My thoughts on “Socially Engaged” Buddhism

There certainly has been quite a lot of talk lately about Socially Engaged Buddhism, and whether or not it is crap, real, necessary, or unavoidable. I’ve completely avoided commenting anywhere on any of the posts about this. I’m guessing that if you read this blog, you’ve seen some of the discussions come up elsewhere as well. If not, check out Nathan’s blog for his take (he also linked to most of the other discussions/posts there) as I think it’s worth reading.

I’ve thought quite a bit about this the last couple of days, and given it quite a bit of thought. Let’s start with defining it. From Wiki:

Engaged Buddhism refers to Buddhists who are seeking ways to apply the insights from meditation practice and dharma teachings to situations of social, political, environmental, and economic suffering and injustice. Finding its roots in Vietnam through the Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, Engaged Buddhism has grown in popularity in the West.

John over at Point of Contact had this to say:

(via Jizo Chronicles) How is this different than mundane/non-engaged/boring Buddhism? Because still the only difference I see in the inclusion of social activism. And with that inclusion you can count me out. My activism is not dictated by my religion but is an organic creation from my personal, day-to-day practice.

Why put a meaningless label on it?

(via Point of Contact)Don’t practice social engagement as a Buddhist.  Don’t practice charity as a Buddhist. Don’t show compassion as a Buddhist. These are the things that every personal practice should contain without contraining them with religious identity.  When you chose to show charity, compassion or social engagement as a part of your personal practice you can do so without waving a religious banner.  Do it for the benefit for others.  Period.  End of sentence.  No strings attached.  No politics or banners.  Slogans or comments.  No conversions or evangelizing.

Part of me certainly agrees with John. When one is engaged fully in their practice, the changes one incurs will naturally be brought out into other aspects into their lives. But part of me agrees with what we find in the definition here. “Buddhists who are seeking ways to apply the insights” to me says that people are seeking a vehicle in which to apply what they have learned and experienced to greater social causes. This is the same thing we find with organized/structured religion. One might not want to use labels or constructs, but I think having a Zen or Pure Land or Therevadan framework is helpful and can be conductive. They are rafts to use when crossing the river, which are to be discarded when one reaches the other shore. I’m wondering if this is what those that consider themselves Socially Engaged Buddhists are doing as well.

Kyle over at The Reformed Buddhist had this to say the other day:

I don’t want this to come across as yet another rant against politics or social justice, as these are all fine undertakings, just as much as opening a soup kitchen, teaching a child to ride a bike or making dinner for the family. But when we attempt to justify these endeavors as the purpose or goal of Buddhist teachings, then the practice becomes something other than Buddhism. They are at best, distractions from our practice and are just more squirrel mind running ramped. And at worst, they are delusional additions to Buddhist teachings in order to create an artificial goal of happiness, or social change or whatever the extra desires may be.

What he and a few others referred to was that the goal (yes, I know….) of Buddhist practice isn’t to help others, do charitable works or any of the other things that fall under the “Socially Engaged” tent, but rather that the end goal of Buddhism is the cessation of suffering. Certainly I agree with that. Plenty of the Pali texts end with the Buddha bringing whatever it was that he was teaching in that particular sutta back to the Four Noble Truths. It always comes back to suffering, the source of suffering, the knowledge that there is a way to end suffering and then the path out of suffering.  And with this again, I have to agree.

And yet, Nathan had this to say regarding the “looking (only) within” aspect of the path:

This is an old, old debate between those who argue Buddhism is about working to disengage from worldly concerns, and those who see Buddhism as a path that includes coming back to “the marketplace” (Ox Herding Pics) if you will. I think everyone is on a continuum between these two extremes, from solitary monks living in the mountains to lifelong social activists whose work is deliberately guided by Buddhist teachings.

