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In Search of an Authentic Engaged Buddhism Voices from Ancient Texts, Calls from the Modern World Raoul Birnbaum Abstract: Raoul Birnbaum, a leading scholar of the Chinese traditions of Mahayana Buddhism, explores the roots of Buddhist engagement as described in the sutras. In particular, he points to the bodhisattva’s vows to dedicate the merit of his or her practice to the benefit and liberation of all beings. Professor Birnbaum’s talk was paired with the previous article by Bhikkhu Bodhi as part of the Eighth Annual Hsüan Hua (Xuanhua) Memorial Lecture in April 2009.

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Introduction

am very happy to be here with you this evening, where I have the opportunity to speak on the topic of Buddhist engagement. Bhikkhu Bodhi has addressed this topic from a historical perspective, and I will speak based on readings of Mahayana texts, most especially some works that have been important in the Chinese traditions. I have long wanted to meet Bhikkhu Bodhi, whose work I admire, so I have to thank the kind organizers of this event for somehow responding to this unspoken wish and creating the circumstances by which he and I have met to think together about this topic. Our intent has been to think very carefully and positively about what it might mean for a Buddhist to be engaged, or an engaged person to be at the same time a Buddhist. Here of course we are not speaking of matrimony but of a particular kind of attentive relation to other people, other creatures, and events in the world. This matter, I believe, goes to the very heart of Mahayana practice. I am hopeful that the topic we have chosen and our attempt at a constructive approach form an appropriate way to honor the memory of Ven. Master Hua, in whose name this lecture series has been endowed. ISSUE

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Indeed, it is my hope that this kind of event continues the fundamental work to which he dedicated so many years of his life here in California —the application of Buddhist principles, based especially on attentive study of Buddhist sutras. What then does it mean to be “in search of an authentic engaged Buddhism”? For me to be “in search” of something means that I do not intend to presume to dictate or specifically define that something in a restrictive way. To say that this particular something is “authentic” may intrude into problematic territory, as if I as an individual have assumed the authority to make pronouncements and assertions about the acts of others, but that certainly is not my intention. I think of “authentic” in the same way it is suggested in the last line of the quatrain that some Chinese Buddhists chant when they begin to study a sutra. That verse states: The incomparably profound, subtle, and marvelous Teaching— Difficult to encounter even in hundreds, thousands, ten thousands of aeons. I now have the opportunity to hear it and hold it in my grasp, And I vow to comprehend the Tathāgata’s genuine meaning. It is that sense of “genuine meaning,” or “authentic meaning,” whatever that might be, that I would like to search for in thinking about Buddhist engagement. The Vimalakīrti Sutra urges that one ought to “[r]ely on the Dharma and not rely on a person,”1 and so I take that seriously and look specifically at verbal storehouses of the Dharma—the Mahayana sutras—as the source-realm within which authenticity may be found. Of course, the Mahayana sutras constitute a vast territory, one that encompasses a wide range of views and practices,2 so to be reasonable and actually have something coherent to say, I will focus on a core set of sutras that long have been fundamental to Chinese Buddhist traditions. As to the word Buddhism, I find it awkward to speak about some reified entity—some independent and firmly bounded thing—that bears this name. It is a comfortable and familiar concept for which a specific reality is difficult to find. When my students use this dreaded word, I often say to them, “Who?” Sometimes people declare that “Buddhism says this or that,” or they may assert that “in Buddhism there is such-and-such a view.” But of course in this regard one can only speak of Buddhists of particular times and places, or one can speak of Buddhist texts, or perhaps of specified Buddhist traditions and their material, intellectual, and social productions. From my point of view, there is no Buddhism that speaks on its own, no capacious “Buddhism” entity that contains things within itself. Still, in

