangential to the discussion, because much of what we have come back to is the suttas themselves (and related texts) – but it’s worth clarifying our terms here, because it’s easy to get misled once one starts using terms like “the conventional aspects of Buddhism”.

Regarding the ultimate/conventional (samutti/paramattha) dichotomy, too, I’ve been trying to say that in the Pali texts, at least, that’s not even what that dichotomy means. I’m not sure that distinction appears in the suttas at all; if it does, it’s rare. It’s more common in the abhidhamma, and there it is largely metaphysical, referring to truth, and usually specifically to the self (which exists at a conventional level but not an ultimate). I’m not aware of any place in any Pali text up to and including Buddhaghosa’s time where a distinction is ever made between “ultimate suffering” and “conventional suffering”. If we’re trying to get the ancient tradition right, it is likely to mislead us to apply this vocabulary anachronistically to topics it was never used to discuss. Talking about liberation vs. politics in terms of ultimate vs. conventional is like talking about them in terms of samathā vs. vipassanā – those terms exist in the tradition, but that just isn’t what they mean or what they’re about.

In Pali, the distinction Justin is expressing is represented less by the terms samutti and paramattha, and more by lokiya (Sanskrit laukika) and lokuttara (lokottara) – worldly and other-worldly. When lokiya action is discussed, it is frequently identified as a second-best solution: the way to act for those who aren’t good enough and developed enough to reach for the real lokuttara prize. Earning good kamma for a better rebirth, because one is not yet ready to be liberated from suffering.

Going more specifically to the texts, Justin’s points have tended to refer back to the Sigālovāda Sutta. Here, indeed, Justin is right to say that “dealing skillfully in society” matters within the buddhadhamma. But two things are worth considering here. First, we should note that the Sigālovāda is a rarity. It’s not the only sutta that deals with conduct in mundane society, but it’s one of a very few, dwarfed by suttas about awakening and liberation, and the role of monasticism and metaphysics in leading one there.

But more importantly, and worth stressing again, the Sigālovāda itself is not about justice, social or otherwise. There is no word in it, as far as I am aware, that can be reasonably translated “justice” – I can’t think of such a word in the Pali language in general. The concern is not with justice but with harmonious relation (and self-cultivation, of course). Still less is the sutta about activism. There is a subtle form of social change in that some of the structures of existing society (Vedic rituals) can be safely ignored – other things, like the family, are more important, and one’s existing concern with Vedic ritual should be reoriented to them. But one doesn’t actually work to change those existing structures – beyond the fact that perhaps if one changes people’s minds toward liberation they might ignore those structures too. One doesn’t work towards social change; one works toward liberation, and if society happens to change as a result, that’s a nice side benefit.

Does the buddhadhamma, as traditionally understood, include standards of good conduct within lay society? Yes, but they’re not a major concern of the texts, they don’t make reference to justice, and they’re not about activism to change the structures of that society. I think it is fair, then, to say that the Pali buddhadhamma is indeed “supposed to be about things that are more important than justice”.

About Amod Lele

Amod Lele is Lecturer in Philosophy, Educational Technologist in Information Services & Technology, and Visiting Researcher in the Study of Asia at Boston University. He administers the technical side of the Indian Philosophy Blog, as well as running his own cross-cultural philosophy blog, Love of All Wisdom. He holds a PhD with a South Asia focus from the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. You can find out more about him than you ever wanted to know at his ePortfolio.

4 thoughts on “On justice and activism in Pali Buddhism

  1. Thanks for this, Amod. I think we *might* be coming toward a sense of agreement here. Let us focus, briefly, on one word I used that doesn’t come up in your restatement: ‘just’, as in “My point is that Buddhism isn’t just about awakening, or…”

    In dealing with issues such as trans*identity or other questions we would today lump under the term ‘justice’, I still think Buddhism, both as Buddhadhamma and sasana, has a lot to say. I also agree that Buddhism is about awakening; but not *just* awakening.