With Nathan I have to agree as well. But I think that even within each individual we find people fall into different places on their own continuum. Some of us bring our practice into politics, others check it at the door. But those who bring it into politics might not bring it with the same fervor when it comes to familial manners. And it is here where I think some of John and Kyle’s (and others!) frustrations over who gets to define what “Engaged Buddhism” means. I am no less engaged than someone else simply because I decide to not be as vocal about issues of race or gender equality as others out there who may not be as vocal about environmental or poverty issues as I am (examples). I also wonder if it’s a slippery slope into “if you are an Engaged Buddhist, you will vote/believe/speak out against/for topics a, b, and c.”

Along these same lines, I have seen plenty of suttra thumping over various topics around the blogosphere/forums/interwebs. Rather than analyzing their own intentions, opinions, and leanings; there are those that would simply say “I’m a Buddhist so I believe such and such”. If I ever say that, please kick me in the nuts. I didn’t adopt a specific set of beliefs when I decided to walk this path. I never said “Hey, I’m a Buddhist now, so I believe in “z” because it says so in X suttra.” Those are all appeals to authority and the Buddha-dharma has no room for those. Now I do believe that belief has a large role to play in Buddhism, but it is more of a trust-based belief. The way that you follow the advice of a doctor even though you don’t fully understand the science behind what it is he has to say. You apply the advice, and if it works, well, it works.

Much of this path lies in the process of discovery and inquiry. Something I’ve been digging at lately is the topic of abortion. Certainly it is a social and political issue. Does Engaged Buddhism allow for both Pro-Choice and Pro-life social activists? (I think I’ll save my personal thoughts on this for a later post.) If “economic justice” is included in Engaged Buddhism, does a Buddhist Tea-Partier that believes we shouldn’t tax the wealthy at a higher rate than the poor have the same voice as the liberal who believes we should tax people because they are wealthy? One could argue issues of economic “justice” for either side depending on one’s politics. Maybe that’s where things are getting messy for some. Maybe it’s that people are bringing their politics into Buddhism, rather than bringing their practice to their politics.

Is this all just coming down to “who gets to define ‘engaged’”? Is it just about the labels?

One final thought. John had raised some points about doing things in the name of Buddhism. Certainly many of us here in the US are familiar with Christian organizations that give out a side-order of proselytizing with their charity. During my homeless months in Seattle, I slept in a church basement at night. We were never preached to nor were we asked to even attend service. Some did and some didn’t. It was truly charity for charity sake. Of course, there was also one of the food lines I stood in where they handed out Vitamin C tablets with a Jesus pamphlet (had to take it if you wanted the vitamin). These two different approaches definitely left two distinct tastes in my mouth (and not just because of the vitamins).

So it got me thinking. Imagine the week after the earthquake in Haiti, two groups of people went down to dig two wells. The first group is a Christian/Jewish/Buddhist/Muslim/pick your religion group who goes down and announces that they are the “X religious group” here to dig a well. They dig, and leave without ever directly trying to convert anyone, but they are sure to mention that “hey, we’re such and such, of course we’ll help!” Awesome. Well is dug and people have clean drinking water.

The second group has no affiliation. They are just a bunch of random strangers that met on craigslist and wanted to help out in Haiti. So they go down and dig the well. The villagers ask “are you with such-and-such church?”. “No” they reply. “We’re just fellow humans, of course we’ll help.” Awesome. Well is dug and people have clean drinking water.

In then end isn’t the well still dug either way? Or is there a difference? Does it matter if the religous group leaves their conversion attempts at their door, even if they announce they are doing God’s/Allah’s/Cthulu’s work? (I have yet to see a charitable Cthulu cult but if you know of one, please let me know).

At first when I came up with this scenario I thought the second group’s impact would be much more profound in that the beneficiaries of their charitable actions would see that it doesn’t take any type of organization or religion to foster compassion for fellow human beings and such. But then I realized that compassion is a key component in many of the world’s religions, and something most of us could all work on in our daily lives. And that it’s nice to have an organization to support that effort. It’s nice to have a website and an organization to find like-minded people with which one can be of service to others. Because while the second group sure is a nice ideal, we all know what people really use craigslist for ;)

So really I’m fairly undecided about all this. And that was the real intent behind this post. I realized that I had no preconceived opinion about Socially Engaged Buddhism. And that listening to all the dialogue going back and forth was interesting, but it wasn’t an organic way to form an opinion that was mine. I’m usually quite opinionated, but for some reason this issue threw up a huge road block for me. It was awesome. I’ve no doubt that social conditioning has some part to play in whatever opinion I do ultimately form around this, but it’s liberating and refreshing knowing that I can walk into a discussion and have zero knee-jerk responses. I’m not sure the last time that has happened.

