The Buddhist Idea of a Perfect Society
- Ajahn Sumedho

We can imagine a perfect society and have a model of it to use as a guideline, as something to aim for. But we shouldn't expect society ever to be perfect and to be continuously the way we would like it to be, because part of the perfection lies in the fact that everything changes; nothing can remain the same. Just as a rose reaches its perfect fullness, perfect form, perfect fragrance and then changes; so societies reach peaks and then they degenerate. This is the natural movement of all conditioned phenomena. Any sensory condition follows that pattern.

To contemplate the arising and ceasing of conditions allows us to understand them; we are not just caught in the arising and ceasing of the world - or of the human body - like a helpless creature that has no way of knowing anything beyond it. We actually have the power and ability to transcend the world, society, the body, the self. All that is most dear and precious, all that we are most frightened of, all that we can possibly conceive of or believe in, we can transcend. What do I mean by transcendence? To "transcend the world" sounds like you are somehow getting out of the whole thing by going somewhere else. To many people it would mean that you had left the world behind; that you were no longer interested in or concerned about it in any way; that you lived on a totally different plane.
First of all we need to contemplate what we mean by the world. Of course with our materialist mind conditioned through education and geography courses, we tend to see the world as a kind of map or globe. We think the world is the planet earth, and to transcend the planet earth we have to get off it somehow, and maybe go up to the moon. But when Buddhists talk about the world, we talk about the mind because that's what we live in. Even the concept of the planet is a concept of the mind. Opinions we have about the world, about ourselves, about other beings, about other planets, are in fact the conditions that arise and cease in the mind. We say, "We'll go and study the world," meaning that we'll go to every country on the planet. That's not it. You don't have to go anywhere to actually transcend the world or to see through the world so that you can transcend it. You open your mind; you begin to notice the way things actually are, that all that arises ceases.
Here in Britain just on a day like this, we are affected by the stunning beauty of nature: the undulating hills and the green colour, the extraordinary abundance and delicacy of flowers and their beautiful shapes, colours and patterns. So here on this planet, in this one small country, we can actually perceive form and colour taken to perfection. Try to imagine forms and colours more perfect than those of flowers. The precedent for perfection is really what we have already been able to perceive in form and colour; we judge by what we've already seen. And yet beauty changes; it's not static. The seasons change and all the leaves fall off the trees, all the flowers disappear. Everything becomes bleak, almost monotone in winter when there is hardly any noticeable contrast, except in the shades of dark and lightness. Then if we compare winter with spring, we might say that spring is more beautiful; we might prefer vibrant colours and beautiful flowers.
However we can also begin to recognise the subtle beauty of winter. The colourlessness, and silence of winter can be as much appreciated as the energy of spring. This appreciation comes from not having opinions about things being perfect in a static way, the rose being a perfect rose in spring, summer, autumn and winter. For that you need a plastic rose, one that can be perfect all year round. But even the best, most perfectly made artificial rose is never as satisfying as even a less beautiful natural rose. Why? Because we know that it's artificial. It's pretending to be something it's not, while the real flower isn't pretending to be anything. It's just what it is. It's beauty is pure beauty without any pretence. It's not trying to say it's the most beautiful rose, either. Nor is it trying to hold on to its beauty. It's willing to let it go.
So in this way we can be open to the perfection of nature and of the sensory world. Our view of perfection is no longer a fixed idea that things have to be only one way to be perfect; that when they change in a way we may not want them to, then that's the end of what we hold dear and of what to us is perfection.

Now contemplate an ideal for a perfect society. The Buddhists could say that a perfect society would be one of fully enlightened human beings - a society of arahants who have no selfish inclinations and understand everything as it is - a society of individuals who are no longer attached to the world of ignorance but have transcended the world. Transcendence means we no longer cling to the world. It doesn't mean floating up in the sky and floating away from it. It means we live for a lifetime within this human form among all the sensory conditions but are no longer deluded by them. It means we use our ability to reflect and contemplate on our existence to the point where we see it clearly as it is. That is what we call transcending the world. So one who is transcending the world can still act and live in the world but in a very clear and pure way because the world is no longer a delusion. We are not expecting the world to be anything other than what it is. And the world is the mind itself, this mind.
