The application of the Buddha’s teachings in the social realm is spawning a social revolution among the Dalit communities of India. Buddhism represents not only an alternative to oppressive caste hierarchy, but is also providing practical ways to inner change so that they become empowered socially as well as spiritually.
In recent times, the social implications of Buddhist practice have become well known as ‘socially engaged Buddhism’. Far from being a new development in Buddhism, it goes right back to the Buddha himself, who exhorted his first 60 disciples to go out and work for the welfare and happiness of all beings, “Bahujana hitaya, bahujana sukhaya.” The rest of his life exemplified this spirit. He spent 35 years walking the pathways of north India, going to people and helping them in whatever way he could. He was a critic of social ills, the caste system, unjust government, wrong forms of livelihood, and all kinds of violence and exploitation, including the neglect of the girl child.
Buddhist practice will express itself in, and affect the world, in one way or another. For the last 27 years, I have been working amongst Buddhist followers of Dr B. R. Ambedkar, most of who come from socially deprived backgrounds. Buddhist spiritual practice has empowered them, bringing about more confidence, a greater sense of responsibility, and enhanced capabilities such that they feel empowered to make a positive social impact.
The process of spiritual development is described in Buddhism as consisting of the path of vision and the path of transformation. Without a vision of the higher life or a feeling for it that draws us on, there is no possibility of inner transformation. Vision can arise in different ways, such as through deep aesthetic or mystical experience, grief, friendship or social work resulting in selflessness, disillusionment, inner emptiness, a yearning for deeper meaning in life, and so on.
The Buddha exemplifies what a human being can do with his or her life if they make the effort. He is shown meditating, teaching, giving courage and strength, walking mindfully, but however he is shown, he always communicates peace, confidence, compassion and energy. In some Buddhist traditions this vision includes other archetypal Buddha figures that represent various aspects of enlightenment, thus making this great vision of Buddhahood accessible to us. There is also the vision of a pure land where all beings are shown sitting on lotuses, listening blissfully to the Buddha teaching. This vision encompasses the whole of humanity; it envisages a world in which life conditions support all humans in practicing the dhamma.