Monday, January 31, 2011

"Engaged Buddhism" isn't as popular as some of you think

I have been doing a little debating with Harry over at Bodhi Armour in response to a post about Engaged Buddhism. The blogosphere isn't always an accurate representation of Buddhism. For one, most of us linked together are operating in one language. If you reviewed a collection of Chinese blogs about Buddhism, or Spanish blogs about Buddhism, conclusions about the practice might be quite different. In addition, given the ever fluctuating nature of blog-land, what gets attention and what doesn't changes rather quickly. I remember there being more blogs and even a few discussion boards about Buddhism and environmental issues maybe a year and a half ago. Not as much today. I also recall seeing at least half a dozen regularly updated blogs reviewing ancient Chan and Zen texts (sans Dogen), but those have mostly gone away as well.

Given this, it's fair to say that while there is currently a good amount of writing in the Buddhoblogosphere around what's called "engaged Buddhism," this isn't necessarily an accurate reflection of what's going on in Buddhist communities. Nor is it guaranteed to be a staple of Buddhist blog land in the future.

So, consider this as you read this, from Harry's post:

There's a big hue and cry about 'compassion' and being an 'Engaged Buddhist' coming out of the US. Now, I'm not going to say that there is not merit in that, that it's not a 'good thing', but the transmission of Zen truth is not of one flavour, is not of one point of view, value system, moral code, and is never yoked to a code or creed or accumulating merit. This is its nature and its standard is free action, free conduct, that is responsive to the real situation, not to some 'Engaged Buddhist' set of ideals or compassion club or other movement... don't make me dig out all the koans!

I agree with Harry - and - would point to the fact that Zen emphasizes the importance of "containers of practice." That the structures of zazen, bowing, chanting, sutra study, etc. are the platform from which our awakening can spring forth. They aren't fixed, always required forms - but it's very difficult to embody Buddha's teachings without working from some kind of formal platform some of the time. And I'd say the same is true of social action, social engagement. If you don't individually and as a group have some set of ethics, values, and concrete directions guiding what you're doing, it's really hard to actually act well in the world. The abstractions are never the person, place, or thing you are faced with in the moment, but they are the moon pointers, to borrow a common Zen phrase. Just as sutras, koans, and poems are moon pointers in our practice.

Part of my initial response to Harry's post was this:

What I find disappointing is that most of the blogger critics of engaged Buddhism know little about it. And you know, taking shots at social action work is as old as the hills.

Honestly, I have seen a fair amount of bogeyman making - people conjuring up socially conservative Christians or Muslims - and suggesting that any link between religion/spiritually will lead to the kinds of oppression and righteousness that have come from segments of social conservative groups that get into political power. Harry doesn't do the bogeyman thing, which I thank him for.

Beyond the boogeymaning, though, I see a lot of ignorance about engaged Buddhist projects and issues. Tends to be that Bernie Glassman or a few others are upheld, and then their associations with dubious funding is raised, and swift dismissal of the whole works follows. I have offered numerous links to engaged Buddhist projects and writers, as have people like Maia and Nella Lou, just to offer two examples. I sometimes wonder if critics bother reading any of this stuff, or looking into the actual work being done.

In response to my initial comment, Harry wrote, in part, the following:

As part of our professional social care study/training we explore the whole concept and practice of 'help' via a process of critical reflection: Are we being genuine? Are we projecting our values onto those we are 'helping'? Are we discriminating/oppressing the 'helpee' is any way known or unknown to ourselves due to our perceptions and values and assumptions? Is the concept of 'help' even useful...?

I don't hear much of anything approaching such important considerations in the Enagaged Buddhism adventure. I see a lot of assumptions and spurious values though.

I just find it questionable is all, but I don't mean to tar everyone with a brush. At the same time, the people who are genuinely 'engaged', if you like, really won't give much of a shit about what I think or say about what they do!

I completely agreed with him that the notion of helping, as well as intentions behind any given project or social change effort must be seriously questioned and examined. In addition, it should be routinely reflected upon during the work being done. I recall a point during the work I did with ESL students where one of my co-workers, who had come to the U.S. from Thailand as a child, told me "Your students have to make their own mistakes. You can't save them from that." I was lamenting the loss of students to meatpacking jobs that took them away from their studies and from their families in many cases. Her comment broke through a "helping" view that I had failed to see, and it was something I would return to again and again whenever some issue came up, or some action (like lobbying elected officials) came up.

