Right Action: Giving Life to the Buddha

by John Daido Loori, Roshi

Featured in Mountain Record 31.2, Winter 2012-2013


Most people who study Buddhism are familiar with the enlightenment teachings of Shakyamuni—the teachings of the Four Noble Truths, the doctrine of no-self, the principle of interdependent co-origination. Fewer people are aware that Shakyamuni also provided frequent, compelling teachings on a wide range of social and economic issues that impact the general welfare of all the life on our planet. He taught about government, politics, and the difficulties involved in mature citizenship and interpersonal relationships. That his teaching extends so dynamically into “right action” indicates that the Buddha’s wisdom can be appreciated not just in monasteries but also on the streets and in the households of the twenty-first century. As we navigate the moral and ethical dilemmas of modern life, the Buddha’s teaching can provide a way to see our way home. Indeed, the precepts of the Buddha can transform that navigation into something frankly wondrous: the life of the Buddha realized as our own life.

Being thoroughly educated and originally trained to become a ruler in his nation-state, Shakyamuni was exposed to the conflicts and problems arising in the social sphere. This made him acutely aware of the complexities of social conditions and their moral and ethical underpinnings. He was an extraordinary person by conventional standards. His enlightenment experience integrated his personality with a deep appreciation of the ground of being.

Following his enlightenment, he remained in the world teaching for forty-seven years, developing skillful means to respond to the searching questions of his students. He had plenty of opportunities to see how his teachings were manifesting and to correct, redirect, broaden, and focus them. During those forty-seven years, his teachings evolved to better and better meet the challenges his students were facing.

Because his experience as an astute social observer became interfused with his absolute wisdom, it is worthwhile to study his teachings about social and economic conditions in relation to spiritual practice and ethical life. Many of the Buddha’s students were not drawn to the monastic way of life but remained in the world. Many of the dilemmas they encountered remain relevant today, and will remain relevant as long as human nature exists. He had to address the life questions that were of burning concern to the people coming to his discourses; otherwise they would not have been able to really hear him.

Raoul D

One of the central observations Buddha made about the breakdown of the social fabric is that poverty is the chief cause of immorality and crime. Theft, violence, hatred, cruelty, all result from poverty. It seems that ancient governments in India, like many governments today, tried to handle the problem of crime through punishment. They attempted to suppress it. Buddha said that attempts to control crime will ultimately be futile. This kind of control is like building a dam to hold back rising water. The barrier will hold back the water, but the barrier will always need to be there, and there will always be a threat of the water’s spilling over or sweeping the dam away. Buddha said that if you want to eradicate crime, the economic conditions of the people have to be improved.

He encouraged people in businesses to provide adequate wages to their employees. He said that governments should make opportunities for everyone to be employed, for everyone to earn a sufficient income. When people are freed from their poverty, they rarely commit crimes born of desperation.