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How Shall We Save the World? An Anniversary Essay on a Perennial Topic
Hakuin's Daruma

Nelson Foster
Turning Wheel : The Journal of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, Summer 1998

(see also David Loy's response)

When the Buddhist Peace Fellowship came into being, I was a youngster of 27 living on Maui, five years out of college, six years into Zen practice, and anxious to do something more about the sorry state of the world than I was doing as a high school English teacher. It seemed obvious to me and others in our tiny cabal that Buddhism demanded political expression, and it took just one brief meeting to decide we should do it - no consultation with others, no plan for funding, no attempt to base the project in a Buddhist community larger or closer to the center socially and geographically than the Maui Zendo. Despite such organizational naivete, BPF flew from the start; it must have been, as the saying goes, an idea whose time had come.

Naivete of another sort also played a part in BPF's creation, I now see, at least on my part naivete about Buddhism itself and the bodhisattva way of saving beings. While innocence may have served BPF well in other respects, I think in this respect it did not. As I reflect on developments of the past twenty years, it seems to me that BPF and other Buddhist projects of a like nature have suffered from a failure to resolve crucial differences between the world view implicit in Buddhism and the world view that we absorb unintentionally as children of this culture.

(Given the diverse forms Buddhism has taken, I need to acknowledge that I am referring here to the world view implicit in Mahayana Buddhism of China and Japan, especially as manifested in the one sect I know intimately, Ch'an or Zen. I leave it to readers from other Dharma traditions to decide what value my observations have, if any, vis-a-vis their own history, teachings, and experience.)

I grew up in a genteel middle-class, Protestant family with mainstream liberal values, values that one grandmother expressed in Baltimore by campaigning for inner-city parks and against litter and that led my mother, in California and later Hawaii, to participate actively in the League of Women Voters. Like many other white skinned Baby Boomers, I was stirred by the civil rights struggle but brought to my feet only by our grisly war in Indochina and the commotion it created around me. Although I took part in the marches, rallies, and student strikes of my college years, I remained functionally ignorant of both street politics and political philosophy until I fell, by extraordinary good fortune, under the tutelage of Robert Aitken. He had not yet become an independent master but was already teaching Zen in a sort of apprenticeship, and as he did so was passing along, willy-nilly, the political views that he had formed, refined, and acted upon since his incarceration three decades earlier in a Japanese internment camp.

Aitken Roshi understood the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism as completely consistent with progressive, nonviolent activism. Every day, reciting the four great vows of Mahayana tradition, we swore to save all beings - and we meant it. That this ancient path of wisdom and compassion involved protecting people, plants, animals, and places in concrete, practical ways seemed to us self-evident. In a Zen monastery, not a drop of water or fallen leaf is wasted. How could we ignore the wasting of lives, species, and cultures occurring around us on a vast scale? Realizing the fallacy of dualistic thought puts the lie to the us-them distinction undergirding greed, hatred, and violence. Of course it implied political activism; indeed, it seemed to compel it.

Such thoughts spurred us to launch BPF, but we were by no means alone in thinking them. Probably the first to articulate them clearly for an American public was Gary Snyder, in his 1969 book of journals, essays, and translations, Earth House Hold. This volume, with the sizzling subtitle Technical Notes and Queries to Fellow Dharma Revolutionaries, contains the essay "Buddhism and the Coming Revolution" in which Gary appraised the contribution Buddhism could make to the project of saving the world. He began with a hard-nosed critique:

Although Mahayana Buddhism has a grand vision of universal salvation, the actual achievement of Buddhism has been the development of practical systems of meditation toward the end of liberating a few dedicated individuals from psychological hang-ups and cultural conditionings. Institutional Buddhism has been conspicuously ready to accept or ignore the inequalities and tyrannies of whatever political system it found itself under.

