A New Sangha of Social Action
If you listen to a modern dharma talk about the second Buddhist precept (not taking that which is not given), odds are you will hear a focus on individual action. Conversations about theft tend to revolve around taking or not taking objects, money, or another person’s time. In other words, the immediate actions of a lone practitioner. Something not terribly different from the Christian commandment of “Thou shall not steal.” When folks spend more time on the issue, the more systemic web of issues connected to theft usually arise. Again, though, through an individualist lens. Consider these comments on the second precept by Barbara O’Brien, popular Buddhist blogger and American convert Zen practitioner:
Paying attention, we realize that not taking what is not given is about more than just respecting other people’s property. We might realize that some of the products we buy are made with exploited labor, for example.
We might try harder to not waste natural resources. Are you wasting food or water? Causing more emission of greenhouse gases than is necessary? Do you use recycled paper products?
These are all good points for individual practitioners to consider, and yet we live in a world where systemic theft is occurring on a massive scale every day, and it’s not the result of any one person’s action (or lack of action.) How do we practice the precept of not stealing in the midst of wide spread corporate theft of money, land, water, and even the air we breathe? How do practice in the face of corrupt governments directly or indirectly supporting this corporate theft? And what do Buddhist teachings have to say about building societies, and addressing injustices and collective manifestations of the three poisons of greed, hatred, and ignorance?
In the Pali Canon, there are numerous short and longer suttas addressing different aspects of the Buddhist precepts. Amongst them, The Lion’s Roar on the Turning of the Wheel (Cakkavatti-Sihanada Sutta) takes direct aim at the second precept. I also believe it offers practitioners some insights into how theft breeds suffering, both individually and collectively. And how those in elite positions set the tone in society, have a particular responsibility for righting the ship, but aren’t the ones who generally do so.
The Turning of the Wheel King
The Cakkavatti-Sihanada Sutta is a synergistic blend of individual practice instruction, and deconstruction of social breakdown plus ways to remedy it. The heart of the sutta is the story of King Dalhanemi, and the just, seemingly enlightened society he rules. King Dalhanemi is said to be a “wheel turning monarch,” one whose actions and decisions are made in accordance to the dharma. We might view him, or any wheel turning monarch, as a secular or worldly form of the Buddha. However, it’s not the kind of secular/religious divide we claim to have in places like the United States today. The lines are blurred to the point where “king” and home leaving “monk” appear to be little more than positions a person takes at different stages of their life. Of course, this blurring functions more on an absolute level. In the relative world of the day, patriarchal monarchy was the rule. As such, it was the male elites of society who led, regardless of whether that leadership came in a political or spiritual form.
Returning to the story, King Dalhanemi moves from heroic battlefield warrior, to enlightened king, to home leaving monk, passing leadership of the kingdom on to his eldest son. This pattern of movement through those different positions is repeated for another seven generations, until a king decides to ignore the instructions for wheel turning monarchs and rules according to his own ideas. Thus begins a downward spiral where compassion and deference to the dhamma are increasingly replaced with greed, conflict, and diminishing lifespans.
Several generations pass, and human life in the kingdom is reduced from tens of thousands of years to ten years. People begin to mistake each other for wild animals, and murder is rampant. It’s the kind of existence — “nasty, brutish, and short” — that the 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes described as being the natural state of humanity when a social contract and sovereign authority are lacking.
It’s here, almost at the point of extinction, that something quite interesting happens. Some of the people begin seeing through the madness and waking up.
But there will be some beings who think:
“Let us not kill or be killed by anyone!
Let us make some grassy thickets or jungle-recesses or clumps of trees,
for rivers hard to ford or inaccessible mountains and live on roots and fruits of the forest.”
And they will do this for seven days.
Then at the end of the seven days,
they will emerge from their hiding-places and rejoice together of one accord, saying:
“Good beings, I see that you are alive!”
And then the thought will occur to those beings:
“It is only because we became addicted to evil ways
that we suffered this loss of our kindred, so let us now do good!”
There are several noteworthy things here. First off, the fact that it’s not a decision by a king or other leader that shift society back in the right direction. It’s the intervention of some unnamed group of folks who recognize the insanity of the current ways of living, and act together to manifest social change. Secondly, there’s the initial step of going back to the land. Of choosing to renounce everything but the bare essentials, provided by nature, for a time. Something of a social and spiritual fast, designed to both remove some of the toxins they’ve collectively ingested, and also to reconnect again with the very earth that they are made of. Thirdly, the recognition that acting in such “evil ways,” being driven by the three poisons, is a form of addiction. Something that can be ended, broken through. Fourthly, there’s the formation of a sangha occurring here. A sangha without a centralized leader, dedicated to radical action (addressing the root causes of suffering), and one whose power to effect change is shared. And finally, there’s the returning to society, and as a group declaring how things have gone wrong, and then outlining the steps to build/rebuild a society of “good.” (Note: following the call to “now do good” in the sutta is an outlining of the basic Buddhist precepts and attendant ethics.)
It’s only after society is entirely rebuilt that another wheel turning monarch appears on the scene. Almost as if their job is less about being an all powerful, centralized authority, and more about acting as a facilitator. One whose decisions help guide and maintain flowing the collective wisdom of the people.
Colonialist Greed and the Practitioner Activist
Given the history of North America, and many other parts of the world, it’s quite telling that the first act of greed in the wheel turning monarch story is the refusal by a king to “give property to the needy.” Colonialism and the economic capitalist structures it spawned were built through massive thefts of land and other shared resources. The particular method of acting out greed originally displayed by a small cadre of European elites – political and religious heads – quickly spread to the masses as continents were hopped, land was taken, indigenous peoples oppressed and murdered, and entire ways of living marginalized or destroyed all together. Indeed, the past half a millenium (since the onset of the colonial period) has been mostly an era of ever increasing theft, riddled with all the signs of the fallen society of King Dalhanemi.
One of the ways to look at this teaching is to focus on its individualized framing. At the beginning and end of the talk, the Buddha directs the monks in the audience to take refuge in the dharma, and to see the central story as a metaphor filled with practice pointers. Another way to look at this teaching is as a mapping of how societies are corrupted, and how we might break through that corruption. Both views are vital. Especially to the practitioner activist, those called in the teaching to form a new sangha of social action, dedicated to uprooting the systemic causes of suffering and oppression in the world. It’s not enough to just focus on our own meditation, chanting, sutta studying, and/or bowing practices. Nor is it wise to neglect all that “inner work,” and focus solely on social criticism, protest, and the various forms of direct action that go into our activism. The Cakkavatti-Sihanada Sutta directs us to be in a more synergistic flow, learning to recognize the signs of a corrupt society, when to go into meditative exclusion (alone or in groups), when to act, and upon what basis (the precepts and ethical teachings) our actions in the social realm are based.
In my view, the world conditions are calling for a new sangha of social action to come together. Or perhaps it’s more a collective of new sanghas working together across differences of background, experience, and belief to create a more just, enlightened world. The possible forms are endless, but enough of us must see through the addictions driving our current society, including those which lead us to uphold and maintain a fossil fuel based economy. An economy that threatens to eliminate us all, and one I will look more deeply into during the coming weeks.