Should Secular Buddhists be Engaged Buddhists, Too?

| April 7, 2015 | 7 Comments

imageThe SBA website has been an invaluable forum for discussion and dialogue about what secular Buddhism is and should be. What is the difference between secular Buddhism and more traditional forms of Buddhism? Which aspects of Buddhist theory, belief, and practice are consistent with secular forms of Buddhism and which are not? What distinctive role can secular Buddhism play in making Buddhism a more integral part of our culture? All of these questions and many more are being interrogated as secular Buddhists try to figure out the path forward.

This process of questioning basic assumptions and core practices is a significant aspect of Buddhism in the West. In fact, since the 1970s, when the lineages and practices of Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana Buddhism began to gain a significant following in the United States and other Western countries, these forms of Buddhism have been strengthened through cross-pollination and interchange with each other. This is one of the main reasons why Buddhism in the West is such a dynamic, vital movement; instead of dogmatism and orthodoxy, most Western Buddhists are embracing an open, inquiring approach.

In this spirit, I want to explore the interchange or connection between secular Buddhism and another trend within Buddhism which is also challenging traditional ideas, beliefs, and practices: so-called “engaged” Buddhism. Both secular Buddhism and engaged Buddhism represent perhaps the most strongly Western-inflected forms of Buddhism. Secular Buddhism, as articulated by Stephen Batchelor and others, has sought to jettison the cultural accretions and transcendent, divine entities that developed as part of the various Asian Buddhisms, while embracing the Buddha’s naturalistic analysis of and remedy for human suffering in this world. Engaged Buddhism, while also practiced in Asia, attempts to bring a distinctly Western form of concern with social justice and human rights into the heart of Buddhism.

To understand the connection between secular Buddhism and engaged Buddhism, however, it’s essential to recognize that both trends are themselves evolving and not easily defined. For example, a conference on secular Buddhism at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies in March 2013 revealed that there are a variety of ways to define the scope, meaning, and value of secular Buddhism. (For a report on the conference, go to: http://www.bcbsdharma.org/2013-4-25-insight-journal/). Even though all self-defined secular Buddhists reject the supernatural beings and the cosmology of realms found in Asian Buddhisms, as well as the notion of karma linked to literal rebirths, there is little consensus beyond those basic points of agreement.

The Forms of Engaged Buddhism

The same is true for engaged Buddhism. Although all engaged Buddhists believe that it is vital for Buddhists to engage in the world, to bring mindfulness, wisdom, and compassion into personal relationships, the community, and the larger society in which we live, what exactly does “engagement” mean and in what form should it be expressed? Among engaged Buddhists, there is quite a range of answers to these questions.

It is helpful to think of engaged Buddhism as a continuum of ideas, beliefs, and practices. At one end, are those engaged Buddhists who believe that they can bring Buddhism into the world through interpersonal relationships which provide support, assistance, and services to those in need. Several important Buddhist projects at this end of the engaged continuum are the hospice programs of the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco and the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, as well as the Prison Mindfulness Institute serving people who are incarcerated. Buddhists who offer mindfulness-based therapy, counseling, and education in hospitals, clinics, and other settings represent the most well-known means by which Buddhists engage with others. All these programs are aimed at alleviating human suffering through interpersonal relationships based on the Buddhist values of mindfulness, wisdom, and compassion

In the middle of the continuum, the scope of Buddhist engagement is explicitly enlarged to encompass a broader social realm and is directed toward achieving reforms of our economy and political system as a means of solving social problems and thus reducing human suffering. Two important examples of this form of engaged Buddhism are the One Earth Sangha and Buddhist Global Relief. The One Earth Sangha was established by leading dharma teachers from all Buddhist traditions and lineages in the West to promote an understanding of climate change and how to respond to it, based on Buddhist understandings about the causes and remedy for suffering. Buddhist Global Relief’s focus is on combating chronic hunger and malnutrition through direct aid, education programs, and raising awareness about the need for social justice. The organization’s leader is Bhikkhu Bodhi, a Theravada monk, who has strongly emphasized the need for Buddhists to address social problems.

