A Critique of Engaged Buddhism

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Dharmasherab
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A Critique of Engaged Buddhism

Post by Dharmasherab » Sat Nov 18, 2017 8:25 pm

Before I begin let me clear that ‘Engaged Buddhism’ is not a form (sect/school) of Buddhism but it is a behavioral aspect of Buddhism. Buddhism is a teaching as well as a practice which helps humans to get closer to Enlightenment to liberate them from suffering in Samsara. Buddhism as a religion has its core principles included within the folds of Sila (ethical condict), Samadhi (concentration) and Prajna (Wisdom). But some of these same principles can be extended beyond the spiritual development into non-spiritual domains. This is ‘Engaged Buddhism’.

Just to repeat this definition, Engaged Buddhism is the extension of core principles within the Dharma into non-spiritual domains such as human rights, global politics, animal rights, pacifism, diet etc. The idea is not only to limit one’s involvement with Buddhism to the practices mentioned in texts but also to apply those same principles to all different aspects of life as well as for the progressive improvement of society.

Please do notice that Engaged Buddhism is not a homogenous movement where those who are ‘engaged’ have to confirm to the ideals in all different domains covered by Engaged Buddhism. For example an Engaged Buddhist who is a pacifist may not have strong opinions on animal rights while another Engaged Buddhist may be active in expressing concern for the environment but may not hold strong political beliefs. Therefore engaged Buddhism should be seen as more of a fluid concept where individuals are engaged in various domains rather than a concrete definition where individuals have to meet all the expectations according to the ideals implied by the idea of Engaged Buddhism. Engaged Buddhists maybe found in any type of Buddhist school (Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana) as well as new Buddhist movements which are outside of lineages such as Secular Buddhism and Triratna.

As Buddhists it is true that we are encouraged to help each other according to the teachings. But the true purpose of most of the teachings in the Dhamma is to help sentient beings liberate themselves from Samsara. The Dharma is not about creating a better Samsara but to help sentient beings transcend that. By understanding the true purpose of Dharma we can confidently say that to be engaged as a Buddhist is something which is optional; it is not compulsory. It is also important that all Buddhists understand that being an Engaged Buddhist does not make one ‘more Buddhist’ compared to ‘Non-Engaged Buddhists’ and that Non-Engaged Buddhists are not ‘less Buddhist’ compared to Engaged Buddhists.
Whiles we can appreciate the optimistic, altruistic and compassionate intentions behind Engaged Buddhism, it is also vital to know the caveats within it.

One of the main concerns regarding Engaged Buddhism is that if it is not practiced with a good degree of mindfulness then it could lead to some types of sectarianism. For example a Buddhist who is an environmentalist may consider that if one is a Buddhist then it should be compulsory to be an environmentalist. Such a person may consider other Buddhists who do not show concern for the environment as those who are not following the Buddhist path. One may try to argue that being a non-environmentalist is an incorrect form of livelihood and there by ruling out all non-environmentalist Buddhists as those who don’t follow the teachings of the Buddha. Such an outcome can happen when people are mindlessly self-righteous especially when they have strong views about what they are engaged with (in this example it is environmentalism). This is why it is important to be mindful and understanding that the Buddhist community contains diversity. Such thoughts arise due to lack of loving-kindness towards other Buddhists who don’t share the same views as one when it comes to domains outside of spirituality.

To give another example on this to make myself clearer, a Buddhist who is a socialist may say “a Buddhist has no choice but to be a socialist”. From that statement he has excluded other Buddhists who have different political orientations simply because being a Buddhist socialist does not make one more Buddhist than a Buddhist who prefers to do business in a free market. If we are not careful with Engaged Buddhism then one of the consequences would be sectarianism based on preferences or orientations outside of the Dharma.

