21 November, 1995
Buddhist Social Ethics
Professor Donald Swearer
Swarthmore - Religion Department
In his book Dhammic Socialism, Buddhadasa Bhikkhu proposes a synthesis of Buddhist worldview and Western egalitarian political idealism. Buddhadasa's Dhammic Socialism is based soundly upon Buddhist notions of interdependent co-arising (paticca-samuppâda), restraint and generosity (niyama), and loving-kindness (mettâ-karunâ). Together they comprise his antidote to the soul sickness of our wicked world, characterized by exploitative development of the natural world and media perpetuated consumer alienation borne of excessive material hunger, resulting in a sense of self that deliberately threatens community survival. His core precepts undergird the positive potential of the Internet. If implemented properly, the Internet could bring to fruition Buddhadasa's vision of a socialistic society united in pursuit of enlightenment. Conversely, without the active involvement of mindful folk, the Internet could be fearsome force for absolute dehumanization. According to Buddhadasa, Dhammic Socialism involves realignment. We are not living up to our human potential2 - mired in heedless greed and anxiety, ruled by our most basic instincts, we are too trapped in the temporal to transcend. The Internet is inherently transcendent. You can't smell body odour over the wires, let alone procreate. Distractions of physical presence minimized, the mind is engaged. The Internet is about information dissemination. Each person is their own agent of collection, with the potential to publicate. Rather than television demanding a pavlovian response to commercial puffery, the Internet encourages an active engaged personal search for truth. By contrasting the moral underpinnings of Dhammic Socialism with the structure and ethic of online community, we can see the interplay of ideals between geeks and Buddhadasa.Ten years ago, it was semi-safe to generalize about the Internet. Today, it is no longer a cloistered community of nerds; FOX Sports, and Procter & Gamble are noticeable netizens. Fortunately, the underlying ethic of the Net was established well before the influx of commercial interests, and in spite of their pervasive presence, they operate within an established framework - dictated as much by the essential technological structure of the Internet as by the idealism of the founding fathers and mothers of online communication. Buddhadasa emphasizes the basic Buddhist teaching of paticca samuppâda - interdependent co-arising. This is an essential truth, "...all aspects of life operate in conjunction with one another."3 Modern hording, wastage and the resulting competition for resources has divorced humanity from a sense of our interconnection. On an individual level and accordingly extended society-wide, recognition of paticca-samuppâda fosters spiritual regeneration and collective wellness - "Human survival depends upon the support of others in the spirit of cooperation and care."4 Today's market driven societies deliberately mask this underlying structure, individuals are encouraged to head off alone to make their mark on the world. We achieve notable success over and above our associates, and often at the expense of our communities, too often by literally "...taking advantage of one another."5 So much of this capitalist, consumerist fervor is perpetuated by television, the most pervasive and divisive of modern media. The boob tube actively propagates the materialistic paradigm, fostering cravings for immediate gratification of stratospheric proportions. Simply put, if everyone consumed as much as the poorest characters in American soap operas, we would see the belly of the world bloated with spiritual malnourishment and dis-ease, as nature is buried under discarded plastic packaging. By promulgating material accruement as the means to soul, "consumerism operates as a secularists' religion, promising false happiness in this world."7 Any sense of sane social striving is lost in the moneyed fray. The primary function of television is daily hours of inane inundation - it is astonishing how much of our mass media is devoted to dehumanization, encouraging unbridled desire (kilesa)8. Due to the phenomenal appeal of the World Wide Web, the Internet is replacing materialist models of media. Just yesterday the New York Times noted "...the Web's emergence as possibly the next mass medium..." as the Associated Press announced it would distribute articles and photographs on the Internet.9 Both the ethic and the structure of the web offer enlightenment - hope for humanity. Television, the broadcast model, typifies "one to many" communications versus the web's "many to many" communications. Theoretically, there are as many channels available as there are people - each of us is a potential publisher. This model provides the means to achieve Buddhadasa's vision: "We need to put our collective energy into discovering the common elements of our humanity in order that we might better communicate and improve our mutual interaction."10The initial intended use for the telephone was orchestral broadcast - folks across the country would pick up their phones to hear the latest from Carnegie Hall. It was not within this