Bhikkhu Buddhadasa on Nature and Ecology

By TAVIVAT PUNTARIGVIVAT - September 18, 2017


Bhikkhu Buddhadāsa on Nature and Ecology

By Dr. Tavivat Puntarigvivat (tavivat01@gmail.com)

This electronic edition was prepared by the Buddhadāsa Indapañño Archives in 2017 with the kind permission of the author.

 

In response to rapid social change in Thailand, Bhikkhu Buddhadāsa (1906-1993), a leading Thai Buddhist thinker who was recognized by the UNESCO in 2006 on the occasion of his centenary as a world’s eminent personality, has interpreted Buddhism not only from a religious point of view but also from a socio-political perspective. After devoting most of his life to reforming Buddhism in Thailand, Buddhadāsa found it necessary to address socio-political and ecological issues from a Buddhist perspective.

In the 1960s, he articulated his socio-political position in terms of  Dhammocracy (dhamma-thipatai): the social and political order should follow the law of Dhamma — the teachings of the Buddha. Later on in the atmosphere of the student led Revolution in Thailand from 1973 to 1976, Buddhadāsa presented his unique Theory of Dhammic Socialism (dhammika sangkhom-niyom) with a prominent emphasis on the State of Nature and Ecology of the world.

BUDDHADĀSA IN THAI BUDDHIST CONTEXT

Buddhadāsa is one of the most important reformers in the history of Theravāda Buddhism in Thailand. From the socio-political perspective, Buddhadāsa is a leading reformist monk whose rationalistic interpretations of Buddhism are continuous with the reform of Thai Buddhism initiated by King Mongkut in the 19th century. Buddhadāsa has rationalized Theravāda Buddhist doctrines and the Thai Buddhist tradition in response to modern scientific empiricism and the growing Thai middle class of professionals and intellectuals. In the process, Buddhadāsa lays a theoretical framework for an alternative social and political order.[1] From a doctrinal perspective, his emphasis on the study of the Pāli Sutta (Sutra in Sanskrit) and on Right Understanding (sammādiṭṭhi) has identified him as a representative of the Buddhist emphasis on the centrality of wisdom (paññā) in Buddhist praxis. Donald K. Swearer evaluates the role and status of Buddhadāsa in the history of Theravāda Buddhism as follows:

History may well judge him as the most seminal Theravada thinker since Buddhagosha, and may evaluate Buddhadasa’s role within the Buddhist tradition to be on a par with such great Indian Buddhist thinkers as Nagarjuna with whom he has been compared.[2]

The publication of the series of Dhammaghosana (propagation of the Dhamma), nearly 70 volumes of Buddhadāsa’s lectures, is probably the largest publication ever produced by a single Theravāda Buddhist thinker in the entire history of the tradition.[3] When the publication is completed, it  will  be  even  more  extensive  than  the  Pāli  Canon itself.

BUDDHADĀSA’S THEORY OF DHAMMIC SOCIALISM

A number of Buddhadāsa’s lectures have contributed a Buddhist perspective to the discussion of ecological issue — particularly those concerned with his Theory of Dhammic Socialism. The term “Socialism” (sangkhom-niyom) in Thai language is interesting in itself as it reflects a Buddhist perspective on Socialism. The term sangkhom comes from the Sanskrit root saṃgha (community), and niyom from the Sanskrit root niyama (restraint). So sangkhom-niyom literally means the restraint of each member of the society for the benefit of the community.

The restraint of oneself is one of the most basic teachings of the Buddha: sīla (normality, “precepts”). As Buddhadāsa understands it, the Buddhist saṅgha (community of monks) is a living example of the socialist way of life and the socialist community in Buddhism. For him, Dhammic Socialism is a “Socialism of the Dhamma.” Theory of Dhammic Socialism is based on Buddhadāsa’s insights into nature, the teachings of the Buddha, and the practice of the Buddhist Saṅgha.

Buddhadāsa bases his Theory of Dhammic Socialism on nature. To him, nature represents the state of balance for the survival and well-being of human beings, animals, plants, and the ecology of the world. In the State of Nature, every being produces according to its capacity and consumes according to its needs; no being, whatever form it has, hoards “surplus” for its own sake. Buddhadāsa calls this balanced State of Nature socialistic. Problems arise, however, when human beings begin to hoard a “surplus” for the sake of their own profit; this leaves others facing scarcity and poverty. According to Buddhadāsa, human beings can and should produce a “surplus,” but the “surplus” should be distributed for the well-being of everyone, and Buddhism provides the ethical tools for this fair distribution.