Finally, at the other end of the continuum, some engaged Buddhists stress the need not just to ameliorate, through various social reforms, poverty, hunger, climate change and other forms of human suffering, but to challenge and transform the basic causes of human suffering: the oppressive social systems of capitalism, patriarchy, and structural racism. The Buddhist Peace Fellowship’s (BPF) project, “The System Stinks”, is one example of such a radical approach to engaged Buddhism. Another is Joanna Macy’s effort, based on Buddhist, deep ecology and general systems perspectives, to advance structural alternatives to climate change and ecological destruction.

While useful as a way to summarize distinct trends within engaged Buddhism, the above characterization does not capture the complexity and diversity of social engagement among Buddhists. First, individual Buddhists may be involved in more than one trend of engaged Buddhism; for example, someone might teach a mindfulness course in a hospital, but also be active in One Earth Sangha. In addition, there is not a neat dividing line between the trends. Bhikkhu Bodhi sees Buddhist Global Relief as responding to systemic social problems, not just providing food to the hungry.

Relationship of Secular Buddhism and Engaged Buddhism

How should secular Buddhists relate to these various forms of engaged Buddhism? The first point to make is that secular Buddhism and engaged Buddhism are not intrinsically linked, just as practicing as a Buddhist in a traditional lineage (e.g. Soto Zen) does not require one to be an engaged Buddhist. Think of the secular vs. traditional and engaged vs. non-engaged dualities as two separate aspects or dimensions of the variegated world of Buddhist beliefs and practices. (There are many other dimensions as well, for example, differences over the relationship of concentration vs. insight in meditation practices.) One’s preference or conscious choice in one dimension does not entail a particular choice in the other.

While there is no necessary connection between secular Buddhism and engaged Buddhism, engaging in the world to reduce suffering and facilitate human flourishing is essential not just to help others and solve social problems, but essential for our own internal transformation.

Social Engagement Aids Individual Transformation

An individual is not an island unto himself/herself. One of the core insights of the Buddha is that we are part of a web of constantly changing causes and conditions. Human beings are not isolated, self-sufficient entities, but, like everything else that exists, are interconnected with and interdependent on all other parts of reality. Part of the causes and conditions that affect us is our social interactions with others and the social institutions within which we live. When our social interactions and social life are dominated by greed, hatred, and delusion (as they unfortunately often are), then the potential to develop more skillful ways of feeling, thinking, and acting become less likely. In short, we suffer more as individuals to the extent that social conditions are harmful. Engagement in the world to reduce suffering thus contributes to creating causes and conditions that make our own happiness more likely.

Another important reason for engagement is the positive effect that collective action for good causes may contribute to the kind of individual transformation we seek as Buddhist practitioners. (I emphasize “may”; there are many examples of collective action that work in the opposite direction.) When we work together with others to remedy social problems, the process of doing so can help to make us more tolerant, compassionate, and wise. As someone who has been an activist in the labor movement for 40 years, I have seen firsthand how individuals can be significantly changed in the course of collective action, moving to a broader view of the world and stronger connections with those of different backgrounds. Accounts of the civil rights movement in the south during the 1960s point to a similar impact on activists engaged in that difficult struggle against racism.

Meditation Contributes to Social Transformation

In asserting the importance of social engagement, I am not in any way devaluing the importance of meditation and other spiritual practices in developing the qualities of mind that reduce human suffering. For Buddhists – secular or non-secular – meditation remains vitally important as a mode of individual transformation. The cultivation of non-attachment and loving kindness in meditation can also help Buddhists be more effective and sustain a long-term commitment to various forms of social engagement. When social engagement is less fueled by rage and aggression, we can better confront the challenges which we will inevitably face in these arenas. Our ability to develop fruitful means of engaging social issues will be increased insofar as we “keep our eyes on the prize” rather than have our vision clouded by aversion and anger linked to the needs of our egos. We can experience frustration or feel badly about a setback in our project, but that does not shake our core commitment.