I came across the following from the Pabbata Sutta that I think fits nicely with this theme:

“ Like a mountain of rock
in the wilderness, in a mighty grove,
dependent on which there prosper
lords of the forest, great trees —
in the same way,
those who here live dependent on
a clansman of conviction
— consummate in virtue —
prosper:
wife & children,
friends, dependents, & kin.

Seeing the virtue of that virtuous one,
his liberality & good conduct,
those who are perceptive follow suit.
Having, here in this world, followed the Dhamma,
the path to a good destination,
they delight in the world of the devas,
enjoying the pleasures they desire.”

Cheers.

25 Comments

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25 responses to “My thoughts on “Socially Engaged” Buddhism

  1. I remember walking into a church and the priest stated.

    “For those unsure about these issues, he is where the church stands on …” and listed a slew of political topics and where “good” Christians should stand on them. It made me want to throw up.

    While they were largely, not surprisingly, conservative views from the priest I see the same issue with liberal “engaged” Buddhists pushing what is or isn’t engaged. If I am pro-life (which I am not) and a Buddhist is it engaged to protest a Planned Parenthood? For some reason I don’t think Bernie would be all about that one but toss some good ol’ “fight the man” hippie bullshit and Bernie will be there with bells on.

    Screw that. Politics and how we react to them are an aftereffect of our pratice or upbringing. The wonderful post on the Tenets of “Engaged” Buddhism by Maia on the Jizo Chronicles as well as TNH’s Engaged Precepts are tenets and precepts of any practice. There is nothing new there. If my sangha insisted that we do something “engaged” in that manner, I would walk out.

    Call it what it is ~ a group of active, liberal and largely, well-meaning Buddhists that want to tackle some social issues. Great. They can hang out with SGI and their task of building world-peace. There is nothing new here. Although, I am willing to listen to hear how “Engaged” practice is still different from good ol’ boring, dull Buddhism.

    Another label.

    PS. I am glad that the church you crashed at didn’t push religion. Many don’t.

    • I think the problem isn’t necessarily the mixing of religion/politics, but rather the direction of the relationship. When politics get injected into religion, I’ll be right behind you walking out the door. But I for one have a difficult time divorcing my spiritual beliefs from the decisions I make about the boxes I check on my ballot and the few (and tiny) checks I make out to the non-profits I support. However, to say that my spiritual beliefs are the driving force behind those decisions would ignore the familial, social, intellectual and experiential reasons I came to those conclusions. I wear many hats, Buddhist being one of those. Sometimes I wear more than one hat, and sometimes I go bald.

      Cheers.

  2. Hi! I really like your blog! I am not technically Buddhist myself, but I am a student of spiritual awakening, as the Buddha talked about it.
    It seems that many social activists are angry, trying to work for change based on what makes them angry.

    In my understanding, real social action and useful change happens naturally when one does not attach to judgments about the situation.

    Are you familiar with the work of Byron Katie? She talks about this a lot. She says, if war is happening, it should be happening. That doesn’t mean it’s good, or healthy, just that it is. I really like her simple take on things.

    • Thank you. I’m not familiar with Bryron Katie, and I’m not too sure about the statement that war ‘should be happening” if it is happening, but I suppose I’d need more context.

  3. Thanks for this, you know, you are right….am I not a socially engaged Buddhist? Is John not a socially engaged Buddhist? Are you and Nathan and etc not socially engaged Buddhists? We all take our time to engage the world about our practice, how it helps or hurts us and what the effect will be.

