What is the view of the EBTs about social service and engagement (like e.g., social work, supporting the poor etc.)?

Hi there!

I’m wondering what is the perspective in the EBTs of social service and engagement (like e.g., social work, supporting the poor etc.)?

Is there a difference between the monastics and lay people? E.g., monastic do rather spiritual social service, while lay people might support society on a physical level. But it seems to me that the EBTs always point to the spiritual dimension and practice of the path for both – monastics and lay people.

I did find some Suttas which might point in this direction. E.g., „An astute person with great wisdom is one who has no intention to hurt themselves, or to hurt others, or to hurt both. When they think, they only think of the benefit for themselves, for others, for both, and for the whole world. That’s how a person is astute, with great wisdom.” Approach; Ummagga Sutta AN 4.186; Bhikkhu Sujato

„And how do you look after others by looking after yourself? By development, cultivation, and practice of meditation. And how do you look after yourself by looking after others? By acceptance, harmlessness, love, and sympathy.

Thinking ‘I’ll look after myself,’ you should cultivate mindfulness meditation. Thinking ‘I’ll look after others,’ you should cultivate mindfulness meditation. Looking after yourself, you look after others; and looking after others, you look after yourself.” At Sedaka; Sedaka Sutta SN 47.19; Bhikkhu Sujato

It seems to me that social service can directly be a part of dana and sila but is indirectly a part of bhavana – of going inward and developing insight. So in my understanding the Buddha didn’t denounce social service in society as such, but did stress the importance of one’s own development, which as a consequence will benefit others, while it is not necessarily the goal of the path as such. Dana, sila and bhavana (practicing the eightfold path) therefore are social service in itself from which society will benefit naturally as a consequence. And with proper insight one is able to know what is really for the benefit for oneself and others – so one can be of tremendous service for a lot of beings (spiritually).

I’m wondering what your perspective on this topic might be and what can be found about this in the EBTs.

All the best!



The brahma-viharas can be a practice in themseves for those not temperamentally equipped for insight. There are some who cannot accept that conventional reality is a current they have to go against (AN 4.5). But in the main path (insight) their (brahma-viharas) role as social attitudes is a means of protection of the practitioner possessed of insight, allowing them to deal with others without either aversion or attachment, as well as clearly knowing and seeing the situation.

Having insight knowledge entails responsibility, it means using conventional reality while remaining detached from it:

He, beyond any concept, wise,
would say, ‘I speak’;
would say, ‘They speak to me.’
knowing harmonious gnosis
with regard to the world,
he uses expressions
just as expressions.”—SN 1.25

The emphasis in the suttas is not on doing compassion, this is illustrated in the Buddha-to-be’s not stopping to give material assistance when encountering the divine messengers, and also in his achievement of awakening through meditation:

“What we have with the brahma-vihāras is a basic set of mental attitudes that are appropriate for any life situation. They also have considerable liberating potential, supporting the cultivation of insight much more than is generally acknowledged.”—Analayo


From a really excellent charity that Bhikkhu Bodhi is involved with Vision & Mission - Buddhist Global Relief

Interestingly they cite a Mahayana Sutta:

“May I be a good doctor for those who suffer from illness,
a guide for those who have gone astray,
a lamp for those who dwell in darkness,
a source of treasure for those in poverty and need.”
Vows of Samantabhadra, Avatamsaka Sutra

That said, even this Mahayana sutta is still not clearly about “physical” vs spiritual help. But I would argue someone suffering from illness, hunger, abuse, etc needs help with those elements in addition to the “spiritual”…hard to focus on Dhamma if you are hungry!

In the EBTs I do feel I’ve heard more about dana of one’s finances to the general benefit of others, not just the Sangha, but aren’t they usually about family? I.e. don’t be miserly, help your parents, help your kin (and give alms of course). See AN3.10, AN4.53, SN1.49. Not sure there’s the same pointing toward helping those in need more generally the way there is say in Christianity.

Suttas aside, in mine and many others’ experience, cultivation on the path does seem to lead to much more inclination toward generosity of any means (time, money, emotional support) as those barriers between “self” and “other” begin to dissolve. Also if you aren’t spending all your free time in sensual pleasures and intoxicants there’s just more time energy for directing toward dana.


I was wondering if it would be more fitting to speak of generous support, ethical support, and spiritual support– rather than social engagement.

Generous support because of the importance of generosity (dana). It is directly supporting others (ideally the Sangha) and also supporting the giver, because it is a good deed, and will lead to happiness in this and future lives and build the foundation for spiritual practice.

Ethical support because of the importance of ethical conduct (sila). It is directly supporting others (giving safety, trust etc. to others) and the ethical person as well, because it is also a good deed, and will lead to happiness this and future lives and build the foundation for spiritual practice.

