Buddhist Social Philosophy




Written by Randeep Singh

What does Buddhism[1] say about social matters?

In Buddhism, all things are governed by the universal law known as Dharma. In the physical world, Dharma regulates the expansion of galaxies, the flow of the seasons and of the rise and setting of the sun. In the social world, Dharma is found in the obligations and responsibilities we owe to one another as humans.

To live in accordance with Dharma socially is to live a moral life (sila) in harmony with the well-being of others. Buddhism in particular looks at the Dharma in relation to suffering and the end of suffering.

Suffering arises socially when we think we exist separately from one another. In Buddhism, nothing exists separately from anything else and there is no “self” or “essence” which divides one thing from another. The end of suffering begins when we realize that we do not exist seperately from anything or anyone but in a dynamic interdependence with everything and everyone around us. There is no “self” dividing me from my neighbour.

In so realizing, I regard my neighbour as myself. Dharma is realized by “doing good to others, avoiding harm to others.” Buddhist ethics consider how one’s words, actions and livelihood affects other people and the quality of one’s relationships with those people. Kind words, a smile, a handshake, all make a difference. Dharma is apparent through the effects of our moral actions on our lives (‘karma’) and how the cumulative effects of our action produce social relationships, networks and society.

Above all, human relationships provide support and solace in a world of suffering. The loneliness of human existence, the pain of separation, the sorrow of losing someone close to us, all are lessened through the bonds of love, friendship and brotherhood. The ideal society in Buddhist philosophy is one where each person lives in respect and with affection toward others, creating relationships in the spirit of love, compassion and joy in the happiness of others.


[1] I define Buddhism as the teachings of the Buddha and take them as a philosophy like the the teachings of Aristotle, Confucius or Plato, not as a religion per se.

Further Reading:

Ainslee T. Embree ed., Sources of Indian Tradition, Vol. 1: From the Beginning to 1800, Columbia University Press, New York: 1988.

Damien Keown, Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, Oxford: 2006).


3 comments on “Buddhist Social Philosophy

  1. urbanzomby says:

    Please do not get me wrong here. I’d not write something if I didn’t find the proposition interesting.

    Though religion, philosophy, and all sorts of goodwill preaching has been enriching society (since upper palaeolithic), I am afraid there has to be more to these than mere socioethical guidelines or we are selling short. Such fling with religion or religious doctrine makes modern believers look more of true utilitarian atheist.

    Modern society is largely build around idea of economy (power if you may) and socioethical standings change accordingly. If this is what religious discourses hold close to their heart, will it not push/stretch/break their limits too? My point being, is it possible what we understand of religion is very utilitarian notion of it? If it is about do’s, don’ts and oughts, I am afraid life will find a way (through the thick of it). From where I see it (or not) my failure to see it is also it’s failure to tell me how. Society will always long for a permanent fix (if it all can be written down for once and all) but its other way around that makes a society reinvent itself and move forward.

    Philosophy is troubled child of religion. We are more guided by unrest than resolutions. May the family of Adam and eve prosper by their own will to keep walking no matter how many Armageddons.


  2. rsingh says:

    Right. Buddhism has been referred to as a “practical philosophy”; its contains doctrines and ideas which can be characterized as philosophical but what matters is the ends those ideas produce when applied to actual experience.


  3. urbanzomby says:

    With all due respects, “teaching” isn’t philosophizing and vice-versa.


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