Buddhism and Society
While enlightened beings are generally beyond culture, the advantage of an ordinary being spending time in another culture is that one’s own culture becomes irrelevant for a period of time, and one can thus see the world from a different perspective.
It is easy to go to a foreign country and recognize corruption, but it is often difficult for some people to recognize corruption in their own country. Of course they may have a bookshelf full of laws and a democratic system where everyone has the opportunity to vote, but these do not mean that they live in a wonderful world, especially when a large percentage of the inhabitants of these countries are locked away in prisons and it is generally unsafe for children to play outside their homes due to the basic lack of morality and civility in such societies.
The root cause of these problems is that due to the guardianship of politicians who cannot recognize corruption when they see it or accept it as a something normal, then those of the corporate world are allowed to operate like organized crime. Some people therefore begin to think that robbing and stealing and doing whatever they want appears to be the only way to survive, as they are, after all, simply following the examples of others.
The main difference between corporate and common criminals is that the former are usually accredited with degrees from prestigious universities and have a bunch of lawyers telling them that if they steal in a certain way then it remains legal, while those without official pieces of paper have to rely upon their own initiative and resort to cruder methods. However, other than the suits and ties, bonuses, and residences, they are basically the same, except that the latter usually recognize that what they do is definitely illegal and immoral, making them a little more intelligent perhaps despite the lack of accredited recognition.
Having a group of lawyers deciding that immorality can be moral depending upon how you phrase it appears to be the latest form of madness in world society.
Most individuals of course are not corrupt, but they often foolishly vote for and support those who are. They also fail to recognize that not only is their own country corrupt but also that the world as a whole is riddled with corruption in various forms. Thus, the general view of society is not a reliable one, and Buddhism, in particular, should not be expected to satisfy the aspirations of ignorant society in their quests for complete democracy and equality, or how they think Buddhism should be, particularly when society is unaware of some basic natural truths.
These natural truths are concerned with the karmic nature of beings, and this nature is is not something easily recognized or understood as it is dependent upon the accumulated experience of a heritage of meditative development rather than good moral social interpretation. Thus, this distinction is often impossible to understand for people who base their judgment on reason and social goodness alone as they lack knowledge of the complete picture. Therefore, it should be understood that much of the rationality of Buddhism is founded upon the karmic nature of beings rather than what society views as the highest social goodness.
Attachment to virtue
Another issue that society often fails to understand correctly is the issue of virtue. As much of the suffering in society is generally, though not always, due to a lack of virtue, ordinary people naturally think that virtue as a trait among members of The Sangha is paramount. It is certainly important, but as members of The Sangha are expected to follow rules anyway, just as they are expected to follow a certain dress code and lifestyle, then being virtuous is simply a fundamental practice upon which far more important practices are based.
In the past, the general standard of Buddhism in Thailand declined due to this attachment to virtue, and the so-called elite of society foolishly supported it, resulting in the real practices of Buddhism being ignored and the spreading of ill-will and superstitious ignorance being encouraged.
Attachment to virtue is superstitious ignorance, and usually goes hand in hand with the superstition of attachment to ceremonies. It is regarded as a fairly basic defilement and an obstacle to developing first path knowledge. Thus, while society may think that such a trait is admirable, it does in fact denote someone who has little development in Buddhist practice and who follows what society thinks rather than what The Buddha taught.
The main indication of such an attachment is that it develops a ‘holier than thou’ attitude among some monks, who are prone to spending their time pointing out the faults of others and where they broke the rules. In the present day it has even descended into the laughable situation where monks who do not belong to a particular sect are regarded as being inferior.
It might be interesting to note that one of these 'inferior' monks, an Ajarn at the Vipassana Ajarns Training Center, who was given small allowances by lay people throughout the year, never had a bank account and neither saw nor touched the money donated to him. Once a year he would request the nuns to give all of this money kept by them, usually amounting to several hundreds of dollars, to the poorest family in the local village, and he did this throughout his life.
The truth being that every member of The Sangha breaks these rules from time to time, usually to avoid appearing impolite to other people (there are actually many rules concerning teaching activities where it is almost impossible not to break one), and perhaps none more so than those who think they are superior by attaching to such ideas of being virtuous. Because of this attachment, such monks have little awareness of their own mind and fail to recognize their own fallibility and the fact that they often spread ill-will due to this attachment (thus breaking the rules).
