The Dharma of Social Transformation

Charles Johnson argues that in cutting the root of our own suffering, we can't help but confront the suffering of society.

Charles Johnson

©Bettman/Corbis

WHENEVER I'M ASKED IF the dharma makes possible social transformations that are relevant for the specific and seemingly endless problems of the world today (and I'm asked this often), I find myself considering that question in light of a provocative critique presented forty-five years ago by Paul Tillich, the great Christian theologian, who called Buddhism "one of the greatest, strangest, and at the same time most competitive of the religions proper." In 1963, Tillich published Christianity and the Encounter of World Religions, a series of lectures he gave one year after his return from a nine-week lecture tour in Japan in 1960. In the book's third chapter, "A Christian-Buddhist Conversation," Tillich takes up the social and ethical consequences, as he sees them, of his religion in contrast to the Buddha-dharma. Regarding his faith, he states that a Christian's dedication to the passages in the New Testament that describe agape—an unconditional love for others—translates into an energetic form of the social gospel that emphasizes "the will to transform individual as well as social structures."

"The Kingdom of God has a revolutionary character," wrote Tillich. "Christianity . . . shows a revolutionary force directed toward a radical transformation of society. . . . Most of the revolutionary movements in the West—liberalism, democracy, and socialism—are dependent on it, whether they know it or not. There is no analogy to this in Buddhism. Not transformation of reality but salvation from reality is the basic attitude. . . . No belief in the new in history, no impulse for transforming society, can be derived from the principle of Nirvana."

Tillich quickly concedes that a conquering, self-confident will may be problematic because it "leads to the attitude of technical control of nature which dominates the Western world." But for Tillich, while Buddhism's version of agape—metta, or lovingkindness toward all sentient beings—can lead to identification with the Other, and thus to empathy, nevertheless "something is lacking: the will to transform the other one either directly or indirectly by transforming the sociological and psychological structures by which he is conditioned."

It is here that the dialogue between Buddhists and Christians (and possibly some social activists) reaches a "preliminary end" for Tillich. At the end of the chapter, Tillich imagines this exchange between a Buddhist priest and a Christian philosopher:  

The Buddhist priest asks the Christian philosopher: "Do you believe that every person has a substance of his own which gives him true individuality?" The Christian answers, "Certainly!" The Buddhist priest asks, "Do you believe that community between individuals is possible?" The Christian answers affirmatively. Then the Buddhist says, "Your two answers are incompatible; if every person has a substance, no community is possible." To which the Christian replies, "Only if each person has a substance of his own is community possible, for community presupposes separation. You, Buddhist friend, have identity, but not community."

The distinguished Zen teacher and scholar Masao Abe praised Tillich for being "the first great Christian theologian in history who tried to carry out a serious confrontation between Christianity and Buddhism in their depths." His influence on spirituality in America has been wide and deep; among those he inspired was Martin Luther King, Jr., who based his goal of achieving the "beloved community" on the concept of agape and devoted his dissertation at Boston University to Tillich ("A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman").

To my eyes, Tillich's assessment of the social and political shortcomings of Buddhism leaves a good deal to be desired, especially since it does not account for the "engaged Buddhism" that emerged in the 1960s. Nevertheless, his sincere misgivings are shared by many non-Buddhists, as well as by some new members of the American convert community as they struggle to integrate their practice into a contemporary need for political activism, which for over two millennia was judiciously separated from the Buddha-dharma by traditional Buddhist monastics. As students of the dharma, we should be able to clarify Tillich's questions - the relationship between Buddhist practice and our political commitments, and how anatta (no-self) fits with a sense of community. This begins with mindfulness of how key historical figures and principles of Buddhism anticipate and resolve the question "Is a will toward social transformation lacking in traditional Buddhism?"

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