Saturday, August 28, 2010

The knitty gritty of "engaged" spirituality, Buddhist style

From Katie Loncke's Blog, republished at the Buddhist Channel. I have offered critiques on similar topics before, but Katie really seems to have struck a chord... or nerve:

As Buddhists and dhamma practitioners, I would love to see us having more conversations about what compassion and social change actually look like: locally, on the ground, in practice. Because it’s too easy for us to invoke these words — compassion, inner work, social change — and assume that everyone is on the same page.

The truth is, we’re not all on the same page. And it’s not until after the event is over, on the subway ride home, when a gaggle of us start discussing in detail the relationship between inner and outer work, that these fundamental differences emerge, sharp and cold, like mountain peaks, from the soothing golden fog of Buddhist unity.


Especially in Buddhist communities that prize extended retreat time, a decade of study with a realized Asian master, and this sort of removal from everyday householder affairs, there’s a danger of trying to build our sanghas into utopias, and assuming that they will automatically radiate peace and well-being into the world. Might be true on an individual or small-group level, but why should we believe that we can scale up well-being from personal transformation to world peace, without specific strategies for tackling enormous material systems?
I still think engaged Buddhists could learn a lot from looking at the Christian models for solidarity with the poor and disenfranchised, incorporating social justice into spiritual practice, and the like. Just because the media coverage is dominated by the far right Christians and their fundamentalist political agendas, the greater and often less well-known efforts of other priests, religious and laity should not be neglected.


  1. Hi tinythinker! I totally agree that Buddhists and dhamma practitioners (some of whom are Christian!) have a lot to learn from radical Christians and, basically, those who truly look to learn from Jesus. Right now I live and work in a community center (The Faithful Fools) co-founded by an awesome Franciscan nun, where our main work is solidarity and healing with poor and homeless folks in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco. And my dhamma practice has helped to give me a much richer appreciation of the beauty of Christianity (and liberation theology).

    Have there been any books, passages, groups, thinkers, etc. that have especially inspired you on the Christian social justice front? I feel like the Catholic Worker movement and the SCLC immediately come to mind for me (and of course I've been learning more about St. Francis and Franciscans), but there's probably so much I don't know about, and would love some more recommendations.

    Thanks for your thoughts, and take care!

    ~katie loncke

  2. Faithful Fools -- I've heard of it through reading the blog of the Nichiren Buddhist Rev. Ryuei :)

    I am one of those people who connect to both the Buddha and Jesus, but I probably don't know much more than you if any about sources of inspiration. I am not sure where to start with recommendations, so I'll just go with what pops into my mind first. For that I would go with the late Brother Wayne Teasdale and his book A Monk in the World as well as The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborn, one of the founders of The Simple Way. I'm not sure if it's what you're looking for, but I read Tattoos on the Heart at the beginning of summer and was moved by it as well.

    As for passage, I guess I would go with some of the standards where the Bible is concerned: Isaiah 1:10-17; Micah 6:6-8; Matthew 5:1-10, 38-48; 1st John 2:7-10, 3:16-20, 4:7-8. They give a nice taste of what the book has to say on social justice :)

    Some of my favorites are when Jesus is describing the Kingdom of Heaven in parables, but they take a bit of historical and cultural framing. I have found authors like Fr. Thomas Keating useful in helping with this. His take on the parable of the Wedding Feast (which appears in Matthew and Luke) is particularly interesting -- a wealthy man invites his rich neighbors to a banquet but none will come because they are too busy. So he tells his servant, "Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame." When there is still more room at the table, he tells his servant to go grab people from "the roads and country lanes", which would have brought in tax collectors, foreigners, perhaps even prostitutes.

    As Keating and others have pointed out, the people gathered at the table would have been from all backgrounds and classes, some poorly dressed, many if not most uncomfortable at first in the mixed company because of their roles in life before coming to the feast. Yet there they are all dining and having fellowship together in peace. This is a beautiful image of the Kingdom of God. Other are more obscure, such as the Parable of the Leaven and the Parable of the Mustard Seed (I prefer the "subversive and scandalous" take on it myself).

    I hope that helps :) Thank you for stopping by and sharing. Be well!

  3. Even the far right wing Fundamentalist Christians aren’t as bad as everyone seems to want to believe them to be, and often themselves engage in social outreaches.

    I think your right though, it seems the reason Christians aren’t looked at as a model, or even Christianity as a religion that can produce any good, is because of the media depiction of it as Hypocrite filled bigotry.

  4. True Zarove, and many are now breaking ranks with political conservatism to support things like strong green/environmental initiatives. But many people only know Christianity from seeing hateful speeches on TV or reading about them in print, and just automatically associate all Christians with extreme right politics just as some associate all Muslims with terrorism and misogyny. My goal wasn't to insult conservative-leaning Christians, but to encourage those with a knee-jerk reaction to Christianity to take a deeper look.

  5. But at the smae time, you take shots at Political COnservativesm and equate RIght Wing with Hate. Coudln't someone else equate left wing Rants as Hate?

    The Riht calls the left hateful as often as the Left calls the Right Hateful, but I know plenty of Right Wing Christians who aren't all that Hateful.

    Even fithey arne't into Global Warming, or prefered Bush to Obama.

  6. I didn't equate the right with hate. I talked about hateful speech by Christians published or broadcast to national audiences. These are typically associated with political movements on the right. That doesn't mean people on the left don't hate nor that all people on the right do, but Christian vitriol in the media is usually affiliated with conservative politics whereas their bitter counterparts on the left are frequently irreligious. I see no need to try to make everything an equivalence, or to suggest that one side is as bad as the other. I am describing the image many in the United States, especially in the Buddhist community, frequently hold of Christian activism. The goal isn't to start a political debate but to make a call to look beyond politics.

  7. I know, hence why. Your statement may lead people to think Right Wing Christians, esp. those who don't "Break ranks", are all vitriolic, and only Left Wing Christians somehow are tolerant and have something worthy to say.

    To look past politics you shouldn't use its language at all, else the Buddhist Community may come away thinking only Liberal Christians are in any way reasonable.


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