Martine & Stephen


Buddhism is based on the dissolution of greed, hatred and delusion.  For the Buddha an essential component of the path was the development of wisdom and compassion.  From ancient times, practitioners of the Buddha’s teaching have tried to live from these essential principles.  Some have also endeavoured to influence the whole society in that direction.  In that regard the Bodhisattva precepts are a list of ten major precepts and forty-eight minor ones which are a blueprint for building a compassionate society.  They are found in the Zen traditions of China, Korea and Japan where they have been an inspiration for both monastics and laypeople for centuries.

The precept number three encourages people to refrain from eating meat and number five advocates refraining from selling alcohol.  Number nine asks people to care well for those who are sick and number ten that one does not keep implements for killing and have them ready for use. But in order to reinforce harmlessness and the cultivation of life, number twenty tells us to save the lives of living creatures and to set loose those who are about to be killed.

Number twelve is about right livelihood.  It encourages us to refrain from doing business with an evil intent.  The phrasing of this precept is particularly interesting.  It states that not only must a Buddhist practitioner not buy or sell citizens, slaves or any kind of domestic animals himself but also he should not order someone to do it for him.  Number twenty-nine encourages us not to hold an unwholesome occupation.  It states that a son or daughter of the Buddha must not engage with an evil intention and for the sake of gain in occupation such as selling the physical charms of men and women, telling fortunes, performing tricks in order to deceive others, preparing any kinds of dangerous drugs or concocting poisons.  It stresses that since such occupation are contrary to a mind of compassion and devotion to deliberately engage in them is an offence.

Number thirty-one asks us to pay ransom and rescue people from their difficulties.  Number thirty-two states that we should not cause harm to sentient beings. It specifies that a son or daughter of the Buddha must not sell swords, clubs, bows and arrows, nor should he or she keep uneven balances and inaccurate  weights and measures.  He or she must not use his or her influence with government offices to deprive others of their possessions, with an harmful intention have others bound or shackled or undo the achievements of others. To deliberately commit such deeds is considered to be an offence against the Bodhisattva spirit of compassion and wisdom. 

In Korea, these precepts are taken every year by monastics and laypeople as a reminder of their intention to act compassionately.  It is also an acknowledgement that people can be weak and make mistakes so they need to take these precepts again and again to deepen their intention.  As disciples of the Buddha they are reaffirming that they want to continue to cultivate a wise and compassionate attitude and learn from their errors.

In ancient times in China, these precepts had a certain influence on the Chinese society as a whole.  The Buddhist monasteries created a fund called ‘inexhaustible treasury’ that was devoted to alleviate the sufferings of the poor and the destitute in time of famine.  During the periods in which special vegetarian feasts were organised the execution of criminals and the killing of animals were prohibited.  There were also ‘Fields of Merits’ which were dedicated to the establishments of fruit gardens, bathing tank and plantation of trees.  ‘Fields of Dana ‘ were developed to dispense medicine to the sick, to construct sturdy boats to ferry people, to build bridges and toilet facilities and to dig wells along well-travelled roads.  All these resemble a Buddhist social welfare programme.

Nowadays in Asia as well as in Western countries, Buddhists feel also impelled to not only practice for themselves but to respond to the needs of others.  In Thailand many individual monks are helping to develop a compassionate and caring society by devoting themselves to the well-being of the poor by being creative with their own skills and with what they find in their environment.  For example Venerable Chub Suswaroh went to settle in a temple near a village whose inhabitants were reputed to be drunkards, gamblers and robbers.  He gained their respect and co-operation by working, learning agriculture and building houses.  At the beginning he only helped them materially because he was not sure that they were ready to be helped culturally and ethically.  However he found that as they became more prosperous, the villagers became more individualistic and selfish. To counteract that he created a co-operative and a credit union where they had to support and help each other.  To start working with them ethically he instituted lower interest rates in the credit union on loans for people who gave up their vices.  He also encouraged the villagers to become more self-reliant and to provide for their basic needs.  Once he felt they were ready he started to stress meditation and this too had a positive effect on the villagers.

Venerable Phor Nan is another example.  He was a meditator monk who returned to his village to find that life was no more abundant because people relied too much on external resources and also due to the amount of their debts.  He organised road works and irrigation channels but still the villagers kept becoming poorer and went into deeper debts.  He reflected that the root of the problem must be ‘man’ himself.  He decided to teach meditation and organised seven days retreats for the villagers.  This totally changed their lives.  When the farmers were ready he introduced community development ideas like a rice bank, a co-operative shop, a medicine bank and a credit union he called ‘truth group’.  In this way the villagers were able to free themselves from private creditors.

