The Buddha’s teaching was, on the surface, aimed at wandering mendicants (Skt: sramana). Yet it differed drastically from the sramanic religious movements that came before, because the notion of well-being came to be a core concern. Part of the reason why the Buddha arrived at the Middle Way (Skt: madhyamā-pratipada) was because enlightenment could only be reached in a comfortable state of well-being, and he had pinpointed well-being as a middle way between sensuous over-indulgence and ascetic self-denial and punishment.
The more well-being there is in the world, the more people can potentially attain enlightenment. The Buddha therefore articulated what social well-being looked like in the context of his socio-economic and cultural environment. As soon as the monastic community was founded, the Buddha instructed his new disciples to disseminate his message for the benefit of many, and for the happiness of many (Skt: bahujana-hitaya, bahujana-sukhaya). The Buddha stated that in his teaching was welfare in the beginning, welfare in the middle, and welfare in the end (Pali: adi-kalyanam majjhe-kalyanam pariyosana-kalyanam). On this instruction, the members of the monastic community began the Blessed One’s dispensation (Skt: sasana) or the Buddhist diffusion.
The Buddha introduced a version of democracy in the communal life of monasticism that was open to all, irrespective of race, caste, tribe, or class. The monastic community was, in theory, focused on attaining enlightenment and meditative practices, supported by the lay community. However, contact with the wider world meant that monks and nuns were in frequent interaction with the general populace, including neglected and deprived communities. This meant that even if the monastic community’s priority was attaining Nirvana, monks and nuns were well-versed in reminding suffering people of their human dignity and spiritual potential.
The modesty of monks was a key factor in attracting the admiration and donations of laypeople. Because they preached the Buddha’s teaching of non-violence, equality, and compassion for the oppressed, the notion of caste was challenged in a unique way by the Buddha, even though he did not openly overthrow the Vedic social system. One is acknowledged as superior or inferior not by family background, profession, or wealth, but by deeds and spiritual practice.
Archaeology tells us that various Buddhist orders initiated a loosely connected system of formal education on the ancient Indian subcontinent. Many monasteries, over time, became centers for meditation and teaching. From the centuries that viharas became fixed abodes (as early as the oldest Indian rock-cut caves) all the way to the disappearance of institutionalised Buddhism in the 12th Century, monasteries evolved into learning centers and schools. Famous schools on the Indian subcontinent included the super-monasteries of Nalanda, Taxila, Vikramashila, and more. As author and scholar Ronald M. Davidson wrote: “In one sense, the mahaviharas of the medieval world appear curiously like Buddhist versions of neoclassical office buildings or an Indian version of university gothic architecture in its repetitive systematization. Such systematization also shows up in the formalization of monastic sealings; during this period virtually all monastic sealings represent their monasteries as ‘Dharmacakras’ and have a glorified wheel of the Dharma—frequently set between two deer—immediately above the institution’s name.” (Davidson 2002, 107)
The primary purpose of Buddhist education at these super-monasteries (and their smaller counterparts) was to teach people, regardless of race, religion, or caste, the path to enlightenment. These monastic institutions famously attracted a huge number of students on the Indic subcontinent and across Asia. Topics of education included: agriculture, trade, herbal medicine, metallurgy, and other fields so that they could achieve well-being, and once well-being was established, spiritual liberation. The teachers and acharyas of these educational institutes were mostly Buddhist monks.
The Buddha’s instruction on promoting welfare for the many could be interpreted in several ways: firstly, as spiritual enlightenment; secondly, as worldly prosperity; and thirdly, as social harmony. When it came to material well-being, the equitable distribution of wealth was a Buddhist concern long before the economic philosophy. When we examine the Vinaya, we see that monastics cannot save anything or use donations for personal needs, save for specific items, such as for repairing their robes. Proceeds and donations need to be given to the community. As Buddhism places great importance on intention or volition (Skt: cetana) in the generation of good or bad karma, welfare also means moral behavior, since it is impossible for a human community to achieve well-being without widespread virtue in a community.
Another fundamental principle of the Buddha’s ideal of welfare was to promote goodwill and altruism. This was an important political tool in the days of small kingdoms, including that of the Shakyas (the Buddha’s birth clan) and the domain of Magadha, where the Buddha spent much of his time.