Another pitfall of Engaged Buddhism is that one may show more interest in the ‘engaged element’ even at the expense of their time for Dharma. This happens when one is not mindful enough where one gets distracted too far deep into the engaged element which is strong enough for one to neglect their awareness about the Dharma. For example a Buddhist who is into environmentalism may get too bogged down within environmentalism up to the extent that she would occupy most of her time being concerned about the environment while giving second priority to Buddhism or probably neglect it altogether. She may search online for petitions, she might march in the streets with fellow environmentalists in protest whiles having hardly any time for Dharma study or meditation. Her mind could even get so heated and fired up that there could be no space in her mind for peace, tranquillity or loving-kindness. This is one of the consequences when Engaged Buddhism is practiced mindlessly. Therefore it is important to maintain mindfulness whiles being engaged to know that the Buddhist practice takes priority over all other non-spiritual interests. The end result is that one reaches too far out into the world but spiritually collapses from within. What happens next is that without one’s awareness a person will be using Buddhism as a pedestal to place ideas of environmentalism (or any other type of engaged element) on top of to give it some form of sacredness. Now the interest is no longer Buddhism but instead the Buddhism is now used as a platform or a propaganda tool to justify an agenda. This is how deep it can go and I have observed this within some groups in Facebook as well as the real world.

If we are not mindful with a lack of loving-kindness then the practice of Engaged Buddhism could lead to defiling of the mind. People can get so angry and worked up about the political environment portrayed by the news and find reason to be active but by doing so they are also defiling their own minds.

These are some useful points about this post in summary -

1. The Buddha Dharma is more focused on the path to Enlightenment and gives less importance to make a better Samsara.

2. Engaged Buddhism is simply an option; it is not compulsory. Being an Engaged Buddhist doesn’t make one ‘more Buddhist’ than a ‘non-engaged Buddhist’.

3. The mindful way of practicing Engaged Buddhism is to appreciate the diversity among the Buddhist world to understand that not all Buddhists share the same view as one does outside of the spiritual domain.

4. The less mindful/judgmental way of practicing Engaged Buddhism is when one only considers those to be Buddhists based on their own view of Engaged Buddhism.

5. It is important to have a solid core of teachings and practice within oneself before reaching out to become 'engaged'. Otherwise your practice and principles could collapse from within.

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Re: A Critique of Engaged Buddhism

Post by DNS » Sun Nov 19, 2017 1:51 am

Good essay. Good points. :thumbsup:

Buddhism has a strong compassion component, but the primary purpose is that of attaining nibbana / nirvana. As you mention, I think one could still get involved in engaged things, as long as it is done without judgment and not at the expense of the goal.

Since Mahayana is considered the way of great compassion, we tend to find more engaged traditions there than in Theravada, although it does extend across all schools. However, I was at a Zen center in California once and the teacher spoke out pretty strongly against engaged Buddhism, in striking contrast to say something like the TNH temples and centers.

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Re: A Critique of Engaged Buddhism

Post by Nicholas » Sun Nov 19, 2017 6:45 pm

Yes a good post to which I generally agree. Point #5 is a major disaster for the Dhamma. Mahayana is my favored attitude and I see engaged types whose buddhadharma practice is their engaged work for humanity. Little or no traditional practices are cultivated. Not surprisingly their compassion or kindness, even equanimity toward all human beings is not there.

However I will quibble about point #1. Making a 'better samsara' is very central to Buddha's teachings, for lay folk in particular. Samsara is not just the dismal world out there we know thru our senses, but is also our monkey mind's dukkha nature. So any teaching or practice that reduces humanity's dukkha & its causes, makes the path to bodhi clearer and more likely to be trod in future rebirths.
Last edited by Nicholas on Tue Nov 21, 2017 6:22 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: A Critique of Engaged Buddhism

Post by Dharmasherab » Mon Nov 20, 2017 8:31 pm

Just to make myself clear as to where I stand I feel 'Engaged Buddhism' can be like a double-edged sword. Qualities of mindfulness, loving-kindness and being non-judgemental are important factors when practising engaged aspects related to Buddhist principles.

In this day and age where people's minds are highly influenced by political views (even sometimes the preference for political views has far more magnetic potential than dedication to the Dhamma in some individuals) we have to be careful not use our own position in the political spectrum do decide which political views are consistent with Buddhism or not because our preferences are usually backed up by our deluded views. There are exceptions to this where there are political ideologies which are obviously not in line with the way of Buddhism - ideologies such as fascism and related variants.

There is a book which I read called 'Wisdom in Exile: Buddhism and Modern Times' by Lama Jampa Thaye. Despite the author of the book is a Lama of Vajrayana the content in the book can be appreciated by any Buddhist from any tradition.

https://lamajampa.org/wisdom-in-exile/

The 4th chapter is on politics and explains the problems of trying to merge our political views with Buddhism. Its just that political problems that exist today will change and no longer become relevant in the future. If Buddhism gets merged into this then when those political problems become no longer relevant then people will also start to consider Buddhism like a fad and we should not underestimate the possibility of this happening.