Philosophically, Dhammic Socialism is based on this principle: none of us should take more than we really need. We should share whatever extra we have with those who have less. Social problems are fundamentally a result of greed. In other words, greed is at the heart of scarcity and poverty.[4] Buddhadāsa’s approach to social, economic and ecological problems, solved by the personal practice of self-restraint (sīla precepts and vinaya discipline) and giving (dāna), is, in many respects, reflective of his Theravāda Buddhist world view.

DHAMMIC SOCIALISM AND THE STATE OF NATURE

According to Buddhadāsa, the spirit or essence of Socialism is rooted in Nature (Thai: dhammajati “born of Dhamma”) The State of Nature in its pure sense is an example of pure Socialism. Buddhadāsa sees that:

The entire universe is a socialist system. Countless numbers of stars in the sky exist together in a socialist system. Because they follow a socialist system they can survive. Our small universe with its sun and planets including the earth is a socialist system. Consequently, they do not collide.[5]

A) Interdependent Co-arising and Theory of Evolution

Buddhadāsa further develops his conception of the State of Nature by introducing the Western theory of Evolution, but while always keeping in mind the Buddhist notions of “Conditionality” (Idappaccayatā), and “Interdependent Co-arising” (Paṭiccasamuppāda). He sees that after the earth became separated from the sun, it gradually cooled and hardened. As years went by this stone-like matter eroded into soil and dust, and various elements took shape. Nothing existed or came into being independently.

The primordial waters gave rise to the first single-celled organisms we call life. Over time this life evolved into multi-celled forms and then into plants and animals.[6] All aspects of nature combine in an interdependent relationship. Buddhadāsa maintains that,

Even an atom is a socialistic system of interdependent parts. A molecule also exhibits socialistic characteristics in that it is made up of several interdependent atoms. On and on it goes — molecules combine to form tissue, tissues combine to form flesh or leaves or whatever, all interdependent and in balance, according to the principles of Nature’s pure socialism.[7]

B) Self-Sufficiency and the State of Nature

Buddhadāsa observes that among all forms of life in the natural world, no one species takes more than its share. In all these various levels of living beings, none ever consumes more than it needs. Even the first cellular organisms took in only what their simple cell structures required to survive. Groups of cells consumed only enough to sustain the colony. Then plant life evolved, each plant consuming only what it needed to maintain itself. Then followed animals — types of fish, birds, and others. All consume only as much as their systems require.[8] A bird eats only what its stomach will hold. It is incapable of taking more than it must have to live.

 Throughout the process of evolution, according to Buddhadāsa, from single celled organism right up to the appearance of the first primitive human being, the natural world remained inherently socialistic. Nature did not provide any of its various forms with the means of hoarding more resources than were necessary for survival and development. Buddhadāsa argues that in this state of nature:

Birds, insects, trees — all consume only as much as Nature has given them the means to take in, a level of consumption perfectly adequate for their needs. It is precisely this limiting aspect of nature that has allowed the plant and animal world to survive and multiply in such profusion and diversity.[9]

C) Conditionality and Human Anatomy

Buddhadāsa points out that in this condition of normalcy, stones, sand, trees, and insects simply are; no artificial theory or social system directs their interrelationships. They exist in a natural state of balance, or pure socialism.[10] To elaborate more on his theory, Buddhadāsa argues from an anatomical point of view that,

In these realms nothing exists independently: eyes work in conjunction with the ears, the ears with the nose, the nose with the mouth... All organs, big and small, need to work together performing according to their true nature (dhammasacca) as bodily components. Similarly, the spirit of socialism exists in everyone: the necessity of living together in a properly harmonious, balanced way.[11]

When human beings first evolved, argues Buddhadāsa, and inhabited the forests and jungles, they had no granaries, nor storehouses. They ate only what was necessary to survive; they gathered daily whatever food they needed. Buddhadāsa claims that in this earliest period, no person or group stockpiled a surplus of anything, so social problems as we know them today did not yet exist. They lived according to a natural socialism for hundreds of thousands of years. We are here today because nature has maintained a harmonious socialistic balance through the entire evolutionary process.

