Monday, June 29, 2009

Engaged Buddhism

Well, I stumbled upon the blog Tengu House because of a post about President Obama and Buddhists that I felt compelled to comment on. And then I noticed a few articles on Engaged Buddhism, and decided to take a look. Needless to say, the posts got me a bit riled up, and so I give you my response below. I'm pretty sure that the use of the word "lobby" in terms of Buddha's actions with prominent figures of his day is probably not correct, or maybe too strong. But anyway, here's what was said.

The author of Tengu House wrote: "We can protest private corporations, government agencies, elected officials and media outlets until we’re out of oxygen and our arms fall off from holding our signs. All of this may have the effect of making us feel better, momentarily, but this isn’t what the Buddha taught us. The Buddha taught us to find the peace that is already within us, and then to teach others to find the peace that is already within them, if they want."

And I responded, "Actually, I disagree. Why suggest practice is only one way? It's possible to discover truth about life, about the moment as it is, right in the middle of a protest, or negotiating a piece of legislation with a legislator, or coming together as a community to clean up a toxic waste site. I've experienced this myself, and it's been beyond whether or not 'my side' of an issue 'won' or was the 'right' one.

I think you're tossing the baby out with the bathwater.

Yes, it's disappointing that Buddhists are pigeonholed as all 'liberals' who support in the case of the U.S. the Democrats. That's false. And it's unfortunate when people toss out their sitting practice, and/or fail to keep digging into their own greed, hatred, and delusion because they are too busy working on political causes. But I take very seriously the teaching that there are 84,000 dharma gates - anything and everything can be a point of awakening for us. And I'd argue that, in working on a collective scale to change something, you learn a hell of a lot about your life - about where you are attached and where you have been freed - by being in the middle of such group efforts.

And the Buddha himself, for the record, often lobbied political leaders, military people, and business people who were not members of his sangha. He directly attempted to stop conflicts between warring groups in his home region at least twice, the second time having to watch as his efforts failed (at least in the short term). Now, this was not the lobbying or intervention we know of today, but it, along with Buddha's teachings in the Pali Canon on 'good governing,'
suggest that Buddha felt the social/political world was not outside of his teachings.

As for someone chaining themselves to a tree - how do you know for sure that this is not Buddhist? How do you know for sure that this act is not upholding the precept of not killing? What is Buddhist anyway?

Do you know the koan about Nansen cutting the cat in half?

Nansen saw the monks of the eastern and western halls fighting over a cat. He seized the cat and told the monks: `If any of you say a good word, you can save the cat.'
No one answered. So Nansen boldly cut the cat in two pieces.

That evening Joshu returned and Nansen told him about this. Joshu removed his sandals and, placing them on his head, walked out.

Nansen said: `If you had been there, you could have saved the cat.'

Was it Buddhist to kill a cat? Is it Buddhist to cut off any part of life and say it's not practice?"

Here's the link to the original post. (Sorry it's not easier to use - I can't seem to figure out how to paste a link in so you can just click it.)

I'm very interested in others views of Engaged Buddhism, or simply Buddhist practice and "activism" in its myriad of forms. Feel free to drop a comment if you're inclined.


Barry said...

The only thing that matters - in the end - is awakening from the toxins of anger, ignorance, and desire.

The rest is just window dressing.

We can awaken while sitting quietly on the cushion, arguing with the wife, playing with a child, lobbying for decent health care, or dying from cancer.

If we can't find it within us to *engage* in any and all of these activities, then we're only dressing a window.

My "humble" opinion...

Algernon said...

You are right to point out that the Buddha spoke to power. The author of that post is pointing at a very important point as well: that we must *realize* the dharma. And then speak to power!

It's a delicate point. Some of the angriest people I have come into contact have been peace activists. They were angry for understandable reasons, yet anger does what anger does. It's harder to hear other people, it's harder to confront our own condition with complete honesty, and then there's the toll on the body and the attitude.

I respect Daido-roshi's admonition about engaged Buddhism: engage it by realizing it. Realize it in every moment, wherever you are. Without realization, it just becomes activism, and activism without realization of the dharma - well, how can the damned lead us out of hell?

When I was active with ICUJP, I made a decision to intensify my formal practice and meetings with out Guiding Teacher to help support a *realized* Buddhism. It also gave me interesting opportunities to work on my righteousness and arrogance. Behind my good intentions, he spotted my vanity and I had to eat it.

Realized Buddhism is engaging itself all the time. If we practice diligently, then when we protest we can actually say something clearly.

Abe said...

I sit with this conflict on a daily basis. I don't know much about the practice (at least the theory) of engaged Buddhism. However, I know the foundational idea of Buddhist practice is to end the suffering of all beings. What form does the end of suffering take?

It seems like in many religious traditions to achieve true happiness and fulfillment one must focus on one's self and really develop his/her character. This can take the form of getting very close to God, meditating, or accomplishing major feats such as ending harmful addictions. In Buddhism, the way to reach enlightenment is to become a monk and spend a lot of time by yourself and in Islam, the proper Muslim sees this world as valueless compared to heaven and all relationships, even familial, as crumbs compared to that with God (a vast simplification). Regardless of the personal goal, the lesson is that the highest end to strive for in life is personal atonement.

