Engaged Buddhism: Buddhist Liberation Movements in Asia.(book reviews)

Jeffrey R. Timm

Philosophy East and West

Vol.47 No.4



Copyright by University of Hawaii

Contemporary Buddhology involves the effort to develop strategies for understanding, and moving beyond, the limits of Orientalism. This effort arises in response to a realization that much past scholarship arrogates interpretative authority to serve colonial political agendas and Western elitism. just as material resources and emerging markets have been exploited for economic purposes, Western scholars have often exploited the philosophical capital of the East," appropriating, rejecting, and redefining in a process of cultural deforestation and conceptual strip mining. This process reshapes the very objects of knowledge it claims to know. As scholars of Asian philosophy we earn our living trading in ideas about the Asian "other." But we are also collectively changed by this process as the historical precedents and hidden agendas of the trade become clearer. The two volumes under consideration here contribute to this clarity. Although their approaches are not the same, both are carefully edited collections of essays that successfully and coherently examine important dimensions of an increasingly self-conscious study of Buddhism in the West. Both volumes address enduring patterns of understandings that have shaped the field of Buddhist studies and comparative philosophy in general), patterns that are passed on to each new generation, patterns that are sometimes exposed as inadequate as well as seemingly inevitable. Greater consciousness of these inadequacies and inevitabilities deepens our understanding of problems inherent in identifying Buddhism as an object of knowledge that we then claim authority to know, and points to the necessity of continuously modifying and refining our ways of knowing. Curators of the Buddha, edited by Donald S. Lopez, Jr., begins a project of formulating the cultural history of Buddhology. How has Buddhism been understood in the West and why? in pursuing this agenda, the reader is taken backstage, so to speak, and shown the historical formation of what have become some of the standard ideas shaping Buddhist scholarship in the West. These ideas are diverse and often contradictory: that the text is closer to "true" Buddhism than the contemporary Buddhist informant; that texts written in a "classical" language carry greater authority than texts in the vernacular; that there is such a thing as a Buddhist mind; that Jung, perhaps, but not Freud, understood it; that Zen is transcultural and transhistorical, not really a religion at all; that Tibetan Buddhism is a corruption of earlier Buddhist forms, or alternately, that it best preserves earlier forms; that Buddhism is more rational, and less ritualistic, than other forms of human religious expression; and that Buddhism has neglected programs of socio-moral transformation or, alternately, that Buddhism has developed a wealth of resources for such transformation. A plurality of diverse Buddhisms is made manageable through an opposition of self and other, implicitly according ultimate interpretative authority to the West by pointing out the limitations and inadequacies in the approach of the native exegete and practitioner. Alternately, the "East" is seen as a field to be mined for solutions to Western problems. in this view, Buddhism holds answers to Western problems of human alienation, environmental pollution, and so forth. These opposing perspectives continue to shape the manner in which Buddhism is approached, understood, and taught in the West, even as they are called into question. Exploring the history of Western Buddhist studies -- which sometimes denigrates, and at other times idealizes, the object of study -- suggests how deeply our patterns of understanding are wedded with the colonial ideology of power, control, and exploitation. The suffering caused by this repudiated ideology is clear, but at the same time the conceptual framework of Buddhist studies -- a framework that emerged hand in hand with the colonial enterprise -- continues to influence our approach, our efforts to know" Buddhism. Moving beyond subtle conceptual manipulations of the "other" is a complicated challenge. Each of the six essays in Curators of the Buddha increases the complexity of the challenge. Charles Hallisey, in his contribution "Roads Taken and Not Taken in the Study of Theravada Buddhism," reveals how early scholars like Rhys Davids operated within a textual hegemony that begins and concludes with the presumption that Buddhists are unable accurately to grasp the origins of their own tradition. Unpacking the concept of "Greco-Buddhist" art, Stanley Abe shows how cultural agendas and allegiances shaped the formulation of our categories of understanding and our ways of seeing Buddhist images. Robert Sharf establishes the danger of exempting Zen from a hermeneutics of suspicion. Examining how Zen was politicized in Japan, considering the influences of Swedenborgianism and Theosophy in the life of the preeminent Zen missionary D. T. Suzuki, sounds a cautionary note for any reading of Zen that elevates it to some transcultural, transhistorical space. Chapters by Gustavo Benavides and Luis Gomez reveal the Buddhism of thinkers like Guisseppe Tucci and Carl Jung as ideologically charged Orientalism. Taken together, these essays caution us against decisive claims of knowing in a field marked by "the uncertain combination of the contempt and the longing" (p. 164), which positions "the Asian both beyond and below the limits of European normality" (p. 210). But, as Gomez points out in