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Socially Engaged Buddhism and the Trajectory of Buddhist Ethical Consciousness Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi Abstract: Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, a senior American Buddhist monk and distinguished scholar and translator, explores the nature of the social activism that has become a more visible aspect of Buddhist practice in recent decades. The author argues that while social engagement is deeply rooted in classical Buddhism, the scope and manner of social engagement have undergone a shift. The author reviews the history of Buddhist thinking on this topic and relates this history to gradual changes in society in general. This article was presented as the Eighth Annual Hsüan Hua (Xuanhua) Memorial Lecture in Berkeley, California, in April 2009. (A companion lecture given by Dr. Raoul Birnbaum follows Bhikkhu Bodhi’s article.)

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1. Introduction

hen I lived in Sri Lanka, I noticed that different shrine rooms in Buddhist temples depict the Buddha in different ways depending on the era from which they spring. Almost all shrine rooms, from any period, converge upon a central Buddha figure sitting in the dhyānamudrā, the posture of meditation—the eyes closed, the legs crossed, and the hands resting one over the other on the lap. But apart from this common feature, interesting differences can be observed. In temples that date back roughly to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the wall behind the Buddha statue is often covered by a mural depicting groups of monks and lay devotees in gestures of reverence, while above, filling the sky row upon row, deities look adoringly at the Enlightened One. In contemporary meditation monasteries, the shrine room is usually spare and utterly simple, containing only a single Buddha figure, again sitting in meditation. However, in many temples from the early- and midtwentieth century, the shrine room evokes a different atmosphere. The ISSUE

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central figure is still the Buddha seated in deep meditation, but the side walls may be lined with panels showing key events in the Buddha’s life. Some pictures are familiar: the birth, the enlightenment, the first sermon, the parinirvāna. But others are without precedent in earlier temple art. In one, the Buddha teaches Kisāgotamī, a grief-stricken mother holding her dead child. In another, he is taming the serial killer Angulimāla. In another, he makes peace between the Koliyans and the Sakyans, two neighboring peoples about to go to war over access to water. And in still another, he cares for a sick monk neglected by his fellow monks. These different depictions of the Buddha can be read as representing different perspectives on the significance of Buddhism itself. The traditional image, with the Buddha surrounded by monks and deities, emphasizes a cosmic conception of the Dharma. The solitary Buddha in the modern meditation monastery symbolizes Buddhism as a personal path to inner peace. The third scenario captures a subtle creative tension pervasive throughout Buddhist history: the seated Buddha plunged in deep meditation shows the Dharma as a path to transcendence, to the overcoming of the world; the side panels show that transcendence finds completeness in engagement with the world—by comforting those stricken by grief, taming the unruly, bringing peace to those at war, and aiding the helpless ones forsaken by others. This last scenario can be seen as foreshadowing the rise of socially engaged Buddhism. In certain ways, Buddhism has been engaged with society from its very inception, and even the monk meditating deep in the forest exercises an uplifting influence on the society that supports him and that gains inspiration from his guidance and example. However, I will be using the expression socially engaged Buddhism in a particular sense. By this expression I mean the application of Buddhist principles and practices to the task of instigating systemic changes in social, political, and economic institutions and policies so as to further the well-being of the people (and other beings) affected by them. Socially engaged Buddhism differs in an important respect from classical Buddhism, which also aims, in part, at changing society. Classical Buddhism works by directly altering the views, attitudes, and values of individuals in the expectation that such “micro-changes” will result cumulatively in positive large-scale changes in society. Contemporary engaged Buddhism, in contrast, operates at a more systemic level, seeking to change the systems and structures responsible for communal suffering, not merely the persons who create and control them. Socially engaged Buddhism is not a single, uniform phenomenon but assumes diverse manifestations among different people living in

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different lands. One thing, however, that these diverse manifestations appear to have in common is a reevaluation of Buddhist priorities. With the rise of engaged Buddhism, the focus of Buddhist practice turns away from a liberation transcending the world toward a readiness to plunge into the heart of the world’s suffering in order to liberate people from the most morally repugnant The guiding aspiration forms of political and economic bondage. The guiding aspiration turns from inner peace to the achievement turns from inner peace of world peace through reconciliation, disarmament, and social justice. Knowledge about economics, to world peace. environment, and politics is no longer considered a mundane distraction but a prerequisite for using the Dharma to uplift the lives of others. The weight of authority in the new Buddhist movements also tends to shift, from the monastic Sangha to charismatic lay Buddhists who inspire others with new visions of a social order governed by ethical principles. These observations naturally raise intriguing questions: Why did such a dramatic change occur in the outward face of Buddhism, and what are the deep forces that lie behind it? How can we evaluate this phenomenon in terms of classical Buddhist categories of understanding? And most important: is this engaged Buddhism a genuine expression of the Dharma, continuous with the tradition, or does it mark a reorientation so radical that its credentials as an authentic form of Buddhism are questionable? The last question highlights the issue of justification: How do we justify socially engaged Buddhism? Or must we reject it as lacking justification? I will set forth my own view right at the outset. I see the Dharma as inescapably embodied in human history and, as such, inevitably caught between two forces that pull it in different directions. One is a centripetal force, pulling inwards and back to its origins in the Buddha’s enlightenment and the most archaic principles of the teachings. The other force is centrifugal, pushing outward into the ever-changing, unpredictable field of human history, which always discloses new horizons of understanding and throws out new concerns to which the Dharma must respond, or risk becoming quaint and irrelevant. We might compare these two forces acting upon Buddhism to the two forces that keep the Earth in motion around the sun. One is the gravitational pull of the sun, drawing the Earth toward itself, toward death by fire. The other is the momentum of the Earth’s motion, which propels the Earth out into space toward a frozen death. Each force taken on its own is destructive, but when the two are balanced, the Earth ISSUE 9, OCTOBER 2009

