Escaping the Conditioning Influences of Society

Ancient Capital of Ayutthaya

If peo­ple are to live togeth­er in peace—even just two people—there must be bound­aries and an abil­i­ty to reg­u­late behav­iour. When many peo­ple live togeth­er there is a require­ment for rules or agree­ments about behav­iour, of what should be done and what should be avoid­ed, in order to bring about har­mo­ny and wel­fare for each indi­vid­ual. (Even an indi­vid­ual per­son has con­flict­ing desires and requires self-dis­ci­pline in order to live well.) Take the exam­ple of numer­ous dri­vers arriv­ing at a junc­tion from dif­fer­ent direc­tions: each per­son is in a hur­ry and vies to pass first. They thus all get stuck and no-one can pro­ceed, caus­ing chaos and dis­putes. If they are will­ing to lay down a set of reg­u­la­tions, how­ev­er, every­one can pass com­fort­ably. Like­wise, a com­mu­ni­ty or soci­ety requires a set of rules.

Apart from rules, there is a col­lec­tion of inher­it­ed social sys­tems, cus­toms, tra­di­tions, cul­tur­al prac­tices, insti­tu­tions, and a body of tech­ni­cal knowl­edge, which give shape to a par­tic­u­lar soci­ety. These fac­tors which shape soci­ety also shape indi­vid­u­als, instill­ing in them prop­er­ties that con­form with soci­ety. At the same time indi­vid­u­als influ­ence the soci­ety. Indi­vid­ual peo­ple and the soci­ety as a whole are thus inter­de­pen­dent. Nonethe­less, when a soci­ety has a clear­ly defined shape and form it tends to become rigid and inflex­i­ble, result­ing in a one-sided exchange of peo­ple being shaped by soci­ety in order to meet society’s needs and expec­ta­tions.

Monks Listening to a Talk at Wat Pah Pong

Peo­ple, how­ev­er, do not exist sole­ly to uphold soci­ety. Soci­ety exists to ben­e­fit indi­vid­u­als and on a fun­da­men­tal lev­el it was cre­at­ed for the increased well-being of peo­ple. From this per­spec­tive, soci­ety is only one sup­port­ive fac­tor in people’s lives, and on its own it is unable to lead peo­ple to a tru­ly vir­tu­ous life, because social insti­tu­tions them­selves were cre­at­ed sim­ply to estab­lish a sense of order and dis­ci­pline. Once peo­ple can live togeth­er in har­mo­ny, there is some­thing besides main­tain­ing social integri­ty for which it is incum­bent on them to real­ize. Besides social insti­tu­tions, peo­ple need to pay atten­tion to nature, and the most supreme bless­ing of life is obtained through an under­stand­ing of nature. This is because the truth of life is essen­tial­ly ground­ed in nature.

Hammer Wood at Chithurst Forest Monastery

Soci­ety is sim­ply one sup­port­ive fac­tor in people’s lives, which can either help to fos­ter an increased inti­ma­cy and knowl­edge of nature, or it can have the oppo­site effect and cause an alien­ation from nature. In any case, even though soci­ety may have a clear and strict­ly defined shape it is not the only fac­tor influ­enc­ing peo­ple. If peo­ple are able to apply wise reflec­tion, they can escape from the con­trol­ling pow­er of soci­ety. Wise reflec­tion enables a per­son to tran­scend or see through soci­ety and to real­ize the under­ly­ing time­less truth of nature. A per­son endowed with wise reflec­tion is able to be free from the pow­er of social con­di­tion­ing, to attain high­er lev­els of virtue, and to return in order to shape soci­ety in a ful­ly atten­tive way.

Ven­er­a­ble Phra Payut­to, from chap­ter 19 of Bud­dhad­ham­ma, on the wis­dom fac­tors of the Path.

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