Buddhism and the World Crisis

by Prof Dr Damien Keown, The Buddhist Channel, May 29, 2015

In his keynote address at the opening of the United Nations Day of Vesak 2015, Prof Dr Damien Keown presents his view on how global crises can be turned into opportunities in the context of the ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) region

Bangkok, Thailand
-- While reflecting on the word ‘crisis’ I was reminded of a remark made by US President John F. Kennedy in a speech he gave in Indianapolis in 1959. The President said ‘The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word “crisis.” One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger - but recognize the opportunity.’ I don’t know if the President’s understanding of Chinese was accurate, but I would like to take those words as the inspiration for my comments.

Certainly, there is a world crisis, and this presents itself in many shapes and forms. While the world has faced many crises in the past, the threat seems greater today due to modern developments such as globalization, advanced technology, mass migration, and the accelerated speed of transport and communications.

The pace of change has never been faster, allowing less time to pause in the face of the challenges that arise on every side, and less time to develop wise solutions.

In the face of these challenges there is a pervasive feeling, both among individual citizens and their political leaders, of being caught off-balance and wrongfooted by events; of being swept along by a tsunami of powerful forces which are beyond the power even of governments and world leaders to control. In this context, there is a greater need than ever for Buddhist teachings to be heard, and not just heard but implemented with commitment and decisiveness.

The panels in this conference will explore the role of Buddhism in the current world crisis under four different headings:

1.    Buddhist Response to Social Conflict
2.    Buddhist Response to Environmental Degradation
3.    Buddhism and the ASEAN Community
4.    Buddhist Response to Educational Crisis

These are interrelated themes, but let's start with the third, Buddhism and the ASEAN Community. I begin with ASEAN for two reasons. First, because 2015 marks the year in which the ASEAN Community comes into being; and second, because questions like social conflict, the environment and education will increasingly demand regional as opposed to national or local solutions.


The Association of Southeast Asian Nations was founded in Bangkok with the signing of the ASEAN Declaration on 8 August 1967. The five founding nations were Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. These were subsequently joined by Brunei, Cambodia, Lao, Myanmar and Vietnam, bringing the total to ten, and with the planned inclusion of East Timor the total will be eleven. The ASEAN Charter, which came into force on 15 December 2008, gave a legal and institutional framework for the creation of the ASEAN Community.


The motto of ASEAN is ‘One Vision, One Identity, One Community,’ and the aims and purposes of ASEAN, as stated in its founding declaration, are as follows:

  1. To accelerate the economic growth, social progress and cultural development in the region through joint endeavours in the spirit of equality and partnership in order to strengthen the foundation for a prosperous and peaceful community of Southeast Asian Nations;

  2. To promote regional peace and stability through abiding respect for justice and the rule of law in the relationship among countries of the region and adherence to the principles of the United Nations Charter;

  3. To promote active collaboration and mutual assistance on matters of common interest in the economic, social, cultural, technical, scientific and administrative fields;

  4. To provide assistance to each other in the form of training and research facilities in the educational, professional, technical and administrative spheres;

  5. To collaborate more effectively for the greater utilisation of their agriculture and industries, the expansion of their trade, including the study of the problems of international commodity trade, the improvement of their transportation and communications facilities and the raising of the living standards of their peoples;

  6. To promote Southeast Asian studies; and

  7. To maintain close and beneficial cooperation with existing international and regional organisations with similar aims and purposes, and explore all avenues for even closer cooperation among themselves.

In these seven items , the key words that stand out are: partnership, peace, prosperity, respect, collaboration, assistance, and cooperation. To what extent are these seven aims and purposes in harmony with Buddhist values? Like us, the Buddha lived at a time of change and instability: in his day, smaller states were being incorporated into larger political units, not voluntarily - as in the case of ASEAN - but as a result of the aggressive policies of their expansionist neighbours. 

As an alternative to this pattern of conquest and annexation, the Buddha commended an alternative political model based on collaboration and peaceful co-existence through the implementation of what he called ‘the seven conditions of welfare’ (sattā aparihāniyā dhammā) (D.ii.73ff).