To further dissuade me from activism, I don't enjoy community organizing- or at least I have not had an enjoyable experience yet. When I am most happy and at peace is when I am simply passing time with friends or cooking a good meal. And the way of helping people that feels most harmonious for me is the Ghandi/Buddha way- being the change and helping small ways when the opportunity arises- picking up trash off of the ground, talking to people about their issues. This way of helping is referred to as "being like water," in the Tao de Ching. It seems the purest way of acting egolessly and causing no harm. Furthermore, while mindfully doing activities, I've recently had feelings of a natural order, a yin and yang sort of deal that all things are proceeding as they should with the activists fighting and the corporations resisting; these feelings have felt very powerful and truthful.

Buddha and Jesus did not talk about systemic forms of oppression. They didn't seek to break caste systems, or take the people who exploited others out of power; they didn't discuss social theory such as the military industrial complex. Granted, had everyone converted and practiced their respective religions correctly, there would be world peace. But, they had to know not everybody was going to convert!

With this history in mind, I also am impelled to think, I don't really care what religion says. I look at the world and am struck by how disharmonious and back-asswards many of the systems that govern our society are. And I realize, we have to go about amending them (so long as it not an exercise in ego building).

To bolster this conclusion, some premonitions occurred to me. First, while experiencing a moment of doubt about group change, I saw a bumper sticker that said, "Jesus was a community organizer." More importantly, I had a talk with a Zen Protestant Chaplain that explained Buddha and Jesus were merely working in their times. The way of helping was on the individual level; discourse on systemic oppression had not yet been formulated. He posed two scenarios to me. If a monk approached a sick ailing man would he simply say to the man, "Your suffering is impermanent, meditate and get over it." And, if Buddha came to our time upon which the system of cyclical privilege and poverty were explained to him, would he he simply say, "Everybody should go and sit on their ass?"

What does everybody think? How do we act skillfully in every moment and relieve all suffering. A single mom can't cease dukkha if her welfare check doesn't cover the cost of her child's school lunch and medication... I personally feel I should continue to find ways to make macro level changes in a way that is personally fulfilling and requires the same effort as mindfully raking a zen garden.

Marcus said...


The story of Nansen is just that - a story. It is koan, something to think about, work on. It is not, as I've seen it used many times, a trump card for getting out of breaking precepts:

"Why are you putting body parts torn from sentient beings into your mouth? I thought Buddhists were meant to save all sentient beings, not raise them in horrible conditions and slaughter them for their flesh?"

"Get over it! It's just a precept! Just a guideline! No more than that! After all, Nansen killed a cat".

But, yes, that aside...


When I was younger I wasted ten years of my life running around supporting various progressive causes. I thought I knew exactly how the world was and just what was needed to fix it.

And, okay, I still have elements of fanaticism about me (especially when it comes to not eating meat), and so it's something I need to work on.

But I see some people doing the same now as I did back then, only, worse, sadly, I also see some people try to tie Buddhism into their particular political outlooks.

And yet, hell's teeth, look how badly we get it wrong when we think we know what is best for our friends, our family, even ourselves! How can we know what is best for the world?!

The time came for me to give up on thinking I knew what is best for the world. Give up taking sides in fights which hardly concerned me and which I really knew little about.

Now I try to just follow the precepts, and when I think I know the answer to some problem in the world, reflect on hiow little I know the answer to anything at all.


ZenDotStudio said...

Perhaps what you're hearing is the difference between engaged Buddhism and more contemplative traditions?

I think in any case whichever tradition you choose Buddhism is definitely not about passivity and inaction. Part of the practice is to look into your heart and see what it seems right to do. Sometimes that choice is something that makes us completely uncomfortable. I think each situation must be examined individually by each practitioner. There are no formulas in Buddhism.

Barry's words are wise, we can wake up anywhere if our intention is focused on the waking up. And sometimes we can wake up in the middle of confusion.

The Dalai Lama says his religion is "kindness" and I think this is an important aspect of practice. But kindness has many different faces.

Nathan said...

Hi Everyone,

Thank you for the thoughtful comments.

Like Barry said, we can awaken in most any situation. And really that was the thrust of my comments in response to the blog post.

Algernon, I totally agree about the issues that can arise in activist communities. I pulled back from the "peace movement" a few years ago because I, too, felt there was an awful lot of anger and unexamined righteousness going on.

I have felt it essential to deepen my zen practice, and to be more conscious of how I engage with larger, social issues. At the same time, I've never bought the you need to be enlightened to get involved kinds of arguments that get tossed about in some circles.

" Realized Buddhism is engaging itself all the time. If we practice diligently, then when we protest we can actually say something clearly." To me, this is right on. Aiming towards being clear, and being open to not knowing, but still getting involved when something is calling us to get involved.

I may have more to say, but have to get to work right now.

Bows to all,

Algernon said...

I've never bought the you need to be enlightened to get involved kinds of arguments that get tossed about in some circles.

Sometimes the people who say that are holding an idea about 'enlightenment' and separating it from their immediate situation.