Western Buddhism and Social Engagement

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.

5 comments on “Western Buddhism and Social Engagement

  1. I think that one problem with this whole discussion is that people are using the same words for a bunch of different things.

    You’re clearly looking at this from the POV of the Buddhist: “engaged Buddhism” as shifting perspective from individual to systemic suffering, and translating that into engaged action.

    In my post a couple of days ago, I was mostly looking at it from the organizational POV—”engaged Buddhism” as social and political engagement under a specifically Buddhist banner. I only touched on the inside-out point of view (the bit about the imperative to heal the world) towards the end, trying to illustrate the distinction.

    I think many of the people objecting to “socially engaged Buddhism” may have the second definition/POV in mind, but would not necessarily object to the first. Personally, I’m ambivalent about it in the second sense (it really, really depends on the circumstances), but identify quite strongly with it in the first, so it could be I’m just projecting my thoughts on them, though.

    • Hi Petteri.

      I too think the definition is coming from two different viewpoints as well. One from a top-down institutional type of situation and the other from a more grass-roots. The latter can certainly morph into the former, which can become a behemoth of its own. Those behemoths are a lot more about agenda than about action. They become corporate in many cases and the people involved end up serving the corporate agenda rather than serving others.

      I do not want to see a corporate engaged form of Buddhism although I do think that is occurring to some extent. Cores are forming and are, as kim uses the terms below,
      “are exclusionary, discouraging, disparaging, of those who may think differently, or creatively, or who question, or who question an “authority,” or… who do not also hold to their conscripted views. ” These cores revolve around what seems to be cults of personality and interpersonal networks, some supported by very dubious sources. So they have the money to put forward a rather narrow, and in my opinion rather ineffective engaged agenda. It is already becoming more about supporting the corporate agenda than serving.

      In those instances it strikes me, from all their promotional material that they spend a lot more time “retreating” than progressing. But hey paid vacations are nice corporate perks.

  2. Damn. All these words. I think the Buddha would have said it more simply. “At all times I think to myself how can I cause living beings to gain entry into the unsurpassed way and quickly acquire the body of a Buddha?” If that’s not about engagement, I don’t know what is.

    Right thoughts. Right words. Right actions. There is no place where these precepts do not hold sway. We live with ourselves, within a family, a community, a nation, a planet. A universe. At each level, as Buddhists, we strive to live in this way — right thoughts, right words, right actions. No? In my view you can not be a Buddhist and NOT be engaged.

    Keep it simple.

    That said, can I make a comment here about John’s original post which you cited above? (I couldn’t post a comment there…)

    John, think about it….. “groupthink” does not necessarily need a formal organization to exist.

    It exists wherever an individual or individuals who share any common belief, quality of character background, or other quality (even the quality of being, say, a “non-conformist,” or “anti-organizational,” as these themselves create a kind of “group” or loosely structured “organization”) wherever these people come together and exert a pressure on others to subscribe to their idea of what is truth, and what is acceptable, what is right, etc.; and it exists wherever individuals that hold to that system think, speak, and act in ways that are exclusionary, discouraging, disparaging, of those who may think differently, or creatively, or who question, or who question an “authority,” or… who do not also hold to their conscripted views.

    That is not Buddhism. NOt the Buddhism of Shakyumuni Buddha. Buddhism is more open minded than that. It is more embracing and tolerant than that. Buddhism is of the people — all the people — for the people. At its core. When it gets away from that connection, it is losing touch with its originator, and his original message.

    Shakyamuni left the realms of the ascetics, the extremists, the excluded, the isolationists.
    He went out to the people. Not to the hills….

    As should we.



    PS: John, if you are out there, great to see you are a fellow librarian! Me too! What kind?
    Check out my eLibrary blog… http://litcebrary.wordpress.com. I have worked in corporate, academic and public, and have settled into schools….

      • Weird that you couldn’t comment on my post. Yes, groupthink can exist without “official” organization but delineating that organization makes it stronger.

        “Buddhism is of the people — all the people — for the people.”

        This made me laugh a bit. But, seriously, I tend to try not to put intent or words into the Buddha’s mouth.

        My only point, of this whole mess, was that engagement is a necessary part of practice. Whether you engage just your self or the wider world, it is still engagement. I see nothing new in “Engaged Buddhism” except for a leaning towards liberal politics.

        I think about my practice at home. It is engaged as I engage myself while I sit. Does that engagement just dissappear after I get up. No. It passes to my family because I have a calm mind. It colors my interactions throughout the day. It make me notice suffering and in turn engage that suffering. I don’t need an additional label for that. I don’t need to meditate at a potest for that or wave a banner.


        As per my librarian status…I am in support services. I coordinate outreach, marketing, promotion, social media, grants and even work a desk 3-4 times a week. So I guess you could say I am a marketing librarian…but I wouldn’t recommend it.

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