The Buddha, Morality, Social Obligations and the Path

Picking up on the discussion from another topic, I think it is important to keep separate the question of how we should respond to the moral, social and political issues of our time, and how the Buddha would respond. We should maintain a sense of the distinctiveness of the Buddha’s own approach to life, and what the Buddha’s path both is and isn’t. It’s a path to arahantship, not an all-purpose guide to all of the moral and political conundrums of our lives. The Buddhist saint is purer and more spiritually free than the rest of us. That doesn’t mean they are more “moral”, or more “socially responsible” or more “woke”, or that they have any general recipe for the best way of tending to our households, or our businesses, or caring for our bodies or even our planets.

In the US, we have a number of prominent Buddhist teachers who are very socially and politically active. I think that is fine and great. But unfortunately, in pursuing these interests, activists sometimes misrepresent the Buddha. Some of them even sent out a joint letter some months ago that was headed with a fake Buddha quote. One prominent teacher, boiling over with her own political frustrations and anger, even tried to convince people recently that the Buddha believed in “right anger.”

But this isn’t just a western thing. In the years following the Buddha’s enlightenment, somehow the path evolved from a training regimen for those seeking supreme peace, and a relinquishment of the burdens of worldly existence, into an all-encompassing “religion” in the typical sense: a comprehensive scheme for the maintenance of social and moral order, authority and hierarchy, filled with temples and offerings, magic and priestcraft, state sponsorship and co-option, and moral training and disciplining for the young.

Even those of us who live in what we think of as a post-religious, modernized and “secular” world are still guided in our thinking by the intellectually totalitarian ambitions of some of the religions that preceded our present forms of consciousness, and by what we have inherited from those systems. We may be convinced that there is a universal moral law, emanating from some mysterious source beyond society, and which in some way “binds” us to its commands. To figure out how to live we only need to identify that law and its parts and logical consequences. But why believe there is such a thing?

If we become convinced that there was some universal moral law-knower in the past, we might look to that individual for all the answers. It’s very tempting to try to turn moral questions, and other practical questions, into questions about “What would the Buddha do?” But sometimes those of us in the world just have to figure that out on our own what to do, and let the Buddha remain the Buddha. We can learn from the Buddha much about the causes of anger, violence, greed, fear, stupidity and suffering. But that doesn’t tell us everything we need to know about what to do about our world, a world which is permeated by these defilements.

We can’t know for sure how the Buddha would live if he had been born into our society rather his own. But I do feel confident in thinking that if he were driven by the same spiritual needs and yearnings in our time that he had in his time, then he would have walked away from it all as a black-haired youth, and abandoned all of the social and familial obligations that had been prescribed for him, in order to seek the deathless and a way to the end of suffering.

The Buddha and his path are a refuge from the worldly winds, even for those who do not follow the path wholeheartedly and all of them time, and who do not live the holy life 24 hours a day, but only turn into it occasionally. There is peace and relief in that refuge, like a cave found in the middle of the storm. But the cave cannot be a refuge if the inside of the cave is filled with all of the howling winds of worldly clamor, strife, ideological warfare and political busyness, organizing, networking and speechifying that we find outside the cave. That’s why we need a monastic sangha of true followers of the holy life, who have abandoned the world and left its management to the worldlings, who can provide a living manifestation of the peace the Buddha found, and that the rest of us can sit close to when we choose.


Its interesting: the questions we have about morality, obligations and the path.

We have the example of the ‘Anagami’ who made pots.* I was told by ‘Ajahn Brahm’: the reason this ‘Anagami’ did not go from home to homelessness was because without his support his blind parents would have perished. They relied on him for their basic needs. Out of compassion, he stayed at home to look after them.

We respond in different ways in different situations. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to every problem under the sun. When we aspire to deepen in our meditation we need introspection, calm and clarity, we abandon diversity and silence pervades.

When monastics want to solve the problem of accommodation they may go to the hardware store and get some timber - I know this coz I drove the van - or contact a builder. Life is an oscillation between action and non-action. There are times when we can solve problems by doing nothing and there are times when we need to meet challenges by doing something about them - there is no contradiction.