  1. There are regular and frequent assemblies. This implies a democratic system in which the people or their representatives meet regularly for discussion on all matters.
  2. The assemblies meet in harmony, rise in harmony, and carry on their business in harmony.  Here there is an emphasis on united action in establishing an agreed manifesto, an agenda for action, and the implementation of democratically agreed policies. It also implies that communities will help each other in times of need.
  3. They enact nothing not already established, abrogate nothing that has already been enacted, and proceed in accordance with their ancient institutions. Perhaps this sounds overly conservative and suggests the Buddha was opposed to change. I think instead it was intended to safeguard the identity of the community and to establish the principle that resolutions should only be approved when they are in harmony with the community’s constitution and values.  In simple terms it suggests that everyone should respect the law.
  4. They honour, respect, revere, and salute the elders among them and consider them worth listening to. This involves recognition of the contribution made by statesmen and political leaders. It can also be seen as a call to respect and participate in the democratic process.
  5. They do not take away by force or abduct others’ wives and daughters and detain them. Here we see the Buddha’s strong disapproval of violence towards women and an implicit call for gender equality. While directed specifically at women, by extension it includes all vulnerable members of society and would prohibit exploitative practices like slavery, human trafficking, and child labour.
  6. They honour, respect, revere, and salute religious shrines at home and abroad, not withdrawing the proper support given before. This is a call for respect for religion and its symbols and material culture. It includes the sacred buildings of all religions such as temples, mosques, churches and shrines, along with their respective communities.
  7. Proper provision is made for the safety of arahants so that those from far away may enter the realm and live in peace along with those already present. Linked to the previous condition, this can be interpreted as a call for tolerance and religious freedom throughout the community. In addition, it suggests that restrictions on free movement should be removed so that those who wish to live in peace and bring benefits to the community are welcomed.

I make no claim that these two lists of seven items are identical, much less that the Buddha laid the foundations for the ASEAN constitution. I suggest only that the two lists share a common direction of travel.

In essence, what I think we see the Buddha calling for is a transparent democratic system built around consensus and based on a constitution enshrining humanitarian values, protection of the vulnerable, and freedom of religion. I think we can say there is no great incompatibility between the two lists, and it seems the political constitution and economic infrastructure provided by ASEAN can further the aims of allowing communities to co-exist in peace and prosperity in the modern world, an ideal to which Buddhists can happily subscribe.


To forge the member states into a functioning community was the aim of the ASEAN Vision 2020, adopted in 2006. Here, the ASEAN leaders agreed on a shared vision of ASEAN as ‘a concert of Southeast Asian nations, outward looking, living in peace, stability and prosperity, bonded together in partnership in dynamic development and in a community of caring societies.’ The ASEAN Community is made up of three pillars:

1.    ASEAN Political-Security Community
2.    ASEAN Economic Community and
3.    ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community.

While nations in which Buddhism is influential will, like other member states, have an interest in the first two of these pillars, the contribution of Buddhist teachings and values will be especially important in the third. The aims of the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community, in which matters such as religious belief and traditions will play an important role, include achieving ‘enduring solidarity and unity among the peoples and Member States of ASEAN. It seeks to forge a common identity and build a caring and sharing society which is inclusive and where the well-being, livelihood, and welfare of the peoples are enhanced.’1

The various dimensions of ASEAN mentioned so far connect in various ways with the topics to be discussed at this conference. Buddhism has no objection to economic prosperity and the expansion of trade, provided, of course, that prosperity does not lead to rampant consumerism, and economic development takes place in a sustainable and environmentally responsible manner.

Here we have a link to the second conference theme, namely concern for environmental degradation. Regional peace and stability, and respect for justice and law, are also admirable objectives, and connect to our first conference theme, which addresses the problem of social conflict. ASEAN’s commitment to renunciation of the use of force and a commitment to the peaceful settlement of disputes is of key importance here.

The fourth conference theme, the Buddhist response to the educational crisis, is picked up by references - in the fourth and sixth of the seven ASEAN principles - to the provision of assistance in training and research, and also to the promotion of Southeast Asian studies. This last item provides a platform for expanding the study of Buddhism at various levels of the curriculum, a point I will return to shortly.

While Buddhist values overlap to a large degree with those of ASEAN, on a practical level it will be the task of the representatives of the Buddhist member states to be vigilant in ensuring that the formulation and implementation of specific policies reflects the values of their home constituencies. Buddhist groups and organizations will need to ensure that their views on social, economic and political issues are expressed at the appropriate levels within the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community.