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revolves around the sun, and all the teeming, multitudinous forms of life spring forth in abundance. Similarly, if we cling tenaciously to old traditions without taking account of changing historical circumstances, we may be left with a lifeless Dharma lacking relevance. If we adapt too freely to make the Dharma dance to the tune of the times, we might wind up with an attractive mishmash that wins a following but bears little resemblance to real Buddhism. What we require are sensitive and intelligent formulations of the Dharma that strike a healthy balance between faithfulness to the past and relevance to the present. Such expressions should be strongly rooted in the classical teaching, guided by its radical intuitions and cherished values, but at the same time they must address the critical problems of our age, doing so with insight and a compassionate practicality. In terms of this tension between the two forces pulling in opposite directions, I would hold that socially engaged Buddhism at its best is a serious and worthy attempt to bring the ideals and values of Buddhism to bear on the great existential problems that confront humanity today. I would even go so far as to say that socially engaged Buddhism may be taking us a step beyond mere adaptation and actually be drawing out ethical dimensions of the Dharma that had never before been made explicit, at least not to the same degree. I must add, however, a qualification: if we aren’t careful, there is a risk that socially engaged Buddhism could turn the Dharma into little more than a spiritual inspiration for a social and political agenda at variance with its proper purpose. To lay the foundation for understanding socially engaged Buddhism, I first want to set up a broad conceptual framework, in the light of which I will attempt to explore its significance in relation to Buddhism as a whole. The framework I will use situates socially engaged Buddhism in relation to a two-track process of evolution. One track is the evolution of human consciousness, as objectified in different cultures; the other is the evolution of the Buddhist ethical consciousness through the ages. These two tracks, I believe, ultimately converge, which suggests that the evolution of human culture and the development of Buddhist ethical consciousness may be different manifestations of a single process of human spiritual evolution. 2. The Stages of Human Cultural Evolution First I will discuss the evolution of human consciousness as it is objectified in different cultures. Cultures and civilizations evolve through distinct stages, each representing a complex configuration of values, ideals, and

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intuitions that give it a unique defining characteristic. We might say that each historical stage is governed by a dominant paradigm, a unifying vision with many components. The boundaries between the stages are not fixed. Almost invariably, different stages will be found coexisting within the borders of the same country. Different sectors of the population will embody different stages, but the general trend within a country can still be determined with reference to the dominant stage. Often a culture will be in a stage of transition, retaining features of an earlier stage while displaying signs of a more mature stage still taking shape and not yet well defined. There is also the possibility of regression, as seen for example in contemporary forms of religious fundamentalism. The model I propose to use for understanding socially engaged Buddhism proceeds through three major cultural stages: the traditional, the modern, and the postmodern. Each stage is enormously complex, and any description of them is bound to risk broad generalizations and oversimplification. Nevertheless, this framework, however imperfect, can still help us understand the place of socially engaged Buddhism in the history of Buddhist sensibility. Given the wide variety we find among the different cultural representations of each stage, I have to be selective. The Traditional Stage In a traditional culture, society is generally organized hierarchically. The social order is divided into a number of classes, to which its members usually belong by reason of birth. Each class has its prescribed duties, which each individual is obliged to fulfill in order to maintain social order. In a traditional society, the individual is locked into a complex web of relationships. One belongs first to one’s immediate family; then to the extended family; then to the village, the guild, or estate; then to one’s social class; and finally to the country. These relationships sustain the individual and contribute to a strong sense of social cohesion, but usually they are involuntarily. Traditional cultures are maintained by a refined ethical sense. The word virtue, originally meaning “power” or “strength,” is the key to understanding the role of ethics in a traditional culture. The virtues confer strength, both on the person who exemplifies them and on the whole society constituted by virtuous persons. The characteristic virtues in traditional culture include honor, dignity, faithfulness, rectitude, courage, temperance, self-restraint, respect for authority, reverence for traditions, service, loyalty, magnanimity, patience, and modesty.

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The Modern Stage Modern culture, as we know it, was born in Europe beginning in the late medieval period and continuing through the industrial and technological revolutions. The underlying dynamic of modern culture is the intensified sense of individuality. Whereas the individual in traditional culture is immersed in the community, with the shift to modernity, the sense of self bursts all socially imposed constraints, severing one’s identification with the group. Hence modern culture begins with the appearance of self-conscious individuals who step out from their social roles and set about reshaping the world in accordance with their will. Perhaps the chief philosophical expression of the modern consciousness is Descartes, who arrived at the conception of the separate ego as the basis for all certainty of knowledge: an interior point of focus standing in relation to a world perceived as totally other, a spiritual self suspended in the midst of a mechanistic, lifeless universe. In modern culture, the rich network of relationships typical of traditional culture is torn asunder. Individuals relate most directly to their nuclear family, which becomes increasingly atomized as individual members of the family pursue their private interests. The extended family almost vanishes as a point of reference. Beyond the immediate family, the individual belongs to the company or business, and then to the nationstate. But, as these are often vast systems of domination and control governed by impersonal rules and chains of command, the individual often feels overwhelmed or estranged. Hence, in modern society people experience the pain of isolation and alienation. Alienated from others, alienated from the natural world, and most sadly, alienated from the depths of their own being, they struggle to find a core of objective meaning, but any solution they devise perpetually taunts them with its sheer subjectivity. The virtues endorsed by modern culture run a wide range. There are virtues that contribute towards scientific and technological progress: rigorous inquiry, bold experimentation, exact observation. There are virtues characteristic of the business mentality: frugality, prudence, diligence, persistence; or ambition, foresight, energy, the entrepreneurial spirit. There are virtues that contribute to the uniformity needed in the workplace or army: obedience, loyalty, punctuality, courage. At the same time, the visionaries of the modern era extol other virtues, glimpses of a higher dimension, which they articulate in writing marked by extraordinary rigor and clarity. Equality, democracy, justice, peace, human rights for all, and the rule of law—these become the stars in the sky of the modern era, the most abiding contributions modern