limited dictation of content that the phone ascended. People found they could connect to other people through the wires and the phone became a fantastically vulgar appliance.The Internet is the most recent example of technological decentralization. The power of wide-spread, instantaneous communication has the potential to awaken our sense of global interconnectedness, that we may see "...the individual lives in the world not as an isolated being, but as part of a community in the natural order of things, necessarily interrelated... ."11 The Internet is applied the concept of interdependent coarising (paticca-samuppâda) to human story and information, affirmed by the very means of Net navigation - links. To reach a piece of information requires a reference from someone else, streamlined word of mouth. This linking structure gave the Web its name - fittingly the most interconnected form in nature. Interconnectedness, for Buddhadasa, is critical to getting "...back onto the road so that we can go on driving..."12 - "If we were to act according to the principles of religion, that is to say, to acknowledge that everyone exists in God, in the Dhamma, in Tao, in Nature, then our problems would disappear."13 As we have noted, the structure of the net encourages acknowledgement of the universal whole. Each site only exists in terms of links to other sites - nothing is a whole, independent of connection; each is a piece of the collective. By using the Internet to engage the depth and breadth of voices in the world, we might bring about a positive shift towards interdependence. An immediate, and Buddhistic effect of such a project would be ego loss - niyama, "acting in terms of or in relationship to the whole rather than as an isolated entity."14 Primacy of ego is identified by Buddhadasa as the cause of much of societal suffering,...people have become selfish and are attached to the idea of a self and what belongs to it. They are ignoring God's wish that we love one another, that is, that we consider the good of society before we think of our personal gain. For this reason, society's problems will continue to increase...15Seeking self-serving material pleasures, we not only ignore the needs of our communities, but we drain them of their vital resources in our mindless pursuit of mammon. In a conscious, interconnected ecology, "no one part should consume more than its share of resources."16 Buddhadasa prescribes moderation - "Excessive consumption is wrong... ."17 Imbalances result from a skew towards selfishness. Religion is the remedy; according to Buddhadasa, "[t]he goal of every religion is to put an end to self-centeredness, to a "me" and "mine" kind of thinking."18 Through interconnectedness, the individual is brought face front with their effect on society and their proper place therein. The structure inherent in the Web encourages sharing; of attention, of credit, of history. Content demands context - where did you get that from, and what else is there? Recognizing our supports and connections dissolves our sense of ego, and our propensity for gluttony. By fostering a sense of interdependence, and deemphasizing ego, the Internet encourages generosity. The nature of digital information is such that anything created ends up in the collective knowledge pool, unless elaborate measures are taken to deliberately prevent its distribution. Any effort extended into this society is at once shared world wide. Commercial interests may act to prevent the spread of "intellectual property" but they compete on a levelled playing field with millions of amateurs prompted by love and curiosity to discover and disseminate the truth through collaborate learning. This learning project is ultimately arrived at after much indulgence. Gotama Buddha arrived at his wisdom after unlimited access to and some indulgence in the pleasures of worldly material goods. In a digital sense, each Internet citizen can take their information indulgence as far as they please, without noticeably detracting from the community. Moreso even than material possessions made up of atoms, digital creations made of bytes are infinitely manipulatable, malleable, transferrable. Each reader is empowered to be a producer and reproducer thereof. Given the material resource of an Internet terminal and connection, there can be no shortage of content. In this setting, the hording or even holding of information becomes quickly irrelevant - there is simply too much out there for any one element to be of disproportionate significance. Sharing it brings it to life. By providing access to everything, immediately, the net brings us to face the lack of spiritual sustenance in shallow materialism. The rapid pace of information accumulation possible encourages burn out - there's nothing you can't find out within an hour. After few hours of random web wanderings meaninglessness becomes increasingly grating. To be the newest, the biggest, these statii are meaningless in their temporality. We ultimately seek out honesty, depth; these ring truer because the other stuff is so immediately accessible. Enough searchers discover content of value, and share it - the Internet used to forge a collective sense of dhamma, distributing nuggets of truth.
