Nature & Society

Monastery Bell

A com­plete spir­i­tu­al devel­op­ment involves an inter­ac­tion with and an under­stand­ing of both nature and soci­ety, because peo­ple are shaped and influ­enced both by nat­ur­al and social forces. Such devel­op­ment is nour­ished by soci­ety and by nature, bring­ing about pros­per­i­ty and happiness.

If peo­ple are to live togeth­er in peace—even just two people—there must be bound­aries and means to reg­u­late behav­iour. When many peo­ple live togeth­er there is a neces­si­ty for rules or agree­ments on behav­iour, of what should be done and what should be avoid­ed, in order to bring about har­mo­ny and safe­ty 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 advance, 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 shap­ing 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.

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 well­be­ing 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 live togeth­er in har­mo­ny, there is some­thing besides main­tain­ing social integri­ty 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.

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.

Peo­ple require a code of con­duct in order to live togeth­er in har­mo­ny. Soci­ety thus needs a moral code as well as a com­pat­i­ble set of rules for peo­ple to fol­low. It is true that this moral code can sim­ply become a way to lim­it people’s free­dom or it can even be a way of enslav­ing peo­ple to a sys­tem of con­trol, if it is sim­ply a set of pro­hi­bi­tions and rules which peo­ple observe by blind­ly fol­low­ing one anoth­er. And it can lead to oth­er ill effects if it is main­tained through coer­cion or deception.

Sim­i­lar­ly, actions which are alleged to be ‘free’ may only be expres­sions of a mind sub­ject to defile­ment and suf­fer­ing. In this case, it is sim­ply a free­dom to give expres­sion to men­tal bondage, free­dom to be a slave, or free­dom to allow peo­ple to be enslaved. This form of free­dom involves dis­en­fran­chis­ing oth­ers in some way or oth­er, direct­ly or indirectly.

In con­trast, peo­ple who are free from the pow­er of men­tal defile­ment, and who are able to apply wis­dom with­out the obscur­ing pow­er of social con­di­tion­ing, do not require pre­scribed moral stan­dards. They are endowed with an inher­ent moral dis­ci­pline, and, more­over, they are able to com­ply with any moral code that they rec­og­nize as ben­e­fit­ing oth­er human beings.

The impor­tant link here is that a moral code is a good thing when it is set down and fol­lowed with a cor­rect under­stand­ing of its objec­tives, that is, moral con­duct must be accom­pa­nied by right view.

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From chap­ter 14 of Bud­dhad­ham­ma on the wis­dom fac­tors of the Eight­fold Path, by Ven­er­a­ble Phra Payutto.

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