Buddhist Activism and Quietism

| February 6, 2017 | 10 Comments

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Many of us are looking for the right way to engage with contemporary political concerns. What does Buddhism have to teach us? A couple of recent articles have taken this question in opposite directions.

In “Let’s Stand Up Together”, Bhikkhu Bodhi argues that Buddhism has a number of important ethical lessons to teach that rise above simple notions of party politics. That is,

that every human being possesses intrinsic dignity, that everyone should be treated fairly, that those fallen into hardship should be protected and given the chance to flourish, and that the resources of the earth should be used judiciously, out of respect for the delicate web of nature.

He suggests it may be necessary to construct Buddhist advocacy groups to bring these distinctive ethical and political messages into the public sphere. This suggests that Buddhism should be a politically activist force, one that agitates for certain forms of social change.

On the other hand in “A Crooked Tree in Changing Times” (previously titled “Why I Don’t Practice Engaged Buddhism”) Ken McLeod argues that Buddhism is essentially a path to practice that is at right angles to social and political issues.

I was never taught that the practice of Buddhism was about making the world a better place. It has always been about coming to and giving expression to a different relationship with life—essentially a mystical path.

While we can debate whether Buddhism is a mystical path, or the precise character of that mysticism, nevertheless I will argue that in some form both of these perspectives can be found within the early tradition, and indeed that they are not in any kind of necessary conflict.

Although the precise terms themselves stem from the abhidhamma, in the suttas the Buddha described two overlapping paths to practice: one is the “mundane” (lokiya) and the other is usually translated the “supramundane” (lokuttara).

The mundane path is the path directed generally towards laypeople in the early texts. It encompasses ethical action within this world, thinking and behaving in ways that would not lead one directly to awakening but that would lead one in the direction of non-harming and benefit to all sentient beings, as a stepping-stone to awakening. The supramundane path is directed generally towards monastics.

Supramundane Path

Although the supramundane path requires one to behave ethically in accord with the mundane path, additionally it requires one to strive towards insight into the changing, unsatisfactory, and selfless nature of reality. Traditionally the concept of the supramundane path includes the notion of escaping from saṃsāra by ending the beginningless round of rebirths. This is what makes it “supramundane”: it transcends the realm of rebirth within saṃsāra. Nevertheless that achievement is based upon the central psychological task of achieving global nonclinging through deep understanding of the first two Noble Truths, suffering and its cause. Seen from an internal, psychological point of view, no supernatural elements are strictly necessary to comprehend the scope of the supramundane path.

At any rate, there is a good sense in which pursuit of the supramundane path involves as McLeod says “coming to a different relationship with life”, a relationship of nonclinging, of nonidentification with all things. It involves becoming aware that all ordinary life is unsatisfactory in being fraught with change, unsatisfactory in being something one cannot depend upon, unsatisfactory in never being fully and completely fulfilling. This is an internal path, an internal effort, rather than an external one. As the Buddha famously said in the Dhammapada,

Though one may conquer a thousand times a thousand men in battle,
yet he indeed is the noblest victor who conquers himself. (103)

Most of the Buddha’s teachings involve working upon one’s internal, psychological state in order to bring oneself to a place of selfless nonclinging. This is perhaps to be expected since the vast majority of his teachings were directed at monastics rather than laypeople.

Mundane Path

The mundane path however is also a valid part of early Buddhist dhamma, and should not be overlooked. Not only did the Buddha provide guidelines to ethical behavior, he also provided guidelines to skillful behavior in the home life, and skillful behavior for those who would rule. While Richard Gombrich says that the Buddha didn’t take “a serious interest in politics” (2006: 83), he nevertheless did provide guidelines that would allow those with such an interest to make claims on his behalf. In that sense Bhikkhu Bodhi is perfectly correct in pointing to a deep strain of social and political activism inherent in the Buddha’s message.

One cannot pursue the path successfully while working actively to harm others, to steal, to engage in sexual misconduct, to lie. This goes just as much for rulers as for the ruled. Much of what we are seeing in politics nowadays involves one or another of these wrong actions, and there is every reason to believe that were the Buddha alive today he would decry them.