Having said something about the aims and principles of ASEAN, we turn individually to the three remaining conference themes. Of these, the environmental crisis is perhaps the most serious. It is the most serious because of its global nature, and its capacity to threaten the wellbeing of the planet in a fundamental way. Apart from harm to the environment itself, environmental degradation has a knock-on effect in other areas: it affects health and economic development, and potentially also gives rise to conflict as resources become scarcer.

Importantly, the effects of environmental degradation are felt most keenly by the poor. To turn this challenge into an opportunity will require considerable initiative, thought and planning.
The ASEAN Declaration on Environmental Sustainability states :

ASEAN shall work towards achieving sustainable development as well as promoting clean and green environment by protecting the natural resource base for economic and social development including the sustainable management and conservation of soil, water, mineral, energy, biodiversity, forest, coastal and marine resources as well as the improvement in water and air quality for the ASEAN region. ASEAN will actively participate in global efforts towards addressing global environmental challenges, including climate change and the ozone layer protection, as well as developing and adapting environmentally-sound technology for development needs and environmental sustainability.

Developments in this respect are already under way. A programme run by the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) in conjunction with Germany was launched in Jakarta on 7 April 2015. The project, titled ‘Protection of Biological Diversity in the ASEAN Member States in Cooperation with the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity,’ aims to ‘protect the biological diversity, promote the sustainable management of natural ecosystems, and improve the livelihoods of local population in the ASEAN region.’

Earlier last month, the Secretary General of ASEAN, H.E. Le Luong Minh, speaking in Hanoi, accepted that ‘ASEAN, as elsewhere in the world, despite abundant human and natural resources, does face a big challenge in keeping a delicate balance between environmental sustainability and economic development.’ 2

In his remarks, the Secretary General said there was ‘broad agreement that with regard to sustainable development, ASEAN's Post-2015 Vision should continue to promote inclusive, sustained and equitable economic growth and sustainable development, consistent with the UN Post- 2015 development agenda,’ while ‘ensuring a proper balance between economic development and environmental protection.’

Other interesting work has been done to explore ways in which specific economies can thrive in ASEAN while preserving their traditional ecological values. An example of this includes papers from a conference at Assumption University in 2013. One author, in his contribution titled ‘Buddhist Economics and Ecology: A Lesson for the Future of the ASEAN Community’  contrasts ‘mainstream economics, which is an economics of greed, with Buddhist economics whose goal is not to maximize utility but to promote a healthy life for the individual and wellness, peace and tranquillity for the society.’3

In the Buddha’s time there was no environmental crisis of the kind we face today. He was nevertheless well aware that nature can be a powerful ally or a dangerous enemy, and that the relationship between human beings and the natural world was complex and needed careful management.

The inhabitants of the region where he lived were very much at the mercy of the environment, and the early sources speak of natural disasters like flooding or drought leading to starvation, depopulation (A.I,160), poverty and crime (Ja.II,367; VI,487).4  The Buddha realized that the survival of forests and the wilderness was important to those who, like himself, left home to pursue the religious life.

Time and again he encouraged his monks and nuns to spend as much time as they could away from human habitation in the jungle (A.III,87). With respect to animals, the Buddhist values of non-violence and compassion are clearly expressed in the Buddha’s opposition to animal sacrifice. Various Buddhist teachings can be drawn on to promote environmental values and ecological awareness. Influential in defining ethical attitudes towards the natural world are the four Brahma-vihāras, or sublime states of mind, namely universal love (metta), compassion (karuṇā), sympathetic joy (muditā) and equanimity (upekkhā).

These attitudes foster feelings that lead to the protection of the natural world and ensure its well-being. While the environmental problems we face today are on a vastly larger scale, we can find in the Buddha’s teachings principles that can help guide our thinking.


The topic of social conflict is a subject that brings us face to face with a number of difficult questions. It is an unfortunate fact that religious discrimination, intimidation, harassment, and violence toward minority religious and ethnic groups are currently on the rise, even in countries where Buddhism is well established.

Contemporary events have shown that the simplistic view that Buddhism is exclusively a religion of peace, and that only other religions promote violence is no longer sustainable. Buddhism like any religion can become entangled with nationalism and caught up in ethnic conflict.