Venerable Kru used to be a troublesome young man but he reformed when he became a monk.  When he came back to his village after studying and meditating in depth he wanted to help them as they had become so poor.  He decided to learn modern technology. He then invented and made trucks and motorcycles in his temple backyard which were extremely useful to the farmers to take their produce to the markets.  Following that he helped them develop a rice bank , a buffalo bank, a co-operative shop, youth groups, a centre for production promotion but also health care and housewives groups.  For him the increase in income was not necessarily true development as he felt that one needed to work at three levels -- material, ethical and spiritual.  For Venerable Kru, Buddhism happens while working.  These three cases show that each monk used the three essential elements of material, ethical and spiritual development to help the villagers help themselves. 

As Buddhism has entered the West, Europe and America, Westerners too are inspired by the Buddha’s message to cultivate wisdom and compassion in their daily lives.  They do so in different creative ways, responding to the needs and circumstances of what they encounter and what inspire them to act.  In England, prisoners register their religions as they enter jail.  A Buddhist monk, Venerable Khemadammo was struck by the fact that Buddhists in jail had no resources so he created a Buddhist prison chaplaincy organisation.  He called his organisation ‘Angulimala’ by the name of an infamous criminal who was transformed from being a ruthless killer to becoming a peaceful Buddhist monk by an encounter with the Buddha.  Venerable Khemadammo believes that even in the most extreme of circumstances change for the better and enlightenment itself are still possible and that you change others best by persuasion and examples.  He has inspired many ordinary Buddhists in various part of the country to visit people in jails all over England.  Venerable Khemadhammo even managed to create with the prisoners and the help of the prison service a Peace garden in one jail and a Buddha Grove in another to offer a sanctuary in a difficult environment but also a visual reminder of what was possible.

An essential component needed to create a compassionate society is education.  In England, there is a Buddhist-based primary school called the Dharma School.  Its motto is “We are educating the whole child for a whole world”.  It is situated in beautiful grounds in Brighton near the sea. One of its focuses is on the spiritual quality of human life. The Dharma School offers an alternative education to boys and girls aged three to eleven of whatever background, belief or ability.  The classes are small in order to develop the full potential of the children, especially their self-esteem and confidence. Teachers who have an understanding of Buddhist ethics in their daily lives provide a broad and balanced curriculum. The school has a strong sense of community.  Parents, teachers and children work together to maintain an atmosphere of co-operation, support and goodwill. 

The influence of Buddhism in the school is felt through exploring basic principles in a way appropriate to each age group.  These include developing honesty, respect for all sentient beings, co-operation, concentration, self-discipline, resourcefulness, and also reflecting on the significance of the Buddha’s teaching on impermanence and inter-dependence.  There are quiet times when the children can meditate and reflect in a simple way. Children and teachers take turn in leading the meditation sessions.  A nine year old boy guided a meditation that started with the infinity of the cosmos, went on to reflect on the empty and spacious quality of the air that we all share and finished with the possibility of life in a tiny seed.  A young child also reported that meditation made him feel fresher to go on with the rest of his day. In this way children are able to develop their own wisdom and compassion to provide a healthy ground for their future adult lives.

In America, the Buddhist Peace fellowship, a long-standing Buddhist organisation, created the Buddhist Alliance for Social Engagement Program in 1995 known as ‘BASE’.  Groups of approximately ten people meet once or twice a week over a period of six months.  The heart of BASE is engaging suffering directly.  Participants work or volunteer in social service or social justice organisations including hospices, prisons, soup kitchens and environmental groups.  The cornerstone of BASE is a commitment to Buddhist practice as people participate in work in the world. A participant explains: “as I near the clinic, I remind myself to set my intention by wishing that this work be the cause and condition for liberation of myself and all beings; that I be present; that I non-judgementally notice the mind states that arise”.

BASE participants meditate together in meetings and longer retreat periods and examine how to bring Buddhist teachings and meditation practices into daily life.  BASE is also rooted in a community of shared purpose and at the end of the six months many people comments on the learning aspects of this communal programme.  They seem to benefit equally from the three elements of this programme: service, meditation and community.  At the same time society also benefit from their activities.  Someone related this story about a woman she was helping: ‘Annie asked me:  “Why do you do this work?”  I explained BASE and casually mentioned that I was a Buddhist.  When we parted that day, she said: “Thank you so much for accompanying me.  It was such a luxury.  At least I know that the Buddhists are looking out for me!”

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