Socially Engaged Buddhism


To act politically is clearly to involve oneself in the world – at the most basic level it is to make a choice, to take a position, to change the world for the betterment of those who live within society. One of the dilemmas faced by the proponent of Buddhist social engagement is the seeming reluctance of the Buddha to make pronouncements about social change. But, it goes deeper than this. There is not only a reluctance but a very real philosophical necessity to remain distant from strategies of social change and distinct from political involvement. I discuss here part of this philosophical necessity.


The Pali Aṭṭhakavagga’s insists that one should not depend upon apperception (saññā), knowledge (ñāṇa), views (diṭṭhi), on what is seen (diṭṭha), heard(suta), or thought (muta), or on precepts and vows (sīlabbata).[1] This is consistent with the four primary Nikāyas. The Aṭṭhakavagga teaches that purity is not by means of views, learning, knowledge or precepts and vows, nor is it by absence of these. The Mahāviyuha-sutta (Sn 895-914) speaks of giving up all precepts and vows and action both blameable and blameless.[2] This suggests a ‘teaching’ a dhamma of non-involvement – not showing preference for what is seen and heard.[3] Preference or choice (cetanā) is involvement in ‘action’ (kamma), in the round of endless existences pervaded by suffering (saṃsāra, Sn 901).


In the Suribheda-sutta (Sn 848-861) the question is asked, ‘having what vision and precepts is one called “calmed”’?[4] The answer is that it is not to be dependent,[5] not to prefer (purekkhataṃ), not having attachment, and not going astray among dhammas.[6]Knowledge or right-view is an insight into the nature of reality that leads to calm.[7]


Dependence on what is seen, heard, thought and cognized is a familiar basis for wrong-views in the Nikāyas. The diṭṭhi-saṃyutta explains how views arise due to attachment to whatever is seen, heard, thought, cognized, attained, sought after, and ranged over by the mind.[8]It is also explained in the Alagaddūpama-sutta that to regard the ‘aggregates’ (khandhas)[9] or what is seen, heard, sensed, cognized, attained, sought after, and ranged over by the mind as: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self’[10] is a basis for view (diṭṭhiṭṭhānaṃ). Without attachment and doubt concerning these things, wrong-view does not arise.[11] This constitutes stream-attainment, when all views are abandoned.[12]


To argue, as some have, that the relinquishment of attachment to what is seen, heard, thought and cognized is an isolated teaching in the Nikāyas, is perhaps to overlook the prominence of passages condemning such attitudes.[13] The Nikāyas suggest consistently and often that attachment to the ‘aggregates’ (khandhas) is the cause of wrong-views, and this, I contend, is the same as stating that one should not be attached to what is seen, heard, thought or cognized. This way of seeing, the detached way expressive of right-view, is described in the Dhammasaṅgaṇi as the unincluded (apariyāpannā) explained as ‘neither the issue of attachment nor favourable to it’.[14] This attitude of non-attachment is at least comparable to that described in the Aṭṭhakavagga as non-attachment from what is seen, heard or thought, from any view, apperception (saññā),[15]contact (phassa), or even dependence on knowledge (ñāṇa, Sn 800).[16] Just as the stream-attainer, one who has achieved right-view, is described as having no dependence upon any act of cognition, so the Aṭṭhakavagga advises the eradication of all attachment to views, apperceptions and knowledge. The sage of the Aṭṭhakavagga ‘does not believe in any view at all’,[17] but then nor does the stream-attainer of the Nikāyas. I suggest that the Nikāyas and the Aṭṭhakavagga describe the same cognitive attitude toward views, wrong or right. The Aṭṭhakavagga verses positing non-attachment from what is seen and heard are consistent with the Nikāyas in which the dhamma is a raft to which one should not become attached, and with the Abhidhamma description of sammā-diṭṭhi as paññā. If we wish to find teachings similar to the Aṭṭhakavagga in the Nikāyas, then we must be clear about the Nikāyas understanding of what constitutes right-view. I am arguing that right-view is not depending on (upādāya), not being attached to, or craving, the khandhas. It is non-dependence on knowledge and views. The Abhidhamma explains how attachment to insight and practice can cause unwholesome dhammas to arise. This is described in the Paṭṭhāna. If the Paṭṭhāna is criticising the act of giving, holding the precepts, the duty of observance, and the practising of the jhānas, then the Aṭṭhakavagga is criticising knowledge and wisdom. As it is unlikely that either text is critical of practice or knowledge, then it is likely that they are stating that attachment to the path is destructive.