Coming back to the title of this post, the fact is that in American convert Buddhist communities, and perhaps convert communities across the "West," engaged Buddhism actually isn't that popular. One of the reasons I started this blog was to consider social action and Buddhist practice, and to learn, through my own writing and others, how such work might be done. Several years ago, there was a small uptick in discussion around issues of war and peace related to Iraq. At that time, a tiny group of us got together to try and resurrect the local Buddhist Peace Fellowship, and perhaps coordinate some response to the war. We had two meetings. There were four of us, I believe. That's it.

Harry's role as doubter of validity here is entirely commonplace. Many doubt by saying nothing about social issues in Buddhist contexts. Some others vocally demand a complete separation of Buddhist practice from social issues. Still others offer a bit of sympathy, but that's about all.

I wrote:

But you know, your role as one who finds it "questionable" is vastly more commonplace than those Buddhists who are out there arguing blindly to "help others" through larger scale social engagement projects. After almost a decade of practice in a Soto sangha, as well as significant interaction with three other Zen sanghas in my area, I'd say at best, 10 percent of practitioners have any interest in combining Buddhist teachings with social action work. Plenty of people give money to charities, or volunteer once a year in a soup kitchen, but whenever the larger scale projects or even views about social issues come up, I can feel the aversion energy rise in the room.

Most of the time, what I hear from fellow practitioners are calls to just sit, just study the sutras, and to do whatever else on our own time. This is quite a privileged view in my opinion. During the Vietnam war era, just to give one example, members of Thich Nhat Hanh's order routinely risked their lives to work with people in the poor villages that were under constant threat from all sides of the military conflict. At the same time, they supported wounded soldiers and others from both North and South Vietnam without discrimination.

Yes, this is an extreme example, but there are plenty of others coming from Buddhists not under such dire conditions all over Asia.

I actually think part of reason there are Americans crying about lambasting of engaged Buddhism, and in the process, failing to critically examine what they are doing, is that there isn't very much of it in the U.S. Convert American Buddhist communities are predominately middle and upper class white folks who are being taught by middle and upper class white folks. And their Asian teachers, who mostly arrived in the late 1950s and 1960s, downplayed social activism in part because the people who were coming to Buddhism at that time were surrounded by forms of counter-culture social activism. At that time, it was damned smart to get people to sit down and shut up. And it still is. However, one of the major flaws of that period was a lack of emphasis on ethical teachings, which led to all sorts of innner-sangha problems, never mind the rest of the world.

In terms of my home sangha, we have the privilege to do zazen, study, and the rest in a safe community, where material resources are plenty. There are not regular gunshots around our zendo. We can avoid the starving, the homeless, those with untreated chronic illnesses, etc. This is true of the vast majority of American Buddhist convert communities. It's easy to say practice must "look like this" when all that other stuff is in place. However, with just a slight turn of conditions, forms of practice, and the conduct that comes with it, will need to look different.

Now, I don't want to idealize the situation in Asian nations either. There are plenty of monks, nuns, and lay folks in Asian nations that don't do much in terms of supporting their struggling neighbors, or trying to address oppressive social structures. Others, like the leadership in Sri Lanka, are those upholding the oppressive structures themselves. I'm focusing here on convert American Buddhist communities because that's where I come from, and actually have a foothold of information from which to work from.

In addition, if you look at any given convert American Buddhist sangha, there's also a percentage of people doing volunteer or social action work with secular groups, or other religious based groups. Some these folks want to maintain a separation between practice and "social engagement" activities. Others would probably have interest in doing their social engagement from a collective platform driven by Buddhist teachings, but don't have access to such a platform. The latter has been my experience for the most part.

