Global Problem-Solving: A Buddhist Perspective
To be honest and to begin by getting right to the point, I must state plainly that
there is no serious contemporary Buddhist perspective for global problem-solving.
The World Fellowship of Buddhists, with its headquarters in Bangkok, has entirely avoided
political, military and economic issues. It has not even dealt with environmental or human
rights crises, nor has it promoted human cooperation. Members meet every few years to
reaffirm how wonderful we Buddhists are.
Although the World Conference on Religion and Peace, with its head offices in Geneva
and New York, has strong Buddhist financial support, especially from the Rishokoseikei in
Japan, this body passes resolutions on global matters without doing anything significant
from a Buddhist perspective. Indeed, contemporary Buddhists seem to be interested only at
national, local, or denominational levels.
It is gratifying to learn then that the Asian Buddhist Conference for Peace is
organizing a fourth International Seminar on Buddhism and Leadership for Peace.
Efforts by the United Nations University
Other organizations, as well as the ABCP, have attempted to promote the development of
a Buddhist approach to global problem-solving. For example, the United Nations University
is currently supporting a sub-project on Buddhist Perceptions of Desirable Societies in
At a meeting in Bangkok in 1986, a number or leading scholars and practicing Buddhists
came together to examine how religious thinkers and activists perceive the current human
predicament. The framework of the meeting was divided into three main parts: 1) a
diagnosis of current problems, 2) an examination of specifically Buddhist responses to
these problems, and 3) a projection of how it might be possible to progress from the
contemporary situation towards a more desirable society.
At the meeting apathy, confusion and selfishness were identified as the main causes of
the hopelessness that engulfs so many of the world's people, although these were not
explicitly related to religion. At one point, the slogan of the French revolution,
"Liberty, Equality and Fraternity," was discussed. Why did the Buddha not preach
these values, rather than the Four Noble Truths--the existence of suffering, the causes of
suffering, the cessation of suffering and the Noble Eightfold Path leading to the
cessation of suffering?
The three values of the French Revolution are idealistic. The Buddha taught people to
come to terms with, and surmount, the reality of human existence--the unavoidable problems
of pain, loss, suffering, sickness and death. This approach was felt by many at the
meeting in Bangkok to have a great deal to offer those engaged in solving contemporary
After the Bangkok meeting, the United Nations University set up a subcommittee which
identified ten relevant issues to be tackled by Buddhists in order to move towards a more
desirable future society. They were: the individual and society in Buddhism; universalism
and particularism; existing social practices which may lead to a more ideal society;
sangha, state and people; Buddhism and the evolution of society; Buddhist eschatology,
millennialism and the Buddha land; Buddhist education; Buddhist approaches to war and
violence; science, technology and Buddhism; and women and family in Buddhism. Hopefully,
the United Nations University will publish the relevant articles on these topics.
Recently, the United Nations University called for yet another meeting in Bangkok on
the same theme of perceptions of desirable societies, but this time with respect to
different religious and ethical systems. The conclusions were as follows:
We have reviewed briefly the position of different religious currents in terms of their
beliefs and values regarding:
- Welfare and development,
- Justice, equity and human rights,
- Peace, reconciliation and nonviolence, and
- Identity, authenticity and universality.
It is important to realize that many of the divergencies existing among religions are
often complementary visions, which should not be seen as conflictual, but rather as
differences which lead to deeper and more universal positions through a process of
dialogue. It is crucial then that this process is guaranteed to take place by the
religions, their institutions, and by society and the state.
These divergencies do not necessarily represent different religious beliefs but rather
the positions of the religious thinkers or activists who choose either to be part of
society, to accept its fundamental dynamics in order to transform it from within, or to
stand outside it to develop a transcendental critical view of its values and institutions.
I feel that the United Nations University's efforts are relevant to the theme of our
The Myth of Cakkravartin and Present-Day Global
Unlike Muslims and Christians, contemporary Buddhists have no vision for global
problem-solving. This is partly due to the fact that prior to western colonial expansion
in the last century, Buddhism was divided into many schools, all of which were attached to
national cultures and/or nation- states, each with subdivisions into various denominations
or sects. Western Christianity, on the other hand, especially with its ties to the
building of great empires such as the Roman and British empires, has evolved such that the
white men's burden includes caring for the world as a universality or catholicism.