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Re: A Critique of Engaged Buddhism

Post by Herb Caplan » Tue Mar 26, 2019 11:34 pm

Good post.

The point of Buddhism is to escape the world, not make it a """better place""".
If you meet the Buddha (blessed be the arahant) on the road, kill him.

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Re: A Critique of Engaged Buddhism

Post by tlxxxviii » Tue Apr 23, 2019 5:50 am

I was listening to a "dhamma talk" from Bikkhu Bodhi last night and he said something to the effect of "there is goodness built into the fabric of the universe." It struck me that something so bizarre could come out of him, and part of the reason I started learning Pali is because I really, really, really, really, at my core do not trust this guy or what he's putting into the text. Frankly, I am horrified by his ubiquity.

The idea that the universe is good, has goodness, or, perhaps more accurately, that the word could even make any sense in this way seems to me at once existentially absurd, practically absurd, and thoroughly unBuddhist. If one were to take lessons from samsaric reality and make a human ethos out of it, it would look exactly like National Socialism. Pass.

The by-product of a thoroughly implemented dhamma might be conventionally better human inter-relations, but I have yet to meet a "progressive" western Buddhist who wasn't primarily a political creature with a fanciful, primarily emotional, Buddhism borne in the hippy movement. Also pass.

[This is to say nothing of how grotesque the actual implementation of engaged citizenry often looks. My time in Americorps at the homeless shelter laid bare just how thoroughly rotten the theoretically-helpful are capable of being. Greed on Wall Street is one thing. Greed in a NGO is just revolting. But I was young and still capable of being surprised.]

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Re: A Critique of Engaged Buddhism

Post by tlxxxviii » Tue Apr 23, 2019 7:35 am

For example:

A Fresh Breeze in Washington
Bhikkhu Bodhi

The midterm elections last night brought a mixture of good news and bad news. The Republicans still won too many contests for comfort, but the Democrats did take the House, creating a roadblock against the Trump administration’s toxic policies. An unprecedented number of women were elected to Congress, among them Native Americans, Latinas, Muslims, and African Americans — a fresh breeze blowing through stagnant chambers.

The election underscored the widening gulf in this country between those who adhere to monolithic fantasies of an America whose essential identity is white, patriarchal, and Christian, and those committed to a pluralistic national identity — a colorful tapestry grounded in changing demographics. It pitted hate and bigotry against compassion and mutual respect, and the latter side is clearly ascending as a shared affirmation of our common humanity.

Nevertheless, it won’t suffice for the Democrats to complacently celebrate their moderate success at the polls. The days of congenial bipartisanship are over. In the months ahead, they have to be bold, they have to be fighters, and they have to let the younger, more progressive wing of the party set the agenda. Along with them we must valiantly pursue a vision of social and economic justice, fight against corporate dominance, and advocate for a foreign policy of peaceful global collaboration. With utmost haste we must cut carbon emissions and usher in a clean-energy economy. Resistance from the right will be strong, but we have the future on our side. With trust and determination, we can make the pivotal changes this country needs to realize its potential greatness.


I find this at once sophomoric and nauseating. Not because of the content, which is fundamentally irrelevant, but that anyone who has chosen to put on the robes (cosplay, in this case) would "[affirm] our common humanity" in terms other than that of Buddhism foundational principles is mind-boggling. I once asked an Orthodox Bishop his thoughts about the Orthodox view on social programs. "The dogma of the Church is our social program," was his reply. Good answer. One that the Jeffrey Block would do well to follow.

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Re: A Critique of Engaged Buddhism

Post by Nicholas » Tue Apr 23, 2019 1:22 pm

Yes, it is sickening that many Western monastics & lay folk are basically practicing social justice with a Buddhist veneer. This line of BB is the central attitude of many: "Resistance from the right will be strong, but we have the future on our side."

A purely political outlook - "our side" being the Left. Rather than accepting the existing Dorthy Day Catholic workers attitude or that of the good Jesuits' Liberation theology, they find the aura of a non-theistic Buddhist makes them appear more virtuous and hip.

