Socially Engaged Buddhism for the New Millenium
Essays in Honor of the Ven. Phgra Dhammapitaka (Bhikkhu P. A. Payutto) On His 60th Birthday Anniversary
Edited by Sulak Sivaraksa, Pipob Udomittipong, and Chris Walker
Sathirakoses-Nagapradipa Foundation and Foundation for Children: Bangkok, 1999
(Distributed by Parallax Press, Berekely)
536 pp.; $38 (paper)
Thai Inter-Religious Commiission for Development, Sathirakoses-Nagapradipa Foundation: Bangkok, 1999
(Distributed by Parallax Press, Berkeley)
171 pp.; $15 (paper)
The Wheel of Engaged Buddhism
Weatherhill: New York, Tokyo, 1999
104 pp.; $12.95 (paper)
These three books contribute to a growing body of work on the social face of contemporary Buddhism. While significantly different in scope and focus, each one advances the idea that suffering, as taught by the Buddha in the Four Noble Truths, must be understood to include the victimization of persons and communities in a world of multinational corporations, environmental degradation, and media violence. Surely hatred, greed, and delusion, the three mental poisons in traditional Buddhist psychology, lie behind the exploitation of workers, consumers, and marginalized groups today, but the antidote can no longer be limited to spiritual practice for the victims. Spiritual and social transformation must go hand and hand.
Socially Engaged Buddhism for the New Millennium is the most ambitious collection of essays on the new Buddhism yet to appear. Comprising 37 essays by scholars, activists, monks, and lay commentators from a dozen countries in Asia and the West, this large-format paperback is dedicated to Venerable Prayudh Payutto (also known in Thailand as Dhammapitaka, Rajavaramuni, and Debvedi), a Theravada scholar-monk who has applied the ancient practice of “wise attention” (Pali yoniso-manasikara) to problems in contemporary economics, science, environmental studies, and education. The essays treat a breathtaking range of topics, including globalization and consumerism, the idolatry of the nation-state, corporate capitalism, and mechanistic science.
Among the highlights in this collection is an update of the forty-year-old Sarvodaya Shramadana village development movement in Sri Lanka—now active in 11,300 of the island’s 25,000 villages, despite the ongoing civil war—by its founder Dr. A. T. Ariyaratne. The author shows how traditional teachings of the Dhamma, such as generosity, morality, impartiality, and non-violence, may be translated into concrete programs of “uplift for all” (sarvodaya) through the sharing of voluntary work (shramadana). Drawing on well-known Theravada sources, Ariyaratne acknowledges the necessary role of a benevolent state in preserving natural resources and curbing organized greed. Yet he argues that spirituality is expressed and measured by a community’s overall health, education, environmental protection, social harmony, and the treatment of its weakest members: women, children, and the disabled.
Sulak Sivaraksa, honorary editor of the Millennium volume and founder of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, is the author of Global Healing. Jailed and prosecuted on several occasions for criticism of the Thai government, Sulak was nominated in 1994 for the Nobel Peace Prize by the American Friends Service Committee, which called him “a courageous and articulate voice for peace, human rights, and social justice.”
Sulak relates traditional Buddhist teachings to what he calls “structural violence” in a world globalized by McDonald’s, Hollywood, and the International Monetary Fund. Like Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen master and coiner of the term “engaged Buddhism,” Sulak challenges Buddhists to “look more deeply” at themselves and the world.
Most so-called Buddhists do not look very deeply into themselves. But if someone has come to understand himself or herself well, the next step is to confront suffering, that is, to follow the first of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. But how do we find the cause of suffering when greed, hatred, and delusion are institutionalized and structural? We have to understand and transform the structures. We have to see how greed is present in consumerism and capitalism; how hatred is linked with centralization, state power, and the military; how delusion is present in our education and media. We can change those structures through the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path. But without personal transformation, social or structural transformation is not possible.
For Sulak social activism, such as writing letters of dissent to editors and public officials, can be—should be—an integral part of Buddhist practice, not simply an afterthought left to the political fringe.
For Buddhists unfamiliar with the dharma of social action and service, Kenneth Kraft’s The Wheel of Engaged Buddhism is just the ticket. Written in a friendly yet thought-provoking style, this “new map of the path” is illustrated by an original mandala, a circle of symbols created by Kraft, a professor of religious studies at Lehigh University and former board president of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. The wheel consists of concentric circles containing icons (we cyber-Buddhists love icons) that evoke dimensions of compassionate service: “moving into the world” (lotus flower radiating rays); “cultivating awareness of daily life” (hand holding a drinking glass); “embracing family” (child’s hand in adult’s hand); “working with others” (handshake); “participating in politics” (hands releasing dove); “caring for the earth” (hand watering flower); and so forth.
In his commentary, Kraft interweaves the insights and advice of a growing, international community of socially engaged Buddhists working and writing today—figures like the Dalai Lama, Robert Aitken, Gary Snyder, Joanna Macy, Bernard Glassman, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Stephanie Kaza, Donald Rothberg, Maylie Scott, Robert Thurman, and many more. Their message is simple: the Dharma consists of wisdom and compassion. Wisdom means “practices that enhance inner and outer awareness,” including “incisive analysis of social conditions and social change” that cause human suffering and its relief. Compassion entails “effective involvement in the world (including the environment)” in order to liberate all beings from the bondage of hatred, greed, delusion, and their social manifestations, prejudice, poverty, and political violence.
Kraft ends his tour of the Wheel of Engaged Buddhism by suggesting that bodhisattvas, future Buddhas, should be walking, if not running—out into the world, a world crying for mindful attention and skillful help. The authors of our other new books would seem to agree: too much sitting doth a dull Buddhist make.
Christopher S. Queen teaches Buddhist studies at Harvard University and has edited Engaged Buddhism: Buddhist Liberation Movements in Asia (with Sallie B. King), American Buddhism: Methods and Findings in Recent Scholarship (with Duncan Ryuken Williams), and Engaged Buddhism in the West.