For more on the details of this path I would suggest Bhikkhu Bodhi’s new collection, The Buddha’s Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony.

Unity

So both Bodhi and McLeod are correct, depending upon one’s perspective upon the particular path of practice. One begins as best one can with ethical action in the world, and progresses upon a personal journey towards coming to a different relationship with life. As this relationship matures however one finds that ethical actions become easier, less identified with self or with personal gain, purer and less conceptually considered.

Such action will tend to make the world a better place, whether or not that is our specific aim. So we can even pursue a path of world betterment without intending to. This is a way in which both paths unify: it is not that there is a choice we must make, to make the world a better place or to come to a different relationship with life. It’s that in making the world a better place we come to a different relationship with life. Or perhaps more accurately, in coming to a different relationship with life we make the world a better place.

If our coming to a different relationship with life were to leave the world the same or make it worse off, we would have to wonder what the point was of our journey. While some quietist strains of Buddhism do indeed claim that the journey is without a point, this is not the case with early Buddhism, and seems as well to run counter to the Bodhisattva ideal.

The Dalai Lama put it well in a recent (January 27) post on Facebook:

World peace can only be based on inner peace. If we ask what destroys our inner peace, it’s not weapons and external threats, but our own inner flaws like anger. This is one of the reasons why love and compassion are important, because they strengthen us. This is a source of hope.

That is, we strive for world peace in part by quiet work on inner peace. Through release of clinging we find release from anger. Through release of anger, we find a securer route to peace.

Secular Concerns

Bodhi tells us that the Buddha dhamma has deep lessons to teach people about social and political well being, and that therefore we ought to take such messages to our streets, towns, and statehouses. Nevertheless I think also as secularists we should take some pause and reflect upon the fraught nature of the relation between church and state, whatever that church might be. For one thing, there is the ever present threat of overreach. We see it in Buddhist states like Burma today. One may argue with reason that the policy of the Burmese government is not truly Buddhist: it runs counter to all the teachings. Nevertheless power does tend to corrupt.

For another thing, most states are multi-religious, including a large portion of “nones”. Any plan to elevate dhamma into politics will have to confront inevitable pushback from and compromise with those from other religions or from those who are anti-religious. It is easy to say, as Bodhi does, that Buddhist concerns transcend party politics. But the picture he gives of Buddhist ethics does as a matter of fact line up pretty well with ordinary left-wing concerns. That is, it will almost certainly be a package unwelcome to many right-wing evangelical Christians. This is not to say it shouldn’t be pursued, far from it. Only that pursuit of religiously associated ethical ideas will always be fraught with concern, particularly from a secular point of view. While many of us believe that Buddhist ethics is pragmatic and not inherently religious, such a claim will doubtless prove tendentious. Disagreement doesn’t make it so of course, but it is nevertheless something that must be kept in mind.

Conclusion

Contemporary Buddhist practitioners hold a range of views on how Buddhism intersects with politics. Some like Bodhi believe that there is need for an engaged Buddhist confrontation with political and social ills. Others like McLoud believe that Buddhism is inherently apolitical, perhaps even antipolitical, interested in private, personal development.

I have argued that both approaches can be found within early Buddhism, and that in fact these approaches do not necessarily conflict. Therefore one cannot look to Buddhism itself to decide which road to take, which path of practice to pursue. Either can be valid. Indeed both are valid.

That said, safeguarding peace and opportunity makes possible pursuit of the supramundane path. Such a path depends, at least to an extent, upon there being people who are willing to actively confront political ills. The same can be said of practice in the Buddha’s own day: while the early saṅgha did not engage in much political maneuvering (or at least so far as I know there is little evidence for it having done so within the Buddha’s lifetime), nevertheless the preservation and health of that saṅgha depended essentially on the goodwill of the Buddha’s powerful neighbors, and upon there being relative peace and safety within the land. When that peace and safety broke down centuries later, Buddhism simply did not survive in India.


