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Can Buddhism Save the World?


The topic of socially engaged Buddhism is complex and very important to the future of the dharma in our troubled, fast-moving and intensely competitive global world. Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor says that phrase “socially engaged Buddhism” was coined in the 1930s when some monks opposed France’s occupation in Viet Nam.

In his lucid historical study, The Awakening of the West: the encounter of Buddhism and Western culture (1994), he tells the story of Thich Quang Du who, while sitting in meditative calm repose on a street in Saigon, poured gas over his body and torched himself on June 1, 1963.

Images of monks aflame—“seated like a Buddha engulfed by fire in a country ravaged by war sears itself into the Western mind” (p. 353)—aroused incomprehension among those who imagined Buddhists as totally other-worldly.

But the practice of “engaged Buddhism” could really be said to begin with the Buddha himself. The Buddha didn’t remain silently seated under the Bodhi tree, keeping his awakening to himself, hidden in his soul’s depths. Rather, he went out into the world, and the dharma began to engage with its culture and society of 2500 years ago.

He created the sangha, a kind of community of resistance to the existing caste and hierarchical system. In itself, it was a model of community and community development. The Buddha also taught about worldly affairs. Yet we must recognize that the Buddha taught not only perennial truths about the human condition and the way to happiness. He also articulated his understanding of human suffering (dukkha) in the Iron Age world where society was viewed essentially as a collection of individuals (Stephen Batchelor, After Buddhism: rethinking the dharma for a secular age [2015], pp. 1-28).

Some Buddhist scholars argue that the socially engaged Buddhist movement is really the creation of modernity. That is, the central preoccupation of Buddhist Asian civilizations has not been the “saving of the world.”

As the dharma traveled from the East into the West, western teachers and practitioners had to speak the dharma into highly complex capitalist social formations, societies of immense material abundance and social and political complexity.

Western societies understood themselves within the narrative of progress. They had hard-won traditions of human rights, liberal democracy and collective welfare.

These were also societies that had been secularized. Religion gradually receded and relinquished its control over all domains of existence, and came to be imagined as a mostly private matter or concern.

Moreover, these western liberal democracies suffered from the “malaise of modernity”: loss of meaning, feelings of alienation and powerlessness, unhappiness in the midst of the glut of material possessions, despair over deepening discrepancies between rich and poor, social fragmentation, moral confusion and pervasive personality disorders and addictions, plus an ever degrading eco-structure.

For many western Buddhists, then, it certainly seemed that any spirituality that focused exclusively on the cultivation of the inner world would not speak to the anguish of modernity. Buddhists in both the West and the East were forced to examine their own traditions and practices as they sought, and struggled, to be an integral part of the conversation about the future of their societies.

Socially Engaged Buddhism: a definition

Kenneth Kraft (The Wheel of Engaged Buddhism: a new map of the path [1999]) argues that: “…engaged Buddhism is an international movement whose participants seek to apply the Buddhist ideals of wisdom and compassion to present-day social, political, and environmental issues. Although Buddhism has typically given priority to the spiritual liberation of the individual, engaged Buddhists look for ways to expand the notion of spiritual liberation to other arenas (without abandoning the essential role of individual enlightenment)” (p. 9).

Kraft then provides us with a working definition: “Engaged Buddhism entails both inner and outer work. We must change the world, we must change ourselves, and we must change ourselves in order to change the world. Awareness and compassionate action reinforce each other” (p. 10). Left humanist visionaries must take this challenge to heart.

Socially engaged Buddhist thinkers and practitioners reject the idea perpetuated by some comparative religion scholars (like Max Weber) that Buddhism is a world-denying, world-rejecting religion. “Sitting practice” is not set off against “non-sitting practice.”

The main reason for the rejection of the dualism—contemplation and action—has to do with the profound insight into the relationship between the Buddha’s teaching on suffering as part of our existential condition and suffering that is produced by social arrangements.

Ken Jones, author of one the first texts on socially engaged Buddhism (The social Face of Buddhism [1989]), after noting that the Buddha’s axial teaching that the root cause of our suffering is “divisive and delusive self-need” (p. 194), observes that we live in “socio-historical conditions which institutionalize alienation, ill-will, aggressiveness, and acquisitiveness” (ibid.). In turn, these societal conditions are karmically inherited by each new generation.

Ken Kraft captures the linkage between ontological and social suffering this way. “Greed, anger, and delusion—known as the ‘three poisons’ in Buddhism—need to be uprooted in our personal lives, but they have to be dealt with as social and political realities. Throughout the world today, large-scale systems cause suffering as surely as psychological factors cause suffering. Traditional Buddhism focused on the latter; engaged Buddhism focuses on both” (1999, p. 10).

Put differently, social structures and ideological systems can be understood as the institutionalization of the three poisons. This means that the pursuit of enlightenment is a dual project. Buddhists insist that we must confront our own divisive and delusive ego-needs and create different social conditions of a kind which nurture personality change.

