Can Buddhism Save the World? A Response to Nelson Foster
David R. Loy
Professor in the Faculty of International Studies, Bunkyo University, Chigasaki, Japan
(Nelson Foster's essay here)
Nelson Foster's important article "How Shall We Save the World?" raises questions that are crucial to engaged Buddhism: Why has institutional Buddhism been so conspicuously ready to accommodate inequalities and tyrannies? How did Buddhism serve beings, much less save them, by withdrawing from society? In order to fulfill the vow to save all beings, is personal self-cultivation and awakening enough?
Nelson begins by qualifying his remarks: he refers only to the Mahayana Buddhism of China and Japan, especially as manifested in Ch'an/Zen. This acknowledgment is significant. Buddhism not only arose in India, it still flourishes in many South Asian countries. How much did (and does) institutional Buddhism in South and Southeast Asia exemplify the same social and political indifference as East Asian Buddhism? And what do the differences between southern and eastern Buddhism reveal about the cultural appropriation of Buddhism? Both questions should be of special interest to us western Buddhists concerned about the acculturation of Buddhism to a very different type of civilization.
The little I know about South Asian Buddhism suggests a more complex situation than the one Nelson identifies in East Asia. A recent book by Steven Collins analyzing Buddhist ideology in pre-modern South Asia, Nirvana and Other Buddhist Felicities (Cambridge University Press, 1998), emphasizes a tension in Buddhism's social role. Pali texts were sometimes used to rationalize an exploitative status quo by emphasizing karma and rebirth to "naturalize" social hierarchies and elites (including the privileges of the monastic sangha), and by drawing parallels between Buddhas and rulers (kings as bodhisattvas). But other readings of Buddhist texts supported a very different ethics that challenged the role of rulers and viewed all violence, even state punishment, as immoral. The tension between these two seems to have been fundamental: Buddhist texts from all periods defend the authority of kings, and others from all periods show that all kings are bad. "There is no single and simple 'Buddhist' view of society, ideal or actual. Society, one might better say, is a prime site for the work of Buddhist culture, an inexhaustible fund of material on which the antagonistic symbiosis between clerics and kings could draw, to express both sides of the relationship" (496). The emphasis here on plurality and ambivalence seems especially important for engaged Buddhists such as myself who are often tempted to appeal to "the Buddhist perspective" for insight into our troubled times. I think that, rather than challenging the relevance of engaged Buddhism today, this implies that we need to accept more responsibility for a creative appropriation of Buddhist teachings in circumstances very different from Shakyamuni's - or from Chinese and Japanese Zen.
Why wasn't there the same tension within East Asian Buddhism? This brings us to the cultural differences between the Indian-influenced cultures of south Asia and the Chinese-influenced cultures to the northeast. The contrast between them is so striking that I sometimes wonder if those differences are stronger than any that can be found between "East" and "West". Why are they so different? One important factor, I think, is the "Axial revolution" which occurred 600 - 400 BCE in ancient Greece, Israel, and India, but only abortively in China and not at all in Japan. Many new teachings were thriving in India around the time of Shakyamuni. Other forest-dwellers also opted out of fixed social roles in order to create new visions of human and social possibility (compare the Hebrew prophets and Greek sophists, who did the same thing for their cultures). These visions led to new forms of authority outside traditional institutions and hierarchies. For Buddhism, this authority was embodied in the dharma and the sangha that endeavored to live by it. Such spiritual authority gained some independence in South Asia, but much less in East Asia, where rulers were less inclined to tolerate alternative centers of power. It is not that "social constraints inhibited political expression of the bodhisattva vow." Rather, non-Axialized societies which did not permit such forms of "civil society" did not create the "intellectual space" for alternative visions of the social order to arise. The possible challenge of early Confucianism was co-opted by making Confucianism official state ideology, and much the same happened with Chinese Buddhism later; unlike what occurred in the Axial cultures, very little "gap" was allowed between political and religious authority. This was even more true in Japan, whose rulers imported Buddhism as a more or less "magical" means to preserve the state - which for them meant their own power, of course. Brian Victoria's recent Zen at War (Weatherhill, 1998) documents at great length the nationalism and militarism of post-Meiji Zen, but the problem originates in the fact that Zen first became popular among the samurai classes because it helped them die and kill better for their daimy masters.