Spiritual support because of the importance of one’s own cultivation of wholesome states of mind (bhavana). It is directly supporting others (being an example, teacher or even a field of merit, if trained to a high standard) and it is supporting the spiritual practitioner as well, because it is also a good deed, and will eventually lead to the end of suffering in this or future lives.

In my opinion social engagement sounds to entangled with the matters of the world in two ways. First, because of the word engagement. Its meaning can also be defined by the verbs to get involved with something, or to oblige to something (thinking of being engaged, or even married!) Terms which seem to go in the other direction of the noble eightfold path – which seems to go more in the direction of disentanglement, giving things up, renouncing and seclusion. (considering SN 9.1 SuttaCentral)

Second, the term social sounds like stressing to much social interactions and being in interaction with the world, while companionship (kalyāṇamitta) certainly has its place on the path, but it seems to me again that the Buddha points in another direction. In the direction of being secluded physically (in the wilderness) and in the end ideally mentally. (considering AN 8.86 SuttaCentral)


I have just a few quick comments on this excellent subject, without any textual reference. It seems to me embedded in this practice that each of us, as Bhikkhu Bodhi has suggested, can determine for ourselves based on our attitude and aptitude, what level of engagement is appropriate. But, he makes the case that getting off of the cushion is an important aspect of practice, and his Buddhist Global Relief is a tremendous vehicle for altruism.

We also know that the Buddha actively engaged. After his awakening, he went forth to teach, though as I recall he pondered whether this would be worthwhile. He traveled, he taught, and did acts of active compassion, such as the time he cared for the monk with dysentery and admonished the other monks to care for each other actively.

As was pointed out the Brahmaviharas are an important practice group, and it seems to me that these practices might be rather empty without an activity or engagement aspect to them. Indeed, compassion by definition has an action component; we identify the need and address it.

“Disentanglement, giving things up, renouncing and seclusion” are important aspects of this practice, but we see in the active example of the Buddha, of our Vens. Sujato, Brahmali, Brahm, and others, and with Bhikkhu Bodhi, actual engagement with others as teachers, examples and advocates for important causes (such as climate change, poverty, and other global issues), and as practitioners of altruism.


I certainly agree with this important point you draw out here. For me this subject is fascinating because I’m wondering for myself how to find this balance between disengagement and engagement. Both are qualities which I revere very much on this path.

Also Owl’s description seems to fit into my experience:

But at the same time all the mentioned persons (Buddha and the Vens.) have a background of years of dedicated practice befor they actively engage in the world (like teaching, beeing an example, counseling etc.). The Buddha did renounce his wealth, family and other comforts of lay life to practice for several years as a mendicant. The Vens. Sujato, Brahmali, Brahm and others like Bhikkhu Bodhi did the same.
So it seems that they first do the work on the cushion (renouncing other things which lead them away from the cushion) befor the get off the cushion and serve in the world.

Considering that I do actively engage and try to support others, it seems at the same time, that one consequently needs to get off the cushion to be able to do so. But that if one hasn’t done the job on the cushion yet, and has not a background of dedicated practice over severals years it seems to me that one needs to be very careful regarding the strong pull of the world, if one hasn’t gained that inner strength and wisdom yet. So how can I really be sure that I will engage in a wholesome way - for others and myself?

The Buddha and other Vens. seem to have their source discovered on the cushion so to speak, and getting off the cushion afterwards with a big rucksack of wisdom, compassion and kindness - first developed on the cushion. That’s why it seems to me that one needs to first disengage physically and ultimately mentally, before one can really (spiritually) serve and help others in the world, without getting lost in the strong current of the world. Like engaging, teaching, helping, serving others, while at the same time having a certain inner and wise distance with the things one happens to be involved with.

Surely one should help and support others and get off the cushion, if someone is in need, but there seems to be a danger that one can neglect one’s own practice on the cushion and be drawn in so many different affairs in a world which calls you to action/social engagement - again and again.

But at the same time it is beneficial for sure to do good, to give, be kind and serve others - like you point out as well - so it seems like a conundrum ^^ to me how to find a balance between does two qualitites

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The second link of the noble eightfold path, right intention which arises from right view, consists of three themes: renunciation, non-ill will and harmlessness. Understanding the four noble truths in relation to one’s own life gives rise to thoughts of renunciation, and in relation to others, of non-ill will and harmlessness. The Buddha-to-be found these themes when approaching awakening by investigating the effects of these thoughts and their opposites as described in MN 19. That is the practitioner’s task also, to investigate and trace the effects of thoughts of sensuality, ill will and harmfulness and compare them with the effects of right intentions. This is a difficult assignment and should not be sidetracked by the simplistic idea that calculated kind actions constitute the path.

"Monks, these four things are real, not unreal, not otherwise. Which four?

