Buddhist perspectives on society and culture


Buddhist perspectives on
society and culture

A Good Heart is not Enough – part 1

This article is part of the series A Good Heart is not Enough. Articles in the series are:
A Good Heart

Policymaking in the shadow of the pandemic

Part One (of three)

‘A Capable Person’1

One of the most beautiful and influential of the Buddha’s teachings is the Karaniya Metta Sutta — a discourse on the subject of loving-kindness.2 In this teaching the Buddha advocates the development of a benevolent heart towards all living beings. Before describing how to do so, he outlines some preconditions:

Start as a capable person, who is upright (really upright), gently spoken, flexible and not conceited.

An interesting feature of these words, not often remarked on, is that the first pre-requisite for loving-kindness is to be a capable person. Some translations offer ‘able’ instead of ‘capable’, but either word implies that in order to develop a loving heart, a good measure of worldly functional competence is necessary. Why so? Perhaps because if we are truly to will the good, we must see what the good consists in — not just in the abstract but in the concrete particulars of the world through which we move. We must also know how to accomplish the good effectively in that world.

This double aspect of Buddhist ethics — the synthesis of a loving heart and a wise head — is encapsulated in the Pali and Sanskrit word kusala. Translating kusala is a problem because the meaning has two aspects that seem distinct from one another in English. It is sometimes rendered as ‘wholesome’ (healthy and beneficial) and sometimes as ‘skilful’ (guided by knowledge and aptitude). The word alone sends us a clear signal that truly ethical action must be not only motivated by love, but also by intelligent insight into the relation between actions and their consequences.

Policymaking demands not only a good heart but also a clear head

In this essay, I will explore an aspect of the capable person, one that is especially important for anyone in a position of leadership or influence — the ability to make decisions that have a long-term beneficial effect on a community or organisation. When an institution is faced with a challenge, such as a safety issue or a question of how to allocate scarce resources, it must choose from a range of options. Some of these choices will be especially important because they set the framework for whole categories of subsequent decisions. This process of formulating guidelines and principles behind a plan of action is what I will mean when I use the word policymaking.

In a nutshell, policymaking demands not only a good heart but also a clear head. While the importance of metta cannot be overemphasised, this article will argue that policymaking needs to balance the ‘heart’ aspect of metta – the aspect of love and compassion for suffering — with the ‘head’ qualities of knowledge, intelligence and functional competence. That inevitably makes the whole enterprise of policymaking more challenging, but we can console ourselves with the thought that those faculties are likely to strengthen when put to strenuous use. In other words, we can treat the task of policymaking as a kind of developmental practice. For Buddhists, the effort to formulate wise policies can, and should, become almost a meditation on pratītyasamutpāda — the arising of things in dependence upon conditions.

If you have held a position of leadership, you will know how hard it is to formulate policies that achieve the desired results but limit undesired side-effects. Because of our inability to grasp the full complexity of even the simplest situation, policymaking is immensely challenging. For that reason, policymaking is an activity few people relish. Yet wise policies can contribute hugely to a better world. Conversely, when policies are formulated unwisely, a difficult situation will be left worse than we found it. So, whilst the topic at first sight may seem rather dry, policy creation is an important activity, rich with possibilities for beneficial action. This article explores this theme, and offers some helpful principles.

Faith Communities and Covid-19

The principles I will recommend are, I believe, applicable to the task of policymaking in any public arena. They apply to virtually any institution. But to expound them only in the abstract would be to miss their force — and might make for dull reading too. I want to look at policymaking in the specific context of faith communities. This is only partly for the subjective reason that I myself, as a Buddhist, belong to a faith group. It is also because the issue of policymaking in such groups is especially interesting. By definition, they have values that differ, at least to some degree, from those of the society that surrounds them. This accentuates a challenge familiar to all independent institutions, namely how to pursue their own proper interests while having due regard to the individual interests and rights of their members (such as their safety), and the wider public interest (especially as formulated in law).