    Now the interesting question will be, if I put up a big title tomorrow that says I AM A SOCIALLY ENGAGED BUDDHIST, then tear into politics and what not, will there be someone that will come along and say, “Hey, you aren’t socially engaged! You have to do X,Y and Z to use that title.” Then we will see if people really do have an agenda about what is and is not socially engaged. And I think yes, many of them do indeed have an agenda.

    We’ll see, it will be interesting..thanks for a full view of the issues article.

  4. haha. yeah, for me it’s about asking, what’s my particular agenda? :) i like this little quote from James Wood: http://jameswoodteachings.com/2010/07/where-it-stops

  5. Well, I agree re: who gets to define socially engaged Buddhism. You bring up an interesting point on abortion, one I hadn’t considered before. I tend to think socially engaged Buddhists tend to take themselves far too seriously. In any event, thanks for the post. Tom

  6. nathan

    There has been a bit too much drama about this in my opinion. I don’t give a shit what people call me – the labels are irrelevant to me. I’m not a professional activist, and in fact, my active engagement with large-scale social issues ebbs and flows. Sometimes, I’m very involved, sometimes I’m resting. I don’t run around announcing my status as a Buddhist when I’m lobbying at the legislature, or doing protests, or organizing programs in non-profits, but I do deliberately reflect on Buddhist teachings, and the work I do is shaped, at least in part, by what I have learned. And if people ask me, I talk about that influence.

    The way I see it, if you look at “engaged Buddhist” efforts in other nations, where everything has gone to shit, the choice to sit out is a pretty crappy one. The folks in Thich Nhat Hanh’s community, during the Vietnam war, could have sat in the monasteries. But the results probably would have been miserable. Their engagement with the vast suffering around them came about partly through seeing that you can’t separate the inner and outer realms, and partly because the large scale “outer world” was staring them down, demanding a response.

    It’s easy enough for us middle class Americans to sit around and get heated about whether or not we should be involved in these kinds of situations. But I’d be interested to see how the conversation changes when we don’t have the privilege to keep all of this at arms length. What happens if there is huge social crisis here in the U.S., and we aren’t able to ignore it anymore because it impacts greatly too many of us?

    • I would love to be able to qualify myself as middle class. I think a more proper classification for my current situation would be lower-middle class but even then that seems a bit lofty at times according to traditional definitions.

      Today on Maia’s Jizo Chronicles, she has an article about the Bearing Witness Vigil in which people sat in support of the Park 51 project. One question I have is that if there were Buddhists that were opposed to building the culture center out of compassion for the victim’s families, and sat in support of the opponents, is that also Socially Engaged Buddhism? Is it less about the specific politics involved, and more about getting off your ass and living compassion for others?

      Again, I’m only trying to ask questions here.

    • On second thought, a better question.

      What if instead of sitting on just one side of the protests, the group had sat on both sides of the protests? It seems to me like those hurling those hateful insults were in need of someone to reach out to them as well (though I certainly don’t agree with any thing they are doing/saying). Wouldn’t that have been a really powerful, engaged moment?

      Of course as you point out, it’s nice to be able to speculate from my chair.

  7. “It’s easy enough for us middle class Americans to sit around and get heated about whether or not we should be involved in these kinds of situations. But I’d be interested to see how the conversation changes when we don’t have the privilege to keep all of this at arms length. What happens if there is huge social crisis here in the U.S., and we aren’t able to ignore it anymore because it impacts greatly too many of us?”

    Well, I’ve always advocated that we should use our military power to remove dictators that cause a lot of suffering. I feel like that is a pretty good use of engaged Buddhism. I think the use of force is sometimes needed to alleviate suffering, and I fully support that by reflecting on my practice, so I am also a Socially Engaged Buddhist. Don’t you agree?

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  9. Way to wade right into this, Adam! I appreciate your looking at it from a perspective of how you practice, and if this changes how you practice, and all the while staying in a place of curiosity and questioning.

