Street-Smart Buddhism: Tools to Find Your Way Home

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

We speak so often in our teaching about the core principles of Buddhism. If not directly, then by example. By now, many of you should be familiar with the awakened teachings of Siddhartha Gotama, the principle of the Four Ennobling Truths, the Eightfold Path, impermanence, not-self, the principle of interdependent co-origination (or dependent origination), to name a few. We speak about Zen teachings of the Chinese and Japanese masters as they reflect the nature of self and other. We speak about the enriching empowerment of nature, as well as useful and productive psychoemotional self-help tools we can use to promote human flourishing. We even give history lessons that attempt to bring the ancient Buddhist culture into contemporary renewal that all of us today can relate to. In other words, we teach the dharma. In fact, most of the books about Buddhism on our modern shelf are about these topics in various forms. We are luck to have most of them.

Fewer people are aware that Siddhartha also provided frequent and compelling lessons on a wide range of social, political, and economic issues that impact the general welfare of all life on this planet. It is interesting that the issues of his day, 2500 years ago, are many of the same problems we are dealing with still today. He taught about ineffective government, rankest politics, the disparity of accumulated wealth, and the difficulties involved in mature interpersonal relationships. He even spoke about integration and immigration concerns of his day. He was a very modern man for his time. That his teaching extends so dynamically into “compassing and corrective action” indicates that he was wise in appreciating the concerns of the ordinary people on the streets and in the homes, of all classes, not just those that flocked around him as monks and nuns. His concerns were those that can resonate with us in the 21st century, both spiritual and corporal. And with the numbers he was able to attract in his public lectures, considering some of the controversial topics he spoke about, he was clearly a social activist in every meaning of the word. A man awakened to the issues of the day that brings unsatasfactoriness to so many, but offering a path away from this social-suffering by skillful means, not just clamor. As we navigate the moral and ethical dilemmas of modern life, the Buddha’s teaching can provide a way to see our way home. Indeed, the precepts of Buddhism can transform that navigation into something frankly wondrous: the life of a Buddha realized as our own life. And in so doing, avoiding the alienation of the growing number of have-nots from those few with almost all the advantages.

Being thoroughly educated and originally trained to become a ruler in his nation-state, Siddhartha was exposed to the conflicts and problems arising in the social sphere. This would have made him acutely aware of the complexities of social conditions and their moral and ethical underpinnings. He was an extraordinary person by conventional standards. I think his enlightenment integrated his character with a deep appreciation of all the various ways the Universe expresses itself, and the nature of human emotion and psychology gave him a deeper awareness of the nature of the roots to individual and social suffering. In all its aspects, not just birth, sickness, old age, and death.
We know that after his awakening, he remained in the world teaching for almost fifty years, developing skillful means to respond to the searching questions of his day. This is the nature of the Buddhist path. When we have mastered one situation, a new one presents itself and we are challenged to reflect on it with renewed thoughtfulness, using the tools we have developed to seek answers. In other words, we work to find the lessons. He had plenty of opportunities to see how his teachings were making a difference and to correct, redirect, broaden, and refocus them when necessary to achieve excellent results. I can only image that over those fifty years, his teachings evolved to better meet the challenges that each new situation presented.

Because his experience as an astute social observer became intertwined with his wisdom, it is worthwhile to study his teachings about social and economic conditions in relation to a spiritual practice and an ethical life. Many of those that came to ask question of him were not monastic’s. Many of the dilemmas they encountered remain relevant today and will remain relevant as long as human nature does not evolve away from its current state. He had to address the life questions that were of burning concern to the people coming to his discourses. He was directly confronted, you see. We are spoiled today with our mass communication options where we get our information without having to going to the source. Not so in his day. And we know from the Buddhist Cannon, they flocked to him. He was in many ways, a superstar of the spiritual world in Hindu culture.

One of the central observations Buddha made about the breakdown of the social fabric is that poverty is the chief cause of discontent, immorality and crime. Theft, violence, hatred, cruelty, financial trickery, all result from poverty. Poverty also restricts people from acquiring an education. It seems that ancient governments in India, like many governments today, tried to handle the social problems of the day through a less then equal set of measures that restricted liberties and imposed restrictions mostly targeted to the lower classes. Siddhartha said that attempts to control and solve social problems in this manner would ultimately fail. He related this to building a dam to hold back the water, but the barrier will always need to be there, and there will always be a threat of the water’s spilling over or sweeping the dam away. Buddha said that if you want to eradicate social problems, the economic conditions of the people have to be improved.

He encouraged people in businesses to provide adequate wages to their employees. He said that governments should make opportunities for everyone to be employed, for everyone to earn a sufficient income. It was in the governments best interest to do so, from both a socially-just perspective, as well as for the economic wellbeing of the state. When people are freed from their poverty, they rarely commit negative actions born from desperation. He said this is nothing more then common sense. He was astute enough to suggest that contented workers were more productive, enriching both themselves as well as the business owners. It could be a win-win situation.

