Bodhisattvas Relieve Poverty?: The Distinction Between
Economic and Spiritual Development and Their
Interrelation in Indian Buddhist Texts
Occasionally, Buddhists themselves considered the question of how poverty could continue in a world that is cultivated by celestial bodhisattvas. This paper considers the question of whether, as implied by the call for papers, Indian Buddhist texts fail to “identify and address sources of human suffering outside of the cravings and ignorance of the sufferer—such as social, political, and economic injustice.” Focusing on poverty, it concludes that these sources distinguish between compassionate intentions and action and between material and moral benefit. Furthermore, relief of poverty is seen as a prerequisite for moral development, and its neglect is seen as a cause for social degeneration. Therefore, in order to prepare the conditions necessary for teaching the Dharma, the bodhisattva is called is to relieve these material wants, not only through moral leadership, but through direct action. The strongest conclusions here are made in reference to the Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom, with cross-referencing and support from a broad range of other Indian sources.
The call for papers for this conference states that “Engaged Buddhism” is
This paper addresses the question of whether this thesis—that concern to identify and address modes of suffering “outside of the cravings and ignorance of the sufferer” amounts to a reorientation—can be challenged on the basis of Indian Buddhist literature.
Because of the paucity of resources for study, particularly in comparison to East Asia, it is very difficult to say in regard to India how, or to what degree, Buddhism in practice was “socially engaged.” However, we do know that in the more historically clear environments of China and Japan, Buddhist activities included road and bridge-building and public works projects; social revolution; military defense; orphanages; travel hostels; medical education; hospital building; free medical care; the stockpiling of medicines; conflict intervention; moderation of penal codes; programs to assist the elderly and poor including “inexhaustible treasuries” to stockpile resources for periods of hunger and hardship; famine and epidemic relief; and bathing houses.(1) Perhaps this was purely the unique response of East Asian culture to Indian Buddhism, but we can at least make the weak initial observation that it is reasonable to speculate that East Asians were following Indian models of Buddhist activity.
This paper seeks to show the types of buddhalogical resources that were available in Indian Buddhist texts to support such activity. Were these conceptual resources strictly metaphorical, as when the Buddha is described as the physician of the world? Are they merely intentional, that is, is their main purpose to generate character qualities that are conducive to the spiritual liberation of those who have them? If there is concrete action intended, then what kind of action? Are the texts merely concerned with activities of conveying the Dharma or do they enjoin the reader to activities that we would recognize as social action? If there is a distinction between spiritual and material benefit, then what is their relationship? Finally, do the textual resources support the idea that, even in India, social activities similar to those in East Asia occurred?
These questions open up a variety of issues that merit independent study. It would be possible to focus the topic here on a variety of types of action. The variety of justifications in Buddhist literature for compassionate violence, from political revolution to capital punishment, are fascinating, and the materials regarding the practice, teaching, manufacture, and science of medicine would also make an excellent example. Here I will focus on the provision of concrete material life support including food, shelter, and clothing.(2)
Sources are cited broadly here for their general support and interest for the subject. However, strong and specific conclusions are made in regard to the Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom, where there is a clear identification and concern for material modes of suffering, a definite distinction between material and spiritual benefit, an understanding that material support is a prerequisite for moral and spiritual development, and that bodhisattvas are enjoined to actively create the material conditions necessary for the spiritual development of sentient beings.
It is significant to ask whether the questions raised here about the relationship between compassionate intentions and the concrete relief of suffering were asked by the ancient Buddhists themselves. In at least two disparate but important sources, the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra and Bodhicaryāvatāra, there are passages that show that they did. In the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra, we find the following fascinating question that shows a concrete distinction between spiritual and material assistance and that relief of poverty was expected from the activity of bodhisattvas.
If there were no expectation of the actual relief of material suffering, this objection could not arise. But the fact that the outcome does not match the intention shows that the content of intentions may be quite different from their practical outcomes.
Śāntideva, responding to the question of why, if there have been countless bodhisattvas who have vowed to save the endless numbers of sentient beings, does the world continue to be filled with suffering, answers that it is, in fact, impossible to change the world and that generosity is merely a state of mind.
The continuation of the suffering in the world despite the past vows of countless buddhas is explained as only natural, since the vow of bodhisattvas to relieve all suffering is pragmatically impossible because sentient beings are limitless. Just as one can cover one’s own feet with leather, but not the whole world, the vow of the bodhisattva perfectly purifies their mind, but not the minds of all sentient beings. In Buddhist practice, molding compassionate intentions in itself is beneficial for the practitioner. Generating compassion is good for everything from snake-bite protection to attaining heaven realms.(5) Here there is a disjunction between the aspiration and its end, which is considered impossible.
