Essay on Buddhism and Social Hierarchy

Published: 2021/11/05
Number of words: 1235

According to Ledgerwood (2012), religious traditions considered highly developed have one element in common. That is, it is possible to determine various social ideals that the particular religion champions. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that amid numerous doctrines, scriptures, legends, and myths developed from various religions, there are many differences and contradictory perceptions about how religion and society relate. However, Appleton (2016) also notes that despite the apparent differences that might arise from the teachings or understanding of different religions, there is one element of religion that holds for all. There are specific ideas of social order that can be articulated from the religious teachings of all religions. Buddhism is one of the most popular religions globally and boasts a large number of believers who subscribe to Buddhist teachings, mainly in Asia. Buddhist religious symbols, narratives, ideas, or rituals shape social hierarchies in a variety of ways. Zhe (2013) notes that Buddhism is defined by order with several elements inherent to this religion mirrored in society.

A wide body of research has already been developed analyzing the impact of various elements of religion on the social fabric of society. Omvedt (2003) notes that while this may be true, there are numerous apparent differences in the outcome, which owes much to the fact that scholars who undertake these studies do so from different points of view. To better understand the impact that Buddhist religious symbols, narratives, ideas, or rituals have had on social hierarchies, it is important to understand how symbolism and iconography can be understood from a religious point of view. Symbolism and iconography in religion are crucial in that they are utilized in conveying concepts in religion and enhancing the visualization of various religious ideals, events, and ideas. According to Appleton (2016), all religions utilize different forms of symbolism and iconography.

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One of how Buddhist religious symbols, narratives, ideas, and rituals shape societal hierarchies can be traced to the origin and one of the elements of Buddhism that sets it apart from other religions. Buddhist religious beliefs are founded on the notion that there is no creator god (non-theistic) (Ledgerwood, 2012). According to Zhe (2013), Buddhism is also viewed as a philosophy or a moral discipline. It emphasizes an individual seeking to ‘transcend the individual self via the attainment of Nirvana or by following the path of Buddhahood.’ As a result, Buddhism has taken on numerous forms as a religion which owes much to the fact that it has been passed down over many centuries with different interpretations being developed by individuals from various backgrounds. According to Zhe (2013), following the death of the founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha), the Buddhist movement absorbed and incorporated the belief systems prevalent among the locals. This ultimately resulted in a situation where different doctrines and practices developed as individuals from different backgrounds interpreted Buddha’s teachings differently to implement what Buddha had taught. Omvedt (2003) contends that it is because of this reason that it is sometimes difficult to pinpoint or make blanket statements about what all Buddhists believe.

As a result of the different interpretations of Buddha’s teachings adopted by the different cultural groups, the social hierarchies also differ among the different groups. According to Ledgerwood (2012), the social hierarchy in Buddhism is founded on the ‘order of disciplines,’ also referred to as the ‘Sanghas.’ At the top of the Buddhist social hierarchy are the Sanghas who are collections of monks residing in monasteries and play the role of instructors (Zhe, 2013). They convey the message of Buddha to their students, who then go out and spread the message of Buddha all over the world. After Buddha’s death, the development of Buddhism as a religion continued in two distinct directions, which can be attributed to a split with two different groups at the forefront in this revolution. The two groups at the forefront in shaping the Buddhist social hierarchy included the Hinayana community, which subscribed to the Sanskrit, and the Theravada community, which subscribed to the Pali (Appleton, 2016). With the apparent spread and encounters with new cultures, Buddhist beliefs continued to become altered, which resulted in new doctrines being developed. However, despite the apparent changes and diversification due to the different ways Buddhist teachings were interpreted, the basic principles of Buddhist belief were retained.

Another element of Buddhist religious symbols, narratives, ideas, or rituals that shapes social hierarchies is that Buddhism is founded on order and rules. According to Omvedt (2003), Buddhism’s basic structure is founded on a self-governing collection of individuals. In this system, all individuals are essentially responsible for their salvation while also being mindful of other beings. At the core of the belief system as embraced by all Buddhists are the Four Noble Truths at the heart of Buddha’s dharma (Appleton, 2016). These are; that suffering exists, desire is the reason that suffering exists, one can be free from suffering, and the Eightfold Path is the road towards the attainment of freedom from suffering.

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Nevertheless, when the Buddhist monks began dividing themselves into various groups, a need to develop new rules that would be contained in the Vinaya Pitaka also developed (Zhe, 2013). In addition to this, there was also a need to develop a degree of hierarchy that was intended to help keep order, enforce rules, and ensure there is religious purity within the community. The Buddhist religious hierarchy also influenced the social hierarchy prevalent in the societies where Buddhism was practiced. As highlighted above, Buddhism is founded on order, respect for hierarchy, and adherence to specific rules with the individual tasked with seeking fulfillment from within in a way that would help them realize a “higher calling” and do so with other people in mind. Ledgerwood (2012) notes that in present-day Buddhist practice, as was in the past, the hierarchy in Buddhist belief is founded on seniority. The implication, in this case, is that the longer an individual has been a monk, the more senior they are. This element of Buddhism influences social hierarchy in Buddhist practice in that individuals who are older in society are more senior and are thus accorded more respect and consideration. In Buddhism, there is no single individual who occupies permanent positions of power.

The idea that no single entity occupies a permanent position of power is further evidenced by the symbiotic nature of the relationship between the laity and the Sangha. According to Omvedt (2003), in Buddhism, the Sangha is dependent on the laity for material support, while the laity depends on the Sangha for religious instruction. Buddhist religious symbols impact and shape social hierarchies and leading to the creation, reinforcement, or subversion of social relations of power, as evidenced by the case of Noi and the author learning about the concept of mindfulness from the perspective of thudong monks. Noi’s perspective about the concept of mindfulness had been developed over time and cemented when he served brief stints as a monk. The Buddhist teachings and beliefs impact social hierarchies because individuals are always taught to respect and be considerate of other people.


Appleton, N. (2016). Jataka Stories in Theravada Buddhism: narrating the bodhisattva path. Routledge.

Ledgerwood, J. (2012). Buddhist ritual and the reordering of social relations in Cambodia. Southeast Asia Research20(2), 191-205.

Omvedt, G. (2003). Buddhism in India: challenging Brahmanism and caste. Sage Publications India.

Zhe, J. (2013). Zhao Puchu and His Renjian Buddhism. The Eastern Buddhist44(2), 35-58.

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