Although Protestantism was divided very much like Buddhism, it managed to pull together,
with all its differences, to work on global issues, especially since the creation of the
World Council of Churches.
The spread of Islam increased side by side with Arab commercial success and the
advancement of scientific knowledge, especially after the collapse of ancient Greek
civilization. Although the Europeans replaced the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth
century, the rise of nationalism, pan-nationalism and economic success in the Middle East
encouraged Muslims to have a more global outlook.
Although former Buddhist kingdoms in South and Southeast Asia have regained their
independence from the west, they have lost the Dhammic essence of their national
identities. They have retained only state ceremonies which are often more feudal than
Buddhist. They blindly adhere to outmoded customs which are irrelevant to contemporary
Despite the fact that Siam was not subjugated politically, she was colonized
intellectually, culturally and educationally. The effects of this type of colonization are
almost impossible to reverse.
In East Asia, Buddhism lost much of its true essence to Confucianism or Shintoism, even
before the arrival of western influences.
The lofty Buddhist spirit remains in Asia only in small pockets for individual or local
development where human needs are placed ahead of material or economic gains. At the
national level, most people think only in terms of economic development. Hence, the rich
get richer and the poor remain so, or become poorer. This is true for nations and
individuals. And of course, no one is happy. The present social development systems lead
to human rights abuses, a widening gap between the rich and the poor, environmental
degradation and the aggressive destruction of natural resources. Unfortunately, it seems
that Buddhist development models have not been established and, overall, responses from
the Buddhist communities have been insufficient to counter these negative elements.
Before attempting to deal with the above-mentioned issues, we ought to look into our
Buddhist traditions to see whether such a global concern for social justice existed in the
past, in order to apply it meaningfully in the present and in the future.
In my opinion, it is very worthwhile to examine the Buddhist mythological tradition
regarding kingship and the universal monarch who ruled for the well-being of all. How the
myth was applied by Buddhist rulers of later generations is also interesting.
The Aggana Sutta of the Digha Nikaya begins by portraying an ideal world of natural
effortless existence. Ethereal, self-luminescent beings live in bliss and know no
discrimination between polar opposites such as male and female, good and evil, rich and
poor, ruler and subject. The earth itself is made of a delightful soft edible substance
that looks like butter and is as sweet as honey.
Gradually, however, because of karma remaining from a previous world cycle, this Golden
Age comes to an end. During a long period of decline manifest in the world and its beings,
greed, grasping, sex, theft, violence and murder are introduced. Finally, sheer anarchy
prevails, and in order to put an end to it, the beings get together to select from among
their ranks a king to rule over them and maintain order. This is the Mahasommata, the
Great Elect, and in return for fulfilling his functions as a monarch, the beings each
agree to pay him a portion of their rice.
Such is the myth of the first kingship. The record also relates the legend of the
Cakkravartin, (wheel-turning emperor), or universal monarch. A basic version of this
appears in the Cakkravatti Sihandada Sutta, also of the Digha Nikaya.
This text, too, begins with a description of a Golden Age, the starting point of the
world cycle. During this time, beings had beautiful bodies, life-spans of eighty thousand
years, and wonderful effortless existences. This time, however, the Cakkravartin,
Dalhanemi by name, is present from the beginning. He is, in fact, very much a part of the
Golden Age for his presence is instrumental in maintaining the paradisiacal state. Because
he knows what is good and rules through Dhamma, poverty, ill-will, violence, and
wrongdoings do not exist in his domain.
Traditionally the Cakkravartin is portrayed as an extraordinary being. He is said to
exhibit the thirty-two bodily marks of a Great Man (Mahapurusa) and to be endowed with the
seven jewels, or emblems of sovereignty, the most important of which is the wheel (cakka).
In the Sutta, this magnificent wheel appears in mid-air before Dalhanemi at the beginning
of his reign as a sign of his righteousness. It then leads him in a great cosmic conquest
of the four continents.