So what does all this have to do with us? The contrast between South and East Asian Buddhism is important because it reminds us not to take any Buddhist position on saving beings as final. Nelson is uncomfortable that the great Ch'an and Zen masters did not encourage saving people through projects in the social sphere. "Some of them taught that all beings are saved when a single one is saved", which is implied by the Hua Yen teaching that each phenomenon manifests all phenomena, and vice-versa; but then it is just as true to point out that "no one is saved until everyone is saved" - the insight that I suppose motivates more engaged Buddhists. For Nelson, Yasutani's claim that fundamentally there are no sentient beings to save is the Zen tradition's "ultimate outlook on the subject of saving beings". I am a student within the same tradition, but this bald assertion about an ultimate point of view makes me ponder. Whether or not any "final" position is really consistent with impermanence and essencelessness, is it compatible with the upya nature of all Zen teachings? There is nothing absolute about any Zen doctrine: teachings are "true" because they are appropriate - that is, liberative - for particular people at particular times and places. And for particular cultures.
The Mahayana claim that "nothing at all needs to be gained" has a long history in East Asia and, as the debate over "Critical Buddhism" (hihan-bukkyo) shows us, this teaching has often been used or misused to excuse exploitative social relationships. As I see it, for Buddhism to be liberative either individually or socially, this teaching must be kept in a creative tension with its opposite, that "we must endeavor to realize that there is nothing to gain." Either teaching by itself is liable to cripple the path that Buddhism offers us. For example, one could argue that the weakness and irrelevance of Buddhism in contemporary Japan is because the first perspective has swallowed the second. (Chinese and Japanese emphasis on harmony looks attractive from an American culture of hyper-individualism, but it creates other problems, especially when there is need for major social change). The result is an institutionalized Buddhism that has very little to contribute to the serious problems Japan faces as it enters the new millennium. It is a trap that I hope Western Buddhism will not fall into.
Nor is it a problem that I see the Buddhist Peace Fellowship falling into. My point is that we needn't worry about the limited support for this work in the history of East Asian Buddhism. The old Zen worthies were not "embodying the Mahayana vision as fully and faithfully as humanly possible." They may have done that as well as possible in medieval China and Japan, but they did it for their times and their cultures. Our culture is very different indeed, and we should not balk at a new acculturation of Buddhism's teachings which reaches very different conclusions about its possible role in social liberation. Nelson is concerned about our "culturally based preconceptions and expectations," our "observer bias", which causes us to see shortcomings in our Asian forerunners. But to see that their understanding and possibilities were conditioned by the preconceptions and expectations of their time and place is not to criticize them, for the same is true of us. It is to realize that we must not allow ourselves to be limited by their appropriation of Buddhism. Nor should we further delude ourselves by thinking that we can ever get rid of all our preconceptions and expectations: the world would be an uninteresting, indeed indifferent, place without them. What we need is to become more aware of our preconceptions, including culturally-determined Buddhist ones, and more conscious of our own role in the creative adaptation of Buddhism to the West. Instead of trying to find everything we want in Shakyamuni Buddha, or his great successors, we should accept more responsibility for saying (for example) "today, we can see that Buddhist teachings about greed, anger and delusion imply that..."
Personal practice is fundamental to the Buddhist path, and engaged Buddhism rests upon the insight that we must begin to change ourselves before we can help to change the world. From this, however, Buddhists have sometimes concluded that it is enough to foster change on an individual level: society is an aggregate of individuals, and if enough individuals change, then so will society as a whole. Society, however, is more than an aggregate of individuals. People create society, but social structures also create (socialize) people. The conditioning works both ways, for social structures take on a life and agenda of their own that includes conditioning people to fit their own needs and meet the goals of the elites who dominate them.
Traditionally Buddhism has emphasized our personal responsibility for our own dukkha and awakening. Today it has been important for Buddhists to realize how conditioning by social structures also fosters widespread dukkha. The delusion and oppression built into those structures must also be addressed, and today we, unlike our East Asian predecessors, have the opportunity to do so, because we are the heirs to a different tradition. One important legacy of Axial-age Greece was the realization that society is a construct that can be reconstructed more democratically. We have not yet done a very good job in putting that realization into practice, but if the Buddhist concern is to save all beings by reducing their dukkha and promoting their awakening, we western Buddhists need to incorporate that vision into the path of liberation from dukkha that Buddhism offers. And this is not something to be uncomfortable about: it is necessary if Buddhism is to continue flourishing as a Way that remains relevant to our individual and social needs today.