So are the intentions to feed the hungry or heal the sick only sublime inspirations? It seems quite reasonable to ask, as Buddhists have above, what relationship compassion really has to the relief of material suffering. Is compassion in Buddhist practice active, or is it merely a matter of shaping a character that is most conducive toward spiritual goals? In what sense does it actually get down to relieving the suffering of others?
Buddhist Definitions of Karuṇā
Buddhaghosa, whose commentaries are the central authority for the interpretation of the Pāli scriptures for Theravāda Buddhism, gives an analysis of the word “karuṇā” that shows that in mainstream Buddhism, the concept of compassion calls for aggressive action for the relief of the suffering of others.(6)
Buddhaghosa is implicitly giving a philological analysis (nirutti) here. What is important here is not the actual etymology, but the meanings presented through this traditional analysis. The fact that the actual etymology of the word karuṇā is obscure allows a variety of creative suggestions. Here he suggests three verb roots that may be the basis of the noun karuṇā: kr, meaning to make, cause, or act; kṛt, meaning to cut or break; and kṛr, which can mean to disperse or spread. It is notable that the second of Buddhaghosa’s roots, kṛt, gives an even more explicitly active meaning to compassion that is not merely affective, but actually removes the suffering of others.
The first of these verbal roots, kṛ, whose basic meaning is action, is also identified as a base of the word karuṇā in Mahāyāna sources. Another philological analysis from the Akṣayamatinirdeśa Sūtra, one of the earliest and most broadly cited Mahāyāna Sūtras, also gives a definition of karuṇā as action, translated here as “work.” As did Buddhaghosa, it plays on the similarity in Sanskrit and Pāli of the words for action (karaṇa), and compassion (karuṇā).(8)
These definitions give an active and materially effective meaning to compassion.
Material and Spiritual Benefit and Their Interrelation
Regarding the question of whether compassion is meant to be active or merely meditative, the Abhidharmakośa, a touchstone for mainstream Abhidharma Buddhism and the primary text for Abhidharma studies in Mahāyāna Buddhism, says that the meditation on compassion gains merit from the compassion itself, even though there is no other beneficiary of the compassion.
However, the text goes on to ask, “Are material offerings then superfluous?” The answer is, “No, material offerings gain more merit than mere intentions, just as acting on a bad intention produces more demerit.”(11) Clearly, if material gifts were not more efficacious in producing merit than good intentions alone, the result would be potentially disastrous for the monastic community, which depends on the material support of the laity. By the definitions that we have examined, compassion is active, and, even from a self-interested merit making perspective, it should be concretely effective.
The relationship between government welfare programs and moral development can be seen in the advice to kings. Here there is a distinction between material and moral benefit, and the former is a prerequisite for the latter. The government of a model king should establish charitable posts and give food, money, drink, clothes, and shelter.(12) The downfall of a great king is based on his failure to provide for the poor, which leads to violent social degeneration.
This shows early recognition of the relationship between material and moral well-being. Material well-being is a prerequisite for moral development, and its absence leads to social disaster. There is the basis for a critique of government here that will be shown below in the Mahāyāna sources.
In early sources there is a natural logic and motivation for compassionate service on the part of the laity. Material giving is an important form of merit making. However, this does not hold for renunciants. According to Aronson,
Although service is part of both the monk’s and lay person’s practice, it is more passive on the part of the monk and less in the modes of material service that are associated with the modern concept of social action. Receiving alms itself is a compassionate act for monks because they themselves act as a merit field for the lay donor. In some understandings, the purer the monks, the more fruitful that they are as a merit field; so the very extremity of their seclusion in socially disengaged meditation makes them all the more beneficial to others. In this view effective compassionate action for others, including their social well-being, need not include anything that in present times would be regarded as social activism. However, the monks’ role in moral leadership and the moral impact of renunciation on lay communities should not be discounted.
In the course of my dissertation research on karuṇā in Indian Buddhist texts, I found myself unexpectedly, but consistently, revising preconceptions about differences between the Mahāyāna and mainstream Buddhism. The vast majority of these preconceptions are merely the effect of Mahāyāna hermeneutics on the hermeneutics of Buddhist Studies. However, on this topic more than any other, there are striking differences between the two families of textual materials. The first is the enormous relative preponderance of passages in Mahāyāna texts that express concern for the broader physical and material benefit of sentient beings. In the limited literature we have access to in the vast scope of Mahāyāna scriptures, the presence of this concern is so strong that it is very unlikely that this pattern will change as more textual research develops.
