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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.

*You can read Nathan’s previous guest contributions for Turning Wheel Media here, here, here and here.




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Comments (19)

  • Richard Modiano

    “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.”

    How would such a sangha or collective of sanghas be formed? On the face of it, there are geographical boundaries we’d have to overcome.

  • nathan

    Hi Richard,

    That’s definitely one of the questions we are facing. There seem to be more Buddhist practitioners actively focusing on social issues around the continent, but often in isolation. I don’t have any really clear ways to change that. One idea would be to revive the old BPF affiliated local groups and then work to develop something nationally or across the continent for folks to plug into annually, twice a year perhaps? A kind of hub and spoke model where groups can be active locally, but have a hub to help galvanize around big issues (like the tar sands) and have a time/place to share across reigion borders + practice together in some form. About a decade ago I was part of the tiny Twin Cities BPF (Buddhist Peace Fellowship) group that did a few things around the Afghanistan/ Iraq Wars. It only lasted a a few years – if that – but the possibilities of a group like that always stayed with me.

    That’s just one not terribly flushed out idea. Hopefully, this post sparks some more. Thanks for the question.

  • Katie Loncke

    Beyond excited about you being here, Nathan. Appreciating this first post. I’ve always been skeptical about the idea of benevolent rulers, including the famous Buddhist Indian emperor Ashoka, who embraced Buddhist principles for political unity but in a paternalistic way, referring to his subjects as his “children.”


    This story, though it may be more mythological than historical, offers a nice counterpoint to that philanthropic political approach. It also reminds me of the Christian interpretations by Joerg Rieger, who talks beautifully about the “theology of the multitude,” and how the masses will make a way out of no way, as in the parable of the loaves and fishes. (I first encountered Joerg at a conference about engaged Buddhists and liberation theologians; he really blew me away.)

    I’m still not sure what I think about trying to translate Buddhist suttas directly into political strategy for the modern day (Melissa and I talked about this a week or two ago, as the What Would Buddha Do political controversy), and I wouldn’t be quick to assume that a collective of folks exploring an inspiring alternative to the dominant system, as the people did in this story, would automatically be able to ‘scale up’ or spread in today’s context by virtue of being a ‘good idea.’ Some political approaches place a lot of faith in that, including certain anti-capitalist cooperative models. But while I think those models are absolutely important and relevant in supplying inspiring alternatives and caring for certain lucky people in the immediate, I wonder how they would ever knit together on a massive enough scale to challenge systemic theft (capitalism and class society) without the kind of intentional, planned structure that you and Richard are starting to get into. But I’m definitely curious what other Buddhists think about this, especially since there was such a rich conversation about anarchism and Buddhism on here recently.

    Aah! Geeking out! Thanks for the thought-provoking take on a classic Buddhist text. Yep yep yep.

  • Katie Loncke

    Oh, one more thing though. Do you think you could find other words to express your sentiment when you say “madness” and “insane” to mean things that are dysfunctional, violent, harmful, etc? Avoid further conflation of insanity and violence? Would appreciate it, thanks — I get what you’re saying but find that language hurtful.

  • nathan

    I am sorry about the unconscious use of those words. I have always found it a bit tricky to replace them and still get the right meaning across – but here I didn’t even notice their presence in the first place. Thanks for raising my awareness on that Katie.

    Also, I agree that the “automatic” quality of awakening and intervening in the story doesn’t feel possible on the mass scale needed to challenge our current systems. I was just writing about how that is one of the big flaws in popular spiritual writers like Eckhart Tolle. They think that enough folks meditating or doing something similar will bring about a spontaneous evolution. I just don’t buy that and I know other folks here and elsewhere don’t either.

    It’s interesting. I also wonder about the issue of translating Buddhist suttas into direct action or as a springboard for it. One danger being that we end up advocating for something like a Buddhist theocracy. Another being not knowing or empiness, and that we ignore the absolute and assume a certain relative path or view is a universal or given result of the teachings.

    One of the things that spoke to me in this particular sutta is the collective awakening tied to deliberate, shared effort to renew society. There seem to be a lot of these kind of stories/visions in different cultures around the world. I have heard mulitple versions during the time I spent as an ESL teacher and more recently at Idle No More Events and while I was working in the local Native community last year. The power of these narratives feels bigger than partisan politics and battles. How to translate it all into beneficial action is another thing though.