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thought has made to the emergence of a harmonious global community. Even today, imbued with a deep spiritual significance, these ideals stand before us guiding humanity’s hopes and dreams. The Postmodern Stage A full-fledged postmodern society does not yet exist, and it is therefore impossible to describe any pure form of postmodern culture. We can, however, discern the seeds of a postmodern culture germinating in the field of modern societies. For the most part it is present only as a bundle of tendencies rather than as established fact. The drift towards a postmodern culture occurs primarily as a reaction against the morbid excesses of modernity. The reaction occurs on several fronts. Intellectually, it is a reaction against the reductionism and materialism typical of modernity; it entails a turn toward a more holistic and spiritual way of understanding. Socially, postmodernism is a reaction against modernity’s exaltation of unchecked individualism. It marks a turn towards a richer, more fulfilling sense of community which unites while respecting individual differences. Politically, it moves away from militarism toward peace and reconciliation, as seen in the burgeoning peace movements; it challenges state domination with calls for a more participatory democracy. Psychologically, postmodern culture seeks to heal the mental fragmentation and alienation of the modern mind by promoting methods that lead to inner wholeness and a sense of cosmic oneness. A postmodern social order would aim to recover the tightly knit integration of the person in a web of social relationships, as is typical of traditional culture. The person would be connected by loving bonds to family, community, workplace, and nation, and then to humanity, the biosphere of the Earth, and even beyond—to the solar system, the galaxy, and the cosmos. But social relationships would be voluntary rather than imposed, and their dominant tone would be mutuality and equality rather than hierarchal stratification. Postmodern culture, like its predecessors, pays special heed to a constellation of virtues that give it a distinct flavor. The virtues that are most characteristic of postmodern culture stem from its fresh perspective on the world, which highlights the relational structure of reality. Hence, cognitively, postmodernism affirms connectedness, interdependence, and mutuality. Whereas modernism stresses the role of the subject in defining value, and thus is perpetually haunted by the suspicion that all meaning reflects an arbitrary subjectivity, the postmodern thinker holds that virtually all domains of meaning arise from intersubjective ISSUE 9, OCTOBER 2009

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connections. It is our shared perspectives that determine our reality and give meaning to our experience. This restores an authentic status to values without returning to the naïve realism of premodern cultures. The values of postmodern culture flow quite naturally from this point of view. Postmodern culture endorses the great ideals of the modern era—liberty, peace, equality, and justice—but seeks to realize them in all domains of human life, from the top levels of government down to the local community. It assigns prime value to sharing, care for others, peacemaking, cooperation, compassion, respect for all, and service. It does not merely tolerate different opinions, as the modernist tries to do, but it endorses and celebrates diversity in almost every sphere of human life, from spirituality to sexual orientation to lifestyles to political preferences, so long as these choices don’t trample upon the rights of others. At a more philosophical level, the postmodernist believes that truth is to be arrived at not through a rigorous quest for pure objectivity (the approach of modernism) but through a multiperspectival synthesis that can admit different perspectives on truth as determined by background, subjective orientation, and context. The quest for truth is always set within frames of reference, invites personal participation, and generates domains of intersubjective meaning. Indeed, the postmodernist often sees the very conception of a single, universal, objective truth to be part of the legacy of modernism—a project subtly aimed at domination. Attitudes towards religious faith undergo a corresponding shift. In traditional cultures, religions tend to be tied to particular ethnic groups and communities, as we can see with Judaism, Hinduism, and Confucianism—even with most traditionalist forms of Buddhism. In the modern era, religion displays In the postmodern era, a tendency toward aggressive universalism, as well as toward tolerance, agnosticism, and atheism. In faith will be more inward, postmodern culture, people can be intensely spiritual yet reject the idea that there is a unique, objective more contemplative, religious truth valid for everyone. Their faith will be more inward, more contemplative, more personal. more personal. They will see religious truth as an emergent reality, arisen creatively through inward personal exploration and experience; yet at the same time, they recognize that religion is shaped by the collective understanding and the quest for community. Thus there is a move towards a synthesis of inward spiritual depth with communal embrace. Many with a postmodern bent of mind are disenchanted with the imposing religious structures of traditional and modern cultures and thus prefer to avoid formal religious affiliation. But

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they still may follow a spiritual path, distinguishing between religion and spirituality. Others may formally enter the fold of the great religions, like Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, or Islam, but reinterpret them in accordance with the fresh perspectives of the postmodern mind. 3. The Evolution of Buddhist Ethical Consciousness As with my discussion of cultural evolution, my discussion of the historical evolution of Buddhist ethical consciousness is bound to be superficial and prone to generalizations. For the sake of concision, I will have to omit the many variations both in theory and historical exemplification. I have to restrict my attention to broad trends, focusing on those aspects most relevant to my attempt to contextualize socially engaged Buddhism. In my understanding, the most significant event in the history of Buddhism was the Buddha’s decision, after his enlightenment, to go out into the world to teach. This decision became the starting point for the Dharma to assume a historical dimension. But once the Dharma enters the platform of history, it has to be expressed in the language, categories, and conceptual frameworks of the people to whom it is addressed. In my reading of Buddhist history, the play of historical events across the centuries drew out from the Dharma different layers of significance embedded in the original teaching as Buddhists attempted to interpret and apply the Dharma in the light of changing cultural, intellectual, and social horizons. Therefore, if we look for an explicit program of socially engaged Buddhism in the early discourses of the Buddha, we may come away disappointed, and the reason is simple: the historical conditions were simply not yet suitable for the Dharma to be given a socially engaged application in the way we know it today. The dominant note of the Buddha’s teaching, as preserved in the most archaic records, is the quest for release from bondage to the round of repeated birth and death. The Buddha’s discourses speak constantly about such themes as impermanence and the all-pervasive truth of suffering; they recommend renunciation, seclusion, intensive meditation, and personal insight as the path to liberation. Because of this emphasis, some scholars, like Max Weber, describe early Buddhism as a movement completely oblivious to social and political concerns. However, it would be a grave misunderstanding of early Buddhism to regard its monastic and contemplative dimensions as exhaustive. If we carefully look through the Nikāyas, we find that the Buddha often instructed householders on issues relevant to their daily lives. He taught precepts that offered moral guidance; he explained the principles of karmic causation that determine ISSUE 9, OCTOBER 2009

