Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Hot Topics: Socially Engaged Buddhism



There's been a lot of debate lately online about socially engaged Buddhism. This on the heels of last month's Zen Peacemaker's Socially Engaged Buddhism Symposium, which was held in the U.S. state of Massachusetts.

Posts from The Reformed Buddhist and, to a lesser extent, from Point of Contact argue against the notion of socially engaged Buddhism, suggesting that Buddhist practice should not be conflated with actions involving large scale social and political issues. Both suggest that it's just fine to be actively engaged with these issues, but that Buddhism should be left out of those engagements.

In another recent post, found over at Notes in Samsara, Mumon offers that those who view Buddhist practice as a means to "change the world" are clinging to a gaining idea.

The current post over at Notes from a Burning House points to the fact that when spiritual/religious folks attempt to rock the social/economic boat, they're often marginalized, shunned, and sometimes end up murdered. (Think Martin Luther King Jr. for example.) The post then goes on to ask where the middle ground is between hard core social activists and those who shun all Buddhist inspired engagement with the social/political realms.

Finally, the latest post over at Jizo Chronicles offers Diana Winston and Donald Rothberg's Ten Guiding Principles for Socially Engaged Buddhism.

For the purposes of this discussion, I think principle number two has the most relevance:

Interbeing and Co-Responsibility:
We look at our tendencies to separate “us” and “them,” and “inner” and “outer.” We see in ourselves the same structures of greed, hatred, and delusion that we seek to change. We realize that there is ultimately no “other” to fight against, yet we also recognize that some are indeed in positions of greater responsibility for suffering and oppression.


In response to a comment John from Point of Contact made wondering how the principles were any different from "mundane/non-engaged/boring Buddhism," I said the following:

I get the sense that you and others are wanting a separation where none can really be made. If you truly live the practice, anything you do in the social/political realm, regardless of whether you label it or not, will be influenced by your practice. People seem to be fussing a lot about the labels, but I really think that’s a red herring. 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.

As for the list, #2 and #4 explicitly point to a deliberate interaction with and engagement of systemic manifestations of suffering. The list isn’t pointing to just everyday activities like washing the dishes, being kind to co-workers and strangers, etc. It’s suggesting that there are a wide array of ways we might engage in the world springing forth from our understanding of Buddhist teachings. All of it is part of the path in my view. No one person need be “engaged” if you will in all facets of action within the world suggested by these principles, but to suggest that all social action work is outside the realm of Buddhism is, as I already said, creating a separation where none can be found.


I'm going to be honest with you all: I've had some trouble figuring out how to respond to all these discussions. I have made a few comments, but mostly I've read and watched others engage.

The thing I keep going back to is the idea that for better or worse, one's belief system will influence how one acts within the larger social/political world. An atheist or secular humanist will look at things differently from a devout Christian or Jew. Perhaps, they end up making similar decisions, but the reasoning behind, as well as the path that led up to said decisions will be different. And I think it's important to consider those differences because they help us understand how the whole of humanity is interacting together to form the world we live in at this particular time.

Beyond this, I believe there are ways to be inspired by, or driven by, one's spiritual practice that don't lead to the kinds of oppression seen in theocracies, for example, or to the kinds of self-righteousness seen in individuals who believe their path is superior in solving social problems than all others. I understand that even saying this will cause some to believe that I'm no better than folks in the "Christian Right" arguing to outlaw abortions and for a return of prayer in public schools. Perhaps this is the case. I honestly don't know.

I just can't see how it's possible to divorce one's spiritual life from how one engages the big issues in the world.

11 comments:

sharanam said...

Nathan, I agree that there is a continuum of engagement, and there needs to be room for solitary contemplatives as well as for those who are actively working on social justice. So too, there may be different times in one's life when one way of being in the world is more skillful than the other.