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creating a title for the lecture, we could not very well presume to be “in search of an authentic engaged Buddhist”! That would be too rude. It suggests that I assume myself qualified to determine who is or is not “authentic” and that I somehow seek to assert some kind of disciplinary role. Beyond authenticity, the matter of engagement is the key issue here. There is the familiar contemporary term engaged Buddhism, which is a social and political movement that can be traced back to the Vietnamese teacher Thich Nhat Hanh and his cohorts,3 who themselves were influenced by a modernist movement in early twentieth-century China made most visible through publications by the monk Taixu and his circle. All of this now has developed in various contemporary forms in South and Southeast Asia, China and Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and the West. The term suggests political and social engagement—a concern for social justice, a concern for helping the economically disadvantaged, a concern for aiding the unfortunate, a concern for the environment. This is part of what we want to focus on—this concern, set into practical action—but also we want to think about the broadest dimensions of what it might mean to be “engaged.” And in this lecture, as the title states, we promise to heed calls from the modern world by bringing forth articulate voices from ancient texts. In this context, since I have proposed that a Buddhist engagement that has some authenticity is rooted in the principles expressed in Buddhist sutras, that is where I now will turn, and I will try to construct an argument, step by step. Questions and Motivations The titles of Mahayana sutras, especially the alternate or secondary titles, can give a good sense of what each text is about. But the pivot points of the text often are framed as questions.4 If you look for the questions, then in many Mahayana texts, you will have a sharp view of what is critical to that particular text. In some texts these moments are highlighted and unmistakable, while in others they appear at first glance as minor diversions or byways from the main discourse. But they are these questions that often haunt a reader long after the text has been put aside. These questions work again and again as provocateurs, as agents that chip away at long-held assumptions and firmly established constructions about the nature of reality. (While, of course, one can see the use of questions as the skillful deployment of literary devices, traditional Chinese Buddhist readings envision sutras in a more literal sense and presume that such texts reflect ISSUE 9, OCTOBER 2009

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some kind of reality beyond the conventionally fictive. That is the mode I will take here in order to approach the larger topic of engaged Buddhism from viewpoints suggested by Mahayana sutras.) These questions usually are posed to Śākyamuni Buddha, but sometimes it is Śākyamuni himself who directs them to his students, or they arise from one of the interlocutors and just hang in the air. In a unique instance found in the last section of the Avataṁsaka Sutra, the young hero Sudhana takes his basic question—How should a bodhisattva practice in order to achieve complete awakening?—and carries it with him for many years on a pilgrimage across India, posing it to teacher after teacher. Whether the heroic figures in the texts produce the questions or are the recipients, the targets, of what sometimes appears to be an interrogatory assault, these questions animate them as individuals. It is worth bearing in mind that most often it is the greatest disciples who ask the simplest questions. Indeed, the questions—and the role they play in the unfolding of the texts—seem so significant that a person immersed in the world of Mahayana sutras may soon come to think that simple, basic questions are fundamental to progress. By extension, one might also suppose that without questions, nothing much will happen for you. Put another way, if we take the sutras as reliable guides, engagement on the Mahayana Buddhist path is sparked by questions that are deeply felt and profoundly thought through. If we follow the lead of Mahayana sutras, then we might reasonably conclude that questions (good questions!) are the sign of a deeply engaged practitioner. From this point of view, a person who is passively still as a rock may be very calm but also may be in deep trouble. Texts of the prajñā-paramitā (perfection of wisdom) class, likely among the earliest of the Mahayana sutras, present a maze of questions. In these works, teachings mainly are set out in the form of complex dialogues propelled by sharply focused probes. (It may be that this rhetorical mode springs from contemporaneous Indian debate traditions amongst learned thinkers, including Buddhists.) One of the shorter and most popular works among these texts, the Diamond Sutra, presents a cascade of questions and responses, mainly between Śākyamuni and one of his chief monastic disciples, Subhūti. The pivotal set is found directly after the opening scene is established, when Subhūti asks: “World-Honored One, as to good men and good women who have given rise to the thought of complete and perfect awakening, how should they abide, and how should they tame their minds?”5 Here we should understand that these “good men and good women” have entered the bodhisattva path and that they seek the particular goal