Arahant is the Pali term for one who has no more delusions at all about the nature of the world. That is the term we use for a perfected human being, one who has wisely reflected and transcended the world, but who still lives in the world and works in the world for the welfare of other beings. If you have seen through the sense of self, broken through, let go of selfish interest in the world, then what else is there to do? Certainly you don't live your life for any false sense of self anymore, if that has been transcended. So one lives the life of a human being for the welfare of others and of the society. Arahants in a society would thus be a great blessing. When one has totally abandoned self-interest, one no longer thinks in terms of getting rewards for one's actions, not even gratitude, praise or any kind of remuneration. The perfect society would then be the society of enlightened ones.
We can look at our minds to see how this relates to us as individual beings. We can look at the state of the society, or the world in general - the United States, the Soviet Union, the Third World - and we can see that it is in a terrible state of confusion. Human societies, in general, are all somehow out of harmony with the Dhamma, with nature. We are so involved with our own personal views, our own attachments, our endless demands on the society and our environment, that we are taking the planet to destruction. This is the first time in human history that we have the capacity to destroy nearly all living beings on the planet. We have been so selfish and have so lost our sense of responsibility for the planet, that we are quite willing to corrupt and pollute the very home of humanity. We even think that if we blow it up in the future or if it becomes so polluted we can't live on it anymore, that with modern technology we can escape to another planet and live there!
Rather than seeing the planet in the selfish, childish way that we do when we take it for granted and misuse it, we should begin to look at it as a place we must respect and learn to take care of. Human beings are capable of doing this. As selfish and as corrupt as we can be, we can also be noble. We can take on the responsibilities of caring for other human beings as well as caring for the animal kingdom and for the whole planet.
This is where I hope modern consciousness is taking us. At this time we can see a hopeful trend in what is called, expansion of consciousness. More and more people are awakening to this potential for transcending the world so that they are able to operate freely and wisely within the sensory realm, no longer for personal gain but for the welfare of other beings.
There are listed in the Pali Canon, the scriptures of Theravada Buddhism, what are called the rajadhammas, the virtues and duties of a wise ruler. The first one is the virtue of dana, which means generosity, giving. In almost all Buddhist lists of virtues, dana is always the first one. Isn't that significant? Why do they always list dana first? In a Buddhist sense, any kind of ruler - a universal monarch, a prime minister, a president, a chairman - needs to have this sense of generosity because this is what opens the heart of a human being. Just reflect on the act of giving without selfish demand in return, without expecting a reward. When we give something we like or want, to somebody else, that opens the heart and that always engenders a sense of nobility. Humanity is at its best when it gives what it loves, what it values, to others.
The next one is sila, or high moral conduct. A ruler should be impeccable in morality, a human being you can fully trust. Whether you agree with a ruler's actions or political positions isn't terribly important; it's the moral integrity of the ruler that is most important, because you can't trust somebody who is immoral. But people can easily feel suspicious about someone who has not committed themselves fully to refrain from cruelty, from killing, from taking things that have not been given, from sexual misconduct, from false speech and from addictive drugs and drinks. These standards of restraint are the basic moral precepts, the sila, that you are expected to keep if you consider yourself a Buddhist.
The third virtue is pariccaga, or self-sacrifice. This means giving up personal happiness, safety and comfort for the welfare of the nation. Self-sacrifice is something we need to consider. Are we willing to sacrifice personal comfort, privilege, convenience, for the welfare of our families? In the past fifty years or so, self-sacrifice has almost come to be regarded with contempt, or put down as being foolish or naive. It seems that the tendency is to think of yourself first. What has this government done for you? What can you get out of it? Whenever I've thought in those ways I've always felt I could not respect myself at all. But any time that I sacrificed myself for something, I've always felt that doing so was the right thing to do. Giving up personal interest, personal convenience and comfort for the welfare of others - that is always something that I look back on now with no regret.