It takes him East, South, West and North as far as the great oceans, and, where the
wheel rolls, he encounters no resistance. The power of his Dhamma, symbolized by his
wheel, the Dhammacakka, is such that local kings immediately submit to him. Finally his
wheel leads him back to his capital at the center of the world, and there it remains,
miraculously suspended in mid-air over the royal palaces, as an emblem of sovereignty.
After many years of reigning in peace over a contented and prosperous empire, however,
Dalhanemi's wheel of Dhamma begins to sink. This is a sign of the approaching end of his
reign, according to the Buddhist law of change (anicca), and when the wheel disappears
altogether into the earth, the wise king entrusts his throne to his son and retires from
this world to live as an ascetic in the forest.
It is important to note that the wheel of Dhamma is not automatically passed on from
one Cakkravartin to the next. Dalhanemi's son must, in turn, prove worthy of his own wheel
by calling it forth with his own righteousness. This fact sets the scene for the rest of
the myth, which, like the story in the previous Sutta, traces the gradual degradation of
this world and the beings in it.
After a long succession of Dalhanemi's descendants who are perfect Cakkravartins, there
comes a king who fails to follow Dhamma, and for whom the wheel does not appear.
Consequently, there is resistance to his rule. Friction develops; the people fail to
prosper; the universal monarch fails to support them; and one thing leads to another, as
it is stated in the Sutta: "From not giving to the destitute, poverty grew rife; from
poverty growing rife, stealing increased; from the spread of stealing, violence grew
apace; from the growth of violence, the destruction of life became common; from the
frequency of murder, both the life span of the beings and their beauty wasted away."
The myth then goes on to trace the further decline in the quality and span of life,
until a state of virtual anarchy is reached. In this respect, then, the myth of the
Cakkravartin is quite similar to that of the Great Elect (Mahasommata).
Contrasting the two Suttas, one can draw different conclusions. In the former, the
Great Elect is called upon only when the need for him arises. He functions as a stopgap
against further anarchy, but the Golden Age itself requires and knows no king at all. In
the latter, on the other hand, the ruler is a crucial part of the Golden Age. By his very
presence and by his proper rule, he ensures a peaceful, prosperous, idyllic existence for
all, and he will continue to do so as long as he is righteous enough to merit the wheel of
Dhamma, that is, as long as he truly is a wheel-turning Cakkravartin. The conclusion one
can draw from these two myths is that neither myth stops at the Golden Age, but each goes
on to describe in no uncertain terms what happens when a ruler does not live up to the
The suggestion is made, therefore, that there are really two possible types of rulers.
One, a full-fledged Cakkravartin, is righteous and rules according to Dhamma, and so like
Dalhanemi, ensures a Golden Age. Indeed there is a saying by the Buddha, in the Anguttara
Nikaya stating that "A universal monarch, a righteous and just king relies on the
Dhamma. Respecting, revering and honouring the Dhamma, with the Dhamma as his standard, he
provides for the proper welfare and protection of his people." The other, perhaps not
truly worthy of the title Cakkravartin, is not so righteous, fails to rule according to
the Dhamma, and is responsible for a cosmic catastrophe, the degradation of the world.
These two myths have greatly influenced Buddhist monarchs in South and Southeast Asia.
However, in history, Emperor Ashoka of ancient India was perhaps the only one who could
really be called a Cakkravartin, if one is to accept the prevailing world view. He was the
"universal monarch" who reigned as righteously as possible by extending his
empire across almost all of the subcontinent.
The Sinhalese, Burmese and Siamese kings were not, in fact, Cakkravartins, but they all
wished to imitate the Great Emperor, and tried their best, at least in theory, to be just
and righteous. In practice, however, it is questionable whether they actually
"respected, revered and honoured the Dhamma, while using the Dhamma as a standard, as
a sign, as a sovereign, providing for the proper welfare and protection of the
The Role of the Sangha
The result was that the institution or the Sangha, the holy community of brothers and
sisters, was developed to teach Dhamma to the rulers and to facilitate communication
between the rulers and the ruled.