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of that path, anuttara samyaksaṁbodhi (complete and perfect awakening). “How should they abide?” has multiple implications, and Chinese readings also can be understood equally as “Where should that person dwell?” or “What is the appropriate standpoint of that person?” Śākyamuni responds directly to the second part of the question, but his answer spills back over to the first part as well. He says (here I paraphrase) that bodhisattva-mahasattvas should tame their minds with this thought: “I will cause all living beings to enter into complete nirvana; I will rescue all of them How should I abide, completely. In this way I will liberate numberless, limitless beings of every conceivable type. And yet I and how should I tame will maintain the awareness that there are no living beings that obtain liberation.” Śākyamuni goes on to my mind? explain (and here I translate according to the way a Chinese reader without recourse to Sanskrit would understand this sentence): “Subhūti, if a bodhisattva holds in mind the concept of self, or person, or living beings, or lifespan, then that being is not truly a bodhisattva.” Let me boil this down further. “You bodhisattvas should tame your minds by holding the following thought: I will rescue completely all the limitless number of beings in the universe and enable them to attain complete liberation, without producing the notion of an ‘I’ that does the saving or a ‘you’ that is being saved.” This really is where our investigation of Mahayana engagement begins: in this pair of questions that are articulated and then continuously held in mind (“How do I abide?” and “How do I tame my mind?”); in the resolution of these questions in a solemn pledge to rescue all beings; and in the recognition of the fundamental emptiness of inherent individuated existence both of the rescuer and all these beings who are to be rescued. We will return to the issue of emptiness in a moment. First, we can think more about this matter of rescuing all beings from suffering. After all, this particular commitment is the starting point of the bodhisattva path, the point from which everything proceeds. From the Diamond Sutra point of view, it is the lodging place, the standpoint or site at which a bodhisattva dwells. Articulated Motivation In evaluating or in carefully examining activities of Buddhists, according to some eminent masters of the tradition, the place to look is motivation. For example, for an approach to this matter one may read the first ISSUE 9, OCTOBER 2009

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chapter of an early meditation manual written by the deeply learned Chinese teacher Zhiyi (538–597). This text, the Shi chan boluomi cidi famen (A sequential explanation of the Dharma-gate of the perfection of meditation), begins by clarifying the various motivations for practicing meditation, and it explains the likely fruit of accomplishment that is produced through assiduous application of the methods, in the context of these motivations. Zhiyi writes of ten different possibilities—one meditates to gain health, to gain respect and a good reputation, to gain power, and so forth. With these motivations, one can gain those particular results. But if one establishes from the start that one seeks to meditate in order to save all beings, an entirely different consequence is the result. Zhiyi makes clear that one does not start with “practice”; one starts by clarifying one’s motivations.6 Thus, practice is informed by views (ordinarily gained through sutra study, which is to say the study of Śākyamuni’s teachings). Zhiyi’s opening chapter thus poses a highly confrontational question by implication: Kind friend, you seek greater knowledge of meditative technique through study of this handbook, but what are your motivations? The principle of compassion highlighted by Zhiyi and highlighted by the Diamond Sutra is engrained in traditional Chinese monastic training, at least the training that adheres to a well-established standard model. One element of the early training of novice monks and nuns in Chinese Buddhist monasteries requires memorization of fifty-one mindfulness verses that are recited in the mind through the day. These verses are sutra-based; they are directly derived from chapter eleven of the Avataṁsaka Sutra.7 The mindfulness verses focus attention on the daily task or event at hand—washing the face, donning clothes, sitting down, hearing a bell, etc.—and many of them add a characteristic element, a wish for the well-being of all creatures. The third of these verses concerns the sound of bells, a basic element of the soundscape of monastic life in China. When one hears a bell, one recalls that this sound can lighten obstructive faults and enable wisdom to increase and awakening to arise. It may enable beings to be rescued from the fires of the hell-realms. Mindful of this, as one hears this sound of the bell one vows to become a buddha and rescue all living beings. The twelfth verse, to give another example, is recited when one washes one’s face: As I wash my face with this water, I wish that all beings May gain a pure method of practice And ever be unstained.