his contribution "Oriental Wisdom and the Cure of Souls: Jung and the Indian East": "Suggesting how it could be possible to encounter self and other without falling into either of these extremes is not so simple a task" (p. 229). Pursuing this task involves, perhaps, cultivating a deeper critical understanding, not simply of the unresolved problems in the field, but of our own motivations for engaging in the process in the first place. Directed toward the progenitors of contemporary Buddhology, the hermeneutics of suspicion may often challenge comfortable certainties we rely upon as we proceed in our scholarship and teaching. Turning that suspicion back upon ourselves is a daunting challenge. In the final contribution to the volume, editor Donald Lopez takes on this challenge by critically reflecting on his own experiences and motivation as a "Foreigner at the Lama's feet." In this concluding chapter, the most engaging and remarkable contribution to the volume, in my estimation, Lopez contextualizes his work as a graduate student pursuing dissertation research at a Buddhist monastery established in South India after the 1959 exile from Tibet. Situating his own motivations and experiences within the rhetoric of urgency, he reviews the history of European ambivalence before the lama by considering historical "penetrations" into Tibetan culture by early visitors like the eighteenth-century jesuit priest Ippolito Desideri, who sought to grasp the teaching of emptiness as groundwork for his Catholic missionary effort; Alexander Csoma de Koros, whose early nineteenth-century search for the obscure origins of his Hungarian homeland marks the beginning of the academic study of Tibet; and L. Austine Waddell, a nineteenth-century British functionary, who gained access to the "mysteries" of Tibetan Buddhism by allowing his Tibetan informants to believe he was a Buddhist or even a bodhisattva, while he assured his European audience that he was neither. Of course, by the time Lopez began work at his monastery in the late 1970s, conceptual motivations had shifted. But, as his self-critical reflection on his own research reveals, the legacy of Orientalism was still very much in play. The dramatic 1959 exile of the Dalai Lama from Lhasa, and the establishment of exile communities of Tibetans in India, once again brought the mysterious land of the snows into the Western consciousness with a renewed sense of urgency. This culture and people, as well as the spiritual knowledge they possessed, was now under the duress of Chinese colonialism, in danger of being lost forever. Enter American graduate students and their teachers to preserve Tibetan Buddhism for posterity. ironically, the program of preservation is in a real sense a demolition/reconstruction. The primary interest of Lopez and his cohort was in so-called philosophy," and the point of access to that philosophy was the texts," not practice, rituals, institutions, or history. Displacing the culturally antagonistic motivations of Desideri and Waddell, who sought to show their own cultural superiority over the limitations of "degenerate Lamaism," the mission now was to save the knowledge of the geshes by translating, collecting, and preserving it before it was too late. Driven by a sense of urgency and a nostalgia for a paradise lost, or about to be lost, the wisdom of Tibet is idealized against the degenerate materialism of the West. This calling drives the effort to save Tibet's answers to the world's problems, answers that would be lost if not protected through the power of careful preservation -- a power possessed by the Western scholar. This cultural stewardship had a personal side; the collective myths that guided the effort had a personal dimension that Lopez boldly confronts. He writes: "Hence, my purpose was not to participate in the life of the monastery but rather to take what I needed. And what I needed was what the monastery judged its most precious possession, the learning of its teachers" (p. 285). Today, with the hindsight of twenty years, Lopez reflects on the hierarchy separating the partners in this exchange, a continuation of the Orientalist fascination/repulsion toward the other. The greatest living Tibetan teachers, the most revered and learned, were now refugees, exiled from their institutional and geographical moorings, living in relative poverty, attempting to continue their traditions and practices under the duress of difficult historical circumstances. Enter American graduate students like Lopez, who now, twenty years later, candidly writes: "I came to the former British colony carrying rupees owed by the Indian government for American wheat, rupees which I exchanged for his knowledge" (p. 286). With this knowledge comes the credentials of the expert, the status of the scholar and university professor, and with this status a place in a bourgeois life with material comforts and security unattainable to the geshes and their Tibetan students. After twenty years, Lopez sees through some of the self-deception, the nostalgic meta-narratives that shaped his motives. More of us should look so deeply. Recognizing the self-deception and the problematic stories is one thing; looking beyond the past to envision a non-problematic narrative capable of guiding our study is something else. This book raises the important question of "whether or not there is available to the Buddhologist a position of sufficient retrospect from which to describe the category of Buddhology within the larger archive which has been its abode ... " (p. 21). As these essays show, Buddhist studies is a Western construction, heir to a colonial past. But is there yet a viable