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future happiness and suffering; he spoke about family relationships, social harmony, right livelihood, the household budget, the state economy, and even the governance of a country. All such instruction manifests the ethical consciousness of early Buddhism, which has two principal strands. One is an ethic of restraint (vāritta), the other an ethic of virtue (cāritta). The ethic of restraint enjoins the observance of precepts, especially abstinence from actions harmful to others. It includes specifically monastic observances like the vinaya rules, restraint of the senses, and contentment with simple material requisites; but for all, it enjoins nonviolence, harmlessness, and patience. The ethic of virtue involves the active cultivation of worthy qualities of character like generosity, honesty, truthfulness, gentleness, kindness, and respect. At the same time, we also can discern in the early teachings the nucleus of an altruistic ethic. There are, for example, the four “sublime qualities”: loving-kindness, compassion, altruistic joy, and impartiality. Though originally intended as meditative exercises, these qualities inevitably shape behavior and social attitudes. The Buddhist community is held together by the loving mutual support between the monastic and lay sectors: laypeople provide the monks and nuns with their simple requisites, and the monastics teach laypeople how to live by wholesome principles. The Buddha also enjoins the monks to travel throughout the land to teach the Dharma to all who would listen, thus promoting the good of the world through instruction that reveals the way to both material welfare and spiritual happiness. Several of the Buddha’s discourses address the need to establish a just and harmonious political order, which early Buddhism sees as a foundation for moral and spiritual progress. A message that emerges from such texts is the government’s obligation to ensure for all its citizens a satisfactory standard of living. Poverty is the fundamental symptom of bad governance and the root of social disorder. Any government entitled to rule must remedy this condition or lose its claim to legitimacy. In the early centuries following the Buddha’s demise, the figure that won the reverence of the Buddhist community was the Arahant, the fully liberated sage who has reached the goal of world-transcendence through self-discipline and contemplative insight. Such was the model established by the early Buddhist teachings, which still prevails in lands following Theravada Buddhism. In time, however, a paradigm shift in spiritual ideals occurred in some sections of the Buddhist community. The exact process by which this shift occurred cannot be traced with precision, but at some point, attention turned from the Buddha’s explicit teachings to the figure of the Buddha himself, and an intense inquiry was

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launched into the long-term cosmic background behind his attainment of Buddhahood. These investigations culminated in an expanded conception of the Buddha and a new vision of the Buddhist path. The new formulation of the teaching emphasized not personal release from the cycle of rebirths but the career of the Bodhisattva, the aspirant for Buddhahood, as it extended over innumerable eons in the round of birth and death. This development brought into being a new expression of Buddhism that its followers called the “Great Vehicle,” or Mahayana. The rise of the Mahayana transformed the Buddhist ethical consciousness, allowing values, ideals, and aspirations implicit in the Buddha’s mission to play a more determinative role in the Buddhist moral life. The driving force of the Bodhisattva career is great compassion, which motivates the The Mahayana Bodhisattva to make vast vows and pass innumerable lives preparing himself to attain Buddhahood. The transformed Buddhist Bodhisattva ideal gave the sense of empathy for the world, already evident in the early teachings, more ethical consciousness. precise conceptual endorsement and more diverse applications. The tension apparent in early Buddhism between the quest for the unconditioned and meritorious action within the world was resolved by conceiving the Bodhisattva path as a synthesis of profound cognitive realization and inexhaustible beneficent activity inspired by love and compassion for living beings. The Bodhisattva’s aspiration to benefit others seeks concrete expression in various ways directed to fulfilling their mundane wishes, even their need for material resources. Whereas early Buddhism emphasized the lay Buddhist’s obligation to make offerings to the monastic order as an expression of reverence and a source of merit, the Mahayana sutras extended the range of generosity to include gifts to those afflicted by need and poverty. To do justice to such a concept, the Mahayana treatises found it necessary to add a new category to Buddhist ethics, supplementing the earlier ethic of restraint and the cultivation of positive virtues with “the ethic of benefiting sentient beings.” A good example is Samantabhadra’s vow from the fortieth chapter of the Avatamsaka Sutra: “I would be good medicine for the sick, a guide for those who are lost, a light for those in darkness, and a store of treasures for those afflicted by poverty.” We can already see that the values which underpin the Bodhisattva ideal anticipate in important respects the agenda of socially engaged Buddhism. While seeking the lofty goal of Buddhahood, the Bodhisattva assumes responsibility for actively promoting the material well-being ISSUE 9, OCTOBER 2009

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of others, even when doing so entails taking up mundane duties. As Buddhism evolved in India and Sri Lanka, the Bodhisattva ideal did not remain confined to Mahayana communities but was also absorbed into the schools of mainstream Buddhism, including the Theravada. Within these schools it acted as a catalyst on the ethical consciousness, evoking and intensifying the altruistic strain already present in early Buddhist ethics. In the Theravada countries of southern Asia, the conviction spread that a king should be a follower of the Bodhisattva path, and the ethical prescriptions laid down for a Bodhisattva came to be considered obligatory for a rightful Buddhist monarch. Perhaps it is because the Theravada, too, came to stress the active ethic of altruistic deeds that some of the most influential, visionary, and pragmatic expressions of engaged Buddhism arose in the south Asian Theravada countries. Even in the Mahayana texts, however, the ethical implications of boundless love and compassion are highly idealized. The lofty heights of altruism are expressed in vows and aspirations, celebrated in poems and legends, embodied in ceremony and ritual. In terms of actual practice, however, for the Mahayana as it was lived, altruism generally took such traditional forms as teaching the Dharma, cultivating the meditations on love and compassion, dedicating merits, and helping the poor and destitute through individual acts of charity. In other words, the practice of the Mahayana Bodhisattva path may not have been very different from mainstream Buddhist practice. The next phase in the evolution of Indian Buddhism occurred with the emergence of Vajrayana Buddhism. However, because Vajrayana practices are esoteric, and because theoretically Vajrayana builds upon the Bodhisattva ideal of the Mahayana, I will not give it separate attention. 4. The Rise of Socially Engaged Buddhism in Asia At this point, I want to connect the rise of socially engaged Buddhism to the two evolutionary trends that I have just sketched: the evolution of human culture and the evolution of the Buddhist ethical consciousness. Since socially engaged Buddhism first arose in Asia in the middle years of the twentieth century, I will begin there. In Asia, social activism inspired by Buddhist principles certainly goes back to the days of the Buddha, whose ethical guidelines for rulers and ordinary people had major social ramifications. Nevertheless, I would contend that socially engaged Buddhism in Asia, as we know it today, arose as a response to a particular problem, namely, the process