  10. nathan

    I’ll probably never agree with the use of large scale military force, but I do think it would be very useful for Buddhists to consider more deeply issues around any use of force. I agree that some situations require force, but I always go back to what is the least amount of force necessary to do something, what are the potential consequences of that use of force, and have non-violent options been exhausted as far as we can tell?

    Kyle, you want me and others to label you socially engaged. Why exactly? To prove this isn’t some liberal conspiracy? Well, I don’t agree with your conclusions, but if you are actually seriously reflecting on Buddhist teachings, and coming to the conclusion that military force in Burma for example, makes sense based on your understanding of the teachings, then you’re being a socially engaged Buddhist.

    But honestly, label or no label, it all comes back to the fact that we aren’t separate from the social/political world all around us.

    • I just don’t see the difference between a regular Buddhist and a socially engaged Buddhist, which is my point. Please, enough about the liberal conspiracy, Glenn Beck talk, I think you know I have a valid point. Who defines who is socially engaged and who isn’t? Who puts forth the agenda that an organization of socially engaged Buddhists would pursue?

      Yes, sometime I see violence as the only means to end suffering, like Burma. If NATO would have been in Rangoon and decapitated the junta years ago, all the ethnic cleansing and child slavery and sex trade could have been put to a halt. But instead, we protest, and the dying and suffering continues. No different than the Sudan or many other places. As a Buddhist, I would fully support such an undertaking, and I say that with as much reflection on my practice as I can muster.

      We are not separate with the world around us, yes, but our conclusions with how best to deal with it are.

  11. nathan

    “One question I have is that if there were Buddhists that were opposed to building the culture center out of compassion for the victim’s families, and sat in support of the opponents, is that also Socially Engaged Buddhism?” I think a lot of this comes down to intentions and motivations. The majority of people who are against the Muslim Community center hold at least some level of hatred, or serious suspicion towards Muslims as a whole. This doesn’t strike me as an attitude that washes well with deep reflection/meditation on Buddhist teachings.

    I actually think in some ways, it’s most important to be able, or willing, to reach across to those who you disagree with, regardless of positions. Sometimes, the best way to do this is to offer a peaceful presence, and sometimes one must declare their position, but be open to engaging those who disagree with them with compassion if the opportunity arises.

    I have to say for me, one problem I see with just sitting in solidarity with 9/11 families and other protesting against the Park 51 project is that it seems to support the hatred against Muslims that’s very much a part of that group as a whole, even if some within the group don’t have such hatred. It’s a dicey place. I could see a Buddhist group potentially supporting the anti-Park 51 folks, but I think sitting in silence behind them or within them during the protest just gives outsiders the impression that they support whatever messages are being delivered.

    This is actually why I stopped going to anti-war protests for the most part during the Bush Era. Because I was surrounded by angry people shouting hateful words about Bush, Cheney, and the rest. It was the opposite of peace, and I couldn’t just go on – alone – marching in the middle of such stuff.

    It would be interesting if a large enough group of Buddhists could get together and enter these protest spaces coming from a place of openness and calm. Having a small group, or being on your own, just lends a silent yes to that misery already there. Perhaps a much larger group might, by means of their presence alone, begin to shift the dynamic there. This, I think, is the potential of being witness work.

    • Certainly supporting the hatred and Islamaphobia isn’t going to help things. I suppose my 2nd question was more to the point, in wondering if we sat on both sides, or somewhere in the middle maybe. Maybe the Park 51 example was a bad one to use :)

      And I totally agree with your stance on the anti-war protests. Hate hate, ugly hate there. And while I certainly despised the previous administration, and am not keen on the current one, I have a hard time relating to those that would rather yell than discuss. But I think that’s another topic all on it’s own.

  12. Hi Adam,
    here is a video of Byron Katie talking about war and peace in Israel:
    She says, we’re doing it backwards when we try to change the world.

    This kind of inquiry is really really radical and relentless. I practiced zen Buddhism for years before I started questioning my thoughts and it made a big difference for me.

  13. nathan

    Adam,

    I’m not keen on the current administration either.

