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The Buddha's Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony
»» General Introduction

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Conflict and violence have plagued humankind from time immemorial, leaving the annals of history stained with blood. While the human heart has always stirred with the yearning for peace, harmony, and loving fellowship, the means of satisfying this yearning have ever proved elusive. In international relations, wars succeed one another like scenes in a film, with only brief pauses during which the hostile powers set about forging new alliances and making surreptitious grabs for territory. Social systems are constantly torn by class struggles, in which the elite class seeks to amass more privileges and the subordinate class to achieve greater rights and more security. Whether it is the conflict between masters and slaves, between feudal lords and serfs, between the aristocrats and the common people, between capital and labor, it seems that only the faces change while the underlying dynamics of the power struggle remain the same. Communities as well are constantly threatened by internal strife. Rival bids for power, differences of opinion, and competing interests among their members can tear them apart, giving birth to new cycles of enmity. When each new war, division, or dispute has peaked, the hope rises that reconciliation will follow, that peace and unity will eventually prevail. Yet, again and again, these hopes are quickly disappointed.

A moving passage in the scriptures of Early Buddhism testifies to this disparity between our aspirations for peace and the stark reality of perpetual conflict. On one occasion, it is said, Sakka, the ruler of the gods, visited the Buddha and asked the anguished question: “Why is it that when people wish to live in peace, without hatred or enmity, they are everywhere embroiled in hatred and enmity?” (see Text VIII,1). The same question rings down the ages, and it could be asked with equal urgency about many troublespots in today’s world: Iraq and Syria, the Gaza Strip, the Central African Republic and South Sudan, Myanmar and Sri Lanka, Charleston and Baltimore.

This problem must also have weighed on the Buddha’s heart as he traveled the Ganges plain on his teaching tours. The society of his time was divided into separate castes distinguished by the prerogatives of the elite and the servile status of those at the bottom. Those outside the caste system, the outcasts, were treated even worse, subjected to the most degrading indignities. The political landscape, too, was changing, as monarchies led by ambitious kings rose from the ashes of the older tribal states and embarked on military campaigns intended to expand their domains. Within the courts personal rivalries among those hungry for power were bitter. Even the spiritual communities of the time were not immune to conflict. Philosophers and ascetics proud of their theories sparred with each other in passionate debates, each seeking to defeat their rivals and swell the ranks of their followers.

In a deeply moving poem in the Suttanipāta (vv. 935–37) the Buddha gives voice to the feeling of vertigo such violence had produced in him, perhaps soon after he left Kapilavatthu and witnessed firsthand the world outside his native land:

Fear has arisen from one who has taken up violence:
behold the people engaged in strife.
I will tell you of my sense of urgency,
how I was stirred by a sense of urgency.

Having seen people trembling
like fish in a brook with little water,
when I saw them hostile to one another,
fear came upon me.

The world was insubstantial all around;
all the directions were in turmoil.
Desiring an abode for myself,
I did not see any place unoccupied.

Once he began teaching, the Buddha’s primary mission was to make known the path that culminates in inner peace, in the supreme security of nibbāna, release from the cycle of birth, old age, and death. But the Buddha did not turn his back on the human condition in favor of a purely ascetic, introspective quest for liberation. From his position as a renunciant who stood outside the conventional social order, he looked with deep concern on struggling humanity, enmeshed in conflict while aspiring for peace, and out of compassion he sought to bring harmony into the troubled arena of human relations, to promote a way of life based on tolerance, concord, and kindness.

But he did even more. He founded an intentional community devoted to fostering inner and outer peace. This task was thrust upon him almost from the start; for the Buddha was not a solitary wanderer, teaching those who came to him for guidance and then leaving them to their own devices. He was the founder of a new spiritual movement that from the outset was inevitably communal. Immediately after he concluded his first sermon, the five ascetics who heard it asked to become his disciples. As time went on, his teaching attracted increasing numbers of men and women who chose to follow him into the life of homelessness and take on the full burden of his training. Thus a Sangha — a community of monks and nuns who lived in groups, traveled in groups, and trained in groups — gradually developed around him.

