Western liberal democratic society is based upon ideals of justice, human rights and equality and these are themselves rooted in certain assumptions about individual human dignity and freedom that have their roots in the Western tradition. It is not readily apparent that these concepts have any grounding in Buddhist theory, even though Buddhism is centrally concerned with righting many of the wrongs of oppressive social systems. Much of what is called socially engaged Buddhism is not soundly rooted in Buddhist theory but
is simply liberal democratic theory implemented by people who happen to be Buddhist. There is a need, therefore, for Buddhist social theory to be more clearly articulated. Even where this has been done, however, the results are of limited usefulness from a Pureland perspective, being often grounded in the Buddhist theory of the Dharma-raja - the Wheel Turning Monarch - a theory that too easily leans toward enlightened autocracy.
What then is Buddhist social theory from an Amidist perspective? We have to say that this is work in progress, but certain principles and directions are apparent both in terms of critique and in terms of positive theory building. It is, however, worth reflecting upon the fact that Buddhism has its own tradition of jurisprudence within the sangha going back to the Buddha’s own lifetime and the compilation of the vinaya through the accumulation of case law. Vinaya tradition does prescribe the use of social forums within which disputes are to be settled and directions made for future conduct. Buddhist texts include passages prescribing methods for the settlement of disputes and the regulation of behaviour threatening to the integrity of the community. It prescribes methods of conflict resolution as well as sanctions for use in those cases where such attempted resolution is unsuccessful.
The Western concept of justice derives in part from ancient Greece and in part from the Old Testament. The former gives us the idea of reparation, particularly repair to the social fabric (Aristotle), and of justice as the natural state of the well ordered republic (Plato). The latter gives us the idea of proportionate response (Moses) and the notion of protection of the poor and the vulnerable (Amos). These four concepts underpin most contemporary debate on justice. In Buddhism, rather different principles inform us. Firstly, Pureland Buddhism is forward looking. Reparation is not that strong a principle. There is no myth of a Garden of Eden in the past - our paradise is in the future. Thus the idea of restoring the status quo ante is not a priority in Buddhism. The priority is to create an improved future. In similar fashion, the natural state is assumed to be one of dukkha, affliction, in which the participants are foolish beings. This, combined with the Buddhist principle of dependent origination means that the premium in Buddhism is upon finding ways to create conditions that will foster a better future than the past and present - a past and present that is assumed to be irreparable and inherently faulty. This principle of improvement applies to the individual people as well as to the social fabric at all levels. This also means that Buddhism is not concerned with proportionate response or punishment in the Old Testament sense, except insofar as this is the only method of establishing future harmony. It is, however, very concerned with assisting the afflicted and oppressed and in raising their dignity and access to the means to social function.
The Western notion of equality can be divided into a concept of formal equality and one of substantive equality. Formal equality basically means treating everybody the same. Substantive equality adds into this the fact that people do not start off on an equal footing and so brings in the possibility of positive discrimination to even up the inequalities inherited from history or nature. Either way, there is in the background to this idea the sense of social life as a race or competition that is to be conducted according to rules that are seen to be fair. This notion is alien to Buddhism. The competitive idea is also rooted in an assumption that the normal state is one of full ability and corresponding entitlement. All this is non-Buddhist and especially alien to Pureland where the assumption is that nobody is fully able and that evening everybody up to that notional level is not a viable option. In place of equality, therefore, Pureland suggests the notion of fellow-feeling. Where equality implies that everybody is good and complete, fellow-feeling suggests that everybody is deficient in various ways, everybody is less than perfect, has faults and failings and is incomplete. This is a more realistic starting point. It suggests co-operation, sharing and tolerance without eliminating the desirability of improvement.