We meditate and seek silence and we act for the benefit of one and all in various ways. The ecological crisis requires a great deal of practical problem solving. I don’t think the Buddha taught that if we solve practical problems we will not wake up! We will be tempted and, distracted by worldly concerns. We may forget that there is only ‘one’ thing that we should be doing with our time i.e. withdrawing from the world (seeking seclusion from the world). If we were to do this without wise reflection we may end up engaging in ‘avoidance behaviour’ and neglect our collective responsibilities to help each other when the going gets tough. If the ecosphere starts to fall apart ‘big time’ then things are going to get tough. Why not focus on the required degree of practical problem solving now so as to avoid catastrophic climate-change?

The Buddha’s main activity was to teach and, when he did need to deal with practical issues they may have been fairly specific?

The Buddha walked out on a journey of discovery having seen through worldliness - it’s vacuity - the spiritual void.

Walking away from dear ones is a lot easier when they are well looked after and, they live in a healthy environment like the garden of Eden.

If, he had walked out on his loved ones when they were in a desperate and dire situation. A situation that he could have helped to change and, then went off to discover what he was looking for then, that would be the compassionate thing to do - do you think?

Once he completed his journey he did consider walking away for ever. Just leaving the floating world of sensuality and those lost to it - as he had been lost.

However, he was an awakened being with compassion that moved him to consider carefully whether he could help those in desperate need of liberating insight.

Liberating insight does not require a sound-proof room and a darkened cave or high walls to shut out the world.

The world is closing in!

I can visualise a large community of religious escapists venerating their serene smiling saints at the end of a world that is being shredded due to the negligence and stupidity of human beings.

The many wise and good mittas I have met on this site have helped me to visualise this nightmare scenario!

This large - and growing - community of spiritual escapists (I see in my mind’s eye) are all content and sedate as they systematically ignore the problems they could help to fix.

Their saints pacify them: “worry not sweet children, you were all born just to die anyway.” “You should all just forget about this disturbing situation of a world in peril because of negligence, indifference and, inertia.” “The lesser worldlings distract themselves with sensuality and have no interest in fixing the problems they have created. While we holy-seekers and adepts have no interest at all in fixing the problem.”

“Turn your thoughts away from the things you find disturbing and be tranquil. Don’t forget, your life is without purpose anyway. Just radiate loving kindness to all sentient beings as the situation around us starts to close in! Be peaceful, our problems are all in the mind. Don’t think about it, don’t talk about it and, above all don’t ‘do’ anything meaningful and purposeful to physically - materially - change the path of destruction ravaging the Earth. It is all distraction and worldly preoccupations that you must renounce in order to reach the other shore! Forget about where you happen to find yourself and you will reach the highest goal that is ‘not here’.”

“Let others waste their time dealing with this issue for we have more important things to focus on!”


  • “Then he said: ‘Venerable sir, have you a better supporter than I am?’—‘I have, great king. There is a market town called Vebhalinga where a potter named Ghaṭīkāra lives. He is my supporter, my chief supporter. […] The potter Ghaṭīkāra has gone for refuge to the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha. […] He supports his blind and aged parents. […] he is one who will reappear spontaneously [in the Pure Abodes] and there attain final Nibbāna without ever returning from that world." - MN - 81

I agree. That’s what he helped people do - liberate themselves from their pain.

I don’t know why you are getting so frustrated about this. There are many people in this world who very active and very organized in working of social and political causes. I belong to some of those organizations. I’m guessing you do too. I just don’t look to the Buddha for a lot of direct help in that department, but only indirect help in the insight he provided about the causes of suffering.

I try to respect the spirit of refuge that I have found in my local vihara. People come to that refuge from many different directions and many different outlooks. They are often dealing with all kinds of problems, some so large I can barely begin to grasp them. I think they are entitled to some place of peace where they can just put those burdens down, and nobody is telling them that they have to hoist the world on their shoulders and march to some particular conception of worldly progress and political activism to be a good Buddhist. If people have the personal strength and commitment for doing those kinds of things, great. But it’s not required. The Buddha never said it was required. He was surrounded by people who had left the world for good. So I don’t drag my politics in with me when I go there. And I don’t ask other people about their politics either.