Gary concluded, however, by expressing an ardent hope for what the Dharma could offer: "The mercy of the West has been social revolution; the mercy of the East has been individual insight into the basic self/void. We need both." He proposed that the classical three trainings of Buddhism (wisdom, meditation, and morality) were fully consistent with a revolution of the kind he had in mind. "This last aspect [morality] means, for me, supporting any cultural and economic revolution that moves clearly toward a free, international, classless world." Ultimately, he predicted, "the coming revolution will link us in many ways with the most creative aspects of our archaic past. If we are lucky we may eventually arrive at a totally integrated world culture with matrilineal descent, free-form marriage, natural-credit communist economy, less industry, far less population and lots more national parks."

One may or may not subscribe to his vision of the future, but nine years before BPF's founding, Gary's essay boldly set forth what would become BPF's basic premise that Buddhist practice, rightly understood, can and should go hand in hand with purposeful efforts to better society. He joined up right away when we proposed the new organization, and off we all went, in pursuit of a liberation social as well as personal. Perhaps that was the way it had to be, but I regret today that we did not squarely confront the question Gary's essay begs us to ask: What has made institutional Buddhism so "conspicuously ready" to accommodate "inequalities and tyrannies"? Unless we are prepared to assume flagrant hypocrisy on the part of generation upon generation of Dharma ancestors, we have to examine how they understood their vow to save all beings and why they did not act on that vow by organizing for social change in ways that seem important or even imperative from our perspective today.

In proposing to marry Buddhism with concerted work for social change, we could not overlook such questions entirely, but the answers we gave at the time look inadequate to me now, after further study. For his part, Gary attributed the discrepancy between Mahayana Buddhism's "grand vision" and its institutional behavior to the failure of "Buddhist philosophers to analyze out the degree to which ignorance and suffering are caused or encouraged by social factors. . . ." True, Locke, Hobbes, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Jefferson, Marx, and their brethren had no direct equivalent in the Indian and Chinese philosophical traditions, but Asian thinkers had developed their own highly sophisticated analysis of social causality, and Mahayana Buddhists were well aware of the impact that political and economic decisions have on public life. An example is the argument against financial reforms that the great 11th-century poet, artist, government official, and Ch'an layman Su Tung-p'o submitted to Emperor Shen-tsung. Framing his case in conventional Confucian terms, Su predicts in detail the consequences that the laws would have - and the miseries they would bring down upon the populace. One might criticize Su's position, which was conservative even by the political calculus of his own time, but one cannot fault his understanding of 'social factors' or his humane concern for the effect the new laws would have on his compatriots.

Aitken Roshi took another approach to the disparity between the bodhisattva ideal and Mahayana's actual role in society. Sighing and looking a little pained, he would explain that, as a guest religion in North Asia, Buddhism lived "on sufferance" of the imperial order and so bottled up its transforming influence in order to escape persecution. I took this view to heart and repeated it, along with Gary's ideas, in an article that I published in BPF's early years, but subsequent reading and reflection have led me to set it, too, aside. Although Buddhism did, indeed, enter China and Japan as a foreign teaching, and occasionally became a target for repression, it received a remarkably warm welcome, all things considered, and its critics attacked it not for taking too forward a role in society but for retreating from civic participation.

The Buddhist practices of monasticism and celibacy drew especially vehement criticism in North Asia because, in "leaving home" monks and nuns stepped outside the social norms that had structured civilization since time immemorial. Begetting no children, abstaining from commerce and warfare, refusing to bow down even to the Son of Heaven himself - how could they honor and requite their debts to the emperor, to their ancestors, or to their parents? How could they serve beings, much less save them, by withdrawing from society? Such withdrawal was revolutionary in a certain sense but certainly in a different sense than BPF's founders had in mind.

The theory that social constraints inhibited political expression of the bodhisattva vow seems to hold no better for lay people than for the monastics. Even with a scant knowledge of Chinese history, it is easy to produce examples of politically active Ch'an lay people. Besides Su Tung-p'o, already mentioned, two come to mind quickly: Pei Hsiu, a student and patron of the 9th-century masters Huang-po and Kuei-shan held a succession of high posts in the government. His famous and sometimes outspoken contemporary, the poet-official Po Chu-i, studied with several Ch'an teachers and won himself a place in The Transmission of the Lamp; a great compendium of Ch'an biographies published shortly after his death. Similar figures could be named in Japan. We might call such people "engaged Buddhists" today; by the Confucian standards of their culture, they were simply good citizens, participating responsibly in civic affairs.