I think Vimala Thakar is a wonderful model for this. Her words spoken decades ago still hold true:

"In this era, to become a spiritual inquirer without social consciousness is a luxury that we can ill afford, and to be a social activist without the scientific understanding of the inner workings of the mind is the worst folly...Life cannot be divided into spiritual and material, individual and collective...And each passionate being who dares to explore beyond the fragmentary and superficial into the mystery of totality helps all humanity perceive what it is to be fully human. Revolution, total revolution, implies experimenting with the impossible. And when an individual takes a step in the direction of the new, the impossible, the whole human race travels through that individual."

See also Awakening to Revolution

Kyle said...

"The thing I keep going back to is the idea that for better or worse, one's belief system will influence how one acts within the larger social/political world. An atheist or secular humanist will look at things differently from a devout Christian or Jew. Perhaps, they end up making similar decisions, but the reasoning behind, as well as the path that led up to said decisions will be different. And I think it's important to consider those differences because they help us understand how the whole of humanity is interacting together to form the world we live in at this particular time."

However, I'm sure we all agree that their are numerous political views within each of these spiritual tradition. It is impossible to reconcile certain political stances on the basis of "this is what Buddhism has taught me", since we all come to different conclusions. When we say I am making this decision because I am Buddhist, it is important be mindful that other Buddhists may not.

Furthermore, I think it is important to be mindful that we do not push a socio-political view to others because of our religion. Maybe if this political approach continues, we may fall into the trap of judging other Buddhists as poor Buddhists or misguided Buddhists because they don't come to the same conclusions about social matters. That is dangerous ground to tread on.

I wouldn't say you or others are like the Christian right at all. More importantly, we need to make room for all people who are interested in Buddhism, regardless of their views or actions.

kevin said...

Can't say you haven't done your best to show all sides.

I tend to lean away from Buddhism as a platform for social change, but while reading this a couple things occurred to me.

I still think that while practicing Buddhism makes you a better person each day (as opposed to better than other people) and that this is the first step towards improving the world. I don't think people should stand around in their robes feeding the poor saying "oh, we're doing this because we're Buddhists."

This reminds me of the story in the Judeo-Christian tradition of the person that dresses up and sits in the front for services vs. the one in back or the one that looks like crap when fasting making a big deal out of it vs. the one that behaves normally.

As Buddhists we shouldn't make a show (trotting out our egos) of doing good. We should just do it.

The thing that occurred to me is that the Sangha is a wonderful recruitment base for organized change. I hadn't thought about this as a mostly solo practitioner.

The other thing about people who identify with each other acting in "secret" is some conspiracy nut will always get paranoid about some agenda.

Guess it just proves views are never set in stone.

Thanks for the post. I really enjoy reading all the other blogs to come here and read your take.

Algernon said...

Thanks for the post (and the link). Guess I've said more than my share on it. Only thing left in case I left it out somewhere is that some very valid concerns and viewpoints about this issue are getting mixed up with a lot of personal defensiveness. The latter throws up a lot of smoke that makes it hard to look at what's going on.

T_Y said...

As a monastic in the west I see our work as more than some kind of vehicle for social change, mostly because I don't think anything can change and that most engaged practices are simply power-tripping. Buddhists working in hospices, prisons, aid agencies, soup kitchens etc. are providing some kind of service, but from a serious Buddhist perspective we should always hold the view of these being a kind of Band-aid treatment. The fundamental philosophy should always be the striving for enlightenment. From a mahayanist perspective it is essential to work for others in a relative way to evolve into enlightenment. So rather than rejecting social engagement completely, I feel there has to be activity with the correct view of what is really going on. That correct view can't come without study, meditation and reflection.
So I guess what I am saying is, be engaged, do it with right view and the ultimate aim of enlightenment - not a pay check or fame. I think this is easier said than done LOL.
:) Love your posts Nathan, they just keep getting better and better.

Sabio Lantz said...