Conclusion

Thus, it is not a matter of “either-or” – meditation or engagement in the world. Instead of seeing meditation and social engagement as two separate paths – one for individual transformation and the other to solve social problems, I think it is more fruitful to view them as simultaneous and mutually supporting processes. To answer the question, then, in the title of this article, I say yes: while secular Buddhists do not have to be engaged Buddhists, I believe there are important reasons why we should be.

In my article “Secular, Radically Engaged Buddhism: At the Crossroads of Individual and Social Transformation”, I explore these issues in much more detail. In particular, I argue that a radical form of social engagement, combined with a thoroughgoing secular Buddhist perspective, provides the most solid foundation for working toward individual and social transformation. The link to this article is: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14639947.2015.1021567 or you can email me at mslott@hpae.org for a copy if you’d like to read more about my perspective on the issue.

For more information about the organizations and individuals noted in the article:

Stephen Batchelor – http://www.stephenbatchelor.org/index.php/en/

Buddhist Global Relief – https://www.buddhistglobalrelief.org/

Buddhist Peace Fellowship/”The System Stinks” – http://www.buddhistpeacefellowship.org/our-work/training-and-education/the-system-stinks/

Joanna Macy – http://www.joannamacy.net/thegreatturning/three-dimensions-of-the-great-turning.html

New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care – http://zencare.org/

One Earth Sangha – http://www.oneearthsangha.org/

Prison Mindfulness Institute – http://www.prisonmindfulness.org/

Zen Hospice Project – https://www.zenhospice.org/

Category: Articles

About the Author ()

I have been a political and labor activist for over 40 years. In 2010, I became interested in Buddhism and began a regular vipassana meditation practice. As an agnostic and activist, I am particularly interested in exploring how to connect secular Buddhism with a radical political theory and practice.

Comments (7)

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  1. Mark Knickelbine says:

    Thanks for this contribution! A few points —

    Traditional Buddhist cosmology has often been criticized as quietist. If our lot in life is determined by our karma from previous existences, we “deserve what we get” and can’t change it. Similarly, if the cosmos will deliver our just desserts in future existences, there’s little point in worrying about justice in this life. Any Buddhism that cares about social betterment will have to at least act in a secular manner, and I think abandoning the traditional cosmology will encourage us to take the reality of present human suffering more seriously.

    It’s my opinion that the key to awakening is the cultivation of compassion and kindness. This isn’t a matter of trying to be good, but the spontaneous response of the heart to the recognition that we share this human life together. If we accept this, then it seems to me that engagement will be a natural outcome, as we see material, social and economic injustice and respond to the suffering they cause. As you point out, only through the clarity of mindfulness will our understanding of these issues be free of the various kinds of delusion that tend to cloud and distort political action. Approaching social action with mindfulness also helps clarify our intention, release attachment to outcomes and maintain our focus and motivation.

    • Michael Slott says:

      Mark,

      Thanks for your comment on the article.

      I’m sympathetic to your view that when the notion of karma is closely linked to the traditional Buddhist cosmology, social engagement is likely to seem less necessary to the practitioner. Certainly, I’ve always believed that making an afterlife (in Western religions) or future lives (in traditional Buddhism) a central part of one’s belief system is both mistaken and more likely to lead someone to ignore the real suffering which occurs in this world.

      Yet, from my observations of and readings about engaged Buddhism, I have found that many of the strongest and most articulate, engaged Buddhists are people whose spiritual home is in various traditional Buddhist lineages. Just to mention three of the most well known: the Dalai Lama (Tibetan/Gelug), Thich Nhat Hanh(Zen/Order of Interbeing), and Bhikkhu Bodhi (Theravada).

