Justify Your Love: Finding Authority for Socially Engaged
of Relating Buddhist Tradition and Practice with Social Theory
As the field of socially
engaged Buddhism (SEB) has developed, there has never been a
coherent or systematic attempt to create an authoritative basis
for the work of SEB. Many of our elders, including Joanna Macy,
Thich Nhat Hanh, Robert Aitken Roshi and others have all written
movingly on the socially engaged imperative. Yet most have operated
in isolation. This paper is meant to address the lack of coherency
and to put the approaches into a systematic whole. The hope
is this background work will help others to move forward in
the field of SEB. It may provide impetus for generation of new
theoretical and practical work, and an exploration of existing
SEB responses - all in service of the emerging SEB movement.
Keep in mind that although the models are presented linearly,
they are actually complimentary and are in no particular order.
They may build upon each other and function somewhat like a
mandala - part of a larger non-linear whole.
The concerns of this
paper arise when we have been asked, how does one know SEB is
a valid form of Buddhism? What texts do we trace it back to?
Or, is there another way of finding (textual or other) authority
for SEB? This paper may provide the initial steps for a response.
1. Finding Buddhist
The first and perhaps
most obvious response would be to examine Buddhist texts for
clues as to what the Buddha and other great Buddhist teachers
recommended about society and politics.
We can search within
the Buddhist texts and finding canonical references to social
action such as where suttas or sutras make recommendations for
social welfare or provisions for the poor, and so forth. Where
does the Buddha (or others great Buddhists) discourse on suffering
inherent in social systems? What antidotes or recommendations
have been made?
For example, in the
Sutta Nipata I, 6, it is stated: "To have much wealth and
ample gold and food, but to enjoy one's luxuries alone - this
is a cause of one's downfall." This teaching can be seen
as a Buddhist dictate towards charity and to not accumulating
wealth. This may be viewed as a critique of avarice, and we
can apply this to our lives or to the systems and institutions
under which we live. We can confidently say that the Buddha
discouraged large accumulation of wealth, simply, this is one
of the Buddhas social teaching .
One significant question
may be, which texts? Who is the authority here? The Buddha?
The Pali Canon? The commentaries? The Mahayana sutras? What
about subsequent teachers (historical and contemporary) who
were reputed to have enlightened minds? What about Dogen Zenji
or Je Tsongkapa? His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Shunryu Suzuki
or Ajahn Buddhadasa or other contemporary teachers for that
matter? Which texts and traditions have the so-called final
word? What if they conflict (such as gradual vs. sudden paths)?
Further, when does the role of personal experience come into
As this approach
is the obvious one, it is important to keep in mind a few caveats.
First, the Buddhist tradition is not originally a textual tradition
(although one could argue that the writtren Buddhist tradition
is as strong as the oral one) , but an oral one. What happens
when we begin to locate authority in the texts of a non-textual
tradition? Further, there are many current debates, particularly
in schools of postmodernism, over who controls the text. In
this case a relevant question is also who translated the texts.
A final note is that
there are not so many examples, particularly in the Pali, of
social teachings. It appears that the Buddha himself was much
more focused on personal liberation rather than ending political
or social suffering, although this may be a dualistic interpretation.
However, there are some contemporary SEB theorists who believes
there are much more of these social teachings in the Pali Canon
than we think. Joanna Macy says that the nineteenth century
translators were reacting against the cultural emphasis on social
theory by turning to a personally liberatory Buddhism. Translators
edited out the social passages, which is why the text mostly
have a soteriological bent. This point is debatable and is not
unique to SEB, but is a problem with all Buddhist translation.
Since the amount
of Buddhist teachings with social and political relevance is
minimal, this should not be seen as a cause for discouragement
nor should it be "proof" that SEB is a radical western
innovation with no grounding in the texts. When one considers
the trajectory of Buddhism as it traveled to various countries
and merged with local customs and traditions, it is inevitable
that it will merge with progressive social change teachings
as it develops in the west. Further, and most importantly, the
current socio-political conditions on the planet are far different
than at the time of the Buddha and demand that we address them.
From this perspective it is important to find other approaches
than merely finding authority in texts.
or Application of Buddhist Principles and Themes
Unlike Method (1),
we are not asking "What did the Buddha say?" but instead
questioning, "What would the Buddha have said?"
Within this area,
there are several approaches we may take:
A. We can root
out thematically relevant Buddhist themes, texts, and archetypes
and clarify them as core teachings for Buddhist based social
We can take the classic
dharma teachings found in the mainline schools of Buddhism,
not previously and explicitly treated as social, and consider
them as basic principles underlying socially engaged Buddhism.
What core teachings are relevant to liberating one from "social
Some of the relevant
principles include: mutual causality (idapaccayata),
dependent origination (paticca samuppada), interdependence,
no separation of theory and experience (vijjacatana sampanno),
mindfulness, not knowing, nonduality, indivisibility of wisdom
and compassion, the root poisons of greed hatred and delusion,
and so on.
Ultimately we can
create a body of principles underlying Buddhist social engagement
such as "Tenets of Buddhist Activism", "Buddhist
principles for addressing structural violence", among others.
B. We can then
apply these principles and teachings to respond to and
critique contemporary problems, institutions, and social
In this case we would
take these principles and deliberately "socialize"
them (abstract them out to social and political situations)
within particular contemporary contexts. For example, what would
be a "social reading" of the first precept of non-harming
and how could it be used to critique militarization and nuclear
weapons? ". In David Loy's recent article on "Greed
and Globalization," he takes the Lion's Roar Sutra (MN)
and applies it to the larger issues of economics.