    Bhikkhu Bodhi, in his *In the Buddha’s Words* anthology (pp. 18-20), draws from commentarial literature to divide the teachings into three categories:
    1) those which lead to welfare and happiness visible in this present life (ditthadhamma-hitasukha),
    2) those which lead to welfare and happiness in the next life (samparayika-hitasukha), and
    3) those which lead to the ultimate goal (paramattha), awakening.
    He goes on to say:
    “Although Early Buddhism is often depicted as a radical discipline of renunciation directed to a transcendental goal, the Nikayas reveal the Buddha to have been a compassionate and pragmatic teacher who was intent on promoting a social order in which people can live together peacefully and harmoniously in accordance with ethical guidelines” (p.20).

    So when you wrote (going back to the original comment and post): “None of this is intended to deny that the slights faced daily by trans* people are injustices. Rather, it’s to point out that Buddhism is supposed to be about things that are more important than justice” I took it that you were reducing, incorrectly, Early Buddhism to *only* the 3rd category.

    If you had said something like, “yes, this is a problem that Buddhists should address [and perhaps early teachings can point us to ways to do this], but the teachings also urge one to seek a goal beyond such problems,” then we wouldn’t have had the initial disagreement. Some of the Pali Buddhadhamma is about things more important than justice; but then, some of it isn’t.

    We can quibble about definitions such as ‘harmony’ vs ‘justice’ (or what constitutes ‘activism’) but certainly there is overlap and some definitions of what Bhikkhu Bodhi refers to above can fit within an appropriately wide definition of ‘justice’. Or do you think a Buddhist ‘harmonious and peaceful’ society can exist apart from justice? Or do you think that the teachings focused on such a society, along with the “this is how you should treat so-and-so” exhortations in the Pali Canon aren’t really important to Buddhism?

    • Sorry for the delay. Not sure we’re coming to agreement; let us see…

      Starting near the end: “do you think a Buddhist ‘harmonious and peaceful’ society can exist apart from justice?” Certainly. After all, it has for thousands of years. I think there is plenty that we would want to say was unjust in traditional Sri Lanka or Japan or Thailand, but the kinds of social goals described in the Sigālovāda (e.g. families getting along) would seem to fit those societies just fine.

      It’s hard to specify what “really important to Buddhism” means, in the sense of where to draw the line between important and not important; the existence of suttas like the Sigālovāda implies that those social goals mattered to some extent, but their relative rarity implies that they didn’t matter all that much. And I think there’s a good reason for the latter. If we take the suttas in general and ask what they would count as producing ditthadhammahitasukha, happiness visible in that life, I think that too is most likely to have to do with peace of mind rather than external social conditions. There’s a lot more in there about happiness from the former than from the latter.

  2. Another angle to look at this is: from a Buddhist point of view, Tathāgatas do not arise in the world to preach mundane topics. They may speak about it in the context of the noble eightfold path, but that is not their main task. The arising of a Tathāgata in the world is an extremely rare event, and they arise to do a job that other worldly philosophers cannot do: expound the four noble truths, the three characteristics, the noble eightfold path, dependent origination, etc – and guide sentient beings (humans and devas) to liberation (part of this is establishing a new monastic lineage). They will advise on matters of good conduct but as for social justice in general (where any solution derived is always going to be bound by the law of impermanence) there are other philosophers who will be up to the task.

    And don’t forget that considering Buddhist cosmology, there are far worst places one can end up than the human realm (in fact humans and animals seem to have the shortest lifespans in the cosmological scale in the canon). So if you’ve been lucky enough to have received a human birth with a working mind and during a time during which the teachings of a Buddha exist in this world (an extremely rare and wonderful opportunity according to the Suttas) then the best course of action seems to be to keep your head down and work for liberation (both your own and for others).

    Worldly beings (i.e. those who are not noble persons – not stream enterers, once returners, non-returners or arahats), since they have lust, hatred and delusion – are always going to be cruel to each other. One can help mitigate the situation, but not permanently eradicate it. If a permanently just society could be built, then there would be no reason to escape existence – which is the goal of practicing the Dhamma. The discourses have the Buddha saiying: “Just as in the great ocean there is but one taste — the taste of salt — so in this Doctrine and Discipline (dhammavinaya) there is but one taste — the taste of freedom”.

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