Socially Engaged Buddhism is Nothing New

There’s a little controversy in the so-called Buddhist blogosphere now over some criticism of socially engaged Buddhism. While I am disturbed by some of the anger that has accompanied these  remarks, I don’t want to wade into all that. Instead, I thought it might be helpful to provide some background and context to the subject.

Socially engaged Buddhism is nothing new. In fact, its roots go back to the Buddha himself.

The Buddha was not a religious teacher. He was a meditation teacher. He was secular leader. A moral philosopher who was closely involved in the social and political world of his time. He did not teach withdrawal from society. He taught non-attachment, which is something different. We can say that Buddhism was, and is, spiritual in that the teachings relate to the mind or intellect, and in that sense, it was one of the first spiritual movements in Indian history to place emphasis on moral conduct.

In his book, The Buddha, Prof. Trevor Ling wrote that the Buddha offered a new wisdom which “consisted of an invitation to men, even an appeal to them, to discover that the structure of being was different from what was commonly supposed . . . an appeal also to realize this is the actual reorganization of human affairs, a reorganization directed towards a new, non-individualistic society. It is this aspect of early Buddhism which has often been ignored in modern, Western accounts . . .”

Prof. Ling also describes how The Buddha was “closely associated with the royal courts of his day” and that he “can hardly be said to have been out of contact with the important centres of political power of his day. He may justly be described as a social and political theorist, and indeed this aspect of his historical significance has been so generally ignored that it needs heavy emphasis.”

The Buddha had dialogues with Kings, commented on matters of policy, and once was consulted on a situation involving a secular republic, the Vajjis. Regarding the latter, Prof. Ling wrote, “What is unmistakable is the portrait of the Buddha which emerges: the portrait of the discoverer, initiator and exponent of a social, psychological and political philosophy, who takes his place among the great leaders and rulers of the world (a Chakravartin, or world-ruler).

A component of that political philosophy was the concept of the dharmaraja or Dharma King: “Bhikkhus, the king who rolls the wheel of state, a Dhamma-man, a Dhamma-king, rolls indeed no unroyal wheel.” (Angutta-Nikaya)

This notion of a righteous king, who rules with compassion, selflessness and wisdom, based on Buddhist values, was realized to some extent in the reign of King Ashoka. It was a new model of monarchical government, a radical idea that a king should rule not out of divine right but with the support and approval of the Buddhist sangha.

The Buddhist sangha  took its name from the republican governments that during the Buddha’s time were slowly disappearing in favor of monarchies. The Buddhist sangha was organized along “democratic” lines, specifically in the style of the tribal ruling councils in which the Buddha’s father had served.

Apparently some people are worried that socially engaged Buddhism is just another way to promote a liberal agenda. But Buddhism has always had a liberal agenda. While the early Buddhists had no choice but to live at times under monarchical rule, it is clear they have always preferred and advocated democracy, which historically has been characterized as “liberal.” Buddhism has always attracted liberal-minded people because the values emphasized, such as compassion and non-attachment, appeal to them, while others not so liberal-minded may be attracted to other values, such as commerce or militarism.

There’s nothing new going on and socially engaged Buddhism is not some vast conspiracy.

Gregory K. Ornatowski  (Department of Religion, Boston University) is another scholar who has also noted (in an article for the Journal of Buddhist Ethics) that “Buddhist values with regard to wealth and economic activity, either within society or within the sangha–are often slighted in Western scholarly studies of Buddhism even though they play a significant role as a part of overall Buddhist philosophy regarding social life and even enlightenment itself.” He mentions that throughout the history of Buddhism we have seen “the occasional use of Maitreya by revolutionary and other protest movements” and that these occurrences were “the beginnings of the development of a more socially activist and transformative economic ethic focusing on ideas about economic and political justice.”

Kenneth Chen, in Chinese Transformation of Buddhism, point out a medieval lay organization of women who were involved in social action. Another example of socially engaged Buddhism in China. He also points out how charitable work (which is a form of social action as far as I’m concerned) has been a tradition in China since ancient times. One of the world’s first “religious” charity organizations, Beitian Court, was founded by Chinese monk named Jianzhen in the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534 CE). Today in Asia, there are hundreds of Buddhist charitable organizations, the largest of which is The Tzu Chi Foundation.

I could be wrong but I have a feeling that in Asia there isn’t any real problem about socially engaged Buddhism. Just look at some of the examples from modern history: In Japan, the Soka Gakkai, probably the world’s largest Buddhist organization, has had its own political party for over fifty years; the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement in Sri Lanka; in Thailand, Buddhadasa Bhikkhu and Suan Mokkh; the “Engaged Buddhism” of Thich Nhat Hanh, born out of the conflict in Vietnam; the Tibetan Liberation movement; Aung San Suu Kyi’s democracy movement in Burma; the social activist wing of Cambodian Buddhism led by Mahaghosananda; the “Humanistic Buddhism” of Chinese Pure Land; and In India, several Buddhist social moments emerged from the activities of B. R. Ambedkar, who campaigned against the Indian caste system.