Even communities that shared similar values reached very different conclusions

Faith communities thus provide me with a context. But to illustrate my principles I also need a scenario — a challenging event, even a crisis, that puts policy-making capacities to the test. Ideally, the event should be one that is current or at least fresh in readers’ minds. The Covid-19 pandemic is an obvious choice. With health authorities everywhere convinced that the pandemic required an unprecedented response, faith communities scrabbled to work out policy responses on behalf of their members. However, even communities that shared similar values reached very different conclusions.

Consider (for example) the contrasting responses from Christian churches. In the United Kingdom, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, chose to close churches. In March 2020, he announced that the clergy were not to enter their own churches. In Canada, by contrast, three pastors (Tim Stephens, James Coates and Artur Pawlowski)3, each acting independently, prioritised keeping their churches open during lockdowns. Because of their decision, the pastors were subjected to multiple arrests, but despite this, they deemed that keeping their churches open was the right Christian response. They prioritised spiritual sustenance over physical safety, including their own.

The rights and wrongs of lockdowns were not the only policy dilemma to spring from the Covid crisis. Many national health authorities admonished the public as a whole — old and young, fit and unfit — to accept a vaccination as a civic duty, for the sake not only of personal safety, but also for the safety of others. In some jurisdictions, the admonition came close to compulsion. Members of the public who declined a vaccination were often placed under additional restrictions, affecting their freedom to work or leave their homes.

This raised a predicament for leaders of faith communities. Should those who chose not to be vaccinated be discouraged or even barred from participation in the community’s activities? Should scope be allowed for principled dissent? Justin Welby saw no reason to equivocate on this question. In January 2021, he flatly declared, ‘…the vaccine is safe, and everybody should have it.4’ Note the sweeping words ‘safe’ and   ‘everybody’. Eleven months later, he was even more explicit in proclaiming that vaccination was a moral obligation. ‘It is not about me and my right to choose,’ he asserted, ‘it’s about how I love my neighbour.’5

Yet by that point it was clear (to anyone who cared to look) that some of the Covid-vaccine sceptics were not just reactive and uncooperative. Many were thoughtful people who were worrying about specific issues — evidence, for example, that risks were associated with certain vaccines; or doubts about the logic of universal vaccination when vulnerability to Covid was heavily concentrated in identifiable groups (who could perhaps be more efficiently protected by targeted policies).

My aim in this essay is not to argue whether these worries were ultimately justified or not, but to question whether simple policy imperatives, such as those of Justin Welby, showed due regard for the complexity of the issue. In April 2021, a little more than a year after closing his churches, the Archbishop was reproaching himself for his decision: ‘I didn’t push hard enough to keep churches available for at least individual prayer in the first lockdown. We also said clergy couldn’t go in, and personally, I feel I made a mistake with that.’ It is not inconceivable that in due course he may also have second thoughts about vaccinating ‘everyone’.

As I write this article, the practical need to ponder such questions has diminished. The pandemic seems to be turning into a less dangerous endemic illness. But the possibility of a resurgence — or of some new pandemic — is by no means zero. The need for principles of policymaking has not gone away.

The five principles are widely applicable — not just to pandemics, but to a wide range of problems, whether personal, local or global

For the most part, I am going to approach the subject by posing questions rather than providing answers or recommendations. From the questions I pose, you will easily infer my own policy leanings. But — to reiterate — my aim is not to advocate any specific policy, but rather to identify a few overarching principles, five in all, of policymaking. I do not claim that they constitute a complete guide to policymaking. They aim to address the specific weaknesses that, I believe, have been revealed by the pandemic. Nevertheless, I believe the principles are widely applicable — not just to pandemics, but to a wide range of problems, whether personal, local or global. As the future can never be known with certainty, these principles do not guarantee the best outcomes, but I believe that if applied faithfully, they offer a large measure of protection against the worst.

I am going to illustrate these principles by reference to the two policy areas already mentioned. These are, firstly, ‘lockdowns’ (meaning the enforced prohibition of face-to-face association), and secondly ‘vaccine mandates’ (meaning coercive pressure to accept vaccination, especially pressure upon people who do not need or want to be vaccinated).

