Reviews the book `Engaged Buddhism: Buddhist Liberation

Movements in Asia,' by Christopher S. Queen and Sallie B. King

Source: by, Michael G. Barnhart

Review of Politics

Vol. 59 No. 3 Summer.1997


Copyright by Review of Politics

. LIBERATION BUDDHISM Christopher S. Queen and Sallie B. King, editors: Engaged Buddhism: Buddhist Liberation Movements in Asia. (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1996. Pp. 446. $24.95.) Engaged Buddhism represents a considerably expanded discussion begun in a 1990 panel at the American Academy of Religion entitled "Buddhist Liberation Movements." The book consists of eleven substantial papers that offer portraits of a variety of Buddhist social reform organizations and their leaders sandwiched between beginning and closing essays that address thematic and philosophical issues raised by these movements. By and large, each movement corresponds to a separate country and is the product of unique cultural and historical circumstances. Hence, the collection has the feel of a tour of South and Southeast Asia from India and Sri Lanka through Thailand and Vietnam, although Japan is also represented through a discussion of the Soka Gakkai movement. The book is well organized, and most of the separate essays are quite readable and engaging. Sometimes there is more detail on activities and fund raising than would interest most readers, but on the whole the various contributors maintain an evenhanded approach with attention to the larger issues at stake. To many readers, myself included, this is fairly unfamiliar material. And insofar as Engaged Buddhism brings these groups to light this is a service not only to Buddhist studies but to political theorists and philosophers generally. The first question that naturally arises is "What is a Buddhist liberation movement?" Furthermore, one might wonder, to what degree does it differ from other sorts of "liberation movements"? Chris Queen's preface and introductory essay answer by proposing "that a modern liberation movement is a voluntary association guided by exemplary leaders and a common vision of a new society (or world) based on peace, justice, and freedom. Today's Buddhist liberation movements in Asia exemplify these features, appropriately expressed in language and styles of conduct that its members deem to be 'Buddhist'" (p. 10). As to the meaning of the term Buddhist in this context there is less unanimity. Just as Buddhism represents a variety of traditions (Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana) and orientations (monastic versus secular), so these movements equally share a remarkable variety of interpretations of the doctrinal basics of Buddhism. However, the fact that they all deal in one form or another with the basic tenets and interpret them in ways that have hermeneutical precedent within the tradition becomes Queen's justification for labeling these movements Buddhist despite the tradition's own tendency to fragment, sometimes into mutually opposing camps. In other words, each of these movements justifies its actions and promotes an agenda based on some interpretation of traditional Buddhist doctrines. Furthermore, these movements share similar goals primarily of world peace and social justice, particularly in the form of assistance to the poor and underprivileged, goals involving a refocus of Buddhist doctrine from an other-worldly attainment to a "mundane awakening .... which includes individuals, villages, nations, and ultimately all people, and which focuses on objectives that may be achieved and recognized in this lifetime, in this world" (p. 9). Generally, there are two directions one can go in Buddhism in making this connection between the traditional goal of attaining nirvana and compassionate assistance to those who suffer in the worldly sense. The first derives more or less from the Theravada tradition and the moral code (sila) set down for all Buddhists. The other route is through the typically Mahayana emphasis on the concepts of emptiness, interdependence, and egolessness. To begin with, whatever one's Buddhist orientation, Buddhism has always been concerned with the elimination of suffering as many of the contributors to Engaged Buddhism point out. The Four Noble Truths, with which especially Theravada Buddhism starts, proclaim that (1) all existence is suffering, (2) desire and attachment are the cause of suffering, (3) eliminating attachment is eliminating suffering, and (4) following the eightfold path is the means to eliminate attachment. The eight-fold path--right view, right thought, right effort, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right mindfulness, and right concentration--is the means to overcoming such attachment. The five, eight, or ten sila or moral precepts (prohibiting killing, stealing, lying, adultery, intoxicants, and sometimes more) follow as a minimum set of standards consistent with this path. However, to advance along the path to the ultimate goal of nirvana one must also acquire merit, and often in the form of rendering compassionate assistance to those who suffer. The culmination of such service is the four "Divine Abodes" of metra (loving kindness), karuna (compassion), mudira (empathy, sometimes sympathetic joy), and upekka (equanimity), all of which contribute to the final acquisition of nirvana and freedom. Hence, monks in ancient India were often the source of medical care and other social services as mandated by Buddhist principles of selfless service. In short, altruistic social engagement was a form of right livelihood and right action, essential aspects of the struggle for freedom from attachment. The Mahayana approach is quite different from the path of attaining merit through service to others. The salient principles for the Mahayana tradition are emptiness, interdependence and egolessness, although Theravada ethics also rely on the non-egocentric nature of altruistic social action. Broadly, the teaching of emptiness discredits