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In this basic training, intended for beginners but of course not restricted to them, we can see an attempt to direct the mind again and again toward the benefit of others, through all ordinary and usual activities, until this approach becomes a habitual state of mind and this way of thinking pervades all actions throughout the day and night. As with the constantly renewed articulation of a beneficial motivation for meditation practice, this repetitive assertion of vows and wishes to aid others becomes a mental foundation from which all activities spring. The assumption is that dwelling in that particular mental standpoint will produce a trajectory, a certain arc, that makes possible the fruition of this wish. One of the key issues here most certainly is articulated motivation. From this point of view, two individuals may engage in the very same actions, but if they have different motivations for these actions, then the result that reverberates in the end will be different. Suppose, for example, that one founds a hospital or gives food to 10,000 starving people: if one’s motivation is social approbation, or if one’s motivation is to gain merit for a deceased relative, or if one seeks to assuage the guilt provoked by the very ways in which the wealth originally was amassed, or if one seeks to gain merit for one’s future lives, then from this point of view the ultimate result will be very different from the result of having performed these same acts simply motivated by the wish to rescue all beings from suffering. One might further extend this motivation to include the intention of aiding these suffering beings to gain complete awakening. In all cases suffering beings are given assistance, but the motivation will produce different results over the long term. The results will have an impact on the donor, and it may also have an impact on the recipients. Let us explore this further by considering the role of vows and pledges in Mahayana sutras, because it is there that such motivations and aspirations are transformed from generalized notions into formally articulated statements. The Power of Vows and Its Application While many of the Mahayana texts that highlight specific bodhisattvas and buddhas provide wide-ranging information about these figures of the pantheon, the titles of some of these texts point to an especially important matter: the power of vows. There is a clear sense that it is the vow, or set of vows, that has enabled a young bodhisattva to remain focused on the path. According to these texts, such vows carry over from life to life and ISSUE 9, OCTOBER 2009

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form a principal factor of continuity. If one maintains these vows, they generate an engine-like power that makes many things possible. When we look to past-life tales of accomplished bodhisattvas and buddhas in Mahayana sutras, one of the steady indicators of success is the sincere formation of vows. Amitabha, for example, made forty-eight individualized vows, Bhaiṣajyaguru made twelve, and other buddhas also did this same thing, all long ago when they were early-stage bodhisattvas setting out on the path. The ten vows of the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra, found in the Avataṁsaka Sutra, are well-known to Chinese Buddhists because they are an important element of the Chinese monastic tradition’s morning liturgy. These vows to save all beings—using various specific methods—are presented as foundational causes for the present high status of these individuals. It is crucial to recognize that such tales are not restricted just to the most famous figures of the Mahayana pantheon; they are seen throughout Mahayana literature. The Lotus Sutra is especially animated by such passages. “The bodhisattva dedicates all his or her merits for the benefit of all beings.” This assertion and pledge appears in a wide range of Mahayana sutras, ritual texts, and the daily monastic liturgy. While it may be seen as a kind of extravagant rhetorical filler by scholars habituated to the contents of such texts, who look for something new in each work that they read, I would like to suggest that the commonplace nature of this statement—even if extreme—points to its fundamental importance. This type of pledge lies at the heart of Mahayana practice. What could it mean to dedicate all your merits to the benefit of sentient beings? In a trivial sense, perhaps, it is an imaginary donation, which may come at no particular cost to oneself. But more specifically, if we consider our “merits” to be all the wholesome fruits of past and present life activities—defined within Buddhist contexts as such matters as intelligence, physical strength and vitality, special talents, economic resources, and so forth—then this notion of dedicating one’s merits becomes less abstract, and it moves us toward the real possibility of sustained engagement. Because no one person’s merits are the same as another’s, a wide range of types of constructive engagement become possible. Put simply, a person with a strong back but weak mind may be able to do things that are amazing from the point of view of a person with a weak back and strong mind. (And of course a person with a weak back and a weak mind may have his own particular talents that may be identified, his own particular way of contributing to the good of others.) Each may apply her or his talents and abilities for the common good of all beings. From this point

