We Cannot Ignore Buddhist Extremism—Lions Roar

Perhaps by random coincidence, this sutta was covered in a class I was in last night:

You’re not a lowlife by birth,
Na jaccā vasalo hoti,
nor by birth are you a brahmin.
Na jaccā hoti brāhmaṇo;
You’re a lowlife by your deeds,
Kammunā vasalo hoti,
by deeds you’re a brahmin.
Kammunā hoti brāhmaṇo.

Sutta Nipata, Vasala Sutta

When I read suttas like this, I don’t understand how it can be thought that the Buddha was uninterested in worldly affairs, that he did not speak out against the caste system, etc.
There is simply too much evidence to the contrary.

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Yes he did, but there is a difference between instructing Kings in Dhamma and political activism. Did any of those kings legislate against the caste system, or move to abolish slavery? We don’t know. They don’t seem to have. That said Venerable Dhammanando has argued before that the Buddha was quite close to Burkean conservatism. Also, if we take men and women, that the Dhamma is less about equality of the sexes and more Complementarianism in outlook. I think there is some merit in that. If, however, I’ve misrepresented Bhante then i apologise in advance.

You were talking about reform not activism which is quite possible with a few well chosen words to those in power!


Kamma is intention, yes. The sutta you have provided doesn’t seem to support your claim. The Buddha criticised the religious claims behind the caste system. He never campaigned for it to be abolished. He seems to have accepted it as an unpleasant feature of the world he lived in.

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I don’t see the Buddha as being a reformist of the caste system. Critical, yes. Regarding politics, the following sutta says to me that monks and nuns (and we might include laymen striving for awakening of some kind) should avoid worldly politics.

They engaged in all kinds of unworthy talk, such as talk about kings, bandits, and ministers; talk about armies, threats, and wars; talk about food, drink, clothes, and beds; talk about garlands and fragrances; talk about family, vehicles, villages, towns, cities, and countries; talk about women and heroes; street talk and well talk; talk about the departed; motley talk; tales of land and sea; and talk about being reborn in this or that state of existence.


Personally I see the Buddha and Sangha teaching layfolk Dhamma, which is above politics. By that Dhamma we layfolk, who wish to be political, can then work out which political party, organisation or action is best in keeping with said natural law.


Just a reminder to try to keep as close to the OP’s main theme about ‘We cannot ignore Buddhist extremism’ and avoid making inflammatory statements condoning “Buddhist” Nazis and the like that will derail this topic, and which are not allowed on D&D anyway.

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And to clarify further…the moderators are here to help keep the forum a safe place, and make sure all topics and posts adhere to our guidelines.

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This is admittedly an impressionistic view, but one of the things I found since starting to read the Nikayas in their entirety rather than selective suttas is how much time the Buddha spends talking to lay people, including rulers, about how to lead a good, ethical life. I wouldn’t want to anachronistic apply modern terms like “activist” or “reformer” to him. But my sense of the Buddha of the suttas is someone who cared deeply about people leading happy and ethical lives in this world, and using his influence to help rulers see and adopt changes to make society better.

This is an aspect of his teaching that one doesn’t see emphasized as much in many books and on many forums. ( @stephen 's recommendation of Venerable Bodhi’s book on social harmony is a great book that does discuss this.) For me, even if not emphasized as often at the moment, the Buddha’s interest in creating a good society and people leading good lives in the world seems a key theme in the suttas.


This is often unskillfully used to shut down perfectly valid conversations about real world issues like ethics and how to live a skillful life.

Just as at the time of the Buddha, lots of people today have many questions about contemporary issues that affect them and their spiritual practice. They want to understand things from a dhamma perspective, so the conversation actually needs to be had from time to time…

Many monastics try follow the Buddha’s examples of skillfully engaging in these topics. This is preferable to trying to censor, or shut down, restrict or tut-tut perfectly valid conversations about issues that affect people here and now.

