Buddhism and society - What did Buddha really had to say about it?

Many have asked themselves, how can we implement Buddhism to help society ? What did Buddha had to say about this ? And among innumerable ideas and long pages written about the subject, to my knowledge, nobody ever mentions the only thing Buddha had to say about the subject. He said only 1 thing, simple but very profound. Recently, I have tried analyzing different societies and the traits they have to see if it does fit with what Buddha said, and I have found that it pretty much does.

So what did Buddha had to say ? He said that whatever quality a society will develop, things will go in that direction for them. Lets take USA for example and try to apply this only principle that Buddha ever mentioned when it comes to society. A well known defect of US is narcissism. Ever since it was founded, people who were explorers moved to US. Explorer and non-conformist people in general are a little more narcissistic, and probably this explains the cultural trait of narcissism in USA. Protestantism is also associated with narcissism. Qualities of USA are being hard working, respect for intelligence and scientific pursuit, generosity and people being very calm.

According to this principle, wealth should be the result of lack of greed. But is lack of greed related to hard working ? I would say yes. The ability to be a hard worker is dependent on impulse control. It is dependent on the ability to keep yourself from eating a cake today, so that you an eat 2 cakes tomorrow. And from personal experience, hard working is directly dependent on impulse control. The protestant religion that developed in northern europe is the only religion in the world that highly promotes hard working and what some call “materialism”, mistaking it as a defect when it is also a quality. But these things are like the chicken and the egg, religion interpretation being created and shaped by society, not the other way around. Society can interpret the same religous book in one way in Turkey or Lebanon, and in another way in Afghanistan.

According to the same principle, wealth should also be the result of generosity. Buddha said generosity and self-restraint are the 2 things that determine a person wealth. And even in this case it does apply, USA being one of the richest places in natural resources in the world and became even richer recently after the discovery of shell gas.

Now let’s take a look at narcissism. USA is known for having the highest levels of political polarization in the developed world. Radicals on the left (extreme PC culture) and on the right (fundamentalism that is still a thing only in US, not really in europe) depends on puritanism. (or at least the bad effects of it) It is because of narcissism that people become self-righteous puritans. It is because of narcissism that people become very attached to their beliefs and become aggressive with information that contradicts them. Self-righteous puritanism is not a product of ideologies or religions, it is a product of narcissism. It is a chicken and egg problem. First there is attachment, then come the wrong views that justify and reinforce that attachment. That is what Buddha had to say about wrong views. It is like a chicken and egg problem. First comes narcissism, then comes a self-righteous puritan interpretation of christianity or of another belief system and set of values, and the behavior that is associated with it.

We can take a look at other countries too. For example indians are know for being peaceful. Latin countries (france, spain, romania, portugal, italy) are know for being honest and non-narcissistic, but lazy and corrupt. Muslim countries are know for being generous but violent. Out of top most generous countries in the world, 9 are muslims and the other is USA if I am not mistaken. And just 2 on that list did not have huge petrol reserves. These are big speculations, but generally they do seem to fit a patern.

So what does this mean for society ? It means that in order to reduce political polarization, debating to prove others are wrong is not really the way to go. It’s quite strange for me to say this giving my history, but I really got to understand this is the case. B.Sujato has said this too, but I did not agree at the time. So in order to reduce such problems, one should reduce narcissism in himself and speak in favor of reducing narcissism in the society. If a person is surrounded by violent people, he will become violent too. If he is surrounded by narcissism, he will become more narcissist too. There are many suttas about this, Buddha has done his best to stress out how important entourage is for a person. He also said similar people always group together. The energetic with the energetic, the lazy with the lazy, etc. Maybe this is also what decides the country of our rebirth.

The first step in fixing a problem is identifying it. Identify witch are the main qualities and defects the country or region (there are big regional differences in my country) compared to others, and focus on the big ones. Encourage programs that are working to reduce a particular defect, or further encourage a particular quality. Speak in favor of that quality that is missing with people around you. The big holes in a boat should be fixed first, only then the smaller ones.

But what is most important is to start analyzing society and it’s problems using this Buddhist principle. It is a simple and profound one. This is the only thing Buddha ever said about society. Lets analyse society in terms of qualities and defects and the individual specific issues will get fixed eventually by society itself. At least this is how Buddha said that it all works. And what is also important is not to get too attached to it, because it will all be gone eventually. Even the Roman Empire got destroyed at one point. But this does not mean we should have a nihilist mentality, cause things do matter for the well being of others in the short term. It just means we shouldn’t get too attached.

Such a blanket statement would at least require considerable contextualization in order for it not to be treated as anything other than a seemingly nonsequitous blanket condemnation of a group of people.

