American Folk Buddhism (15)

Last Quarter Moon, Uposatha, July 11, 2012            Series Index

Social Engagement in American Folk Buddhism.

In response to the American invasion of Afghanistan the Austin, Texas, chapter of the Buddhist Peace fellowship planned a walking meditation for peace. There was a massive anti-war rally already scheduled at a park in Austin, so we intentionally scheduled our walking meditation to take place about one and a half hours later. One of the other BPFers and I also made arrangements to get on the speaker list at the anti-war rally. The people at the anti-war rally heard the usual line up of angry speakers, who also led in chanting:

What Do We Want?”

“No War! “

When Do We Want It?”

“Now!”

When it was our turn, Pamela read a statement that Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh had just made about the war the day before, then I announced our walking meditation for later that afternoon and invited people to participate.

The procedure for our event was simple: Participants walked mindfully from the Capitol steps southward, about four abreast, past Texas State troopers and wandering tourists, the latter often startled to see these odd silent people looming from behind over their shoulders, slowly reached the South gate of the Capitol grounds on 11th Street, then formed a big J as the vanguard began to turn around, which then became a big U, then a big backward J as the leaders slowly and mindfully arrived back to the South steps, altogether taking about 40 minutes.

We were astonished what a great mass of people showed up for this event; I had no idea who most of them were, not recognizing many from Austin’s Buddhist circles. After a few congratulatory words and after we started to break up I talked to a number of unfamiliar faces to discover Quakers, Unitarians, Catholics, presumably Secular Humanists, and many people who with no previous knowledge of the event had been passing by and thought it looked like a cool idea. Local TV news showed up as well. We would be pleased that evening that the local TV would run a long, very respectful piece on our walking meditation. The huge anti-war rally on the other hand would get only a brief disapproving mention.

After the walking meditation an angelic young woman walked up to me and said, “I was at the anti-war rally. Could you Buddhists please come to more demonstrations like that? You are so peaceful. Everyone else is so angry I don’t really like to go to these rallies, but feel I have to.”

Alongside gender equality, it is often said that social engagement is a peculiar hallmark of Western Buddhism. Nonetheless Engaged Buddhism as it has come to be called has its own peculiarities within the realm of Western social engagement. It is “so peaceful,” and it puts an inordinate emphasis emphasis on “Bearing Witness,” being present with problematic social problems rather than agitation. But as with gender equality American Folk Buddhism does tend to think of social engagement as a Western innovation that contrasts with the inwardly directed and passive track record of Asian Buddhism, which is much more interested in transcending the everyday world than fixing it.

As with other features of American Folk Buddhism I would like to explore what the influences on social engagement are and how it stacks up against Essential Buddhism, whether it is friendly toward or inimical to Essential Buddhism no matter what its origin.

Origins of Engaged Buddhism. Ashin Nyanissara, a young forest monk who became very ill and sought treatment at a hospital where he recovered. The hospital was run by Catholic missionaries in now independent Burma and as he had lay in bed he began to consider, “Why is it that in a land of devout Buddhists, people who learn kindness and compassion from infancy, there are no Buddhist hospitals.” He resolved at that point to devote his life as a monk to good works. Over the next decades he would found many hospitals, organize a project to bring clean running water into the Sagaing Hills in Central Burma allowing it to thrive, begin a massive relief project in the Delta Region hit by deadly Cyclone Nargis and promote advanced monastic education. (He also became my preceptor when I ordained in Central Burma.)

Engaged Buddhism is actually not uniquely Western, at least no longer, but its Asian proponents often acknowledge their indebtedness to the example of Christian missionaries in Asia. Among these is Thich Nhat Hanh, who coined the term Engaged Buddhism, during the days of his early social work in Vietnam. In the Twentieth Century in fact many Buddhists and Buddhist organizations became active in everything from charitable work to political engagement throughout Asia in ways that had long been familiar to Christians in the West. Examples of other extremely prominent engaged Buddhists in Asia are the Dalai Lama of Tibet/India, A.T. Ariyaratne of Sri Lanka, Sulak Sivaraksa of Thailand, Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma, Ven. Ghosananda of Cambodia, Ven. Cheng Yen of Taiwan and Daisaku Ikeda of Japan.

In the Christian West itself there is a natural assumption that religious organizations of all stripes will take on the work of social engagement in manifest forms from charity to political activism, alongside pastoral care of the congregation. It was natural that social engagement would become a part of the popular understanding of Buddhism in the West even if Buddhism did not come with good Asian exemplars.