This is an excellent
practical starting point for taking stands or positions on current
issues position paper much in the way FOR or AFSC writes position
papers on current events. If we can locate our objections within
Buddhist principles (if not the orthodox reading of the texts),
we can create a rooted substantiated Buddhist response to social
issues. What would be a Buddhist position on nuclear war? Consumer
capitalism? Television? Environmental destruction? Palestine/Israel
conflict. WTO? Ultimately, we can then use these critiques to
promote our ideas about paths of social transformation
C. We can systematize
this research and scholarship to create a body of dharma-based
social teachings that help us better understand and critique
structures of injustice.
Dr. A. T. Ariyaratne
began this work years ago with his social paramis and
extensive reinterpretation within a social context of basic
teachings. Thich Nhat Hanh and Sulak Sivaraksa did this when
they first began looking at precepts or sila (for example)
from a social lens. Many of us have followed these footsteps...
Jon Watt's social kandhas, an anti-consumerism political
paticca samupada, Santikaro Bhikkhu's "Four
Noble Truths of Dhammic Socialism," etc.
D. One slightly
different approach that keeps in the spirit of socializing the
teachings would be to use Buddhist tools of analysis
of personal suffering and apply them in a social and political
context. We can analyze how existing social mechanisms,
institutions, and structures came about and sustain themselves
using the four noble truths, paticca samupada, and the
various causal factors - the defilements, poisons, and fetters
described in the teachings. The Buddha was a doctor who diagnosed
his patients and found how to lead them out of suffering. We
can do the same with social conditions and institutions - not
socializing the teachings, per se, but applying them to a different
context - the social and political arena. Further, we can explore
the conditions necessary to generate socially transformational
behaviors, paths and movements - both personal and political.
Drawing on the Kalama
Sutta and the Buddha's injunction, ehipasiko, to come
and see for one's self, a SEB methodology would not be complete
without bringing in one's inner life.
In this method, we
can bring the personal experience and insight of the meditative,
inner practice of contemplation and other Buddhist practices
(dana, sila, merit-making, prayer, ritual) into the social
dimension in order to mutually illuminate both areas. This technique
could help to dissolve barriers between self and other, us and
them, and personal and political; we can explore the mutual
causality and interdependence of these pairs. This modality
is also a radical approach to social theory in that it insists
that the personal is as important as the structural, political
Put simply, what
goes on in one mind is mirrored in the world; looking inward
is a hallmark of a socially engaged Buddhist critique. We can
discover "where am I implicated?" For example, where
are the very same structures of greed, hatred, and delusion
present in my own mind? How do my inner kilesas create
or mirror external reality/institutions? This "turning
inward" invokes compassion for others who perpetuate structures
of violence as well as can provide insight into understanding
both how and why these structures work, and what could be done
Second, this gives
us a starting point for critique because by referencing personal
experience we can break the seemingly enormous social problems
into more easily understandable, personal, bite-sized explanations
of how structural violence works. More significantly, when we
look at our Buddhist practice and see personal responses to
suffering and how we antidote or work with kilesa on
a personal level, we might be able to abstract these same "personal
antidotes" or practices out to the social level. Further,
this approach illustrates how the authority of an oppressive
structure rests not on something objective, but on the collective
and often unconscious agreement of individuals. This agreement
can be made conscious and people can choose to act differently.
As a brief example,
we can look at the issue of speediness in American culture with
its ever forward moving pace of technological innovations, information,
job turnover, consumer goods, changing relationships, etc. One
can easily say this is a problem, as various social scientists
have commented. However, what would be a uniquely Buddhist response
to this speed, drawing from the "inner/outer" paradigm?
First one would look to see where the same structures exist
in one's own mind. In meditation practice I have observed a
continual forward motion of my mind, propelled by desire and
fear of boredom. I want novelty and change, they keep my mind
apparently happy and engaged, although they often send me into
distractions and much restlessness at the expense of my presence
in the moment. I recognize the external structures inside me.
I can then have compassion for their multiple and nefarious
outward expressions. It is not just "them" but also
me. Second, I can think about the ways in which I work with
restlessness in my meditation practice (applying more concentration,
learning to sit with the unpleasantness of the underlying wanting)
and reflect whether this can be applied as an antidote on the
social level. Could people be taught to sit with discomfort?
How could advertising play a role? And so on.
It is very important
here that although we are enjoined to follow our direct experience,
that we also utilize the third treasure of the sangha.
It is easy to get deluded and we must check our personal responses
and "intuitions" with a socially engaged sangha and
teachers whom we respect. This may be difficult when there are
few teachers who are trained in SEB, but this will change over
4. Radical Creativity
- Moving Beyond Concepts
From this perspective,
we must be open to a variety of responses towards social change
that come from no particular "authority" but are grounded
in the radical creativity that comes when all concepts fall
away. Can there be a theory based in "no theory"?
Who is it that is theorizing, anyway? This is the challenge,
and perhaps the edge of SEB.
However, it is important
when moving too far into non-dual theorizing (if such a thing
exists) to return at some point to the practical - how do our
actions relate to the ending of greed hatred and delusion?
I am referring to socially engaged Buddhists who act and manifest
the spirit of SEB without a need for authority of their work.
People who sit in vigil on death row, who start hospices or
who work ceaselessly for the end of suffering in whatever form.
Somehow they seem beyond the need to authorize their work, yet
they too fit into the system of approaches to SEB.
Clearly the work
of understanding the textual and other roots of SEB is at its
beginning stages and will be open to ongoing discussion and
dialogue. In addition, one of the tenets of SEB is that it is
not only a theory but completely dependent upon action and practical
lived experience. All of this theory must be rooted in the work
that we do to address suffering, and it is this cycle of action
and contemplation that develops the theory further. This paper
is meant as a starting point and an invitation for further inquiry
in the service of the liberation of all beings.
Program Director - Buddhist Peace Fellowship