This is due to the influence of society on such monks, and outside Asian culture, often due to their cultural heritage of being obsessed with every little detail, ‘ow jing ow jang’, in Thai, except of course that which really matters, purifying their own minds rather than being obsessed with the behavior of others. Certainly, from time to time some people in robes do break the rules seriously, but they do not last very long. Members of The Sangha come from society, and it is society that has the major problems, not The Sangha.
The vinaya held by members of The Sangha is primarily for composure and support of the practice of purifying the mind, and although the behavior of members of The Sangha obviously influences how society views them, this is not the primary concern.
How society views members of The Sangha has become a focus in certain circles due to their obsession with collecting money. Here, there is obviously a balance required, particularly when you recognize that members of The Sangha do not require luxurious accommodations and are expected to be able to live in difficult conditions, and not become mollycoddled wimps in robes. The main support is always food, and beyond this a member of The Sangha can usually survive no matter what, depending upon the local climate. Elegant and grandiose buildings and land have no power to pass on The Dhamma, thus it is far more important to have members of The Sangha who have path knowledges than members who are good at marketing, selling books, and entertaining the local community with funny stories.
(Many years ago one Thai monk who was nationally famous for his funny stories and often crude jokes was invited to go along to the Vipassana Ajarns Training Center to give a talk. Around 500 people came to listen to him, but he was unable to tell one funny story or joke during the whole time he was there, and there wasn't even the slightest of giggles or laughs from those present, who went away somewhat disappointed. The reason for this was the presence of high-level monks, not high-ranking mind you, so it would not have mattered what he said. Everyone there was affected by the presence of these high-level Ajarns, and on such a level there are no jokes, there is nothing funny, just purity of mind.
The people did not get what they came for, to laugh until tears ran down their faces. The monk who gave the talk did not change his style or usual program, he was free to talk as he wished, but what he was saying was no longer funny on a level of mind above the common level. Thus, real Buddhism is not concerned with entertaining the common mind but showing people purity of mind by example. This monk is still alive, still entertaining, and still more famous than the fully enlightened beings and assorted path knowledge holders present on that day put together, but for once in his life he came face to face with what Buddhism is all about.)
Generally, those who do focus upon the practice will survive no matter what, and in the end become more successful due to their devotion to Buddhism rather than sell out and follow society’s idea of becoming famously successful. Eventually, all buildings crumble anyway, and what is important is some living proof of the practice of Buddhism, not simply a stream of hot air taken away by the winds.
One other point worth mentioning is that the spirit of the vinaya is against this attachment to money. While those who have attachment to virtue may think that the rules simply forbid them to handle money (so they get someone else to handle it for them!), the real meaning is not to become obsessed by it, not to focus on obtaining it, and not to beg for it, and to be absolutely correct as well as not handling money one should not use money orders, credit cards, or even have banks accounts. Now who is breaking the rules? This is exactly like the deviousness of the corporate world and their lawyers, get someone else to hold the money when they go shopping and it is not breaking the rules.
Another practice adopted in some cultures due to it being more politically correct is the practice of vegetarianism. As far as Buddhism is concerned, it has never been a recommended practice, and even The Buddha pointed out that there were far more serious concerns than eating meat.
Acknowledging that it does make the mind generally calmer, due to the flow of consciousness being slowed, it also has a disadvantage in that awareness is related to energy and mind development is hindered by this lack of energy, so much so that other than the intellectually enlightened who simply think they are enlightened it would be difficult to find any member of The Sangha with path knowledges who did not eat meat.
There are times when monks have little choice, particularly when staying in the forest for long periods, but the development of vipassana requires lots of focused energy and this cannot be supplied by one meal of vegetarian food. Thus, while this practice may be popular with certain members of society, the chances of real success in meditative development at the highest levels are minimal at best.
Buddhism and society have different aims, and if society does wish to take advantage of the teachings and the refuge that develops from the practice then Buddhism should not be molded to suit the particular whims and beliefs of society, which change with the seasons. It should also be pointed out that society in general does not recognize what is important in Buddhism and sometimes aids in steering members of The Sangha away from their true purpose due to their usually well-meant but often unaware influence.