Some related posts:

Nationalism and Engaged Buddhism

Idle Chatter About Kings: Political Speech

Cultivating Wisdom in an Era of Technological Change

Sati and Sociopolitics: Throwing the Buddha Out with the Bathwater


Bhikkhu Bodhi (2016). The Buddha’s Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony (Somerville, MA: Wisdom).

Richard Gombrich (2006). Theravāda Buddhism, 2nd Ed. (London: Routledge).

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Doug Smith

About the Author ()

Doug is Study Director of the Secular Buddhist Association. He has a PhD in Philosophy, with a minor in Buddhist philosophy and Sanskrit. In 2013 he completed the year-long Integrated Study and Practice Program with the BCBS and NYIMC. A long time scientific skeptic, he pursues a naturalized approach to practice. He is also interested in scholarship about the Tipiṭaka, and the theoretical and historical origins of the dhamma. Some of his writing can be found at academia.edu. He posts weekly videos at Doug's Secular Dharma on YouTube.

Comments (10)

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  1. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    The distinction between the mundane and supramundane paths has always bothered me, at least when they are presented as either/or options, as though the mundane path with its stress on ethical behaviour is only a palliative for those who can not aspire to the “real truth.” At best, this becomes an excuse for disengagment — allowing practioners to turn their backs on the problems of others rather than dealing with them, as either spirtual or practical concerns. At worst, it becomes permission to go beyond good & evil, falling into what James Witehill called the “transcendence trap.” (http://blogs.dickinson.edu/buddhistethics/files/2010/04/whitehil.pdf)

    I’m not, of course, suggesting that you present the distinction this way, nor do I think there is really much support for it in the Pali Canon. Gotama claimed to be an open handed teacher, with no hidden doctrine. The supramundane (an unfortunate term), it seems to me, builds on the mundane & must incorperate it, not negate it. It seems to me that the trick is not to learn to ignore the the problems of the world, but to learn to deal with them skillfully, without the ego-attachment that blurs and distorts compassionate concern. I don’t know anything in the Canon that is unambiguously incompatible with this interpretation.

    Easier said than done, of course. In the unsettled post US election atmosphere, I think a lot of us are having trouble finding internal peace, even when trying to focuss on more personal issues. I think it may be easier for some of us (I mean me) to grapple with personal problems while sitting than with the state of the world. I can’t manage to keep the broad world out even if I try, and I think it would be a delusion to believe that I can escape by grasping at some sort of supermundane or transcendental “truth.”

    • Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

      It’s that amazing that I can proof-read a comment multiple times and still leave a typo in the last line (and probably others), and manage to mangle James Whitehill’s name to “Witehill.”

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Thanks for your comments Michael, agreed. I think a lot of confusion can stem from taking these as separate, conflicting paths. That said, individual practitioners may find themselves on one or the other, and as such, may (at least for a time) express no interest in the path they are not on at that time. Viz., these two articles above. That’s fine, so long as it’s understood that these are personal decisions rather than some kind of doctrinal matter.

      “I think it would be a delusion to believe that I can escape by grasping at some sort of supermundane or transcendental “truth.””

      Yes, this would be a delusion indeed. The supramundane path (the term is a bit unfortunate, but I don’t know of a better one) is a path of global nongrasping, so pursuing that path through grasping would get one nowhere.

      Ah, and no worries about the typos!

  2. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    Agreed on all points, Doug.

  3. Michael Slott says:

    Doug – Following up on Michael’s comment, I think that you offered a clear and useful explanation of how the mundane and supramundane paths are both valued in early Buddhism; and that they should be seen not as diametrically opposed paths, but as complementary approaches. You also correctly pointed out that there is no basis for claiming that either an engaged, politically active Buddhism or a Buddhist practice focused solely on individual transformation represents the “real” Buddhism.

    My concern is not with your analysis of the paths of practice in early Buddhism, but whether the early Buddhist distinction between a mundane and a supramundane path is itself useful for contemporary secular Buddhists. First, this distinction was developed in the context of a social reality that no longer exists. As you noted, the two paths were each seen at that time as appropriate for a particular group of people: the mundane for lay people and the supramundane for monastics. While a few people have embraced the monastic life, the vast majority of Buddhist practitioners today are not monastics but people who have families, jobs, and social relationships embedded in our culture and economy.

