The Buddha’s teaching was, at first sight, intended for wandering beggars (skt: sramana). However, it differed radically from sramanic religious movements that preceded, because the notion of well-being has become a central concern. Part of the reason the Buddha came to the Middle Way (Skt: madhyama-pratipada) was because enlightenment could only be achieved in a comfortable state of well-being, and he had identified well-being as a middle way between sensual excess and ascetic self-denial and punishment.
The more well-being there is in the world, the more people can potentially achieve enlightenment. The Buddha therefore defined what social welfare looked like in the context of his socio-economic and cultural environment. As soon as the monastic community was founded, the Buddha instructed his new disciples to spread his message for the benefit of the greatest number and for the happiness of the greatest number (Skt: bahujana-hitaya, bahujana-sukhaya). The Buddha said that in his teaching there was well-being at the beginning, well-being in the middle and well-being at the end (Pali: adi-kalyanam majjhe-kalyanam pariyosana-kalyanam). On this instruction, the members of the monastic community began the dispensation of the Blessed One (Skt: asana) or Buddhist diffusion.
The Buddha introduced a version of democracy into the community life of monasticism that was open to all, regardless of race, caste, tribe or class. The monastic community was, in theory, focused on attaining enlightenment and meditative practices, supported by the lay community. However, contact with the rest of the world meant that monks and nuns were in frequent interaction with the general population, including neglected and disadvantaged communities. This meant that although the priority of the monastic community was to attain Nirvana, monks and nuns were good at reminding suffering people of their human dignity and spiritual potential.
The modesty of the monks was a key factor in attracting the admiration and gifts of the laity. Because they preached the Buddha’s teaching of non-violence, equality, and compassion for the oppressed, the notion of caste was uniquely challenged by the Buddha, even though he did not not openly overturned the Vedic social system. One is recognized as superior or inferior not by family background, profession or wealth, but by deeds and spiritual practice.
Archeology tells us that various Buddhist orders started a loosely connected system of formal education on the ancient Indian subcontinent. Many monasteries, over time, have become centers of meditation and teaching. For the centuries that viharas became fixed abodes (from the earliest Indian rock-cut caves) until the demise of institutionalized Buddhism in the 12th century, monasteries evolved into centers of learning and schools. Famous schools in the Indian subcontinent included the super monasteries of Nalanda, Taxila, Vikramashila, etc. As author and researcher Ronald M. Davidson has written, “In a sense, the mahaviharas of the medieval world curiously appear as Buddhist versions of neoclassical office buildings or an Indian version of university Gothic architecture in its repetitive systematization. Such a systematization also manifests itself in the formalization of monastic sealings; during this period virtually all monastic seals depict their monasteries as “Dharmacakras” and have a glorified wheel of Dharma – frequently placed between two stags – immediately above the name of the institution. (Davidson 2002, 107)
The main purpose of Buddhist education in these super monasteries (and their smaller counterparts) was to teach people, regardless of race, religion or caste, the path to enlightenment. These monastic institutions attracted a large number of students in the Indian subcontinent and across Asia. The subjects of education included: agriculture, commerce, herbal medicine, metallurgy and other fields so that they could achieve well-being, and once well-being was established, spiritual liberation. The teachers and acharyas of these educational institutions were mostly Buddhist monks.
The Buddha’s instruction on promoting welfare for the many could be interpreted in several ways: first, as spiritual enlightenment; second, as worldly prosperity; and third, as social harmony. In terms of material well-being, the equitable distribution of wealth was a Buddhist concern long before economic philosophy. When we examine the Vinaya, we see that monks cannot save anything or use donations for personal needs except for specific items, such as repairing their robes. Proceeds and donations must be returned to the community. As Buddhism places great importance on intention or volition (Skt: cetane) in the generation of good or bad karma, well-being also means moral behavior, since it is impossible for a human community to achieve well-being without generalized virtue in a community.
Another fundamental tenet of the Buddha’s welfare ideal was to promote goodwill and selflessness. It was an important political tool during the times of the smaller kingdoms, including that of the Shakyas (the Buddha’s birth clan) and the domain of Magadha, where the Buddha spent much of his time.