To prepare you for the ground we are going to cover, here is a summary of my five principles for policy makers:

  1. View the problem in the round
  2. Anticipate trade-offs
  3. Identify and examine your assumptions
  4. Do not blindly follow the herd
  5. Hone your truth-seeking ability

Principle 1: View the Problem in the Round

With policymaking, the first task is to define the goal of the policy. Helpful questions might include, ‘what problem are we trying to solve?’ or ‘what would a successful outcome look like?’ In the case of Covid, the questions may seem straightforward at first sight. The goal appears to be purely medical: to protect people from the specific threat of the disease.

But is it as simple as that? It seems to me that there are four angles, apart from the medical one, from which we need to consider the matter. These are the perspectives of economics, civil liberties, social cohesion, and — last but not least of all — the specific moral and religious principles of the faith community itself. I think it is essential to view the matter through all of these lenses, and strive to see the problem ‘in the round’. Let’s consider each lens in turn.

First, the economic lens. At the national level, lockdowns will certainly cause job losses, with knock-on effects, including health problems triggered by stress and exacerbated by restrictions on access to medical consultations. Faith communities will not be immune from these general effects, and for that reason alone, they might consider lobbying governments against draconian lockdowns, rather than meekly submitting to them. In addition, a lockdown is likely to impose a specific and heavy cost on any institution that charges for events or (like most faith communities) solicits donations from attendees, many of whom might be casual or occasional, and therefore unlikely to contribute when barred from actually attending.

Secondly, the civil liberties lens. Without liberty of religion, no Buddhist faith community could ever have been established in the West, so Buddhists have reason to value civil liberties. Wise policy needs to find a balance between fundamental liberties and the duty to comply with restrictions required for the common good. Should we submit to every law, believing that laws should be followed, even if misconceived? Or contrarily, is there a civic duty to disobey laws that trample on bedrock principles, such as freedom of assembly and movement? It is no small matter for a government to confine people within the prison of their own homes, or prevent them from pursuing a livelihood to support their families — perhaps a cherished but vulnerable small business, built up by years of hard work. When this happens, there are likely to be sincere and thoughtful people — not just irascible contrarians — who get concerned at the overreach of the state. Resisting this overreach may start to look like the most important issue connected with the future of the faith community.

In the interests of social cohesion, therefore, it may be advisable to conform to public expectations to some degree

Thirdly, there is what I am calling the lens of social cohesion. Society is not entirely homogeneous; it is a patchwork of groups. Whilst the groups overlap, the interests and values of one group rarely coincide wholly with those of another. Peaceful co-existence depends upon how far the groups trust each other. Trust depends on perceptions. In the midst of a national emergency, a group’s decisions on whether or not to obey the law, or to follow official health guidelines, will be noticed and may have long-term repercussions for the public standing of that community. The Canadian pastors, for example, risked being stigmatised as dangerous cranks. A decision to ignore a policy that everyone else considers vital might even spell the end of a faith community. In the interests of social cohesion, therefore, it may be advisable to conform to public expectations to some degree. However, this would be a conscious and provisional choice, not a matter of ‘blindly following the herd’, as we will see more fully when we reach my fourth principle (in Part Two of this essay).

Finally, but crucially, a community can hardly be expected to forget the ‘lens’ proper to its faith. For most religious groups, regular meetings are an important aspect of their practice. For Christians, for instance, salvation is found ‘in the church’, which means, as Luther put it, ‘the company of believing people’. We Buddhists, for our part, have kalyana mitrata — meaning ‘spiritual friendship’, ‘beautiful friendship’, or ‘association with the good’. The Buddha described kalyana mitrata as no less than ‘the whole of the spiritual life’. The founder of my own Buddhist fellowship was Urgyen Sangharakshita, whose name meant ‘the guardian of the spiritual community’. True to his name, he strongly emphasised the vital importance of regular and frequent contact with friends in the Dharma.

