Asian Social Engagement and the Future of Buddhism
A feature review by Donald W. Mitchell
Christopher S. Queen and Sallie B. King, eds., Engaged Buddhism: Buddhist Liberation Movements in Asia. Albany: SUNY Press, 1996. 446pp. $24.95 (paper).
The Nobel Peace Prize has recently been awarded to two Asian Buddhist leaders, the Dalai Lama of Tibet and Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar (Burma). Slowly, people in the West are realizing that modern Buddhism in Asia is not just a meditative vehicle for spiritual liberation, but is now also a vehicle that includes liberation movements for social and political change. What has come to be known as "socially engaged Buddhism," or simply "engaged Buddhism," is a vast array of Asian movements with millions of adherents dedicated to addressing the economic, social, political, and environmental as well as the spiritual needs of modern humankind.

For example, in Southeast Asia, thousands of Buddhist monks work with hundreds of thousands of lay volunteers to rejuvenate village life. In South Asia, millions of Indian Untouchables have converted to form a Buddhist movement for social change and an end to the misery of the caste system. In East Asia, Buddhist lay movements have drawn millions of members by caring for their daily needs. And throughout Asia, Buddhist nuns are founding orders that work for institutional changes in the Buddhist monastic communities and organize social, educational, and health services for the poor.

Western awareness of this historic reformation and reorientation of modern Asian Buddhism has been facilitated by two recent events. First was an international conference on "Socially Engaged Buddhism and Christianity" hosted by DePaul University in Chicago from July 27 to August 3, 1996. This fifth international conference of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies included such noted Asian Buddhist leaders as the Dalai Lama, the Ven. Maha Ghosananda from Cambodia, Sulak Sivaraksa from Thailand, and A. T. Ariyaratne from Sri Lanka, as well as leaders from the Japanese Rissho Kosei-kai and Soka Gakkai movements, and the Korean Chogye Buddhist Order.

The second recent event that has helped introduce the West to the new world of socially engaged Buddhism is the publication of Engaged Buddhism: Buddhist Liberation Movements in Asia. The editors of this important volume, Christopher S. Queen and Sallie B. King, have collected an informative set of interpretive essays in what is the first comprehensive study of socially engaged Buddhism in the lands of its origin. The movements they describe in this book are not just developing new forms of Buddhist social engagement, but are doing something much more historically significant: redefining the nature and role of Buddhism in our modern pluralistic world, and thereby the very future of Buddhism. I will try to show how this is true by reflecting on the (1) origin, (2) nature, and (3) scope of socially engaged Buddhism as presented in Engaged Buddhism.

In their introduction and conclusion the editors speculate about the theoretical origins of modern socially engaged Buddhism. Based on my own conversations with people like Sulak Sivaraksa and A. T. Ariyaratne over the past twelve years, I think that Queen correctly perceives the essential change in Buddhist social awareness that has been formative to engaged Buddhism. In traditional Buddhism, the origins of suffering and evil are sought in the mind and heart of the individual person. Social structures have always been seen as reinforcing human bondage to such causes of suffering as hate, greed and delusion. But the traditional responses to this situation have most often emphasized the monastic life where adequate spiritual practice could be provided for personal liberation from these negative and unwholesome factors of human social existence.

In contrast, engaged Buddhism sets its analytical focus on the institutional origins of evil and suffering. Then it shifts its practical focus to addressing directly those aspects of these political, economic, and social institutions that are what Queen calls "manifestations of greed, hatred and delusion." For example, engaged Buddhism recognizes that the root evil of greed in the hearts of the rich and powerful in a particular society is given institutional form in a certain economic system that contributes to the marginalization and oppression of the weaker members of that society. Their response to this situation is not only to help people practice spirituality for the sake of personal liberation, but also to change the economic system for the sake of social liberation.

Is this something new in Buddhism? Both Sallie King and Christopher Queen examine various answers - pro and con - to this question. My own answer is that it is not something new. The Buddha taught, for example, that a king has to eradicate evil not by punishment, but by rooting out the cause of evil through providing such things as facilities to farmers, capital to traders, proper wages to workers, and tax-exemptions to the poor (Kutanada Suttana). The great King Asoka, who ruled much of India from 268--233 B.C.E., represents a model Buddhist ruler who always had his subjects' economic and social well-being as his main concerns. Later in Theravada countries, village elders consulted with local monastics; Buddhist patriarchs had substantial court influence; and monks, when upset about public issues, would turn over their begging bowls thus cutting the flow of merit to the laity. At the beginning of Mahayana Buddhism, the saintly Vimalakirti was presented as a layperson with substantial social engagement. The great Indian philosopher Nagarjuna advised a king to govern with a compassionate socialism that included education for the people, fixed charges for doctors, socially supported health care, and low-taxes.