Unlike the lay community, the Sangha reverses the process of degeneration of the human
race described in the Buddhist creation myths: coercion is replaced by cooperation,
private property by propertylessness, family and home by the community of androgynous
wanderers, and hierarchy by egalitarian democracy. The Sangha symbolizes the unification
of means and ends in Buddhist philosophy. That is, the movement working for the resolution
of conflict must embody a sane and peaceful process itself. The discipline of the early
monastic Sangha was designed to channel expected conflicts of interest among the monks and
nuns into processes of peaceful democratic resolution. In order to spread peace and
stability in their societies, the monastic Sangha sought to establish moral hegemony over
the state, to guide their societies with a code of nonviolent ethics in the interest of
Since the passing away of the Buddha, some 2530 years ago, the historical Sangha,
however, has been divided vertically and horizontally by cultural, economic and political
alliances. Sectors of the Sangha in many different countries became dependent on state
patronage for their growing communities. With the growth of monastic wealth and
land-holding came the integration of the Sangha into society as a priest-class of
teachers, ritual performers, and chanters of magic formulas--a sector of the land-owning
elite with its own selfish interests and tremendous cultural power.
With centralization and hierarchization of the Sangha came increasing elite and state
control, so that instead of applying the ethics of nonviolence to the state, a part of the
Sangha was increasingly called upon to rationalize violence and injustice.
On the other hand, at the base of society, frequently impoverished and poorly educated,
there have always been propertyless and familyless radical clergy who maintain the
critical perspective of the Buddha. To this day, scattered communities of Buddhists
continue in a radical disregard, and sometimes fiery condemnation of the official
"state Buddhisms" with their elite hierarchical structures and their legacies of
secular accommodation and corruption.
In looking to the future of humankind, it is therefore necessary to look back. The
state and its elites, with their natural tendency towards acquisitive conflict, should
remain under the hegemony of the popular institutions that embody the process of
nonviolent and democratic conflict resolution. In traditional Buddhist terms, the king
should always be under the influence of the Sangha, and not vice versa.
For those of us who are lay intellectuals, I feel it is imperative that we support the
radical clergy to maintain this critical perspective of the Buddha. We should
wholeheartedly support the Sangha in its efforts to lead the local communities towards
self-reliance and away from domination by the elites and consumerism.
Indeed many of the local and agrarian societies still have nonviolent means of
livelihood, and respect for each individual as well as for animals, trees, rivers and
Although the government and multinational corporations have introduced various
technological "advances" and chemical fertilizers and have advertised to make
villagers turn away from their traditional ways of life and opt for jeans, coca-cola and
fast food as well as worship of the state and its warlike apparatus, their efforts have
been successfully countered by those of the critical Sangha. Some of them have even
reintroduced meditation practices for farmers, established rice banks and buffalo banks
which are owned by the communities and benefit them, rather than the commercial banks
which link with international enterprises at the expense of the local population.
The Importance of Socially Engaged Spirituality
We should strengthen and extend the liberation potential within the Buddhist tradition
to allow each local community to gain a global perspective making each aware of global
problems, especially the suffering of the poor. If more people were conscious of the
problem, it could be solved more efficiently.
We should also promote exchange and learning between Buddhists and non-Buddhists in
order that they can cooperate meaningfully in a common struggle against the oppressive
social forces that cause suffering.
We should also try to enable peasants, fishermen, industrial workers, women and all
oppressed factions in any country to discover their faith and the roots of their culture
and draw inspiration and sustenance from them.
Unfortunately, development in the past has ignored this vital source of human values.
Indeed, activists, even those of agnostic tendency, should be open to the liberating
dimensions of religions and cultures. Of course, many activists are anti-religious;
perhaps against certain dogmas, forms, ceremonies or establishments; however, perhaps
buddhism, with a small "b" could help them to discover, develop and strengthen a
secular spirituality of struggle that does not make overt references to one specific
tradition, but nourishes him or her for greater authenticity.