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of modernization with its trail of negative consequences: foreign domination, widening inequalities in wealth and social status, market capitalism, materialism, and the ordeal of fratricidal wars. Viewed in relation to the process of cultural evolution that I sketched above, it seems to me that socially engaged Buddhism was born from the need felt by Buddhist leaders to help Buddhism make the transition from a traditional culture to a modern one. However, when thoughtful Buddhists took up this task in earnest, they recognized soon enough that Western modernism did not comfortably fit their spiritual heritage. As they looked more deeply into Buddhist texts and teachings, as well as into their customary social norms, they found in Buddhism ideals and values that could be used to create an attractive alternative to the Western version of modernity. These principles, they realized, could help their countries and communities deal with the problems posed by modernization in ways more compatible with their historical background than Western models. Although Buddhist activists initially intended to create a modernized form of Buddhism, what emerged over time among the most insightful leaders was a version of the Dharma that more closely fits the paradigm of postmodern culture as I sketched it above. Buddhist modernism prevailed in the early phase and still dominates among mainstream reformers, but progressive Buddhist thinkers have moved ahead in constructing a form of engaged Buddhism that better exemplifies postmodern values. Though few of these leaders may even have heard the word postmodernism, the postmodern character of Asian engaged Buddhism can be seen in the following: • its preference for decentralized modes of organization (e.g., Sarvodaya, the International Network of Engaged Buddhists); • its attempt to broaden traditional values by conferring on them a universal dimension (e.g., the Dalai Lama’s emphasis on “universal responsibility”); • the merging of contemplation with social activism (exemplified by Sarvodaya, Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, and Thich Nhan Hanh); • the emphasis on interdependence and interconnectedness (especially seen in the works of Thich Nhat Hanh); • ecological awareness and appreciation of diversity (seen in virtually all the engaged Buddhist leaders); • a “deconstruction” of the sense of Buddhist identity, based on the conception of the Dharma as a path to be practiced—“a raft to cross to the far shore”—and not a religion to be promoted with competitive intent (e.g., Sulak Sivaraksa’s advocacy of “buddhism with a small b”). ISSUE 9, OCTOBER 2009

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These values differ from those of mainstream Buddhist modernists, who seek to adapt Buddhism to conventional models of technological and economic development. These latter are far more conscious of their sense of Buddhist identity and consequently less open to such ideas as religious pluralism and acceptance of diversity. The specific approach the progressive Buddhist leaders in Asian countries took in response to the harsh challenges that the modern world thrust upon their lands was to adopt the more positive values of modernity, insofar as they were compatible with the Dharma, and use them as a template for applying Buddhism to the solution of social problems. And what were these values? They were largely the values that had been advanced by the great thinkers of the European Enlightenment: social justice, political freedom, economic equality, democracy, and the unity of mankind. The Asian founders of socially engaged Buddhism, who were largely educated in English, found that such ideals resonated with the Buddha’s teachings, and thus they had little difficulty in consolidating them into the agenda for a new expression of Buddhism that promised to heal the damage inflicted by decades of colonialism, rapid modernization, and the new cult of greed and selfishness ushered in by free-market economics. The result was the simultaneous emergence clear across Buddhist Asia (including India) of movements that responded to the destructive influence of modernity by a three-step process: • seek out the positive values of modernity, the values advocated by progressive thinkers and activists in the West; • find their counterparts in classical Buddhism; and then • use the Buddhist principles as guideposts for changing society. These Buddhist activists, for the most part, did not think they were creating something called “socially engaged Buddhism.” Almost all thought of themselves as revivalists whose task was to recover the original intent of the Buddha. They saw themselves simply as expressing that intent in ways they considered most relevant to the contemporary situation. Their Buddhism would be realistic, democratic, and egalitarian; it would be committed to social justice; it could address the problems posed by corporate and collectivist economics; it would be respectful of modern science but would not subscribe to science-based materialism; it would insist on the peaceful, nonviolent resolution of conflicts; it would be capable of healing the dislocations, social alienation, and destructive behavior springing from the unenlightened modernist consciousness. Contrary to the revivalist intention, however, socially engaged Buddhism in Asia does propose in certain respects a reorientation of