ideologically based action, especially coercive action; interdependence stresses our interconnection and identification with all forms of nature; and finally egolessness and nonattachment mandates creative engagement with those others to whom we are so interconnected. In fact, from the Mahayana perspective, interdependence is the very essence of reality, so that one cannot coherently draw a rigid distinction between the state of nirvana and the world of suffering (samsara). Since nirvana and samsara are interdependent, two sides of the same reality, one cannot leave samsara by going to nirvana. Hence, nonengagement with the world is simply not an option for the enlightened. Thus, not only must we have concern for fellow humans but the nonhuman world including the natural environment as well. In this view, any form of dominance, manipulation, coercion or even outright neglect is a symptom of egocentric attachment and a product of desire. In a sense, one is enjoined from doing anything but good works as these represent the only alternative for selfless living. Good Buddhists do not behave cornpassionately because it is the right thing to do or because they will acquire merit toward nirvana; rather good Buddhists cannot but be compassionate. Each of these movements adopts one form or another of these justifications in appealing to Buddhist principles in support of their work. And interestingly, many of them mix both types of approach whether they come from a Mahayana or a Theravada background. For example, Santikaro Bhikku gives a fascinating account of his mentor, Buddhadasa Bhikku, a Thai monk and religious reformer who broke ranks with the native Theravada clergy, establishing what he took to be a more authentic and accessible form of Buddhism. He also wrote extensively about the political implications of Buddhism and incorporated much of the Mahayana emphasis on emptiness and interdependence in order to justify his version of what he called "Dhammic Socialism," sometimes provocatively, "Dictatorial Dhammic Socialism." I leave the details for the reader to gamer, but briefly emptiness provided Buddhadasa with a defense of the nonideological nature of his approach with interdependence and hence man's inherent sociality providing the socialist part. Whether such a grafting is ultimately successful in terms of Buddhism remains to be seen, and there is controversy over this point, especially from more traditionalist elements. I myself have to confess a certain uneasiness over the label "socialism," since such an economic program seems rather too specific to be based simply and straightforwardly on the mere fact of human sociality. Other movements are more straightforwardly traditionalist and Theravada. The Sarvodaya Shramadana (shramadana means "work camp" in this context) founded by A. T. Ariyaratne in Sri Lanka offers such an example. Originally a college professor who taught Buddhism and was heavily influenced by other engaged Buddhist leaders such as Ambedkar, Ariyaratne urges his students to go forth from a cloistered setting and put their principles to work helping Sri Lanka's villagers (irrespective of their ethnic background I might add). In his view, the process of awakening and pursuing nirvana is not simply individual but involves collective advancement. Furthermore, in order to advance to the supramundane level one must first address mundane suffering. In short, the traditional Theravada view of the various stages of progression toward eventual enlightenment are broadened to include the society of which the individual is inextricably a part. One cannot pursue one's own enlightenment without pursuing equally that of the village's, and first their mundane suffering of poverty and hardship must be addressed. In fact, much of the work of other groups in India especially and principally in support of the so--called scheduled castes or former untouchables follows the lines of this socialization of the Theravada dharnrna. TBMSG (Trailokya Bauddha Mahasanga Sahayaka Gana) and Dr. B. R. Ambedkar's advocacy of a socially conscious Buddhism for untouchables certainly follow such a route. Chris Queen and Alan Sponberg each offer an interesting look at this movement, Queen covering Ambedkar's very public search for a religion that would address the needs of the downtrodden untouchables in an independent India and Sponberg the activities of Englishborn Sangharakshita and his continuation of Ambedkar's vision. Indeed, Ambedkar is a fascinating figure within Buddhism, for although he converted to Buddhism taking some 380,000 of his followers with him at the same time, he embraced a form of Buddhism very much of his own making, systematically reinterpreting the Four Noble Truths and dropping much of the more "mystical" and even spiritual doctrines such as karma and rebirth. "For Ambedkar, the first noble truth for the present age was the widespread suffering of injustice and poverty; the second truth was social, political, and cultural institutions of oppression ... the third truth was expressed by the European ideal of'liberty, equality, and fraternity'; and the fourth truth was the threefold path of Ambedkar's famous slogan,'Educate! Agitate! Organize!' (p. 62). The problem this raises is, of course, whether such a doctrine is Buddhism. I have to admit doubts on this matter which is not to say I find Ambedkar's ideals un-Buddhist. Queen defends Ambedkar as an authentic Buddhist but fails to connect this admitted reinterpretation of fundamental doctrine to any deep-level principles within Buddhism, other than Buddhism's distinctive tendency to reinvent itself. The problem with Ambedkar is that he argues that these are the only or best interpretations of the Buddha's teaching. And Ambedkarites have argued that Buddhism itself is ripe for a "new way," a navayana. However, Sponberg notes that TBMSG, which continues Ambedkar's work, may owe its success, where other more politically oriented Ambedkarite movements have