I just read an interesting blog piece at Zen Peacemakers written by Alan Senauke. It is called Engaged Buddhism: Service or Revolution? by Alan Senauke. He makes a number of good points about both eastern and western Buddhists and engagement.
One of the points brought up is that the activity of engagement, or looking at suffering from a systemic point of view rather than in individual point of view was that while this activity of engagement may be a development in the transmission of Buddhism from East to West it was seeded and first developed in the East because of the efforts of a number of teachers such as Thich Nhat Hanh and Sister Chan Khong, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. A.T. Ariyaratne, Sulak Sivaraksa, His Holiness the Dalai Lama who also take the systemic viewpoint. These teachers have to some degree been informed by a Western viewpoint in their approaches.
Gary Snyder is quoted:
The mercy of the West has been social revolution; the mercy of the East has been individual insight into the basic self/void. We need both.
The impact of social change or social revolutionary Western thought on many Asian countries began quite some time ago with the introduction of bi-lateral trade and colonialism. There were certainly conquests and regime changes before that but most did not have the ideological content nor the aims of social reformation. Principally they were power struggles or related to profiteering. Some, such as the Mughal conquests in India did involve an ideological element but their primary goal was not related to that. It was a secondary and not entirely successful result.
This was very much unlike the Crusades or attempts at missionarization (in Asia, North and South America, Australia and elsewhere) which was carried out with one of the express purposes being ideological and social change. Priests were often brought along to facilitate this element. Prevailing Asian religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Shintoism, local folk religions, shamanism do not have much if any of an element of conversion to them in themselves. Some groups may have insisted upon conversions of conquered peoples for political reasons like consolidation of power but the goal of conquest has rarely been to primarily introduce these kinds of changes. Taking the example of Asoka, the Buddhist king known for his early conquests as much as for his conversion to Buddhism, his edicts state:
All religions should reside everywhere, for all of them desire self-control and purity of heart. Rock Edict Nb7 (S. Dhammika)
Contact (between religions) is good. One should listen to and respect the doctrines professed by others. Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, desires that all should be well-learned in the good doctrines of other religions. Rock Edict Nb12 (S. Dhammika)
The thing I find most interesting is that social engagement, that is aiming for systemic change based on ideology, is a very “Western” originally proselytizing-based notion. Yet many of those who denounce an engagement factor within western convert Buddhism are the very same people who often speak most loudly for the development of a uniquely western version of Buddhism.
It’s a very strange paradox.