Magazine article UNESCO Courier

A Golden Age

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

A Golden Age

Article excerpt

A GOLDEN AGE

BUDDHIST texts speak of an ideal golden age in the distant past, when prevailing standards of moral propriety precluded the need for kings and government or even private property, boundary marks or fences. Then deceit and theft brought a gradual degradation and led to the need for all these institutions. A king, the Great Chosen One, was democratically elected. This, in a nutshell, is an explanation of how contemporary society and its institutions came into existence.

Buddhist writings contain no utopian remedy for a return to the lost golden age, but they do give plenty of advice about how to improve society, especially in the form of ethical principles. An ideal king must possess ten qualities: generosity, moral conduct, sacrifice, honesty, gentleness, asceticism, the capacity to refrain from anger, non-violence, forbearance and non-oppression.

A community should guarantee its stability by assembling for consultation in harmony, transacting its business in harmony, and dispersing in harmony. It should not introduce revolutionary laws or break away from established conventions. Elders should be honoured and obeyed. Women should be respected and safeguarded. Spiritual obligations should be performed and free access and facilities to saints and holy persons should be allowed.

An individual gained merit not only by performing religious observances but by rendering services to fellow-beings, such as providing them with roads and water, shady trees and rest-houses, medicine and food. The old and the very young were also to be protected.

Buddha did not confine himself to the promulgation of an ideal social order. He actually experimented with one. The community of Buddhist monks, the sangha, was an institution whose members observed monastic vows which enabled the Buddha's utopian social values and norms to be applied. Rules governing property ownership emphasized the egalitarian structure of the sangha. Every gift--and originally gifts were the only form of revenue as the members of the sangha did not engage in economic pursuits--was received collectively and held in perpetuity in the name of the sangha. No one had any private possessions. When a monk died or left the sangha, his personal effects reverted to collective ownership and were redistributed to others according to need. …

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