I wonder what 2 and 3 might be?

“In order to become a force for social change, Buddhism needs to rid itself of enduring ills—the barring of female ordination [first among them].” - Ajahn Brahm

‘Ajahn Brahm’ is a social activist who is committed to changing Buddhism for the better! He must have had something in mind when he referred to the ‘enduring ills’ that we need to be rid-of to move forward in the modern world. What are some other enduring ills - other than patriarchy - that he has in mind? Does any one have a clue or, have their own ideas about what we need to transform or jettison in Buddhism to make it a greater force for positive change in society at large?

Ajahn has also spoken out in support for same sex marriage and against other forms of discrimination.

In certain areas of Buddhism there is also a great deal of racism. Ayya Yeshe and others discuss the problems encountered by Western (female) monastics.


That would be 1, 2 and, 3 - patriarchy, sexual-orientation and, race! The emphasis is on discrimination that targets disempowered groups in society - on righting that wrong. Women, the LGBTI+ community and, racial minorities experience discrimination that many Buddhists are aware of and, they try to create positive change out of kindness and concern. The Buddha had strong environmental ethics as well!

Does the early tradition of Buddhism ignore other forms of discrimination and disempowerment - that are also systemic and pervasive - and, if so, why?

It is curious that slavery seemed to be practiced during the Buddha’s lifetime and, this was not seen as an (enduring ill) that needed to be opposed - a wrong that needed to be done away with. I wonder if there was a view at the time that slavery was a consequence of kamma? People were slaves because of the outcome of something they had done in their past-lives. As such, slavery was not a major concern as once that kamma had been exhausted they may not be in that situation - if they made enough merit. With this kind of logic it may be possible to explain-away all sorts of enduring-ills in society - including patriarchy, homophobia etc.

I know that the Buddha praised the kind-treatment of slaves but he did not seem to question its existence as a form of oppression or discrimination. It took another 2500+ years for non-Buddhists to begin a discussion on the rights of people to not be owned by other people. Would you call this a blind-spot in Buddhism? An ethical blind-spot that it took non-Buddhists to recognise and act upon? Does Buddhism still have ethical blind-spots?

I wonder if it was enlightened self-interest that may have created the need for keeping quiet about the behaviour of the ruling-class in the Buddha’s lifetime - and later on? There seemed to be a few absolute-rulers we hear about in the EBT’s - and later on - if Buddhism had not kept a low profile it may have fallen out of favour? Is this the same situation we find ourselves in today?

The Buddha would have been aware of the unpredictability of the warrior class and their rulers having come from that background. He would have been aware of the socio/cultural reality in his society and new what could be done - and not done - in those circumstances. What he could say and, not say! It may also be the case that due to his prior status as a member of a ruling-elite that his social values may have been shaped - to some degree - by his background? This might be another reason why some social issues were not addressed in his mainstream teachings. However, they do seem to emerge in the Jataka’s. The sharing of communal myths and stories seems to enable the communication of important teachings in a way that we may find less threatening. They amuse while they convey important messages!

There does seem to be a taboo in some schools of Buddhism when it comes to what you can question - ethically - or have I misunderstood something? There seems to be some degree of self-censorship going on - is this true?

As far as I can tell, the Buddha had no vision of significant social change or progress. He imagined that the human social past, for as far back as could be discerned by either normal or super-normal means, had always been like his own present time. And he imagined the future would also be the same as the present, for as far into the future as could be discerned. The world of human and animal lives in their natural condition - and the the lives of demons and devas for that matter - is endless and repetitively recurring wandering and striving, grasping and clinging, bewilderment and suffering. It’s futile.

He did think some periods of time were more fortunate than others because there were Buddhas in them. The Buddhas know a path of escape from the samsaric wheel, and teach it to people with little dust in their eyes. Things can get a little better if knowledge of the path spreads and is preserved.

This is a rather bleak vision actually, not much in tune with modern ideals of the perfectibility of human beings and society, and the potential for continuing social progress. Nevertheless, modern progressive thinkers can find much of value in Buddhism, because of the Buddha’s profound insights into why people suffer. They might use these insights to arrive at different conclusions than the Buddha did about the potential for positive social change.


I have to add though, that the more I read in and about the suttas, the more pessimistic I become about the potential to extract what the Buddha actually said, and the sense or intention behind what he said, from the attitudes, conceptions and memories of the subsequent generations of hearers, redactors and disciples in which those words are encrusted like partial fossils.

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I get it - its a cycle - progress and decline! This seems to be confirmed by what we know of history? Terrible and destructive wars are times when some society’s are ripped to shreds. We would hope that some of us are taking an interest in what is happening - or has happened - when things fall to pieces in this way. I hope we are in a process of ongoing learning that involves an integration of the Buddha’s insights into suffering with a keen sense of where we would like to find ourselves - as a species - in a hundred years from now. I get the impression that this kind of logic seems a bit alien, strange or, subversive to many Buddhists - but not all?

Can you give examples of what you mean - I thought the message was clear?

Greed, hatred and, delusion are fuelling the disorder - inwardly and outwardly. There were strategies devised by the Buddha to respond to this predicament. The Buddha taught meditative inquiry and created human institutions - forms of collective interaction. All things are impermanent, we live with a different set of circumstances. Inquiry and the application of findings is an ongoing process that evolves according to time, place and, circumstance. We can learn from the past and preserve that which is meaningful and valuable. We can take advantage of lessons learned but, we cannot rely on the past in its entirety - the world keeps on changing and we need to do our best to keep it a good place for Dhamma practice.