When monks are saluting the Buddha using a salute… I mean… I think it’s okay to say that’s bad …


Reading Brenna’s article was deeply disturbing. I’ve tended to assume we Australian lay Buddhists comprise a diversity of political opinion and so practice acceptance of that diversity with loving kindness. But how to respond to someone who professes a Buddhist commitment while also expressing repugnant views of the far-right will require deep reflection. But respond we must. If we make our presence clearly visible at peaceful rallies for climate action, women’s rights such as the rally in Canberra last year addressed by Britney Higgins, and interfaith rallies in support of religious minorities in Myanmar and Afghanistan, for instance, we are making statements that can’t be ignored.


I’m not dismissing it at all. He did spend a considerable amount of time doing just that. And I’m sure many of those people were able to bridge that worldly concept of harmonious living into something deeper. Perhaps even took up the practice.

However, I don’t believe the four noble truths and the gain of right view have anything directly to with the social harmony that is a result of widespread virtue. In terms of a practice aimed at development of knowledge and vision - aimed at right view - that virtue was established for something internal, not external. So whatever the greater society gains from the efforts of those individuals, is incidental. I believe it does the core message a disservice when it is made out to be the case that the Buddha held social harmony in as high of a regard as the gain of Right View. He certainly held virtue in a very high regard, but resulting social harmony is rarely - if ever - praised alongside the destruction of suffering and the living of the holy life. Too often that seems to be the contemporary message.

From that point of view, it doesn’t matter how well-intended the worldly cause may be, if it would deliberately prioritize worldly gain over the preservation of the path to liberation, it is costly endeavor.


A quick example:
The monks described practicing in the Gosinga forest in the Cūḷagosiṅgasutta, MN 31:

"“I hope, Anuruddha, that you are all living in concord, with mutual appreciation, without disputing, blending like milk and water, viewing each other with kindly eyes.”

“Surely, venerable sir, we are living in concord, with mutual appreciation, without disputing, blending like milk and water, viewing each other with kindly eyes.”

“But, Anuruddha, how do you live thus?” “Venerable sir, as to that, I think thus: ‘It is a gain for me, it is a great gain for me, that I am living with such companions in the holy life.’ I maintain bodily acts of loving-kindness towards those venerable ones both openly and privately; I maintain verbal acts of loving-kindness towards them both openly and privately; I maintain mental acts of loving-kindness towards them both openly and privately. I consider: ‘Why should I not set aside what I wish to do and do what these venerable ones wish to do?’ Then I set aside what I wish to do and do what these venerable ones wish to do. We are different in body, venerable sir, but one in mind.”

"If the world with its gods, its Māras, and its Brahmās, this generation with its recluses and brahmins, its princes and its people, should remember those three clansmen with confident heart, that would lead to the welfare and happiness of the world for a long time. See, Dīgha, how those three clansmen are practising for the welfare and happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the good, welfare and happiness of gods and humans.”

Ven. Bodhi, trans.

And as one can see from this sutta excerpt, and many others, the “greater society gains” is stressed, and made to be of great importance.


Oh the perils of clinging and grasping!


Extremism, as with all conditioned things is dependently originated.
It is rooted in Craving, supported by Ignorance.
It starts with having bad friends and not listening to the True Dhamma.

Human beings are such that sooner or later, any group of individuals is wont to say…

Oh, how wicked things have appeared among beings, in that stealing is found, and blaming and lying and the taking up of rods! 20.3Why don’t we elect one being who would rightly accuse those who deserve it, blame those who deserve it, and expel those who deserve it? 20.4We shall pay them with a share of rice.

But, when it comes to exercising authority, even the Buddha had doubts…

I wonder if it’s possible to rule legitimately, without killing or having someone kill for you; without conquering or having someone conquer for you; without sorrowing or causing sorrow?

Leading him to determine that

even a wheel-turning monarch, a righteous king who rules by the Dhamma, does not turn the wheel without a king above him.

And that Dhamma is to offer righteous protection to all beings in the realm.
Because even a king rules only as long as they have the support of the people.

Easier said than done! When people in authority forget their duties and responsibilities, they begin to rule unjustly. Once the power structure of society gets corrupted, the people at the bottom begin to suffer.