    Kyle,

    “Yes, sometime I see violence as the only means to end suffering, like Burma. If NATO would have been in Rangoon and decapitated the junta years ago, all the ethnic cleansing and child slavery and sex trade could have been put to a halt. ” I have yet to see a large scale military intervention that didn’t spawn a ton of suffering in it’s wake. I don’t want to be a part of replacing one set of awful conditions for another in someone else’s country, which is why I don’t support large scale military interventions.

    You’re the one with the liberal conspiracy charges by the way. It’s irritating that you keep throwing this back at people when you’re the one writing dramatic posts making accusations without much support behind them.

    Nathan

    • Nathan,

      “You’re the one with the liberal conspiracy charges by the way. It’s irritating that you keep throwing this back at people when you’re the one writing dramatic posts making accusations without much support behind them.”

      Excuse me? Please show me where I say liberal conspiracy or make accusations. No, what is irritating is I write asking what is included in this “movement” and all I get back is you are “Glenn Beck” or “you have a conspiracy theory.” That’s easy to do, the harder thing is to say the truth, which is that all points of view would not be welcome in this movement that you so passionately endorse. Maia didn’t answer it, no one wants to answer it.

      You are the one pushing a socially engaged Buddhism as differentiated from regular Buddhists. All some of us are asking is for a definition and what points of view would be included. I wrote five things in my last post that I would like to include in the engaged Buddhist movement….but we know they would never be even entertained, right?

      You just wrote: “I actually think in some ways, it’s most important to be able, or willing, to reach across to those who you disagree with, regardless of positions. Sometimes, the best way to do this is to offer a peaceful presence, and sometimes one must declare their position, but be open to engaging those who disagree with them with compassion if the opportunity arises.”

      But it’s all cool, I’m not going to write about it anymore, so you don’t have to worry about any more of my conspiracy theories and the big Beck chalkboard.

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  15. Another Nathan

    As I understand it, most buddhists seek the end of not only their suffering, but the suffering of all beings. Isn’t being “socially engaged,” in whatever capacity, merely the active exercise of that pursuit? If upon mindful reflection I realize that there exists a person or persons in need, and that I have the time and capability to meet it, does that make the charity “Buddhist”? Is there something amiss if a sangha decides as a group to follow their compassion with action? Isn’t the Point to take your practice with you when you get off the cushion?

    • “s I understand it, most buddhists seek the end of not only their suffering, but the suffering of all beings. Isn’t being “socially engaged,” in whatever capacity, merely the active exercise of that pursuit?”

      On a basic level, I might agree, though the kind of “suffering” that can be alleviated through good works doesn’t really strike at the heart of dukkha as the Buddha taught. And I don’t think anyone is arguing against doing those good works.

      I believe most of the arguments are coming from a worry that social activism might co-opt Buddhism, in the way that Psychology has in some circles. In addition, when groups begin to act on their ideals, groupthink becomes a distinct possibility, something that many want no part of.

      Lastly, if you are already taking your practice off the cushion (that is if you meditate) then there is no need for an extra label. Buddhism is already a extremely engaging practice. Why add another head?

      Good questions. Thank you another Nathan.

  16. Good evening Adam,

    Isn’t it interesting how many definitions and concepts there are of Socially Engaged Buddhism, and each of them have validity from their own perspective.

    The American Pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty presented the idea that language is a placeholder that can’t really describe reality (sounds very Zen), instead it is knowledge of an actions efficacy that is important. Socially Engaged Buddhism as a term has no power, but the action – before it is realized and named – is empowering.

    When Vietnamese Monk Thich Quang Duc lighted himself on fire in 1963 it is a sure bet that he wasn’t thinking “Wow, am I a socially engaged Buddhist or what.” His friend and fellow monk Thich Nhat Hanh wasn’t thinking of social engagement when he said, “When the bombs fall, get out of the temple.” Both were DOING and BEING without labels. The labels came later.

    By the way, thanks for the heads up about BuddhaBadges on your site.

    I bow with respect,
    Ven. Wayne Hughes
    (Ren Cheng) 仁 诚