    Within this group – which includes you, I, and I assume almost all the readers of this blog post – there are a whole range of ways in which the path of ethical action and the path of self-transformation to a state of non-clinging interact and/or are held in tension. If you asked a contemporary practitioner to determine whether she/he is following a mundane or supramundane path, the distinction would not make sense to most of us. A socially engaged Buddhist in today’s society is just as likely to seek to self-transformation as a serious practitioner who eschews social activism.

    In our time and culture, a more important distinction is between those who use meditation methods based on Buddhist practices for useful but non-transformative purposes (such as stress release) and those practitioners who believe that Buddhist insights entail a more radical change, both individually and (perhaps) socially.

    Second, while you say that “no supernatural elements are strictly necessary to comprehend the scope of the supramundane path,” from a secular Buddhist perspective, I don’t see how the goal of achieving a state of “global non-clinging” is consistent with secular Buddhism’s naturalism. You note in your response to Michael that the term “supramundane” may be unfortunate, but that you don’t know of a better one to describe the path of global non-clinging. Well, I would question why we, as secular Buddhists, should recognize such a goal which entails, in my view, a non-natural state, whether understood as the result of a psychological process or an experience of a different realm of reality. Instead, as I have previously argued on this blog, the goal should be to shift, through ethical action, meditation, and wisdom, our way of being in the world from a life primarily based on clinging to a life in which non-clinging plays a more significant role.

    Rather than retain the notion of two paths, we need to see individual self-development and social transformation as interacting aspects of one developmental process.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Hi Michael and thanks for the comment. I am not sure we are disagreeing so much as framing the issue in different ways.

      While the early tradition did involve a distinction between laypeople and monastics, as you know one of the major transformations of Buddhist modernism has been to more or less collapse that distinction. It’s no longer the case that laypeople and monastics have such different paths. The major transformation has been with the lay audience in particular. There were always monastics who were more interested in study, or in social aspects of urban monastic living; but there have not always been laypeople as engaged in study and practice as today.

      Just to take one example, Ken McLeod, author of the above piece extolling the supramundane path as against “engaged Buddhism”, is a lay practitioner, not a monk. So one has to be careful not to assume that the distinction between mundane and supramundane paths maps onto the contemporary distinction between lay and monastic, as it used to.

      One part of your response confuses me. You say you “don’t see how the goal of achieving a state of “global non-clinging” is consistent with secular Buddhism’s naturalism.” I am not sure what you mean. Non-clinging is consistent with both naturalism and supernaturalism. Nonclinging means that we strive not to cling to (= identify with) anything. It means finding our way to global anatta. This is so whether we believe in devas and rebirth or whether we do not.

      Additionally of course an attitude of global non-clinging includes an attitude of non-clinging to views. As I have argued before, this does not mean the non-having of views (that would be impossible, not to mention impractical), but rather the holding of views lightly, without attachment.

      Is it possible to reach a state of complete and permanent non-clinging? I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. And I think you agree, since you say that our goal “should be to shift … to a life in which non-clinging plays a more significant role.” Yes, precisely. This path toward non-clinging is traditionally termed the “supramundane path”. The mundane path isn’t about clinging or non-clinging per se, it’s about ethical action.

      You may not find these terms (mundane, supramundane) useful to your practice. If so that’s fine. No terms are useful for everyone. I point them out because I think it’s interesting to know how current practice can be informed by the historical texts, and I find the terms useful in my own approach to practice.

      That said, we are in agreement that both paths are in the final analysis best seen “as interacting aspects of one developmental process” in your words. They aren’t really two separate paths so much as two aspects of one path.

      • Michael Slott says:

        Doug – It’s always enjoyable and worthwhile to exchange views with you. Even if we’re not fully in agreement, I always gain a deeper appreciation of the issues.

