There’s a debate of sorts going on over at the Bearing Witness blog. The question: “Was the Buddha socially engaged?” So far, there are 18 comments on the topic including one from me.
In the one “corner,” there is the unnamed author of the blog Digital Tibetan Buddhist Altar, who writes:
If you are rushing from one disaster to another, saving whales, trees, dogs, birds, starving orphans, victims of this, and victims of that, sooner or later you will become exhausted. Sooner or later, you will come to realize that, despite all of your effort, the whales, trees, dogs, birds, orphans, and victims are no fewer in number than when you began your crusades.
Later, rather than sooner, you might even come to realize that all your rushing around is just another excuse for not realizing emptiness: for not realizing impermanence…
When Buddha achieved or relaxed into whatever it is we believe he achieved or relaxed into while sitting beneath the Bodhi Tree, a large red cross did not suddenly begin glowing on his chest. He did not jump up and rush out to save the poor. He did not latch on to a cause and use it as the locus of a fundraising mechanism. He did not begin building institutions.
Twist it and wring it and pound it any way you like. Buddha did not engage in engaged Buddhism.
In the other corner, Ramesh Bjonnes writes in Elephant Journal:
Buddha was an animal and human rights activist long before PETA and Amnesty International.
During the time of Buddha, circa 500 BC, the Vedic religion of the Brahmin priesthood in India had become degenerate and suppressive and engaged in frequent animal sacrifices.
The Buddha is reputed to have denounced the Vedic religion at the time. He especially denounced the religious animal sacrifices so common during those days.
As I wrote in my comment on the Bearing Witness blogs, I find these kinds of ‘debates’ rather tiresome. They set up a false duality, forcing us into a position of either/or.
I think reality is much more complex and beautiful than that. And as the author of Digital Tibetan Buddhist Altar writes later on in the post:
Have I said anywhere that Buddhists should abandon social activism? No I have not. In the foregoing, it is not my suggestion that you should abandon social conscience altogether and start tossing garbage out the window of your speeding life. It is merely my suggestion that you earnestly consider hitching the horse to the front of the cart. It is better for the horse, and gets the job done.
I like that. And it gives me an opportunity to share one of my favorite verses from contemporary Buddhist poetry:
I never see you
In Jetavana’s garden
Sitting with closed eyes
In meditation, in the lotus position
In the caves of Ajanta and Ellora
With stony lips sewn shut
Taking the last sleep of your life.
I see you
Breathing softly, healingly,
On the sorrow of the poor, the weak,
Going from hut to hut
In the life-destroying darkness
Torch in hand,
Giving the sorrow that drains the blood
Like a contagious disease
A new meaning.
— Daya Pawar (Pawar, who died in 1996, was a prize-winning poet and writer from India’s Marathi Dalit community)