How, then, do we account for the perceived inconsistency between the "grand vision" of the Mahayana and our Dharma ancestors ・behavior? Part of the answer is surely that no one ever lives up to the vow to save all beings in its literal aspect. You and I are falling down on it right now - grossly, horribly. Consider all the devastation we are party to, and it is not so difficult to imagine Buddhists a thousand years in the future shaking their heads mournfully over our failure to protect all beings.

But this is only part of the answer. After twenty-odd years of grappling with the issue, I find myself inclined to think that the discrepancy we perceive may result more from culturally based preconceptions and expectations on our parts, from what a scientist might call "observer bias" than from any shortcomings on the part of our Asian forerunners. I believe the old worthies were embodying the Mahayana vision as fully and faithfully as humanly possible - just in a way that is difficult for us to see and appreciate because it proceeded from understandings of society and of "saving" very different from those we receive from contemporary Euro-American culture.

I am not going to attempt a discussion of the differences between North Asian perspectives on society and our own. Let's just acknowledge that the great principles of individual equality, rights, and freedom declared "self-evident" in the founding of the United States were, at the time, by no means self-evident to the British, much less to the Chinese and Japanese, and that they remain today, despite their dispersion and enshrinement in constitutions everywhere, genuinely foreign to the home cultures of Mahayana Buddhism. China and Japan traditionally have placed a higher premium on social harmony than on individual rights or desires, and that fact alone may go a long way toward explaining why, from our point of view, institutional Buddhism has accommodated itself too readily to odious events and conditions.

Another cultural difference deserves notice. While we belong to a society that views progress as normative, the more common perception worldwide has been that civilizations tend irrevocably toward decline. The ancient Greek imagery of a Golden Age degenerating by stages, through silver and bronze, into a strife-torn Iron Age had its near parallel in the Indian-derived cosmology of Buddhism. In the Buddhist account, a world system endures for a period of one greater kalpa, itself consisting of four lesser kalpas: a kalpa of Becoming succeeded in turn by kalpas of Abiding, Dissolution, and Emptiness. The Buddhist teaching itself was thought to wind down in three steps, with the Age of True Dharma (when Shakyamuni taught) giving way to an Age of Imitative Dharma and then to the Age of Debased Dharma in which we now find ourselves.

All this may sound quaint, but people of old took these images seriously, and in China and Japan, they persisted much longer than in Europe. They helped to explain times of hardship and offered hope for the future, when a new Age of True Dharma is to begin with arrival of the next buddha, Maitreya. This world view held such strong sway that teachers, including Dogen, found it necessary to disabuse their disciples of the idea that realization of the Way was out of reach due simply to their birth in the Age of Debased Dharma. The power and pervasiveness of this "pessimistic" outlook, combined with a cultural orientation toward social harmony, would make a campaign to renew society seem mistaken and futile.

As for "saving" in classical Ch'an and Zen texts when masters are asked a pointed question about saving others, they most often respond with a simple action such as ringing a bell, counting to five, raising a ceremonial whisk, or hoeing the rice paddy. Masters who addressed the question in a more discursive fashion made it even plainer that saving beings, as it was understood in Ch'an and Zen, is not to be achieved through helpful projects in the public sphere.. Some taught that all beings are saved when a single one is saved, an insight captured in the words that Shakyamuni uttered on the occasion of his great awakening under the Bodhi Tree: "I and all beings on earth together attain enlightenment at the same time." Others, such as the eminent 8th- and 9th-century master Pai-chang, offered a counterpoint to this theme:

The Buddha appears in the world and saves sentient beings" are words of the incomplete teaching. Anger and joy, sickness and medicine, are all oneself; there is no one else. Where is there a Buddha appearing in the world? Where are there sentient beings to be saved?