        I think you’re right that we don’t frame this issue in quite the same way, which probably has to do with the different ways we’ve encountered Buddhism and differences in our political and philosophical perspectives. In discussing my own views, I don’t in any way assume that they are “correct” in some objective sense, but that they have been helpful to me; and I put them forward in the hope that others in the SBA community will find something useful or clarifying in them.

        So, in that spirit, I just want to say a few more words about why I don’t find the notion of the supramundane path and the goal of global non-clinging useful or meaningful.

        Global or complete non-clinging is a state in which we are fully released from desire, hatred, and delusion. It is a form of existence in which we have achieved the unconditioned, or Nibbana. How is it possible for a human being, a biological organism whose existence is always conditioned, to achieve such a state? Even when we think, feel, speak, and act with kindness, compassion, and wisdom, and when desire, hatred, and anger are in the background so to speak, we are still conditioned human beings. So why even make reference to or posit as a goal such an unconditioned state like global non-clinging?

        When I say that the goal of practice should be to live in the world in such a way that non-clinging is more of a factor, I am not saying that the path is oriented toward global non-clinging. To me, that would be like saying: “I want to live a longer and healthier life so I am going to try to cultivate good habits and practices, such as eating well, exercising, getting enough sleep, etc. And the ultimate purpose and end of that path is immortality.” No, I’m just trying to live a longer, healthier life within a finite lifespan.

        So, in striving to make non-clinging more of a factor in my life (both to benefit myself and others), I do so within the finite and conditioned existence of a human being.

        • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

          Thank you Michael for your thoughts. I agree that it is good to exchange opinions, since even though we may not necessarily come to agreement we at least may learn that the scope of possibilities is larger.

          If global non-clinging were physically impossible, as immortality pretty clearly is, then I would agree with your take on it. But I am not convinced that it is. It seems we have even moments of global non-clinging (global non-greed, non-hatred, non-delusion), and if so, then global non-clinging is something that can be verified in the moment in a way that for example immortality can never be, even theoretically.

          Now, there is a difference in the older texts between episodic global non-clinging (something that may come and go) and the uprooting of the tendency to cling. Only the latter is classified as nibbāna. Is it possible to uproot this tendency? As I say, I don’t know. I do know it is possible to lessen it, so that it comes up less frequently and with less force. I do not believe there is anything strictly non-naturalistic in believing it may be uprooted completely. (Though of course this would partly depend on vicissitudes of the aging brain). So even on this stricter criterion I do not think this can be compared to (e.g.) hoping for immortality, which is delusional.

  4. Martin B says:

    Not being sufficiently well-versed in the texts, I feel a certain wariness about entering this debate, except that it is one that has haunted me for a long time.

    Tibetan Buddhist teachers often use the metaphor of leather: you cannot cover the world’s surface with leather to protect your feet, but you can wear sandals. The way this was interpreted to me was to suggest you should withdraw from trying to ‘fix the world’ and concentrate on fixing your self. I was always instinctively uncomfortable with this: more relevant seemed to me what Thich Nhat Hanh describes as Interbeing, which I feel could be a useful addition to the Three Signs of Being (except it is probably the ground of these three for all beings).

    However, I do agree with the points made by all the previous contributors about the link between attending to oneself spiritually at least as much as attempting to intervene wisely in the world and letting each part of the path inform the other – this seems to me to be no more than a broader, less passive understanding of Right Livelihood. The two parts of the path work together. Perhaps the balance between the two needs to be varied, so that we do not act out of haste or lack of wisdom and we do not burn ourselves out with activity alone.

    What I would particularly caution against is using Buddhism as some form of identity politics, or of presenting it as an ideology to be proselytised, as perhaps happens in some Asian nations and has happened in the past where different schools have warred with each other for political influence. It is very tricky to avoid falling into hard and fast ‘views’. I admire Thich Nhat Hanh, without being a follower, remembering what he tried to do in the context of the Vietnam War – an extreme circumstance in which it was not possible to stand aside. We have much to learn from the modern example of people like him and the Dalai Lama (and probably others with whom I am less familiar).

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