place to stand outside that construction? Perhaps, at most, we may cultivate a fuller understanding of how the archives of Buddhology were constructed, loosening the grip of inherited certainties and freeing the future of Buddhist studies from a teleology dictated by the presuppositions of the past. One such presupposition, perhaps no longer pervasive in Buddhist studies, characterizes Buddhism as a quietistic, inward tradition of meditating monks interested only in detaching themselves from a swirling vortex of samsaric suffering. Anyone holding such a view will find it soundly challenged by Engaged Buddhism, a volume co-edited by Sallie King and Christopher Queen. Its nine chapters provide windows onto some of the most important contemporary Buddhist social activist movements in South and Southeast Asia. Taken together these essays show a face of contemporary Buddhism that is not well known in the West, a Buddhism that is actively engaged in the efforts of social change, collective empowerment, and political liberation. Change, empowerment, and liberation are standard themes in the study of Buddhism, but these themes have often been understood in the context of identifying the cause of suffering, promulgating the dharma/practice, and achieving a spiritual enlightenment. Focusing on the social philosophies and movements of Buddhist leaders like Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Sulak Sivaraksa, the Dalai Lama, and Thich Nhat Hanh offers another face: Buddhism as a pluralistic dynamism directed out into a world of social inequality and political injustice. Displaying a coherence that is unfortunately absent in many multi-authored volumes, each chapter considers a particular movement dealing with three interrelated dimensions: 1) the life and career of its leader, (2) the application of Buddhist teachings to contemporary social realities, and (3) the social face of the community. By surveying individual movements and leaders, Engaged Buddhism builds its argument chapter by chapter, revealing the conceptual interconnections among the diverse efforts of contemporary Buddhist social activism. In his own contribution, co-editor Christopher Queen maps out the history of the Ambedkar movement for the liberation of India's downtrodden untouchables, a lifelong effort of the architect of India's constitution during the period spanning India's birth as an independent nation. For Ambedkar, perhaps the most compelling feature of Buddhism as a religion was that it wasn't Hinduism. Over the years he considered the options, determining Buddhism to be the only religion compatible with the ethical and rational demands of contemporary life, yet professing Buddhism as his own, only six weeks before his death, in a massive ceremony that included the conversion of five hundred thousand followers. Compare Ambedkar, whose eleventh-hour embrace of the faith points to the ambivalence he felt toward all religious allegiance, with a figure like the Dalai Lama, who is recognized by his devotees as the current manifestation of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of infinite Compassion. In his chapter on "Buddhist Principles in the Tibetan Liberation Movement," Jose Cabezon succinctly maps out the contemporary social philosophy of the Dalai Lama, a philosophy emphasizing universal responsibility and global peace founded on principles articulated in the classical works of Tibetan Buddhism. Central Buddhist principles like interdependence, compassion, and truth provide the basis for a social philosophy that extends beyond Buddhism, a philosophy that claims global relevance and universal applicability. The Dalai Lama's social philosophy, a "policy of kindness," may sound simplistic or naive in the face of seemingly intractable global conflicts and the complex demands of social activism. The vitality of his social philosophy is revealed in the connection between personal, socio-moral transformation and the traditional Tibetan Buddhist approach to training the mind and the heart. In this view, the personal, inward effort to change oneself, to become more open to the world with all its limits, becomes a prerequisite for establishing any meaningful social-political change. The two must be pursued simultaneously. This may be seen as a powerful corrective to the Western tendency to objectify social and political injustice, approaching injustice exclusively as an external problem to be solved through social engineering. Additional chapters contribute insights into the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement in Sri Lanka founded by A. T. Ariyartne, the social philosophies and activism of Buddhadasa Bhikkhu and Sulak Sivaraksa in Thailand, and the Vietnamese activist Thich Nhat Hanh. In an effort to make the volume pan-Asian, the single window offered on East Asian developments is a chapter by Daniel A. Metraux on the Soka Gakkai, a wealthy mainstream movement in Japan with considerable political clout. And perhaps as explanation of the dominance of male figures in socially engaged Buddhism (the major exception, of course, is the Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi, who is not covered in the volume), Nancy J. Barnes' contribution, "Buddhist Women and the Nuns' Order in Asia," gives a historical overview of women's engagement in the tradition. Barnes' chapter deviates somewhat from the format followed by others, but her essay is an excellent response to the question frequently asked by undergraduates in Buddhist survey courses, "Where are the nuns?" As the individual essays show, the social activism of contemporary Buddhism attempts to connect the development of the