In the age of the Internet, it may seem unnecessary to come together in person. But in the recent pandemic, did online conferences offer an adequate substitute for face-to-face meetings, or just a palliative? Few people, if any, truly rejoiced in the temple of Zoom, while some found it so uncongenial they refused to cross the threshold at all. To be gathered physically in one special place is a powerful practice. It detaches us from the cosy distractions of home, and helps focus our thoughts on what is of ultimate importance. It generates elevated emotions that carry us towards our spiritual goal. When we are face to face, eyes can meet, and each participant can witness the interactions among the others. In particular, devotional and ritual activities call for physical presence in a shared and dedicated space.

Beyond this, there is another policy consideration that is specific to the context of a Buddhist community. The path to liberation involves seeing directly into the nature of reality. That reality includes serious illness and death. Of course, that does not mean actively seeking them out. Buddhism does not advocate reckless behaviour or self-destructive asceticism. Those who know themselves to be vulnerable to a disease — whether on the grounds of age, health or occupation — are surely right to take reasonable measures to protect themselves. Likewise, governments are surely right to provide guidance and resources to help them do so, provided this is done with due regard to the likely balance of human costs and benefits.

For Buddhism, the ultimate refuge from danger is not found in striving to make the world perfectly safe

But life is a dangerous business. For Buddhism, the ultimate refuge from danger is not found in striving to make the world perfectly safe. In his classic ‘The Way of the Bodhisattva’, the Buddhist poet Shantideva asks, ‘Where would I find enough leather to cover the entire surface of the earth? But with leather soles beneath my feet, it is as if the whole world has been covered.’6This reminds us that, if Buddhism does not advocate recklessness, it does nevertheless prescribe the development of a resilient mind, less susceptible to fear. In his search for Enlightenment, Siddhartha Gautama sought out jungle solitudes where he strove to overcome fear. Even after attaining Buddhahood, he sometimes withdrew to the wild. Following his example, the wandering forest monks of Thailand carried the practice into the modern era, venturing alone into the jungle, fully mindful of its hardships and hazards. And indeed, there were some who never came back.7

What should western Buddhists make of this? Should we dismiss it as an outdated folly, incompatible with best practice on health and safety? And if we do not dismiss it, where in our practice do we show a corresponding resilience, whether in relation to Covid or anything else? Perhaps, in the final analysis, these are questions that one can only answer for oneself. But in the case of Covid, a more objective question presents itself. Did governments and public health authorities exaggerate the dangers of the disease — whipping up fear to an unnecessary and counterproductive degree? There is evidence that they did.8

Here then are four lenses — public health, economics, civil liberties, social cohesion — through which policy makers should view their task during a crisis like Covid. Depending on which lens we prioritise, our policy choices may vary substantially. And for a faith community, there is also a fifth lens: the specific perspective derived from its own teachings. The way we choose to take account of the first four lenses will be influenced by our conception of what precisely our faith community has to offer the world.

Principle 2: Anticipate Trade-Offs

Let us imagine that we — the policy-makers of a faith community — have prioritised the lens of public health in dealing with a pandemic such as Covid. And of course, many would argue that this medical lens is a natural choice for Buddhists, flowing directly from the Buddhist aspiration for the wellness and happiness of all beings. Following that logic, we then urge vaccination upon our members — trusting the assurances of the authorities that the vaccines on offer are necessary, safe and effective. As a next logical step, it is very possible that we would decide to exclude from our meetings those who decline vaccination. Indeed, I know of some Buddhist groups in various parts of the world who either did this or seriously contemplated it.

However rational and defensible in itself, that choice might ultimately prove unwise if it were made with no regard to possible trade-offs. A ‘trade-off’ is an exchange that entails both gains and losses, but here I am referring to the losses — the disadvantages incurred by seeking or obtaining a particular advantage. For virtually any policy choice in any situation, there are very likely to be trade-offs. Shine a light in any direction you like, and it will cast a shadow. Some trade-offs might be minor, but some might be serious. Some might be anticipated, but others might be totally unforeseen — especially if inadequate forethought is given to the policy decision.