D) Sharing Surplus Value and Natural Preservation 

Buddhadāsa argues that this natural balance was threatened, when a few “un-natural” human beings began to hoard more products for themselves than they needed. This hoarding left others with a shortage and gave rise to rivalry instead of cooperation. Human intelligence was then applied to methods of hoarding resources — grain, food, and other products — and accumulating wealth and power in order to take advantage of others. Buddhadāsa contends that,

Nature would have each of us use no more than we actually need. For years people have failed to heed the way of Nature, competing with one another to take as much as they could, causing the problems that we live with to this day. If we were to take only what is enough, none of these problems would exist, because then people would not be taking advantage of others and oppressing them.[12]

The question, then, is how much is enough? Buddhadāsa suggests that there is no set rule. It varies according to the time, place, and situation. He complains that these days it seems nothing is ever enough — “Even two entire mountains of gold are not enough to satisfy the desires of a single person[13] — human desires keep multiplying, increasing our wants at the expense of other people. Once supplies were hoarded, problems of unequal distribution and access arose. The problems multiplied over time. Leaders of various groups would be in charge of stockpiling supplies for the group, and fighting among the groups was inevitable. To maintain control over society and to limit human greed (kilesa), laws and moral systems were developed.

Social justice, according to Buddhadāsa, can be obtained when people “return” to the balanced state of natural socialism. To him, socialism is based on a principle in accord with the way of nature; that none of us should take more than we really need, and we should share our surplus with those who have less. We all have a natural right to take as much as we need, but not more. People all over the world should learn to share a portion of what they have, even if they consider what they share to be essential to their own well-being. Such sharing would be in accordance with morality (sīladhamma), and everyone would benefit from it. After all, this does not mean that we should not produce a surplus. People have a right to produce more than they need, and it is even appropriate to do so if the surplus is shared with others.

Under contemporary capitalism, Buddhadāsa rightly points out that people are destroying the earth’s raw materials, natural resources, and environment. Buddhadāsa complains that the earth’s resources are being consumed in unnecessarily large quantities, only to be used carelessly and wastefully. Often times they are turned into instruments of harm: minerals are taken from the earth and made into weapons of mass destruction. Eventually those resources will become depleted, having been used for wasteful and utterly useless ends. Buddhadāsa comments that,

If we were to use the earth’s resources according to the laws of Nature and within its limits, we would not need to use as much as we do now. There would be plenty for everyone for years to come, or even indefinitely. Nowadays, however, we are squandering the earth’s minerals so destructively that before long they will be gone. Acting in such a way is contrary to the Dhamma... If we were to use them as we should, according to the laws of Nature, there would always be an abundant supply.[14]

Buddhadāsa maintains, furthermore, that if people would use only what is necessary, the world would have sufficient resources for all. According to Buddhadāsa, excessive hoarding leads to scarcity, and scarcity leads to poverty. Therefore, not to take or consume in excess will lead to the elimination of poverty.

E) Buddhist Ethics and the Balance of Nature

From a religious perspective, Buddhadāsa’s argument contends that in the state of nature there exists the perfect essence of morality (sīla-dhamma): the condition of harmonious balance and normalcy. Buddhadāsa calls this balance and normalcy the plan or intention (cetanā) of nature. People existed in this condition for ages until they lost morality and natural socialism as a consequence of their ignorance (avijjā). When they transgress the natural balance in the cosmos they suffer the consequences of their ignorance. Nature punishes them for their ignorance and the destruction they inflict on it. This was the beginning of sin (pāpa). For Buddhadāsa, socialism was not actually the creation of human beings, but rather the original state of nature which encompassed both the human and animal worlds. Social problems arose when human beings acted against this original intention of nature. More and more problems arose over time as a result of human effort — more and more distinctions were made among people. At some point it became necessary for human beings to construct a socialist system themselves because they had so separated themselves from nature.[15]

From a Buddhist perspective, the truth (dhammasacca) or the essence of nature (dhammajāti) is the essence of the Dhamma. It is simply this: things are imbued with the spirit of socialism; miraculously, all things exist in unity with one another even though we may not have the eyes to see this truth or the wisdom to comprehend it. Nothing can exist independently; everything exists interdependently.[16] Socialism, from a Buddhist perspective, includes not just human beings, but also all living beings and the entire Natural Environment. Buddhadāsa argues that if each of us were to exercise our natural rights to the extent allowed by nature, this world would be filled with contentment such as we attribute to the realm of Buddha Maitreya (the Buddhist Utopia), where there is no suffering (dukkha) or dissatisfaction. For Buddhadāsa, this is the highest law of nature and the basis of his Theory of Dhammic Socialism.