The fourth one is ajjava, which is honesty and integrity. This means more than not telling lies to others, but being honest with yourself. You can't be deluded by all the desires and fears that go on in your own mind in order to have this sense of personal honesty, where you are not blaming or condemning others or looking at the world in the wrong way.
The fifth is maddava, which means kindness or gentleness. Living in Britain I've noticed that there is a tremendous desire for kindness and gentleness, and an idealism that holds to that. In daily life, however, one finds a kind of harshness towards oneself or towards others; a tendency to make a harsh judgments; to react with anger; to regard kindness as a bit soppy and wet. Gentleness is considered weak. So we've emphasised the practice of metta here in Britain more than in Thailand. Metta is loving-kindness. It's kindness and gentleness towards oneself and towards others. When we hold to high standards and ideals, we often lack kindness. We are always looking at how things should be, and we become frustrated with life as it is. We become angry and cruel. To be kind and gentle seems wishy-washy and weak, and yet it is a virtue that a universal monarch should have in order to be truly considered a universal monarch.
The sixth is tapa which means austerity or self-control; giving up what you don't really need.
The seventh one is akkodha, which is non-anger, non-impulsiveness, calmness. This is difficult: remaining calm in the midst of confusion and chaos, when things are frustrating, instead of acting just on impulse, saying something in anger, acting in anger. Akkodha is non-anger.
The eighth is avihimsa, or non-violence, non-oppression; not using violent means against enemies or against anyone; not being oppressive or forcing your will unmercifully on other people. Even high-mindedness can be oppressive, can't it? If you live with people who have very high standards and high ideals, they can push you down all the time with their ideas. It's a kind of violence, even though they might believe in non-violence and think they are not acting with violence. You can say, "I believe in avihimsa" but still be very oppressive about it. That's why we often tend to see it as hypocrisy. When we talk about morality now, some people get very tense, because they remember morality as being oppressive, like in Victorian times when people were intimidated and frightened by moral judgments. But that is not avihimsa. Avihimsa is non-oppression.

After avihimsa is khanti, which is patience, forbearance, tolerance. To be non-oppressive and non-violent, not to follow anger, one needs to be patient. We need to bear with what is irritating, frustrating, unwanted, unloved, unbeautiful. We need to forbear rather than react violently to it, oppress it, annihilate it.
The last one is avirodhana, non-deviation from righteousness, or conformity to the law, the Dhamma. Non-deviation from righteousness sounds oppressive, doesn't it? When we become righteous we can often become very oppressive. I've seen it in myself. When I get full of righteous indignation I come at people like one of those Old Testament gods: "Thou shall not!" I can be pretty frightening to people when I'm righteous. Avirodhana isn't that kind of patriarchal, oppressive righteousness. It is knowing what is right, what is appropriate to time and place. Here in Britain, we believe that thinking rationally and being reasonable is right. Everything that follows from that, we think is right, and everything that is irrational or unreasonable, we think is wrong. We don't trust it. But when we attach to reason, then we often lack patience, because we are not open to the movement and flow of emotion. The spaciousness of life is completely overlooked. We are so attached to time, efficiency, the quickness of thought, the perfection of rational thinking, that we view temporal conditions as reality, and we no longer notice spaciousness. So the emotional nature, the feeling, the intuitive, the psychic, all are dismissed, neglected, and annihilated.
Avirodhana, or conformity to the Dhamma, entails a steadiness in one's life to conform to the way things are. The only reason we don't conform to it is that we don't know it. Human beings are capable of believing in anything at all, so we tend to go every-which-way and follow any old thing. But once you discover the Dhamma, then your only inclination is to conform to the law of the way things are.
