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.

As seen by some observers of the relationship between Buddhism and society, Buddhism advocates a worldview that promotes the lone pursuit of escape from suffering by means of developing an attitude of indifference towards everything outside oneself. The Buddhist ideal is seen as non-engagement in the conflicts and turmoil characteristic of social living so that individual seekers °f inward peace could strive to achieve their goal in the cloistered environment of the forest hermitage. It is seen as promoting a |jfe of total withdrawal from social concerns for the pursuit of self-interest This way of looking at the Buddhist ideal is based on the assumption that there is a fundamental incompatibility between one’s own well-being and the well-being of others.

The Buddha classified persons into four kinds on the basis of one’s attitude towards one’s own interest and one’s attitude towards the interest of others. The first type of person is referred to as one who adopts a way of life that conduces, neither to the welfare of oneself nor to the welfare of others (neva attahittaya Patipanno no parahitaya). The second type of person is one who adopts a way of life that does not conduce to one’s own welfare but conduces to the welfare of others (parahitiya patipanno no attahittaya). The third adopts a way of life that conduces to one’s own welfare but not to the welfare of others (attahitaya patipanno no parahitaya).

The fourth is one who adopts a way of life that conduces, to one’s own welfare and the welfare of others, (attahitaya ca patipanno parahitaya ca). According to the Buddha, it is the fourth type of person who is most praiseworthy. The first kind of person is the most blameworthy. In the comparative evaluation of the second and the third type of person, the Buddha takes the position that the third one is better than the second. The question is whether in view of such an assessment of the worth of persons in terms of their way of life, Buddhism expresses a preference to the pursuit of self interest over the pursuit of the welfare of others.

What is Meant by “Welfare?”
In order to understand the significance of the above classification it is important to consider what Buddhism means by ‘welfare’ in this context. In the Kalama Sutta it is noted that there are three mental qualities that arise in people, which are detrimental to their welfare. They are greed, hatred and delusion. Overwhelmed by these three mental qualities people destroy life, they steal the belongings of others, and they indulge in the wrongful enjoyment of sense pleasures and speak what is false. They commit acts that produce suffering to themselves and suffering -to others. According to Buddhism, the self-interest of a
oerson consists in the- cultivation of a personality that is perfect in moral goodness and insightful understanding of reality. The influence of such persons on society is twofold. On the one hand the behaviour of such persons does not have the consequence of producing suffering to the rest of the society because they are never motivated in their behaviour by what Buddhism describes as the roots of unwholesome action. On the other hand by virtue of the fact that they have perfected the qualities of mind that are considered as wholesome _(Kusala) such as mindfulness, equanimity, kindness and compassion whatever they do is beneficial to the rest of the society.

Such persons are considered in Buddhism as the ethical models that the rest of the society should emulate. According to the Sigalovada Sutta, a community of such persons is an essential component of a harmonious and prosperous society.”” Wherever such persons live that location is said to be delightful. They are not to be conceived as persons who have escaped from the dutiful engagements of the social life to live an indolent, self centred and care free life which is supported by others who have to toil in order to procure the material needs of their life. They are looked upon as the rich fields for others who live the lower life of sense-pleasures to sow their seeds of meritorious deeds.ix Social well-being requires the maintenance of such a community paying high respect and veneration to, members of that community.x The implication of these ideas is that Buddhism does not conceive of the possibility of promoting the welfare of a community in the absence of a social structure and a network of social relationships in which there is adequate provision made for the giving and receiving of moral guidance in the conduct of its affairs.

Traditional Buddhist societies have shown the highest veneration to members of this community and some aspects of the current social crises experienced by such-societies under the rapid social changes that have recently taken place may be attributed to the break down of the structure and relationships that existed in the past. Coming back to the issue of giving priority to one’s own welfare over the welfare of others, Buddhism is evidently drawing attention to the necessity of dealing with a person’s inner nature as a prerequisite for 9enuine social commitment. This is in recognition of the fact that Persons whose inner nature is defiled produce more harm to society *nan good when they interact with society. Social action, if it is to be Productive of social welfare has to be motivated by what Buddhism describes as the roots of wholesome action (Kusalamula). The cultivation of kusala is what ultimately benefits the individual as well as the society. Hence Buddhism defines kusala as that which does not result in harm to oneself, harm to others and harm to both (attabyabadhaya na samvattati, parabyabadhaya na samvattati ubhayabyabadhaya samvattati), and is conducive to the production of happiness (sukhudrayam sukhavipakam). In the Sallekha Sutta the Buddha points out that it is not possible for someone who is stuck in the mud to pull out another who is stuck in the mud.

