illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)
[Do not] let your mind training become a mere travesty. Do not use mind training as a pretext for not refraining from upsetting creatures and humans by cutting down sacred trees, and so on, because you pretend to have no more self-cherishing. You must not let your behaviour be a travesty.
[Do not] let your mind training become partial. Do not be patient with friends and impatient with enemies, or tolerant of humans while intolerant of creatures, and so forth.
— "Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand: A Concise Discourse on the Path to Enlightenment" by Pabongka rimpoche (www.amazon.com/gp/product/0861715004/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0861715004&linkCode=as2&tag=koanmu03-20&linkId=RDDFEXTPWABEL5N4)
The first paragraph might explain why the Buddha, although a great reformer of his time, may seem to the modern reader not to be so strong a social reformer at times… Wholesome reform is not achieved by force; it takes a twisted mind to aim for peace by starting a war.
One has to shake things up to achieve wholesome progress for all, clinging to an unsatisfactory status quo will not magically make it better, but one should disturb the status quo only to the point (no more, but no less either!) where the change might be digested without causing too strong a pushback: breeding hatred, discontent or resentment is simply not a recipe for peace! Wholesome reform is achieved by education, one step at a time, rather than by forceful, violent revolution; it takes perseverance and patience, two "perfected qualities" (parami(ta)s).
The above view might seem relatively uncontroversial to buddhists, the Buddha is renowned for his capacity to adapt his message to each audience, but it is however among the causes of a major schism in Buddhism: the rise of Mahāyāna!
One of the difficulties with seeing wholesome reform as a gradual process is that the message of the historical Buddha is therefore not any sort of final guidance… It might represent the fastest acceptable reform in his circumstances, in his time and place, but not where later practitioners are! For Mahāyāna traditions, further guidance —in the form of Mahāyāna sūtras— was later received, and the need for 'updated' guidance makes sense if one takes to heart the impermanence of the world…
From the Mahāyāna perspective, some Theravādins probably too much consider the preliminary steps initiated by the Buddha as 'definitive'. This might however be a caricature, of course, because many Theravādins have understood that many teachings (and notably those with social dimensions, expressed in conventional terms of 'persons', not in terms of 'dhammas') are to be interpreted.
Theravada would mention neyyattha ("meaning to be drawn out", i.e. teaching to be interpreted, e.g. expressed in terms of 'persons') and nitattha ("meaning drawn out", i.e. direct, explicit and 'definitive' teaching, e.g. expressed in terms of dhammas):
Monks, these two slander the Tathāgata. Which two?
He who explains a discourse whose meaning needs to be inferred as one whose meaning has already been fully drawn out.
And he who explains a discourse whose meaning has already been fully drawn out as one whose meaning needs to be inferred.
These are two who slander the Tathāgata.
— Neyyatha Sutta (AN 2.25)
To interpret the social dimensions of the Dharma as points whose meaning has already been fully drawn out would be gravely erroneous!
We may of course take inspirations from the reforms that were already needed in India 26 centuries ago and are still needed today in other circumstances, but we cannot 'freeze' the social model presented by the Buddha. We need to enquire into our own conditions, our own responsibilities, our own circumstances, our own world; we need to be mindful of the processes at hand here and now and to respond appropriately (neither too forcefully, nor too little [from fear of being too forceful?]).
A creative engagement, dynamically responding to the evolution of the context (decelerating when a reform seems to feed too unhelpful a resistance, accelerating when opportunities are ripe) is a delicate balancing act to embody, a middle way between extremes: no place for mere travesty!
image: large, gilt-lacquered wood figure of Buddha