Speaking of location, I remember some of the stories Geri Larkin, the former head teacher of Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple, shared in her books and a few talks I have heard her give. There was a deliberate choice to locate the center in the middle of Detroit, to offer dharma in a place where many neighborhoods have been mostly abandoned. There was a deliberate focus on meeting and greeting anyone who appeared in the center, or near the center, regardless of their background or interest in Zen. There was a deliberate focus on people being active in the neighborhood (and all of Detroit by extension), working in whatever ways they could to support the health and vitality of the whole. Unlike most American convert sanghas, they have dharma programs and study focused on linking Buddhism with social action, understanding that their sangha's vitality is intimately linked with the vitality of the neighborhood and city in which they are located.

I'm sure they stumble, make mistakes, and develop projects that fail, but who doesn't. I'm sure that some of their members aren't involved beyond meditation and study, which is fine too. To me, what's wonderful about their community is that they see the interconnected, and have a platform for people who are compelled to be involved in social action. Those who aren't out in the community doing support those who are, and those who are "doing," are supporting those who are sitting and studying.

This is a debate that will never end. Involvement, or disengagement from, the larger world has always been a point of contention in Buddhism. So, I offer my two cents into the pot (maybe it's 4 cents), and let what will come.


Harry said...

Hi Nathan,

I should point out for the benefit of your readers that I am a student of Applied Social Care who is currently on supervised work placement in a Family Resource Centre in a 'disadvantaged' area here in Ireland.

Here's what came up for me on reading your last message to my blog:

You wrote: But you know, your role as one who finds it "questionable" is vastly more commonplace than those Buddhists who are out there arguing blindly to "help others" through larger scale social engagement projects.

I think it is a requirement (it's certainly now a professional requirement of trained helpers) to question their motivations, values, beliefs and assumptions as part of the process of extending help. This is (ideally) done in the professional social care field through on-going assessment, training, and personal critical assessment and reflection.

Yes, this may be exactly what I'm getting at. Assuming for a moment that I am not a person, a buddhist, or whatever, 'out there' fighting the good fight, what exactly do you mean by this (above)? What exactly are you saying?

Is it really a question of 'scale'? A hierarchy of bodhisattvahood? What's that really got to do with Buddhism, and the relative realities of real human beings, and their lived lives and diverse potentials, talents and aspirations for that matter?



Nathan said...


Large scale social movements aren't, or shouldn't be about professionalization. Nor does basic community building need to be, such as helping people to build houses, find jobs, food, clothing, etc. There will be members of professional classes, such as social workers and mental health professionals, that are involved in said efforts, but I'm not really focusing on them.

The role I'm talking about is that you are a Buddhist practitioner who sees "engaged Buddhism" as questionable, maybe even out of line with Buddhist teachings. And I'd argue that the majority of convert practitioners either agree with you, or haven't thought much at all about practice merged with social action.

"A hierarchy of bodhisattvahood?" This is a tired question. Every time I post about this, someone asks me or asserts that I'm trying to say "social engagement" is the superior position. The reason I brought up the Still Point Buddhist Temple example is that they are doing both sides of the equation, understanding that it's not one or the other. When I've been out doing work in local immigrant communities, I have needed the support, calm, and wisdom of those in my sangha who are doing much more formal practice. And lately, I've been more on the side of formal practice, needing to quiet down, and look deeper within. Others in my sangha may now be relying on me.

I'd be foolish to suggest that we all should be out in the streets, or all being actively involved all the time in social action projects. Not only is that a recipe for burnout, but it's also a failure to see the ebbs and flows of practice. Furthermore, some will be deeply called to be Buddhist teachers, or monastics focused on working with the teachings - and this is fine. No problem.

What I'm saying is not that dharma centers need to be turned into social action centers, or that Buddhist practitioners must become professional activists, but that we converts need to turn a little more in the direction of social issues, and how our practice might aid us in working on such issues. Furthermore, I'm also saying that places like Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple are great examples of what could be - a place where there can be a dynamic flow between traditional practices, and direct social action work in the community. It might only be 15 or 20 percent of the membership that ever is actively involved in such projects; again, that's fine.

Beyond that, though, others might want to do, or already are doing, social action or volunteer work for secular organizations, but aren't sure how the Buddhists teachings might be a support or guide for that work. It's way too easy to say things like just sit zazen and you'll figure it out. People don't. We need to have more regular discussions about teachings as they might apply to social issues, otherwise it's more likely that people will simply approach situations with "idiot compassion" or poorly thought out notions about "saving all beings."