F) Buddhadāsa and Charles Darwin: Natural Selection

Buddhadāsa’s theory that the natural state of plants, animals, and human beings is socialistic is insightful and well received. One may argue, however, that his interpretation of cosmic and atomic systems are also socialistic is problematic. The movement of stars and planets in the cosmos and of atoms in a molecule are mechanical and do not reflect ethical or social values. The same is true for the functioning of cells and organs in living beings. But here Buddhadāsa uses “socialism” as a comprehensive term for all levels of being. His view of nature, however, is similar to Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. In his book, The Origin of Species, Darwin writes:

It may metaphorically be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinising, throughout the world, the slightest variations; rejecting those that are bad, preserving and adding up all that are good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic condition of life. We see nothing of these slow changes in progress, until the hand of time has marked the lapse of ages, and then so imperfect is our view into long-past geological ages, that we see only that the forms of life are now different from what they formerly were.[17]

G) Buddhist Cooperation and the Struggle for Existence

Yet, what is behind Buddhadāsa’s state of nature is quite different from Darwin’s theory of natural selection. According to Darwin, man not only evolved, but evolved by natural selection. Natural selection pictures the world in a constant process of change, but without any apparent prior intention of going anywhere in particular or of becoming anything in particular. In other words, Darwin’s principle of evolution is without what Buddhadāsa calls the plan or intention (cetanā) of nature. According to the Darwinian theory of natural selection, living organisms are all engaged in a struggle for existence in which only the fittest survive. But some Darwinians have also found among plants and animals some forms of mutual aid and mutual support for the maintenance of life, the preservation of each species, and its further evolution.[18] This modification of the survival of the fittest would align Darwinism to a certain degree with Buddhadāsa’s view of nature as socialistic cooperation.

H) Buddhadāsa and Thomas Hobbes: Human State of Nature

Darwin’s zoological conceptions of the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest reinforce Thomas Hobbes’ (1588-1679) socio-political Theory of the Human State of Nature. Hobbes maintains that nature has made human beings equal in their faculties of the body and mind. For the physical body, even the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest by various means. For the faculties of the mind, prudence is but experience which, with equal time and opportunity, equally bestows on all human beings the same capacities. From this equality of ability, argues Hobbes, arises equality of hope in attaining one’s ends. Therefore, if any two men desire the same things which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies. In his book, Leviathan, Hobbes maintains that in the state of nature,

if one (person) plant, sow, build, or possess a convenient seat, others may probably be expected to come prepared with forces united, to dispossess, and deprive him, not only of the fruit of his labour, but also of his life, or liberty. And the invader again is in the like danger of another.[19]

According to Hobbes, three principal causes of strife among human beings are competition, diffidence, and glory. The first makes men invade for gain; the second, for safety; and the third, for reputation. Hobbes writes:

Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war, as is of every man, against every man.[20]

And again,

To this war of every man, against every man, this also is consequent; that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law: where no law, no justice.[21]

According to Hobbes, the passions that incline human beings to peace are fear of death, desire of such things as are necessary to commodious living, and a hope by their industry to obtain them. For these reasons, human beings drew up agreements and made laws in order to obtain peace. Hobbes’ state of nature is fundamentally at odds with Buddhadāsa’s. While Hobbes maintains that in the state of nature, human beings are at war against each other; law and order and peace are the creation of human beings. Buddhadāsa’s theory of the state of nature is just the opposite. Buddhadāsa says that in the State of Nature, human beings are socialistic, cooperative, and at peace. War is the creation of mankind out of the unnatural desire for “surplus.” While Hobbes discusses only the socio-political dimension of the human state of nature, Buddhadāsa’s theory is more holistic: it embraces the entire world of nature — cosmos, plant and animal species as well as human beings.

CONCLUSION

Buddhadāsa’s theory provides a positive foundation for solving today’s world-wide ecological crisis. In his book, The Dream of the Earth, Thomas Berry, a contemporary American eco-theologian, writes: “we are beginning to move beyond democracy to biocracy, to the participation of the larger life community in our human decision-making processes... we must now understand that our own well-being can be achieved only through the well-being of the entire natural world about us.”[22] With the contemporary environmental crisis — the global warming, the destruction of the tropical rain forests, the expanding pollution in the atmosphere, and the extinction of many living species — Buddhadāsa’s theory of the socialistic, balanced State of Nature represents a progressive ecological worldview.

