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founded by S. N. Goenka in the tradition of Sayagyi U Ba Khin






Dharma—Its role in Current Social Problems

-By Sally McDonald


There have always been social problems, ranging from simple family or village disputes to tribal conflicts, and then later to state rivalries and international wars. There have always been individuals who suffer from unhealthy surroundings, or from discrimination, seemingly unfair burdens of misery and oppression, and who react with fear and mistrust. There have always been individuals and groups who try to change or repair the wrongs of society, and at times despair that anything can be done.

All of these problems start with the same cause: the forces of hatred, greed and ignorance that exist in all of our individual minds. It is therefore at the individual level that the solution lies.

We can define Dharma as a scientific path of self-introspection and wisdom, of not reacting with negativity and of cultivating positive mental qualities instead. To succeed, it involves diligent practice, not just theorising and discussion.

The role of Dharma in current social problems therefore appears to be threefold:

  1. to eliminate the mental defilements that cause us to do wrong, so that we do not add to the problems and suffering in our society;
  2. to help us bear the stress of competitiveness, crowded or polluted environments, and (for those who are less fortunate) the seeming injustices of life; and
  3. to give us strength to serve and improve our society.


When the individuals in society do not follow the path of Dharma, the path of wisdom, then ignorance prevails and all the social ills are bound to come into play.

What is New?

Today the world is a very different place from the world of even one hundred years ago. The problems we face are aggravated by the following:

  • The sheer size of the world's population, especially in developing countries such as India, China and the African nations.
  • The increasingly global nature of economics and politics, so that problems in one country have repercussions in the countries where they trade or wield power.
  • The complexity of modern technology, especially that of modern warfare. This means that those individuals who understand and control this technology have unprecedented power.
  • Huge changes in how we communicate: faster and easier local, national and international telephone, fax and computer links, plus mass-media news and entertainment.
  • The rapid rate of change in how we work. This has led to increased competitiveness and stress in the workplace, and greater pressure on students in universities and schools. Physical and mental health suffer as a result.
  • An increase in the number of social outcasts, who populate the world’s slums, jails and psychiatric institutions.

All of these mean that there is an even greater need for solutions, solutions which involve flexible, intelligent, clear, and compassionate thinking. We need solutions which require not only knowledge and resources but, more important, wisdom.

Let us look at some of our current responses to these problems and how they can be improved by applying the principles of Dharma.

Improving on Current Responses

Existing Social Structures which Provide Moral Support. The traditional social institutions of family, schools and religious groups have always had a role in providing moral support and guidance. Their diminishing influence is often blamed on the lack of respect in today's youth, and the youth in turn blame the older generation for its inflexibility and clinging to old-fashioned ways.

The faults on both sides are outcomes of the same mental defilement: craving, along with its offspring attachment. If the youth of today can be educated in the science of pure Dharma instead of narrow, sectarian beliefs, they will naturally cultivate respect for those who teach them. They can also realise for themselves the danger in the endless pursuit of new experiences, and learn contentment. Likewise, the older generation can learn from pure Dharma the futility of clinging to rites and rituals.

We should use such education to strengthen our existing social support structures, rather than try to replace them with remedial institutions.

A German meditator who is a school- teacher has taught his class of fifteen-year-olds the technique of Anapana meditation, which is mindfulness of respiration. He said that instead of taking ten minutes for the class to stop laughing, shouting, banging desks, and finally settle down to listen to him, they now do five minutes of meditation, then quietly take out their books and immediately start the day’s lesson.

Social Welfare and Remedial Institutions

Although it is preferable to foster a society in which the individuals are responsible for their own well-being, we also need safety nets to help those who have fallen by the wayside, and those who have been discriminated against. There are many reactions to the pressures of modern life. Some seek escape in the madness of material desire, and fall into debt and despair. Others seek the mental void of alcohol and drugs. Others react with violence, vandalism and crime.

As mentioned above, the role of Dharma in solving such problems is threefold. First: it helps to remove the underlying defilements that create such reactions. Second: It helps the less fortunate to bear their suffering. Third: it strengthens those involved in helping such people, the social workers, doctors and so on.

One example is in the area of prison reform. The historic courses in Tihar Jail have already been mentioned. Discipline has improved and there is greater harmony between the inmates and staff, as representatives of both have learned the technique of self-introspection. A psychological study by the Department of Psychiatry of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences is in progress. Early results show that meditation reduces hostility and helplessness and leads to enhanced well-being and hope.1 The Inspector General of Tihar has encouraged the prisoners not only to improve themselves, but to become useful members of society when they are released.

Other examples can be found in the area of drug rehabilitation. Proven results in treating drug addicts in Australia have been reported at a previous seminar.2 A very successful program called "Start Again" is now under way in Switzerland, managed by several meditators. Because of its achievements in the past three years, funding has been increased and the program has been expanded considerably.

Legislation, Law and Order

There are so many laws now which attempt to restrict anti-social human activities. As well as the old codes which outlaw murder, rape, stealing and cheating, there are increasing complex laws about the use and distribution of drugs, about business ethics, patents and copyrights, and so on. In many countries, there are detailed laws trying to stop racial discrimination or casteism, and to promote equal opportunities for women. There are so many examples where these laws fail, even when they are diligently enforced. "All the upbeat formulations in the world cannot disguise the distortions and inefficiencies that affirmative action programs have failed to address and, in some cases, have helped to create."3

Naturally, it helps to have some guidelines, but we cannot force anyone to be inherently moral or compassionate towards others by making laws. Again, the answer lies at the individual level. There has to be a way that people learn to follow the spirit rather than just the letter of the law. The foundation of Dharma is morality, but it is only by developing mental clarity that we can fully comprehend its importance.