For many of us who want to solve global problems there is the prevalent social
engineering mentality which assumes that personal virtue can be more or less conditioned
by a radical restructuring of society. On the other hand the opposite view is that radical
social improvement is wholly dependent upon personal and spiritual change and changes in
lifestyle. But a growing number of spiritually-minded people recognize that the
"inner" work is massively discouraged by the social conditions which are the
consequence of individual delusion and fear. Thus, an American Zen Buddhist poet and
activist, Gary Snyder, remarks that the so called "free world" has become
economically dependent on a fantastic system of greed that cannot be fulfilled, sexual
desire which cannot be satiated, and a hate which has no outlet, except against oneself.
Under these conditions, the odds are heavily against a spiritual lifestyle, especially
when one lives in an affluent society in the west. Yet the so called "socialist
societies" have, almost without exception, wanted to join the so called "free
world." This vicious circle must be broken socially as well as personally--a socially
engaged spirituality is needed.
Social activism in the past has been mostly preoccupied with what is "out
there." Opening up to what is "in here" and sharing it with others can
bring great relief, but it also brings a disconcerting awareness of how much "I"
need my busyness, our certainties or rationalizations and their malevolence. Just to
maintain awareness of the boredom, frustration, indifference, anger, hostility, and
triumph experienced by the activist without being carried away or cast down is an
invaluable spiritual practice. But this is only possible if there is an adequate balance
of daily meditation and periodic retreat, and also if there is awareness of social ills
outside ourselves. These practices slowly dissolve the self-need that feeds on hope,
setting us free to do just what the situation demands of us.
Through deepening awareness comes acceptance, and through acceptance comes a seemingly
miraculous generosity of spirit and empowerment for the work that compassion requires of
us. We can even take ourselves less seriously. With this critical self-awareness, we can
genuinely understand and respect others of diverse religions and beliefs. We can even join
hands with them humbly and knowingly in trying to develop our spaceship earth to be
peaceful and with justice.
Interpretation of the Buddhist Concept of Interrelatedness
Application of the Five Precepts to the Contemporary Situation
Buddhism, through its insistence on the interrelatedness of all life, its teachings of
compassion for all beings, its nonviolence, and its caring for all existence, has been
leading some contemporary Buddhists to broader and deeper interpretations of the
relationship between social, environmental, racial and sexual justice and peace.
In this area, we should be inspired by examples of such movements like that of Ven.
Bhikkhu Buddhadasa and his Garden of Liberation in Siam, not to mention the meditation
practices of Ven. Phra Ajan Cha Subaddho and the scholarly work of Ven. Phra Debvedi
(Payutto) which inspired not only Thai but foreign monks like Ven. Sumedho to carry the
Buddhist message with social concern to Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand.
However, in this paper, I want only to concentrate on one Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat
Hanh, who teaches us to pay close attention to the minute particulars in our actions, as
well as to the giant web of all life.
He particularly stresses nondualism in his teachings and speaks of being peace in the
moments in one's own life as part of making peace in the world. He stresses the continuity
of inner and outer, calling the world our "large self," and asks us to become it
actively and to care for it.
His Tiep Hien Order, created in Vietnam during the war, is in the lineage of the Zen
school of Lin Chi. It is a form of engaged Buddhism in daily life, in society. The best
translation of Tiep Hien, according to Thich Nhat Hanh, is the "Order of
Interbeing," which he explains in this way: "I am, therefore you are, you are,
therefore I am. That is the meaning of the word interbeing. We inter-are."
The Order of Interbeing is designed explicitly to address social justice and peace
issues, sensitizing the participant to test his/her behavior in relation to the needs of
the larger community, while freeing him/her from limiting patterns. Even the way we take
refuge in the Triple Gems is explained simply and beautifully:
I take refuge in the Buddha,
the one who shows me the way in this life,
I take refuge in the Dharma,
the way of understanding, and love,
I take refuge in the Sangha,
the community of mindful harmony,
Thich Nhat Hanh revised the traditional five precepts to address issues of mind, speech
First, do not kill. Do not let others kill. Find whatever means possible to protect
life. Do not live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature. Second, do not
steal. Possess nothing that should belong to others. Respect the property of others, but
prevent others from enriching themselves from human sufferings and the sufferings of other
species on earth. Third, sexual expression should not take place without love and
commitment. Be fully aware of the sufferings you may cause others as a result of your
misconduct. To preserve the happiness of yourself and others, respect the rights and
commitments of others. Fourth, do not say untruthful things. Do not spread news that you
do not know to be certain. Do not criticize or condemn things that you are unsure of. Do
not utter words that cause division and hatred, that can create discord and cause the
family or the community to break. All efforts should be made to reconcile and resolve all
conflicts. Fifth, do not use alcohol and any other intoxicants. Be aware that your fine
body has been transmitted to you by several previous generations and your parents.
