A Critique of Engaged Buddhism

Discuss the application of the Dharma to situations of social, political, environmental and economic suffering and injustice.
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Dharmasherab
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A Critique of Engaged Buddhism

Post by Dharmasherab » Tue Nov 21, 2017 12:17 am

Before I begin let me be 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.

DGA
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Re: A Critique of Engaged Buddhism

Post by DGA » Tue Nov 21, 2017 2:47 am

"Engaged Buddhism" appears to be a strawman in this post. With whom do you disagree, specifically? On what grounds ?

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Vasana
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Re: A Critique of Engaged Buddhism

Post by Vasana » Tue Nov 21, 2017 7:51 am

Dharmasherab wrote:
Tue Nov 21, 2017 12:17 am

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.
1. Sometimes making a better samsara or improving the world enhances the conditions for beings to meet, study and practice the dharma. Some people are not born with all of the factors of a 'precious human rebirth' but may encounter those conditions later in life as their social, economic, political, Enviromental and biological conditions improve. Removing obstacles to the transmission and receptivity of the Dharma is in it's self an activity or extension the Dharma, Sangha, Buddha.

2. I've never seen anyone say it's compulsory or makes you 'more Buddhist'...

3. This gos without saying.

4. It sounds like you have had personal experience with some less than mindful engaged Buddhists and are now generalizing an entire yet impossible to pin down demographic.

5. I agree, but for many, the engaged aspect of the paramitas can in it's self be, enhance and assist the core elements of study and practice.
"The changing cycle of joy and sorrow, like the changing seasons –
As a time of suffering will surely come around to me,
May I truly practice the sublime teachings."
- Dudjom Rinpoche

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Dharmasherab
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Re: A Critique of Engaged Buddhism

Post by Dharmasherab » Tue Nov 21, 2017 11:42 am

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.

Simon E.
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Re: A Critique of Engaged Buddhism

Post by Simon E. » Tue Nov 21, 2017 2:07 pm

Doing good for the planet and sentient beings in a mindful and balanced way can aid our practice of Dharma.
If this replaces our desire to leave the cycle of birth and death how ever it becomes a problem.
In the end, the most compassionate thing we can do for others is become enlightened and encourage them to follow suit.... whatever their material situation.
"Any major dude with half a heart
Will surely tell you my friend,
Any minor world that breaks apart
Can fall together again.
Any major dude will tell you."

Steely Dan.

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