A young American woman did a ten-day course here in India recently, during this hot season. She had been sitting still and meditating for about half an hour, and felt a lot of heat and pain in her body. Then a mosquito came buzzing around her head. A thought came about killing the mosquito. She noticed that now the heat was almost unbearable, and that the pain had intensified, and realised that this was the result of her anger. She had understood for herself how we increase our own misery when we think of harming other beings.

Such insights naturally help individuals to stop causing harm, and also to develop compassion towards other suffering beings. This is the only way that society can become more law-abiding and more tolerant, not by making more laws about how to behave.

Science and Technology

There have been great strides in medical research to alleviate human suffering due to disease and old age. There have been improvements in agricultural methods and in communications. In many countries, people live longer, lead more comfortable lives and also have more leisure time. However, the benefits of science are matched by the disadvantages: by the stresses of modern life we have already mentioned, and by environmental degradation and pollution.

Mass-media news reporting has led to greater awareness of the world’s problems, but mass-media "entertainment" has often degenerated into senseless promotion of violence and sexual fantasy, that is, to mental pollution. Multi-national corporations have seized this tool of communication to promote consumerism and to enhance their wealth and power.

What is needed is pure volition and wisdom in applying this new knowledge. Scientists and the users of their machines and techniques need to also study Dharma, to study their own mental and material phenomena, their own motives and actions, as well as studying the material world.

Powerful World Organisations

The horrifying problems of racial tension and terrorism, the recent nightmares we are hearing about in Africa, the ongoing poverty in so many parts of the world, are not going to be overcome easily. Powerful organisations with multi-million-dollar resources such as the United Nations and the World Bank have been unable to solve most of these problems. The USA, the remaining superpower, is at present evaluating its relationship with the rest of the post–Cold War world.4 There is a growing reluctance in many of its citizens to get involved in foreign problems it has been unable to solve by military or economic means.

There is limited benefit in trying to change "the system" using political or welfare measures, when the underlying human defilements such as anger, craving and fear continue to exist. In any organisation, large or small, humanitarian aims will not be properly served if the people in it, especially the leaders, are working with narrow-minded, selfish interests and prejudices. Changes therefore must start in small ways, first in individuals, and then in groups of people who try to co-operate and incorporate the principles of Dharma in their lives and work. Later on, as the teaching of pure Dharma spreads, we can expect to see larger organisations applying the wisdom of Dharma in improving the world.

Breaking Down the Barriers

The practice of Vipassana meditation is now spreading throughout the world, and there is a great deal of international co-operation involved. At all of the Vipassana centres, people come from different states and different countries to give service for the benefit of others. Dr.S.N. Goenka and assistant teachers from India have conducted Vipassana courses in the West, and now you will find assistant teachers from Western countries conducting courses in Indonesia or Israel. The meditators from Western Europe have organised courses in former socialist countries, and have started a fund for courses in Africa. Other funds have been set up in the West to help the struggling nations in Southeast Asia, where the demand for courses is enormous, and in South America.

About 25,000 people attend courses in India each year, and about 8,000 in the rest of the world. They come from all walks of life. There are business and community leaders who try to incorporate the principles of Dharma in their organisations.5 Eleven thousand schoolchildren attended courses last year.6 You will also see uneducated village women and the poorer classes starting to come to Dhamma Giri. They often cannot give much for a donation; it is a struggle for them to pay their train fare to Igatpuri, yet somehow all the centres keep growing. The growth rate is about 20 to 25 per cent each year.

If this growth continues, there is a tremendous potential to break down many long-standing historical barriers, racial, social and economic. However, it must be said again, change must come at the individual level; all must take responsibility. Sometimes there are even more problems when our aim is for the good of society. Even when our volition is good, we have to face our own weaknesses whilst fighting against prejudice, greed and resistance to change in society. For this, great strength is needed.

By incorporating pure Dharma in our lives, we develop in confidence, in determination in our efforts, in awareness, in concentration, and in wisdom and equanimity. If we use these strengths in helping pure Dharma to spread, others will also find out how to break down the barriers of their mental impurities. In this way, all the barriers of intolerance and distrust in society can be broken, to establish greater peace and harmony in the world.


  • K Chandirimani, S.K. Verma, P.L. Dhar & N. Aggarwal, "Psychological Effects of Vipassana on Tihar Jail Inmates: A Preliminary Report", Vipassana—Its Relevance to the Modern World, an International Seminar, April 1994. Vipassana Research Institute, Igatpuri.
  • Hammersley, R & Cregan, J, "Drug Addiction and Vipassana Meditation", Seminar on Vipassana Meditation, May 1987, Vipassana Research Institute, Igatpuri.
  • "Affirmative Action—But some are more equal than others", The Economist, April 15th 1995, London.
  • Ogden, C., "Uncle Sam Hunkers Down", International Time Magazine, April 17th, 1995. New York.
  • Shah, J., "Vipassana and Business Management" Vipassana—Its Relevance to the Modern World, an International Seminar, April 1994. Vipassana Research Institute, Igatpuri.
  • Vipassana Annual Conference Report, January 1995. Vipassana Research Institute, Igatpuri.