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of view, there are limitless modes of engagement. The issue, once again, is motivation, here coupled with ability. Thus, the notion that “engaged Buddhism” necessarily must be understood as very particular types of activities—helping the sick, the impoverished, the imprisoned, etc.—is unnecessarily limited (and in this sense, the authority of the concept is somewhat delusional). In the end, I think we can see that authentic practice of the Mahayana way, if one takes the core sutras as the basic guide, absolutely requires “engagement” of many sorts. That indeed is the Mahayana complaint—put forward rightfully in those texts or not—against the arhat or pratyekabuddha paths: those two paths to awakening are described as fundamentally incomplete because there is no explicit articulation of compassion, and thus there is no expectation of compassionate activity. Parenthetically speaking, I would like to interject that I am not convinced that compassion is in any way overlooked in the great assembly of early Buddhist texts, even if it may be overlooked by some practitioners of those traditions (and even as it may be overlooked, while perhaps given lip service, by some Mahayana practitioners). Thus, to be very clear, I am not setting up a kind of response or rebuttal to Bhikkhu Bodhi’s presentation or to the Pali text tradition as a whole. That would be absurd and inappropriate. But what I am doing is making an attempt to present this view of engagement from a distinctively Mahayana point of view, which may be expressed in a polemical or contentious manner in some texts as a way to highlight beyond any shadow of doubt the fundamental importance of compassion as an intrinsic component of any “authentic” awakening. We should think briefly about some basic features of Mahayana vows. They can be astonishingly wide-ranging in their scope. In addition to the clearly “spiritual” vows, there are many that address resolutely practical forms of aid, such as the provision of food, clothing, and medicine to those in need; emotional comfort in times of trouble; protection from thieves, attackers, wild animals, snakes, and noxious insects; and rescue at sea or from mountain precipices. These types of vows may be understood both in literal and symbolic ways. Very importantly—and this is a crucial point—these vows are often coupled with an ultimate intention of leading suffering beings to complete liberation, to complete awakening. For example, here is the seventh of Bhaiṣajyaguru’s twelve vows: I vow that when I attain awakening in a future age, if there are any sentient beings who are ill and oppressed; who have no one from whom they might seek aid and nowhere to return to; who have neither doctor ISSUE 9, OCTOBER 2009

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nor medicine, neither parents nor family; who are destitute and whose sufferings are acute—as soon as my name passes through their ears, they will be cured of all their diseases, with body and mind set at ease. Their families and property will be plentiful, and they themselves will experience the supreme awakening.8 The point here is that bodhisattva vows do not focus simply on helping others to get on with life and be more comfortable with things. After all, that getting comfortable with things in a sense may be principally a skillful adaptation to circumstances that are fundamentally flawed; and so this adaptation then may strengthen delusional notions about the nature of samsaric life. The vows focus again and again on the aspect of liberation. It is precisely there, I think, that we have to see a significant element in the authenticity of a Mahayana engagement. The Vow to Construct a Pure Land One way in which a bodhisattva seeks to fulfill a set of vows is by creating a “pure land,” a marvelous place where beings may be reborn to concentrate specifically on their inner cultivation. The pure land may be thought of conventionally as some place “out there” in the far reaches of our universe, a place that takes form when the bodhisattva finally becomes a buddha. So of course there are the famous pure lands of Amitabha Buddha (the Land of Peace and Happiness, also known as the Land of Bliss), or Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha (the Lapis Lazuli Realm), or Akṣobhya Buddha (the Land of Wondrous Joy). There is also, as discussed in the tenth chapter of the Vimalakīrti Sutra, a certain land made of fragrance, where all teachings are communicated through perfumed scent (this is the land known as Host of Fragrances, presided over by the Buddha Accumulation of Fragrances). While pure lands may be thought of as exotic, distant, and rarified places, they also may be thought of as a place right here, as close as one’s own mind. These are two points that I want to explore further. To create a pure land—an entire realm suitable as a dwelling place for those who seek liberation—is not a small matter. One could say that the mere production of this simple aspiration might be an accurate diagnostic for megalomania. But another characteristic of Mahayana thinking is that a bodhisattva does not restrict her or his plans or notions to the limits of a single lifetime. (This is stated clearly again and again in the version of the Diamond Sutra most widely read in China: “the bodhisattva who maintains concepts of self, person, living being, or lifespan cannot be called a bodhisattva.”) Instead, the bodhisattva sets out a grand aim