How did Buddhism become disengaged? Christopher Queen gives some reasons from the Southeast-Asian experience. For example, until the nineteenth century Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka held influential advisory and bureaucratic roles in the government as well as high positions in education and the court system. These roles were curtailed by the European colonialists under whom the governmental, legal, and educational systems were changed, and any social and welfare roles were given to the Christian missionaries. East Asian scholars have also shown how a budding Buddhist social service in China was destroyed during the imperial persecution of Buddhism beginning in 845 C.E. Other scholars have described how Buddhism lost its political influence because of the removal of Buddhist monasteries from population centers in Korea, and the depoliticalization of Buddhism in Tokugawa, Japan. My own conclusion is that given more recent political changes in the Asian world, what we are seeing today is the development of socially re-engaged Buddhism.

If this is the case, what is new about these re-engaged Buddhist movements? Sallie King discusses the new influence of social and political theory from the West and from Mahatma Gandhi in the East. She also mentions the fact that these movements have been greatly affected in their outlook by the many human crises in Asia during this century. Seeing these crises as linked to certain economic, political, and social forces that interconnect on a global scale, engaged Buddhists realize that the fate of Asia depends on the fate of the entire world. We are all part of an interconnected web of transnational economic and political relationships. This realization has led engaged Buddhism to what Christopher Queen calls "their vision of a new world."

Given this vision, many engaged Buddhists see themselves as contributing not only to the transformation of the lives of individual Buddhists in Asia, but to the renewal of humankind as a whole. Traditional Buddhism emphasized its insight into the nature of the human person - either in its analysis of our human condition, or of our awakened nature, our Buddha-nature. In the renewal movements, there is a new emphasis on the insight that all humankind makes up one interrelated whole. Socially engaged Buddhists have come to realize the importance of Buddhist ecumenism and interfaith collaboration in working for this ideal of a more united and peaceful world community. It is, I believe, in the ecumenical and interfaith quest for this ideal that engaged Buddhists are redefining the future of Buddhism.

This global vision of a peaceful, united, and pluralistic world not only distinguishes engaged Buddhism from the past, it also distinguishes it from new forms of Buddhist nationalism, sectarianism, conservatism, and fundamentalism that are now present in some parts of the Buddhist world. King and Queen are careful to distinguish socially engaged Buddhist groups from the new fundamentalist Buddhist movements. I applaud their effort. In 1987, two months after I was with Michael Rodrigo in California, he was shot by Buddhist fundamentalists while he was saying Mass in Sri Lanka. Early the next year I was with A.T. Ariyaratne for a week. He helped me understand how those Buddhists who murdered Rodrigo did so thinking that they were protecting their people from non-Buddhist encroachment. While Ariyaratne and other engaged Buddhists are concerned about the erosion of the social values and cohesion of their people, they reject any ideology that leads to such violent action.

For example, Ariyaratne told me that for his village reform movement, there are certain basic human values that take priority over sectarian ideological values. Although he is a Buddhist, when he goes into a village to promote his renewal program, he proposes a moral and social program based on values and ideals that are also shared by the Christian, Hindu, and Muslim members of the village. Here we see the value of interfaith collaboration for unity that celebrates diversity clearly lived out in nonviolent Buddhist social engagement guided by the vision of a more united and peaceful world community.

What are the particular characteristics of engaged Buddhism that enable it to pursue its goals of social change, moral reform, and contributing to a "new world?" Reflecting on the essays in Engaged Buddhism as well as Christopher Queen's and Sallie King's phenomenological description of these movements, I would emphasize three points: the first supports the goal of social change; the second moral reform; and the third global transformation.

First, the leaders of these movements have been personally affected by the great human tragedies of the twentieth century in Asia. This has fostered in them a deep sensitivity to the suffering condition of their peoples and a deeper sense of its social causes. This social awareness has led them in turn to reread their scriptures and to discover therein a concept of liberation that includes this-worldly freedom from social, economic, political, sexual, racial, and environmental oppression. As with Christian liberation theology, their social critique and practical forms of social engagement are guided by new readings of scripture.

Second, these new practices of engaged Buddhism are not monastic-centered, as in the past, but are adapted for the laity. Engaged Buddhist movements are presenting their members with nonmonastic models for moral living - morality that is not pursued in monastic withdrawal, but in the daily life of the factory, office, school room, or home. Hence, there is a new emphasis in Theravada Buddhism on the relational virtues of compassion, loving kindness, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. And in Mahayana Buddhism, the bodhisattva moral ideal of altruistic care for others has been given new social and political expressions suited for the laity.

