A friend of mine recently noted that any government or social policy that is not for the common good partakes in sociopathology. This principle is supported by most religions and is found in Buddhism. I’d like to briefly cite an essay that treats exactly this issue. Written in wartime, it condemns Japan’s support of war with Russia (1904-1905), especially the misuse of religion in that effort. The author also condemns the ill-use that the “haves” direct toward the “have nots”. The specific religious context is that of Jodo Shinshu or Shin Buddhism, with its centrality of Amida Buddha and its belief in Amida’s “Pure Land”, where the faithful are posthumously transformed into bodhisattvas, or “helpful Buddhas”. Aptly, the essay is entitled, My Socialism.
I do not feel that socialism is a theory, but rather a kind of practice… I think we need to reform the social system rapidly and change the social structure completely from the ground up… I consider socialism to be related much more deeply to religion than to politics. In proceeding to reform society, we have to, first of all, begin from our own spirituality.
I consider [the Pure Land] to be the place in which socialism is truly practiced. If Amida is endowed with the thirty-two [holy distinguishing] marks, the novice bodhisattvas who gather [in the Pure Land] are also endowed with the thirty-two marks… [This is how] socialism is practiced in this Land of Bliss.
We have never heard that beings in the Land of Bliss have attacked other lands. Nor have we ever heard that they have started a great war for the sake of justice. Hence I am against war. I do not feel that a person of the Land of Bliss should take part in warfare.
The essayist’s words are certainly an example of “engaged Buddhism”, concerned for the welfare of all and willing to restructure society along principles of compassion rather than wealth-accumulation, greed, and war. In words that could have been written today, the author deplores the gap between rich and poor and its accompanying sociopathology:
We live in a country where the common people in general are sacrificed for the fame, peerage and medals of one small group of people. It is a society in which the common people in general must suffer for the sake of a small number of speculators. Are not the poor treated like animals at the hands of the wealthy? There are people who cry out in hunger; there are women who sell their honor out of poverty; there are children who are soaked by the rain. Rich people and government officials find pleasure in treating them like toys, oppressing them and engaging them in hard labor…
The external stimuli being like this, our subjective faculties are replete with ambition. This is truly the world of defilement, a world of suffering, a dark night. Human nature is being slaughtered by the devil.
Yet Amida Buddha continues his call to us, and this compassion itself should prompt us toward a spiritual socialism.
Our thoughts cannot but change completely: “I will do what the Buddha wishes me to do, practise what he wishes me to practise and make the Buddha’s will my own will, I will become what the Tathagata tells me to become.” This is the time of great determination!
The only thing I wish to accomplish through my great energy and human labour is progress and community life. We labour in order to produce and we cultivate our minds so that we can attain the Way. But look at what’s happening! We cannot help but lament when we hear that religious functionaries are praying to gods and buddhas for victory. Indeed, a feeling of pity arises in my heart and I am sorry for them.
…we must proceed from the spiritual realm and completely change the social system from the ground up. I am firmly convinced that this is what socialism means.
So in Jodo Shinshu there is a blueprint for social equality based on spiritual principles of compassion and wisdom for a life (in Marcus Borg’s words) centered in Spirit rather than in culture, a challenge to beat swords into ploughshares, to make war no more, and to never again rejoice at an enemy’s destruction, principles also rooted in the bible and enjoined in such texts as:
Proverbs 22:22-23: Rob not the poor, because they are poor; neither oppress the afflicted at the city entrance: for the Lord will plead their cause, and spoil the soul of those that spoiled them.
Proverbs 24:17-18: Rejoice not when thine enemy falls,, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles, lest the Lord see it,, and it displease him…
[The My Socialism esssay written by Takagi Kenmyo, cited in Beyond Meditation: Expressions of Japanese Shin Buddhist Spirituality, ed. Michael Pye, Equinox Publishing, Oakville CT: 2011.]