It is possible for one who is himself not stuck in the mud to pull out another who is stuck in the mud. From the Buddhist point of view there is no ultimate conflict between what conduces to the welfare of oneself and what conduces to the welfare of others. As the Buddha has put it, “one who takes care of oneself takes care of others. One who takes care of others takes care of oneself. One takes care of oneself by moral training, moral culture and moral development. One takes care of others by harmlessness, by goodwill and by compassion” “Whether one wants to see that one’s own good should be brought about or one wants to see that the good of others should be brought about or one wants to see that the good of both should be brought about it is necessary to cultivate one’s character diligently”. When one is overwhelmed by greed or hatred one cannot sees one’s own welfare or the another associated with intense physical, suffering.

Much more intense is the mental suffering that human beings experience due -to the presence in the human mind of unwholesome emotions referred to in Buddhism by a number of terms such as akusala dhamma asava, anusaya, kilesa. Having ethico- psychological meanings. From the Buddhist point of view putting an end to all human suffering and distress involves the destruction of these unwholesome states of mind. As long as such states of mind are present, living beings are considered in Buddhism to be in bondage going through the repeated process of becoming which makes them exposed to all the physical and mental sufferings. The greatest welfare of human beings is the escape from this unsatisfactory condition. Every individual who strives to escape from that condition seeks one’s own welfare.

Those who engage in providing guidance to others to escape from that condition are engaged in social welfare in the highest sense. They are capable of serving society with a totally detached attitude, and with no ulterior motives, but purely through compassion for the suffering masses. The Buddha and his reputed disciples did commit themselves to the service of society throughout their lives in this sense. It remains valid to this day that the greatest service that Buddhists could do to mankind is to lead them on the way to the attainment of this liberation. That is the greatest social welfare that Buddhism can promote.

One of the most potent sources of suffering in society is the cruelty and insensitivity of man that is-reflected in the pursuit of self-interest. Human conduct becomes a hindrance to social welfare when it proceeds from the roots of unwholesome motivation that Buddhism describes as greed, hatred and delusion. Numerous social crises that produce immense suffering in society are frequently a product of human cruelty. If the recent history of human civilization is considered more human suffering has resulted from cruelty of man towards man than from any other causes such as natural disasters that are unrelated to human conduct and intentions.

For the ongoing conflicts and wars, acts of terrorism, exploitation of various social groups, social injustices etc. that hinder social welfare, human beings themselves are responsible. According to Buddhism all such social crises are ultimately traceable to the moral depravity of man. Social Welfare could be promoted not merely by dealing with the symptoms °f deep-rooted psychological insanity that find expression in the social behaviour of mankind, but by treating the internal sources of such insanity. Buddhism offers the most experimentally testable and systematic path for the gradual elimination of the roots of evil conduct in human beings. Its impact on social welfare could be tremendous. It has much greater value than all the effort that people make to deal with the material conditions of human beings.

The Buddhist approach to social welfare is sometimes viewed as ineffective because Buddhism does not seek to redress the suffering of people through violent demonstrations, vociferous protest movements, and incitement of people to violence and armed conflict. Instead Buddhism advocates pursuing the gentle way of appealing to the moral sentiments of people and educating people in what is right and wrong, just and unjust, fair and unfair. The Buddha set the first example of promoting social welfare by such means. Other ways of attempting to promote social welfare sometimes produce more suffering than they eliminate. Buddhism does not take the position that the end justifies the means and adopt any means to achieve a desirable end. It adopts only non-violent and peaceful means. Hence Buddhism considers as its most usable tool of social change the effort to educate and enlighten people on the realities of life. It does not appeal to people’s basec emotions and incite them to violent responses, but encourages people to deal with the most perplexing crises and challenges of life with mindfulness, equanimity and insight. It is this approach to social welfare that is needed today, in which there’s a tendency to proliferate collective enmity and anger in the-name of achieving social justice.

It was noted that those who have removed the defilements in their minds and attained perfect freedom of mind through insight need no further incentive to devote themselves to social welfare in the Buddhist sense. By virtue of the fact that they have already transformed themselves into persons who are free from greed, hatred and delusion and possessed of the wholesome qualities of mind such as kindness, sympathetic concern for the suffering of other beings, compassion, uanimity, mental composure and insight their commitment to social welfare becomes effortless and spontaneous. Their conduct conforms to the two most basic principles of morality, namely the principle of doing no harm and the principle of promoting beneficence.

However those persons who are not so fully liberated need an incentive to motivate themselves to perform acts of social welfare. It is this aspect that is covered by the Buddhist concept of the performance of meritorious deeds (punna). Acts of punna are acts of social welfare productive of happy consequences to the agent. On the part of the doer they involve the sacrifice of one’s possessions and energies for the welfare of others. Since these acts involve the negation of the ego with the intention of promoting the welfare of another they are effective in cleansing a person’s mind by reducing greed, hatred, enmity miserliness etc.

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.

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.