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and then works and strategizes to realize it some time in the future. The bodhisattva may have some well-developed skills that would be useful in creating and maintaining a pure land while other skills appear to elude her, and so she may practice again and again at some matter for which she appears manifestly ill-suited. The intent is to lay the groundwork for the future, to begin building a new pattern that will come to fruition in future lives. The bodhisattva may start in a small way and then gradually attempt to manifest this vision on a larger scale. A teacher may attempt to construct a kind of pure land on a small scale, within a limited time frame, in a seminar room or lecture hall; or a business owner may do the same thing within her place of work. In the Chinese tradition, a Buddhist monastery may ideally recreate a pure land, beginning with a classic bounded physical environment, guided by codified rules of restrained behavior, and extending to a certain atmosphere that may pervade that space. Much, of course, depends on the leaders of the monastery, who set the tone and establish a living example. On a grander scheme, there are intentional communities that include both monastics and laypeople that should be seen within this specific context, such as the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in California founded by Master Hsüan Hua (Xuanhua), or Dharma Drum Mountain in Taiwan founded by Master Shengyan. Yet for all this considerable talk in Mahayana sutras about creating and maintaining a discrete space that may be labeled as “pure,” there are other views about this matter that also are fundamental to our topic at hand. The question that animates the Vimalakīrti Sutra, introduced in the first chapter by a sophisticated lay practitioner as representative of a group of 500 lay bodhisattvas, is this request to Śākyamuni: “We wish to hear of the purity of the buddha-lands. Would the World-Honored One please explain the practices by which bodhisattvas purify these lands?” And the answer, within which the entire discourse of the sutra should be considered, is framed as a two-fold response: buddha lands (that is, pure lands) are found in sentient beings, and the pure land is one’s own mind.9 Thus, to create a pure land requires that one enter into the worlds of sentient beings, understand their mentalities and needs and conditions, and then act accordingly. But the pure land first depends on one’s own pure mind. Without establishing a pure mind as a first cause, how could it be possible to be effective in establishing a pure land for sentient beings? One begins with the wish to be helpful, perhaps in a profound way, and then one learns that the effective application of this helpfulness must begin with transformation of one’s own mind. And then one must enter the worlds of sentient beings in order to truly express that compassion. ISSUE 9, OCTOBER 2009