 


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Berry, Thomas. 1988. The Dream of the Earth. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

Buddhadasa, Bhikkhu. 1986. Dhammic Socialism. translated and edited by Donald K. Swearer. Bangkok: Thai Interreligious Commission For Development.

Darwin, Charles. 1975. The Origin of Species, introduced and abridged by Philip Appleman. New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company.

Gabaude, Louis. 1990. “Thai Society and Buddhadasa: Structural Difficulties.” In Sulak Sivaraksa, Radical Conservatism: Buddhism in the Contemporary World. Bangkok: Thai Inter-Religious Commission for Development.

Hobbes, Thomas. 1960. Leviathan: Or the Matter, Forme and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil, edited with an introduction by Michael Oakeshott. Oxford, Basil Blackwell.

Jackson, Peter A. 1989. Buddhism, Legitimation and Conflict: The Political Functions of Urban Thai Buddhism. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

Locke, John. 1960. Locke and Liberty: Selections from the Works of John Locke, compiled and with an introduction by Massimo Salvadori. London: Pall Mall Press.

Marx, Karl. 1975. Early Writings, introduced by Lucio Colletti, translated by Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton. New York: Vintage Books.

Rahula, Walpola.1974.What the Buddha Taught, revised and expanded edition with texts from Suttas and Dhammapada, foreword by Paul Demieville. New York: Grove Press, Inc.

Swearer, Donald K. 1989. “Introduction.” In Bhikkhu Buddhadasa, Me and Mine, edited with an introduction by Donald K. Swearer. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press.

______. 1986. “The Vision of Bhikkhu Buddhadasa.” In Bhikkhu Buddhadasa, Dhammic Socialism, translated and edited by Donald K. Swearer. Bangkok: Thai Interreligious Commission For Development.


NOTES

[1] Peter A. Jackson, Buddhism, Legitimation and Conflict: The Political Functions of Urban Thai Buddhism (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1989), pp. 1-15.

[2] Donald K. Swearer, “The Vision of Bhikkhu Buddhadasa,” in Bhikkhu Buddhadasa, Dhammic Socialism, translated and edited by Donald K. Swearer (Bangkok: Thai Interreligious Commission For Development, 1986), p. 14.

[3] Donald K. Swearer, “Introduction,” in Bhikkhu Buddhadasa, Me and Mine, edited with an introduction by Donald K. Swearer (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1989), p. 2.

[4] Bhikkhu Buddhadasa, Dhammic Socialism, translated and edited by Donald K. Swearer (Bangkok: Thai Interreligious Commission For Development, 1986), p. 107.

[5] Bhikkhu Buddhadasa, “A Socialism Capable of Benefiting the World,” in Bhikkhu Buddhadasa, Dhammic Socialism, translated and edited by Donald K. Swearer (Bangkok: Thai Interreligious Commission For Development, 1986), p. 114.

[6] Bhikkhu Buddhadasa, “A Dictatorial Dhammic Socialism,” in Bhikkhu Buddhadasa, Dhammic Socialism, translated and edited by Donald K. Swearer (Bangkok: Thai Interreligious Commission For Development, 1986), p. 86.

[7] Buddhadasa, “A Socialism Capable of Benefiting the World,” p. 118.

[8] Bhikkhu Buddhadasa, “Democratic Socialism,” in Bhikkhu Buddhadasa, Dhammic Socialism, translated and edited by Donald K. Swearer (Bangkok: Thai Interreligious Commission For Development, 1986), pp. 59-60.

[9] Buddhadasa, “A Dictatorial Dhammic Socialism,” p. 86.

[10] Ibid., p. 87.

[11] Buddhadasa, “A Socialism Capable of Benefiting the World,” p. 104.

[12] Buddhadasa, “Democratic Socialism,” p. 60.

[13] Ibid., p. 61.

[14] Ibid., p. 51.

[15] See Buddhadasa, “A Dictatorial Dhammic Socialism,“ pp. 87-88.

[16] Buddhadasa, “A Socialism Capable of Benefiting the World,” pp. 103-105.

[17] Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, introduced and abridged by Philip Appleman (New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1975), p. 47. Emphasis in original.

[18] Phillip Appleman, “Introduction,” in Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, p. 18.

[19] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan: Or the Matter, Forme and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil, edited with an introduction by Michael Oakeshott (Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1960), p.81.

[20] Ibid., p. 82.

[21] Ibid., p. 83.

[22] Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988), pp. xiii-xv.

Tavivat puntarigvivat