So these are the rajadhammas, the Dhammas of a universal ruler. Now let's apply this list. We might think: "Well that's what the Prime Minister should be doing, and the President of the United States, definitely. Maybe we should send them the list of the rajadhammas, and leave it up to them to do it." But what is it within ourselves that we might consider the universal ruler? What would be the universal ruler in our own lives, internally? This is the way of reflection. You are taking these lists and applying them to the practical experience of being a human being, not looking at them as a way of judging the present rulers of the world. We could get into a lot of interesting criticisms, couldn't we, if we decided to see how much dana, sila or pariccaga the Presidents have and judge them according to this list. But that would be of no value, would it? We could figure out what they should do, but we wouldn't have the vaguest idea of what we should do. How our lives should move. How we should change. Yet the more we move towards developing the universal ruler within, then the more chance there is of actually getting one of these proper universal rulers.
In daily life we can move toward these virtues. These lists are not to be used as judgments against ourselves to say, "Oh I'm not generous enough; my morality isn't good enough; I'm too selfish to think of sacrificing myself," going on down the whole list like that. But you look at this list in order to aspire to move upward more and more in daily life experiences. To be able to do that we need to begin to know ourselves as we are, rather than making judgments about ourselves as we think we are. By understanding yourself, you will understand everyone else, and then you will understand the society.
So a perfect society can only happen when there are perfect human beings. And what is a perfect individual human being? It is one who is not deluded, who has transcended the appearance of the sensory realm. For such a person, these virtues naturally manifest in relation to all other beings. When there is no attachment to a selfish position or selfish view, then generosity becomes a natural way of relating. One wants to share. One realises just what one needs and is willing to share the extra. The tendency towards hoarding up for oneself diminishes.
In the world today we see this terrible discrepancy between the affluent Western world and the poverty-stricken Third World. We live at a very high standard of living while most of the people in the world live at a very low standard. Many are not even able to get enough to eat. We can contemplate this as not being right. We can condemn the Western world, or we can justify our affluence or feel sorry for the Third World.

But what can we actually do about it? Perhaps we know that we haven't enough influence with the governments and leaders of the affluent West, because they won't listen to us. Maybe we can't really change much on that level. But we can change the way we relate to the world, can't we? We can learn to practice meditation and learn to live in a way whereby we become less and less selfish, so that what we do have, we are willing to share with others. Then we find the joy of sharing as the reward but not an expected reward. We can contemplate sila - our responsibility for action and speech. What are we doing now to live in a way that is not harmful to other creatures? We can refrain from violent actions and speech, from exploitation, from all that causes division, confusion, anguish and despair in the lives of other beings. We try to avoid actions or using speech that causes suffering in the minds of others. We can practice - with our family, with the people we work with, with the society we have to live in - how to live in a way that is non-violent, that is moral, that takes on the responsibility for what we say and do.
Self-sacrifice is not a kind of soppy martyrdom where I'm sacrificing myself for this no-good lot, pretending to be a martyr. Self-sacrifice doesn't come from self-involvement, but from no longer regarding oneself as more important than anyone else. You have to know yourself before you can do that. The idea of sacrificing yourself without knowing yourself only makes you one of those sentimental martyrs. Self-sacrifice comes from mental clarity, not from sentimentality.
Ajjava: honesty, integrity. Maddava: kindness, gentleness. We can put forth attentiveness to life in a way which is gentle and kind. The reason we lack kindness is not that we don't want to be kind; it's that we are too impatient to be kind. To be kind you have to be patient with life. To be gentle with it means you have to give in a lot. You can't just bend things and force things to fit your ideas just for convenience, just for efficiency. Kindness means that in the ordinary things of daily life you are learning to be more gentle and open, especially with things that you don't like or don't want. It's easy to be open to the things we like. It's easy to be kind to little children when they are being sweet and lovable. But being kind to that which is annoying, irritating, frustrating, takes considerable attention, doesn't it? We have to put forth the effort not to react with aversion. And that's very good for us, to work with the irritations of daily life in little ways, to just try to be gentle and kind in situations where we tend to become cruel, harsh and judgmental.