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Yes, it is a stereotype. It is about society at large, so we are speaking about stereotypes here. We are not speaking about individual people where there are of course extreme differences between one and another.

It is the same thing as the stereotype about latin europeans being lazy and corrupt. Statistics confirm this, latin countries really are the most corrupt in europe. Not every person in the country is corrupt, but on average they are more corrupt. Same as with muslim countries being the most generous, again confirmed by statistics. I repeat, we are speaking about society at large not about every individual member of that society.

All societies have good traits and bad traits. There are cultural differences between countries. I think we can all agree on that. But that is not the main point of the topic. The main point is the principle Buddha had used to describe society. He described them in terms of qualities and defects.

There is a sutta where the western part of india is described as violent and barbaric. Or when Buddha gives advice to a monk about going into a country “where people are violent and might attack you”. There is another sutta where countries surounding inland India are described as “uncultured barbarians”. Buddha did not have a problem with making generalizations. Saying such a thing about an area is differen than saying “every single person in that area is an uncultured barbarian”. I’ve never seen any sutta saying the second thing.

Would you care to post your sources for these statistics?

For corruption: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corruption_Perceptions_Index
For corruption inside the EU: https://jakubmarian.com/corruption-perceptions-index-of-european-countries/
I know these statistics for a long time and was suprised nr 1 most corrupt is Italy, then Bulgaria, Greece and only then Romania.

For generosity: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/maps-and-graphics/most-generous-countries-in-the-world/

In the “helping a stranger” all countries are muslim and rich in oil except US, Botswana and Siera Leone. Botswana and Siera Leone are the only african countries extremely rich in resources. You basically almost have the top 10 richest countries in resources on that list, with the exception of Somalia and Malawi. It’s a very strange correlation.

Maybe giving to charity does not count in Myanmar because Buddha said intention is very important and one gift might not be as valuable as the other, buddhist countries being well known for donating due to hoping material rewards in the future. So maybe the “helping a stranger” shows generosity levels better.

As I’ve said, it is difficult speculation. But you have to agree it’s pretty strange how all those 10 countries in helping a stranger are generally among the richest countries in the world in resources. It is quite a coincidence to find Botswana and Siera Leone in there, exactly the only 2 african countries rich in resources. What are the odds ?

As I’ve said, it’s very difficult speculation that we should not get into, but there seems to be some correlation. The list is not totally random.

It is not fair to stereotype people based on countries.
However, there are surprisingly some unique behaviors of people based on the country, region, religion, and education etc.
Buddhist society does not mean that all Buddhist follow the Buddha’s teaching.
I think Bhikkhu Bodhi has written a book about the Buddhism and society.
I haven’t read this book. Perhaps someone who read the book may give some information.

And about narcissism by country, yes there are studies about that too: https://www.citylab.com/life/2015/12/the-world-sees-americans-as-disorder-level-narcissists/419853/


Protestant practice is hardly systematically related to having significantly more narcissism in any of the sources that you gave. Being a traditionally Protestant society = more tendencies towards narcissism? I don’t think this has been demonstrated at all. And this is just one of the various blanket statements in your OP.

Hello Friends,

I’d like to remind everyone that posts in the Watercooler need to pertain to the Dhamma. If we could steer this conversation away from the narcissism of Protestantism, that would be great, as it in no way relates to the subject matter of this forum.

With metta. :pray:


Religious interpretation is shaped by society. For example one can focus on the self-righteous part of religion and try to take pleasure out of that.

Various cults and religions promote self-righteousness in an attempt to convert the average person, who feels immoral by comparison.

And this is how you get a “puritan” understanding of religon.

On the other hand, you can have an equally fake and problematic understanding of religon as found in buddhist theravada countries and orthodox christian countries. The main trait here being conformism and trying to fake you’re way into heaven by performing a set of rituals.

I have spoke before about how identical orthodox christian mentality in romania is to theravada (orthodox) buddhist countries, about how orthodoxism is a specific kind of mindset defined by rigidity. But what is interesting is that religious practice by society at large is also identical in orthodox christianity and theravada buddhist countries, despite being different religions. The focus is exclusevly on conformism and performing rituals. Blessing of cars is so common that it was even made official in 2014 in my country. If you look as an ousider, it might seem religion is not important at all for people in such societies. They don’t look like hardcore evanghelicals who make religion an important part of their life. Religion practice resumes to performing a set of rituals in order to conform with everybody else and guarantee yourself a place in heaven.