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priorities within the Buddhist tradition. The engaged Buddhist thinkers certainly draw upon such Buddhist principles as interconnectedness, selflessness, the four noble truths, and mindfulness, but they also deploy these concepts in quite different ways from classical Buddhism. Thus, in terms of goals, a decisive shift in emphasis occurs, away from the attainment of transcendent liberation or a heavenly rebirth through the practice of conventional meritorious deeds such as supporting monks, undertaking precepts, and performing devotional rituals. Instead, the focus turns to the task of transforming the oppressive systemic structures that cause grave suffering for people in this present world of concrete experience. Accordingly, engaged Buddhists give the doctrine of karma a broader, more socially germane interpretation than traditional Buddhism, balancing the stress on individual responsibility for one’s deeds with a recognition of the complex cause-and-effect patterns that flow between social structures, and between social structures and personal agents. Engaged Buddhist thinkers promote meditation, but their meditative practices are not so much aimed at release from the cycle of rebirths as at developing a loving heart, healing anger and resentment, obtaining deeper insights into the relational nature of social processes, and building the inner calm one needs to engage in socially ameliorative action. Leadership roles also shift away from spiritually accomplished monks to educated, creative, charismatic lay teachers who bring their sophistication in mundane matters to their interpretations of the Dharma. Thus we find such prominent leaders of engaged Buddhism in Asia as Dr. A. T. Ariyaratne, founder of the Sri Lankan Sarvodaya movement; Sulak Sivaraksa, prolific Thai social critic and peace activist; and the Indian pioneer of the Dalit Buddhist conversions, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. In short, the founders of Asian socially engaged Buddhism are not drawing upon a version of the Dharma that fits into a traditionalist mold, nor have they simply returned to an archaic original Buddhism. Rather, they have fashioned a version of the Dharma that best fits a postmodernist cultural perspective. 5. Socially Engaged Buddhism in America In the United States, engaged Buddhism took a different route. Because Buddhism gained a following among Caucasian Americans disenchanted with the materialistic excesses of modern culture, American Buddhism was from the start largely a postmodern phenomenon. Most of its early practitioners were university educated but had “dropped out” from the daily grind of middle-class life—the “air-conditioned nightmare”— ISSUE 9, OCTOBER 2009

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to explore alternative lifestyles and altered states of consciousness. Not infrequently, such adventures into the farthest reaches of the mind were accomplished with pharmaceutical aids. Many early American Buddhists came of age during the years of the Vietnam War and had walked in marches chanting “Make love, not war.” While their minds had been illuminated by reading Alan Watts and D. T. Suzuki, their emotions had been stirred by the songs of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and the Beatles. They believed in sharing, caring, and nonviolence and dreamt beautiful dreams about a bright and peaceful future. Yet, while a commitment to social transformation is characteristic of the postmodern consciousness, it took until the late 1970s for a socially engaged manifestation of American Buddhism to appear. This does not mean that the early American Buddhists were indifferent to the wellbeing of society. Perhaps the reason it took so long for socially engaged Buddhism to arise in the United The idea of a Buddhist States is that the pioneering generations of American peace movement imme- Buddhists did not consciously connect their desire for social change with their commitment to Buddhist practice. During this early period, Buddhism was usually diately resonated with seen not as a catalyst for social transformation but as a retreat or escape from the pressures of modern life. American Buddhists. Thus, such early American Buddhists may have ordered their lives along two tracks: social activism during periods of “ordinary time” and Buddhist meditation as a balancing act, a way of “returning to stillness” or “recharging one’s mental batteries” before reentering the fray of action. It was only with the establishment of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship in 1977 that anything like a self-conscious American form of engaged Buddhism took shape. The idea of a Buddhist peace movement immediately resonated with large numbers of American Buddhists, and before long practitioners from almost all the major Buddhist traditions in North America united under the banner of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. Buddhists in many other communities as well have become involved with diverse projects aimed at relief and social transformation. These exhibit a broad range: protesting the war in Iraq, promoting ecological awareness, assisting poor children in the inner cities, caring for people with AIDS, providing meditation instructions to prisoners, campaigning against nuclear energy, and supporting human rights in Tibet, Burma, and Vietnam. Those who came to the Dharma because it offered methods to calm the mind soon found that its various schools preserved a rich legacy of

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social ethics inspired by compassion and rooted in profound philosophical insights into the nature of the self and the cosmos. Buddhist ethics seemed to endorse many of the same ideals as the progressive social and political movements in the West but offered a peaceful, nonaggressive, and nonconfrontational methodology for pursuing these ideals. Thus, a fortuitous convergence occurred between American Buddhists with progressive social sympathies and those outside the fold of Buddhism who saw the need for radical changes in U.S. institutions and policies relating to peace, social justice, and environmental sustainability. Today, the ideals and values that Americans bring to Buddhism are precisely those characteristic of our own postmodern culture, which Buddhism supports with a deep philosophical foundation and concrete practices that can transform these ideals into living experience. But there are also points of tension between American social idealism and classical forms of Buddhism, which can lead both to divergences and to fresh resolutions in an embracing higher synthesis. 6. Reflections on Socially Engaged Buddhism Up to this point, I have been trying to connect the rise of socially engaged Buddhism with the evolution of human culture through the traditional, modernist, and postmodernist stages. In this movement of Buddhist ethics through the successive stages of human culture, we might see another process at work, which I would describe as the historical unfolding of an inner dynamics inherent to Buddhism itself. The ethics of early Buddhism has a predominantly twofold character—vāritta and cāritta, an ethic of restraint and an ethic of positive virtues. Alongside these, indeed as their core, we also see an altruistic ethic animating the Buddha’s mission. We can discern this in the Buddha’s injunction to his disciples to wander forth and teach the Dharma for the good of the multitude, in the emphasis on generosity as the first virtue of the moral life, in the four divine abodes (brahmavihāras), in the mutual support of Sangha and laity, and in his own selfless deeds in teaching and transforming others. The rise of Mahayana Buddhism placed greater stress on the altruistic side of Buddhist ethics, expressed in the Bodhisattva vow to work for countless eons in order to liberate beings from suffering. Thus the Mahayana might be seen as ushering in a second stage in the development of the Buddhist ethical consciousness. The Bodhisattva vow, as we saw, involves a determination to promote the material well-being and physical security of beings as well as their moral and spiritual welfare. But while Mahayana Buddhism encouraged a readiness to promote the welfare of beings in ISSUE 9, OCTOBER 2009