Some sage pointed out that 'culture is upstream from politics', thus when Western culture began to be dominated by secular & anti-Xtian attitudes, it was a natural degeneration toward the political swamp of hostility & lack of equanimity & wisdom.
Wholesome virtuous behavior progressively leads to the foremost. -- Buddha

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Re: A Critique of Engaged Buddhism

Post by Iconodule » Tue Apr 23, 2019 2:37 pm

I have a lot of respect for Bhikkhu Bodhi. I don't think monks (or clergy) should be miring themselves in the stupidity of American politics but there is definitely no "cosplay" going on at his monastery. He is a real Buddhist monk and a fine scholar too.
The ladder that leads to the Kingdom is hidden within you, and is found in your soul. Dive into yourself, and in your soul you will discover the rungs by which you are to ascend. - St. Isaac of Syria

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Re: A Critique of Engaged Buddhism

Post by tlxxxviii » Tue Apr 23, 2019 3:37 pm

Iconodule wrote:
Tue Apr 23, 2019 2:37 pm
He is a real Buddhist monk and a fine scholar too.
Ye shall know them by their fruits.

I did spend the day piecing together scriptural evidence for why he's wrong. So maybe it's upaya. Clever monk!

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Re: A Critique of Engaged Buddhism

Post by Iconodule » Tue Apr 23, 2019 6:25 pm

To be clear, this political statement is stupid. But I've read enough of the man's other work- translations and essays- to know that he is not and that he is quite serious. There are of course Western self-described Buddhists who adopt Buddhist trappings as a cover for some atheistic, individualistic philosophy. Some of them get promoted as "Zen masters". BB does not endear himself to that crowd when he pens essays like this or this. The amount of work he has done to put classical Buddhist texts- not new agey glosses or glorified self-help books- in Anglophone readers' hands makes him a giant in my opinion.
The ladder that leads to the Kingdom is hidden within you, and is found in your soul. Dive into yourself, and in your soul you will discover the rungs by which you are to ascend. - St. Isaac of Syria

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Re: A Critique of Engaged Buddhism

Post by Nicholas » Tue Apr 23, 2019 7:21 pm

Iconodule wrote:
Tue Apr 23, 2019 6:25 pm
The amount of work he has done to put classical Buddhist texts- not new agey glosses or glorified self-help books- in Anglophone readers' hands makes him a giant in my opinion.
True, but that was then. Whether he compartmentalizes well, and always did, or if the psychic pressure of the social justice vibe got to him, I do not know.

When he founded a food march or some such marching organization a few years ago I wondered if the the Bhikkhu would fade into the background. That has happened.

After all, he has translated most of the major texts of Theravada, so perhaps he tired of scholarly work and wished to become more relevant to far more people than readers of his translations.
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Re: A Critique of Engaged Buddhism

Post by Iconodule » Tue Apr 23, 2019 7:57 pm

Look, you can criticize the direction he's taking, I get that. I usually cringe when monastics intervene in politics because 1. It's antithetical to the monastic calling and 2. The stuff they say, even if I agree with the basic sentiment, tends to be goofy, as one would expect of people who spent long periods in reclusion and then state opinions about public affairs. When Orthodox Christian monks speak about politics, half the time you get some crazy conspiracy theory; the other half you get some bland banality that anyone with mediocre insight could concoct. It's a bad business.

But suggesting that Bhikkhu Bodhi is a fake monk, fake Buddhist, etc. crosses the line in my opinion.
The ladder that leads to the Kingdom is hidden within you, and is found in your soul. Dive into yourself, and in your soul you will discover the rungs by which you are to ascend. - St. Isaac of Syria

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Re: A Critique of Engaged Buddhism

Post by Nicholas » Wed Apr 24, 2019 1:01 am

Iconodule wrote:
Tue Apr 23, 2019 7:57 pm

But suggesting that Bhikkhu Bodhi is a fake monk, fake Buddhist, etc. crosses the line in my opinion.
Not what I suggested; only that his Bhikkhu focus has become weak & fuzzy and samsara is too much with him. There are many Bhikkhus, especially Westerners who disrobe after 5 or 10 years. There are also many Bhikkhus who are such in name only; not saying BB is one.