The Buddha created a social order - that process is ongoing - how could it be otherwise?

Sorry? Examples of what I mean by what? What message?

Examples please?

How can I give examples when I just said the problem is that there is no clear criterion for distinguishing the Buddha’s own words and meanings from what might have been added, reformulated or reinterpreted by the disciples who came later?

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How or why are you more pessimistic about the potential to extract what the Buddha actually said - because of the addition of later attitudes and conceptions - if you don’t know what those attitudes and conceptions are - or where they are located in the teachings? If you don’t know where or what they are - specifically - how do you know they exist at all?

‘Ajahn Brahmali’ believes he has a pretty good idea of what appears to be later additions - so I don’t doubt what you are saying. I was just asking for examples - if you had specific examples in mind. I don’t think he identifies anything that seems to compromise the core-message of what the Buddha wished to convey - his liberation teachings.

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The strategies require withdrawing from, and repudiating the norms of, ordinary human social life: no fighting, competing and struggling; no hustling after material wealth; no sex and reproduction; no planting and manufacturing; no managing a dusty household; no political activity; no work other than begging and tidying up.

This is not a pattern for a new kind of reformed and independently viable social life. The Buddha was not a communist who taught a new way of life in which all of the labors, fruits and material burdens of life were shared equally . Rather he taught a way of life in which one class of people, the renunciant beggars, lived a form of life which is utterly dependent on another class of people who are doing all of the fighting, growing , manufacturing, field labor, reproduction, child-rearing, household management and political assembling and organization for them. Only the first group has an immediately viable path to the end of suffering. He doesn’t seem to have had much interest in how the the latter group might improve their society in any significant way. Nevertheless, he apparently held out a modicum of hope for them by teaching that if they made some merit by giving to monks, they might be reborn in circumstances that allowed them to become monks as well.

Or maybe the Buddha taught this. Who knows? That’s what some of the suttas say anyway. But maybe these suttas are the work of the later monastic establishment and not the Buddha. All we have are the suttas to go on, and the Buddha is not around any more so that we might ask him which parts of the suttas were understood and reported correctly and which ones were not.

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Your comment is (kind of) relevant to the monastic sangha but a lot of them (do) a lot more than you have mentioned. The Buddha created a four-fold sangha - not a two-fold sangha. Other members of the four-fold sangha - the social institution [he] created - do more than begging and cleaning up.

With regard to the lay-practitioners in the four-fold sangha you said:

I don’t see how your (view) makes any sense as lay-practitioners are also required to give attention to right-livliehood - and all aspects of the 8-fold path - and observe the five precepts. I don’t see how this amounts to a disinterest in how lay-practitioners may be of practical hands-on assistance within the sangha - as a whole - or improve their society in any significant way. I would think that these teachings are of great importance when it comes to meaningful social reform.

I think we can safely say that the world has changed dramatically from what it was like 2500+ years ago. The response to this set of circumstances may require a different approach from the one that we have inherited from the distant past. The human population has increased dramatically and they did not face the same kinds of global challenges that were ‘nowhere to be found’ in the good old days. It would seem unwise to pretend that nothing has changed and continue as if we lived in a bygone age - that would make no sense at all? That would be myopic don’t you think? I have always felt that the Buddha encouraged common-sense and he wanted his students to ask intelligent questions in order to find meaningful answers. The way you (portray) the teachings makes Buddhism look rather silly.

I agree that the world has changed and those of us who care about the organization of society and what happens to living beings in the world have to think about those changes, and bring to bear everything we know - which includes a lot that we have learned over the past 2500 years. But this is not a good forum on which to discuss those issues, given that it exists primarily to discuss very ancient texts and to offer emotional support to people who have a faith relationship with those texts. Most of the relevant ideas I have to offer only bum people out. I’ve learned my lesson.


I hope you are wrong about the people who are involved in this Dhamma forum. It may be you that has a simplistic view of Buddhism and not others? If you are correct, perhaps another category could be created on this site that is relevant to these kinds of questions?

They don’t seem to have helped all that much in Thailand, Cambodia, Burma, or (earlier) India. But I don’t know. Maybe someone with more historical perspective on these societies has a better understanding.

The teachings are all about how to achieve liberation from samsara, not how to fix it.


What about all the lay non-returners we read about in the suttas? If we take the ideas of rebirth and enlightenment we find in the suttas seriously, we can assume that these are people who will attain Nibbana without ever having been in monastic robes.


A bit of nitpicking here: the Buddha most certainly created only a two-fold sangha (ubhato sangha). The four-fold assembly (catasso parisā) contains the Sangha, but there is a clear distinction between the monastic virtuosi and the lay followers. Even a cursory reading of the texts shows that the teachings were primarily aimed at the Sangha (Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis).


Well, you know me … I don’t think any of us are returning. :slight_smile:

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This isn’t correct. This sutta for example shows the kind of person who becomes a stream entrant in the Buddha’s times and they are destined for full enlightenment:

“We are lay people enjoying sensuality; living crowded with spouses & children; using Kasi fabrics & sandalwood; wearing garlands, scents, & creams; handling gold & silver. May the Blessed One teach the Dhamma for those like us, for our happiness & well-being in this life, for our happiness & well-being in lives to come.” AN8.54

Thousands of lay people became stream entrants.

with metta