  • Bezi

    oh Man. Thank you for posting this thoughtful commentary. When I was regularly attending Torah study with Rabbi Lerner and the NSP, I sensed them grappling with a Judaic version of this same conundrum – how do we adapt these teachings, powerful and illuminating in important ways, yet penetrated by the prevailing zeitgeist and thus shot-through with ways of thinking we are supposed to have dispatched in our modern world? There certainly was a great deal of individualism reflected in that Lion’s Roar Sutta: an individualism we may with good cause call “solipsism” from our vantage point, and which in any case is completely irrelevant in this time of staggering and right-up-front peril for ALL beings, everywhere on the planet. NOBODY escapes the consequences of their actions. Solipsism is cool for an era characterised by comparatively small municipalities, regions, kingdoms. When you have Trans Pacific Partnerships, World Economic Forums, Trilateral Commissions and whatnot actively dialoguing and in fact implementing (though very haphazardly) single world government policies… this is a VERY different situation. About as removed from the originative context as it’s possible to be.

    I mean, am I justified in concluding that the very reason Hinayana was followed by Mahayana and Vajrayana was a need to integrate wider worldviews, to democratize (in a way) Buddhism, to adapt it to modern circumstances as they prevailed in those later periods?

    If so – I don’t see how there could be any other way. At a certain level, Buddhism itself has to undergo some fairly RADICAL transformations… and pretty quickly, if it’s gonna play the role in our time that it could. And Siddhartha’s mentioning of future Buddhas seems to imply that he felt what he taught should endure. At the same time, these things wouldn’t make Buddhism any different from, say, the Abrahamic faiths, whose era-centric doctrinal prejudices have to be overcome for the sake of moving humanity to a new, interdependent, planet-stewarding ethos. Or science for that matter. Hell, science is why the earth is in this predicament in the first place… divorced as it was and often is from morality.

    Very smart people working on photon-drive, plasma-fuel and other kinds of possible propulsion for the first generation of planet-hopping spacecraft often point out that brute force rocket fuel (i.e. a jet version of a combustion-engine), what our most advanced spacecraft use today, is essentially late-19th century technology..

    Another example of what I’m saying is this passage from the Sutra link:

    But now, my son, you must turn yourself into an Ariyan wheel-turner.
    And then it may come about that,
    if you perform the duties of an Ariyan wheel-turning monarch,
    on the fast day of the fifteenth,
    when you have washed your head and gone up to the verandah
    on top of your palace for the fast-day,
    the sacred Wheel-Treasure will appear to you, thousand-spoked,
    complete with felloe, hub and all appurtenances.”

    5. “But what, sire, is the duty of an Ariyan wheel-turning monarch?”

    “It is this, my son:
    Yourself depending on the Dhamma,
    honouring it,
    revering it,
    cherishing it,
    doing homage to it and
    venerating it,
    having the Dhamma as your badge and banner

    REALLY. An “Ariyan Wheel Turning Monarch?”

    I don’t think I have to give anyone a history lesson here: with the invading conquerors from the North, caste purity theories, misappropriation of Swastikas and whatnot. Is it feasible to import such ideas into our situation without some rugged, rough and raw reassessment? Cause I don’t know about you but I’m experiencing some stuff – nobody is, at all, what I’d call an outright bigot (being from Boston, I know what one looks like, lol) – that just makes me wonder how much invisible, subtle caste-ism still permeates what we’re trying to roll out in OUR historical moment.

  • Jeff

    Nathan, thanks for your commentary on this sutta. I’m sure Buddha’s message was viewed as quite radical in his day – it’s fascinating to imagine the political interplay between this popular spiritual leader and the more-or-less despotic rulers in northeastern India circa 500 BCE. Maybe he had to get out of town a little early after telling the Cakkavatti-Sihanada story.

    I like your idea of sanghas of social action. I have not seen many examples of organized Buddhist involvement in “uprooting the systemic causes of suffering” on the BPF site so far and would love to hear more about your group’s experiences protesting the Afghanistan/Iraq wars in the Twin Cities. Short of sanghas taking up explicit political action, it seems like most Buddhists who seek to end material exploitation will need to join already established campaigns against fossil fuel dependence, racism, cutbacks in social services, etc.