"‘This is stress,’ is real, not unreal, not otherwise. ‘This is the origination of stress,’ is real, not unreal, not otherwise. ‘This is the cessation of stress,’ is real, not unreal, not otherwise. ‘This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress,’ is real, not unreal, not otherwise.

"These are the four things that are real, not unreal, not otherwise.

"Therefore your duty is the contemplation, 'This is stress… This is the origination of stress… This is the cessation of stress… This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress.’’—-SN 56.20


Flavio, I think this balancing effort is what Bhikkhu Bodhi was pointing to. For some, the contemplative pursuits may be the highest and best use of the practitioner’s time and talents. For others, a more active engagement might be the best use of their abilities and intentions. There has been a suggestion that kind actions are not part of the path, but I do feel that we see in the Buddha’s own actions these random acts of engaged compassion. Mentorship involves not just teaching others, but demonstrating through one’s own actions the appropriate path. There are just too many example in the texts of the Buddha’s engagement with others to suggest that the Buddha elevated non-engagement over wise engagement.

Also, it’s just intuitive to me that if we cultivate these attributes of compassion, of metta, that we not do these as only academic or meditative exercises, but put them in motion in order to make merit, and benefit others that may need help. We don’t need to subscribe to a “bodhisattva ideal” per se, in order, as EBT practitioners, to use our talents to be of service to others. To me, this kind of wise and compassionate action is implicit in the Dhamma.


No, mental seclusion is one of the first direct experiences and should be the goal of the beginning practitioner. It arises as a result of reducing the bonds of attachment (renunciation). In the Buddha’s description of the period approaching awakening he described the thoughts (no actions) which contribute to it, and “lack of vexation” can be taken to include mental seclusion:

"And as I remained thus heedful, ardent, & resolute, thinking imbued with renunciation arose in me. I discerned that 'Thinking imbued with renunciation has arisen in me; and that leads neither to my own affliction, nor to the affliction of others, nor to the affliction of both. It fosters discernment, promotes lack of vexation, & leads to Unbinding. "—MN 19

During my meditation a thought came up. I was thinking that maybe engagement and disengagement are not necessarily things we actively do. But rather if there is sati (mindfulness) and right understanding then things happen naturally. It’s maybe the same thing with the middle way - not actively pursuing the happiness of the five senses and also not to actively bringing up suffering. But if there is mindfulness and right understanding you can know for yourself what is right at that time. I think life will give us enough opportunities to engage socially and help others - and also moments to disengage. And we don’t have to necessarily do something or creat this situations actively - but we have to be heedful and careful - again and again, then we might know what’s right at that time.

One thing Ajahn Brahmali points out when he discusses Buddhist ethics is that the precepts have two parts. The first part is to abstain from divisive speech, for example, but the second part is to actively speak in a way that brings people together. So each of these precepts has a proscriptive and prescriptive part.

In his ongoing Noble Eightfold Path series, Ajahn Brahmali quotes a sutta where someone quizzes Ananda on what, ultimately, is ethical behaviour. After a lot of back and forth, Ananda says it boils down to compassion and non-harm. This is the link to the video, starting at the time where Ajahn begins the discussion of this particular point: https://youtu.be/taaDPacqQ1c?t=3200.

So, I think whether or not we engage in social work, as Buddhists we are also supposed to be actively compassionate.


To be honest: I must correct my latest comment. Looking at the Ovada Patimokkha, it seems to me that the phrase “To avoid all evil, to cultivate good, and to cleanse one’s mind…” (Dhp Chapter 14 , 183, SuttaCentral) points to an active doing of what is good and wholesome.

Sabba-pāpassa akaraṇaṃ,
Etaṃ buddhāna-sāsanaṃ.

To avoid all evil,
to cultivate good,
and to cleanse one’s mind
this is the teaching of the Buddhas.

Maybe someone of you knows if the Pali does point to an active performance? Would be interesting to know.

It is wonderful that the Buddha does not say clearly what is always in every moment good and wholesome – but it seems that we need to reflect (before, during and after any deed like in MN 61 Advice to Rāhula at Ambalaṭṭhika, SuttaCentral), investigate, and feel for ourselves what is and what feels right in a certain moment. That is beautiful – everyone can learn from her/his/their own experience – again and again. So I wish you all a wonderful, conducive time in learning what is unwholesome and what is wholesome!

It seems to me that my interest in this subject about social engagement is in the end a matter of learning what is wholesome and what is not wholesome.

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I’ve often struggled with the issue of social engagement, living the lay life, and making a living. In an attempt to get my head around this, I gave a talk at our local meditation center on the topic of leadership and work in the EBTs, and also tried to link it to modern work practices. The link to the slides is here: Buddhanusati: Reflecting on the leadership lessons of the arahants in the EBTs

Specifically, slide 35 includes the Vanaropa Sutta SN 1.47 which describes the importance of charity. I hope this is of some help.