Over time, Theravada Buddhism has been criticized for the perception that it prioritizes personal liberation over the well-being of others. The idea of an “egocentric” way arose from a polemical strategy devised by the emerging Mahayana tradition nearly two millennia ago. The new Vehicle had to defend itself against claims of inauthenticity or heresy, and Mahayana writers formed a sophisticated corps of apologetics to counter detractors, from new exegetical methods to a broader hermeneutics of insight and scriptural revelation. Another strategy was the “Mahayana-Hinayana” distinction, which is notably only used today by Mahayana and Vajrayana practitioners and is not used in Theravada. A modern example can be seen in this text from the global Buddhist movement Soka-Gakkai Nichiren:
Practice for yourself and practice for others, do good for yourself and do good for others, or practice for yourself and convert others. The two types or aspects of Buddhist practice. Practicing for oneself means engaging in Buddhist practice in order to personally enjoy the benefits of the Fa and attain enlightenment. Practicing for others means teaching and converting others so that they too can enjoy the benefits of the Fa and attain enlightenment. The Mahayana Buddhist tradition presents these two types of practice as an ideal for bodhisattvas, who strive to practice the correct teaching themselves and to lead others to the correct teaching. This concept contrasts with what Mahayanists saw as the tendency of Hinayana practitioners to seek only personal emancipation.
(Soka Gakkai: Nichiren Buddhism Library)
It is important to note that during the First World Buddhist Community in 1950 (the same conclave which determined the contemporary Buddhist flag), it was observed that: “The term Hinayana in all contexts was to be replaced by the term Theravada for unity and solidarity among all Buddhists.(The World Fellowship of Buddhists) Despite this historic recognition, the Hinayana controversy persists in some Vajrayana groups and remains deeply rooted in East Asia.However, Theravada Buddhism is very clear about this; a true Buddhist practitioner, according to the Attahita-parahita Sutta from Anguttara Nikayapossesses five qualities while practicing for his own well-being and that of others:
1. Here, a bhikkhu accomplishes himself in virtuous behavior and encourages others to accomplish themselves in virtuous behavior;
2. He himself is accomplished in concentration and encourages others to accomplish themselves in concentration;
3. He himself is consummate in wisdom and encourages others to become consummate in wisdom;
4. He himself is accomplished in liberation and encourages others to accomplish themselves in liberation;
5. He himself is fulfilled in the knowledge and vision of liberation and encourages others to be fulfilled in the knowledge and vision of liberation. Possessing these five qualities, a bhikkhu practices both for his own well-being and for the well-being of others. [my emphasis]
(Bodhi, trans. 2012, 639-640)
This passage shows how someone with a strong moral foundation can contribute to the happiness of others. The fundamental goal of a Buddhist, regardless of the school to which he belongs, is to practice personal development while supporting and helping others to do so. From the above example of Attahita-parahita Sutta, the fifth is of critical importance. Since this is the highest ideal, clearly stated in the early discourses, it would be incorrect to misinterpret Theravada as a vehicle for selfish people.
The Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist texts extensively discuss the bodhisattva ideal. A being close to enlightenment is called a bodhisattva. As a result of the bodhisattvas’ good deeds, their deeds and sacrifices for the benefit of the world propel them on the path to ultimate Buddhahood.
According to Buddhist teachings, human life is extremely rare due to its limitless potential to realize Buddhahood. This human life is an important asset not only for oneself, but also for one’s entire community. Therefore, Buddhists, regardless of their school, have done great deeds in spreading the Buddha’s teaching, as they have devoted their lives to the welfare of his own and others.
In the Dhammapada, the Buddha says that the fragrance of the virtuous person goes in all directions, even against the wind. Such a person need not be a Theravada practitioner, but neither does he necessarily need to be a Mahayana or Vajrayana adherent. A virtuous person is a person who works for his well-being and that of others, no more, no less.
Davidson, Ronald M. 2002. Indian Tantric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement. New York: Columbia University Press.
Bodhi, Bhikkhu (trans.). 2012. The Digital Discourses of the Buddha: A Complete Translation of the Anguttara Nikaya. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications.
BDG Related Features
For the Earth: Buddhist Environmental Thought and ActivismBuddhist Ideas on the Psychological Root Causes of Dispute and Conflict