    This presents its own quandaries, as the tumultuous, often emotional atmosphere of political movements is a whole lot different than that of the sangha. Nonetheless, if we have been able to muster the tremendous courage needed for the “inner work,” we should be able to swim in the sea of human suffering to help our brothers and sisters reach dry land. Calling out homilies from a safe place just doesn’t cut it any more.

    If enough Buddhists get goin’ in something locally, as you propose, it would be tremendous to hook up in a regional or national network, perhaps under the auspices of BPF. Of course, it won’t happen without plenty of hard work on the ground – we can’t just expect Dawn and Katie to roll it out in the next System Stinks curriculum. I’m game!

    By the way, I’m not entirely put off by your use of “madness” and “insane” to describe life under capitalism (those terms are no longer used in psychiatry), but I agree with Katie that comparing the lying, thieving, murdering ruling class and their bought-off politicians to those suffering from mental illness does a great disservice to the latter ;-)

  • Bob

    Hi Nathan,
    Greetings from Bob, I’m writing from St Paul MN! We should get coffee sometime at the Black Dog. Anyway thanks for this article, it is along the lines of things that I have contemplated over the years.

  • nathan

    Bezi, it’s hard to know what to do sometimes with these teachings we have been given. How to balance respect + gratitude for the ancestors with a clear awareness of the flaws and oppressive elements present. I think it’s true that we are at a crossroads where Buddhism evolves or dies (or perhaps slowly fades). This seems true of religion and spirituality in general these days.

    Jeff, the group I was involved in joined protests organized by others. We also had a weekly peace meditation for awhile in one of the parks in downtown St. Paul. That was members of my zen center mostly. I think that even if Buddhist folks get more organized, coalition building and joining/enhancing existing efforts will still be key.

    Hey Bob! Yeah, coffee at the Dog sounds good!

  • Bezi

    yeah – I think it’s true for all human endeavor at this point – evolve or perish over one or another time frame…

    of course the question then becomes: how is “evolution” defined. Some, a growing consensus, seem to hold that it consists of re-vivifying our sense of interdependence with, and mindful stewardship of, a living and intelligibly self-directed planet. Others, clearly also a growing consensus, are militantly convinced that evolution equals titanium exoskeletons, electronic geopolitical consolidation, a genetically enhanced superclass and / or digitized human consciousness. I’m clear on which is which for me, but I can foresee that what Terence McKenna aptly called an “archaic revival”, vs. AI / transhumanism, is gonna be one of the discussions we’re gonna need to have as well… Yikes.

  • Bryan

    I question my belief in “groups.”
    I have firm belief’s in the individual.
    It seem so odd that all the so called “teachings” we have accumulated as humans have not resulted in reduced conflict and diminished the greed and power cycles that have destroyed so much.
    The philosophy is beautiful, but change is action and not words.
    Words point and do not do the work.
    So, what would be the work of this change?
    I am sincerely curious.
    I like your blogs.
    In Loving Kindness,

  • Nathan G. Thompson

    “Words point and do not do the work.
    So, what would be the work of this change?”

    I agree that words are mostly pointers, although sometimes the right words at the right time in the right setting can bring about great change.

    The thing about the work that’s needs is that it’s not a fixed form or formula. You’re right that it seems odd that humans are still so prone to greed and power abuse and the like. I tend to think that whatever we do, it has to be a mixture of resistance forms (such as protest, disruption, other kinds of direct action) and also creating “new” models to replace the misery producing old.

    Back in the late 19th and into the first 40 years of the 20th century, at the same time that labor unions were striking and pressuring the capitalist owners, some workers were also developing worker-run collectives on a small scale. Experiments that continue to this day, in an attempt to shake up the monopoly on jobs. Part of the challenge with worker-run co-ops and businesses is figuring out how to “do leadership” so that you don’t return to the same old power structure that you rebelled against. So, I figure that whatever “actions” are taken on various issues, there needs to be some resistance/tearing down and some creative/building up involved.

  • Bryab Wagner

    I like the concept of “new models” could you share an example of that?
    It appears that whatever humankind has done up to now hasn’t really worked.
    Buddhist and Islamist followers are currently terminating each other.
    So we really need a new direction.
    I suspect that somewhere in the past we either took a wrong direction or, more likely, just evolved to this point.
    Resistance is a way of forcing change is it not? Is forcing change an act of violence? Could it be construed as forcing a path for another entity?
    is providing attraction to the focus of attention and drawing humans to the “new model” going to create a longer lasting outcome?
    I find it difficult to resolve my own inner conflicts with attraction but it does work.
    I like you philosophy and direction.
    In Loving Kindness.