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Emptiness But what is the subject of that compassion? Now we have to return to a particular Mahayana element of this engagement, and to do so we can rely on the Diamond Sutra. One of the recurring themes of the Diamond Sutra centers on notions of giving or charity. But the giving is directed to whom? And the act is accomplished by whom? Śākyamuni teaches Subhūti from a variety of angles that the notion of an abiding self, one that is stable and eternal, is dubious, and the construction of reifying concepts about others is just as problematic. As soon as one rests in fixed notions about self or others, or even about the Buddha, one has fallen into delusion. From this awakened point of view, any acts entwined with such notions are deeply problematic. Without this clear and unflinching view that all beings and all concepts are empty of self-nature, compassionate and charitable activities otherwise are structured around concepts of self and other: I do this for you, you do this for me. While such generous activities are wonderful things to accomplish and—according to basic Buddhist views—they cannot go unnoticed in the universe, they most certainly are not liberated acts. In a sense, then, they cannot constitute “authentic engagement.” So what we might speak of as “authentic engagement” is actually something profound and difficult to accomplish. In this sense, a serious Mahayana practitioner will constantly be in search of this authentic engagement as the hallmark of her or his practice. It is an ideal, one that may only rarely be accomplished but still may be constantly held in mind. Coda: A Multiplicity of Engagements Underlying all of this discussion, at least in my mind, is the problem of delusion. What I am thinking about are some of the pitfalls in Buddhist engagement. One obvious pitfall may be experienced by the politically or socially engaged person who learns a bit about Buddhist matters and declares that his or her work is “engaged Buddhism,” and that these activities constitute “Buddhist practice.” Yet when one investigates, it appears that there is no particular change from the past to the present: the external activities remain the same and the internal approach remains the same, although now labeled differently. In what ways, then, might these activities and attitudes properly be thought of as “engaged Buddhism”? Or more to the point, what changes are needed to transform this engagement into something reasonably labeled as “Buddhist engagement,” other than the fact that a self-described Buddhist has engaged in

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these acts? It is true that these activities may produce realizations that lead to a deepened awareness, but the situation remains precarious if the individual’s motivations are not thoroughly examined and clarified. Another kind of delusion resides in a righteous assertion or assumption of a fixed sense of the form in which Buddhist engagement must take. There is a standard bit of Buddhist rhetoric that asserts there are 84,000 teachings, each of them suitable to particular beings at particular places and times. Every reasonably competent schoolteacher learns quickly that one size does not fit all, that different strategies and even profoundly different approaches must be taken to reach all the varied personalities in the classroom. And they learn that students come to maturity on their own timetable and in their own individualistic ways. How much more might this be so when the matter is as profound as “liberation”? Some Mahayana sutras provide individual testimony from heroic individuals regarding how they personally attained to some degree of realization. In the Śūraṅgama Sutra, twenty-five individual practice methods are set forth by twenty-five accomplished beings, while in the Vimalakīrti Sutra the testimony of thirty-two bodhisattvas, plus Vimalakīrti himself present testimony regarding their individual methods of attaining nonduality. The Lotus Sutra presents a very wide range of practice methods in its twenty-eight chapters, thus giving a good sense of the extraordinarily broad set of approaches that a bodhisattva may take, in accordance with personality type, individual challenges and talents, and situational concerns. By extension, one can see the myriad possibilities through which Buddhist engagement may be expressed. Another pitfall lies at the other end of the spectrum—a Buddhist practitioner who resists the very notion of engagement with the view that it is contrary to some fixed notion of “Buddhist practice.” Bear in mind the dramatic scene in second chapter of the Lotus Sutra: a large group in the assembly walks out when Śākyamuni Buddha begins to teach about the compassionate way of the bodhisattva. These are not drifting idlers in the back of the hall; it is a substantial group of 5,000 monks, nuns, and laypersons who walk out. They have, according to the text, a sense of knowledge and accomplishment that was not matched by actual achievement. While the scene may be treated as a rhetorical device in a literary work and it may be understood simply as a polemical statement about non-Mahayanists, this textual moment—in which senior students assert that they have learned quite enough—points to an important principle, I think, that is worth pondering over in a personal way. In this regard, the Lotus Sutra also contains one of the most poignant statements that can be found in any Mahayana sutra. At first, one’s ISSUE 9, OCTOBER 2009

