“The materials gathered here clearly demonstrate that the ultimate purpose of Buddhism is to serve and benefit humanity. Since what interests me is not converting other people to Buddhism, but how we Buddhists can contribute to human society according to our own ideas, I am confident that readers simply interested in creating a happier, more peaceful world will also find this book enriching.” — His Holiness the Dalai Lama

From the author’s introduction

On one occasion, 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?” The same question rings down the ages, and 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. 

Once he began teaching, the Buddha’s primary mission was to make known the path that culminates in inner peace, but the Buddha did not turn his back on the human condition in favor of a purely 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. He was the founder of a new spiritual movement that from the outset was inevitably communal. 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 there gradually developed around him a Sangha, a community of monks and nuns who lived in groups, traveled in groups, and trained in groups. For the Sangha to flourish, the Buddha had to become an “organization man.” He 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. 

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, 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 last part of 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. 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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