Of course, this is clearly contrary to Buddhist teachings on violence, which are well known and often repeated. The Dhammapada (v.129), invoking the ‘Golden Rule,’ counsels against violence, and the First Precept prohibits causing intentional harm to any living creature. The Buddha explained how conflict often arises from greed, hatred and delusion, and taught virtues such as kindness, compassion, non-violence, mindfulness, gentleness, contentment, generosity and wisdom that promote harmonious co-existence, and criticized vices like arrogance, pride, covetousness, egoism and greed, which fuel animosity and conflict. Greed gives rise to attachment to pleasures, material possessions, territory, and economic and political power.

Attachment to dogmatic views and inflexible fundamentalist ideologies can lead to persecutions and bloody crusades. In the last century millions of deaths can be attributed to such attitudes. Claims such as “This alone is true, all else is false” (idam eva saccaṃ moghamaññam) (M.ii.170) are characteristic of attitudes that divide society.

Hatred and prejudice becomes entrenched, often for generations, and are difficult to dislodge. The delusion that one’s self, or one’s community, is uniquely privileged and must be protected at all costs reinforces egocentric and nationalist perspectives that see other communities as the enemy and a threat. The Buddha specifically warned against this kind of attitude, counselling his followers not to react angrily if the Buddha, Dhamma, or Sangha were disparaged by others (D.i.3).

The great king Asoka was no stranger to conflict, and was responsible for suffering and death on a large scale, as he himself admits. Repenting of these campaigns of conquest he later sought to implement values of toleration, and in his 12th Rock Edict spoke about the importance of religious toleration and his desire that ‘all should be well-learned in the good doctrines of other religions.’ He states that he ‘honours both ascetics and the householders of all religions’ and desires that they flourish. Key to this, he suggests, is restraint in speech, which means:

… not praising one's own religion, or condemning the religion of others without good cause. And if there is cause for criticism, it should be done in a mild way. But it is better to honour other religions for this reason. By so doing, one's own religion benefits, and so do other religions, while doing otherwise harms one's own religion and the religions of others. 

Not resorting to divisive speech is also important in avoiding and defusing conflict, and one who refrains from it is said to be: ‘one who reunites those who are divided, a promoter of friendships, who enjoys concord, rejoices in concord, delights in concord, a speaker of words that promote concord.’ 5

Although delivered many centuries ago, this wise advice seems particularly timely on the threshold of closer integration among the ASEAN nations and their diverse faiths.
The ASEAN Institute for Peace and Reconciliation (AIPR) was established in 2011 under the auspices of the ASEAN Political-Security Community and held its first Governing Council Meeting in Jakarta in December 2013. Since then it has held two symposia in 2014, the first in Manila and the second in Bali. It will have a valuable and difficult role to play in mediation and defusing tensions which will inevitably arise in a religiously and ethnically diverse community of some 600 million people.

Relations between the two largest ASEAN religions, Islam and Buddhism, will play a key role in the integration of the community. According to one scholar:

The coming formation of the ASEAN community in 2015 highlights the urgent need for religions of Southeast Asia to move from co-existence to dialogue. When the 10 countries of ASEAN are integrated economically, Buddhists will make up about 40% and Muslims 42%. Hence the formation of an economically dynamic, politically plural and peaceful ASEAN community will depend on the future of Buddhism-Islam relations.6

Apart from intolerance of other religions, conflict can also arise from other sources.
Economic inequalities in the distribution of resources can lead to crime and social unrest, and a wise government will seek to avoid revolution and revolt by ensuring that material support is provided for the poorest in society.

The Cakkavatti-Sīhanāda Sutta records how by failing to do this, the kingdom of one ruler fell into ruin. For those members of the laity with greater resources, the Buddha gave useful advice on how to generate and spend their wealth (e.g. S.iv.331-7).

In the Sigālovāda Sutta he recommends that a quarter be used for one’s personal needs and comfort, a half on one’s business, and the remaining quarter saved in case of hardship (D.iii.188). The Sigālovāda Sutta also gives advice on social relationships, and other sources offer guidance on what sort of trades and professions should be engaged in and which not. Buddhism thus has a wide range of strategies to draw on - including mindfulness and meditation--to help avoid social conflict and to defuse it once arisen.


Turning now to the final conference theme of the educational crisis, Buddhism is an intellectually dynamic tradition that holds learning in great esteem. Scholarship, or ganthadhura, is recognized as an important and legitimate monastic career. Unfortunately, however, learning can also deteriorate into the mindless copying or chanting of texts without any real understanding. To avoid this requires a comprehensive system of education from primary to university level in which questioning, originality, analysis and critical reflection are encouraged.