Changing from their lay garments into ocher robes, however, was not an immediate passport to holiness. While their way of life had altered, the monks and nuns who entered the Buddha’s order still brought along with them the ingrained human tendencies toward anger, pride, ambition, envy, self-righteousness, and opinionatedness. It was thus inevitable that tensions within the monastic community would arise, develop at times into outright antagonism, and spawn factionalism, strife, and even bitter conflict. For the Sangha to flourish, the Buddha had indeed to become an “organization man.” While he could proclaim high spiritual ideals toward which his disciples could strive, this was not sufficient to ensure harmony in the Sangha. He also had to establish a detailed code of regulations for the uniform performance of communal functions and to promulgate rules that would restrain if not totally obliterate divisive tendencies. These became the Vinaya, the body of monastic discipline.

The Buddha also taught and guided people who chose to follow his teachings at home, as lay disciples, living in the midst of their families and working at their regular occupations. He was thus faced with the additional task of laying down guidelines for society as a whole. In addition to a basic code of lay precepts, he had to offer principles to ensure that parents and children, husbands and wives, employers and employees, and people from very different backgrounds and social classes would be able to live together amicably. In the face of these challenges the scope of the Dhamma expanded. From its original character as a path to spiritual liberation, centered around contemplative practices and philosophical insights, it gave rise to a broad ethic that applied not only to individual conduct but to the relations between people living under diverse conditions, whether in monasteries or at home, whether pursuing their livelihoods in the marketplace or workshop or in the service of the state. Under all these circumstances, the chief ethical requirement was the avoidance of harm: harm through aggression, harm by trampling on the claims of others, harm through conflict and violence. The ideal was to promote good will and harmony in action, speech, and thought.


The present anthology is intended to bring to light the Buddha’s teachings on social and communal harmony. It is based on a selection of texts I compiled in 2011 at the request of the Program on Peace-building and Rights of the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University, intended for use among Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the country’s long ethnic conflict that ended in 2009. This expanded version includes new texts and changes in the arrangement.

The texts are all taken from the Pāli Canon, the body of scriptures regarded as authoritative “Word of the Buddha” (buddha-vacana) by followers of Theravāda Buddhism, the school of Buddhism that prevails in the countries of southern Asia — primarily Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. The passages I have drawn upon come exclusively from the Sutta Piṭaka, the Discourse Collection, which contains the discourses of the Buddha and his eminent disciples. I did not include texts from the other two collections, the Vinaya Piṭaka, the Collection on Monastic Discipline, and the Abhidhamma Piṭaka, the Collection of Doctrinal Treatises. While parts of the Vinaya Piṭaka may have been relevant to this project, the bulk of material in that corpus is concerned with monastic rules and regulations and thus would be more relevant to a specialized readership. Further, those passages of the Vinaya broadly concerned with communal harmony have parallels in the Sutta Piṭaka that have been included here.

Although the Pāli Canon is the authorized scriptural collection of Theravāda Buddhism, the texts of this anthology need not be regarded as narrowly tied to any particular school of Buddhism, for they come from the oldest stratum of Buddhist literature, from collections of discourses that stand at the fountainhead of Buddhism. Nor are these teachings necessarily bound up with any creed or system of religious belief. In their clarity, cogency, and deep understanding of human nature, they should be able to speak to anyone regardless of religious affiliation. The texts have a universal message that makes them applicable to all endeavors to promote amiable relations between people. They provide perceptive diagnoses of the underlying roots of conflict, simply and clearly expressed, and offer practical strategies for resolving disputes, promoting reconciliation, and establishing social harmony.

I have arranged the selections according to a structure that deliberately mirrors, in certain respects, patterns that the Buddha himself adopted in expounding his teaching. In the rest of this general introduction I will explain the logic underlying my arrangement. Each part begins with its own introduction, which is intended to tie together the texts in that chapter and make explicit their connection to the chapter’s theme.

Part I consists of texts on right view or right understanding. The Buddha made right view the first factor of the noble eightfold path and elsewhere stressed the role of right view as a guide to the moral and spiritual life. Since the objective of the present anthology is to provide a Buddhist perspective on communal harmony rather than to show the path to final liberation, the texts I have included here highlight the type of right understanding that fosters ethical conduct. This is sometimes called “mundane right view” — in contrast to “world-transcending right view,” the penetrative insight into the empty and essenceless nature of all conditioned things that severs the roots of bondage to the cycle of rebirths.

Right understanding of the principle of kamma has a decisive impact on one’s conduct. When we realize that our own deeds eventually rebound on ourselves and determine our destiny in future lives, we will be motivated to abandon defiled mental qualities and abstain from bad conduct. Instead, we will be inspired to engage in good conduct and develop wholesome qualities. This pattern is reflected in the structure of the noble eightfold path itself, where right view leads to right intentions, which are in turn manifested in right speech, right action, and right livelihood.