That Suffering of those on the fringe of society is the source of Extremism.

In the western world, such people are invariably drawn to Right wing fascist groups which emphasize white supremacy and the protection of their inheritance from the multitude of invading ‘others’.

In the eastern world, we have the opposite problem. Those at the bottom of the pyramid are drawn to Left wing Socialist/ Maoist groups which emphasize forcible redistribution of their birthright which is under the control of ‘others’.

Either ways, the result is an angry, dispossessed group which violently hits out at Society. Invoking caste, creed, religion etc is simply a tool for their ultimate purpose of propagating Hate.

The typical reaction of those in authority is more violence, more rejection, more dispossession … which never works!

There is no way to end Extremism without talking to each other.

What is needed is engagement in Dialogue. Understanding. Reconciliation.

What is needed is Love. Not the ordinary kind. The Buddhist kind… the Brahmaviharas.

For never is hatred settled by hate, it’s only settled by love: this is an ancient law.

Is that not the Dhamma?

:smiley: :sunflower: :blossom: :pray:


I suppose it can be used that way, but that wasn’t what I had in mind Bhante. The difference I see is between instructing layfolk in terms of Dhamma, and so compassion etc etc, and saying “don’t vote remain/leave” or “You should vote for the Democrats” and so on.

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Well, yes, it is, but it plays a subordinate role to the ideals of Liberation and gaining of the Right View.

Suppose a teacher is teaching a math class to a bunch of young kids. I would imagine she would stress the importance of discipline as well as mutually respectful behaviour among her students as an important factor of gaining knowledge. However, I do not think she would say it is a more important thing than learning math.

The same is true for the Buddha: I believe his teachings were preached as longs as they were conducive for Nibbana as their final justification and goal. Otherwise, how come the Buddha supposedly taught us about the better society but failed to mention such things as boiling your drinking water first, maintaining a high level of personal hygiene, regularly brushing your teeth, abstaining from eating a lot of fast carbs, etc.? These are wordly dhammas leading to the welfare of all, too. How come we do not read anything about Him preaching to all the various kings, including His own father, that they should free all their slaves and base their society on the Sangha’s ideals?


I don’t think any one here is claiming that ‘Liberation’ is not the highest goal. In fact, I have stated this several times in this very thread.

Instead, my point is that Buddha-Dhamma is larger than that, it is in fact ‘the way it is’. Therefore it applies to all aspects of life, both worldly and transcendent.

Again, I rely on Ven. Bodhi’s eloquence:

"The Dhamma, in its broadest sense, is the immanent, invariable order of the universe in which truth, lawful regularity, and virtue are inextricably merged. This cosmic Dhamma is reflected in the human mind as the aspiration for truth, spiritual beauty, and goodness; it is expressed in human conduct as wholesome bodily, verbal, and mental action. The Dhamma has institutional embodiments as well as expressions in the lives of individuals who look upon it as their source of guidance in the proper conduct of life. "

-from “In the Buddha’s Words”, introduction to section 4, “The Happiness Visible in this Present Life.”


But then again, no teeth brushing or water boiling advice by the Buddha.

Yes, Dhamma in its broadest sense is the way things are, this is where we agree. One of the broadest statements describing it is ‘sabbe sankhara dukkha’. Incidentally, we all live exclusively in sankharas, in a world that on other occasion was literally compared by the Buddha to a piece of faeces.

So yeah, He taught the ethics and particular ways to live in the society but more as preliminaries, as ‘trivial matters’ (DN1). Ultimately, they are a way for us to focus our energy and effort on the really important matters, like discipline is necessarily for school kids to learn math. They are needed for us to leave this world of… erm… faeces.

The problem in the modern Western Buddhism that is nearly ubiquitous is the obsession with these preliminaries to the point of detriment to the core practice. I think in 300 years future Buddhists will chuckle at our being obsessed with politics and Buddhism just like we smile at some Thai or Myanmar being obsessed by apotropaic ‘Buddhist’ amulets, yatras, and ‘wealth gathas’.

