The Buddha's Message for Today's World

Despite the tremendous advances humankind has made in science and technology, advances that have dramatically improved living conditions in so many ways, we still find ourselves confronted with global problems that mock our most determined attempts to solve them within established frameworks. These problems include: explosive regional tensions of ethnic and religious character; the continuing spread of nuclear weapons; disregard for human rights; the widening gap between the rich and the poor; international trafficking in drugs, women, and children; the depletion of the earth's natural resources; and the despoliation of the environment. From a Buddhist perspective, what is most striking when we reflect upon these problems as a whole is their essentially symptomatic character. Beneath their outward diversity they appear to be so many manifestations of a common root, of a deep and hidden spiritual malignancy infecting our social organism. This common root might be briefly characterized as a stubborn insistence on placing narrow, short-term self-interests (including the interests of the social or ethnic groups to which we happen to belong) above the long-range good of the broader human community. The multitude of social ills that afflict us cannot be adequately accounted for without bringing into view the powerful human drives that lie behind them. Too often, these drives send us in pursuit of divisive, limited ends even when such pursuits are ultimately self-destructive.

The Buddha's teaching offers us two valuable tools to help us extricate ourselves from this tangle. One is its hardheaded analysis of the psychological springs of human suffering. The other is the precisely articulated path of moral and mental training it holds out as a solution. The Buddha explains that the hidden springs of human suffering, in both the personal and social arenas of our lives, are three mental factors called the unwholesome roots, namely, greed, hatred, and delusion.  Traditional Buddhist teaching depicts these unwholesome roots as the causes of personal suffering, but by taking a wider view we can see them as equally the source of social, economic, and political suffering. Through the prevalence of greed the world is being transformed into a global marketplace where people are reduced to the status of consumers, even commodities, and our planet's vital resources are being pillaged without concern for future generations. Through the prevalence of hatred, national and ethnic differences become the breeding ground of suspicion and enmity, exploding in violence and endless cycles of revenge. Delusion bolsters the other two unwholesome roots with false beliefs and political ideologies put forward to justify policies motivated by greed and hatred.

While changes in social structures and policies are surely necessary to counteract the many forms of violence and injustice so widespread in today's world, such changes alone will not be enough to usher in an era of true peace and social stability. Speaking from a Buddhist perspective, I would say that what is needed above all else is a new mode of perception, a universal consciousness that can enable us to regard others as not essentially different from oneself. As difficult as it may be, we must learn to detach ourselves from the insistent voice of self-interest and rise up to a universal perspective from which the welfare of all appears as important as one's own good. That is, we must outgrow the egocentric and ethnocentric attitudes to which we are presently committed, and instead embrace a "worldcentric ethic" which gives priority to the well-being of all.

Such a worldcentric ethic should be molded upon three guidelines, the antidotes to the three unwholesome roots:

(1) We must overcome exploitative greed with global generosity, helpfulness, and cooperation.


(2) We must replace hatred and revenge with a policy of kindness, tolerance, and forgiveness. 


(3) We must recognize that our world is an interdependent, interwoven whole such that irresponsible behavior anywhere has potentially harmful repercussions everywhere.

These guidelines, drawn from the Buddha's teaching, can constitute the nucleus of a global ethic to which all the world's great spiritual traditions could easily subscribe.

Underlying the specific content of a global ethic are certain attitudes of heart that we must try to embody both in our personal lives and in social policy. The chiefs of these are loving-kindness and compassion (maitri and karuna). 

Through loving-kindness we recognize that just as we each wish to live happily and peacefully, so all our fellow beings wish to live happily and peacefully. Through compassion we realize that just as we are each averse to pain and suffering, so all others are averse to pain and suffering. When we have understood this common core of feeling that we share with everyone else, we will treat others with the same kindness and care that we would wish them to treat us. This must apply at a communal level as much as in our personal relations. We must learn to see other communities as essentially similar to our own, entitled to the same benefits as we wish for the group to which we belong.

This call for a worldcentric ethic does not spring from ethical idealism or wishful thinking, but rests upon a solid pragmatic foundation. In the long run, to pursue our narrow self-interest in ever widening circles is to undermine our real long-term interest; for by adopting such an approach we contribute to social disintegration and ecological devastation, thus sawing away the branch on which we sit. To subordinate narrow self-interest to the common good is, in the end, to further our own real good, which depends so much upon social harmony, economic justice, and a sustainable environment.

The Buddha states that of all things in the world, the one with the most powerful influence for both good and bad is the mind. Genuine peace between peoples and nations grows out of peace and good will in the hearts of human beings. Such peace cannot be won merely by material progress, by economic development and technological innovation, but demands moral and mental development. It is only by transforming ourselves that we can transform our world in the direction of peace and amity. This means that for the human race to live together peacefully on this shrinking planet, the inescapable challenge facing us is to understand and master ourselves.

It is here that the Buddha's teaching becomes especially timely, even for those not prepared to embrace the full range of Buddhist religious faith and doctrine. In its diagnosis of the mental defilements as the underlying causes of human suffering, the teaching shows us the hidden roots of our personal and collective problems. By proposing a practical path of moral and mental training, the teaching offers us an effective remedy for tackling the problems of the world in the one place where they are directly accessible to us: in our own minds. As we enter the new millennium, the Buddha's teaching provides us all, regardless of our religious convictions, with the guidelines we need to make our world a more peaceful and congenial place to live.

By Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

Recent Stories