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Socially Engaged Buddhism Beyond Labels

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Let’s start with some definitions. What is it that we’re talking about? That ubiquitous term ‘engaged Buddhism’ is actually a couple of different things. At least a couple of different things, but I’ll just focus on two:

  • Engaged Buddhism
    and
  • Socially Engaged Buddhism

There’s a quote from the late Rev. Willliam Sloane Coffin that I find very helpful in distinguishing between the two:

“Justice is at the heart of religious faith. It’s not something that is tacked on. And justice is not charity. Charity tries to alleviate the effects of injustice. Justice tries to eliminate the causes of injustice. Charity is a personal disposition. Justice is public policy. What this country needs, what I think God wants us to do, is not practice piecemeal charity but engage in wholesale justice.” (from an interview with PBS Religion and Ethics Newsweekly)

So here’s my theory (others, like Ken Jones, have articulated it in a similar way). I see engaged Buddhism as akin to what Rev Coffin is talking about when he talks about charity. On a very basic level, it’s pretty hard to avoid being an engaged Buddhist. We see suffering, and we respond. There are many Buddhist groups that are organized in this way, like the Tzu Chi Foundation — doing relief work, addressing immediate needs such as hunger, medical needs, etc.

Socially engaged Buddhism, in contrast, is about looking at the structures that lie underneath these forms of suffering, and then responding to those structures. At the root of the hunger and homelessness, for example, are systems of economic and racial injustice (to name just a couple) where some people have the odds stacked against them. This doesn’t mean that people can’t transcend their conditions; of course they can. But it’s a system that contributes to a vast amount of suffering, and the big question is: does it need to be that way?

I’m not sure that anyone has ever surpassed the eloquence and wisdom captured in just a few lines in the Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

The way I see it, socially engaged Buddhism comes from just about that same place. There are lots of things we can’t change, and we can practice with those conditions to find some liberation from suffering. But there are lots of things we can change – things which we’ve often been taught to think are ‘just the way it is’ and unchangeable. And then our practice is to work to change those things.

There are complexities beyond this, of course… how do we know that the change we seek will not cause more suffering? Let’s leave that side road for another time, just noting them as important to keep in mind for right now.

Political, cultural, and social conditions are often harder to see than the individual suffering that’s right in front of us, and we live in a culture that thinks psychologically rather than systemically. We are encouraged to see individuals rather than systems.

Because everything appears to starts with the individual, this makes some sense. When we say things, “I must be peaceful in myself before I can take action for peace in the world,” of course that is true. And yet, it can also limit us. Because we’ll probably never be entirely at peace within ourselves. So are we supposed to wait forever before getting involved with the world? And if we let the suffering of the world permeate into our hearts, as I hope we would if we are practicing dharma, then to some degree that suffering may upset our peace of mind. As it should.

As we advance in practice we may be able to hold all those realities and the suffering within them with equanimity, but for many of us this is more of a challenge. I like what Joanna Macy said about this dilemma:

“It is my experience that the world itself has a role to play in our liberation. Its very pressures, pains, and risks can wake us up—release us from the bonds of ego and guide us home to our vast true nature.”

So, having gone down some of these byways and offered my own distinction between engaged Buddhism and socially engaged Buddhism, I like this definition from Donald Rothberg and Hozan Alan Senauke:

Socially engaged Buddhism is a dharma practice that flows from the understanding of the complete yet complicated interdependence of all life. It is the practice of the bodhisattva vow to save all beings. It is to know that the liberation of ourselves and the liberation of others are inseparable. It is to transform ourselves as we transform all our relationships and our larger society. It is work at times from the inside out and at times from the outside in, depending on the needs and conditions. It is to see the world through the eye of the Dharma and to respond emphatically and actively with compassion.  (from Turning Wheel, Summer-Fall – 2008)

If I were to extend this definition, I would propose that any form of socially engaged Buddhism has to include the following elements:

  1. A ferocious devotion to a lack of dogma or doctrine. So, we don’t get to be smugly ‘right’ about anything, even things like ‘war is bad, peace is good.’
  2. A deep understanding of the truth of impermanence in all things.
  3. A willingness to take an honest look at our motives for action, and to not act from self-serving motives. The ‘self’ is a construct that has gotten us into lots of trouble.
  4. And paradoxically, a recognition that we need to include ourselves in our sphere of enlightenment, as Kobin Chino says (by way of Roshi Bernie Glassman).

That lays down the foundation for the topics we’ll look at on this blog, and the kinds of other thinkers who will be featured. Enjoy the ride!

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About Maia

I've been practicing and studying the Buddha way since 1994, and exploring the question "What is engaged Buddhism?" since the late 90s. As former executive director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and editor of its journal, Turning Wheel, I had the honor of meeting and working with many practitioners of engaged dharma, including Roshi Joan Halifax, Joanna Macy, Alan Senauke, and Robert Aitken Roshi. I write about socially engaged Buddhism on my blog, "The Jizo Chronicles," as well as on the theme of personal and collective freedom on my website, "The Liberated Life Project." Through my Five Directions Consulting, I offer support to individuals and organizations who aspire to integrate awareness into their work.

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