Human rights are an idea that has grown up in the context of the nation state. Originally they referred to the rights of the citizen to freedom from undue coercion by the otherwise absolute monarch. As monarchy has been replaced by forms of representative democracy the concept of rights has been even further developed. Some rights concern safety and some concern freedom of expression and lifestyle. The deficiency in rights theory lies in the absence of any concept of the general good. Buddhism has developed the idea of penetrating wisdom as indicating skill in discerning the general as well as the individual good. Also, in Buddhism, the good does not primarily lies in the area of property rights - though these are recognised - but in the area of social and individual spiritual improvement. This does have some correspondence in the Western tradition is what is sometimes referred to as “the wisdom of Solomon”.
It should further be noted that Pureland places great emphasis upon contrition. The Amida community is willing to go to considerable lengths to work with parties in dispute in order to arrive at the point where some softening of heart occurs. The procedures for dealing with non-virtuous behaviour, therefore, include several stages. Firstly, we have procedures for monitoring the spiritual health of the community through gatherings in which we listen to one another. The group process is here taken to be wiser than the individual and, in some degree, is associated with the reading of the voice of other power in our midst. Gathering may not be simply preventive, however. They also have to deal with substantive disputes and departures from established standards of behaviour. In this case all parties are heard and considerable effort is expended upon seeking a deepening of faith sufficient to bring the whole community and especially the parties most affected into a new positive resolve. If appropriate meetings may be conducted using different combinations of peopel or small groups and it may take time to resolve the most intractable problems. It is not, however, assumed that everything can be achieved by talking. Sometimes a cooling off period is useful. Also, change is not real until demonstrated in changes behaviour, so action is important. Sometimes changes in roles may assist. Throughout, the concern is to find a way in which changing the conditions will produce a better future. This is not, however, a process of appeasing. The solution may lie in giving a person a more rather than less challenging role. The aim is that all learn and grow, both individually and collectively. Starting from the base of fellow feeling and concern for the common good we are not looking to blame, but to improve.
Buddhist Social Theory - part II
The above principles have broad implications of a revolutionary nature since they establish different principles not only for the resolution of social conflicts but also for the building of social institutions. Let us consider some examples. Clearly Buddhism prescribes something like courts - social forums within which disputes are to be dealt with - however, what a Buddhist court is trying to achieve is often quite different from what one based on individual rights, duties and punishments is looking for.
Similarly, the relation between people and work is quite different in a Buddhist community as compared with liberal society. In the latter work is organized according to industrial and bureaucratic logic in which, on one side, one starts from goals, works back to tasks and then seeks to recruit suitably qualified people, and, on the other side, individual seek jobs regarding them as a form of property. In Buddhism, one starts from the people one has, assesses their talents and spiritual needs, assesses the work that is to hand in terms both of its urgency and of its ability to furnish the opportunities for those needs to be worked on, and then matches the people and the work together. This matching is never regarded as permanent. In the classical large monastic communities of China, all posts were held for a year. Even within that span some reallocation of duties could occur. Again, the harmony of the community is regarded as more important than competition. This does not mean that people do not work hard - they often work harder.
The Buddhist approach does not lead to the parcelling out of everything in the world as property. Recent patent law, for instance, has brought many things into the realm of property law that were not formerly considered so. This is not the Buddhist way. There is no drive to privatise. Some things will be private - Buddhism does not imply complete communism - but there is no need to stretch the idea of privacy to an extreme. The common good must always be considered an important element in all social decisions.
The nembutsu principles apply to institutions as much as individuals. Institutions have bonbu nature. There is nothing magic about them. Organisation is necessary and important to get things done for the common good, but that is all.If society is to continue to treat institutions as artificial persons for legal purposes, then those incorporate bodies must also, from a Pureland perspective, be deemed to be capable of contrition and faith and this can be realised institutionally. One can imagine forums in a truely Buddhist society in which the adjudicating assembly wanted to see evidence that a corporate body was contrite or that it had renewed faith. These processes might be expressed through the sentiments of its agent, but also in its will and acts toward persons and groups formerly wronged and toward the society. Faith implies harmonious participation.
The above is less even than an outline sketch, but it provides some starting points for the development of a truly Pureland social theory that is forward looking, rooted in genuinely Buddhist principles, and builds upon Buddhism’s long history of social organisation and of jurisprudence within its own community.