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My discussion with Justin Whitaker continues after my last post, which was a response to his original post about trans* inclusiveness in Buddhism.

There followed a discussion back and forth between Justin and myself. The discussion has moved away from anything to do with trans* issues, which is fine with me because my point, and I think Justin’s too, was about something bigger: the role of justice and activism in Buddhist tradition. I won’t try to recap the discussion here because the link is available for those who haven’t seen it. I’ll just refresh your memory by quoting Justin’s most recent comment:

I took it to be you that was introducing the ultimate/conventional split by suggesting that “Buddhism is supposed to be about things that are more important than justice.”

My suggestion was that if you’re only looking at this “supposed to be” then you’re probably ignoring all of the conventional aspects of Buddhism, which is “about” a lot of things that we could call mundane or conventional.

I keep pointing to instances of Buddhism being about “conventional” life and I’m not sure this should need to be spelled out in the suttas, i.e. “now I’m going to talk about conventional things, oh monks…” My point is that Buddhism isn’t just about awakening, or seeing beyond all duality, or getting past one’s problems in the external world. This (if I’m interpreting your above quoted sentence correctly) would be more of the modern projection I’d be worried about. Buddhism is also about dealing skillfully in society (or historically at least Buddhists did attempt this where ever they went).

Here is the crux of the disagreement: is it a “modern projection” to say that Buddhism is “about” awakening and not about justice? I continue to reply: no, the opposite. It is a modern projection to say that Buddhism is about justice. (This is a topic I developed in some length with reference to Śāntideva in the later sections of my Journal of Buddhist Ethics article.) There is one important caveat to be introduced here: the idea that “Buddhism is about” anything is in its way modern, since the term “Buddhism”, like “Hinduism”, is a modern one.

However, unlike for “Hinduism”, there is a premodern (or at least pre-medieval) referent close to the term “Buddhism”, which is buddhadhamma, the teachings of the Buddha. (Buddhadhamma is a Pali term; in Sanskrit it becomes buddhadharma, and any number of permutations in other languages. I will limit this discussion to Pali and Pali-derived tradition since Justin and I are both quite familiar with it, and since that’s where the discussion has gone so far.)

The difference between “Buddhism” and buddhadhamma, though, is that buddhadhamma refers specifically to the teachings attributed to the Buddha, the sutta, vinaya and abhidhamma texts; it does not mean “whatever the people we call ‘Buddhists’ happen to do.” If one wanted a wider equivalent, one could point to the tiratana or triratna, the “three jewels” of buddha, dhamma and saṅgha. Here the practices of Buddhists – the saṅgha – matter. But the saṅgha, traditionally, is the monkhood, not the householders. So no matter how “Buddhist” we consider them, the fact that “Buddhist” householders did something is in a premodern context not a reason to consider it “a part of Buddhism” or “something Buddhism is about”; it is not part of the buddhadhamma or tiratana.

That point may be somewhat tangential to the discussion, because much of what we have come back to is the suttas themselves (and related texts) – but it’s worth clarifying our terms here, because it’s easy to get misled once one starts using terms like “the conventional aspects of Buddhism”.

Regarding the ultimate/conventional (samutti/paramattha) dichotomy, too, I’ve been trying to say that in the Pali texts, at least, that’s not even what that dichotomy means. I’m not sure that distinction appears in the suttas at all; if it does, it’s rare. It’s more common in the abhidhamma, and there it is largely metaphysical, referring to truth, and usually specifically to the self (which exists at a conventional level but not an ultimate). I’m not aware of any place in any Pali text up to and including Buddhaghosa’s time where a distinction is ever made between “ultimate suffering” and “conventional suffering”. If we’re trying to get the ancient tradition right, it is likely to mislead us to apply this vocabulary anachronistically to topics it was never used to discuss. Talking about liberation vs. politics in terms of ultimate vs. conventional is like talking about them in terms of samathā vs. vipassanā – those terms exist in the tradition, but that just isn’t what they mean or what they’re about.

In Pali, the distinction Justin is expressing is represented less by the terms samutti and paramattha, and more by lokiya (Sanskrit laukika) and lokuttara (lokottara) – worldly and other-worldly. When lokiya action is discussed, it is frequently identified as a second-best solution: the way to act for those who aren’t good enough and developed enough to reach for the real lokuttara prize. Earning good kamma for a better rebirth, because one is not yet ready to be liberated from suffering.

Going more specifically to the texts, Justin’s points have tended to refer back to the Sigālovāda Sutta. Here, indeed, Justin is right to say that “dealing skillfully in society” matters within the buddhadhamma. But two things are worth considering here. First, we should note that the Sigālovāda is a rarity. It’s not the only sutta that deals with conduct in mundane society, but it’s one of a very few, dwarfed by suttas about awakening and liberation, and the role of monasticism and metaphysics in leading one there.

But more importantly, and worth stressing again, the Sigālovāda itself is not about justice, social or otherwise. There is no word in it, as far as I am aware, that can be reasonably translated “justice” – I can’t think of such a word in the Pali language in general. The concern is not with justice but with harmonious relation (and self-cultivation, of course). Still less is the sutta about activism. There is a subtle form of social change in that some of the structures of existing society (Vedic rituals) can be safely ignored – other things, like the family, are more important, and one’s existing concern with Vedic ritual should be reoriented to them. But one doesn’t actually work to change those existing structures – beyond the fact that perhaps if one changes people’s minds toward liberation they might ignore those structures too. One doesn’t work towards social change; one works toward liberation, and if society happens to change as a result, that’s a nice side benefit.

Does the buddhadhamma, as traditionally understood, include standards of good conduct within lay society? Yes, but they’re not a major concern of the texts, they don’t make reference to justice, and they’re not about activism to change the structures of that society. I think it is fair, then, to say that the Pali buddhadhamma is indeed “supposed to be about things that are more important than justice”.