Interestingly, however, by the time Buddhism was establishing itself in Western America, Christian social engagement was already under strong Eastern Influence, for instance, in the activism of Dr. Martin Luther King, a devout follower of the methods of Mahatma Gandhi. Methods of nonviolence and of activism as a kind of personal practice, become the change one seeks, seem also to have been quickly embraced in American Folk Buddhism. Blanche Hartman, former abbess of the San Francisco Zen Center, reports coming to Buddhism in the Sixties because she could not reconcile the pacifism of her opposition to the Vietnam War with the militant attitudes of many anti-war activists. The social activism of American Folk Buddhism was not purely Western in origin.

Essential Buddhism and Social Action. Nonetheless the impression persists that Buddhism has been traditionally indifferent to social welfare. Walpola Rahula, before he wrote What the Buddha Taught, argued that social activism in Asia was in fact discouraged through contact with the West. In The Heritage of the Bhikkhu makes the point that the impression of social indifference arose in colonial Asia as Western powers disenfranchised the monastic Sangha from its traditional social roles in order to appropriate its power and influence for themselves. He documents the role of monks in pre-colonial Sri Lanka as active engagement in education, in scholarship, in social services, in medicine, in providing political advice to kings and ministers and naturally in teaching the Dharma and in pastoral care. He then describes the way in which the colonial occupation changed both the status and the roles of monks in society, for instance, by mandating that children attend government schools, often staffed by Christian missionaries, rather than monastic schools. The result was to make monks socially irrelevant, a condition from which, after having forgotten their own history over centuries of colonial occupation, they still have not fully recovered in post-colonial Sri Lanka. Hence the reputation of the Buddhist clergy as unconcerned with social conditions.

Let’s go back to the Buddha to see if we find any conflict between social engagement and Essential Buddhist practice. The Buddha was of course concerned with liberation from Samsara, that is, reaching a point where most of life’s contingencies no longer touch the practitioner personally. However this cannot be achieved without the practice of Virtue (sila) and without the development of qualities of kindness and compassion; these are among the parmitas (Palin: paramis), virtues to be perfected. These in turn involve a harmless and caring attitude for others’ welfare, no only in the sense of others’ liberation but also in others’ comfort in negotiating life’s contingencies prior to liberation.

The Buddha’s life itself represents many instances of social engagement and compassionate action: personal care for a monk with dysentery, intervention to stop war, pastoral care of all varieties. Many of his teachings were social in nature: on the causes of human conflict and means to maintain harmony, on the relationship of crime to poverty on the social obligations of kings, employers, spouses, students, etc., on the misguidedness of caste distinctions, and as we have seen in the past weeks, of gender in determining one’s true worth. Sulak Sivaraksa and others have suggested that in creating the monastic Sangha the Buddha designed an ideal community, harmonious, cooperative, democratic, with an economy based in generosity not in greed, as an example to be emulated by the larger society. The insistence of the Buddha that monastics go on daily alms round would ensure continual contact of lay communities with this ideal. The monastic Sangha itself has not actually consistently functioned as an ideal community throughout history, always it would seem because lazy monks and nuns sometimes get lax about following the Buddha’s injunctions. However it has sustained itself remarkably well, longer than any other human institution on the planet that I am aware of.

Nuns and monks, the members of this ideal community, may seem least likely to become socially engaged; they are after all renunciates who forsake worldly existence to devote themselves fully to liberation. The monastic code in fact enforces this. It is telling however that although there is a rule against virtually everything worldly nuns and monks could conceivably do for themselves (acquiring stuff, earning a living, even cooking up a meal … though things like sewing one’s robe and keeping things tidy are OK), what they can do for others is almost limitless: Charitable work, advocacy, education, clearing rubble, rescue work and so on . Of course laity are not subject to such rules in any case.

In Ashoka (~304-232 BC) we have an example of a very early example of a benevolent Buddhist emperor wielding power according to Dharmic standards. His edicts engraved in still existent stone pillars tell of his good works in founding hospitals (even for animals), of building roads with rest stops, of his mercy in eliminating torture or mutilation of criminals and even the death penalty, his advocacy of non-violence at this (the Mauran) borders, of his promotion of general edication, of his tolerance of all religious faiths, and of his promotion of Buddhism internationally.

Conclusion. I think it is safe to conclude that Engaged Buddhism is a friend of Essential Buddhism and represents an ancient tradition, even while its modern influences are varied and are substantially both Christian and Gandhian.


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