Engaged Buddhists, Not Engaged Buddhism

The theme at our dhamma center for the last few months has been engaged Buddhism. We’ve had a string of well-intentioned teachers coming in to talk about Thich Nhat Hanh, climate change, Eric Garner, and the like. The appeal of engaged Buddhism for most Buddhists is obvious: climate change, racism, economic inequality and the like are clear injustices, and it would be wonderful if Buddhism could address these things directly. And on top of it, Buddhist luminaries like Thich Nhat Hanh, Bhikkhu Bodhi, and Jack Kornfield are clearly out in front on these issues.

The drawback is less obvious, particularly to people whose circle of friends is limited: all of these issues are lefty political issues. Convert Western Buddhists are overwhelmingly politically left. Or at least leftish. It is not unusual, of course, for sects or churches to skew politically. Indeed, most churches I’ve ever been to have an overwhelming political affiliation that is identifiable the second you walk in the door. Whether it’s the Unitarian Church with the lesbian pastor or the Baptist Church with the “IF GOD CREATED MAN AS  APES  –  WE  WOULD LOOK LIKE APES”  sign our front (here), religion and politics are never that far apart.

This is sometimes a wonderful thing. Both the US Civil Rights movement and the Indian anti-colonial movement were primarily religious movements. But opposite is at least as often the case. The Crusades were, after all, religious crusades. Even within Buddhism, some of the most activist, politically engaged Buddhists are anti-Muslim activists in Burma. Not a pretty sight.

In any case, the inevitable happened in our little sangha. After a fiery dhamma talk decrying social injustice and opining for Engaged Buddhism: someone from the political right spoke up. She spoke in favor of policing and against the protesters. Most of my family are from the right, so I’m used to hearing these opinions voiced openly by people that I love and admire. But most of the sangha was left a little thunderstruck. There was an almost audible thought, “Who let her in here?” This is the drawback, the danger of engaged Buddhism. Saying that Buddhism should be engaged is very close, perhaps inevitably the same as saying, Buddhism should be political.

It was very dispiriting, and it was a prime example of what I’ve believed for a long time: we need engaged Buddhists, not engaged Buddhism.

Buddhism is about caring for the person in front of you. But Buddhism should not be political. This is not to say that Buddhists shouldn’t be political. For the most part it is impossible to actually entirely avoid politics. Getting up in the morning, going to work, and paying taxes are all political acts. Going to the forest and living as a hermit would be a political act, too. But taking a strong stand on political controversies will inevitable, inevitably, divide the sangha. This is why the Buddha said that talk of kings and generals and wars was not the task of the renunciate.


8 thoughts on “Engaged Buddhists, Not Engaged Buddhism

  1. What if we re-framed these as human challenges rather than calling them ‘left’ vs ‘right’ issues, and what if as dharma practitioners we understood our charge to alleviate suffering applies to communities as well as individuals? If the focus of our practice intention is to liberate ourselves and other beings from suffering, perhaps we can find inclusive ways to talk about that within our sanghas. Even if we disagree on strategies and approaches, I wonder if we could find common ground from this angle.

  2. Hello,

    Thank you for this article. I am that guy you wrote of: the one person with the non-left political view in the meditation group. I try to be polite and not say anything. As all of my family and friends are on the left (as I was) I can pass easily. However, I can’t lie or support a project I feel would cause harm, and often people express shock when I won’t sign a petition or support some other project.

    I think there are people who would benefit from the practice who don’t come to the Dhamma because of these issues.

    What I have found is far more taboo than having an unpopular political view, is saying things like.

    “Actually, the Buddha didn’t teach Vipassana”, “Actually, the Buddha didn’t teach Zen Koans….” “Actually, you don’t only have to focus only on the tip of your noise….” “Actually, the Buddha didn’t teach free love….” etc.

    That is what really gets me in trouble.

    Thank you again, this is definitely my favorite Buddhism blog. It’s some how more inspiring when lay people are as knowledgeable as you are.

  3. Thanks for the kind words. You are spot on with your comments with your comment about the Buddha not teaching Vipassana or Koans or Free Love. It’s amazing how the inconvenient realities about about what the Buddha taught just don’t get mentioned. I went to a lovely talk last night about Renunciation. But what got left out were all the things that people don’t want to hear, like the Buddha encourage abstinence and not drinking alcohol.

  4. Good post. I no longer practice at “Western” dharma centers primarily because of what I perceive to be as an obnoxious affiliation with with left wing causes. They cherry pick those parts of the dhamma that support their pet causes and ignore or explain away those parts that are not politically correct. I say this as someone who leans to the left on some issues and to the right on others. (Last time I voted it was marked for the democrats all the way down the ballot.).

    1. I’m sorry to hear that, but it’s very important for people to hear. And most of those folks would be horrified to hear of a dharma center advocating for right wing causes.

      So do you go to Asian American temples or just practice alone?

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