No frustration here dear Mitta - be peaceful - I am OK. I am not politicising - that was the discussion on the last thread (remember).

I have simply reflected on the implications of what you have written above and followed it to it’s logical conclusion. Sorry if you find it inconvenient or, it has some other disquieting effect on your peace and serenity.

Best of luck with your understanding of Buddhism. Good night, sleep tight, I hope the bed bugs don’t bite!

It’s not an implication of what I have written.

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Like I said, good luck with your understanding of what it is you are saying! You are calling it Buddhism - for reasons unknown.

You mentioned how the online test you took on ‘what is your religion’ produced a curious result. It turned out you are more like a Taoist than a Buddhist!

Taoism is a world-view that is similar to Buddhism in some ways and it is also different - in many ways. Coincidentally, I had an interesting discussion with a deeply committed Taoist who was a very nice man. He had a world-view which did look a lot like your understanding of the Buddha’s teachings.

Schopenhauer developed a philosophy that is similar and also different from Buddhism.

Your take on Buddhism - just like mine - is influenced by your background and life experience - correct? You were involved in academic work in philosophy - is that correct?

If you have 1 or more degree/degrees in philosophy it might be helpful to know what the thesis/theses was? What was the title/titles of the work you submitted and, the central themes you explored?

The Dhamma is like good medicine! We may have an operation like open-heart surgery. Time goes by and everything seems fine! Then, things take a turn for the worse. We go back in for an x-ray and they discover someone forgot to remove a clamp. We have to pickup the Dhamma carefully or we may be wasting a lot of valuable time.

Those who have ears …

Mate you sound like you are frustrated, and pushing your own views very hard using manipulative language. When several people all give you this same message (in a constructive and respectful way) over a period of time - there may actually be something in it.

@DKervick, thanks for posting this interesting reflection.



I don’t feel frustrated but I do realise that I am not going to win a popularity contest. I am seeing this in 3 different ways! There is what I want to communicate that is not popular. There is the way I choose to communicate that is not popular and, there is probably some kind of perception of ‘me’ that is not popular. Have I covered this seeming issue or is there some other way in which I have failed in the popularity contest? Maybe you could feel sorry for me or something! Why don’t you radiate some Metta in my metaphysical direction - maybe that will help?

Nonetheless, I have not found any reason to believe that what I am saying - in essence - is problematic or unclear or confused. To illustrate what I am ‘seeing’ I need to be honest.

I am not concerned if you wish to disagree with the perspective I am communicating. I am not pushing or pulling or whatever else it is you may feel I am doing - or not doing. If you would like to discuss the issue I am drawing attention to then I will be happy to respond. If you would like to talk to me about how I might improve my communication please do - I am all ears! We could discuss what it is that is troubling to you in one of those private windows we can access on this site. I am computer illiterate so the ball is in your court?

Laurence, this question can be seen as a challenge to the individual and not to their ideas, which goes against our community guidelines.


My dissertation was on modality and modal logic.


The issue is not about popularity or honesty. It is about how you choose to communicate.
I believe that anyone can say/ask anything if it is done respectfully and from right intention. It has nothing to do with either honesty or popularity.

When you say things like

You are claiming that if people, including DKervic and myself, don’t agree with you, then we can’t be buddhist. This is pretty far out there on the scale of disrespectful and arrogant on your behalf. Do you really believe that you are so very much wiser? Do you really care so little for right speech that you can speak to people this way? Do you really have such little regard for the benefit of this community that you are not willing to be a little more mindful in the way you express yourself?

By choosing to communicate in this style, and refusing to even consider that there may be a better way to stimulate discussion and inclusiveness in this community, it is like you are just raising your ‘middle finger’ to us.