failed, to its emphasis on Buddhist spiritual practices (pp. 105-106). In other words, a Buddhism shorn of the teachings regarding egolessness, interdependence, and the relation between desire and suffering is just too thin to be religiously engaging. If Ambedkar's Buddhism represents the extreme of a materialistic adaptation of traditional, especially Theravada beliefs, Buddhadasa and Thich Nhat Hanh, of Thailand and Vietnam respectively, represent a more traditional emphasis on the spiritual. Both have incorporated many Mahayana elements in their teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh because Vietnamese Buddhism has always and Buddhadasa as part of his own critique of traditional Thai Buddhism. For them, the path to enlightenment is still Buddhism's appropriate preoccupation, but in characteristic Mahayana fashion they construe that path in terms of compassionate engagement with the world. Concern for fellow humans and amelioration of their suffering is an entirely expected, natural expression of a Buddhist life. For Buddhadasa, social action has largely been in the form of political theorizing and writing although, given the political climate in Thailand, this can be a harrowing undertaking. He describes his "Dhammic Socialism" as "living for the benefit of society, not for the individual benefit of each person" (p. 166). While this seems somewhat vague, Buddhadasa did see such a policy as realistic and consistent with what he viewed as "true" democracy, although his version of democracy more closely resembles simple egalitarianism. Interestingly, in contrast to the Theravada and Mahayana approaches a third form of justification for Buddhist social engagement, which I shall label pragmatic, seems to emerge from the various discussions in Engaged Buddhism. The pragmatic approach stresses not so much a reformulation of Buddhism's fundamental principles but a recognition of the realities involved in attaining enlightenment. If one is hungry, then as Ambedkar and others noted, there will be little capacity to concentrate on spiritual ends. In many ways such an approach echoes Aristotle who recognized a wide variety of goods essential to happiness not the least of which was health and a modicum of material well-being. And indeed, a number of authors in this collection emphasize a correlation for many engaged Buddhists between the promotion of human happiness and the elimination ofdukkha or suffering. Of course, it remains to be seen just how materially focused Buddhism can become without unduly compromising its soteriological aims. A number of important themes emerge in these discussions both for Buddhism and political theory. For Buddhism, the more socially engaged one becomes as a Buddhist, the more compelled one is to either completely reinterpret the fundamental teachings, as in the case of Ambedkar, or to draw on the disparate varieties of Buddhist doctrine both Theravada and Mahayana despite their historical antagonism. While the ethical codes and rules in Theravada provide a practical guide and focus for action, the teachings of selflessness and interdependence in Mahayana provide a larger framework of inspiration. Additionally, engaged Buddhists are inevitably faced with the question of participation in politics, a point nicely handled by coeditor Sallie King in her discussion of Thich Nhat Hanh and in her conclusion to the book. Obviously, the issue is complex and, to some extent, different in different contexts. Generally, the question comes up in terms of the desirability of a Buddhist political party, and in this regard the case of Soka Gakkai in Japan, which sponsored its own opposition party in the Japanese parliament, is instructive as it has suffered from charges of corruption and betrayal of its principles in the process of political compromise. However, as the book makes abundantly clear, not all political action need be in the form of partisan electioneering, and Chris Queen emphasizes NGO status as something of a defining feature of Buddhist liberation movements. In terms of political theory, these movements raise important questions regarding the political and economic implications, which are mostly communitarian, of Buddhism in general. While the Indian and Sri Lankan groups concentrate on issues of social justice, most others move in the direction of both endorsing democracy and some form of socialism. Universally they reject unbridled capitalism as thoroughly inconsistent with Buddhist ethical principles. Even Soka Gakkai, situated within the thriving and capitalist economy of Japan, advocates "a democratic welfare state" dedicated to removing "the causes of social inequality" (pp. 385-86). However, not all unequivocally embrace democracy and unfettered political freedom. Ajarn Buddhadasa in particular, as noted, goes to some lengths to distinguish "political" from "moral" democracy, arguing that not all forms of political democracy are moral, especially liberal democracy." As Santikaro Bhikku expresses the point," forms of democracy... that encourage or give too much freedom to selfishness" are to be rejected in preference to "Dictatorial Dhammic Socialism" as" a middle way between the contending ideologies of liberal democracy and vengeful communism" (pp. 177-78). There is much in this volume I have failed to cover which is some indication of its richness as a resource for understanding this phenomenon of engaged Buddhism. Not least of these issues emerges in Nancy Barnes's treatment of the status of the bhikshuni or Buddhist "nun's" orders. Obviously, the way Buddhism grapples with a legacy of discrimination under contemporary challenge will be instructive for understanding its full political and moral dimensions. Let me conclude by adding that so often people speak of Buddhism and the Buddhist view in monolithic terms that it is genuinely refreshing to see work which introduces readers to the complexities, nuances, stresses, and strains that mark the Buddhist tradition.