So yeah, summing it up, we agree on the Dhamma encompassing literally everything. What I feel we do not quite agree upon is the extent to which different aspects of this everything should be given importance within our individual and communal practice.

I’m not interested in telling anyone how they should practice, or denigrating anyone for their mode of practice. I would describe doing that as a type of extremism.

I’m only interested in pointing out the big picture, what can be found in the Canon as a whole.

I hope everyone can find the Buddha-Dhamma of great benefit to their lives.


As were Kassapa‘s efforts for future generations:

For a long time, venerable sir, I have been a forest dweller and have spoken in praise of forest dwelling; I have been an almsfood eater and have spoken in praise of eating almsfood; I have been a rag-robe wearer and have spoken in praise of wearing rag-robes; I have been a triple-robe user and have spoken in praise of using the triple robe; I have been of few wishes and have spoken in praise of fewness of wishes; I have been content and have spoken in praise of contentment; I have been secluded and have spoken in praise of solitude; I have been aloof from society and have spoken in praise of aloofness from society; I have been energetic and have spoken in praise of arousing energy.” “Considering what benefit, Kassapa, have you long been a forest dweller … and spoken in praise of arousing energy?”

“Considering two benefits, venerable sir. For myself I see a pleasant dwelling in this very life, and I have compassion for later generations, thinking, ‘May those of later generations follow my example!’ For when they hear, ‘The enlightened disciples of the Buddha were for a long time forest dwellers and spoke in praise of forest dwelling … were energetic and spoke in praise of arousing energy,’ then they will practise accordingly, and that will lead to their welfare and happiness for a long time. Considering these two benefits, venerable sir, I have long been a forest dweller … and have spoken in praise of arousing energy.”

“Good, good, Kassapa! You are practising for the welfare and happiness of the multitude, out of compassion for the world, for the good, welfare, and happiness of devas and humans. Therefore, Kassapa, wear worn-out hempen rag-robes, walk for alms, and dwell in the forest.” - SN 16.5

I just think it is clear that harmony (in the Pali Canon) is the result of the individual’s efforts, whether it be in seclusion or in a community. From the sutta you posted: “I consider: ‘Why should I not set aside what I wish to do and do what these venerable ones wish to do?’ That is an individual’s choice. It is indeed of great importance and of great value, but, as an end in itself, not a requirement for development. I’m not arguing against harmony as a goal, but billed as one of equal or greater importance than liberation, that I just don’t see.

To tie this back into the main topic; nowadays when those accounts of external/societal results of virtue, concentration and wisdom become the priority, it does not imply that people will strive for them by means of virtue, concentration and wisdom. Order in society will always be the result of what the individual values, sure, but those values are represented in laws, policy and social norms, just to name a few. As such, it is more desirable to see change reflected on that level than anywhere else to ensure goals are being achieved. I’m not going to go as far as to say it is putting the cart before the horse to celebrate that type of change (because the Buddha did seem to support that as well), but neglecting to emphasize the order of that resulting harmony presents an option of being a Buddhist with the foremost goal of making the world better. That is fine if that is all a person wishes to do, but that opens the door to prioritizing the world along with or above liberation; above the difficult internal work required for development. Getting a law signed or changed can be a very good thing and be very beneficial for the world, but that law does not imply virtue has been further established in the individuals who value what that law expresses.

The attitude seems to be that if one identifies as a Buddhist it is implied that the triple gem is of the highest value, but I really don’t think it is implied. It does not “go without saying”. It needs to be said. That order needs to be maintained and emphasized, and nowadays it can be treated as almost an inconvenience in conversations bent on worldly improvements. Extremism, in my view, is anything that would obscure the goal from where it rightfully stands, and while the message of the left is certainly warmer and more compassionate than what we hear from the right, it can induce a distortion for those attempting to understand what Buddhism is all about; the four noble truths; the noble eightfold path. I just think it is important that the whole story remains intact, and that worldly endeavors be understood with that correct priority when they are pursued.

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Discussion here is straying far from the article posted in the OP.

If you want to discuss other things, please start a new thread. It’s free!