Destroying your body with alcohol and other intoxicants is to betray your ancestors, your
parents and also to betray the future generations.
These precepts create a consciousness of, and a precedent for, social justice and peace
work, grounded firmly in Buddhist principles in our individual beings and in our practice
of mindfulness. As well, Thich Nhat Hanh often reminds us: "Do not lose yourself in
dispersion and in your surroundings. Learn to practice breathing in order to regain
composure of body and mind, to practice mindfulness, and to develop concentration and
These guiding statements achieve an integration of the traditional five precepts with
elements of the Noble Eightfold Path, and I believe Thich Nhat Hanh's decision to
elaborate on the traditional precepts came from his observation that one can interpret
these to encourage a withdrawal from the world, a passivity in the face of war and
injustice, a separation of oneself from the common lot of humanity. In rewriting the
precepts, he is countering that tendency. In directing us to focus on our interconnection
with other beings, he is asking us to experience the continuity between the inner and the
outer world, to act in collaboration, in mutuality with others in the dynamic unfolding of
the truth that nurtures justice and creates peace.
Network of Engaged Buddhists:
Beginning for Global Problem-Solving?
Some of us are trying to meet this challenge, and I hope what some of us are trying to
do in connecting our being peace within to the outside world engagingly and mindfully,
will contribute to a better world, with social justice, nonviolence and ecological
balance--the Middle Way for each and for society at large, to live in harmony with one
another and with nature.
Groups of young people in the west who believe in these principles and who try to act
accordingly have established chapters of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship in the United
States, United Kingdom, and Australia.
On top of that, some of us also have tried to meet with fellow Buddhists of
like-mindedness in order to solve global problems concretely, taking some relevant issues
of social justice which are near and dear to us, which we feel we could tackle
individually and collectively with good friends (kalayamamitta) in other countries and
cultures. Thus, last February, in a small city outside Bangkok, some forty-five Buddhists
from all over the world, including a representative from the ABCP, met:
(1) to identify urgent social problems
which exist in one's own country as well as those affecting other Buddhist communities;
(2) to explore the ways in which participants could cooperate in acting on these issues;
(3) to establish a network among engaged Buddhists on a global level.
They set up four working groups to explore different issues: education, women's issues,
human rights, and spirituality and activism.
It is not appropriate to go into the details of this meeting here. However, since some
Buddhists have become aware of the shortcomings of the World Fellowship of Buddhists and
similar organizations, they are now determined to set up the International Network of
Engaged Buddhists (INEB), with the following objectives: to promote understanding between
Buddhist countries and various Buddhist sects, to facilitate and engage in solving
problems in various countries, to help bring the perspective of engaged Buddhism to bear
in working on these problems, to act as a clearinghouse of information on existing engaged
Buddhist (and relevant non-Buddhist) groups and activities, and to aid in the coordination
of efforts wherever possible.
They will initially involve groups and individuals working in the following areas:
alternative education and spiritual training, peace activism, human rights, women's
issues, ecology, family concerns, rural development, alternative economics, communication,
and concerns of monks and nuns. This may be expanded in the future.
I trust that this newly-established network will collaborate meaningfully with our host
organizations in applying Buddhism to global problem-solving./.
Source: Buddhism and
Global Nonviolent Problem Solving - Ulan Bator Explorations (August 1989), Edited by
Glenn D. Paige and Sarah Gilliatt, University of Hawaii (1991) , http://www.hawaii.edu/uhip/buddhism.html
Thanks to Dr.
Binh Anson for offering us with this article.