Third, given this relational and lay emphasis, the practice of engaged Buddhism often takes place in a broad community context. Since the focus of praxis shifts from the monastery to the modern pluralistic world of the laity, new forms of lay Buddhist communal life are evolving that involve positive relationships with members of other religious communities. This has led engaged Buddhists to seek ways of developing Buddhist ecumenism and interfaith collaboration that contribute to the constitution of a new family of humankind. This work is inspired by the engaged Buddhists' global vision of what the Dalai Lama calls "the realization of the oneness of all humankind."

Given this third goal of engaged Buddhism, the spiritual unity of humankind, let us look at the scope of Buddhist ecumenical and interfaith work for this ideal in Asia today. Here I must offer a modest critique of Engaged Buddhism. It seems to me that King and Queen present South and Southeast Asian forms of engaged Buddhism as paradigmatic of the whole movement. The essays in their book cover this geographical area well, including discussions of B. R. Ambedkar's Buddhist movement among the Untouchables in India, A. T. Ariyaratne's village reform program in Sri Lanka, Buddhadasa's reform philosophy and Sulak Sivaraksa's renewal activities in Thailand, the Tibetan movement in India, and Thich Nhat Hanh's activist form of Vietnamese Zen. However, there is only one essay on East Asia - on the Soka Gakkai and its impressive social and political activities in Japan.

If a more complete picture of engaged Buddhism had been painted by including other material on East Asia, an interesting comparison could have been made between the more grassroots Buddhist liberation movements in South and Southeast Asia and the more internationally engaged Buddhist reform movements in East Asia. In that comparison, the ecumenical and interfaith dimensions of engaged Buddhism working for a united and peaceful world could have been more clearly seen. Since I believe that it will be precisely these dimensions that will define Buddhism in the future, let me mention four examples of East-Asian engaged Buddhist movements that have developed these dimensions in their global work for world peace.

The Fo Kuang Shan Buddhist Order in Taiwan is a thriving East-Asian example of such a movement. While they are committed to reforming the nun's order and to social action in Taiwan, they are also stimulating world-wide Buddhist ecumenism - often hosting meetings for Buddhist leaders from around the world. They are also active in global interfaith activities. At their Los Angeles temple in 1988, they hosted the International Theological Encounter Group founded by Masao Abe and John B. Cobb, Jr. At their Taiwan Center in 1995, they were the host to the first Vatican sponsored international theological dialogue with world Buddhism.

The Won Buddhist movement in Korea rejects shamanistic practice and religious exclusivism in favor of compassionate moral practice in daily life and engagement in activities of interreligious cooperation contributing to a more united humankind based on shared human values. Like other forms of engaged Buddhism, it seeks to help create a world of happiness rather than to escape to a transcendent Nirvana. To aid in this project, Won Buddhists have established centers around the world and have been active in such organizations as the World Conference on Religion and Peace (WCRP).

The Japanese Rissho Kosei-kai movement was organized by Nikkyo Niwano, winner of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. Devoted to lay Buddhist practice in Japan, it is also concerned with working for world peace. Members have founded the Niwano Peace Prize at the United Nations, and Niwano himself played a key role in creating the most effective interfaith organization today, the WCRP. His movement is involved in many forms of interfaith social engagement, such as working together with Christian relief organizations in East Africa.

Another example from Japan is the F.A.S. Society, founded by Shin'ichi Hisamatsu, who seems to embody the Dalai Lama's ideal of all religions fostering "the genuine realization of the oneness of humankind." In his F.A.S. acronym, "F" stands for "Formless Self," as the Ground of all existence; "A" for the breadth of "all humankind" in that Ground; and "S" for creating history "superhistorically," that is, history realizing in social form the original oneness of all humankind based on the Formless Self. This oneness overcomes the modern evils of social injustice, religious sectarianism, racism, sexism, etc. While the F.A.S. Society practices Zen meditation, it welcomes persons of other Buddhist sects and other religions. The Society has been mainly active in Japan, but in 1995 it established a branch in Europe, partly as a way to contribute to the reconciliation of Western and Eastern Europe.

With these additions to the picture of engaged Buddhism, we can see even more clearly how this phenomenon represents an important turning point in the history of Buddhism. To repeat, socially engaged Buddhism is not only about local social engagement - it represents something even more historically significant. This development in world Buddhism indicates a major shift in Buddhist self-definition that, on the one hand, recognizes the challenges of the modern world, and, on the other, grasps the promise of ecumenical and interreligious cooperation in addressing these challenges on a worldwide scale. This attempt to define Buddhism's new role in a global context of ecumenical and interfaith cooperation challenges other religions to redefine their roles as fellow co-participants in the shared task of humankind's realization of a more united, just, and peaceful pluralistic world community in the future.
Copyright of Cross Currents is the property of Association for Religion & Intellectual Life and its content may not be copied without the copyright holder's express written permission except for the print or download capabilities of the retrieval software used for access. This content is intended solely for the use of the individual user. Source: Cross Currents, Winter 1996-97, Vol. 46 Issue 4.