spiritual and the social; the movement toward personal peace and liberation melds with an intention to change the world. Despite the pressing demands of local concerns, socially engaged Buddhism typically speaks the language of universalism: world suffering and world peace. Directing the power of modernity through education and communication, leaders like Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama call attention not only to the suffering of their own communities but speak of systemic patterns in the human condition that must be changed if any movement toward world peace is to bear fruit. Recognizing the place for diverse approaches in understanding the phenomenon of engaged Buddhisms, the introductory (Queen) and concluding (King) essays are complementary but do not speak with one voice. Mapping out a phenomenology and a history of engaged Buddhism, Queen forcefully argues that there is no historical precedent for the socially active Buddhism explored in this volume. Without directly opposing this view, Sallie King points out that all the movements examined appeal to traditional Buddhist principles in justifying their emergent social activism. The central principles in this justification are the Buddhist concept of dependent co-arising and the rejection of an enduring, substantial self and the central motif of Mahayana compassion. A view of Buddhism as unconcerned with the material dimension of human experience, concerned with only the promulgation of the dharma and the search for some quietistic nirvana, simply does not follow from these principles. In fact, the principle of the "middle way" directs attention to a path that balances material and spiritual in a manner that might best address the particular, local demands of engagement. King reflects on the movements that have been charted by suggesting their position on a variety of continuums like the balance of spirituality with a materially concerned social activism, the wish to engage/avoid politics, and the establishment/rejection of a Buddhist identity, pointing out that some of the leaders examined in this volume "see some circumstances under which it is useful or necessary to take some particular form of Buddhist identity with utmost seriousness, while at another time, in another context, Buddhist self-negation may be embraced as the most useful or appropriate" (p. 407). This practical flexibility with conceptual thinking (upaya), including reflection on the primary question of self-identity, is a hallmark of the Buddhist tradition and brings to the emerging dialogue on global ethics a powerful corrective to the presuppositions of autonomous individuality and enlightenment rationality shaping most Western approaches to social philosophy. Bringing uniquely Buddhist principles to bear on contemporary circumstances of social activism occurs at a time of unprecedented global interpenetration of cultures and ideologies. Asking the question of historical origins, Chistopher Queen, quoting scholars like Bardwell L. Smith, Richard Gombrich, Joseph Kitagawa, and Gananath Obeyesekere, argues that "engaged Buddhism ... has not been a typical pattern in the social history of Asia" (p. 18). Looking to the cultural penetration of Asia by the West, Queen identifies the missing ingredient: "the influence of European and American religious and political thought ... on the evolution of modern Buddhism" (p. 20). Following the logic of Obeyesekere -- that social engagement is so alien to the history of Buddhism, its emergence must depend on outside (Western) influences-queen identifies "three exemplars" of contemporary, engaged Buddhism: the American theosophist Henry Steel Olcott, Don David Hewavitarne, who was a disciple of Olcott and Blavatsky, and the Indian untouchable reformer Ambedkar. None of these "exemplars" emerges from within a Buddhist tradition. Surprisingly, only Ambedkar, who was educated in the West and who professed Buddhism as his own just six weeks before his death, is discussed in either the main body or the conclusion of the volume. Even then, he occupies the extreme limits of the continuums mapped out in Sallie King's concluding essay. Queen's identification of "exemplars" seems strangely consistent with an earlier approach to the study of Buddhism. Like the early twentieth-century art historian Alfred Foucher, who proposed a Greek source for early Buddha images, Queen seems to suggest in his identification of "exemplars" that only an outside (Western) source could provide the impetus for an engaged Buddhism. Hence Buddhism, regarded as essentially quietistic and world-denying, garners its inspiration for social engagement from the West. Queen seems to suggest that engaged Buddhism is not a cultural possession of the Buddhist at all, but is in fact an Asian reflection of the Western, Christian, Protestant self. if this re?ding is correct, it returns us to the fundamental issue addressed in Curators of the Buddha. To what extent can the effort to know the other move beyond meandering in a house of mirrors? Trapped in a double bind, we claim to know something about the other, but speak only in the language of the self. Recognizing the absence of any objective place to stand, but feeling a need to claim authority and knowledge, it is surprising that more of us, discovering ourselves in such an untenable position, don't give, it up in favor of growing vegetables or building bookcases. But then again most of us who teach or think or live comparative philosophy will want new books for the bookcases and something to talk about over the vegetable soup. Both of these volumes make an important contribution to the ongoing conversation.