Promote a Program of Social Change

ฐานิสสโร ภิกขุ

Promote a Program of Social Change

So if you want to promote a program of social change that would be true to Buddhist principles, it would be wise to heed the Buddha’s framework for understanding social well-being, beginning with his teachings on merit. In other words, the pursuit of justice, to be in line with the Dhamma, has to be regarded as part of a practice of generosity, virtue, and the development of universal goodwill.

What would this entail? To begin with, it would require focusing primarily on the means by which change would be pursued. The choice of a goal, as long as you found it inspiring, would be entirely free, but it would have to be approached through meritorious means.

This would entail placing the same conditions on the pursuit of justice that the Buddha placed on the practice of merit:

1) People should be encouraged to join in the effort only of their own free will. No demands, no attempts to impose social change as a duty, and no attempts to make them feel guilty for not joining your cause. Instead, social change should be presented as a joyous opportunity for expressing good qualities of the heart. To borrow an expression from the Canon, those qualities are best promoted by embodying them yourself, and by speaking in praise of how those practices will work for the long-term benefit of anyone else who adopts them, too.

2) Efforts for change should not involve harming yourself or harming others. “Not harming yourself,” in the context of generosity, means not over-extending yourself, and a similar principle would apply to not harming others: Don’t ask them to make sacrifices that would lead to their harm. “Not harming yourself” in the context of virtue would mean not breaking the precepts—e.g., no killing or lying under any circumstances—whereas not harming others would mean not getting them to break the precepts (AN 4:99). After all, an underlying principle of kamma is that people are agents who will receive results in line with the type of actions they perform. If you try to persuade them to break the precepts, you’re trying to increase their suffering down the line.

3) The goodwill motivating these efforts would have to be universal, with no exceptions. In the Buddha’s expression, you would have to protect your goodwill at all times, willing to risk your life for it, the same way a mother would risk her life for her only child (Sn 1:8). This means maintaining goodwill for everyone, regardless of whether they “deserve” it: goodwill for those who you see as guilty as much as for those you see as innocent, and for those who disapprove of your program and stand in your way, no matter how violent or unfair their resistance becomes. For your program to embody universal goodwill, you have to make sure that it works for the long-term benefit even of those who initially oppose it.

This reflection by Ajaan Geoff is from Wisdom Over Justice, pp. 6-7.