Buddhist perspectives on society and culture


Buddhist perspectives on
society and culture


Posted in: Buddhism, Politics
This article is part of the series Breaking Free of Tribalism and Becoming an Individual. Articles in the series are:

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself. 1

Rudyard Kipling

My earliest memory is of something that happened on my fifth birthday. My parents had arranged a party and had invited a few of my friends to the house we lived in. I don’t remember very much about it; no doubt there was cake and jelly and lemonade and party games and laughter, but I don’t remember any of that. What I remember is going into the bathroom to have a pee. I could hear the excited shouting and laughter in the living room, but it was relatively quiet in the bathroom once I’d closed the door. The sudden contrast — from being absorbed in the fun and games of the party to being alone in the quiet — shocked me into self-awareness, and I remember thinking, ‘I am me.’ I may even have said it out loud. I realised my separateness, and I felt a sort of serene but mysterious excitement: mysterious because there was something strange and slightly scary in being alive, alone, and separate. Why it felt so serene I am unable to say. 2

Of course, as soon as I left the bathroom and rejoined the party, my self-awareness, along with the sense of wonder and tranquillity, was lost as I immersed myself once again in group consciousness. But that memory has always held a fascination, a sense of significance, and I think of it as my axial moment. It was the dawning of self-consciousness or reflexive self-awareness, the moment when I became aware not just of my senses and surroundings, but aware of being aware — what Nabokov termed ‘being aware of being aware of being’. This is the seed of individuality.

As mentioned in Part One of this series, Karl Jaspers described the Axial Age as a time when certain people liberated themselves from group consciousness and dared to rely on themselves as individuals. I also said that when my Buddhist teacher, Sangharakshita, returned from India to the UK in the mid-60s, he used Jaspers’ idea of the Axial Age in his teaching. He began to outline what he considered to be the defining characteristics of an individual, and continued to reflect on this over a number of decades, adding more characteristics.In this article I will discuss only some of the characteristics he initially identified — those that I consider foundational. Otherwise this would be a very long article indeed. 3Someone who fully possesses these characteristics is a true individual, but we should bear in mind that there are degrees of individuality. No one jumps from the tribe into individuality in a single leap. There is a continuum, not a dichotomy, between tribe and individual, and we can develop our individuality over time.


Before going any further, I must repeat a point made in Part One of this series: that an individual is not the same as an individualist. Individualists look out for themselves, often at the expense of others; or as Sangharakshita once put it, they have ‘an inflated ego, which they like to inflict on others’. I can identify four kinds of individualist although there may be more. Those of the first type are simply selfish, and do whatever they want, regardless of others’ needs. The second type of individualist is the strongest member of a group — the one who holds the most power. Members of the third type do their utmost to seem different and look different from everyone else in order to ‘stand out from the crowd’. Fourthly, there are individualists who constantly disagree with whatever other people say, either because they simply like arguing or because it will further their career to do so.

Characteristics of an Individual

An individual is quite different from any of the four types of individualist. Although every individual is unique, there are a number of characteristics they have in common. The first of these I have already mentioned: reflexive self-awareness, which is the seed of individuality. That seed will come to nothing unless it is cultivated. Consequently, the first thing we need to do is choose to cultivate it.

The Buddha taught a practice to cultivate this awareness: the practice of mindfulness, the gentle but persistent effort to be aware at each and every moment. Most people have heard of mindfulness, as it has become popular through the secular mindfulness movement. In that context, however, the word is used differently to the way the Buddha talked about it. In secular mindfulness great emphasis is placed on the present moment. While this is an important aspect of mindfulness, the Buddha also emphasised awareness of the past — how we have behaved, what happened when we thought such and such, what happened when we said or did such and such. Thus we begin to learn from our own experience which behaviours lead to suffering for oneself and others, and which lead to freedom from suffering. There is also a future-facing dimension to mindfulness. What we think, say and do in the present will affect our and others’ future. Mindfulness therefore involves being aware of what the ancient texts call all three times.

With reflexive self-awareness comes responsibility. Once you become aware that you are an individual person and not just part of a group (a social unit), you also realise that your actions matter — that they have consequences, and you are responsible for those consequences. This is the meaning of the well-known law of karma. Of course many group members have a strong sense of morality, but that ethical sense can be overridden by group pressures. Ordinarily decent people are capable of unspeakably cruel acts when under the influence of a malign group. Common soldiers fighting for the Axis powers in the Second World War provided some extreme examples. True individuals are not susceptible to such forces, so their ethical behaviour cannot be compromised by them.