While Buddha championed improvement of economic conditions, he clearly differentiated this from hoarding wealth. He taught about “just a right amount” of wealth. There should be enough to sustain oneself, some savings, and plenty to share appropriately with others. He actually spelled out how much of the earnings one should save, how much to operate with, how much to reinvest in one’s business, how much to give to people who are more needy. He did not just expound the lofty dharma; he also got nitty-gritty and pragmatic in his teachings. Sometimes he talked like a political-activists, sometimes like a street preacher, sometimes like a CPA. Remember, he was working among the people he would have been ruling one day, if he had not left that inherited role behind. If you will allow me to use some of the new terminology just now emerging from the conflict-dialog of today’s social unrest, it is important to understand that Siddhartha came from the 1%, but his teaching reflecting the sensitivities he awakened to of the suffering of the 99%. Remember, Buddhism is a conduit for understanding the world around us. Buddhism is not ultimately about Siddhartha, it is about us and how we are in this world in this very moment.

In the context of the teachings of the Eightfold Path, Siddhartha helped ordinary people by elaborating on the topic of right livelihood. Besides indicating what trades a person should avoid in order to actualize the innate harmony of this world, he spoke about the qualities one should cultivate in our work. When a student asked for doctrines that would help in attaining happiness and harmony in this lifetime, the Buddha listed four points pertaining to one’s profession. First, one should be skilled, efficient, honest, and energetic in what ever profession one engages in. One should thoroughly master it. Second, one should protect one’s income and savings, one’s home, the fruits of one’s efforts. Third, one should cultivate good friends, individuals who are honest, faithful, and open-minded, friends who reinforce the virtuous qualities of the dharma. Fourth, one should find the middle way in dealing with money: do not be extravagant, do not be self-abnegating he said.

Buddha also described four virtues that are conducive to happiness. A person should have trust and confidence in their moral, spiritual, and intellectual values. He put these in a specific order of importance, I think. Each one of us should keep these values conscious; we should really know what they are. We must think hard about what worldview we have been living our lives by, and make corrections if necessary that reflects the ethical and moral principles of our Buddhist practice we have professed to uphold. This is reflected in Zen training today when we make vows to keep the Buddhist precepts and when we periodically renew those vows, making our values conscious and public. I and every OEB monk do this every day as a part of our daily monastic service, something we share together. As we follow the Buddhist precepts, we are striving to develop the wisdom that leads to a complete cessation of suffering, both for ourselves and other.

On one occasion, while talking with a successful banker who was one of his disciples, Siddhartha offered him advice about circumstances associated with happiness. He pointed out that there are several types of contentment; the happiness associated with enjoyment of economic security and sufficient wealth that was acquired by just and righteous means; the happiness that comes form spending that wealth liberally on one’s self, one’s family, one’s friends, and on meritorious deeds; the happiness of being free from debts; and the happiness of living a faultless and pure life, without committing evil in thoughts, words, or deeds; of not creating evil karma. It is interesting that three of these four contentment’s are economic in nature, implying that the Buddha clearly saw that not all of his students were destined for the monastic life, and that there was a vital spiritual teaching and practice involving the secular laity too. Especially those who were in a position to do so much for the welfare of others.

Siddhartha was acutely aware of corruption in government. He knew about the hunger for, and the addiction to, power, and the vanity, intrigue, and malice that could infect rules, ministers, and local bureaucrats. He saw that when officials were corrupt and unjust, the whole country would fall into a state of economic and spiritual decline. Sound familiar? In his teaching “The Ten Duties of the King,” he establishes guidelines for an effective and just government. What he said about the duties of the king can easily be translated and applied as the duties of a president, a prime minister, the head of a union, the chief officer of a large corporation or a small business, a legislator, or a judge. It is applicable to that broad segment of society that wields power and in many ways and controls the lives of its people. And since all of us, whether we like it or not, have a role to play in our society, this teaching applies to each of us as we realize our responsibility to this great earth and to one another. Because we are agents-for-change.

But remember this, all of the Buddha’s teachings are really none other than the precepts: the vow to give life to the Dharma, to return to the heart of being. Any time we renew our precepts vows, we renew our ability to practice them more vigorously. Practicing them does not mean never violating them. It means practicing them, and like practicing with the breath, we are always starting fresh. This is right action. When we bring our practice into our communities, and onto the streets, we create an energy around us that is palpable to others. This practice is contagious.

We have a wonderful gift at our disposal in these teachings of the Buddha; we should vow together that this gift will continue to nourish all beings for countless eons to come.


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