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The Buddhist approach to social welfare

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

By the performance of acts of punna and the avoidance of acts of papa one contributes to social welfare while gradually transforming oneself in such a way that noble qualities of mind conducive to produce the maturity and insight that bring full liberation of the mind could sooner or later be attained. Until such time as one attains the final liberation, acts of punna protect a person from falling into unhappy rebirths and furnishes one with all the desirable material conditions of living. Buddhism provides a great incentive to believers by emphasizing the effects of punna_deeds to engage in acts of social welfare. The concept of punna is connected with the doctrines of kamma and rebirth. These doctrines appeal to the concern of everyone with one's own interest and have the effect of preventing people who have faith in them to avoid engaging in any conduct that is productive of suffering to others and encouraging them to do positive good to others which is productive of beneficial effects to themselves.

It is to be noted that the Buddhist notion of social welfare is wider than a purely mundane notion in such a way that it includes an awareness of the material needs that are necessary for the promotion of social welfare. The welfare of people can be promoted only when all their needs are adequately fulfilled. Humanist psychologists have pointed out that human beings have a hierarchy of needs.xv They do not attain their real humanity unless certain higher and uniquely human needs are also satisfied. Buddhism can fully agree with that view, for Buddhism recognizes the necessity to attend to the basic material needs of man not as an end in itself, but as a means to an end which is much higher than that. The greatest happiness that a human being can attain by becoming entirely free from the corruptions of mind is considered in Buddhism as the highest in the hierarchy of human needs.

There is nothing beyond that in terms of excellence that a-human being may desire to attain. When the lower and basic needs are not satisfied human beings will move away from the search for the higher good that could be attained by means of the culture of mind. Buddhism makes the observation that the moral consciousness of human beings disappear when they have to live under conditions of absolute destitution in respect of their basic material requirements. Therefore Buddhism focuses attention on the need to promote the welfare of people in respect of the conditions of their material living. However, from the Buddhist point of view such a pursuit is not an end in itself. It is perhaps on that ground that Buddhism has introduced the concepts of two persons of great benefit to mankind. One is the concept of a universal monarch (cakkavattiraja), the foremost among men who are engaged in the promotion of the material welfare of the people. The other is the concept of a fully enlightened Buddha, the foremost among men who are engaged in the promotion of the spiritual welfare of the people. However, in the Buddhist scheme of values the latter is given a higher status than the former.

What may be concluded from the above discussion is that Buddhism can be credited with a much more comprehensive notion of social welfare than a narrow notion of social welfare that takes into account only the material aspects of human needs. It is this more comprehensive approach of Buddhism that attributes a greater value to spiritual welfare that is misconstrued as a life denying, asocial and salvation doctrine.

This article was read out as a paper at the Theravada Mahayama Buddhist Conference held in 2004 in Thailand.

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