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.
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.