The modern teacher Yasutani Haku-un, my own great-grandfather in the Dharma, set forth this second position in even more striking manner:

Fundamentally, such matters as saving sentient beings are the delusions of bodhisattvas. Where are the sentient beings to be saved? From the pits of hell to the summit of the Buddha realm, there is not even a single deluded sentient being. Sentient beings are originally buddhas. All are nothing but Tathagatas of pure gold. Is there any saving to be done?

Whatever one makes of such Dharma presentations, certainly they cannot be construed as manifestos for social change. Only now am I myself beginning to come to terms with them - with the uncomfortable fact that they represent our tradition's ultimate outlook on the subject of saving beings. Nowhere do we find great Ch'an or Zen teachers of yesteryear admonishing their students to go yonder and shelter the homeless, feed the hungry, protest injustice, protect forests and rivers, intervene in military preparations, or otherwise organize for the common good. It simply is not there in the teachings, as much as you and I might wish it were.

In so saying, I am not suggesting that monastics and lay people of Ch'an, Zen, and other Mahayana sects entirely refrained from such activities. In an eagerness to find precedents and to feel continuity with my tradition, well before BPF's creation I had begun collecting historical instances of compassionate action taken by members of Ch'an and Zen sanghas. Lin-chi planting trees, the exiled master Ta-hui enlisting his monks in an effort to aid the sick, his colleague Hung-chih sharing monastery supplies with villagers in a time of famine, Eisai Zenji giving a down-and-out samurai family some copper originally intended for use on an altar figure, to a down-and-out samurai family, Hakuin Zenji scolding a lord for treating his people poorly, Soto monks turning out to help villagers build bridges or irrigation canals, the Obaku priest Tetsugen not once but twice furnishing funds for disaster relief out of money gathered to publish the Buddhist canon, the master and artist Sengai taking in unwed mothers, monasteries giving safe haven to refugees -the record is there, and I am grateful for it. It is a thin record, relatively speaking, but perhaps indicative of much more widespread service to others.

It is important to acknowledge, however, that the record consists mainly of individual acts of kindness and uprightness. This is "entering the marketplace with helping hands" as represented in the final frame of the Ten Oxherding Pictures, but it is not mobilization to overturn the status quo. A few mass movements did develop in Mahayana traditions before they came under the influence of Euro-American ideas - the White Lotus Society that arose out of the T'ien-t'ai sect in China, some Jodo Shin-inspired uprisings in Japan - but these exceptions prove the rule that the Mahayana did not historically take this direction in its commitment to save beings. The record of charitable activity in Ch'an and Zen provides, at most, a modest precedent for service projects today.

Again, I think it's important to ask why. Scholars going under the banner of "Critical Buddhism" have proposed that the reason lies in the Ch'an and Zen teaching of "original enlightenment" the understanding that "Sentient beings are originally buddhas. All are nothing but Tath 携gatas of pure gold" as Yasutani Roshi puts it in the passage quoted above. Taken logically, this understanding would make any effort to save others basically pointless; if slaves and clear-cut hillsides are buddhas from the beginning, why worry? But Yasutani Roshi was not speaking from the standpoint of logic; the operative word in his statement is fundamentally. During his life, far from denying the reality of suffering beings, he entered energetically into "the delusions of bodhisattvas" traveling tirelessly hither and yon to save whoever was interested.

Here we reach the crux of the matter, and I want to describe Yasutani Roshi's life a bit more as a case in point. Although he held passionate political views - views so stridently right-wing in his middle age that they make me wince - like countless others before him, he invested his life in saving beings primarily by practicing and teaching the Way, not by organizing service projects or protest movements. In about 1969, near the end of his 88 years, Yasutani Roshi wrote an essay entitled "The Crisis in Human Affairs and the Liberation Found in Buddhism" in which he appealed for a complete reconstruction of society to lay "a foundation for the peace of all mankind, recognizing international unity, the whole earth as one nation transforming the suffering world into the Pure Land." As his title implies, however, he felt that this reconstruction could only be accomplished by seeing through the dualistic premises of modern ethics, economics, law, and so forth - in short, by awakening to the Way of the Buddha. "If the fundamental error is not corrected" he explained, "political manipulations will simply maintain a vicious circle of bad causes and bad effects." That is, society can create charity programs, reduce or expand welfare, or implement income-redistribution schemes ad infinitum, but if greed and delusion remain intact, even the most affluent nation on earth will not find a solution to poverty.