Over time, Theravada Buddhism has been criticized for the perception that it prioritizes personal liberation over the welfare of others. The idea of a “self-centered” path arose as a polemical strategy devised by the emergent Mahayana tradition nearly two millennia ago. The new Vehicle needed to defend itself from claims of inauthenticity or heresy, and Mahayana writers formed a sophisticated body of apologetics to counter detractors, from new exegetical methods to a broader hermeneutics of scriptural insight and revelation. Another strategy was the “Mahayana-Hinayana” distinction, which notably is used today only by Mahayana and Vajrayana practitioners and is not used in Theravada. A modern-day example can be seen in this text from the Soka-Gakkai global Nichiren Buddhist movement:
Practice for oneself and practice for others, benefiting oneself and benefiting others, or practicing for oneself and converting others. The two kinds or aspects of Buddhist practice. Practice for oneself means to engage in Buddhist practice in order to personally enjoy the benefits of the Law and attain enlightenment. Practice for others means to teach and convert other people so that they too can enjoy the benefits of the Law and attain enlightenment. The Mahayana Buddhist tradition sets forth these two kinds of practice as an ideal for bodhisattvas, who endeavor to practice the correct teaching themselves and to lead others to the correct teaching. This concept contrasts with what Mahayanists considered the inclination of Hinayana practitioners to seek only personal emancipation.(Soka Gakkai: Nichiren Buddhism Library)
It is important to note that at the first World Buddhist Fellowship in 1950 (the same conclave that determined the contemporary Buddhist flag) it was observed that: “The term Hinayana in all contexts was to be replaced by the term Theravada for the unity and solidarity among all Buddhists.” (The World Fellowship of Buddhists) Despite this historic acknowledgement, the Hinayana polemic persists in some Vajrayana groups, and remains deep-rooted in East Asia. However, Theravada Buddhism is very clear on the matter; a true Buddhist practitioner, according to the Attahita-parahita Sutta of the Anguttara-Nikaya, possesses five qualities while practicing for his own welfare and that of others:
1. Here, a bhikkhu is himself accomplished in virtuous behavior and encourages others to become accomplished in virtuous behavior;
2. He is himself accomplished in concentration and encourages others to become accomplished in concentration;
3. He is himself accomplished in wisdom and encourages others to become accomplished in wisdom;
4. He is himself accomplished in liberation and encourages others to become accomplished in liberation;
5. He is himself accomplished in the knowledge and vision of liberation and encourages others to become accomplished in the knowledge and vision of liberation. Possessing these five qualities, a bhikkhu is practicing both for his own welfare and for the welfare of others. [my emphasis](Bodhi, trans. 2012, 639–40)
This passage shows how someone who has a strong moral foundation can contribute to the happiness of others. A Buddhist’s basic goal, regardless of which school they belong to, is to practice personal development while also supporting and assisting others in doing so. From the above example of the Attahita-parahita Sutta, the fifth is of critical importance. Since this is the highest ideal, clearly stated in the early discourses, it would be incorrect to misconstrue Theravada as a vehicle for selfish people.
Both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist texts extensively discuss the bodhisattva ideal. A being who is close to enlightenment is called a bodhisattva. As a result of the good deeds of bodhisattvas, their actions and sacrifices for the benefit of the world propel them along the path to ultimate buddhahood.
According to the Buddhist teachings, human life is extremely rare due to its unlimited potential for realizing buddhahood. This human life is an important asset not only to oneself but an asset to one’s entire community. Therefore, Buddhists, regardless of school, have been performing great deeds in spreading the Buddha’s teaching as they have dedicated their lives for the sake of welfare of his own and others.
In the Dhammapada, the Buddha says that the virtuous person’s scent goes in all directions, even against the wind. It is not necessary for such a person to be a Theravada practitioner, but nor do they necessarily need to be a Mahayana or Vajrayana adherent. A virtuous person is someone who works for the welfare of both oneself and others, no more, no less.
Davidson, Ronald M. 2002. Indian Tantric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement. New York: Columbia University Press.
Bodhi, Bhikkhu (Trans.). 2012. The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: A Complete Translation of the Anguttara Nikaya. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications.