Engaged Buddhism: New and Improved!(?)
Made in the U. S. A. of Asian Materials
Thomas Freeman Yarnall
Religion Department, Columbia University
Journal of Buddhist Ethics 7 2000
Overview of the Traditionists
The essence of Buddhism
Historically ancient origins
Disengagement as a Western misperception
Overview of the Modernists
Traditional Buddhism has not been socially engaged—Only latent implications
The modern world faces unprecedented socio-political problems
Modern Western socio-political theory presents unique and unprecedented solutions —It must not be “read back” into Buddhism —“Historical reconstruction” must be avoided
Modern Western socio-political theory can be used to activate Buddhism’s latent potential to create a new amalgam: Western/Buddhist social engagement
Summary of the modernists’ views
Orientalist emphases and isolates—Constructed dualities
The unavowed colonial stance: Recognition, appropriation, and distancing
Modern Western assumptions: New is improved; “Ours” is better than “theirs”; Actions speak louder than words
Analysis of the Modernists’ Arguments
Joseph Kitagawa—Buddhism and Social Shange
Ken Jones—The Social Face of Buddhism
Christopher Queen, et al.—Engaged Buddhism in Asia (1996) and the West (2000)
What is engagement?
What is Buddhism? What is liberation?
Universal Vehicle “liberation”
The Queen challenge
Continuity or discontinuity? Ruegg on the use of “source-alien terminology”
A note on the format of quoted material:
To assist the reader in navigating through the many quoted passages in this essay, I have frequently added underlining (and occasionally bolding) to key phrases (all italics are in the originals). After reading a given passage completely the first time, the reader may choose to focus on the emphasized text when referring back to a passage to more quickly locate a particular quote or to more readily recall the salient points of the passage.
A note on the short path through this essay:
Acknowledging that this essay is significantly longer than others submitted to this JBE conference, I make the following suggestion to the reader pressed for time. Read the Introduction, then skim or skip the two Overview sections (about one-quarter of this essay). Read the “Summary of the Modernists’ Views” at the end of the “Overview of the Modernists” section. Then read “Methodological Issues” which develops some important theoretical and methodological tools ? this can also be read quickly. Finally, focus on “Analysis of the Modernists’ Arguments” and “Conclusions” (the latter half of this essay) which contain my main observations and suggestions.
In recent decades a movement of “engaged Buddhists” has begun to sweep the globe. This movement is comprised of a wide range of individuals from diverse cultural backgrounds. Inspired by Buddhist values, they are united by a common drive to lessen the suffering of the world, in particular by “engaging” (as opposed to renouncing) the various social, political, economic, etc. institutions, structures, and systems in society. Such engagement can take many different forms (for example, voting, lobbying, peaceful protest, civil disobedience, and so forth), but it is always aimed at actively challenging and changing those institutions, etc. that are perceived as perpetuating suffering through various forms of oppression, injustice, and the like.
The term “engaged Buddhism” appears originally to have been coined by Thich Nhat Hanh in 1963, and the expanded term, “socially engaged Buddhism,” emerged during the 1980s.(1) However, apart from the usage of these relatively new labels, scholars are divided as to when, where, and how a politically or socially “engaged” Buddhism actually first began.
One group of scholars maintains that Buddhists have never accepted a dualistic split between “spiritual” and “social” domains. To engage in the spiritual life necessarily includes (though it cannot be reduced to) social engagement. Thus, for them, since the time of Śākyamuni, the Buddhadharma has always had a more-or-less fully articulated socio-political dimension in addition to its (supposedly “other-worldly”) spiritual/soteriological dimension. Modern forms of Buddhism (“engaged Buddhism” or otherwise) are essentially contiguous with traditional forms in spite of any superficially apparent differences. Due to this emphasis upon continuity with Buddhism’s traditional past, I will refer to members of this group as traditionists.(2)
A second group takes a very different approach and arrives at a decidedly different conclusion. While this group admits that there have been doctrines and practices with socio-political relevance latent in Buddhism since its inception, it insists that these “latencies” have always remained relatively “untapped,” that they have not been (or often could not have been) fully realized until Buddhism encountered various Western elements unique to the modern era. Modern “engaged Buddhism” may share some essential features with traditional forms of Buddhism, but it also contains enough substantive differences to warrant calling it a relatively “new” form of Buddhism unique to the modern era.(3) Thus, due to their emphasis upon discontinuity with the past, I will refer to members of this group as modernists.(4)
In addition, most members of these groups have tacitly considered their own position to be relatively natural or self-evident, and thus (until the last couple of years) neither group has taken the other’s position very seriously—or at least they have given this impression by spending a minimum amount of time discounting the other group’s position.(5)
Traditionists have charged that modernists simply do not understand the “essence” or “spirit” of Buddhism and that such modernists have thus been predisposed to miss the social theories and practices of Buddhists throughout the ages. Modernists, on the other hand, have dismissed traditionists as methodologically naïve and historically “reconstructive,” insisting that traditionists peer unwittingly through a modern lens at ancient/traditional teachings.
As I have examined the burgeoning writings from these two groups, I have become increasingly interested in the question of why these groups take the positions that they do (both have some good arguments, and neither presents a completely self-evident position). What motivates these authors? Who are their intended audiences? Do the different scholars in these groups claim to represent these engaged movements, to be spokespersons ordained to provide a theoretical/historical basis for the activities of engaged Buddhists “on the ground”? Or do these authors seem to want to maintain a stance of scholarly objectivity, merely describing these movements to others? In either case, how might traditional Asian Buddhists respond to these scholarly opinions? And how might different self-styled “engaged Buddhists” themselves respond to these opinions? (Or is it even possible to separate the practitioners of this movement from the theoreticians who would shape their very understanding of who they are and what they are doing?) Thus, this present examination of the phenomenon of “socially engaged Buddhism” represents such a meta-level investigation (and ultimately a philosophical/methodological critique) of the “society” of scholars who themselves claim to represent (or describe) this social “movement.”
In particular, and in spite of their claims to methodological superiority, I have been continually struck by how ideologically motivated the modernists persistently seem to be. Much of what they write seems natural when read quickly and uncritically, but upon closer analysis, this group of authors often appears almost obsessed with demonstrating, for example, what they perceive to be the newness of Buddhism’s socially engaged dimension. The demonstration of this “newness” (and the corresponding emphasis on its previous “latency”) seems to be not an observation, but a necessity. Indeed, in reviewing the relatively short history of modernist writings on engaged Buddhism, it has often seemed that earlier vague descriptions of what it meant to be socially engaged were fine-tuned and developed over time in tacit response to emerging (traditionist) claims that Buddhism historically had been engaged. As traditionists have presented evidence of past Buddhist activities that met the modernists’ criteria for “engagement,” it seems that modernists have been driven to modify their criteria precisely in order to continue to construe socially engaged Buddhism as something new.
It is important to underscore at the outset that in this present study I will not be primarily engaged with assessing these authors’ (historical) truth claims (though to do so is clearly an important desideratum): it is simply beyond the scope of this study to research thoroughly and present the variety of “historical evidence” that would have to be amassed in order to address (or refute) the many shifting modernist definitions of what it means to be socially engaged. Instead, the present essay will attempt to address some of the theoretical and methodological issues mentioned above, particularly as they regard the majority modernists. Nor will I be arguing (at this meta-level) that the modernists’ insistence on discontinuity with the past is entirely wrong (one can, with good reason, easily choose to emphasize either continuities or discontinuities with the past). Rather, I will be striving to accomplish the following two limited objectives. First, I hope to demonstrate that the discontinuity that the modernists emphasize is just that, an emphasis—it is less an observation than it is an ideologically motivated construction. Second, I hope to reveal some of these unarticulated ideological motives that underlie this modernist choice of emphasis, and to call into question the value of this choice.
This present study was originally completed in 1997. As of that time there was relatively little discussion of these meta-level issues; as mentioned above, modernists and traditionists simply ignored or dismissed each other’s views (while—significantly—often practicing some form of engaged Buddhism side by side). In the short time since 1997, the field of “engaged Buddhist studies” has developed a fair amount, and I have tried to update this essay accordingly to reflect some of these developments. As we shall see in the section on Christopher Queen near the end of this essay, one significant development has been the identification of the continuity/discontinuity issue (the “newness” question) as an important question in its own right. Indeed, the call for papers for this 2000 JBE conference was included the following invitation: “Papers dealing with … the question of whether social engagement is a modern innovation or inherent in the tradition, are also encouraged.” Nor should this “newness” question be considered merely an “academic” question—as Kenneth Kraft observes after an examination of the merits and demerits of stressing either continuity or discontinuity: “The process of articulating a field is not only an avenue to understanding; it can also be a type of engagement” (2000: 506).
However, in spite of these promising developments, the legacy of the views and attitudes that predominated in this field prior to the early to mid-1990s still has a great deal of momentum, and the ideological commitments, paradigms, and biases prior to this time have their own inertia. Thus, I believe that many of the observations and critiques below—focussed as they are on pre-1997 writings—may be still relevant and useful to today’s dialogue. Again, in the later section on Queen, et al., I will review and critique some of the more recent developments in engaged Buddhist studies.
To accomplish the objectives mentioned above (to show that discontinuity is only one possible emphasis and to suggest some of the ideological motivations that may underlie such an emphasis) will require a close examination of many textual passages published by these authors. We will first look at a few passages representative of the traditionists, followed by a few from the modernists. This will provide us with enough raw material to begin to observe some of the patterns of thought characteristic of these two groups. Because engaged Buddhist authors themselves tend to be relatively short on methodology, I will next bring in some methodological strategies and observations from some Buddhist scholars writing on topics other than engaged Buddhism. Armed with these tools, we will then examine in greater detail further passages representative of the modernists’ views, biases, presuppositions, agendas, and so forth. We will be focusing our critique on the modernists because it is they who claim the methodological higher ground, even though (I hope to show) they are no less ideologically driven than are the traditionists whom they claim are so naïve. In particular, I will argue that the modernists’ views may be seen to stem from a subtle form of neocolonial, neo-Orientalist bias. By the end of this essay, I hope to have synthesized some methodological approaches that may have the potential to bear more fruitful conclusions concerning the status of Buddhist social teaching and practice.
Traditionist engaged Buddhist scholars are comprised of some scholars from historically Buddhist cultures as well as a few from Western cultures. Representatives of the former include Thich Nhat Hanh, Sivaraksa, Rahula, Ven. Khemadhammo, Kato Shonin, and H. H. the Dalai Lama. Representatives of the latter include Patricia Hunt-Perry, Lyn Fine, Paula Green, Joanna Macy, Stephen Batchelor, Bernard Glassman Rōshi, and Robert Thurman, among others.
As mentioned above, traditionists maintain that the very “essence” or “spirit” of Buddhism involves a commitment to social engagement. Thus, they discern a continuity between modern forms of Buddhism (including so-called engaged Buddhism) and the Buddhisms of the past. Since Buddhists have always been socially engaged, a “socially engaged Buddhism” is nothing new. Indeed, even Thich Nhat Hanh, who is himself credited with coining the very term “engaged Buddhism,” does not seem to consider the engaged aspect of Buddhism to be anything new—as Kenneth Kraft reveals:
And in a contribution to Engaged Buddhism in the West (ed. Queen, 2000) entitled “All Buddhism is Engaged: Thich Nhat Hanh and the Order of Interbeing,”(7) Patricia Hunt-Perry and Lyn Fine write:
Elsewhere, Nhat Hanh himself clearly indicates that engagement (here a nonviolent struggle or action) is a natural impulse (that, by implication, could not be anything new or unique to the modern era):
The Thai “reformer” Sivaraksa (Buddhadasa’s protégé) echoes this contention about the nature or essence of Buddhism:
If “moral responsibility in society” has been the very “essence” of Buddhism “from ancient times right up to the present,” then it goes without saying that social engagement could be nothing new in Buddhism—that “good” Buddhists, at least, have always been socially engaged.
In an interview with Christopher Queen, Bernie Glassman Rōshi gives us a Zen echo to Nhat Hanh and Sivaraksa’s sentiments. Glassman asks rhetorically, “How did [the Buddha] benefit mankind by sitting in meditation?” He answers his own question:
And later in the same interview he comments:
Paula Green reports on Kato Shonin, instrumental in developing Nichidatsu Fujii’s Nipponzan Myohoji order of Nichiren Buddhism in America:
Stephen Batchelor—well-trained as a Buddhist monk in both the Tibetan and Korean traditions—also invokes an “engaged essence” in Buddhism in a personal communication to Sandra Bell in 1997:
Most (if not all) traditionists make arguments similar to the above in their writings.(10) If the very essence of Buddhism includes social responsibility and engagement, then that essence must be clearly evidenced throughout Buddhism’s history. The great Sinhalese scholar Walpola Rahula wrote a whole book (The Heritage of the Bhikkhu) defending this very point. Christopher Queen tells us:
In an anthology dedicated to socially engaged Buddhism, The Path of Compassion (ed. Eppsteiner, 1988), Joanna Macy reveals her own surprise at discovering that traditional Sri Lankan monks found an “engaged Buddhism” to be nothing new:
In a contribution to another “engaged” anthology, Inner Peace, World Peace: Essays on Buddhism and Nonviolence (ed. Kraft, 1992), Robert Thurman expresses the opinion that Buddhist social activism began with Śākyamuni himself:
He further explicitly states:
And finally, in The Path of Compassion, Thurman unequivocally states:
In the conclusion to this essay he argues that “individualistic transcendentalism[,] … pacifism[,] … educational universalism[,] … and socialistic sharing of wealth … encompass mainstream Buddhist social practice, as counseled by [those at least as far back as] Nagarjuna” (142).
In “The Social Teachings of the Buddha” (excerpted from What the Buddha Taught), Rahula wrote:
Sivaraksa not only agrees that Westerners have been relatively ignorant of Buddhism’s social dimension, but he further maintains that if Buddhism has appeared disengaged to Westerners, this appearance itself has in fact been due to Western influences:
Joanna Macy echoes Sivaraksa’s and Rahula’s contention that a disengaged Buddhism is a Western construction:
Indeed, it is not only “[e]arly Western scholars of Buddhism” such as Max Weber who have construed Buddhism as “‘other-worldly’ and without specific formulations of social ethics,” for as Christopher Queen contends in his 1996 anthology:
In a footnote to this claim, Queen cites “Weber, Kitagawa, Bardwell Smith, and others” as being among these “many specialists” supposedly in this (modernist) Weberian lineage who share a “negative assessment of Buddhism’s contribution to social and political thought.” However (ironically), in a 1999 review of Queen’s 1996 book, Bardwell Smith himself objects to “[Queen’s] contention that scholarly discussions of Buddhism have typically characterized this tradition as one of ‘personal liberation’ to the subordination, if not the neglect, of any social message,” and he particularly objects to being associated with any such (modernist) scholars:
From this we can see that the “disengaged” label is not only misapplied (according to traditionists) to traditional Buddhism by certain (namely modernist) Western Buddhologists, but that it can also be misapplied to other Western Buddhologists themselves! (We can likewise watch out for misapplications of the modernist “engaged” label.)
Modernist engaged Buddhist scholars are comprised of a few scholars from historically Buddhist cultures and what would appear to be the vast majority of scholars from Western cultures. Some Modernists include Cynthia Eller, Nelson Foster, Richard Gombrich, Ken Jones, Joseph Kitagawa, Kenneth Kraft, Christopher Queen, Aitken Rōshi, English-born Sangharakshita, Gary Snyder, Judith Simmer-Brown, and Max Weber, among others.
Modernists make either the strong assertion that historically Buddhism (and especially early Buddhism) has not been socially interested at all or the somewhat moderated assertion that it has been only indirectly or latently so interested. Joseph Kitagawa makes the stronger claim in “Buddhism and Social Change: An Historical Perspective” when he writes:
And Kitagawa’s assessment of Buddhist social engagement in East Asia is not much better:
Likewise, Ken Jones states that “present-day interest in Buddhist activism has little warranty in scripture, history and tradition” (1989: 207). Such activism is historically unwarranted, he claims, because Buddhist philosophers have in fact never been interested in the social realm. To back up this contention, he quotes Gary Snyder [from The Path of Compassion, 1988: 82]:
Nelson Foster, interestingly, seems to be willing to admit that early (Pāli) Buddhism may have been socially involved (or at least “aware”), but he claims that the East Asian Buddhism that he studies was not: “[I]t is clear from the Pali texts ... that early Buddhism was aware of itself as a force for social good. … As Buddhism moved into China, however, its social orientation changed quickly and thoroughly” (1988: 49). Foster then describes this quick and thorough East Asian “change,” also using Gary Snyder as an authority:
It is perhaps more common for modernist scholars to make the slightly moderated claim that there may be discernible social implications latent in Buddhist teachings. For example, in the introductory essay to the anthology The Path of Compassion, Kenneth Kraft writes:
And in Inner Peace, World Peace, Cynthia Eller states her own opinion, backed by Jones and Foster:
Jones himself, who at times adopts the stronger negative position, refers in the following passages to social activism as being an “extension” or an “amplification” of what is (he argues elsewhere in the same book) only latent in Buddhist teachings:
As all of the above passages indicate, the modernists’ views indeed seem to reflect a resurgence of Weberian thought. In support of his contention that “after eighty years of new research, many specialists are inclined to agree with Weber” (cf. p. 9), Queen quotes another one of these “specialists,” Richard Gombrich (apparently a stronger example than Bardwell Smith), who takes the strongest possible position:
Another factor that modernists like to stress is how “unique” or “different” our modern circumstances and problems are. For example, in “To Enter the Marketplace,” Nelson Foster laments:
Likewise, in “Speaking Truth to Power: The Buddhist Peace Fellowship,” Judith Simmer-Brown quotes BPF cofounder Aitken Rōshi as saying:
In an excellent special issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion (1997: 65, no. 2) dedicated to Articles on the Theme of “Religious Responses to Problems of Population, Consumption, and Degradation of the Environment,” Rita Gross writes:
And in the introduction to his 1992 anthology, Kenneth Kraft writes:
Modernists consider the unique problems of the modern world to have spawned some unique solutions. For example, in the same 1992 introduction Kraft first cautiously writes:
But he then continues, highlighting the significance of the modern (mostly Western) contributions in this area:
When traditionists counter that many such “modern solutions” are in fact evident in ancient Buddhist teachings, modernists simply dismiss such traditionist contentions as methodologically naïve and historically “reconstructive.” These modernists tend to be well aware of the scriptural “evidence” that the traditionists cite (Nāgārjuna’s Jewel Garland; Aśoka’s edicts; the Cakkavati-, Kūtadanta- and Sigālovāda-suttas, and so forth), but they claim that too much has been read back into such sources. For example, in The Social Face of Buddhism: An Approach to Political and Social Activism,(14) Ken Jones levels the “reconstructionist” critique at what I have been calling the traditionists (what he here calls “modernists”):
Likewise, in his introduction to the recent anthology Engaged Buddhism (1996: 20), Christopher Queen levels a similar charge at what he discerns to be two types of “reconstructionists.” Thus, following good Buddhist style, having first convincingly presented his pūrvapaksa (the opponent’s view—primarily Rahula’s), he then presents a lengthy argument in which he attempts to refute this view by formulating his own definition of “social engagement” in such a way that he can admonish us to reject the “two extremes of historical reconstruction.” These (traditionist) extremes are (1) “the extreme of a primitive Buddhist counterculture bent on social reform,” as exemplified, presumably, by those such as Thurman, and (2) “the extreme of a sangha directing social change from its position within the power elite,” as exemplified by Rahula.
While Queen focuses the bulk of his critique on his second extreme, Kenneth Kraft takes on (at least implicitly) what Queen has identified as the first extreme, here with reference to the essay by Thurman (1988b) cited above (p. 8):
Here, of course, the implication is that Thurman has carried his interpretation to an idealistic, ahistorical extreme (he has “read back,” in Jones’s terms)—for, as we saw above, he certainly does not maintain that the Buddhist tradition contains merely “untapped resources for skillful social action.”
Having thus dismissed traditionists’ views as naïve and reconstructionist, and having emphasized the unprecedented uniqueness of our contemporary problems, modernists finally stress the uniqueness and “modern-ness” (and “Western-ness”) of their solution, “engaged Buddhism.” So, with regard to this “nascent movement” (1988: xii), Kraft beams: “ Qualities that were inhibited in pre-modern Asian settings … can now be actualized through Buddhism’s exposure to the West, where ethical sensitivity, social activism, and egalitarianism are emphasized” (1988: xiii). (16) Nelson Foster reflects and magnifies this confident beaming, producing an image of a Western Zen permeated with an excited anticipation of what could be:
In fact, Foster does not merely think that such a development might occur—rather, he considers the Western “environment” to be so optimal that the “organic development of Western Zen” is “inevitable.” (1988: 56).
In “The Impact of Christianity on Buddhist Nonviolence in the West,” Cynthia Eller writes in a similar vein:
Likewise, Robert Aitken Rōshi traced the roots of contemporary engaged Buddhism to the Judeo-Christian West when in 1984 he wrote, “We do not find Buddhist social movements developing until the late nineteenth century, under the influence of Christianity and Western ideas generally.”(17) Queen is even more specific about the origins of this modern East-West blend. He maintains that it is only “once we have rejected two extremes of historical reconstruction” (cf. above, p. 14) that “we recognize that the shape and style of contemporary engaged Buddhism does not appear in Buddhist history until about the year 1880” (1996: 20). In particular, he states:
Thus he concludes that in fact such an engaged Buddhism is necessarily an “amalgam of Eastern and Western elements” (1996: 31). (We will be returning to these arguments in the section on Queen, et al., and in the conclusion.)
The above views and methodologies tend to be commonly shared (to varying degrees) among all modernists. These modernist positions may be summarized as follows:
(1) Traditional Buddhism Has Not Been Socially Engaged—Only Latent Implications
Traditional (Asian) forms of Buddhism have emphasized the “spiritual” concerns of individual liberation from the world; they may have had latent social teachings (particularly in Mahāyāna), but these have always taken a back seat to soteriological concerns. Social teachings have rarely (if ever) been fully articulated or actualized in these traditional societies. (Aśoka is frequently cited as the one main exception to this—but the importance of his example is minimized, as we shall see).
(2) The Modern World Faces Unprecedented Socio-Political Problems
In addition, the problems facing the modern world (social, political, economic, ecological, military, medical, and so forth) are unique to this time; the Buddhisms embedded in traditional societies have never had to face such intricate, complex, and interrelated problems.
(3) Modern Western Socio-political Theory Presents Unique And Unprecedented Analyses and Solutions—It Must Not Be “Read Back” Into Buddhism—“Historical Reconstruction” Must Be Avoided
Unlike traditional Asian Buddhist societies, modern (nineteenth- and twentieth century) Western societies have developed a sophisticated understanding of the systemic and institutional forms and causes of suffering. This understanding has given rise to unique social and political theories and practices relating to human rights, democracy, civil disobedience, and so forth. These insights have developed due to historical circumstances unique to the modern era (especially in the West), and we must not “read back” such theories into traditional Buddhism where they are in fact lacking or at best only indirectly implied.
(4) Traditional Buddhism Is Therefore Not An Adequate Model For Engagement
Therefore, given (1), (2), and (3), although we may draw spiritual inspiration from traditional forms of Buddhism, such forms (as they stand) can never serve as an adequate model for social engagement in the modern world.
(5) Modern Western Socio-Political Theory Can Be Used to Activate Buddhism’s Latent Potential to Create a New Amalgam: Western/Buddhist Engagement
Nevertheless, modern Western social and political theories and practices may benefit from some of Buddhism’s spirit and inspiration (and vice versa). Therefore, modern Western insights and traditional Eastern Buddhist insights should be brought to bear on each other in order to bring about a new, revitalized form of Buddhism (and social theory) that is more “relevant” to the problems of the modern world. Such a blending of the best of West and East should be embraced, not feared—it may be our only hope. The nascent engaged Buddhist movement may well be just the amalgam we now need.
Before we undertake our detailed critique of certain modernists’ views, we must first develop some methodological tools and vocabulary. As mentioned above, we will borrow some insights from discussions taking place outside of the engaged Buddhist dialogue. In particular, we will examine two essays from Curators of the Buddha: The Study of Buddhism Under Colonialism (1996) that address some methodological concerns that can be very usefully applied to our study of socially engaged Buddhism. This will enable us to begin to explore the possibility that these modernists’ views might in fact be the heirs to an entrenched neocolonial, neo-Orientalist bias among Buddhologists (and Western scholars in general). Finally, we will end this methodological section with some brief observations concerning Westerners’ construction of their own identity.
The first pertinent essay is the introduction by editor Donald Lopez, Jr. In this overview essay, Lopez makes the following relevant observations about the emphasis and focus in the early European study of Buddhism:
In other words, according to this critique, early European Buddhologists who saw Buddhism as a “philosophy” (as opposed to, for example, a “religion”) unwittingly projected their form of philosophical Buddhism by means of the “historical” lenses and filters that they employed. In particular, as the above passages show, they accomplished their historical reconstruction by:
(1) prejudicing texts over other types of historical evidence;
(2) prejudicing a specific, narrow spectrum of texts over other types of texts;
(3) prejudicing the past (fixed texts) over the present (living oral interpretations) by disregarding contemporary Asian Buddhists’ own understandings of their texts (let alone their overall tradition)(18); and
(4) prejudicing the philosophical uses of those texts by disregarding any of their non-philosophical (for example, ritual) uses.
Thus, the early European Orientalists can be criticized for having constructed Buddhism as a “pure philosophy” through their having studied it as “a thing apart from the rest of the intellectual and cultural history of [ Asia].” Or more accurately perhaps, they should be criticized not for having adopted a philosophical focus that ignored, for example, the “ritual” uses of Buddhist texts, but for having constructed a dubious, dualistic “philosophical/ritual” split in the first place.(19) According to such a critique, one can charge that the Orientalists first created such a dualistic philosophical/ritual split, then isolated the philosophical side of this split as “pure, classical Buddhism” (having dismissed any ritual elements as later, degenerate, superstitious folk accretions), and finally identified medieval and modern Asian Buddhists as having corrupted the “pure essence” of their own tradition precisely by mixing these philosophical and ritual dimensions. Through such dualistic constructions and strategies, the Orientalists thus inappropriately wrested from Asian Buddhists the authority to interpret their own tradition.(20)
Now, if we substitute “socio-political activities” for “ritual functions” in the above discussion, we can derive a critique that I will argue is as appropriate to contemporary modernist engaged Buddhists as it was to early European Orientalists generations ago. For example, if we make such substitutions in Lopez’s final sentence above, we get:
In other words, I believe it can be argued that modernist engaged Buddhists who see Buddhism as having been historically “disengaged” may have unwittingly projected their form of “disengaged” Buddhism by means of the “historical” lenses and filters that they have employed. In such a case, paralleling the early European Orientalists, they can be criticized for having constructed Buddhism as socially disengaged through their having studied it as “a thing apart from the rest of the intellectual and cultural [and socio-political] history of [ Asia].” Or, again more accurately perhaps, they should be criticized not for having critiqued Buddhism’s soteriological drive—assumed to be directed at other-worldly concerns, and thus socially disengaged—but rather for having constructed a dubious, dualistic “soteriological (disengaged)/social (engaged)” split in the first place.(21) In particular, modernists might be said to have created such a split when they charge that living traditionist Asian Buddhists (Rahula, Sivaraksa, Macy’s Sri Lankan monks, H. H. The Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, and so forth)—who claim that their texts (and practices) have always had direct social significance, utility, and impact—are naïvely reconstructing their own history, and when they conclude that these traditionists are to be dismissed as having “read” contemporary ideas “into” the past and as having over-idealized the “not-so-engaged legacy” of their tradition.(22) I would thus caution that the modernists themselves may have constructed a disengaged history for Buddhism in order to appropriate for themselves the title of inventor of engaged Buddhism. Such a modernist appropriation of interpretive power would indeed be reminiscent of the Orientalists generations ago, and such a neo-Orientalist bias must be seen to be ironic, of course, given that it is the modernists who routinely accuse the traditionists of historical reconstruction.
The other pertinent essay from Curators of the Buddha is “Oriental Wisdom and the Cure of Souls: Jung and the Indian East” by Luis O. Gómez. In this essay, Gómez brings into sharp focus many observations regarding the biases evident in Carl G. Jung’s theories and writings. Though Gómez’s essay accords appropriate respect to Jung for making many valuable contributions to psychology and for engendering a powerful interest in “the East,” it nevertheless lays bare many of Jung’s Orientalist biases and unacknowledged neocolonial agenda. In particular, Gómez clearly demonstrates how Jung himself misread Asian texts in such a way as to construct an Eastern “Other” to serve as a foil to an (equally constructed) Western “Self.” Thus, Jung wrote of the “Eastern mind” (with its “psychic aspect” and its tendency toward an “inordinate amount of abstraction”) as opposed to the “Western mind” (with its penchant for “scrupulously accurate observation”) (1996: 208), and he constructed many of his psychological theories on the basis of such manufactured polar dichotomies.
Many of Gómez’s observations regarding Jung will also be of immense value and relevance to our present study. Lopez summarizes several of these important observations in his introduction:
This is a powerful critique. As above, we can rework this latter paragraph to address our present issue as follows:
Gómez summarizes the methodological observations implicit throughout his own essay when he explicitly draws out what he calls the “Orientalist bias and the unavowed colonial stance.” This involves “the three movements of recognition, appropriation, and distancing.” This concise but potent threefold analysis will be of the greatest use to us in our study. In Gómez’s own words:
We can now discern these three movements in the above reworked passage concerning the modernist engaged Buddhists:
(1) Recognition: Modernists … judge the raw materials of Buddhism to be valuable.
(2) Appropriation: They therefore (subtly) remove them from their cultural and historical contexts and then manufacture theories from them for modern Westerners (especially “engaged Buddhists”), to be used to remedy deficiencies in their own identities and socio-political circumstances. … In their writings they also export Buddhist symbols and “history” … back to Asia, attempting to explain (in the sense of leveling) to Asian Buddhists the true nature (or a more pertinent use) of their own symbols … and socio-political history.
(3) Distancing: The socially transformative power potentially latent in Asian Buddhism can only transform society when mediated through the Western modernists’ socio-political theories, with the Western modernist serving as the intermediary between East and West, both as strategist and social activist.
Thus, the typical Orientalist moves are: (1) Recognition: to hail the alien tradition as (at least potentially) valuable; (2) Appropriation: to mine one’s sources (texts, “native informants,” and so forth)(23) for sufficient information to feel as though one has learned enough about the tradition that one can speak authoritatively for the tradition; and (3) Distancing: to claim that, due to one’s position as “other,” and due to one’s learning, one has in fact earned a privileged (more “objective”) perspective on the alien tradition, and that one is thus uniquely positioned to critique and explain this tradition. Distancing will also usually involve the further claims that, due to having been illumined by the “other,” one has a unique insight into one’s own tradition, and that one is thus uniquely disposed to be the authoritative intermediary between the two traditions.
The Orientalists’ moves and claims may not at first seem to be so unreasonable. After all, who other than one trained in both traditions might validly claim to be an authoritative spokesperson or intermediary? Indeed, I would suggest, one making such a claim may be relatively justified in doing so. The key to what would make it a problematical claim—an Orientalist claim, that is—would seem to lie in Gomez’s initial “recognition” phase. As I would elaborate it, the recognition phase involves more than just an acknowledgment that the “other” tradition is valuable: it also necessarily involves a construction of the “other” tradition that is supposedly being merely “recognized” in the first place. Moreover, for this phase to qualify as truly Orientalist, and for the next two phases to ensue, this constructive process must remain relatively unconscious (thereby masking various self-identity agendas).
Furthermore, assuming that the constructive process underlying the recognition phase does remain unconscious, we can note that the appropriation and distancing phases will be interrelated in a particular way. Precisely because the Orientalist appropriates the authoritative voice from an alien position (the self-position constructed in the recognition phase, in fact), he will be unlikely to use that voice to speak as an insider or apologist for the tradition (to do so would be to have “gone native,” to have rejected the self-identity initially constructed in the recognition phase). Rather, he will want to consciously distance himself from the tradition (at least somewhat) by assuming the voice of a critic (if even a sympathetic one). The more he appropriates the power to speak for the tradition, the more he will tend to distance himself from it; and the more he distances himself, the more authoritative power he will tend to appropriate. Thus, the Orientalist’s “recognition” (self-other construction) creates the initial context for an appropriation that will inevitably result in a distancing; this distancing will further solidify the original dual self-other construction, which will in turn lead to greater appropriation, and so on.
It would seem that it is an integral part of the self-description and identity of many contemporary Westerners (especially Americans) to be new, innovative, original, forward-looking, ground-breaking, paradigm-shifting, and so forth. We see ourselves as competitive innovators. Anything that we do not invent ourselves we can certainly improve upon—if we get it from them, we can make a newer version that will necessarily be better than theirs. We are certain that to be new is to be improved. In addition, we generally describe ourselves as active or engaged (we make things happen, we get the job done), and even as proactive (we have the freedom and foresight to keep a step ahead of what will need to be done next). For some strange reason—I will leave it to others to trace the historical (or karmic) roots—this is just who we tell ourselves we are; it is our identity.
Given this, it should come as no surprise that many Westerners should automatically construct their “Other”—in our present case, Asians, and especially Buddhists—as ancient, traditional, ever looking toward the past, conservative, and so forth. In addition, such uncritical Westerners will likewise generally describe “them” as passive or responsive. If such Westerners are inclined to be disillusioned with (or simply critical of) their own Western tradition, then such constructions will take on a positive, exotic spin: Asian Buddhists are the keepers of an ancient, timeless wisdom, and are passive in the sense of being non-violent, etc. On the other hand, if they are inclined to identify with their own Western tradition (as most are), then such constructions will take on a negative, “third-world” spin: Asian Buddhists are stuck with outmoded models and theories and are passive in the sense of being disengaged and ineffectual. This latter attitude is related to what Thurman has called “temporal chauvinism:”
If the above observations are valid, then in order for most of us Westerners to accept and use (“practice”) Buddhism, we must appropriate it as ours, and to do that we must necessarily improve upon it. To do this we can either (1) fully develop some previously underdeveloped, key component of Buddhism; (2) add some new, key component to Buddhism; or (3) both. For the modernist engaged Buddhists, of course, this key component is “active engagement” itself—one of our “own” identity formations, after all. For this project to succeed—that is, for “our” Western Buddhism to be termed “engaged Buddhism”—then any claim that Buddhism has been engaged in the past must immediately be refuted. If it appears to some contemporary readers that the words enshrined in various ancient Buddhist texts have social ramifications, modernists must contend either that these texts were not understood this way by traditional Asian Buddhists, or, to the extent to which they were so understood, that those Buddhists could not (or simply historically did not) act accordingly. The active engagement evident now among Buddhists must be proven to be the new (or at least the fully developed) contribution that we have made. Our contemporary engaged actions must be shown to speak louder than their mere ancient, scriptural words.
We are finally ready to begin our analysis and deconstruction of the modernists’ arguments in some detail. Toward this end we will first examine the writings of Kitagawa and Jones as representative examples of earlier (1980s) modernist tendencies. (It should be recalled [introduction above, p. 4] that these earlier views have had an enduring influence into the present.) In particular, we will seek to reveal the different dualities that each of these authors unwittingly constructs, on the basis of which each can recognize something potentially positive in Buddhism, appropriate the authority to explain it, and finally distance himself from it (and place himself above it). Thus, we will see that Kitagawa assumes (that is, constructs) it to be natural that early Buddhists perceived both a “religious” and a “non-religious” domain, and that they were, of course, only interested in the former. Likewise, we will see that Jones makes a very sharp distinction between “transcendent, spiritual” truths and “social, secular” realities, and that he portrays Buddhism as being properly interested only in the former. Thus, in each case we will be reminded of the spiritual/social split typical of Orientalists discussed above (cf. p. 19), and in each case we will see how these authors engage in the threefold movement of recognition, appropriation, and distancing. Finally, we will turn our attention to a detailed analysis of some of the more recent, nuanced developments in engaged Buddhist theory, focussing on the contributions made by Christopher Queen in his two edited anthologies (1996, 2000).
We can begin by recalling that modernists generally insist that “early” Buddhists in particular (including Śākyamuni himself) were completely socially disinterested (cf. p. 10). Kitagawa acknowledges that, “As to the actual relation of Buddhism to the Indian society during the early days of Buddhism, there is no agreement among scholars” (true enough). His own opinion, however, is decidedly clear:
Though the tone here is descriptive, this is clearly quite interpretive (constructive),(24) for, as we saw before, it can just as easily be argued that the Buddha’s abdication of his socio-political duties as a ksatriya crown-prince, as well as his establishment of a major social institution (the monastic order) that deliberately ignored India’s primary socio-political ordering schema (the caste system), do not indicate that he “accepted the various forms of socio-political order known to him.”
Kitagawa, like most modernists, points to King Aśoka as perhaps the first truly (at least partially) engaged Buddhist. Kitagawa tells us that “in retrospect” (that is, from our privileged vantage point), we can discern that “Aśhoka found two levels of meaning in Buddhism” (90). The first of these levels involves the usual “religious” or soteriological meanings of the Three Jewels. “On another level,” Kitagawa adds,
As is often the case with such statements, this sounds innocuous enough until it is scrutinized more carefully. Was Aśoka really the first to find an “ethical, social and cultural guiding principle” in the Dharma? (Should we join Kitagawa in calling this “the Aśokan turn”?) And if we can discern this “in retrospect,” are we to infer that Aśoka himself was not fully aware of his own “discovery”? If he was the first, are we to infer that, strangely, Śākyamuni Buddha himself did not understand (or for some reason did not act on) the social implications of his own Dharma? Furthermore, were not Śākyamuni’s wandering missionary bhikkhus expected to give spiritual advice and guidance to the laity, and might not this have likely included “ethical, social and cultural guiding principles”? Finally, and most significantly, were there really two distinct “domains” for the early Buddhists, one “religious” and one “non-religious”? One could perhaps imagine that certain early Buddhists might have used some such categories heuristically, but was there really a domain, a sphere of activity, a physical place in which actions (karma) had no soteriological significance for them?
In a manner similar to the Orientalists’ construction of a philosophy/ritual split, Kitagawa has here constructed a dualistic split between a religious and a socio-political sphere, a split that may well have seemed unnatural (or even unacceptable) to the subjects for whom he is presuming to speak. Nevertheless, once such a split has been created, it presents a gap that must be bridged. Kitagawa hails Aśoka as the first to attempt such a feat:
Now it is indeed true that Aśoka may have been the first Buddhist king to have been in a position to implement the idea that the institutions of kingship and of the state should be used as instruments “to protect according to the Dharma,” but Kitagawa engages in sheer speculation when he asserts that Aśoka was the first to have the very idea. Moreover, he is quick to appropriate the voices of all Buddhists prior to Aśoka when he asserts that such institutions “had no religious significance to the early Buddhist.”
Kitagawa seems further disappointed that the abstract, disengaged, religious sphere of Dharma that he has constructed in contrast to the “real” socio-political world was never really bridged with any “middle principles” by any Buddhists after Aśoka either:
An idealized “memory of King Ashoka” was all that later Buddhists would have to depend on. Aśoka’s valiant attempt to bridge the gap (that he, Kitagawa, himself created) was not only the first such attempt but also essentially the last (and hence, only) successful attempt in the succeeding two millennia of Buddhism’s history throughout Asia:
—that is, of course,
In 1989 Ken Jones published The Social Face of Buddhism, one of the earliest monographs on engaged Buddhism. This is one of the richest, most nuanced studies on this topic, filled with many useful insights and discussions. Nonetheless, if we first look at what he says Buddhism is not (or should not be) so that we can then better appreciate what he thinks it is (or should be), we will, in this way, be able see how his own categories force him, too, into an extreme Orientalist-style dualism.
Jones is strongly critical of certain attitudes and practices of modern engaged Buddhists. Though I will be arguing shortly that Jones himself constructs and appropriates Buddhism for his own unspoken (modernist) aims, here (ironically) we see Jones making the accusation that it is Western Buddhists who engage in improper appropriation:
In particular, such Westerners have “appropriated and used” Buddhism in a way that reduces it to a mere socio-political tool. Hence, Jones hears these reductionists “talking in terms of personal change being necessary [merely] to facilitate fundamental social change, as if spirituality were no more than the handmaiden of truly profound and human social revolution” (1989: 124).
Later on Jones identifies such objectionable reduction and appropriation as the process of “secularization,” noting that
And finally, in the following passage, Jones defines “secularization” and identifies it with what he calls “reductive modernism”:
So far, this argument seems valid. It does seem that the processes of secularization and the movement of reductive modernism that are aptly described by Jones do indeed occur (we will return to this in the section on Queen, et al., below). And I have no doubt that many Westerners are, to some degree, guilty of such appropriative excesses. However, we can recall from our overview above (p. 10) that when Jones speaks in terms of “the present-day interest in Buddhist activism,” he seems to imply that all modern Buddhist activists must be naïvely engaging in such secular appropriation:
Such universal condemnations would seem to insinuate that any present-day Buddhist activist who sees any signs of social engagement in Buddhism’s history is mistakenly “reading back” her own “secular” agenda (and at times, at least, whether intentionally or not, it does seem like Jones maintains such a strong stance—cf. above, p. 14). In any event, as we now turn to look at how Jones himself describes true spirituality or Buddhism (his constructed “Other”), we will see why his constructs might force him to reject the views of the vast majority of Buddhist activists.
To begin with, Jones divides religion into an “esoteric” and an “exoteric” form as follows:
Two initial points should be noted here. First, what he calls exoteric religion is not the same as what he criticizes as secularized religion. These two are entirely unrelated, and he is not interested in critiquing the exoteric part of religion. Second, he clearly states that the exoteric part of religion (to the extent to which he may think that it constitutes religion at all) already does include socially and politically engaged elements.
Next, he associates true Buddhism with the esoteric, gnostic, spiritual element of religion. Thus, he frequently makes reference to the “primary,” “existential,” “perennial,” or “epistemological” nature of Buddhism. In the following passage, he contrasts the approach of reductive modernism with that of “a Buddhist interpretation” (which he describes as being a “spiritual and root-existential” one), and he then defines the Buddhist approach as “transcendental modernism” —
Here we clearly see that the secular/spiritual dichotomy that Jones had earlier constructed forces him to adopt the strong stance that members of contemporary culture will “inevitably” engage in reductive modernism.
Now if, as we saw in Jones’s definition just above, an esoteric religion such as Buddhism must concern itself with individual, spiritual soteriology (a “training whereby individuals can realize their True Nature”), then Jones’s project will have to be: to determine how such a religion could develop a socially engaged element without succumbing to secular reductive modernism. Jones raises this methodological issue when discussing the subject of the validation for Buddhist activism, which raises the question: “On what basis, on what foundation, is Buddhist social analysis, and the activism derived from it, to be grounded?” Jones contrasts his method with “the other method” (that of the reductive modernists, of course):
The way in which Jones uses the labels “primary” and “secondary” here is very revealing. Most postmodern, critical thinkers, ever insistent on highlighting the contextuality of everything, would certainly insist on reversing these labels (as would I). “Specific scriptural evidence and historic Buddhist practice” should be considered the primary source (the raw data, so to speak) on the basis of which various secondary “existential” or “epistemological” interpretations can be formulated. For Jones to think that his methodology is “perennial” and not “exegetical” is naïve in the extreme, as even any premodern Buddhist hermeneutist would attest. But of course, his adoption of the label “primary” is necessary if he is to appropriate the authority to speak for the Buddhist tradition, and his adoption of labels such as “existential,” “epistemological,” and “perennial” are necessary if he is to construct an historically disengaged Buddhism from which he can distance (exalt) his own, innovative engaged hybrid.
When discussing Lopez and Gómez above, we saw how the Orientalists of the colonial and post-colonial period created a philosophy/ritual split in order to appropriate Buddhism as a pure philosophy. Jones makes a similar observation when he notes that post-colonial Buddhist intellectuals created a religion/politics split, this time in order to appropriate a politically engaged legacy for Buddhism:
Certainly such examples of false consciousness(25) or inappropriate “reading back” did occur, and were perhaps even rampant. And certainly the following also occurred:
However, I should not want to assume that all such claims were necessarily examples of naïve appropriation fostered by false consciousness. Many legitimate, sober comparisons were no doubt drawn as well. But Jones will not be so generous; he states a little further on:
Jones here confidently criticizes these Buddhists for reading their own scriptures “as if they were originally a programme for social reform,” as if he, Jones, can authoritatively say that they were not. Furthermore, he proceeds to tell them what the true significance of their scriptures is, a significance that is to be recovered from what Jones discerns to be their “over-arching spiritual and existential context”—a significance and context that he says the Buddhists have “lost.” It seems that, in the heady postmodern period (obsessed with revealing ever more context and eschewing dubious comparisons), Orientalism is alive and well.
Thus, in a manner similar to Jung, Jones constructs an Asian “Other” that is essentially the opposite of (and complimentary to) his Western “Self”-image. For Jones, Buddhism becomes primarily an enlightened spiritual tradition that has always been relatively disinterested in social and political issues. We stand to learn much from its spiritual wisdom, but its socio-political disinterest must be considered naïve or even dangerous in today’s modern world. Conversely for Jones, we in “the West” have developed a strong socio-political awareness and tradition, though we have done so for the most part in isolation from our own spiritual traditions. Buddhists stand to learn much from our socio-political wisdom, but our modern spiritual nihilism must be considered naïve or even dangerous in today’s modern world. Having set up this Self/Other (socio-political/spiritual) dichotomy, Jones perceives that we now have a unique and unprecedented opportunity to attempt to forge a union of these two great traditions:(26)
However, he regularly implies that recent attempts on the part of both Buddhists and Western activists sympathetic to Buddhism seem inevitably to have resulted in some form of reductive modernism, that “secularized shell of public Buddhism” (1989: 275) that combines, not the best, but elements of the worst of each tradition.
Jones suggests that the “transcendental modernism” developed in his book provides the elusive formula needed to effectively combine the best of both. In the following remarkable passage, Jones (1) recognizes the (essence of) Dharma as (beneficial) “light”; (2) appropriates the authority to (a) reveal this light from behind its thick, cultural “encrustations,” (b) determine (presumably) what is and what is not an “archaic,” “misleading,” or “obsolescent” encrustation, and (c) speak “both for many dedicated Buddhists and for the great mass of socially concerned people”; and (3) distances his transcendental modernism from Buddhism’s currently encrusted state:
Overall, I am generally quite sympathetic to Jones’s warnings about the contemporary tendency toward secular “reductive modernism.” The problem (and it is a big one) with his otherwise insightful observations is that he far overextends his critique: just about everybody who describes Buddhism as having had a history of social engagement seems to be accused of being a reductive modernist. This critique is enabled by his elaboration of what he considers the essence of Buddhism to be—a perennial set of truths intended to address the “existential” (but not the socio-political) sufferings of beings. For Jones, it is only now, in the modern era, that we have developed the mature perspective (and the urgent need) to bring out the socio-political implications latent in the Buddha’s perennial teachings. However, unfortunately, everyone who has tried to do this has gone too far, inadvertently reducing Buddhism to a hollowed-out shell of secular, localized, socio-political ideologies, thereby losing Buddhism’s original, transcendental, perennial essence. Jones seems to find only himself to be uniquely qualified to speak for what an “engaged Buddhism” could and should be. It should be evident that in all of these respects, and in spite of his otherwise excellent contributions, Jones is clearly a classic example of what I have herein described as a modernist.
As I suggested in the introduction, in the last couple of years “engaged Buddhist studies” has begun to show the mature signs of a great deal more critical self-reflection. One such sign has been the conscious identification of the “newness” issue as one needing serious study and debate. For example, in his preface to the anthology Engaged Buddhism: Buddhist Liberation Movements in Asia (1996), editor Christopher Queen identifies this issue as “the central question” that he will explore in his introduction:
The essay to which this preface alludes is entitled “Introduction: The Shapes and Sources of Engaged Buddhism.” This title itself is appropriately exploratory in tone; as we have already seen previously, the central thesis that Queen develops therein (as well as the conclusion that he reaches) is decidedly modernist. Four years later, the title of his introductory essay for the anthology Engaged Buddhism in the West (2000) asserts his modernist thesis up front: “Introduction: A New Buddhism.”
Indeed, Queen can perhaps be credited with making this newness question an issue in its own right. Other writers (both in Queen’s anthologies and elsewhere) have certainly stressed either continuity or discontinuity in their elaborations of engaged Buddhism, but they have generally done so in passing—it has not been their main topic. What I will attempt to show in this section is that Queen has analyzed and then defined both of the terms “engaged” and “Buddhism” in such a way as to not only (1) foreground the newness issue as a central issue; but also so as to (2) favor the conclusion that engaged Buddhism is new. In brief, he has defined “engagement” as relating to “this-worldly” concerns, especially institutional and systemic causes and forms of suffering, and he has characterized “traditional” Buddhism as other-worldly (following Weber). I will examine each of these in turn. Firstly, I will argue that his narrowing and specifying of the term “engagement,” although extremely interesting, valuable, and useful, may go so far as to make engaged Buddhism susceptible to Jones’s criticism regarding secular reductive modernism. (Moreover, in the conclusion I will suggest some reasons why his insistence that “engagement”—as he defines it—is necessarily recent and Western may be unfounded or at least counterproductive.) Secondly, I will argue that his characterizations of traditional Buddhism as otherworldly (which he routinely makes in passing, perhaps influenced by his greater familiarization with Theravādin forms of Buddhism)(27) are entirely incompatible with most forms of Buddhism (especially Mahāyāna), both doctrinally as well as historically.
Prior to the mid-1990s, most (but not all) scholars were fairly vague about the two or three terms involved in the label “[socially] engaged Buddhism.” Although certain authors were occasionally more precise in their definitions, the range of definitions varied so greatly between authors that the possibility of meaningful dialogue was often obscured. As we have seen, this vagueness enabled both modernists and traditionists alike to indulge in either mutual myopia or in quick, dismissive, polemical rhetoric. In The Social Face of Buddhism, Ken Jones offered a description sufficiently broad (and vague) that most would have probably accepted it:
However, later in the same book, Jones refracts this single, broad “range” of meanings into three distinct types of socially engaged Buddhism:
This spectrum spans from what he later calls a “soft end” to a “hard end.” In a personal communication to Sandra Bell, Jones explains this “taxonomy”:
Citing this same passage from Jones, Queen (2000: 8-10) also implicitly bemoans the past vagueness of definition (the “robbing of sufficient clarity”) and offers his own parallel spectrum from “mindfulness-based” to “service-based” engagement. Just as Jones (ahead of his time) clearly identified with the “hard end”—at 1989: 222 he notes that the main subject of his book has been the third type, “radical activism”—Queen clearly identifies the “service-based” end as his primary subject (it is, after all, the form of engaged Buddhism that he feels he can argue is “new”).
Although neither Jones nor Queen originated it, Queen has probably been the most vocal and articulate advocate of this narrower, more specific definition of “engagement,” as well as the most aggressive proponent of its “newness.” As he describes it in his 1996 introduction:
Although he was quite clear and consistent about this definition in that first book, he emphasizes and develops this theme much more in his 2000 anthology:
Other engaged Buddhists have also recently sought to identify with this type of narrower definition of engagement.(29) These refinements are indeed extremely valuable and useful, and they have considerably advanced the discussions of issues central to the concerns of all engaged Buddhists. But exactly how new are such definitions? As such definitions draw on and are expressed in terms of recent Western (critical, Marxist) theories of political economy, social analysis, and so forth, modernist engaged Buddhists who adopt such language certainly insist that they are new. But could one trace similar developments in social theory in Buddhist discourse prior to the modern era, and if so, might other (traditionist) engaged Buddhists be justified in emphasizing more continuity? I will explore one useful (perhaps conciliatory) approach to the question of determining the criteria for similarity versus newness (continuity/discontinuity) in the concluding section on Ruegg’s methodological observations.
The real issue before us presently is to clarify how Queen specifies and then applies such narrower definitions. In particular, how this-worldly must such an engaged approach be? More importantly, what does “this-worldly” itself mean and entail? What, if anything, does it exclude? In the following section we will see that Queen is able to magnify the perceived disjunction between traditional Buddhism and engaged Buddhism precisely by exaggerating both the other-worldliness (and individual orientation) of the former as well as the this-worldliness (and social/collective orientation) of the latter. When taken to an extreme, this drive to emphasize radical disjunction misrepresents both sides and runs the serious risk of disjointing the two halves of “engaged Buddhism” itself: traditional Buddhists are made out to be so other-worldly that they are not engaged, while engaged Buddhists are made out to be so this-worldly that (I will argue) they come dangerously close to not being Buddhists.
While Queen never ventures a definition of Buddhism (a daunting task for anyone, to be sure), his frequent, passing characterizations of various types of Buddhists are quite revealing. Two examples from his earlier anthology will suffice:
These passages present a surprisingly stereotypical, negative caricature of Buddhists. Among the traditional Buddhists, the ordained are disconnected “other-worldly ascetics,” and the lay are a naïve and mechanistic “mass” engaged in “routinized devotion.” The East Asian Mahāyāna Buddhist immigrants seem dull and hapless, “occupied” as they are with “observing” the “rituals” dictated by their blindly accepted “faiths.” In just a few words, Queen, like Jung, constructs the quintessentially passive Eastern “Other”—one that opposes, of course, a conversely active and assertive Western “Self,” namely,
These cultural and religious reifications are continued in his 2000 anthology:
Here it seems fair to ask—sticking to the Buddhist case—has it ever been possible to measure the quality of life primarily in terms of the “observance” of “rites” or the “belief” in “dogmas”? As with the earlier example, the verbs “to observe” and “to believe” suggest very passive behavior, and “rites” and “dogmas” are again terms for very rigid, routinized things to which practitioners automatically adhere. Are we really to believe that this is how Buddhists have always made this measurement (until now, now that unique modern circumstances have dictated that “it is no longer possible”)?
We must equally question the implication in the above passage that Buddhists measure the quality of life exclusively in terms of an individual’s actions and beliefs. This implication is made explicit in the following passage (here with respect to the ultimate quality of life, liberation):
Again we must ask, has this ever been possible? Would not any Individual Vehicle practitioner well educated in the basic teachings on selflessness and interdependence have found it impossible to see the “individual” as a separate “‘unit’” of anything? Certainly any Universal Vehicle practitioner well educated in Central Way philosophy (Madhyamaka) would have understood that insofar as individual selves may be said to exist, they exist not as separate units, but precisely as “complex[es] of roles and relationships”; that is, they exist conventionally, as dependent designations, as relationalities. Moreover, Universal Vehicle treatises never assert or imply that an individual self could be the “prime beneficiary” of liberation. Rather, “liberation” (which in the Universal Vehicle context necessarily entails full “enlightenment” or Buddhahood)(30) involves the full development of both a Buddha’s Truth Body as well as a Buddha’s Form Body, which provide, respectively, the complete fulfillment of both “one’s own benefit” (sva-artha, rang don) and “others’ benefit” (para-artha, gzhan don).
Indeed, whether in the ethical, philosophical, or socio-political sphere, it often seems that the “new” and modern innovations that Queen discerns as distinguishing engaged Buddhism from traditional Buddhism are little more than a reformulation of the classical differences distinguishing Universal Vehicle Buddhism from Individual Vehicle Buddhism.(31) For example, in the ethical sphere he states, “Now it is necessary to consider the effects of personal and social actions on others,” qualifying this in the philosophical sphere by saying, “‘The others’ affected by these [personal and social] actions must be understood not only as unit selves, but as significant collectivities: families, neighbors, … international populations[,] … and ecosystems” (2000: 3). These sound like traditional Universal Vehicle concerns and insights. Also in the philosophical sphere he states:
Again, it can be argued that this is precisely the “profound change” that occurred between the Individual Vehicle and Universal Vehicle articulations of liberation (we will explore this more in the next section). Finally, in the socio-political sphere he speaks of “the democratization, if not the transformation, of spiritual practices—for example, meditation and ritual initiations as now appropriated by lay practitioners” (1996: 11). Again, this is what historically occurred with Universal Vehicle (especially Vajra Vehicle) Buddhism in India and Tibet.
For now, suffice it to say that Queen understands traditional Buddhism (without reference to Vehicle) to be concerned with such “a highly personal and other-worldly notion of liberation,” and he considers modern engaged Buddhism, by contrast, to be revolutionary in its focus on liberating beings from “concrete” and “worldly” conditions. He shows that such a worldly focus has characterized Christian liberation theology, and he argues that “the worldly perspective of [Christian] liberation theologies … is fully consistent with the Buddhist liberation movements” (1996: 5).(32) This perspective is, he maintains, what defines a liberation movement as such:
Moreover, in the engaged Buddhism of contemporary Asia:
What remains to be explored here is just what this “this-worldly focus” entails. Whether or not it is truly new (as Queen insists it is), does Queen consider this focus on a “worldly liberation” to be (a) a secondary but important supportive complement to more “traditional” elaborations of liberation; (b) the new primary focus and goal; or (c) the new exclusive goal of self-proclaimed engaged Buddhists. Leaving aside the newness question, (a) would seem perfectly acceptable. On the other hand, (c) would seem unacceptably non-Buddhist.(33) The remaining option, (b), presents somewhat of a gray area—how primary is “worldly liberation” presented to be? There would seem to be a spectrum of possibilities here. As the primacy of the status of “worldly liberation” is emphasized ever more, the status (or relevance) of “traditional” elaborations of liberation—whether or not it is justified to characterize them as “other-worldly”—becomes ever more remote, representing more of an “unrealistic” goal; this moves (b) dangerously close to (c), opening it to Jones’s critique regarding secular reductive modernism. It is this gray option (b) that Queen clearly discerns as characteristic of engaged Buddhism:
Finally, in the following passage Queen indeed pushes (b) precariously close to (c):
* * * * *
Returning now to the ethical sphere, Queen discerns three “distinctive styles” of traditional Buddhist ethics, discipline, virtue, and altruism, and he then proposes that “engagement” itself be adopted as the term for a fourth, new style of Buddhist ethics, that characteristic of engaged Buddhism (2000: 11-17). He then rightly surmises: “The reader may be wondering at this point how a final style of Buddhist ethics could improve upon the altruism of the Mahayana” (2000: 15). His explanation and defense of this newness is as follows:
In this passage Queen adopts one of the modernist strategies we discussed above, emphasizing that the modern (and future) context is something historically unique and unprecedented. More troubling, however, is his characterization of Mahāyāna altruism as “generalized vows to save all beings.” Once again, through an extremely reductive (mis)portrayal of a passive Eastern “Other,” room is made for the activist Western “Self” and its new ethic of engagement. For we can note that “generalized vows to save all beings” represent only one side—the first step—of Mahāyāna altruism (bodhicitta), what is called “aspirational bodhicitta” (pranidhi-bodhicitta, smon pa’i byang sems). The other essential side—the follow-through, the heart of daily practice—is what is precisely called “engaged bodhicitta” (prasthāna-bodhicitta, ’jug pa’i byang sems).(34) Nevertheless, Queen describes his proposed fourth ethic of engagement as radically new and different:
Regarding this radical newness, he acknowledges that “ there are indeed harbingers of socially engaged practice in the annals of Buddhist history” such as (of course) Aśoka in India and some others in China, but he contends that “ these are exceptions to the practices of individual discipline, virtue, and altruism advocated in the tradition” (2000: 17).
* * * * *
Having recognized (constructed) that in all three spheres (ethical, philosophical, and socio-political) traditional and engaged forms of Buddhism occupy opposite ends of an (equally constructed) transcendent-worldly spectrum, Queen then distances his newly appropriated world-engaged Buddhism as far as possible, taking it to its logical (modernist) conclusion: he boldly proposes that “engaged Buddhism be thought of as a fourth yana” (2000: 24). He suggests several terms for the “New Vehicle” (Navayāna, following Ambedkar) of the “new Buddhism,” including “Earth Vehicle” (Terrayāna, following Kraft, 2000), and “World Vehicle” or “Global Vehicle” (Lokayāna)(2000: 23)(35) On page one of his “Introduction: A New Buddhism,” he alerts us that:
Later, when he actually makes this argument, he says:
Now others such as Joanna Macy (cited in Kaza, 2000: 160) and Franz-Johannes Litsch (2000: 423) have suggested that engaged Buddhism should be considered a “new turning of the wheel of Dharma,” so Queen is certainly not alone in wanting to appropriate traditional Buddhist hermeneutical schemas to give the highest possible status to what he sees as a truly revolutionary new development in Buddhism. In fact, none of these contemporary Western Buddhists are alone, for Asian Buddhists throughout history have repeatedly made such controversial attempts at redefinition and reclassification—the very attempt to define a “New Vehicle” or a “new turning of the wheel of Dharma” is itself nothing new.(36) A substantial body of literature exists regarding such controversies,(37) so it would seem most sensible for engaged Buddhists wanting to make such claims to consult this material for precedents. On the other hand, since making such radical claims is often more of a political act than a hermeneutical one, perhaps it behooves such attempts to keep this material in the shadows.
We will now look more closely at Universal Vehicle elaborations of “the world” and of “liberation (from the world)” to determine whether or not the more worldly dimensions of engagement are as new as they are claimed to be.
Exactly how this-worldly is the Universal Vehicle notion of liberation? Let us clarify the premise and the question. Charles Prebish suggests that Nhat Hanh’s notion of engagement was influenced by French postwar existentialist concepts of engagement (l’engagement, engagé), particularly by Sartre’s notion that (in Prebish’s words) “to be ‘engaged’ is to actualize one’s freedom by … acknowledging one’s inescapable involvement in the world” (1998: 273). To restate the question: Does Universal Vehicle theory admit “one’s inescapable involvement in the world?” If so—if one cannot escape—then what could “liberation” possibly mean? These are in fact classical Universal Vehicle themes.
The answer to these questions depends, of course, on a subtle analysis of what is meant (or even could be meant) by “this world” and by “liberation.” Ever since Nāgārjuna, Universal Vehicle proponents have relentlessly critiqued the naïve notion that liberation (moka, nirvāa) is (or logically even could be) another realm, a “goal” to reach somehow dualistically apart from this world (loka, sasāra). As Nāgārjuna says in his Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (XXV: 19-20):
There is not the slightest difference
Garfield himself comments on these verses:
The nonduality (advaya, gnyis med) of sasāra and nirvāa has been one of the central themes explored and developed throughout all of Universal Vehicle literature (Prajñapāramitā-sūtras, Vimalakīrti-sūtra, Madhyamaka śāstric literature, etc.). It is very important to stress that in these treatises, the “nonduality” of any two things is clearly distinguished from their “unity.” Characterizations of the unity, monism, or oneness of two things invariably conflate or reduce one of those things to the other. Thurman (following Tsong Khapa’s interpretation of Nāgārjuna) has discussed these dangers at length. Coining the terms “monistic absolutist” and “existential relativist” for two possible extreme interpretations, Thurman says:
He then acknowledges that “[e]ither of these positions may be partially correct,” that “[e]ach has its own evidence, arguments, and advantages,” and he cites numerous Indian, Tibetan, and Western interpreters who may be said to fall into these two camps. (We might add that Queen, et al., would seem to fall into the existential relativist camp.) But then, after a lengthy defense of the merits of each of these views, he tells us that “Tsong Khapa insists that these would-be Dialecticist Centrists, or interpreters of the school, are in fact the chief antagonists (purvapaksin) of the school!” (155). After an equally lengthy discourse on Tsong Khapa’s refutation of these two extreme positions and on his Centrist solution, Thurman concludes by citing the verse above by Nāgārjuna (XXV, 19) and then emphasizing the half-truths present in each of those two extreme positions:
If Thurman and Tsong Khapa are correct, then from the Universal Vehicle perspective, liberation has always entailed both a transcendent, transmundane, “other-worldly” (lokottara) aspect and equally an immanent, mundane, “this-worldly” (lokiya) aspect. Both aspects exist together, nondually, without either aspect collapsing into the other.
Bringing this lofty philosophical discussion on the nature of liberation back down to Buddhist liberation movements “on the ground” (so to speak), José Cabezón tells us in Queen’s own anthology:
Moreover—and of great relevance to our discussion on Queen’s possible sources and influences—in a footnote to this passage Cabezón contrasts this nondual Mahāyāna approach with a more dualistic Theravādin one (as developed, for example, in the earlier writings of Bardwell Smith):
Thus, we may now hazard a guess at a possible genealogy of modernist engaged Buddhist views. A Buddhist with a more dualistic background (perhaps Theravādin) may be predisposed to misunderstand (or to miss altogether) certain key nondual elements within the Mahāyāna traditions. Initially missing the specific “worldly” implications within various Mahāyāna doctrines (implications well-known and even explicit within the Mahāyāna tradition itself), such a Buddhist, upon glimpsing such implications, might think that they were radically new (which, for him, they would be). However, without fully appreciating the Mahāyāna view (of emptiness, relativity, and nonduality), he would certainly be prone to misunderstanding the subtleties of the implications that he now no longer completely missed. He would then most likely fall to one extreme or another, and “existential relativism” (which overemphasizes the reality of samsāra [“the world”]) would be the most likely option for a postmodern global citizen (whether Asian or Western). A Buddhism founded by such a Buddhist would thus tend to de-emphasize transcendence and to (over)emphasize a type of world-engagement that was perceived to be unprecedented and new. The result is modernist engaged Buddhism.
It is well known that in the history of Buddhist studies in the West, there have been numerous evolutions in understanding. Thus, for a long time Pāli (Theravāda) Buddhism was seen to be the “pure, original” form of Buddhism of which Mahāyāna Buddhism was a “later, degenerate” form. Discontinuity was stressed because Mahāyāna was seen to be a radically separate form of Buddhism “made up” by ingenious and deceitful Indians half a millennium after the “historical Buddha.” Eventually, however, this clear-cut picture was eroded as more and more continuities were discerned and as a more nuanced understanding emerged of how Buddhists themselves variously understood Buddhism (or buddhavacana) throughout their own histories. Similar evolutions in scholarly thinking have developed with respect to Indian tantric Buddhism (originally seen as a complete degeneration, now often respected as continuous with “mainstream” Mahāyāna Buddhism), and with respect to Tibetan Buddhism in general (originally seen as degenerate “Lamaism,” now seen as unique, but nonetheless continuous with Indian forms of Buddhism). The present essay has merely sought to suggest that a similar evolution in common scholarly awareness has yet to occur with respect to the possible continuities between modern forms of engaged Buddhism and Buddhism’s past.
Nor do I wish to overemphasize such possible continuities. I do not wish to have left the impression that all of the modernists’ conclusions are wrong. Many of their interpretations may turn out to be plausible given further research and dialogue (and I believe that much more of both are needed). I have, rather, tried herein to demonstrate that many modernists have arrived at their conclusions far too hastily, that they may have only “discovered” what were in fact tacit foregone conclusions.
As I see it, the modernists have put out an articulate, healthy challenge to the community of Buddhist scholars. As Queen put it in 1996:
And more recently in 2000:
In this present essay I have tried to problematize many of the suppositions in such formulations: Whose “conventional wisdom” are we talking about? What is meant by “personal liberation” and “social transformation,” and what is the relationship between them? Must we accept “engagement as you have defined it”? Must we accept your four types of ethics?
But these methodological questions notwithstanding, the basic challenge is still there, and it is a good one. Though we must always continue to ask such questions, it is time to begin digging into the “data.” Interested scholars (both traditionists as well as open-minded modernists) should now revisit the history of premodern Buddhist Asia with the express purpose of discovering examples of engagement as defined (more or less) by Queen and/or other modernists. For this analysis to be “concerted,” it must be undertaken by a variety of scholars specializing in a variety of disciplines (including, but not limited to, Buddhist Studies) spanning vast temporal, cultural, and geographical domains. Scholars will want to reinvestigate theories and arguments found in Buddhist texts, but they must also examine less traditional textual sources including political and legal documents, census reports, and economic surveys, as well as non-textual sources included in the archaeological record, and so forth. In addition, it will be necessary to consult non-Buddhist (e.g., Hindu or Muslim) accounts as well as nonindigenous accounts (for example, Chinese accounts of India). If after such a concerted effort sufficient evidence is not found, then the modernists’ contentions regarding the discontinuity between modern “engaged” Buddhism and premodern “traditional” (“disengaged”) Buddhism must be conceded. (The question of how such a new Buddhism should be related to traditional forms [perhaps a new vehicle]—including what it means to call it “Buddhism”—however, will remain). But if sufficient evidence is found, then a well-documented, “concerted argument” can be formulated in favor of traditionists’ insistence on continuity.
I have proposed that many Westerners do not seem to be able (or willing) to assimilate Buddhism organically and that Buddhism’s many and varied seeds cannot be allowed to simply take root on our soil. We must tinker with those foreign seeds, genetically re-engineer them, and clone and graft them to make our own hybrid, indigenous forms. If they are made “new” in this way, it seems that we assume they will necessarily be improved. Of course, if we did allow for a more organic transfer, they would still become uniquely ours (I certainly do not subscribe to the perennialist notion that Buddhism is a set of eternal, unchanging principles that are transferred intact throughout the centuries from country to country). A variety of Buddhisms would still adapt and become uniquely American (for example) for the simple fact that they would be growing in American soil, in the diversity of American climates, nourished by American nutrients, and so forth. But for some reason, this is not enough for us—it seems we must make Buddhism over in our own image. In short, having recognized (constructed) something in Buddhism that we want, we must appropriate it and then distance ourselves from its original (Asian) sources.
Due to the force of this strong inclination, modern Western engaged Buddhists are being told (and are telling themselves) that they can have their seeds and eat them too: they can have their Buddhism and not call it “Buddhism”(38)—or, in the terms of the present essay, they can appropriate their Buddhism and distance themselves too. Thus, as Kraft declared in one of his earlier essays:
Kraft is, of course, correct about this, but I wonder if modernist engaged Buddhists, with their zeal for newness, are not too eager to throw off the “Buddhist label” (and any possible continuities that may have been associated with it). Much is lost in this process. The entire past is lost in this process.
We saw that many modernists are quick to emphasize the differences between the “simpler” times of the Buddha and our own, more “complex” times and that modernists use such differences to assert, for example, that “it is unscholarly to … proclaim that the Buddha was a democrat and an internationalist” (Jones, 1989: 66). Likewise, many (not all) of the papers submitted to the first JBE online conference argued that the concept of “human rights” is a uniquely modern, Western innovation.
However, in an essay entitled “Some Reflections on the Place of Philosophy in the Study of Buddhism,” David Ruegg offers some very useful methodological observations that suggest an alternative to such a rigid prohibition of “source-alien terminology.” He writes:
Thus, it may well be valid to say that the Buddha did espouse “democracy,” “internationalism” or “human rights,” regardless of the fact that what he espoused may not have been exactly “the same as” what we now mean by those terms. But for that matter, one cannot say that all people in different times and places throughout the modern era have used those terms in exactly (or sometimes even approximately) “the same” way. A similar observation could be made about the use of the term “engagement” in general. (39)
Ruegg then makes some very useful and relevant comments about K. L. Pike’s “emic” and “etic” approaches to source studies(40) that further draw out the implications for the use of “source-alien terminology.” First, he explains that an “emic” approach involves studying a tradition systemically and structurally, by “making use of their own intellectual and cultural categories and seeking as it were to ‘think along’ with these traditions.” By contrast, an “etic” approach involves the intentional use of one’s own interpretive strategies and categories for the purpose of “generalizing and comparative” analysis (1995: 157).(41) He then observes that
Likewise, if evidence is obtained that warrants it, it should be entirely possible to describe traditional Buddhists as “engaged,” as “internationalists,” and so on. Moreover, I would strengthen Ruegg’s parenthetical statement that “it would in principle be possible to employ source-familiar terminology and still misconstrue and misrepresent a doctrine, thus infringing the requirement of an ‘emic’ approach” by saying that “it is in practice quite common to employ source-familiar terminology and still misconstrue and misrepresent a doctrine...”—for that is exactly what I have suggested many modernists do when they insist that historically, Buddhism has always been disengaged.
And finally, Ruegg suggests that the careful application of an “emic” approach can help us to avoid the type of subtle (often unconscious) “neo-colonialism” that we have discussed at length herein:
One can choose to stress the continuities between the beliefs and practices of contemporary Buddhists and those of the past, or one can choose to stress the discontinuities. If such choices are not made consciously and carefully, then they are always made unconsciously. Either way, they usually represent more of an ideological or political disposition (or move) than an historical “observation.” While we may agree with Queen that, in principle, “to stress the discontinuity of engaged Buddhism with its classical and medieval predecessors … is not to discredit its authority” (1996: 31), it nevertheless seems that for Queen (and other modernists), “to stress the discontinuity” (to recognize, then distance) is often to appropriate its authority.
On the other hand, if some modernists do consciously and carefully choose to emphasize discontinuities with the past, then certainly other contemporary Buddhists need not be threatened by what those modernists may construe as their new “innovations.” Buddhism has always been adaptive and fluid—as Thurman has stated, Buddhism has a “tradition of originality” (1989: 8). It is traditional to be original in Buddhism. Hence, the traditionists can relax in the face of the modernists’ “adaptations.”
But equally importantly (and almost never noted, from what I have seen) is the fact that modernist Buddhists need not be threatened when traditionists consciously and carefully choose to emphasize continuities with the past. Buddhism has had a much longer and more diverse history than modernists typically acknowledge; many of our “contemporary” problems (and solutions) may not be so new. The modernists’ rhetoric of newness seduces us into prematurely abandoning the rich mine of the Buddhist tradition and cheats us out of many jeweled resources from which we could have greatly profited. Again, Thurman’s comments make this very simple point:
Even the possibility of the total destruction of our habitat or of “life as we know it” can be seen to be not quite as “new” or “modern” as we are continually told to believe. Although it is true that the various technologies of destruction (nuclear, chemical, mass environmental pollution and exploitation, and so forth) are truly new and unprecedented, we should not underemphasize the very real threats and realities that many premodern civilizations have endured, including the total annihilation of their “entire world” (their entire society, culture, and habitat—life as they knew it) by other means (invading hoards of armies, etc.). There is much that we still stand to learn from this rich human history. Our situation may be unique, but it is no more unique than anyone else’s in the past. Hence, if modernist engaged Buddhists are truly concerned with transforming the world in which we all live, they might do well to relax and let go of their need to appropriate, own, and reinvent Buddhism from the ground up.
What would be most productive for those of us interested in the socio-spiritual welfare of living beings (both as individuals and as societies) is greater patience, a renewed readiness to respect and dialogue with one another (including “the natives”), more sophisticated methodological approaches, and a much keener self-awareness of the reasons and the agenda motivating our many enterprises.
30. This is a common Universal Vehicle contention. See, for example, Tsong Khapa’s fifteenth-century Tibetan discussion of this in Tantra in Tibet in the section entitled “All the Divisions [of scriptures, paths, or vehicles] Are Ultimately Branches of the Process of Fullest Enlightenment” (pp. 101-104). Therein he argues that everything that the Buddha taught is necessarily something that leads to Buddhahood, even if certain paths (for example, Individual Vehicle paths) are determined to have incomplete methods and are thus only a part of the process leading to Buddhahood. Return to text
31. Again, this is perhaps due in part to his greater familiarization with Theravādin forms of Buddhism (see note 27 above). Return to text
32. In the same anthology, José Cabezón discusses Christian liberation theology at great length, characterizing it in much the same way as Queen. However, Cabezón comes to a decidedly different conclusion about its consistency with Buddhist liberation movements (Cabezón, 1996: 311). Return to text
33. This should be fairly obvious. There are many sūtras in which the Buddha declares that everything he teaches is solely for liberating beings. See also note 30 above. Return to text
34. There are countless Mahāyāna treatises that discuss these two sides of bodhicitta. See for example Shantideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra, I: 15-16; verse 19 of Atisha’s Bodhi-patha-pradīpa; and so forth. Return to text
35. Lokayāna might perhaps better be translated as “Worldly Vehicle” to parallel the adjectival form “Global” and to suggest the focus on “worldly” (lokiya) liberation, which he asserts to be characteristic of liberation movements. Return to text
36. Another example that comes to mind was the attempt by Dol-po-pa (1292-1361) to legitimize his controversial gzhan stong interpretation of emptiness by invoking the language of “Councils” in one of his key texts on the subject (The Great Calculation of the Doctrine, Which Has the Significance of a Fourth Council). See Cyrus Stearns, The Buddha from Dol po and His Fourth Council of the Buddhist Doctrine. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Washington ( Seattle), 1996. Return to text
37. In an excellent essay entitled “Tibetan Hermeneutics and the yana Controversy,” Nathan Katz demonstrates with abundant scriptural citations and penetrating analysis that “[e]xamples of this yana discourse could extend almost indefinitely, as virtually all Mahayana sutras have something to say on the subject.” (Katz, 1983: 113).
38. An attitude often revealed in the rhetoric of pop Zen, or as suggested by the title of Stephen Batchelor’s recent book, Buddhism Without Beliefs. Return to text
39. Ruegg’s elucidation and application of the notion of “family resemblance” or of “topos” to such discussions is also extremely illumining here. See his Buddha-nature, Mind and the Problem of Gradualism in a Comparative Perspective (1989), pp. 2, 5, 13, 109, 123-124, and so forth. Therein he notes that (p. 2)
40. See Ducrot, Oswald and Tzvetan Todorov (trans. Catherine Porter), Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Sciences of Language (Johns Hopkins U. Press: Baltimore, 1994), p. 36 for further explanation of these terms and an extensive bibliography. Return to text
41. These “emic” and “etic” approaches may be seen to be related to the useful distinction that Wayne Proudfoot makes in Religious Experience (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985) between “description” and “explanation,” respectively. Return to text
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