If people are to live together in peace—even just two people—there must be boundaries and an ability to regulate behaviour. When many people live together there is a requirement for rules or agreements about behaviour, of what should be done and what should be avoided, in order to bring about harmony and welfare for each individual. (Even an individual person has conflicting desires and requires self-discipline in order to live well.) Take the example of numerous drivers arriving at a junction from different directions: each person is in a hurry and vies to pass first. They thus all get stuck and no-one can proceed, causing chaos and disputes. If they are willing to lay down a set of regulations, however, everyone can pass comfortably. Likewise, a community or society requires a set of rules.
Apart from rules, there is a collection of inherited social systems, customs, traditions, cultural practices, institutions, and a body of technical knowledge, which give shape to a particular society. These factors which shape society also shape individuals, instilling in them properties that conform with society. At the same time individuals influence the society. Individual people and the society as a whole are thus interdependent. Nonetheless, when a society has a clearly defined shape and form it tends to become rigid and inflexible, resulting in a one-sided exchange of people being shaped by society in order to meet society’s needs and expectations.
People, however, do not exist solely to uphold society. Society exists to benefit individuals and on a fundamental level it was created for the increased well-being of people. From this perspective, society is only one supportive factor in people’s lives, and on its own it is unable to lead people to a truly virtuous life, because social institutions themselves were created simply to establish a sense of order and discipline. Once people can live together in harmony, there is something besides maintaining social integrity for which it is incumbent on them to realize. Besides social institutions, people need to pay attention to nature, and the most supreme blessing of life is obtained through an understanding of nature. This is because the truth of life is essentially grounded in nature.
Society is simply one supportive factor in people’s lives, which can either help to foster an increased intimacy and knowledge of nature, or it can have the opposite effect and cause an alienation from nature. In any case, even though society may have a clear and strictly defined shape it is not the only factor influencing people. If people are able to apply wise reflection, they can escape from the controlling power of society. Wise reflection enables a person to transcend or see through society and to realize the underlying timeless truth of nature. A person endowed with wise reflection is able to be free from the power of social conditioning, to attain higher levels of virtue, and to return in order to shape society in a fully attentive way.
Venerable Phra Payutto, from chapter 19 of Buddhadhamma, on the wisdom factors of the Path.