I am pondering the question of social ethics. I am here at the Garrison Conference of Buddhist teachers and I have been somewhat disturbed that the agenda of the conference seems to have been almost entirely concerned with social issues rather than with teaching Buddhism. I am left with the impression that for many of the people here Buddhism and "social justice" equate. In fact, justice is not really a Buddhist concept at all except in the sense that we think that karma will take care of it. However, if justice were strictly applied we would all be in hell. The benefits that we receive from this universe consistantly out-weigh our deserts by a wide margin. "This is not me; this is not mine; this is not myself" the Buddha said and we could well add "I did not earn it; I do not deserve it; I did not make it myself; it is a gift." The Basic Buddhist stance in relation to life is gratitude leading to love, fellow feeling, sympathetic joy and equanimity; it is not demand, protest, self-affirmation, or anything to do with claiming rights. I do not say that if one is in a culture in which "rights" and "justice" are the common currency one should never employ such language; it might sometimes be upaya (skilful means) so to do, but were one to do so, if one were a Buddhist, one should have at least in oneself a recognition that skilful means is all it is and that Buddhism itself offers a more profound and more true basis that is one's real foundation.
Modern society has become more and more concerned with ethics and so with "guidelines" and rules and correspondingly with complaint and sometimes one feels that "compassion" is shading off into "outrage". The main criticism of this stance comes from the "post-modern" quarter that points out the impossibility of having self-righteous certainty about any such position. Buddhism has a somewhat different angle, as, indeed, does what I, at least, understand as spirituality in general. Those who have a spiritual perspective, however framed, tend toward faith that gives deep assurance and permits a fundamental relaxation. This does make people easier to live with and more fun. The outcome is what some of our friends might recognise as ethical, but it is not achieved by an assertion of principle. It is arrived at by faith, gratitude and finding a refuge that is not self (either individual or collective). I would like to see society permeated by love, compassion and joy, but I am not convinced that this will come about by the kind of positivistic and assertive means that many people here seem to favour, any more than by the other widespread idea of retreating into one's own personal practice and introspective "mindfulness".