Tapa: self-control, non-indulgence, austerity. Austerity is a frightening word for the modern age. It's as if you have to give up everything, so that is a bit daunting. But just practising tapa, questioning yourself: how much do you really need? How much is an indulgence? Not passing judgment and saying, "Oh I'm an indulgent so and so," but just beginning to note what is the right amount between what is necessary and what is indulgence. This takes attentiveness also. You have to be honest and notice the difference between indulging and just taking what is necessary, what you need.
Akkodha: non-anger, non-impulsiveness. It takes determination to pay attention and not just to follow anger, to react to impulse, to react to life. Avihimsa: non-violence, non-oppression. Khanti: patience, forbearance. And avirodhana: non-deviation from righteousness. The more we are aware of these virtues, the more they can manifest in our lives. Trying to be virtuous from ideas alone can be a disaster. You just end up criticising yourself. It's like comparing all the stages of the rose with a rose at its best. You take a rose at its peak with perfect fragrance and appearance, and compare the decayed rose with that. "I don't like this, I don't like that, this is how everything should be." But when we see that the sensory world is a process, that it's change, that it's flux, then we begin to appreciate it in all its change. We no longer demand that life fit some static ideal and then judge everything according to those fixed views we have about it.
Apply all this to the society, as well as to yourself, even though you know that society will never be perfect, just as a rose can never maintain itself at its peak. We have to always realise that it will reach its peak and then change. The more we free ourselves from delusion, self-interest and ignorance, the more we can be part of and appreciate the flow and change of life, just as we can appreciate the cycle of a rose instead of just grasping at the peak of its beauty.
So now we can contemplate society here in Britain. What stage is it in? We can't say it's at its peak, can we? We can say, "It's no good, it's not like it used to be, it shouldn't be like this," and go on endlessly, getting depressed, upset, hating it because it's not at it's peak. But where is it? As we open ourselves to its change, to the law, the Dhamma, then we can flow with it in a way that will give it strength to be a healthy society rather than a sick, weak, unloved one. If you don't take care of a rose properly, it can't survive. And if it does, it is just weakened and no longer capable of producing a beautiful flower. How can we help society to grow or to change? How can we appreciate the whole of it rather than hanging on to fixed views and opinions, to this terrible ignorance of just looking at how everything should be?
In Buddhism there is no particular attempt to describe how the perfect society should operate, as a monarchy or a democracy, as socialist or communist. At the time the Pali Canon was written, I don't suppose they had too many choices. Monarchy tended to be the way, though there were also natural democracies. But even a monarchy in those days was not an oppressive system where the king had divine right to do anything he wanted at the expense of everyone else. We are conditioned to think that monarchs are degenerates who are all corrupt, that a monarchy is just for the privileged few and everyone else has to pay for it and suffer. But actually the theory of monarchy always stemmed from righteousness; it wasn't intended to be an oppressive system, though in many cases it became that, just as communism and democracy can become oppressive systems.
Western democracy, with all its so-called freedom, tends to bring us towards degeneration. Parents now worry about their children endlessly. They have lost all ability to direct their children in skillful ways because children now have the freedom to do anything they want to. We no longer have the right to guide or direct anyone towards what is right and good and beautiful. We just say, "You are free to do what you want." And communism with all its high-minded idealism tends to oppress. It seems to take all these lovely ideas of sharing, equal distribution, equality, and just shove them down your throat. That is certainly not the goal for a Buddhist society.
Actually all the existing structures would be workable if you had the right understanding. In Britain, there is nothing really wrong with the political structure, the government. These agencies are quite all right in themselves, but what is missing is the enlightened human being, the human being who sees clearly. Modern politics tends to come from desire for power, for personal acclaim. Morality doesn't play a terribly important part in the choices of leaders or politicians. It's how clever you might be in manipulating others. What do we look for in leadership now? Ask yourselves, "What do we expect in leadership for our country?"
Modern attitudes might be such that we think, "Venerable Sumedho is just talking a bunch of optimistic ideals that have no relevance to anything practical in daily life," but that's a pessimistic view. All I am trying to do is present a way of looking that would be of great benefit towards the understanding of life on the individual plane and for the perfection of a society.