Perhaps the Internet is the epitome of technical machine existence that by its very nature subverts meaningful communication. Buddhadasa stresses the importance of nature - being close to the ground imparts an immediate sense of Dhamma. "Sometimes we depend too much on verbal means to explain the mind"19 when experiencing nature could be equally, if not more effective. One can not get much further from the ground than being online. The web seems an immersion in verbal means of explanation - here we have infinite text archives of human thought. It would seem to limit us to those means to express ourselves.
Buddhadasa goes on to describe how the concept of "empty mind" can be movingly illustrated by swaying grasses. He uses this image in his Spiritual Theatre to illustrate how the mind works20. If that image was up on the Buddhadasa web page, clarity seekers the world over could grasp that truth through that image. The Spiritual Theatre could seat an audience of millions the world over - millions who would never even think of travelling to Thailand, to Wat Suan Mokh (The Garden of Liberation). Perhaps they would not be getting a full, natural experience; is some semblance thereof better than none?
In his Dhammic Socialism, Buddhadasa outlines his vision for a society unified under Buddhist Dhammic principles. His applied concept is Wat Suan Mokh (The Garden of Liberation), where folks come for intimate study of original Buddhist texts. Through self-awakening, they achieve preparedness to improve themselves and accordingly the world around them.
Because each Internet-empowered person is the primary agent of their own truth seeking, with the wealth of the world's knowledge at their fingertips, there is enormous potential for self-awakening, and resulting social service:It is my hope that in the end people everywhere might work together in harmony, no matter what their nationality, language, or religion might be. All people, after all, are fundamentally the same. We divide people into groups according to nationality, language, and religion merely for the convenience of having labels, but we all face the same basic problem: overcoming dukkha or suffering. Social service is for the benefit of all humanity in the most basic sense: to overcome dukkha.21Investing ourselves in the Internet requires trust - that the bulk of people, if made aware of suffering and social injustice and so empowered, will speak out against it. The Internet augments two critical aspects of that notion: distribution of information and the power to speak out democratized and sped up. While there is much Buddhosity in the Internet, this technological power could easily be usurped. Commercial interests are already doing their damndest to milk online community for kilesa driven profits. Television has been enormously effective in promoting kilesa worldwide, spreading the dis-ease of material desire; the Internet could make television look amateur in this respect. If credit card companies and Hollywood move in to "sell us to ourselves"22 faster better and cheaper, our autocannibalism will accelerate towards a truly terrifying nadir.We must take great care to ensure that all these gadgets - radios, televisions, computers, and such - are not used by individuals solely for personal gain and selfish ends. If we were to use these inventions in truly socialist ways, we could achieve peace and genuine happiness in the world in a very short time.23The truth shall set us free; I envision the wires pulsing with truth. Much as Buddhadasa encourages us to take control of our souls, so do I urge folks on the Internet to develop the honest human potential of networked communications, rather than electronically fanning the flames of our "ever-growing desires for a kind of artificial beauty."24 Interdependence (paticca-samuppâda) and restraint and generosity (niyama), spring naturally from the decentralized structure of the wires. It is up to us to foster respect and loving kindness (mettâ-karunâ).There is really only one society in the world: the community of humankind. We must collectively attempt to overcome our collective problem, dukkha, by doing whatever will bring us to a fuller understanding of the term Dhamma or God in its most profound sense.25By acknowledging interconnectedness, engendering ego loss, spreading surplus, we can use the Internet to bring us closer to Dhammic Socialism.