Thus, in our intensely consumerist, capitalist world, our own delusions and their institutionalization are now so interpenetrated that “contemplation and activism” need to go hand in hand. Outer work must be integrated with inner work.

Bringing meditation into daily life

For socially-engaged Buddhists, meditation is not a turning away from society. The Buddha is teaching us, they say, that without healing our own alienation and delusions, we won’t be able to develop the necessary insight into social dukkha. Our efforts to effect social change will only be undermined. Here, it seems, Buddhism speaks to secular activists who often proceed to try to change particular social or political or cultural arrangements without any inner work. The great Canadian humanist adult educator, Watson Thomson, said that radical activists had to “be what they were attempting to build anew in the world.”

Most Buddhist traditions and lineages cultivate mindfulness—attending to our own impermanence, nature of our suffering, the emptiness of the “I” as well as attending to what is going on in the world. However, it does seem that the cultivation of “aspirational compassion or loving-kindness” could remain just that, an aspiration, inner experience that softens and opens our hearts to the anguish of the world, but leaves it at that.

In a much reprinted article, “Buddhism and the possibilities of a planetary culture,” American Zen poet and environmentalist Gary Snyder states, rather scathingly, that: “Although Mahayana Buddhism has a grand vision of universal salvation, the actual achievement of Buddhism has been the development of practical systems of meditation toward the end of liberating a few dedicated individuals from psychological hang-ups and cultural conditioning. Institutional Buddhism has been conspicuously ready to accept or ignore the inequalities and tyrannies of whatever political system it found itself under. This can be death to Buddhism, because it is death to any meaningful function of compassion. Wisdom without compassion feels no pain”.

Nelson Foster, a long-time activist with the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and a Zen practitioner, writes in a thoughtful essay, “How shall we save the world?” that he struggled mightily to come to terms with his tradition’s ultimate outlook on the subject of saving beings.

He says: “Nowhere do we find great Ch’an or Zen teachers of yesteryear admonishing their students to go yonder and shelter the homeless, feed the hungry, protest injustice, protect forests and rivers, intervene in military preparations, or otherwise organize for the common good. It simply is not there in the teachings, as much as you and I might wish it were.”

Foster acknowledges that there were individuals who engaged in acts of compassionate action. But the record, he says, “consists mainly of individual acts of kindness and uprightness.” Zen teachers name this “entering the marketplace with helping hands” as represented in the final frame of the Ten Ox herding Pictures, but it is not mobilization to overturn the status quo.”

We cannot go into the reasons for this world-withdrawal. But proponents of “Critical Buddhism” in Japan have proposed that the reason lies in the Ch’an and Zen teaching of “original enlightenment”—the understanding that “sentient beings are originally Buddha’s.” Thus, if slaves and clear-cut hillsides are Buddha’s from the beginning, why worry?

Perhaps this contentious debate within Buddhism alerts us to the way Buddhist notions could be interpreted to justify withdrawing from engagement with various forms of exploitation and oppression. Karma is a good example: misinterpreted, karma can be blamed for the fate of those, say, who find themselves in the sex trade in the mean streets of Bangkok.

But socially engaged Buddhists argue strongly that in the act of helping others our egoism begins to crack, disassemble and our spirit breaks out of its narrow confines. In her astute reflections in Meditation for Life (2001), Martine Batchelor offers “guided meditations” that expand compassion beyond ourselves—from people we like to those we rather detest.

Mapping the contours of the socially engaged Buddhist movement

What does engagement actually look like in practice? Ken Jones (1989) provides a simple, yet helpful model that involves three types of practice that can be considered as socially-engaged.

1) alternative societal models, for example monastic or quasi monastic communities;

2) social helping, service and welfare, both in employment and voluntarily; and

3) radical activism, which is ‘directed to fundamental institutional and social changes, culminating in societal metamorphosis’ (p. 216).

There are many different forms of socially-engaged Buddhism, in the West and in other places of the world. There are also several international networks—the Buddhist Alliance for Social Engagement, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (which publishes the Turning Wheel) are three fairly well-known organizations. Buddhists believe that their dedicated inner work and gradually transforming the way they are present in and with the world, will radiate out from themselves into community and social relationships.

Shifting gears, let’s look at six specific contributions that Buddhism makes to social activism and struggles for social justice.

1) One has to “be peace” in order to “make peace.” Here one is cultivating certain psycho-spiritual qualities—breaking with one’s own fear and self-protection and desire for vengefulness—so that one can be present in the face of anger and violence with a deep calmness and compassion. This is the practice of equanimity. Joanna Macey’s early book, Despair and Power in the Nuclear Age (1983), worked innovatively with the Buddhist idea that one had to face, and move through one’s own fears, before one could be a peace activist.

