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The Original Engaged Buddhist

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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

Walking, talking,

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)

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.

5 responses »

  1. I think of one of my dharma teachers, Larry Rosenberg’s view that dharma practices are essentially about learning how to live well, and mindful of Socrates, a well-lived life is an examined life.

    I find the first comment from the Digital Tibetan rather appalling. But I think it has mostly to do with contemporary attitudes about politics that are all too common, especially among generation X and its successors. Many people drawn to dharma practice see politics and activism as something hopeless or messy or unwholesome or intractable or self-righteous or just another path to power and privilege, all of which politics can be, which is why it’s essential to engage in politics and activism mindfully.

    A better alternative is to treat “engaging” as another component of practice, something we do mindfully, with compassion for ourselves and others, equal in importance to seated or walking meditation, the precepts or chanting or whatever. If dharma practice is only about “realizing emptiness” then it’s just another personal project; another “experience” even if that experience is an exceptionally good or pleasant one. For one thing, there are all of the various precepts or sila, which indicate that in early Buddhism there was a strong moral component to practice. Living a moral life is meant both to reduce the harm and suffering in ourselves and in the world at large and to put us enough at ease with ourselves to gain some insight. In recent years, scientists have shown that humans have an innate and largely unconscious “moral sense,” which the Buddha surely intuited and incorporated into practice. The problem with our “moral sense” is that it developed when humans were living in much different circumstances with different technologies than today. Our moral sense needs to develop and expand to deal with all of the preventable suffering of the modern world – quite a lot to deal with – and nobody should attempt to deal with everything all at once. I don’t see that as the real problem. I think that the opposite, apathy, is a more significant problem. There is always the temptation to see practice as an escape from the world: we may choose to course through deep samadhi while the world around us destroys itself.

    So yes, dharma practice does require engagement, and engagement requires some understanding of politics and moral theory and careful attention to the problems of the world. It’s true that too much engagement without the balanced mind and self-work that dharma practice offers can lead to cynicism or burnout or outright depression and anxiety. On the other hand, social activism can be extremely exciting, fun and rewarding. We often find out who or what we really are when we try to help others.

  2. Thank you for highlighting and summarizing this discussion so well, Maia — I was going to comment on the original thread, but ultimately found the whole tone kind of off-putting and wandered on to other things.

    What I love about that poem you shared is that it reminds me of the single unifying factor that, for me, unites dharma practice and radical politics: addressing suffering in the world. And as someone who, since youth, came more from the political side of things, discovering the dharma for myself was a huge relief and inspiration, because it helped to complete my picture of what suffering is, and how to engage with it. As you say, Tim, political action without attention to inner work and liberation is incomplete; and spiritual practice devoid of compassionate, pragmatic responses to the material suffering of beings is also incomplete.

    Ironically, it seems to me that conversations about engaged buddhism often carry an underlying tone of judgment, which itself adds to suffering. Like we not only disagree with someone whose balance of introspection and engagement differs from ours, but we judge them for that difference. (And I count myself here, too, at times!) But if we’re truly confident in our approach, and if that approach contains a core of compassion, then snark and argument are utterly beside the point, right?

    On the action side of things, it’s a live question for me at this moment, how to best marry the dharma and the politics. I’ve had much more success so far infusing my political work with wisdom gleaned from the dharma, and it’s exciting to see my practice planting seeds within my political communities. (My bay area Marxist friends are increasingly considering incorporating some kind of meditation praxis, or at least dharmic humanist philosophy, into their work and their political “line.”) And working every day with folks who are homeless, struggling with addiction, poverty, criminalization, rape, loss of loved ones, etc., it is abundantly clear to me how the suffering must be addressed on a spiritual, not just material, level — beginning with my own practice, which helps give me the non-grasping compassion necessary to do this work well.

    Anyway, sorry to go on about myself, but as far as I understand it, the dharma only becomes dharma through our experience of it, through its application. So rather than worrying too much about how Gotama would have labeled himself, I’m just trying to take inspiration from his teachings, and figure out how I can make use of them.

    Thanks again, Maia, for sharing your thoughts and that beautiful poem.

  3. That is an interesting debate. I first learned of this blog yesterday and as I was reading about others efforts to assist with the oil spill calamity I noticed in myself a sort of resistance to reading about others efforts. Even though a part of me wanted to accept it and appreciate it, another part of me may have been resentful that other persons could do more than me, be more altruistic than me, be a more caring human being to me. I just live my little life in Florida, I thought. Where do they get off saving the world? I had to accept my resistance because it was there. I think reflecting on it I realized that it is sort of an opportunity to understand more fully how some teachers have understood the first precept of not killing. Essentially, when I resist others efforts, when I somehow ask them to fit in the box of my life, when I read their efforts not as their efforts but as a reflection of my own, I kill life. I suffocate the beauty of life, which is big enough to contain both me in my living room with my fiancee and others helping to preserve our environment. The world is huge and I catch myself more and more asking it to be subservient to my needs, that each thing must be a reflection on my self, rather than something to be appreciated for its self.

    So, I think reflecting on it, I said, wow, I am grateful to be a part of a world where no one’s pursuits diminishes anothers. I cannot go to the Gulf and clean the spill, but isn’t it wonderful that I can participate just by appreciating and supporting those who do. I feel grateful to be a part of a religion (if you would allow me that word) whose members are traveling around doing such caring, devote, and thoughtful work.

    So, I guess my point is, I believe buddhism is empty – meaning, like a diamond it contains infinite opportunities to manifest light. To uphold the precept of not to kill maybe to shine ourselves while supporting, and not obstructing, the light of others.

    Thank you for the opportunity to comment.


    • Hi Raymond,

      Thank you for such an honest and heartfelt reply — I really appreciate how deeply you are turning this question over.

      For me, I don’t really think of all this as ‘saving the world.’ It’s more of a matter of responding to what’s right in front of me. Those responses tend to get shaped by meditation practice and my Buddhist studies, the deeper I go into that area. Not a big deal, really… and certainly not an intentional quest to save the world, although I think it used to take more of that form in my life (which was pretty exhausting to me and I think kind of obnoxious to others).

      In the Bodhisattva vows that those of us who are Zen Buddhists recite, there is a line that says, “Beings are numberless, I vow to save them.” Recently I’ve changed that in my own chanting so that it goes like this: “Beings are numberless, I vow to love them.” And that feels a lot better, to me.

      Once more, thank you for your comment, and look forward to seeing you again on the Jizo Chronicles.


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