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"The Buddha's Revolution" by Sharon Salzberg

12 April 2010

When the Buddha taught 2500 years ago, the social structure in India was built on a rigid philosophical system. According to their prevailing view of the world, everything belonged to a category which had its own nature and its corresponding duty in life. The responsibility of every being was to grow into its own nature, and to conform to an ideal disposition specific to them. For example, it is the particular nature or duty of fire to burn, and of rocks to be hard, of grass to grow and to be green, and for cows to eat grass and produce milk. These characteristics were considered immutable truth.

Socially, this concept was translated into the rigidities of the caste system. People were born destined to fulfill a certain nature. It was the duty of certain classes or castes of people to rule, for Brahmans to mediate with divine forces, and for certain other people to be engaged in production of food and material goods. Within this worldview, actions conceived of as moral and appropriate for one caste or gender were considered completely immoral for another. It was proper and beneficial for the Brahman male to read and study the scriptures, while this was absolutely forbidden and considered abhorrent for someone who was an outcast. 

Into this social context, the Buddha introduced his revolutionary teachings. What he taught in terms of ethics was radical then, and it is radical now. He stated that what determines whether an action is moral or immoral is the volition of the person performing it. The moral quality of an action is held in the intention that gives rise to the action. "Not by birth is one a Brahman, or an outcast," the Buddha said, "but by deeds." This teaching, in effect, declared the entire social structure of India, considered sacrosanct by many, to be of no spiritual significance at all. 

The Buddha was declaring that the only status that truly matters is the status of personal goodness, and personal goodness is attained through personal effort, not by birth. It did not matter if you were a man or a woman, wealthy or poor, a Brahman or an outcast -- an action based on greed would have a certain kind of result, and an action based on love would have a certain kind of result. "A true Brahman is one who is gentle, who is wise and caring," he said, thus completely negating the importance of caste, skin color, class and gender in any consideration of morality. 

The Buddha was clearly stating that we are not held to different standards, nor are we free to hurt others, because of any circumstance of birth or social status. The truth of suffering and the end of suffering, tied so intimately to our ethical behavior, is the same for all of us. No matter who is acting, the intention or volition behind the action is the karmic seed that is planted. The motivating force behind the action is thus considered the most important and potent aspect of the action. Essentially, our intentions are an expression of the power of our minds. 

Transforming our motivations transforms our whole life: our happiness, our degree of connectedness, our freedom. None of this is fixed in the particular externals of who we are, it is all held in the universal potential of what we might become. By denying that spiritual authority and capacity were invested in one particular class of people, the Buddha was acknowledging that we do not need someone else to mediate with the divine, we don't need a special class whose duty it is to delve deeply into spirituality. It is in everyone's capacity to be spiritual; it is everyone's duty, everyone's role. We can all utilize the power of our awareness for our own liberation; our truth is a "self-witnessed " truth, our faith tested and tried by our own experience. The most powerful work is first done within the mind, because the mind is the forerunner of all elements of life. By pointing out to us the crucial importance of our own intentions, the Buddha was making clear that each of us is responsible for our own minds, and therefore for our own freedom. 

In this one teaching on volition the Buddha burst the bubble of social class, of deflecting responsibility, of mindless deference to religious authority, and of defining potential according to external criteria. In this one teaching he returned the potential for freedom back to each one of us.

Sharon Salzberg is a founding teacher of the Insight Meditation Society, the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, and the Forest Refuge in Barre, MA. She has written and edited many books, including Lovingkindess: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness and Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience.


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