A UNECOSOC ministerial declaration in 2011 spoke of ‘the inter-linkages between education and the advancement of all the other Millennium Development Goals. We also recognize that education plays a fundamental role in creating an inclusive society and reducing inequity and inequality, as well as for achieving sustained, inclusive and equitable economic growth, poverty eradication and sustainable development.’

Following a two-year review of the curricula of member countries, ASEAN produced an ASEAN Curriculum Sourcebook as a tool for educators. The Sourcebook describes itself as :

… a resource that teachers throughout ASEAN can use to help learners explore their many connections to one another and to conceive of themselves both as individuals, and as engaged members in their community, country, their region, and the world. As they do so, they will understand the complex ways in which peoples and lands across ASEAN are connected, be able to exchange and appreciate diverse perspectives, and envision new ways in which they can work together to realize common goals and a brighter future.8

The Sourcebook explore five themes (Knowing ASEAN, Valuing Identity and Diversity, Connecting Global and Local, Promoting Equity and Justice, and Working Together for a Sustainable Future), through four Pathways (People, Places, Materials, and Ideas).
A third component is the ‘Essential Questions’ which ‘articulate the Pathways, connect the Themes with the learners’ own ideas and perspectives, and guide them in applying critical thinking and problem-solving skills as they engage with the material.’ These three elements form the basis of lesson plans which serve as free-standing teaching units.

While the Sourcebook is primarily intended for use in primary and secondary schools, it provides a blueprint that could be adapted for use in higher education as well. Institutions will need to review their existing curricula to make sure they meet the needs of incoming students who will graduate as citizens of the ASEAN community. 

The International Association of Buddhist Universities (IABU), with member universities in Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Singapore and Indonesia, seems well placed to coordinate this work among Buddhist universities and to represent Buddhist views on education in the Socio-Cultural Community of ASEAN. The IABU’s vision, mission and goals broadly coincide with the educational objectives of ASEAN, UNESCO and UNECOSOC, and discussions have already taken place on a model ASEAN Buddhist Studies Curriculum. It remains to be seen whether and how this work will be carried forward by member institutions. 9


In conclusion, let me echo the quote from John F.Kennedy mentioned at the start with one from another famous politician, Winston Churchill. Churchill is reputed to have said, ‘Never waste a good crisis,’ and while he was referring to crises of a political nature I think his words also apply more broadly. Crisis brings the opportunity for change, and our conference will explore four areas of contemporary crisis and the opportunities they present.
While each of these can be tackled independently, I have suggested that they are interconnected. The positive outcome we look forward to in addressing these crises successfully is a well-educated population enjoying prosperity based on sustainable development and living in peaceful communities. I hope this is not too utopian an ideal, and that it is one which our discussions in this conference can help bring a little closer.

Damien Keown is Emeritus Professor of Buddhist Ethics, University of London Goldsmiths. The United Nations Day of Vesak (UNDV) is currently being held in Bangkok, Thailand from May 28-30, 2015. Presentation was edited for publication.


[1] http://www.asean.org/communities/asean-socio-cultural-community.

[2] Communique in ASEAN Secretariat News, 1 April 2015. http://www.asean.org/news/item/sec-gen-minh-updates-world-parliamentarians-on-asean-s-sustainable-development-efforts?category_id=27.

[3] P.xii.

[4] S. Dhammika, Nature and the Environment in Early Buddhism, (Singapore: Buddha Dhamma Mandala Society, 2015) and available online from the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. All of the information in the present paragraph comes from this useful source.

[5] Quoted in Peter Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p.249.

[6] Professor Dr. Imitiyaz Yusuf , Graduate School of Philosophy and Religion, Assumption University. http://en.reingex.com/img/ASEAN-Religion.png

[7] This topic is addressed in depth by Dr Dion Peoples in a paper titled ‘Revised Role for Buddhism in ASEAN: Conquering the Educational Crisis’ to be presented in the ‘Buddhist Response to Educational Crisis’ panel of the conference, to which readers are referred for further information.

[8] ASEAN Curriculum Sourcebook, p.4.

[9] This was at the third conference of the Association of Theravada Buddhist Universities at Mahamakut Buddhist University, 16-18 May 2013 (Dion Peoples, ‘Revised Role for Buddhism in ASEAN: Conquering the Educational Crisis’).
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