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Social Welfare Policy -
The Buddhist Concept of Social Welfare

by Prof P.D. Premasiri Ph.D - Courtesy Vesak Lipi

The Buddhist tradition makes the claim that among persons that appear in this world for the welfare of man-kind, a fully enlightened Buddha is the greatest.' The Buddhist terms used in the sense of 'welfare' are terms such as 'attha', Ma'and sukha'. The claim made by Buddhism is that the Buddha engaged in a serious search of what in reality conduces to welfare. According to the Ariyapariyesana Sutta he left the mundane comforts of the royal palace disenchanted with the so-called pleasures of the mundane life in search of what constitutes the greatest good of mankind (Kimkusalagavesi ji)."

After achieving the goal of his noble search He spent forty years of his life teaching, preaching and providing guidance to people of all walks of life intending nothing other than the welfare of mankind. After He was able to share the liberation of mind and the liberation through insight that he attained with sixty others who followed his instructions, he called upon them to devote their life as well., for the happiness, well-being and welfare of the multitude."' However, the Buddhist teachings contend that its concept of social welfare does not appeal to those who are blinded by passions and mundane concerns, and conceive welfare only in terms of the gratification of the desires of the senses.

From the Buddhist point of view those who are obsessed with sense pleasures interpret Buddhism as a social, life-denying, otherworldly doctrine that is concerned solely with the self-interested pursuit of individual salvation. In their view, Buddhism does not promote an attitude to life, which enables human beings to face life's challenges, but encourages the solitary pursuit of inward peace and calm, forgetting about the rest of the society that toils and suffers in the face of social injustices, economic depravities, and a variety of other social problems. This is a criticism that Buddhism has to meet in defence of its notion of social welfare.

Obviously, there is serious disagreement regarding what constitutes 'welfare' between those who advocate the Buddhist worldview and others who advocate worldviews that radically differ from it. This is a matter that the Buddha himself is represented in the early scriptures as having reflected upon before he embarked on his long career of active involvement in the welfare of mankind. His problem was that of convincing others who were engrossed in the mad pursuit of sense gratification, impelled by craving, about what constituted their real happiness and welfare iv It is pointed out by the Buddha that what is seen as happiness by the noble ones is seen as unhappiness by others, and what is seen as happiness by others is seen as unhappiness by the noble ones. The implication of the above is that one cannot talk about social welfare meaningfully without dealing with the philosophical and conceptual issue of how welfare is to be conceived. The term 'welfare' is like some other terms that we use in our language, a value loaded term. It is not one that has an entirely descriptive meaning. It belongs to the family of terms such as 'good', 'happiness', and 'wellbeing'. It is to be noted that similar conceptual incompatibility is likely to occur between the Buddhist and the common notion of 'development'. Buddhism poses a challenge, to the way certain human values are commonly conceived and it aims at an insightful revision of such value concepts.

There is an attempt in Buddhism to bring in a value dimension to even such concepts as wealth (dhana) and poverty (daliddiya) that are usually interpreted purely in material terms. According to Buddhism, one may be very rich in material wealth, but poor in the moral riches. One can be said to be poor in an ethical sense not because one lacks material wealth but lacks the eight kinds of noble wealth (ariyadhana)/'Therefore, when we discuss the theme 'Buddhism and social welfare' we should not try merely to see how Buddhism fits into the common notion of social welfare, but penetrate deeper into the issue of how Buddhism reinterprets this notion in terms of its own philosophical and conceptual orientation. What I expect to do in this paper is to draw the implications of such an investigation. >

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