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any way required, it appears that most Mahayana Buddhists throughout history acted on their vows in quite traditional ways. To the extent that any form of Buddhism ventured into the wider social arena, it did so mainly by influencing those individuals who played the most decisive roles in formulating social policy, namely, the king and regional governors. Socially engaged Buddhism might be seen as a third stage in the unfolding of Buddhist ethics, a stage at which the altruistic intent expressed in the Bodhisattva vow seeks to be translated into socially and politically transformative action on a scale only made possible through the ascendancy of postmodern values and perspectives. Interestingly, the conviction that compassion must be demonstrated by social action has also gained wide acceptance among Theravadins, who can claim as their own some of the boldest and most creative pioneers of engaged Buddhism, such as A. T. Ariyaratne in Sri Lanka; Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, Sulak Sivaraksa, and the monk-philosopher Phra Payutto in Thailand; and the late Cambodian prelate, Maha Ghosananda. Socially engaged Buddhism has many faces, ranging from the doctrinally conservative to the freely experimental, but those who make social engagement the main expression of their Buddhist commitment offer, in certain respects, a different perspective on the Dharma from classical Buddhism. Classical Buddhism, in various ways, accommodates socially beneficent activity into its framework through traditional categories. For mainstream Theravada it might be seen as a type of meritorious deed, as wholesome karma leading to a happy rebirth, or as a practice of the pāramitās, the virtues needed for enlightenment. For mainstream Mahayana Buddhism, socially engaged action would be seen as a way of practicing the Bodhisattva path, particularly the perfection of giving (dāna-pāramitā) and skillful means (upāya). Despite certain differences, it seems that all forms of classical Buddhism locate the final goal of compassionate action in a transcendent dimension that lies beyond the flux and turmoil of the phenomenal world. For the Mahayana, the transcendent is not absolutely other than phenomenal reality but exists as its unifying principle or inner core. However, just about all classical formulations of the Mahayana, like the Theravada, begin with a devaluation of phenomenal reality in favor of a transcendent state in which spiritual endeavor culminates. It is for this reason that classical Buddhism confers an essentially instrumental value on socially beneficent activity. Such activity can be a contributing cause for a happy rebirth, the attainment of nibbāna, or the realization of Buddhahood. It can be valued because it helps create better conditions for the moral and meditative life, or because it helps to lead

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others to the Dharma; but ultimate value, the overriding good, is located in the sphere of transcendent realization. Since socially engaged action pertains to a relatively elementary stage of the path, to the practice of giving or the accumulation of merits, in classical Buddhism it tends to play a secondary role in the spiritual life. The primary place belongs to the inner discipline of meditation through which the ultimate good is achieved. And this discipline, to be effective, normally requires a high degree of social disengagement. This does not mean that classical Buddhism lacks a component of altruistic engagement during and after the contemplative quest for enlightenment. However, its conception of engagement differs from that of socially engaged Buddhism. Altruistic action in a classical framework would consist primarily in sharing with others personally transformative practices, such as observing precepts, cultivating the ten ways of wholesome action, or pursuing the three trainings in morality, concentration, and wisdom. Such procedures will indeed have significant social repercussions, but that is not their primary intent. Their primary intent is to promote the spiritual development of the practitioner and thereby contribute to his or her enlightenment and liberation. Many involved with socially engaged Buddhism look at socially transformative action in a different light. Compared with classical Buddhism, they place much more weight, at least explicitly, on remedial action within the world, seeking to remove oppressive social conditions, redress poverty, resist tyranny, combat environmental destruction, and protest tyrannical regimes. The In classical Buddhism leading figures in socially engaged Buddhism may be practicing in different traditions, whether Theravada, the primary intent of Zen, Pure Land, Tibetan, or vipassana, but whatever their affiliation as practitioners, just about all socially social engagement is the engaged Buddhists see engaged activity within the world not merely as part of the path to liberation, spiritual development of not merely as a practice with instrumental value—a meritorious deed or a pāramitā whose value derives the practitioner. from the transcendent aim towards which it aspires— but as a project endowed with intrinsic and ultimate value. To alleviate the suffering of beings, and to do so by altering the political, economic, and social structures that cause this suffering: such a task requires no justification external to itself but is seen as inherently worthy. The goal, moreover, is not, as in classical Buddhism, to attain liberation from the world—whether through nirvanic peace or a Buddha’s perfect enlightenment—but to actualize a liberation within ISSUE 9, OCTOBER 2009

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the world, namely, the liberation of people from oppressive social and political conditions, which is to be pursued and realized through socially transformative action. To some degree, engaged Buddhism shares certain attitudes with Mahayana Buddhism, which depicts the advanced Bodhisattva as choosing to aid beings within the world of pain and suffering rather than to step out of samsara and realize nirvana. Nevertheless, there still seems to me a significant difference between classical Mahayana Buddhism and contemporary engaged Buddhism. Classical Mahayana sees the Bodhisattva as intent on leading others from ignorance to enlightenment, from samsara to nirvana, a mission that prioritizes transcendence. The aim may be facilitated and prepared for by “mundane” deeds motivated by compassion, such as generosity or helpful actions, but these good deeds are expedients; they are “skillful means” to lead others to the Dharma. The goal is still transcendent realization, and social engagement is a means to “cross over” to others, to lead them to this goal. Engaged Buddhism, in contrast, sees the path of compassion, of active commitment to the wellbeing of others in the secular sphere of human life, as an intrinsic good, not as a stepping-stone towards some higher good. Actions for the sake of peace, human rights, economic justice, and an end to discrimination are taken as worthy ends in themselves, not merely because they make it easier for others to practice the Dharma or because such advocacy attracts others to Buddhism. Even when social action does not particularly aim to lead others to the Dharma, it can still fit comfortably into the program of socially engaged Buddhism. Despite lines of continuity with the past history of Buddhism, it therefore seems to me that socially engaged Buddhism also involves to some degree a reorientation of priorities. By making social transformation not merely an aspiration of Dharma practice but an overriding concern, certain socially engaged Buddhists seem to be introducing a new dimension to the Dharma never entertained before, at least not on such a scale. Their innovations may well mark a commendable step forward in the ethical evolution of Buddhism. They certainly correspond with contemporary suppositions that altruistic action should be adopted on the ground that it benefits others, and not because it contributes to the fulfillment of one’s own ends, however laudable they might be. However, between classical Buddhism and certain expressions of socially engaged Buddhism a tension remains, a contest of ideals and attitudes. I can best characterize this tension with a series of questions, which are especially pertinent to myself as a Buddhist monk:

