Tag Archives: Socially Engaged Buddhism

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.

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