The Highest Good for Self and Society
No person can save another. You cannot bring me to enlightenment. I alone have that power. You can teach me, show me, explain, exhibit, and do an interpretive dance, but you cannot snap your fingers and make me enlightened through the force of your will.
By oneself is evil done; by oneself is one defiled. By oneself is evil left undone; by oneself is one made pure. Purity and impurity depend on oneself; no one can purify another. (Dhammapada 165)
The idea that the path of personal liberation is somehow incompatible with social ethics is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of reality. If I could snap my fingers and make the perfect world, still I could not make you enlightened.
This is illustrated in the traditions of Buddhism known as Pure Land. Amida Buddha, through the power of his vow, creates the Pure Land where anyone who so much as mutters his name will be reborn after death. In this Pure Land, this perfect world, beings may then easily achieve enlightenment, but they still have to achieve it for themselves. After all, why bother creating a Pure Land at all if it were possible to liberate another directly? Why not vow to do that instead and then go ahead and do it?
A social ethic is integral to the path of personal liberation, as the above example also illustrates. If we can, all of us together, create a better world, each one of us will have a better foundation for our own enlightenment, just like in Amida’s Pure Land. In fact, many Pure Land schools now call for the creation of such a society within our present lives. They aren’t trying to just make the world nicer; they have a salvific goal in mind.
We must never forget that Buddhism isn’t self-help. It is a religion with a clear soteriological path. That is, it asserts unequivocally that there is a highest and best good that can be attained by human beings and then describes the path to attain it.
In the philosophy of the Buddha, we have … recommendations to lead a way of life regarded as “the only way” … for the attainment of summum bonum or the Highest Good, which is one of supreme bliss, moral perfection as well as of ultimate knowledge or realization. (Jayatilleke, p. 3)
Social ethics is not merely a means to an end. According to Jayatilleke (p. 10), “the well-being or happiness of the multitude” is also a soteriological goal with a spiritual dimension, as well as a material or worldly goal.
“Buddhism presents a clear conception of what is ultimately good and what is instrumentally good in order to achieve this [Highest Good].” (Jayatilleke, p. 9) Social ethics are thus both instrumentally good and ultimately good. They are a consequence of kusala, or skillful actions, which is at its highest form in one who has attained the Highest Good. Actions which are “spiritually elevating” are also “socially desirable.”
In this formation (which I realize some Buddhists may take exception with) individual liberation is the only liberation, but it is grounded on the foundation of social ethics. While one may be able to achieve liberation under horrible circumstances, it is very difficult to do so. Likewise, the ultimate ethically society is one that supports the liberation of all people. Therefore, if any of us are going to pursue personal liberation, we must also pursue collective liberation through ethical behavior.
The Zen koan reminds us not to mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon. Likewise, we should not mistake the finger pointing at the moon as one pointing away from the sun. They share the same light.