Saturday, November 23, 2013

Buddhism and Social Action

Amber Larson, Ashley Wells, Wisdom Quarterly; Ken Jones, "Buddhism and Social Action: An Exploration" (Paul Ingram, editor, Buddhist Society's journal The Middle Way (Vol. 54, No. 2)
WARNING: Graphic self-immolation! A harmful and condemnable act of suicide conflating Hindu and Mahayana Buddhist concepts praising martyrdom in the name of "protest" -- bringing attention to U.S. War on Vietnam abuses by a Zen Buddhist monk. This harmful idea currently modern Tibetan monastic extremists.

1.1 Buddhism and the new global society
Protester (Time/Ted Soqui/Shepard Fairey)
It is the manifest suffering (dukkha, disappointment, lack of fulfillment, unsatisfactoriness, misery) and folly (moha, delusion, wrong view, avijja ignorance) in the world that invokes humane and compassionate social action in its many different forms.

For Buddhists this situation raises fundamental and controversial questions. And here, also, Buddhism has implications of some significance for Christians, humanists, and other non-Buddhists. By "social action" we mean the many different kinds of action intended to benefit humankind.
These range from simple individual acts of charity, teaching, and training, organized kinds of service, "right livelihood" (nonharmful survival) in and outside the helping professions, and through various kinds of community development as well as to political activity in working for a better society.

(Nati) Burmese Theravada monks lead Saffron Revolution against dictator
Occupy L.A. activist (WQ)
Buddhism is a pragmatic teaching that starts from certain fundamental propositions about how we experience the world and how we act in it. It teaches that it is possible to transcend this sorrow-laden world of our experience and is concerned first and last with ways of achieving that transcendence.

What finally leads to such transcendence is what we call wisdom (paññā or prajna). The enormous literature of Buddhism is not a literature of revelation and authority. Instead, it uses ethics and meditation, philosophy and science, art and poetry to point a way to this wisdom.
Similarly, Buddhist writing on social action, unlike secular writings, makes finite proposals which must ultimately refer to this wisdom, but which also are arguable in terms of our common experience.
In the East, Buddhism developed different "schools" or "traditions," serving the experiences of different cultures, ranging from Theravada Sri Lanka through Vajrayana Tibet and Mongolia to Zen Japan. Buddhism may thus appear variously as sublime humanism, magical mysticism, poetic paradox, and much else.

"Anonymous" NSA/CIA spy
These modes of expression, however, all converge upon the fundamental teaching, the "perennial Buddhism." Drawing upon the different Asian traditions to present the teachings in an attempt to relate them to our modern industrial Western society.
From the evidence of the Buddha's discourses, or sutras in the "Long Discourses" (Digha Nikaya), it is clear that early Buddhists were very much concerned with the creation of social conditions favorable to the individual cultivation of Buddhist values. 

An outstanding example of this, in later times, is the remarkable "welfare state" created by the Buddhist emperor, Asoka (B.C.E. 274-236). Ven. Walpola Rahula stated the situation -- perhaps at its strongest -- when he wrote:

"Buddhism arose in India as a spiritual force against social injustices, against degrading. superstitious rites, ceremonies, and sacrifices; it denounced the tyranny of the caste system and advocated the equality of all [people]; it emancipated woman and gave her complete spiritual freedom."
- Ven. Rahula (1978)

Lula, Freedom's daughter (
Buddhist scriptures indicate the general direction of Buddhist social thinking, and to that extent they are suggestive for our own times. Nevertheless it would be pedantic, and in some cases absurd, to apply directly to modern industrial society social prescriptions detailed to meet the needs of social order which flourished 2[6] centuries ago.
The Buddhist householder of the "Advice to Householders Discourse" (Sigalovada Sutta, DN 31) experienced a different way of life from that of a computer consultant in Tokyo or an unemployed black youth in Liverpool [England].

And the conditions which might favor their cultivation of the Middle Way must be secured by correspondingly different -- and more complex -- social, economic, and political strategies.
It is therefore essential to attempt to distinguish between perennial Buddhism on the one hand and, on the other hand, the specific social prescriptions attributed to the historical Buddha which related the basic, perennial teaching to the specific conditions of his day.

(Blazing Wisdom) Buddhism: Philosophy, Religion, or Science of Mind

We believe that it is unscholarly to transfer the scriptural social teaching uncritically and with careful qualification to modern societies, or to proclaim that the Buddha was a democrat and an internationalist. The modern terms "democracy" and "internationalism" did not exist in the sense in which we understand them in the emergent feudal society in which the Buddha lived.

Buddhism is ill-served in the long run by such special pleading. On the other hand, it is arguable that there are democratic and internationalist implications in the basic Buddhist teachings.
Wat Maha Leap, Cambodia (BokehCambodia/flickr)
In the past 200 years society in the West has undergone a more fundamental transformation than at any period since Neolithic times, whether in terms of technology or the world of ideas. And now in the East, while this complex revolution is undercutting traditional Buddhism, it is also stimulating Asian Buddhism; in the West it is creating problems and perceptions to which Buddhism seems particularly relevant.
Throughout its history Buddhism has been successfully reinterpreted in accordance with different cultures, while at the same time preserving its inner truths. In this way has Buddhism spread and survived.
The historic task of Buddhists, both East and West, in the 21st century is to interpret perennial Buddhism in terms of the needs of industrial humans in the social conditions of their time and to demonstrate its acute and urgent relevance to the ills of society.

(PS) Zucotti Park: Buddhist monk visits Occupy Wall St. protests
To this great and difficult enterprise Buddhists will bring their traditional boldness and humility. For certainly this is no time for clinging to dogma and defensiveness. More

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