This approach makes people uncomfortable (several people have told you this), and stifles good and beneficial interactions. In effect it is like bullying - where you ridicule others’ opinions and perspectives when you disagree with them.

This in turn affects how much members are willing to post and share - knowing that they may be subject to this treatment. Which of course diminishes all of us and the purpose of this forum.


@mpac - my thought was the comment assumed the big question posed in the name of the thread. The question being how do we know what is true to the Buddha, Morality and Social Obligations?

What is that logic error called – assuming the consequence??

Whether or not one catches on consciously to the logic errors it’s no wonder the sub-conscious sends up feelings as if someone is ______ with you.

Implications of the path – even though there are good, logical reasons why you might have a response similar to anger … it’s still anger.
Once it arises and is recognized then what? That’s my 15 second summary version of the dharma.

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Thanks I will look into it! :slightly_smiling_face:

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This is an interesting framing of the global environmental crisis we face as a species.

Animals require water that they can drink. They also require air that they can breathe. They need some way to shelter themselves or protect themselves from the elements - as best they can.

I think it’s best not to lose sight of the fact that we are talking about survival as a species.

We need food to eat! Morality and socio/political conventions are important. Particularly, when you are not starving to death.

There are vested interests who intentionally frame environmental issues in a way that makes them political.

There are political parties who openly oppose measures to address human-induced climate change and many other serious environmental problems. There are others that embrace policy initiatives that are designed to address environmental issues.

There are political parties of the left and right that take environmental issues seriously so it is not an ‘essentially’ political problem.

It’s a matter of applying policies and practical solutions to an issue that is relevant to every living breathing being on this planet.

Therefore, this crisis - and what we do about it - should not be confused with talk about kings or celebrities or forms of entertainment or other worldly distractions.

Without understanding what worldliness actually is - and is not - then what hope do we have of freeing ourselves from it?

The cave is an important place of peace that needs to be honoured and respected. However, if we spend to much time in the cave we will probably be in need of a bit of sunlight. Sunlight is also good for you!

According to these rather narrow guidelines a monastic is always in the cave coz it is the place to be! Everything worth doing is in there! Hmm …

Networking among people involved in positive change is not about worldly clamour. It’s about finding ways to resolve issues through voluntary cooperation.

Why is this important? When an issue is reduced to a political football there is a real possibility that we can arrive at deadlock!

Sometimes, there are problems that are so pressing that we cannot wait for politicians to solve them for us? We have to find another way in which we can make headway.

Not all social change is driven from above? Most of the important forms of social and environmental change have been the consequence of conscious individuals within social movements creating the impetus.

It usually starts with a handful of people who begin to organise and network until the situation reaches critical mass.

How are we going to realise vital and necessary change if we wait for idiot politicians to fix the problem. Many of them have their pockets stuffed with money provided by big-polluters etc. How is that going to work?

Thats why they were talking about networking and cooperation as a way forward in that video: the quest for meaning.

I’m not going to debate these issues with you. No matter how many times I indicate that I personally share the commitments you do, and just prefer not to discuss them here, you remain stubbornly committed to ignoring what I say, and banging me over the head with another zealous diatribe.

My original post was about the nature of the Buddha’s teaching and the purpose of the sangha he established. If you disagree with what I argued, you should mount a counter-argument based on texts that make your case.


That’s interesting Dan! You may be relieved to know that what you are perceiving as a zealous diatribe may actually be something else. Try to think of an alternative explanation for what I am doing?

It is also interesting what you require of me in order to pay attention. I am relating to the teachings but not in the way you are in the habit of doing.

I have provided a counter-argument after reflecting on the teachings. It is based on the texts but it does not involve a literalist reading - exclusively. I am engaging ‘critically’ with the teachings. I have seen you do this as well but you do it in relation to different themes.

My argument has not been based on accepting everything that is said on face value. Up to this point, nobody has found fault with the case I have made - including you - as far as I can tell?

You feel I have misunderstood what you have said? Others have disapproved of the way I communicate. But no one has bothered to refute the various points that form the crux of my argument.