The Dharma of Social Transformation

Charles Johnson argues that in cutting the root of our own suffering, we can't help but confront the suffering of society.

Charles Johnson

For one answer, we need only look to the remarkable life and works of Ashoka, ruler of the Maurya kingdom from about 272–236 B.C.E. After waging but one military campaign, which conquered the Kalingas around 264 B.C.E (150,000 were deported, 100,000 were killed, and many more died), Ashoka was so appalled by the carnage and cruelty of war that he embraced the dharma and for twenty-eight years devoted himself to the creation of hospitals, charities, public gardens, education for women, the protection of animals, and caring for everyone in his kingdom. He exercised compassion toward lawbreakers and prisoners, cultivated harmonious relations with neighboring states, and encouraged the study of other religions.

The wise lay Buddhist Ashoka was hardly alone among leaders who translated the virtue of ahimsa (nonharm) into civic life. In his book Inner Revolution, Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman reminds us that the revered second-century monk Nagarjuna [see "The Second Buddha."] was the mentor of the South Indian King Udayi; he told him, "O King! Just as you love to consider what to do to help yourself, so should you love to consider what to do to help others!"

According to Thurman, Nagarjuna, whose counsel is recorded in the five hundred verses of The Precious Garland, "taught his friend the king how to care for every being in the kingdom: by building schools everywhere and endowing honest, kind, and brilliant teachers; by providing for all his subjects' needs, opening free restaurants and inns for travelers; by tempering justice with mercy, sending barbers, doctors, and teachers to the prisons to serve the inmates; by thinking of each prisoner as his own wayward child, to be corrected in order to return to free society and use his or her precious human life to attain enlightenment." Thurman observes: "This activism is implicit in the earliest teachings of the Buddha, and in his actions, though his focus at that time was on individual transformation, the prerequisite of social transformation."

Buddhist history, with which Tillich may not have been well acquainted, offers us time and again concrete examples of how the dharma has inspired enlightened social policies. But, like many Western intellectuals, Tillich was unable—or perhaps unwilling—to accept the doctrine of anatta, and worried a bit more than he should have about defining nirvana. Yet we cannot dismiss too quickly the pivotal questions he raised: Without a belief in true individuality, a discrete ego that is enduring, immutable, and independent from other essences, can there be a community of individuals in the dharma? Is there truly no will to transform the lives of others in Buddhism, but only the intention to secure one's own salvation from reality?

Clearly, asking these questions from the standpoint of nirvana is as nonsensical as asking "What is the distance from one o'clock to London Bridge?" Ultimate truth (paramartha-satya) is a nonconceptual and nondiscursive insight into ourselves and the world. Nirvana literally means "blowing out" (Sanskrit nir "out," vana "blown") craving and a chimerical sense of the self, like a candle's flame, allowing us to experience things in their true impermanence, codependency, and emptiness (shunyata). "In Buddhism," Thich Nhat Hahn reminds us, "we never talk about Nirvana, because Nirvana means the extinction of all notions, concepts, and speech."

However, Buddhism also acknowledges a region of conventional, relative truth (samvriti-satya) that is our daily, lived experience, and for this reason Shakyamuni Buddha in the sutras can refer to his disciples individually and by name. Here, in the realm of relative truth and contingency, of conditioned arising, each person presents to us a phenomenal, historical "substance," which due to custom and habit we refer to as "individuality." The same things have not happened to or shaped us all since birth. Our lives differ so radically and with such richness that, personally, I prefer to see the Other as a great and glorious mystery about which I can never make any ironclad assumptions or judgments. The very act of predication is always risky, based as it is on partial information that is subject to change when new evidence arises.dharma of social transformation

THUS, WHAT IS REQUIRED OF US in the social world is nothing less than vigilant mindfulness. Even though we can say that each person has a "separate" history, the dharma teaches—as does quantum mechanics—that we are really a process, not a product: We are each an "individuality" ever arising and passing away, every one of us a "network of mutuality," as Martin Luther King, Jr., famously said. In the ontology of the Buddha-dharma, everything is a shifting assemblage of five skandhas, the "aggregates" that make up individual experience, with no "essence" or "substance" discernible in the concatenation of causes and conditions that create our being instant by instant. For this reason, if I am practicing mindfulness, phenomena ever radiate a surprising and refreshing newness. The "cold" and "wetness" of the water I drank at noon can never be the same "cold" and "wetness" of the water I drink at night. My wife of thirty-six years is hardly—as she will quickly tell you—the same young woman I wooed when we were both twenty years old. (Nor am I the same naive young swain I was back then, thank heaven!) Far from being "salvation from reality," as Tillich stated, Buddhist meditation is instead a paying of extraordinarily close attention to every nuance of our experience.

Something I find worthy of contemplation is how in the dialectic between samsara and nirvana, the dreamworld of samsara is logically prior to and quite necessary for the awakening to nirvana. Discussing Tantric Buddhism, scholar Gunapala Dharmasiri says, "We make a Samsara out of Nirvana through our conceptual projections. Tantrics maintain that the world is there for two purposes. One is to help us to attain enlightenment. As the world is, in fact, Nirvana, the means of the world can be utilized to realize Nirvana, when used in the correct way."

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