It is like a chore to do, like paying you’re bills and nothing more. People perform the mandatory anual rituals and also bless their houses, cars, different objects to be sure things will be fine in this current life too. In a way, it is good that people at least are not fanatical. And neither do they suffer from annoying self-righteousness puritan attitudes. But in my opinion, this kind of practice is even more fake than puritanism who at least try to respect some moral laws, at least for the sake of feeling good about themselves. While in a ritualistic, conformist type of practice you can be a mobster, a corrupt person, etc and everything is fine as long as you do the rituals and the donations. Puritan countries have the lowest levels of corruption in the world. In orthodox christianity it is common to have churches partially polished in gold or ornamented in an expensive way, just like in theravada buddhist countries. The more money you invest into churches, the better.

Colectivism is also manifested in religion. The idea that our whole nation is going to heaven as a whole is very common. We are even building right now “the cathedral for the salvation of our nation”. Colectivism mentality has benefits but it’s pretty funny to think you’re even going to heaven as a whole.


As I’ve said, society traits shape the understanding of religion, not the other way around. The same book can be interpreted in a certain way in one country and differently in another. It is all about the traits that society has. And that is what Buddha said we should focus on when it comes to society.

The relationship between trait and results seems to be: puritanism attitude, focusing on taking pleasure out of self righteousness = higher narcissism, but lower levels of corruption and higher material wealth. (based on statistics) Comparable countries such as Italy, Spain, Portugal are not only much more corrupt but also more than 2 times poorer economically than England, Germany, Scandinavian countries - despite having the almost identical conditions for development.

I have not yet thought about all kind of traits and relationships. So if some find other corelations, please share them here. To my knowledge, no such trait-result analysis based on buddhist understanding of society had ever been done.

In may also be that people who start being fairer and less corrupt then start taking pride out of that and become more narcissistic, and might even develop a tendency to engage in taking pleasure out of pride to the point where it can be detrimental to them. Such as the case with deva realms, witch main trait is said to be pride. Again, chicken and egg problem. All of this seems to be propelled forward through chicken and egg mechanism.

One thing we know for sure: That the simple and general advice regarding traits-and-results that Buddha gave seems to be correct. And it might be much more profound that it looks at first sight, wortking through an endless chicken-and-egg mechanism.

When Buddha described the 6 realms of existence, he described them in terms of traits. When he described the ability to read minds, he described it in terms of reading the traits present in that mind. Weather it comes to ourselves as individuals, to society at large or to realms of existence - we should analyze in terms of traits that we posses, in terms of qualities and weaknesses.

The Buddha had plenty to say about it…

A study confirming this:

a systematic pattern is obvious. In the poorest countries of the world, well over 80 percent of the difference in GDP per worker relative to the United States is due to [efficiency] differences.

Let’s return to our simple picture of economies as having capital, labor and an efficiency factor. Capital is valuable because it increases output directly and also because it increases the productivity of labor. Yet Jones reports that capital-output ratio is remarkably stable across countries. Its average value is very close to one, meaning that an extra dollar of capital gives you an extra dollar of output. Even the poorest countries tend to have a capital-output ratio very close to the U.S. value. So differences in physical capital contribute almost nothing to differences in GDP per worker across countries. It has also been documented that the marginal product of capital is very similar in rich and poor countries.

Take the United States and Mexico. GDP per worker is 3 times higher in the U.S. than in Mexico. About 40 percent of this difference is due to inputs – mainly the difference in educational levels between the two countries. But fully 60 percent is due to efficiently, as reflected in the difference in institutions.

Link: https://www.forbes.com/sites/johngoodman/2015/05/21/why-are-some-countries-rich-and-others-poor/#38dc8e73e6ed
This again shows a society success depends on it’s people, not on outside forces. Foreign investment or education do not really change much and their results are not exponential.

The only real help a country can receive is in the political area. That is why the EU has been so important for the developent of estern european countries. Those who did join the EU are 2 to 5 times richer than those who have not despite having the same starting point, same geographical location and same resources.

But even this is a a chicken and egg problem. If the population is highly arrogant and nationalistic, they will refuse outside help. My country had spent a decade in such a situation in the 90’s when corrupt politicians who ruled it were pushing the usual rethoric of “we don’t need the EU, we don’t need others to tell us what to do. We are proud and independent” so they could plunder it as much as they want without any critical outsider voice having any weight. Even today, when very ugly things happen in Ro politics and the US and EU are forced to criticize us, the corrupt politicians in question will go for the usual “foreign imperialist telling us what to do” or “foreigners trying to steal our country”. Similar kind of thinking happens in all countries helped by the IMF. If a country has a problem and signs an agreeent with the IMF, corrupt politicians will blame all the probles of the country on the IMF agreeent or even go as far as to break the agreeent and fall again into populist fiscal policies that got them in such a situation to begin with.