      At the same time, there are many secular Buddhists who are relatively disinterested in effecting social change, whether through service, social reforms, or radical political projects. They may view such efforts as irrelevant to the task of individual transformation or believe that it is futile to try to change the world, given the strong tendency for human beings to be dominated by greed, hatred, and delusion. Although I strongly disagree with this viewpoint, it’s not surprising that there is a lot of apathy, cynicism, and skepticism about social change in our society, given what seems to be the failure of politics and the intractable nature of social problems.

      In short, there does not appear to be a direct relationship between whether one is secular or traditional, and whether one is likely to be more socially engaged.

      Thus, I would rephrase your assertion that “Any Buddhism that cares about social betterment will have to at least act in a secular manner” to the following: Any Buddhism that cares about social betterment will have to have as its focus the Buddha’s primary objective – the lessening of human suffering – irrespective of its perspective on cosmology and karma.

      • Herbie says:

        Michael,

        As to your obervations of enganged buddhism and traditional buddhists I think one should not underestimate the energy belief may cause. I mean for a secular buddhist there may be family, carreer, vacations, hobbies etc and finally buddhism but for a traditional buddhist belief may actually dominate his/her whole life. So if a traditional buddhist, a believer, interpretes his path as being intertwined with social engagement then his/her engagement may be more sustainable.
        On the other hand even in traditional buddhism right from the beginning there always has been a lineage focused more on individual liberation than on community or social aspects of engagement.

        As to rephrasing I for my part would like to rephrase your “the Buddha’s primary objective – the lessening of human suffering” – ‘lessening’ actually being an understatement – to “buddhism’s primary objective – liberation” since – in terms of secularization – this provides possibilities to connect to Enlightenment humanist ideas of liberation and corresponding politics, i.e. additional forms of engagements.

        • Michael Slott says:

          Herbie,

          I still stand by the phrase, “lessening of human suffering”, rather than “liberation”. As a secular Buddhist, I believe that we have the potential to shift the balance in our lives toward more skillful and ethical ways of being in the world and away from greed, hatred, and delusion. However, I don’t think we can ever achieve “liberation”, in the sense of an unconditional release from greed, hatred, and delusion. I think it’s always better – from a secular, naturalistic perspective – to envisage how we can make changes (“more or less”) within the world, as opposed to attaining a transcendence of it, i.e. nirvana.

          This might be just a semantic issue. By “reducing suffering”, I include all positive changes in the experience of human beings, ranging from the most minor and limited to fundamental individual and social transformation. But all these changes occur within and through our natural world.

      • Mark Knickelbine says:

        I’d agree that one does not have to be secular in order to be socially engaged, anymore than one has to believe in universal justice in order to act with compassion and kindness. I think this is because the practice of mindfulness tends to engender a view of the world that emphasizes our common humanity and the natural urge to respond to suffering. Belief in an afterlife of any kind will necessarily be more abstract and less motivating than the emotional response of one who truly sees themselves in others.

        • Michael Slott says:

          Mark,

          Yes, mindfulness – in the sense of non-judgmental, kind-hearted, and present moment awareness – is the key facilitator of compassionate action.

  2. Jennifer Hawkins Jennifer Hawkins says:

    Thank you so much for writing this! I’ve been looking for a way to articulate the points you made in the “Social Engagement Aids Individual Transformation” section. Personally, think that improving the world around us by reducing suffering leads to the conditions that lead to nibbana – not just for the self, but for all. Indeed, it may not be possible to get to a type of nibbana without following this kind of “Bodhisattva” path.

    Also, thank you so much for those links. I will definitely check them out. I’ve been wanting to do my part for great gender equality, racial empathy, and to reduce government/police violence. I’ve also asked the question of how do we take care of the elderly who have no living family? These links seem like great places to start looking.

    Great article and I’ll definitely email you in hopes of reading your full paper!

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