David Loy asked ‘What was Buddha trying to achieve when he started teaching?’ He asked whether we can explore this question without projecting our modern understanding of private/public sphere separation, based on the Protestant Reformation. He explained that what we today call religions are really “reduced civilizations” which were much more ambitious in their origins. Thus Buddhism in Asia is both a great cultural and social tradition.
We know very little about whether the Buddha envisioned broader social change. His texts were handed down orally for generations before being recorded and of course they were edited.
After Buddha’s passing, the Sangha became more dependent on royal patronage, which meant Sangha had to support royalty in turn. While early Buddhism was anti-caste, the notion that an individual deserves their current position reentered the tradition. Maybe in order to survive in an increasingly autocratic world, it had to only address individual Dukkha and not social suffering.
Eventually, the Asian tradition interacted and was influenced by Western ideas of human rights influenced by the traditions of the prophets of Israel and Greek democracy. The Asian worldview doesn’t have much to say about justice, except for the concept of karma, which is often used to justify oppression.
Now we can ask what is social awakening? Asian Buddhism couldn’t challenge authorities. Western revolutions have failed because its lacked the internal, personal change. Its got to be both. A root problem is that the sense of self in our society is haunted by sense of lack. We project from our minds and we see this lack as something external that we don’t have- money, sex, fame. The dissatisfaction based on clinging that the Buddha elucidated so clearly has become institutionalized in the forms of consumerism and militarism. Our media is institutionalized delusion. We must experience social awakening to overcome this delusion.