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sympathy is aroused, but then if one dwells on the passage and takes it seriously, it may also send a chill through one’s own blood and bones. Early on in the text, in chapter three, Śākyamuni’s great senior disciple Śāriputra, a major figure in this text, is chided by his teacher. Śākyamuni speaks with him about the bodhisattva path, the path that is characterized by compassionate engagement for the sake of all beings: In the past, in the presence of twenty thousand millions of buddhas, for the sake of the Unexcelled Path, I constantly taught and transformed you. And through the long night of time, you have followed me and received my instruction. Because I led you by expedient means, you have been born [once again] into my Dharma. Śāriputra, long ago I taught you to aspire to the Buddha Path [understood in the Lotus Sutra as achieved via the bodhisattva route]. But you now have completely forgotten. Instead, you say to yourself that you already have gained extinction. Now once again, because I seek to cause you to recall the path you walked in keeping with your vows made in the past, for all the voice-hearers’ sake I preach this scripture of the Great Vehicle named the Lotus Blossom of the Marvelous Law, a Dharma taught to bodhisattvas, one that the buddhas protect and hold in mind.10 Śāriputra easily forgets the most important thing of all, and he is fortunate that he has a kind and patient teacher who comes back to instruct him once again. And indeed Śākyamuni has sufficient confidence in him that he predicts Śāriputra’s future attainment of complete awakening and his realization of a pure buddha-land. Śāriputra’s situation brings this talk to a conclusion, one that is distilled to a few questions. Having spoken this evening from a Mahayana point of view about engagement as an accomplished bodhisattva’s natural state of being—as the standpoint or dwelling place of a bodhisattva—let me conclude by raising these few questions: Why did Śāriputra forget? Or more to the point, if the great Śāriputra who is nurtured by countless buddhas and taught directly by Śākyamuni could forget again and again about the principle of compassionate engagement, what kind of effort is required of the rest of us? What kind of engagement, what quality of engagement is required that permits no forgetting, that produces continuity of attention and application without a single interruption? It is precisely that kind of engagement, I think, that in a Mahayana Buddhist context deserves to be labeled “authentic.” 

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RELIGION EAST & WEST


In Search of an Authentic Engaged Buddhism

Notes 1. There are three important Chinese translations of the Vimalakīrti; I rely here on the version that found widest acceptance in China, Kumārajīva’s early fifthcentury rendition. Weimojie soshuo jing, T. no. 1775, 38: 556c. 2. On the diversity of Mahayana, see for example Paul Williams, Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition (New York and London: Routledge, 2000), 103. 3. See for example Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire: A Buddhist Proposal for Peace (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967). For an overview of the international movement and its principles, see most recently Sallie B. King, Socially Engaged Buddhism (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2009). The bibliography on this topic is enormous. 4. There also are titles of some relatively early Mahayana sutras that highlight this point, such as “The Questions of Mañjuśrī“ and “The Questions of Rāśtrapāla.” A good many early Mahayana texts collected under the rubric Mahāratnakūta Sutra bear titles framed in this way. 5. I rely on Kumārajīva’s translation, which is the version most commonly memorized and recited in the Chinese tradition. Jin’gang bore boluomi jing, T. no. 235, 8: 748c749a. I provide readings here directly from the Chinese without recourse to Sanskrit versions in order to represent the text from an indigenous Chinese Buddhist viewpoint. 6. For this passage, see Zhiyi, Shi chan boluomi cidi famen, T. no. 1916, 46: 475c. The text is based on lectures given by Zhiyi in 571. 7. The verses are collected in the Pini riyong, credited to the Ming master Xingshi (d. early seventeenth century), Xu zangjing 106: 105b-128a; the most commonly used edition is the text plus commentary entitled Pini riyong qieyao, by the renowned late Ming-early Qing Vinaya master Jianyue Duti, Xu zangjing 106: 129a-137b. For the Huayanjing source, see Siksananda’s 8080-juan version, T. no. 279, 10: 69b-72a. 8. Yaoshi liuliguang rulai benyuan gongde jing, T. no. 450, 14: 405ab. 9. See Weimojie soshuo jing, T. no. 1775, 38: 538a. 10. Miaofa lianhua jing, T. no. 262, 9:11b.

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