I have most of his translations and admire them, it is just his recent social justice hobby that I abhor.
Wholesome virtuous behavior progressively leads to the foremost. -- Buddha

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Re: A Critique of Engaged Buddhism

Post by tlxxxviii » Wed Apr 24, 2019 1:42 am

Nicholas wrote:
Wed Apr 24, 2019 1:01 am
Iconodule wrote:
Tue Apr 23, 2019 7:57 pm

But suggesting that Bhikkhu Bodhi is a fake monk, fake Buddhist, etc. crosses the line in my opinion.
Not what I suggested; only that his Bhikkhu focus has become weak & fuzzy and samsara is too much with him. There are many Bhikkhus, especially Westerners who disrobe after 5 or 10 years. There are also many Bhikkhus who are such in name only; not saying BB is one.

I have most of his translations and admire them, it is just his recent social justice hobby that I abhor.
I'll say it, then. But Bodhi is far worse than just a cosplaying academic hippy.

AN 5.129 "There are these five inhabitants of the states of deprivation, inhabitants of hell, who are in agony & incurable. Which five? One who has killed his/her mother, one who has killed his/her father, one who has killed an arahant, one who — with a corrupted mind — has caused the blood of a Tathagata to flow, and one who has caused a split in the Sangha. These are the five inhabitants of the states of deprivation, inhabitants of hell, who are in agony & incurable."

If "It pitted hate and bigotry against compassion and mutual respect, and the latter side is clearly ascending as a shared affirmation of our common humanity," isn't fundamentally schismatic...

The Orthodox position has some provision for reality as redeemable, and maybe that justifies why an Orthodox monk might wade into politics. To cultivate On Earth as it is in Heaven-ness, perhaps. Find me one thing in the baskets, one, just one, anywhere, that gives a monk license to either cultivate political attachments or, and this would be a triumph, gives the monk license to SPREAD THEM UNDER THE GUISE OF THE DHAMMA.

You won't because you can't and your argument is pure emotionalism in the same way Jeffrey Block's is.

If you want to follow a suffering Christ into blissful paradise, that is quite up to you, of course. Block should know better. That he could spend his life studying the suttas and still give a single care about mid-term elections is all the fruit I need to know that he is a conman.

EDIT: And his translations are $200 for the set. Could he have demanded a Creative Commons Copyright for his translations? Yup. Did he? Nope. Hmmmmm.

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Re: A Critique of Engaged Buddhism

Post by Iconodule » Wed Apr 24, 2019 2:11 am

That’s quite a rude and uncalled-for response.
The ladder that leads to the Kingdom is hidden within you, and is found in your soul. Dive into yourself, and in your soul you will discover the rungs by which you are to ascend. - St. Isaac of Syria

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Re: A Critique of Engaged Buddhism

Post by tlxxxviii » Wed Apr 24, 2019 2:29 am

Iconodule wrote:
Wed Apr 24, 2019 2:11 am
That’s quite a rude and uncalled-for response.
Emotion over substance, yes. The way of the internet.

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Re: A Critique of Engaged Buddhism

Post by Iconodule » Wed Apr 24, 2019 1:46 pm

This is a tiny and near-moribund forum. I think a measure of respect and equanimity, above the typical internetz shenanigans, might help to retain people and attract new ones. There are many other, more lively places where we can indulge in bitterness.
The ladder that leads to the Kingdom is hidden within you, and is found in your soul. Dive into yourself, and in your soul you will discover the rungs by which you are to ascend. - St. Isaac of Syria

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Re: A Critique of Engaged Buddhism

Post by Nicholas » Wed Apr 24, 2019 2:53 pm

Iconodule wrote:
Wed Apr 24, 2019 2:11 am
That’s quite a rude and uncalled-for response.
I agree.

Our new desert residing chap should vent his spleen at the Bhikkhu himself. Tell that 'conman' off and save him from all the negative kamma he is piling up. Only you can save him. :guns:

However, do it soon, he may die while giving this Theravada seminar at the BAUS monastery:

https://www.baus.org/en/activities/bhik ... khu-bodhi/
Wholesome virtuous behavior progressively leads to the foremost. -- Buddha

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Re: A Critique of Engaged Buddhism

Post by tlxxxviii » Wed Apr 24, 2019 3:36 pm

Iconodule wrote:
Wed Apr 24, 2019 1:46 pm
This is a tiny and near-moribund forum. I think a measure of respect and equanimity, above the typical internetz shenanigans, might help to retain people and attract new ones. There are many other, more lively places where we can indulge in bitterness.
Christ died on a cross, and you're bent because I... said... ?

Reddit has done you a great disservice.

Enjoy your feels-forum, lads.

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