I am kind of polling. I am really curious if there are any Buddhist bloggers who are fiscally conservative or do they feel they need to stay closeted or loose their readership?

Nathan said...

Sharanam: "So too, there may be different times in one's life when one way of being in the world is more skillful than the other." This is a very important point. I'm currently in a quiet period in my life, mostly resting, reflecting, meditating. It's what's called for right now.

Kyle: "Maybe if this political approach continues, we may fall into the trap of judging other Buddhists as poor Buddhists or misguided Buddhists because they don't come to the same conclusions about social matters." Well, I think there are plenty of teachings that point out how this kind of judging is a hindrance. And people will fall into judging each other no matter how big the social engaged buddhist movement is. In saying that, I'm not saying it's ok. I'm saying it's an area we always face - judging people for their differences - and so it's a place of practice.

T.Y. "So I guess what I am saying is, be engaged, do it with right view and the ultimate aim of enlightenment - not a pay check or fame." I think suggesting that people only get involved in social action as volunteers is ideal, but doesn't really address the tensions around livelihood in a capitalist society. I believe it's just fine to earn a basic living doing hospice work, running non-profit agencies, or even teaching the dharma. Historically, at least in the U.S., large scale social movements tend to be mostly grassroots and volunteer in nature. But none of them fully functioned without connections to people whose jobs were doing work that aided the movement in some way. Like laywers during the Civil Rights movement.

The problems seem to come when people hook into power games and/or, as you said, are driven by fame seeking. And I agree that the power and fame impulses are challenges.

Thanks for the discussion everyone.

T_Y said...

I totally get that people need to eat! I just think there has to be some realism that suffering is the nature of our existence and that enlightenment (and therefore real, effortful practice) is the only way to social change. Everything else is just power-tripping. IMO :)

Ji Hyang said...

“Our journey begins today,
and every day.
Each step is a prayer,
each step is a meditation,
each step will build a bridge.”


Once my teacher, Samdeach Maha Ghosananda said, people had told him, "monks belong in the temple." He continued,
"We must find the courage to leave out temples
and enter the temples of human experience,
temples that are filled with suffering.
If we listen to the Buddha, Christ or Gandhi, we can do nothing else. The refugee camps, the prisons, the ghettos and the battlefields will then become our temples."

And that from a Theravadan monk.

Not taking action, when there is injustice, is already an expression of a belief system-- which supports the status quo. Just as, in the Vimalakirti Sutra, we see that one cannot arrive at nonduality by abandoning words-- in the same way we cannot hope to attain nirvana through nonaction.

Even the simplest action already is a step taken towards alleviating suffering. When Maha Ghosananda led his sangha in peace walks across his country, it was simply Khane Khane, step by step.

The suffering of Cambodia has been deep.
From this suffering comes great Compassion.
Great Compassion makes a Peaceful Heart.
A peaceful Heart makes a Peaceful Person.
A Peaceful Person makes a Peaceful Community.
A Peaceful Community makes a Peaceful Nation.
And a Peaceful Nation makes a Peaceful World.
May all beings live in Happiness and Peace.

Nathan said...

T.Y.

What does "real, effortful practice" look like? Does it have a fixed form?

Ji Hyang,

Thank you! Thank you!And yes...

Nathan

Joshua said...

In my opinion, those who call for a disengaged, apolitical Buddhism are ignoring the long history of social and political engagement in Buddhism stretching back to the Buddha himself, and even back to the Jataka tales.

Put more bluntly, do those who oppose Buddhist social and political engagement know more about Buddhism than the Buddha; Nagarjuna; the authors of the Pali, Chinese, and Tibetan canons; almost every Dalai Lama; almost every Karmapa; Maha Ghosananda; Buddhadasa Bhikku; Thich Nhat Hahn; Cheng Yen; and countless other current and historical Buddhist teachers and scholars? I'm somehow doubtful.

See also "Class Consciousness: Why Liberating Sentient Beings Means Liberating Society."