In Part II, I treat the impact of right understanding on the individual under the heading of “personal training.” Early Buddhism sees personal transformation as the key to the transformation of society. A peaceful and harmonious society cannot be imposed from the outside by the decrees of a powerful authority but can only emerge when people rectify their minds and adopt worthy standards of conduct. Thus the task of promoting communal harmony must begin with personal transformation. Personal transformation occurs through a process of training that involves both outward displays of good conduct and inner purification. Following the traditional Buddhist scheme, I subsume this course of personal transformation under the three headings of generosity, ethical self-discipline, and cultivation of the mind.

The chief obstacle to social harmony is anger or resentment. Anger is the seed from which enmity grows, and thus, in the process of personal training, the Buddha gave special attention to controlling and removing anger. I have therefore devoted Part III to “Dealing with Anger.” The texts included reveal the grounds from which anger arises, the drawbacks and dangers in yielding to anger, and the practical antidotes that can be used to remove anger. The main remedy for anger is patience, which the Buddha enjoins even under the most trying circumstances. Thus the last two sections in the chapter comprise texts dealing with patience, both as injunctions and through stories about those who best exemplify patience.

Part IV is devoted to speech. Speech is an aspect of human conduct whose role in relation to social harmony is so vital that the Buddha made right speech a distinct factor in the noble eightfold path. I have followed the Buddha’s example by devoting an extensive selection of texts to the subject of speech. These deal not only with right speech as usually understood but also with the proper way to participate in debates, when to praise and criticize others, and how to correct a wrongdoer when the need arises.

With Part V, we move more explicitly from the sphere of personal cultivation to interpersonal relations. These relations begin with good friendship, a quality the Buddha stressed as the basis for the good life. In the texts I selected, we see the Buddha explain to both his monastic disciples and lay followers the value of associating with good friends, delineate the qualities of a true friend, and describe how friends should treat one another. He relates good friendship to both success in the household life and the spiritual development of the monk.

Part VI expands the scope of the inquiry from personal friendship to wider spheres of influence. In this chapter I include a selection of texts in which the Buddha highlights the social implications of personal conduct. The chapter begins with passages that contrast the foolish person and the wise person, the bad person and the good person. The chapter then goes on to compare those practitioners who are devoted solely to their own good with those who are also devoted to the good of others. The texts consider this dichotomy from the perspectives of both monastic and lay practitioners. What emerges is a clear confirmation that the best course of practice is one dedicated to the twofold good: one’s own and that of others.

Part VII brings us to the establishment of an intentional community. Since the Buddha was the founder of a monastic order, not a secular ruler, the guidelines he proposes for establishing community naturally pertain primarily to monastic life. But on occasion he was requested by civil leaders to provide advice on maintaining harmony in society at large, and the principles he laid down have been preserved in the discourses. Other selections in this chapter are concerned with cooperation between the two branches of the Buddhist community, the monastics and the laity.

Nevertheless, even when they act with the best intentions, people bring along with them tendencies that lead to factionalism and disputes. Disputes form the subject of Part VIII. The texts included here deal with internal disputes among both monastics and laity, which in some respects have similar origins but in other respects spring from different causes. This part leads naturally into Part IX, which is devoted to the means of resolving disputes. Here we see the Buddha in his role as a monastic legislator, laying down guidelines for settling conflicts and proposing modes of training to prevent disputes from erupting in the future.

Part X, the last in this anthology, moves from the intentional community, as represented by the monastic order, to the larger social domain. Its theme is the establishment of an equitable society. I here include passages from the discourses that explore the interwoven and overlapping relationships that constitute the fabric of society. The texts include the Buddha’s teachings on family life, on the relations between parents and children and husbands and wives, and the maintenance of a beneficent home life. The last part of this chapter deals with the Buddha’s political ideals, which are represented by the figure of the “wheel-turning monarch,” the rājā cakkavattī, the righteous ruler who administers his realm in harmony with the moral law. Although principles of governance laid down for a monarch might seem obsolete in our present age with its professed commitment to democracy, in their emphasis on justice, benevolence, and righteousness as the basis for political authority, these ancient Buddhist texts still have contemporary relevance.

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