Buddhist Social Pluralism (Y. Karunadasa)

Buddhist Social Pluralism, from Early Buddhist Teachings, by Y. Karunadasa, Hong Kong 2013.

Another area where we find many instances of pluralism is in the Buddhist attitude to society. As a religion Buddhism does not interfere with people’s ways of living by imposing on them unnecessary restrictions. We never hear of a Buddhist Dress, Buddhist Food, or Buddhist Medicine, laid down as valid for all times and climes. For, these are things that change from place to place and from time to time, depending on the progress of our knowledge.

This situation is true when it comes to marriage, too. There are many forms of marriage, monogamy, polygamy, polyandry, and so on. Today in the modern world the legally recognized practice is mostly monogamy. Nevertheless, nowhere does Buddhism say that other forms of marriage are immoral. The form of marriage, too, could change from time to time, from place to place. If it changes, then there is no problem for Buddhism. For Buddhism marriage is only a social institution. It is something entirely mundane, not a religious “sacrament”. Nor does Buddhism say that marriage is an indissoluble bond. Therefore if two married partners are incompatible, they can certainly divorce, provided, of course, they follow the laws of the country as enacted for such situations.

Buddhism has no prohibitions against birth control. If a married couple decides to practise contraception to prevent children being born, that is entirely their private business. They are not committing anything that is morally evil. Nor will the Buddhist Sangha, whether Theravada, Mahayana, or Vajrayana ever promulgate an edict condemning and prohibiting such acts.

Abortion is of course a different matter. Since abortion involves taking a life, it goes against the First Precept. However, in our opinion abortion can be condoned in cases of serious [biopsychosocial] health hazards, if abortion is the lesser evil. In this connection it is instructive for us to remember two things: One is that according to Buddhism what really matters is the intention/volition (cetana). It is, in fact, intention/volition that the Buddha has identified as kamma. The other thing is that in following morality, Buddhists are not expected to do so by absolutely grasping moral precepts (aparamattham).