There are no solutions; there are only trade-offs

Thomas Sowell, a much-underrated economic and political thinker, crystallised this insight in his maxim, ‘There are no solutions; there are only trade-offs.’ It is worth quoting him at some length:

“[…] individual sufferings and social evils are inherent in the innate deficiencies of all human beings, whether these deficiencies are in knowledge, wisdom, morality, or courage. Moreover, the available resources are always inadequate to fulfil all the desires of all the people. Thus, there are no ‘solutions’…but only trade-offs… What is needed in this vision is a prudent sense of how to make the best trade-offs from the limited options available […]”9

Sowell is a longstanding critic of the utopian belief that every problem has a solution. He sees the belief as not only mistaken, but harmful. The unpalatable truth, he has argued, is that ‘…many of today’s problems are a result of yesterday’s solutions.’ In the case of such policies as lockdowns and vaccination mandates, it may be some time until we know the extent of the problems generated by such solutions.

To my mind, Buddhism accords better with Sowell’s view than with an unlimited faith in grand social engineering. Buddhism, after all, sees our world as a cyclic order governed by greed, hatred and delusion (corresponding to Sowell’s ‘innate deficiencies of all human beings’). Yes, we can make some things better to some degree. But the idea that we can make absolutely anything better without simultaneously making something worse — that idea is dangerous.10

For example, if members of a faith community are told they must get vaccinated in order to participate in activities, the unvaccinated are thereby stigmatised — deemed negligent of the danger they pose to others. One possible effect will be to drive a wedge through the community. A community’s leaders need to be very confident of the evidence for a crucial benefit before imposing a policy that might split its members into mutually aggrieved camps, or at least alienate a significant minority. In the case of Covid, how far was such confidence justified?

For Buddhists, another set of trade-offs is related to the ten essential Buddhist ethical precepts (the kammapatha).11 The second of these precepts says that we must not take from other people anything that they do not freely choose to give us. The precept is framed in this way to encompass more than just the theft of material property. As individuals, we all have the right to choose whether to accept or refuse what others want to do to our bodies, such as injecting substances into them.

The civil liberties lens is relevant here, but more specifically, the same ethic is well established in medicine as the principle of ‘informed consent’. To be truly ‘informed’, such consent must be based on full and truthful disclosure of the likely benefits and risks. If these are not fully known, the gaps in knowledge must be honestly admitted, as urged by the fourth and sixth Buddhist precepts, prescribing respectively truthful and helpful speech. Because Covid was deemed an emergency, vaccines were approved for use within a far shorter timescale than is normally the case. This was public knowledge, and not a secret kept by specialists. And it was all the more extraordinary in view of the fact that the vaccines deployed in the West involved novel technology. In the case of the mRNA vaccines, the novelty was radical. How then was it possible for anyone to assert unequivocally that they were ‘safe’? This being so, would it not have been prudent to confine the vaccines to those at serious risk from the virus? And even in those cases, should subjects not have been properly appraised of the ‘known unknowns’?

If a faith community opts to exclude unvaccinated members, it thereby pressures them to accept vaccination. In doing so, it vitiates the process by which individual informed consent may rightly be secured. Additionally, what if the vaccine causes an injury to a member of the faith community? In such a case, would not the community carry some moral responsibility for the injury?

The principle of informed consent might seem secondary in the face of a health emergency. But the civil liberties perspective is again relevant. If we don’t want to live in a tyranny, however benign, the definition of an emergency — and the authority to declare or maintain one — must be subject to limits. What is more, its necessity must be justified. In the case of Covid, it was established at an early stage that risk was heavily concentrated in identifiable groups — older people and those with certain comorbidities. In a topic where so much is uncertain, that fact was, and remains, uncontroversial. In such a situation, was it necessary to press young and healthy persons to undergo medical interventions that were of little or no benefit to themselves, and perhaps posed some risk, on the grounds that the intervention would protect others more infirm?

