"All in all, contrary to the widespread image of Buddhism as a
passive religion encouraging inaction, responsible social action is
rather encouraged in the Buddha's teaching. There are numerous
teachings given on factors encouraging social concord, such as the
four sa"ngaha vatthu, the Foundations for Social Unity: dana,
generosity: piyavaca, kindly speech; atthacariya, helpful action; and
samanattata, impartiality or equal participation.
However, in Buddhism, all action should ideally arise from skilful
mental qualities. A seemingly well-intentioned action can be ruined
by the influence of unskilful mental states, such as anger or fear,
or it can be tainted through ulterior motives. On the other hand,
simply to cultivate skilful mental states without resultant social
action is not very productive. So we can look at virtue on two
levels: on the mental level we have, for example, the Four Sublime
States (Brahmavihara). These are the bases of altruistic action, or,
at the least, of harmonious relations on a social level. On the
second level we have the external manifestations of these skilful
qualities, such as in the four sangaha vatthu, the Foundations of
Unity. These two levels of virtue are interrelated.
The Four Sublime States are:
metta, goodwill, friendliness;
karuna, compassion, the desire to help other beings;
mudita, sympathetic joy, gladness at the good fortune of others; and
upekkha, impartiality or equanimity.
Metta, goodwill, is a mental stance assumed towards those who are in
the normal condition, or on an equal plane with ourselves;
karuna, compassion, is a proper mental attitude toward those who are
mudita, sympathetic joy, is the attitude toward those who are
upekkha, equanimity or impartiality, is even-mindedness toward the
various situations in which we find ourselves.
Now these four qualities, when looked at in practical terms, can be
seen to manifest as the Four Foundations of Social Unity.
Dana, giving or generosity, is more or less a basic stance towards
others in society, an attitude of generosity, which can be based on:
metta, giving through goodwill;
karuna, giving through compassion; or
mudita, giving as an act of encouragement.
Although this giving usually refers to material things, it can also
be the giving of knowledge, labour and so on.
The second foundation of unity is piyavaca, kindly speech, which is
usually based on the first three Sublime States.
Friendly speech, based on metta, as a basic attitude in everyday
kindly speech, based on karuna, in times of difficulty, as with words
of advice or condolence; and
congratulatory speech, based on mudita, as in words of encouragement
in times of happiness and success.
However, when confronted with problems in social situations, piyavaca
can be expressed as impartial and just speech, based on upekkha.
The third factor is atthacariya, useful conduct, which refers to the
volunteering of physical effort to help others. In the first factor,
generosity, we had the giving of material goods. In the second
factor, kindly speech, we have the offering of gentle speech. With
this third item we have the offering of physical effort in the form
of helpful conduct. This help can be on ordinary occasions, such as
offering help in a situation where the recipient is not in any
particular difficulty. Help in this instance is more or less
a 'friendly gesture,' thus is based on metta, goodwill. Help can be
offered in times of difficulty, in which case it is help based on
karuna, compassion. Help can be offered as an encouragement in times
of success, in which case it is based on mudita, sympathetic joy or
gladness at the good fortune of others. Thus, atthacariya, helpful
conduct, may be based on any of these three Sublime States.
Finally we have samanattata, literally, 'making oneself accessible or
equal.' This is a difficult word to translate. It means to share with
other people's pleasures and pains, to harmonize with them, to be one
with them. It refers to sharing, co-operation and impartiality. We
could say that it means to be humble, such as when helping others in
their undertakings even if it is not one's duty, or to be fair, such
as when arbitrating in a dispute."
From: Kamma on the Social Level by Bhikkhu P.A. Payutto