Connected with the realisation that one is a self-aware being, and the consequent taking of responsibility for oneself, comes another characteristic: as an individual, one thinks for oneself. One comes to conclusions independently of others. That does not mean ignoring or rejecting what others say. It means that, ultimately, individuals make their own judgements about issues.

Because individuals think for themselves, they sometimes come to different conclusions to the majority. Consequently, they sometimes find themselves on their own. This brings us to another characteristic of the individual: he or she is prepared to stand alone if necessary. This requires courage. In a totalitarian state, you would have to be extremely brave to do it. The penalties for dissent may be imprisonment, torture, death, and — perhaps the cruellest deterrent — the threat of harm to one’s family and friends. In a free society, the worst that can happen is that you are shamed, intimidated, and deprived of your job, career, and reputation — outcomes that nowadays we call ‘cancelling’. These ‘soft’ penalties should not be underestimated though. They are a sufficient deterrent to ensure that many people decide to stay silent.

‘Cancel culture’ is not really a new phenomenon. In the past, shunning — ejection from the group for a supposed misdemeanour — was common in many societies. There is a well-known English idiom ‘to send someone to Coventry’, which means ostracising them: not talking to them, avoiding their company, and acting as if they no longer exist. To be ‘sent to Coventry’ is to become as though invisible and inaudible. It is hard for us to understand how painful that would have been to people of former eras, most of whom knew no one outside their local community. In modern times, if you are cancelled, you are not completely abandoned. Happily there are plenty of people who disagree with the cancellers, and will support you.

To get a sense of how it felt to be shunned in a former era, it is worth reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, published in 1850. The novel describes Hester Prynne’s experience of being shunned by her Puritan community after she conceives a daughter through an affair. She is forced to wear the ‘scarlet letter’ A, standing for Adulterer, and her illegitimate daughter is also shunned. In modern times, those who attempt to cancel people who express views that they consider to be immoral are rather like the puritans of old.

This brings me to another characteristic of individuals. They have freed themselves from the need to be accepted by their tribe. Conversely, they have freed themselves — in their important decisions, if not in every inward motion — from the fear of rejection by the tribe. This is a substantial achievement because both the need and the associated fear are very hard to resist. I assume the fear is an evolutionary phenomenon, traceable to a time when being part of a tribe was absolutely necessary for survival. But in a liberal, democratic state — such as I imagine most readers of this article inhabit — if we go against our group and risk being ostracised, the fear is out of proportion to the real danger. In this sense at least, it should be less difficult to cultivate individuality today than it was in times gone by.

One of the earliest Buddhist texts is called The Rhinoceros Horn, in which the Buddha encourages his disciples to cultivate self-reliance. It consists of forty verses, with the (almost) constant refrain: ‘one should wander alone like the rhinoceros horn.’4Here is one of them:

As a mighty, broad shouldered, spotted elephant who shuns the herds might move about at will in the forest, so one should wander alone like the rhinoceros horn.

‘Wandering alone’ is partly to be taken literally, because the Buddha here is obviously addressing bhikkhus — monks who had left the householder’s way of life, and wandered alone in the wilderness. But the text can also be understood metaphorically to mean that, even in the midst of a crowd, one should maintain one’s individuality.

Wandering alone is a practice that helps you to develop self-reliance and to become an individual. In periods of solitude, you quickly realise how dependent you are on others’ company. If you can make the effort to come to terms with that uncomfortable experience, you will begin to become less dependent on others, more self-sufficient, more of an individual. That is one of the reasons why regularly going on solitary retreat is encouraged in the Triratna Buddhist Community.

Interestingly though, one of the forty verses of The Rhinoceros Horn has a different refrain. In this one the Buddha says, ‘If you find an alert companion, a wise and virtuous friend,’ then you should ‘wander with them, joyful and mindful.’ But in the next two verses, the Buddha says that if you do not find such a friend, it is better to ‘wander alone’. I think the Buddha here is alluding to friendship with someone who is also aspiring to become an individual. This leads me to an important point: becoming an individual is not easy. If you are going to follow that course, friendship with others on the same path is invaluable. Such a friendship will not be merely a group of two. It is a completely different kind of relationship: what Sangharakshita has called a free association of individuals. That will be the subject of Part Three of this series.

Before I end, I will mention one more characteristic of the individual: emotional positivity. Sangharakshita once said that the biggest problem of the spiritual life is finding emotional equivalents to our intellectual understanding. For instance, you may understand that all living beings want to be free from suffering, and in the case of human beings at least, to be happy. That idea is easy to understand.