Additionally, if the medical lens is prioritised in such a crisis, should that not logically include consideration of the impact on people’s health of excluding them from their faith community? Are there not psychological and possibly physical effects upon people’s health consequent on isolating them or compelling them to maintain a physical distance?

When the thing potentially being ‘traded off’ is the ethical principles of a faith community, the need for such evaluation is particularly acute

My questions are meant to illustrate the point that exclusion of the unvaccinated might have serious disadvantages. At this juncture, I had better reiterate that my present purpose is not to take a side but only to show that, for any policy choice, there will be trade-offs that need to be recognised and evaluated against the intended benefits. And when the thing potentially being ‘traded off’ is the ethical principles of a faith community, the need for such evaluation is particularly acute.

If we assume a policy to have no trade-offs at all, then almost certainly we are taking a too-narrow a view of the problem. We might, for obvious reasons, be focussing too exclusively on the immediate and short-term aspects of the problem. We might simply be failing to make the effort to foresee trade-offs because the task of thinking through the possibilities is too daunting, wearying and time-consuming. Or worst of all, we may be blinding ourselves to potential trade-offs to suit a conscious or unconscious agenda.

If we fail to account for trade-offs, our efforts to remedy a situation may cause more harm than good. In the case of Buddhist communities, dedicated to a path to the end of suffering, it would be bitterly ironic if they made things worse, despite good intentions. Vigilant policymaking requires a commitment to ethical action and an effort to predict future consequences, which is always difficult. It demands that we go beyond simplistic single-cause theories. Before we implement a policy, we need to consider fully the attendant downsides, recognising a perfect solution can rarely be found, and seeking instead the option that, whilst not perfect, is the least harmful overall.

The remainder of this essay will be published in two further parts after short intervals. The second part will deal with the third and fourth principles, namely: ‘identify and examine your assumptions’, and ‘don’t blindly follow the herd’. The third part will deal with the final principle, namely: ‘hone your truth-seeking ability’.


  1. From the outset, the author wishes to express his gratitude to Subhamati (a contributing editor of Apramada), whose considerable help as a conversation partner and editor has transformed the whole of this essay.
  2. Urban Retreat – Karaniya Metta Sutta (thebuddhistcentre.com)
  3. https://premierchristian.news/en/news/article/third-canadian-pastor-arrested-over-breaking-coronavirus-rules
  4. Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby gets Covid jab – BBC News
  5. Getting a Covid jab is a moral issue, Archbishop of Canterbury says | The Independent
  6. Shantideva, Bodhicaryavatara: The Way of the Bodhisattva, Chap. 5, verses 12-13
  7. For a vivid and inspiring account, see Kamala Tiyavanich, Forest Recollections: Wandering Monks in Twentieth-Century Thailand, University of Hawaii Press, 1997 (especially Chapter Three).
  8. See Laura Dodsworth, A State of Fear: how the UK government weaponised fear during the Covid pandemic, Pinter and Martin, 2021.
  9. Thomas Sowell, ‘The Vision of the Anointed’ p. 113
  10. Thomas Sowell writes about this theme in his book ‘A Conflict of Visions’, suggesting there are two conflicting underlying views that underpin political outlooks — the ‘constrained’ vision and the ‘unconstrained’ vision. He wrote, ‘In the constrained vision, whatever artifices or strategies restrain or ameliorate inherent human evils will themselves have costs, some in the form of other social ills created by these civilizing institutions, so that all that is possible is a prudent trade-off’ and also ‘in the constrained vision, injustices are inevitable, with the only real question being whether there will be more with one process than another…… where those with an unconstrained vision see a solution, those with a constrained vision see a trade-off’.
  11. https://www.freebuddhistaudio.com/texts/lecturetexts/161_The_Ten_Pillars_of_Buddhism.pdf

A Chartered Engineer by background, Achara's first love is uncovering ‘how things work’. This explains his thrill on discovering the Dharma, becoming especially intrigued by the law of conditioned co-production. He recently founded an agency specialising in obtaining high quality data.

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