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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!

Flavio

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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.’
Skillful,
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

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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.

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