Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Non-engaged Buddhism?

Let me ask you something: What is non-engaged Buddhism?

This is a much more revealing question that "What is engaged Buddhism?", since it really requires you to think very carefully about what that term even means. For example, one can argue that developing compassion, loving-kindness, patient acceptance, and equanimity is a way to positively engage with your community and through that to positively impact the society in which you love. Or one can argue that such awareness can directly improve the well-being of others through a shared root consciousness. One could try to use various methods of cultivation of awareness and empathy, such as breathing exercises and visualization, as a way to address the negative stress afflicting many people. Do those count as engaged Buddhism?

One way of answering such a question is to connect engagement to social movements that aim to reshape some major aspect of society, such as abolishing the death penalty or supporting marriage equality. Many of these social movements blend into progressive political activism, which then leads to the question of what makes engaged Buddhism, well,  Buddhist, other than the people engaging happen to identify as Buddhists? By trying to argue that Buddhist principles, axioms about the nature of existence, or the ideals of Bodhisattvahood or Buddhahood support or require such activism?

It is sometimes suggested that traditional Asian Buddhism is all about escaping the physical world into a spiritual bliss of liberation from form, and so the Western emphasis is exclusive in caring about social concerns rather than personal enlightenment. Yet there is a strong history in some traditionally Buddhist countries in which it was believed that supporting the right form and practice of religion would cause the society to prosper. So maybe it is more of a matter of the nature of the relationship between Buddhism and social being and how this is mediated.

Here are two examples to help you consider and reflect on the matter. First, we have the Dr. Rev. Danny Fisher, coordinator of the Buddhist Chaplaincy Program at the University of the West. He regularly circulates petitions calling for social justice via social media. He takes his students to Skid Row, advertises ways to support Buddhist Global Relief through T-shirt sales, and endorses  the sale of badges supporting workers and children in traditionally Buddhist countries which simultaneously promote environmental activism. That is, when he isn't blogging for sites such Shambhala Sun and Buddhadharma or writing books.

Next we have Ittetsu Nemoto, a Japanese Zen Buddhist priest trained as a monk in the Rinzai tradition. According to a profile on his work that appeared in The New Yorker, after becoming the chief priest in at a rural temple, he decided he wanted to use his interest and experience in talking with people about their suffering to help those who felt suicidal. He has organized workshops and field trips for those who have seriously contemplated killing themselves, including practices and rituals in which participants can more readily face and discuss the prospect of death. This has helped many of those who have made the trip to visit him. According to the profile, he thinks one can gain great insight from suffering, and that life is a precious gift even when it is seems hard.

So do either, both, or neither qualify as engaged Buddhists? Are they Buddhists who happened to be engaged? And does it matter which it is? Share your thoughts in the ample space in the comment section.

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