There are many other contemporary socially active Buddhist groups, and as well, countless more examples of socially engaged Buddhism from history.

It is generally acknowledged that Thich Nhat Hanh coined the term “Engaged Buddhism.” His movement and other similar organizations, like the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, the International Network of Engaged Buddhists and the Zen Peacemakers, all of which are striving to foster social awareness and action based on Buddhist principles, probably have a large liberal base. Again, traditional forms of Buddhism such as Theravada, Zen, and the Tibetan schools, promote values that appeal to people who tend to be liberal politically and socially. On the other hand, based on my experience, the Soka Gakkai, which emphasizes material gain as a benefit of Buddhist practice, tends to attract those more politically conservative.  That’s just the way it is.

Thich Nhat Hanh once said,

Engaged Buddhism is just Buddhism. When bombs begin to fall on people, you cannot stay in the meditation hall all of the time. Meditation is about the awareness of what is going on-not only in your body and in your feelings, but all around you. When I was a novice in Vietnam, we young monks witnessed the suffering caused by the war. So we were very eager to practice Buddhism in such a way that we could bring it into society.

There is no separation between our internal world and the external world and to draw lines in the sand which Buddhists may not cross over is to posit a duality that does not exist. Sure, one does not have to be a Buddhist to practice compassion or to be socially engaged. One does not need to practice social activism under the so-called banner of Buddhism. But, I, for one, am glad there are people who do. Buddhism has a specific world view that the world needs to hear. I am grateful to those out in the trenches of Samsara. I admire their strength of conviction and applaud their efforts.

Social engagement is part of the Buddhism tradition. It’s not for everybody. But, regardless of whether one practices that way or not, I feel it should be honored, not derided.


4 thoughts on “Socially Engaged Buddhism is Nothing New

  1. Just a few thoughts that came up while reading your post.
    If “Engaged Buddhism is just Buddhism”, then is another label necessary? Of course, one could also say “Zen Buddhism is just Buddhism”, but I think a bit more qualifying is needed there. The question is, what do we have to do to qualify the difference between Engaged Buddhism and just Buddhism? If it’s just the label, then we can discard the label easily. If it has more to do with a set of specific principals (which I believe it does), then it isn’t simply “just Buddhism”.

    Also, when TNH says “When bombs begin to fall on people, you cannot stay in the meditation hall all of the time.” I most certainly agree, and am not for a moment going to put myself in his shoes and the devastation he experienced first hand. And I say this as humbly as possible as a complete novice, but if you are spending all day in the meditation hall, aren’t you doing it wrong? Especially considering that zazen is not simply seated meditation, if you are focused on just sitting all day, are you fully practicing the dharma? It would seem to me that if you are truly practicing the dharma and attempting to manifest it in your life daily, then you are already living (or making solid efforts to) the 14 precepts of socially engaged buddhism. Or maybe these are just another list of ideals to strive for that should be internalized like the other list of precepts we are more familiar with?

    Just some thoughts. Still not really sure what to make of the current Socially Engaged movement, thought I’m always one to support the charitable works (as long as they don’t come with a side order of prosteylitzing – which they dont’ seem to be from this camp) of others.

    1. Well, you just about said it yourself, Adam. Why must anyone be a Zen Buddhist? A Nichiren Buddhist? Shingon Buddhist? Why can’t everyone just be Buddhist? Sure, they are just labels in terms of the ultimate truth. But in terms of the relative truth, the conventional world, some labels help us differentiate things for the purpose of processing information and communicating.

      Take a look at this post and this one

      The problem with the label argument is that it is attacking the relative from the point of view of the ultimate and, not referring to you, it’s based on a completely shallow understanding of Mahayana and Zen philosophy. It’s specious argument because you can say, well, if labels are meaningless, then it doesn’t matter what people call anything, so any objection over something meaningless is equally meaningless . . . or something like that.

      If you really want to try to understand this label/designation thing, try to read up on some Nagarjuna.

      As far as the meditation hall is concerned, monks do spend a lot of time there because they don’t have too much else to do. However, you are absolutely right, and I think TNH was speaking more in a figurative sense than in a literal one.

      I don’t think there is anything to make of socially engaged Buddhism. No one, as far as I can tell, is saying that everyone has to practice in that fashion. That being the case, why should it bother anyone if others want to practice in that way? Frankly, I think there are other things at play here, and I say this because I think you a very sincere guy, please don’t be influenced by the emotional outbursts and angry diatribes of a couple of individuals who really don’t know what they are talking about.

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