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• Didn’t the Buddha emphasize renunciation, withdrawal, and detachment, and if so, what happens to these imperatives when we are asked to work for the social uplift of the world? • Should an inwardly disciplined monk or nun leave the quietude of the monastery to study economics, sociology, and political science in order to be better equipped to deal with issues pertinent to these disciplines? Wouldn’t lay people be able to address these problems more effectively than monks and nuns? • Don’t monastics and contemplatives also perform a social service just by being who they are, without actively working for social change, and if so, why should they be encouraged to work for social change in more tangible, mundane ways? • If the task of responding to the great global problems of humanity falls to the lay Buddhists, what happens to the monastic Sangha as the authoritative Buddhist institution established by the Buddha himself? Doesn’t such an agenda run the risk of driving the monastics to the sidelines of Buddhism’s mission for the world? • If socially transformative activity is an intrinsic good, what becomes of Buddhist philosophy, scriptural study, and meditation? Will they be ultimately subordinated to social and political action in the world? • Won’t this lead to new conceptions of enlightenment and liberation that make the older, time-honored ideals of Buddhism appear dated and irrelevant? And would this mark the progress of the Dharma in today’s world or a deviation from its original mission? Or is there some middle ground that can reconcile the two trends? I do not claim to have the answers to these questions. But I do believe they need to be explored in depth, with full seriousness of intent. Perhaps a key to formulating answers lies in the simile which I introduced at the beginning of this lecture, that of the Earth held in place through the balancing of the centripetal force of gravity with the centrifugal force of its own momentum. To retain its status as a form of Buddhism, socially engaged Buddhism must constantly look back for guidance to the Buddha’s enlightenment, the fundamental teachings, and the classical scriptures of the various Buddhist schools. To engage with society, it must look outward, seeking ways to apply the teachings to the healing of social ills. Excessive focus on the first tendency could result in a religious or contemplative Buddhism that lacks a clearly articulated social conscience, a Buddhism aimed at securing inner peace at the expense of compassionate action in the world. Excessive focus on the latter tendency could result in a social and political agenda with ISSUE 9, OCTOBER 2009

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minimal claims to be Buddhist, which takes from Buddhism merely vague ideas of interconnectedness and altruistic intentionality supported by the practice of mindfulness. In my reflection, however, I also recognize that the task of trying to justify engaged Buddhism by appeal to Buddhist scriptures, doctrines, and ancient precedent may be misguided. Buddhism has always evolved, from epoch to epoch, and has enriched its legacy by giving birth to diverse schools, systems, and forms of practice that preserve the spirit of the Dharma even while varying in the way they embody that spirit. Sometimes one new incarnation of the Dharma turns quite dramatically against its predecessors, in which its proponents believe the spirit has become vapid and ossified. Sometimes the new incarnation comfortably merges with its predecessor, or fertilizes it so that the older form unfolds potentials dormant within itself. In the present era, I think, there is a need for a creative revitalization of the Dharma in order that it might expand its range of resources for healing human suffering. I especially believe it is urgently necessary for Buddhists to contribute their voice to the global conversation taking place among many religious and spiritual people intent on creating a healthy and secure future for humanity. If we do not speak out, I ask myself, what is the use of our lofty rhetoric about compassion, peace, and loving-kindness? If we do not work with others to forge viable solutions to the great problems that threaten human beings today, won’t we be failing humanity at the very time that it most needs our help, and the help of the Dharma? There are ruthless, unscrupulous forces at work today causing immense misery for humans and animals alike all across the planet: those at the helm of oppressive political systems, those who promote racial and ethnic discrimination, who rape our natural environment, who pursue quick profits without regard for long-term consequences, who foment violence and war, who profit from trade in deadly weapons, who exploit and murder millions of animals. The intent to liberate beings from suffering requires not only changes in attitudes among individuals intent on harming others but also changes in the systems that permit this to happen—changes at increasingly higher levels, even challenges to the basic assumptions that gird our political and social reality. Clearly, as Buddhists we have a solemn duty to redress the suffering of the world and to do so by seeking to alter the structures that produce and sustain it. I strongly believe that the emergence of a compelling sense of social conscience among Buddhists is a critical need of our time. This I take to be a new stage in the unfolding of the Buddhist ethical consciousness but

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a stage that is both deeply rooted in ancient tradition and thrust upon us by the critical conditions of our era. Too often we Buddhists have been either complacent or naïve about the way the world works. To fulfill our obligation to sentient beings, we have to examine, understand, and address the immense global problems that confront humanity today. The four noble truths provide the ideal template for a program of transformative action: first, diagnose the forms of suffering; second, seek their underlying causes; third, assess the possibility of removing the causes; and fourth, apply the method to remove them. But merely theoretical models are not enough. When it comes to alleviating systemic suffering, we have to move forward by applying the method. In the face of our collective crisis, we should not turn our backs on the countless beings who depend on us for help, including future generations. In my own thinking, I always return to the canonical statement that a Buddha arises out of compassion for the world—for the good, welfare, and happiness of many. In our own time, when destructive social institutions and policies cause such immense harm, and even threaten the survival of human life on Earth, it should become our mission, in carrying out the Buddha’s intent, to offer Buddhist alternatives to the policies and institutions that cause so much misery and damage. Of course, such a program requires major changes in people’s views, attitudes, and conduct, and thus inevitably involves personal transformation. But it also requires that we work for the transformation of systemic forces, doing so in the light of the special insights of the Dharma. I would say that the crucial mission imposed on us by the conditions of our time is to embody a Buddhist conscience in response to the world’s suffering. This means that we have to adopt a sense of personal responsibility arising from our recognition that the task of liberating other sentient beings from suffering is ultimately our own task and, that by working in harmony with other people seeking a better world, we have the capacity to change things. If we can apply the wisdom of the Dharma to save humanity from a plunge into reckless self-destruction, this is certainly enough of a justification for the effort to create a socially engaged Buddhism. Ultimately we may have no other choice. 

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