It all comes down to the people. If they are arrogant, they will fall for such rethorics and refuse outside help. If they are greedy and corrupt, they will constantly “vote with their belly” for cuting investment and rising pensions and minimum wage and then end up in economic stagnation. The simple passing of time will not help a society get better. It can very well get worse. India was poorer in 1991 than it was in the times of the Buddha. (yes, there exist estimates for ancient civilizations economics). There is a popular idea that poorer countries grow faster than richer ones, but this applies only to a part of poor countries. Most simply stagnate, while some are even going down.

[a] simplistic view of convergence does not hold for the world as a whole. There is no tendency for poor countries around the world to grow either faster or slower than rich countries. For every Botswana and South Korea, there is a Madagascar and Niger. Remarkably, 14 out of 100 [countries] exhibited a negative growth rate of GDP per person between 1960 and 2011.

Overall, the picture that emerges from this kind of analysis is that there is a basic dynamic in the data for the last 50 years or more that says that once countries get on the “growth escalator,” good things tend to happen and they grow rapidly to move closer to the frontier.

But if a country doesn’t get on the growth escalator, things may not improve at all. That is worrisome – especially if you care about international inequality of income and wealth.

This is bad news for those who hope inequality in the world will one day disappear. If bad traits exist in a society, all the technology and foreign investment will be useless because most part of a country success depends on it’s efficiency. Even if incredible natural resources are discovered in a poor country, that may turn out great like in Botswana or might end up in disaster like in Sierra Leone. Most of the times it ends up in disaster and got to be known as the “resource trap”. It’s like the difference between a stupid, greedy person winning at the lottery and a wise person winning at the lottery. Even winning at the lottery can end up being a bad thing for some people. Kamma works in mysterious ways.

Conclusion: For world inequalities to disappear, then inequalities in terms of traits between people must disappear first. Having a group of people doing very well with their traits is not going to diminish inequality, but is actually going to increase inequality cause those people will be even more efficient and become more wealthy. That “80% depends on efficiency” is the statistic that destroys the simplistic ideas of wealth depending just on history or material goods or resources present in that geographic area. It is a statistic that greatly confirms the Buddhist principle that a society success depends on the traits of people who make up that society, at least 80% of it. Kamma works in mysterious ways.

The economic reasoning I follow in broad terms.

But I don’t know that there is what you call a “Buddhist principle” that “a society success depends on the traits of people who make up that society…” .

I’m not saying that there isn’t such a principle. I don’t know if there is or isn’t such a principle. If there are sutra’s which illustrate such a principle I would like to know about them.

QUESTION: What is your reasoning that causes you to believe that there is such a principle?

I think citations to sutra’s or commentaries would be a good start.

The one where Buddha is asked by a king if he can defeat another country, and he answers that as long as they will be righteous and have good traits, that country will not be conquered. And there are a couple of other instances where he says things in these lines.

I agree some things I said here might be like that technique on witch the horoscope or fortune telling are based on, where you can take a board statement to make it look like it’s true. And some things might be strange speculations like the generosity - natural resources supposed relation.

But nevertheless, economic history does confirm that success of a society depends on it’s traits to a significant extent. Maybe not down to the molecule as I’ve said in this topic, but nevertheless in board terms it does. Look no further than rich eastern europe vs poor estern europe. Rich africa vs poor africa. Why communism got popular, why so many non-warsaw pact countries embraced socialist economic policies and ended up poor, etc. (India, Sri Lanka, Venezuela etc.) Or why some south american countries are rich despite being isolated, not having any rich neighbors or historical culture of democracy.

I want to inform everyone that I have changed my opinion on the subject. I have fallen into an extreme.

People who study form sometimes end up believing everything comes from form and become materialist. Or those that study sociology fields sometimes end up believing everything comes from culture and language and become postmodernist. They fall into an extreme. They take the truth that they have and say everything comes from that thing and minimize the importance of other things. As Buddha said, people who are into extremes “overshoot what can be known through direct observence and end up contradicted by reality”.

In the same way I have looked at facts that support this theory but neglected facts that do not. I have neglected the importance of legislation, individual persons, chance, etc. For example US is a very politically polarized country with many extremist, be them far left or far right that many times commit mass killings, a thing that is not present in other developed societies. This is because of the 2-party political system that not only fails to marginalize extremism but to a big extent promote it.

The creation of this 2 party system was not dependent on society traits, it was dependent on individual people. And those people themselves did not expect the system to develop into a 2-party one, it would have been hard to foresee such a thing, predicting the future is hard.

So just like materialist reductionist or postmodernist, I have falen into an extreme and ended up contradicted by reality. This theory presented here is not what Buddha had to say about society and is an exageration based on reading too much into a truth said by the Buddha.

It is by figuring out when he had fallen into an extreme that Buddha eventually found the middle way.