The Aṭṭhakavagga and the Nikāyas are not critical of knowledge and truth but hold that attachment to knowledge and truth is detrimental. The reason that attachment to knowledge and truth is detrimental can be explained by the need for both calm and insight in the process of seeing the true nature of things. I would suggest that, in the same way that action influences knowledge and knowledge influences action, so the texts are describing how calm influences insight, and insight influences calm. In other words, seeing dependent-origination involves being calm, and being truly calm involves seeing dependent-origination.


And here, I suggest, is where Buddhist social engagement must begin. It begins with an attitude free from attachment and stubbornness. Although the Buddha clearly made few prescriptions about how to transform society, he did make many about the adaptation of the mind – and this is the point at which Buddhism might depart from other religious traditions, and depart on a journey of political engagement. The philosophical necessity of non-involvement does not necessarily hinder the efforts by the Buddhist for social and political change – the mind though has to be in the right place for social engagement.



[1] An example of the teaching advising detachment from these means of knowledge in the Aṭṭhakavagga is the following: ‘Giving up old corruptions, not forming new ones, he does not go according to his wishes, he is not a dogmatist. He is completely released from views (and) wise. He does not cling to the world, and does not reproach himself. He is without association in respect of all mental phenomena (dhammas), whatever is seen, or heard, or thought. That sage with burden laid down, completely freed, is without imaginings, unattached, not grasping’ (pubbāsave hitvā nave akubbaṃ, na chandagū no pi nivissa-vādī, sa vippamutto diṭṭhigatehi dhīro, na lippati loke anattagarahī. sa sabbadhammesu visenibhūto, yaṃ kiñci diṭṭhaṃ va, sutaṃ mutaṃ vā, sa pannabhāro muni vippamutto, na kappiyo nūparato na patthiyo ti, Sn 913-14; see also Sn 798, 803, 900; see Gómez, ‘Proto-Mādhyamika’, p 140.

[2] sīlabbataṃ vā pi pahāya sabbaṃ, kammañ ca sāvajjanavajjam etaṃ, Sn 900.

[3] diṭṭhe sute khantim akubbamāno, Sn 897.

[4]kathaṃdassī kathaṃsīlo upasanto ti vuccati, Sn 848.

[5] Sn 849. cf., ‘He for whom there is no state of dependence, knowing the dhamma, is not dependent’ (yassa nissayatā n’ atthi ñatvā dhammaṃ anissito, Sn 856). See also Sn 910: ‘A dogmatist is indeed not easy to discipline, since he prefers a preconceived view. Saying that the good is there, in what he depends upon, he speaks of purity (saying) he saw reality there’ (nivissavādī na hi subbināyo, pakappitaṃ diṭṭhi purekkharāno, yaṃ nissito tattha subhaṃ vadāno, suddhiṃ-vado tattha tathaddasā so, Sn 914).

[6] dhammesu ca na gacchati, Sn 861.

[7] Nett 65.

[8] diṭṭhaṃ, sutaṃ, mutaṃ, viññātaṃ, pattaṃ, pariyesitaṃ, anuvicaritaṃ manasā, S III 203.

[9] The Alagaddūpama-sutta gives the first four khandhas, as noted above.

[10] diṭṭhaṃ sutam mutam viññātaṃ pattaṃ pariyesitaṃ anuvicaritaṃ manasā tam pi: etaṃ mama esoham asmi, eso me attā ti samanupassati, M I 135.

[11] Indeed, I have compared this process to attachment to the khandhas.

[12] S III 203.

[13] Eric Fallick, ‘Two Small Remnants of “Pre-Hīnayānist” Buddhism in the Pāli Nikāyas’, Buddhist Studies Review (17), 2000, 35-38.

[14] anupādinna-anupādāniyā, Dhs 181, § 992.

[15] Cf.: ‘By him not even a minute apperception has been formed here in respect of what is seen, heard, or thought’ (tass idha diṭṭhe va sute mute vā, pakappitā n’ atthi aṇū pi saññā, Sn 802).

[16] ñāṇe pi so nissayaṃ, Sn 800.

[17] diṭṭhim pi so na pacceti kiñci, Sn 800. The term pacceti is translated as ‘believe in’. The term literally means ‘to come on to’; see PED s.v. pacceti.

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