2) The Buddhist cultivation of selflessness. Mahayana teachings—the way of the bodhisattva—emphasize the fundamental importance of “getting ourselves out of the way” to be present with the suffering of others. So selflessness and compassion are two sides of the same coin. The difficult and c0ntroversial Tibetan practice of tonglen shatters the dualism of good self/evil other by taking the evil imaginatively into one’s heart space and, by so doing, breaking any sense of “superior/inferior self”.

3) The theory and practice of non-violence. Both Christianity and Buddhism are non-violent in origin. Neither is, however, without blemish in its historical actions. Buddhism teaches that hating and acting violently earns negative karma as individuals and as a society. So, they insist that we must refrain from violent acts and hateful thoughts (For an incisive commentary on Buddhism and violence, see Bernard Faure, “Part III: Buddhism and society,” in Unmasking Buddhism [2009]).

Violent actions sow violent “karmic seeds.” Buddhist contemplative practices move us inwardly in ways that go against our cultural conditioning, and tendency to solidify ourselves through defining the other as threatening and fearful. Many Buddhist teachings and writings analyze how we can “transform anger”. This is a particularly essential practice for those struggling for social justice. One might argue that unless we expel the oppressor within our anger fueled by injustice will replicate the patterns we are trying to transform. That was Paulo Freire’s point, too, in his classic text, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970).

4) Non-adversarial approach to ethics. This axiom links to the notion of selflessness and non-violence. Our sense of being a separate self is, at root, the source of adversarial relations and aggressive action. It is not easy to learn that my good is your good; your good is my good. But the global Buddhist community, it seems to me, must think deeply about how those who have Power are confronted, given that they hold on to it against the wishes of those who are suffering from oppression and exploitation.

What roles are open to Buddhists who resist institutionalized greed, ill-will and delusion? Is it primarily that of a “moral witness” to the suffering caused by particular social and political actors? How do they (and others too) respond on the geo-political front to the genocidal actions of groups? Is a violent intervention something Buddhists can sanction or support?

5) Cultivating non-harmfulness (ahimsa). This attitude of embracing all sentient beings, of seeing interconnectedness or inter-being is the epistemological basis for Buddhist social and ecological action. There is a growing, and increasingly sophisticated, literature on the dharma and ecology. Indeed, many Buddhists are very active in various kinds of environmentally-oriented social movements.

6) Buddhism is wary of attachment to Ideologies. The radical teaching of emptiness, once grasped, may loosen attachments to various perceptions and actions that become dogmatic. Dogmatism hardens approaches, and accentuates conflict between those inside the dogma, and those outside.

Challenges facing Western Buddhism

Traditionally, Buddhism has definitely emphasized personal responsibility for our own dukkha and awakening. This is, of course, utterly essential. But today it is important for Buddhists to realize how conditioning by social structures also fosters widespread dukkha. The delusion and oppression built into those structures must also be addressed.

Buddhist philosopher and social theorist, David Loy (author of the ground-breaking text, The Great Awakening [2003]), has made a convincing case for conceptualizing the three poisons, greed, ill-will and delusion, to show how the modern corporation embodies greed, the militarization of society produces endless ill-will and delusion is fostered consciously by the “captains of consciousness”–advertisers and the Big Bad Mass Media.

Buddhist teachings contain considerable power to speak to the anguish of our high intensity consumer society where the “good life” is intimately bound up with consumption of goods.

Stephen Batchelor (Buddhism Without Beliefs [1997]) argues that Buddhism asserts both a freedom from the “constraints of self-centred confusion and turmoil, from the craving for a fixed identity, from the compulsion to contrive a perfect situation, from identification with preconceived opinions, and from the anguish that originates in such attachments” (p. 94).

But he also asserts a freedom “to creatively realize [the world’s] possibilities unhindered by the cravings that had previously determined his choices, freed to imagine an appropriate response to the anguish of others, freed to cultivate an authentic path that embraced all aspects of human life, freed to form a community of friendships, and free to create a culture of awakening that would survive long after his death” (ibid.).

Loy argues that if the Buddhist concern is to save all beings by reducing their dukkha and promoting their awakening, western Buddhists need to incorporate that vision into the path of liberation from dukkha that Buddhism offers.

Thus, Buddhism, like other spiritual practices, can fall into two extremes: one, that of inner mysticism which simply abandons profound attention and care for the socially created world (perhaps arguing that, well, everything is impermanent anyway, why engage in social action), and two, accommodation to oppressive political arrangements (even supporting state-initiated violence against minorities).

Buddhism faces many challenges as it migrates into the west and takes up residence. Many well seasoned Buddhist practitioners and teachers have issued warnings that the dharma could accommodate itself to the advanced, individualism and consumerism of contemporary American materialism. That is, it takes its place as one exquisite spiritual brand amongst many in the crowded self-help and self-improvement market offering salve for the wounded.

Dr. Michael Welton is a professor at the University of Athabasca. He is the author of Designing the Just Learning Society: a Critical Inquiry.

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