Carol said...

I was somewhat surprised when I discovered that most in my Zen sangha were pretty "ho-hum" about socially engaged practice. But to each his/her own, I guess. But even talking about it is often taken as preaching -- and I don't really know where that comes from.

I've been moved by Chan Master Sheng Yen's aim of "Creating a Pure Land on Earth." His group in Queens New York is ethnically mixed -- perhaps about 2/3rds Asian and 1/3 Westerners -- and doesn't appear to have the aversion to "engaged" Buddhism that seems common. They practice hard in the temple and on retreats, and they are involved in their communities.

Harry said...

Hi Nathan,

There may be some dissonance in the way we're using terms here. 'Social engagement' suggests to me engaging with people socially, becoming active with them with a social vision or rationale with a (however provisional or fixed) goal, not just giving them stuff (i.e. charity, material support, building them houses, or whatever) which is often not very social at all.

Yes, professionalization is a big word; but large-scale movements should certainly be about checks, balances and training for volunteers where they are engaging socially with the clients/client groups, services users, 'helpees'... or what have you.

I wouldn't put too much weight in my questioning of 'Engaged Buddhism'; I find all aspects of Buddhism questionable, and that actually isn't out of line with Buddhism one bit. You have outlined the possible alternative quite well.

...and personally I wouldn't write off 'idiot compassion'. I've surprised myself with some acts of 'compassionate' idiocy (completely unlearned and uncontrived) since I have become a father.



Nathan said...


Sounds like we're on a similar page actually. I'm often writing on this blog to offer some of the questioning I've been doing.

I also hear you about "idiot compassion." Even if something ends up being a mistake, sometimes it's the mistake that leads us in the right direction.


"I've been moved by Chan Master Sheng Yen's aim of "Creating a Pure Land on Earth." His group in Queens New York is ethnically mixed -- perhaps about 2/3rds Asian and 1/3 Westerners -- and doesn't appear to have the aversion to "engaged" Buddhism that seems common. They practice hard in the temple and on retreats, and they are involved in their communities." This is another great example. I know things are happening in this direction, and maybe by raising the examples and talking more about it, there will be more of those examples.


Harry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Harry said...

Hi Nathan,

The slight difference may be that I don't see any point in doing social engagement under a Buddhist header/ banner. In our diverse, increasingly secular Western countries I see good reason for not doing it under a Buddhist header/ banner tho.



Carol said...

From the Dalai Lama ... The Ethics of Interdependence ... seems like as good a case as any for "engaged Buddhism"

"I often say to people that right from birth, we learn to appreciate the affection of our mother. And our mother freely and naturally gives her affection to us. There is a reason for this: that affection is crucial for the survival of the child. And many other animals have a similar sort of experience— the children are also entirely dependent on the mother fotr survival. But in some species, such as turtles, the children are not dependent on the mother, once the eggs are laid. So if someone tried to bring a mother turtle and her offspring together, would they feel affection? Would there be a bond? Probably not. Her children are independent from birth, so they would never develop that kind of feeling of closeness.

Now, if we extend this logic of dependence further— from the family out to the community and society, to the national and international levels, and even to the economy and environment— then we can see how interconnected we are, how interdependent the world is. Given this reality, we cannot escape the necessity for care toward each other. This has nothing to do with religion. I’m not talking about God or Buddha. I’m talking about understanding and appreciating this highly complex and interdependent world. Then, even from the point of view of one’s own personal survival and well-being, one can argue for an ethical system based on affection.

A young child’s affection does not come through faith; it is naturally very strong. I think the mistake we make is that when we’re grown up, we start to think we’re independent. We think that in order to be successful we don’t need others— except maybe to exploit them! This is the source of all sorts of problems, scandals, and corruption. But if we had more respect for other people’s lives— a greater sense of concern and awareness— it would be a very different world. We have to introduce the reality of interdependence. Then people would discover that, according to that reality, affection and compassion are essential if anything is ever going to change."

~ HH Dalai Lama
The Ethics of Interdependence