Adam over at Fly Like a Crow has a nicely balanced post taking on some of the discussion about socially engaged Buddhism. Here are the comments I left in response:
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 Buddhist 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?
Among the interesting things Adam's post considers is whether diversity of political opinion might have a place in socially engaged Buddhism.
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.
A few thoughts. First off, although I haven't done any research, I can imagine there are Buddhist organizations that would fall under the "pro-life" umbrella. For many people, myself included, the pro-life/pro-choice divide isn't as stark as it appears to be. Working with the first precept has made it even harder for me to ignore the complexities around abortion, for example, even though I'd argue that the pro-choice/pro-life divide is about much more than abortion.
It strikes me that, given the tremendous amount of suffering present in abortion debates, Buddhists who are actively involved and/or interested in the issues could provide an airing out amongst sworn enemies by calling for deep listening, and working with people on all sides to expose the complexities of an issue that currently is portrayed as pretty black and white.
One of the misconceptions I see, both within some circles claiming to "socially engaged Buddhists and from the "outside," is the suggestion that actions will lead to a particular outcome. It's exactly the opposite. If one engages issues around abortion, it should be from a place of detachment from any potential result. Otherwise, you just end up clinging to a particular side, and then adding yourself to mess that's already there.
There's a difference between acknowledging how you currently lean, and clinging to that view. I think it's important to acknowledge, whenever possible, where you currently stand on an issue, while also doing your best to be open to change. I lean pro-choice, but I've had enough discussions with, for example, women who have felt deep grief over having had an abortion, or women who were pro-choice until they got pregnant, or with men and women who lost relationships over abortions, to know that how I stand is, in part, due to not having faced these kinds of dilemmas. Being open to vastly differing opinions is something anyone can do, regardless of their religious or ethical beliefs. However, the particular ways that Buddhist teachings open us can contribute to both discussions, as well as helping to shape any actions taken in the world.
In addition to everything above, I think we also must be willing to fail together. Large scale social issues are such because they are messy and complicated. If the right conclusions were obvious, and/or they were easily solved, then we wouldn't be talking about them.
Update: I wrote the following response to Andy's "Socially Engaged" post, and I'd like to include it here because I think it applies to much of the discussion going on.
I really wish people would read more about what people who fall under the label are actually doing, and perhaps even talk with some of us in depth, before making declarations about what it is we're doing and not doing. The label is of no concern to me; but I really think a lot of this debate is coming from a place of ignorance about what people are actually doing and how they go about such actions.
Go interview people from the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. Or people working with Sulak Sivaraksa, Thich Nhat Hanh, or Joanna Macy. Or the Zen Peacemakers. Or the Tzu Chi Foundation. Or any number of other groups.
Here are two books you could read.
Queen, Chris; King, Sallie (1996). Engaged Buddhism: Buddhist Liberation Movements in Asia. New York: Albany State University Press. ISBN 0-79142-843-5.
^ Queen, Christopher (2000). Engaged Buddhism in the West. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-159-9.
There are more out there, but these will give an introduction to some of what people are actually doing. It's not a homogeneous movement, and there are a lot debates even amongst people and groups who fall under the label of socially engaged Buddhism.