The emotional equivalent to that understanding is metta — loving kindness towards all beings. It is much more difficult to develop metta than it is to understand the desire for happiness. Yet the task of developing positive emotions, especially metta, is a vital part of becoming an individual. Why? Because when you begin to free yourself from your tribe, you see that others are blindly following its dictates. Seeing that, you may all too easily feel contempt for them (hence the pejorative word herd). This can only create a gulf between you and them. That gulf will obstruct your efforts to liberate them from tribalism, and weaken your desire to make such efforts. But as an individual, one should see the potential for individuality in others, and relate to them on that basis. That is more likely to inspire them to lift themselves out of immersion in the group and into the freedom of individual consciousness. In effect, a true individual says to the tribe, ‘I think you’re better than that.’

Cultivating positive emotions is also important for another reason: it helps us to be emotionally independent, and therefore to withstand difficulties, including the opprobrium of the group. Returning to The Rhinoceros Horn Sutta (in a different translation from the above), we find the Buddha saying:

In time, cultivate freedom through

love, compassion, rejoicing, and equanimity.

Not upset by anything in the world,

live alone like a rhino’s horn.5

The second line of this verse mentions a well-known set of positive emotions. ‘Love’ (or ‘loving kindness’, as I called it above) is a translation of mettā, and‘compassion’ of karuṇā. ‘Rejoicing’ (muditā) ismore commonly translated as ‘sympathetic joy’, which means happiness at another’s good fortune. The last of the four, ‘equanimity’ (upekkhā) means not just a stilling of disturbing emotions (as the English word might suggest) but rather the expansion of the other three into a universal and unbiased benevolence. Love, the first of the quartet, is the foundation of the others. When love encounters suffering, it naturally becomes compassion; when it encounters happiness, it becomes sympathetic joy. Equanimity is the perfection of the preceding three, in that it encompasses them and goes beyond them too.

There are meditation practices that cultivate these emotions. Each such practice begins with the development of loving kindness towards oneself. If you have a healthy love of yourself, your need for approval or acceptance from your tribe is much diminished, so you no longer fear its loss so acutely. But though the meditation practices begin with healthy self-love, they do not end with it. In the final stage of each practice, the meditator radiates love, compassion, or rejoicing, with unbiased equanimity — to all living beings.

And this brings me to my final point: individual consciousness is universal consciousness. It transcends all boundaries, whether of country, tribe, race, religion, or political persuasion. It does not obliterate those boundaries: to a true individual, they still exist, and are meaningful, but they are of secondary importance. As the Buddha puts it in the Metta Sutta:

So with a boundless heart

Should one cherish all living beings;

Radiating kindness over the entire world:

Spreading upwards to the skies,

And downwards to the depths;

Outwards and unbounded,

Freed from hatred and ill-will.6


  1. Rudyard Kipling. ‘Six Hours with Rudyard Kipling,’ The Kipling Journal (June 1967), Arthur Gordon, p. 7. This saying is often wrongly attributed to Friedrich Nietzsche.
  2. I recounted this experience in my book The Art of Reflection, but I think it worth repeating it here; incidentally, it points to an interesting connection between individuality and reflection
  3. If you want to know of other characteristics he identified, see What is the Sangha, by Sangharakshita, Windhorse Publications.
  4. The British Library has a cache of ancient Buddhist texts that were found in what was once Gandhāra, corresponding to what is now northern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan. Written on birch bark and stored in clay pots, they are considered to be the oldest Buddhist manuscripts known to us. They include fragments from The Rhinoceros Horn, including the verse I quote, translated from Gandhāri by Richard Salomon.
  5. Translation from the Pali by Sujato. The third line of the verse has also been translated as ‘unimpeded’ or ‘unobstructed by all the world’, and ‘not clashing with the world’.
  6. Translated from the Pali by the Amaravati Sangha.

Ratnaguna has been a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order for 45 years. He is a well-known teacher and has written four books - The Art of Reflection, Great Faith Great Wisdom (with Dharmachari Śraddhāpa), Kindfulness (in Spanish, with Dharmachari Dharmakirit), and, under his civil name, Gary Hennessey, The Little Mindfulness Workbook.

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In this article - the first of a three part series - Ratnaguna examines the nature of tribe.
Cass Sunstein argues that groups, and society, need dissenters to prevent them from making bad decisions.
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