  • Nathan G. Thompson

    Last year, I was involved in an experimental “community” called the Whealthy Human Village, which was an outgrowth of the local Occupy movement. It didn’t last, but I do think what we did was worthwhile.We saw ourselves as a group that both offered resistance to destructive systems, and also attempted to model and create (on a small scale) alternative ways of being together. I wrote a post for Turning Wheel about it that you can read here.

    I tend to think that there isn’t “a” way forward, but many ways. And probably many “sanghas” as well.

    The thing about resistance is that it’s a response to forced change. We have been forced time and again to “accept” or “go along” with changes that benefit the few materially, and ultimately are of no benefit at all on a grand scale. Perhaps resistance could be seen as stemming the tide of forced change, so that something new and more helpful can spring forth.

    At the same time, I hear you about inner conflicts. Things can get messy fast, and powerful movements can be co-opted and destroyed pretty quickly. Thai Buddhist activist Sulak Sivaraska has said that you need to have movements that focus on “inner development” as well as systemic change. I tend to think movements become focused on violence as a means when folks haven’t worked enough – together and individually – to build fortitude, discernment, patience, compassion and awareness. Doing this on a small scale was one goal of the Village project I was a part of. We struggled at it, but at least we gave it a shot.

  • Richard Modiano

    “I tend to think movements become focused on violence as a means when folks haven’t worked enough – together and individually – to build fortitude, discernment, patience, compassion and awareness.”

    I just really feel the need to mention that we live under the constant threat of violence, everyday in virtually every thing we do. The threat of violence is what holds up property relations. Going to the supermarket on a tight budget is an extremely violent experience. There are things you need and want and are readily available but you cannot take them because you do not have the money. And if you do take them you run the risk of being shot or held under the threat of being shot. That’s how this system works all day everyday, that is standard operating procedure and it is extremely violent.

  • nathan

    All the more reason why both “inner” and “outer” work are necessary. If I had five dollars for every meal I have skipped over the past two years just to be able to pay rent, I wouldn’t be rich, but I would be in a better place. That violence is very palpable. Even the idea that our value to society is based upon being “productive” and not having any need for material (hell, emotional) support from the community is violence. We are surrounded. I feel it in my bones every day. And while there may be specific instances where a violent act is needed for self/collective preservation – we can’t beat this system with violence. If that becomes the focus of revolutionary movements, we’re doomed. Which is where the comment you quoted came from. As much as reality seems to make statements about non-violent action and collective spiritual practice seem hokey or fluffy, I feel called to resist that.

    I totally appreciate that you brought up the violence of our every day existence under capitalism. It helps balance my comments about possibilities. Somehow – it seems to me – we are being called to hold both at the same time in order to develop a way forward.

  • Bryab Wagner

    Some very qualified and interesting thoughts.
    My current journey has taken me to a place that speaks to this. If I want the world to change then I go ahead and be what I want the world to be. I will become the force of change.
    What I see in the world is a projection. Do you see this as true for you? That what I see is what I am?
    I wouldn’t recognize violence (although I guess we need to define that word to clarify the dialogue) unless I knew it inside.
    Violence is..
    Compassion is.
    For me there is no difference between inner and outer, no dichotomy or dual existence.
    I like this dialogue and am learning much. I am glad you had gone to action Nathan, that says a lot about your commitment.
    Thank you.
    In Loving Kindness.

  • Nathan G. Thompson

    “What I see in the world is a projection. Do you see this as true for you? That what I see is what I am?” Yes, and no. I say yes because it’s true in the absolute sense. We are everything, without divisions or separation. So when I see a flower, I am the flower. And when I see someone hitting someone else, I am that.

    On the other hand, I say no because in the relative world, there are differences, and there’s always so much more than anything I can see and experience. Also, I am not embodying and acting out a violent situation for example, in the way someone I see doing it is. It’s not an exact mirror I don’t think.

    In addition, collective systems (whether beneficial or destructive/oppressive) are always at play. “I” am not capitalism, for example, nor am “I” a regional ecosystem. On the relative, everyday level that is.

    But I agree with you that “inner” and “outer” aren’t separate. They are simply categories used as pointers to different aspects of the same thing.

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