Aug. 23, 2007

Bhikkhu Bodhi Challenges Buddhists

Buddhadhamma Quarterly is possibly the finest Buddhist magazine available, always presenting thoughtful in-depth articles by leading teachers and scholars. In the current issue, Fall 2007, there is a thought provoking essay by Bhikkhu Bodhi (best known as translator of large chunks of the Sutta Pitaka.) You can read a long excerpt on the Buddhadhamma website; A Challenge to Buddhists. The gist of the piece is that Buddhists need to find ways to actively involve themselves in relieving the horrendous suffering experienced on this planet. As the Bhante puts it;

Seeing the immensity of the world’s anguish has raised in my mind questions about the future prospects for Buddhism in the West. I’ve been struck by how seldom the theme of global suffering—the palpable suffering of real human beings—is thematically explored... It seems to me that we Western Buddhists tend to dwell in a cognitive space that defines the first noble truth largely against the background of our middle-class lifestyles: as the gnawing of discontent; the ennui of over-satiation; the pain of unfulfilling relationships...our focus on these aspects of dukkha has made us oblivious to the vast, catastrophic suffering that daily overwhelms three-fourths of the world’s population.
Ah yes, the complacency of the "Upper Middle Path." While seeing some merit in the Engaged Buddhist movement, Bhikkhu Bodhi also sees some limitations;

while some Engaged Buddhists seek fresh perspectives from the dharma, for many Buddhism simply provides spiritual practices to use while simultaneously espousing socio-political causes not much different from those of the mainstream Left.
He goes on, in the remainder of the essay not yet posted on-line, to note how much more effective some organizations with Christian and Jewish roots have been (he cites World Vision and the Jewish World Service) than the much smaller Buddhist efforts. His conclusion;

The special challenge facing Buddhism in our age is to stand up as an advocate for justice in the world, a voice of conscience for those victims of social, economic nad political injustice who cannot stand up for themselves....This is, in my view, a deeply moral challenge...I believe it also points in a direction that Buddhism should take if it is to share in the Buddha's ongoing mission to humanity.
Bhikkhu Bodhi's essay raises two questions in my mind; why haven't Buddhists been more engaged in social and political action to relieve suffering? And how can we do better?

Bhikkhu Bodhi's critique mostly involves western Buddhists, and in the quotes above he cites the mostly middle class base and it's concern with purely personal manifestations of dukkha. That is a valid observation; most of the first or second generation converts to Buddhism in North America are above average in income and educational level. This is not in itself surprising or negative; the Buddha's own converts were disproportionately from the higher strata of Indian society. However, it has created a mind-set which finds it easier to relate to the dukkha of post-modern angst than to the dukkha of hunger.

It is also true that most new Buddhists are primarily drawn to the religion for the meditation, as a vehicle of self-help. Back in the 'sixties and 'seventies when various strands of Buddhism were first being imported to mainstream America, there was a conscious effort to avoid what were called disparagingly "cultural trappings" and to present the teachings in a form pretty much stripped down just to meditation. This was a tactical move that may have helped the initial early spread of the teaching, but led unfortunately to an unbalanced approach. I get the feeling that this trend has been turning around for at least ten years and that many western buddhists are looking for more than just a self-help practice.

It's not that western Buddhists are apolitical, on the contrary many are passionately committed to various causes, it is just that in most cases there isn't much intersection between their spiritual and political lives. Nor is there much of either community social work or political action coming from Buddhist institutional structures.

Is there a doctrinal aspect of Buddhism that hinders action in the world? Possibly. There is the underlying sense that this conditioned realm is inherently flawed and will always be so. However, there is also a very great emphasis on compassion for all beings caught in it. And there are plenty of scriptural references to the Buddha advising on how to live a comfortable and decent life within this world, and even commenting on what we would relate to as social or political questions.

Turning to the second question, what can we do about it? There may be many practical ways we can help relieve suffering, and some Buddhist groups are doing great work - the Sri Lankan Sarvodaya organization is a sterling example; founded way back in 1958. In the western countries, Buddhists have been active in hospice and prison work.

On the political side, I think we have to be wary of any organized "Buddhist Party." These have not always turned out happily in Asian countries. Better, in my opinion, to bring our Buddhist sensibilities to bear through existing structures.

But one thing I think would be very useful would be some attempt to formulate a coherent Buddhist vision of contemporary social issues and problems. (And we should acknowledge those who are working in that direction already, like the Buddhist Peace Fellowship)

Buddhism can have a lot to contribute to improving the dialogue. To begin with, we can try and transcend the us vs. them mentality that inflicts itself on so much political discourse, of the right and of the left. This is because the whole dichotomy of good and evil has no place in Buddhism. There is, instead, an analysis of actions into those which are skilful (relieving suffering) and unskilful (causing suffering.) This perspective alone, if widely disseminated, would improve both thought and action immensely.

The major issues of the early twenty-first century are the environment, war, poverty and liberty. All of these are closely related and need to be addressed holistically. Buddhism ultimately traces all of these problems to the three great roots of greed, hatred and delusion. This simple, but powerful, insight needs to be spun out and elaborated to define the various specific chains of causality, and to see where they can be effectively and compassionately addressed.

Hopefully I'll find time to spin out some of these ideas a bit more on this blog in the future. In the meanwhile, what do you think?