Tetsunori Koizumi, Director
The Buddha’s teaching on how suffering is the basic condition of life in the world and how it can be overcome, as summarized in the Four Noble Truths (Cattari Ariyasaccani), contains a message that carries universal relevance, transcending the specificity of the time and place into which he was born, in which he grew old, and from which he passed away. In contrast, the Buddha’s teaching on the proper mode of conduct in social life, given to people from all walks of life during his long career as the Venerable One, reflects the specificity of the time and place in which he was active.
Consider, for example, the Sigalaka Sutta, in which the Buddha instructs Sigalaka, the householder’s son, in the importance of worshipping the six directions: “And how, householder’s son, does the noble disciple protect the six directions? These six things are to be regarded as six directions. The east denotes mother and father. The south denotes teachers. The west denotes wife and children. The north denotes friends and companions. The nadir denotes servants, workers, and helpers. The zenith denotes ascetics and brahmins.”1
The last two directions the Buddha adds to the four directions of east, south, west and north clearly reflect the reality of the Hindu society of his day, with the Brahmin class occupying the highest station in the social hierarchy among the four castes. But did the Buddha grant a special status in society to the Brahmin class as the heirs to Brahma? That this was not the case is made clear in the Assalayana Sutta, in which the Buddha talks about purification with Assalayana, the Brahmin student. After a lengthy debate with this young student known for his intellect and knowledge, the Buddha succeeds in convincing Assalayana that what is important in a person is neither one’s birth nor spiritual learning, but whether one is virtuous and of good character. In fact, the key word that describes the proper mode of conduct in the relationship between the Brahmins and the lay people, as is true with the other five relations in the six directions, would be reciprocity: “There are five ways in which a man should minister to ascetics and Brahmins as the zenith: by kindness in bodily deed, speech, and thought, by keeping open house for them, and by supplying their bodily needs. And the ascetics and Brahmins, thus ministered by him as the zenith, will reciprocate in five ways: they will restrain him from evil, encourage him to do good, be benevolently compassionate toward him, teach him what he has not heard, and point out to him the way to heaven.”2
Given that the six directions summarize the Buddha’s idea on the proper mode of social conduct in his day, it is interesting to compare them with Confucius’ ideas on the same subject. In the five relations, Confucius talks about the proper mode of conduct in social life as represented by five social relations: between rulers and subjects, between parents and children, between husbands and wives, between older and younger siblings, and between older and younger friends.3 Here, too, the specificity of the time and place of Confucius’ day is clearly reflected in that the rulers-subjects relationship comes first. The question of establishing and maintaining social order was the primary concern for Confucius, living, as he did, in the middle of the turbulent time of Chinese history known as the Spring-Autumn period.
While both the Buddha’s six directions and Confucius’ five relations no doubt reflect the specificity of the time and place in which they led their lives, there is commonality in the messages they convey as they both address the vital question of how to establish and maintain social order and harmony. And both the Buddha and Confucius point to the importance of reciprocity in social relations, namely, quid pro quo deemed appropriate in any specific social relation, though its content may vary from one relation to another. In the case of Confucius’ five relations, rulers should be benevolent, subjects loyal; parents should be loving, children reverential; husbands should be good, wives listening; elder siblings should be gentle, younger siblings respectful; elder friends should be considerate, younger friends deferential. A similar idea about the importance of reciprocity is also expressed in the case of the Buddha’s six directions: one person performs his/her duties and obligations, while the other person reciprocates by performing his/her duties and obligations, where the contents of these duties and obligations are defined in the context of the Dhamma, as each person is expected to behave as a noble disciple.
Although the Buddha does not include the rulers-subjects relationship in his six directions, the proper mode of conduct in accordance with the Dhamma also applies to kings in his conception of raja cakkavatti, or the “wheel-turning monarch”, the just and righteous king who rules his kingdom with the Dhamma. This concept is recorded, for example, in the Anguttara Nikaya: “a wheel-turning monarch, a just and righteous king, who thus provides lawful protection, shelter, and safety for all, is the one who rules by the Dhamma only. And that rule cannot be overthrown by any hostile human being.”4 Replace “Dhamma” with “Mandate of Heaven”, and this quote could well have been the words of Confucius.
What would the Buddha and Confucius have to say on the proper mode of conduct in social life in a democratic society? The fact of the matter is that they have very little to say on this. In this sense, their teachings do not go beyond the social realities of their time and place. After all, they are talking about the proper mode of conduct in social life as social philosophers, not as social reformers, though Confucius is known to have searched the land for a sovereign who would put his social philosophy into practice. As for the Buddha, it is to be noted that his talk about the wheel-turning monarch quoted above is a prelude to his talk about his own role as the just and righteous king of the Dhamma and as the Fully Enlightened One “who turns the incomparable wheel of the Dhamma in accordance with the Dhamma only.”5
We can, of course, speculate what the Buddha would have to say on the just and righteous government in a democratic society. We can surmise what the Buddha’s opinion on this subject might be from his dialogue with Ananda, recorded in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, which he intended as a reply to the question put to him by the chief minister to King Ajatasattu of Magadha, who wanted to attack the Vajjians. Having heard from Ananda that the Vajjians held regular and frequent assemblies, the Buddha says: “Ananda, as long as the Vajjians hold regular and frequent assemblies, they may be expected to prosper and not decline.”6 Thus, “holding regular and frequent assemblies” seems to be one component of the Buddha’s idea of the just and righteous government that rules by the Dhamma in a democratic society. But beyond this, no further hints are available to us because the Buddha talks about the just and righteous government of a non-democratic country of his day.
We can further speculate what the Buddha would have to say on the proper mode of conduct in social life in a democratic society, which develops its own scheme of social stratification, if not hierarchy, based, for example, on wealth and family ties. Although the kinds of social relations may be different from those the Buddha observed in his day, it is unlikely that we would get any other answer from him than “reciprocity”, namely, quid pro quo deemed appropriate in any specific social relation, whether that relation is between elected officials and citizens, between employers and employees, or between merchants and clients. In any event, what is important for those of us living in the world of the twenty-first century is to have a clear understanding about what aspect of the Buddha’s teachings has the universality that goes beyond the specificity of time and place in which he delivered his discourses.
- Bhikkhu Bodhi, In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon, Wisdom Publications, 2005, pp. 116-117.
- Ibid., p. 118.
- See Confucius, The Analects, London: Penguin Books, 1979.
- Bhikkhu Bodhi, op. cit., p. 115.
- Ibid., p. 116.
- Ibid., p. 138.