The following passage from the Suvarṇaprabhāsa Sūtra is typical.
The possibilities for further citation from the sūtras are abundant and pervasive.(16) The assertion that these texts are not concerned with identifying material sources of suffering simply will not hold. The issue of whether these sources of suffering are actually addressed is discussed further below.
In the course of further research, I expect to show that this first major difference is based on a second, which is a Copernican flip of the mainstream perspective that focuses on merit-making material service as something done for ideal practitioners by the laity. In Mahāyāna sources there is an inverse emphasis on bodhisattvas’ merit-making actions for the sake of all sentient beings. The ideal practitioner should materially support others. The bodhisattva views the laity as a merit field. This change in perspective seems to be the result of the difference in attitude toward the bodhisattva path. In mainstream sources the bodhisattva path, in which the bodhisattva accumulates massive amounts of positive merit through eons of service to sentient beings, is as an object of awe and reverence. For Mahāyāna practitioners that view themselves as bodhisattvas, the bodhisattva path is an object of imitation. The actions of buddhas in past lives really are models for the bodhisattva whose whole practice is an imitation of the buddhas.
In Mahāyāna sources as well, the moral leadership alone of bodhisattvas is credited with producing general social welfare.
Even in the modes of teaching and leadership, there is a concern not just for transmitting the Dharma, but for improving material conditions.
The same positive evaluation of government concern for the welfare of the people, including relief of hunger, found in the Pāli sources is also found in Mahāyāna Sūtras. According the Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom,
Here again, material support precedes successful moral leadership because it eradicates the immoral environments and poverty that are obstructions.(19) The same argument seen in the Nikāyas, that immorality is produced by poverty, is found here as well.
This clear distinction between material and spiritual benefit with attention to their interrelationship clearly shows that this discourse is not merely eulogizing positive sentiments.
The Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra, while warning that ultimately suffering cannot be relieved by material benefits alone, calls for bodhisattvas to provide the poor with material goods. Again there is a clear distinction between material and spiritual benefit and attention to providing concrete relief in the form of material goods.(21) The same correlation between improving physical well-being and subsequently attending to spiritual teaching is found in the vows of Bhaiṣajyaguru to provide all beings with the necessities of life and relieve the hunger of the desperately famished that they might later hear the teachings.(22) There is a correlation here between material support and proselytization, but the reasoning is always that in order to create the conditions necessary for benefiting people spiritually, one must first attend to their material needs. The Vimalakīrtinirdeśa Sūtra lauds the giver who gives to the lowliest poor of the city, considering them as worthy as the Tathāgata himself, and depicts the poor of the city subsequently conceiving bodhicitta.(23)
Occasionally Buddhists themselves considered the question of how poverty could continue in a world that is cultivated by celestial bodhisattvas. The benefits of compassion in itself for the compassionate are so strong that it is worth considering whether actual material support for others is necessary. However, this is clearly the case. Several central Mahāyāna and mainstream sources define compassion as a kind of action, and in merit making, action is far superior to mere good intentions. In mainstream sources, giving material support is clearly recognized as an important activity for the laity. However, the monks tend to be recipients of this support and do not play a role in materially relieving the poverty of the poor. The role of the ideal government is to prevent social degeneration by attending to the needs of the poor. This shows a distinction and relation between material and moral goods, where material goods have priority as a prerequisite for moral well-being.
In Mahāyāna sources, there is a great relative preponderance of passages that identify and show concern for poverty and see relieving it as the role of the ideal practitioner, the bodhisattva. As in Pāli sources, the satisfaction of material needs is seen as a prerequisite for moral development, and its absence is seen as the cause of moral decay. The role of the bodhisattva is to relieve these material needs not only through moral leadership, but also through direct action, in order to prepare the conditions necessary for teaching the Dharma. These points are made most strongly in regard to The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom, with secondary reference to several other major sūtras. If the general preponderance of sūtra passages showing concern for poverty can be read in light of those sūtras that speak directly on the relationship between material and moral well-being, then it is a reasonable generalization that in Mahāyāna scriptures, there is broadly attested concern for poverty as an obstruction to spiritual progress and a clear mandate for its direct relief as a prerequisite for addressing the more subtle roots of saṃsāra.