To place the priority so squarely on practice and enlightenment is utterly in keeping with the tradition of Ch'an, Zen, and all of the Mahayana, as far as I can tell. Sitting before the assembly of monks on his last morning, the eminent 10th-century Ch'an master Feng-hsueh expressed a serene trust in the far-distant liberation of all beings, purely through the working of the Way:

Truth, availing itself of the flow of time,
Must of necessity save all beings.
Remote though they who long for it may be,
Step by step they will approach it.
In years to come, should there be an old man
Whose feelings resemble mine,
Day after day the incense smoke will rise,
Night after night the lighted lamp will burn.

The wellsprings of this trust lie deep in Chinese culture, in an understanding that the only reliable means of improving society is to cultivate one's own character. A seminal Confucian text, the Ta Hsueh (ca. 200 BCE), instructs us, "From the emperor down to the common people, all, without exception, must consider cultivation of the individual character as the root. If the root is in disorder, it is impossible for the branches to be in order."

Some years ago, when I and other members of the Honolulu Diamond Sangha had the opportunity to interview Zen layman and distinguished scholar Masao Abe, he appropriated this ancient roots-and-branches metaphor, using it differently but to essentially the same purpose. He described Buddhism as operating invisibly, deep within a culture, rather than "fighting social evil" in the Christian manner:

The Christian church itself becomes a kind of social power which stands directly against and fights against a secular social power. Buddhism has been working not as a formal social power in the historical dimension but rather working underground as, say, underground water which tries to dissolve the roots of social evil. Before [even] the appearance of a form of social evil, Buddhism tries to solve, to dissolve, its root. Of course, we should not divide the root and branch. But what I'm asking is, what is the branch, what is the root? The branches cannot support the root. The root can support the branches. That order must be realized clearly.

Dr. Abe offered low crime rates in Buddhist nations as evidence that this radical approach succeeds. While expressing appreciation for "the American form of working for social change" he concluded, "I just hope that American Buddhists also realize the importance of the work of underground water."

I think we do - but we certainly do not trust it to the degree that Feng-hsueh did. Not hardly. We want to hedge our bets, speed things up, get some tangible results. Is this mistaken? In an illuminating essay on the Confucian and Taoist antecedents of Ch'an, Harvard professor Tu Wei-ming submits that Ch'an (thus Zen) rests solidly on the classical Chinese perception that any endeavor to foment social change by the method Dr. Abe termed "American" will invariably prove fruitless:

Only by strengthening the root (self-cultivation) will the branches (regulation of the family and governance of the state) flourish. If we reverse the order by first imposing peace on society with the anticipation that people will learn to live harmoniously among themselves, we not only violate the natural process of moral education but rely on external political ideology rather than the trust of a fiduciary community. This is ineffective, for social harmony can only be attained through personal self-cultivation.

I wonder how many BPF members accept this conclusion. I am not sure I do. I take it for granted that "strengthening the root" is essential for deep-seated change in ourselves and thereby in society, but Dr. Tu's flat declaration makes me squirm. Is personal self-cultivation really the only way to fulfill the vow to save others? Should we, like Feng-hsueh, place our trust absolutely in the Dharma? Is that understanding integral to Zen and to Mahayana tradition more broadly, or is it an artifact of Chinese culture that we need to sweep away, along with all our American social conditioning, in order to see clearly how to embody the bodhisattva's vow? I wish I had answers to these questions, but I do not. Perhaps by the time we celebrate BPF's fortieth anniversary the answers will emerge. In the meanwhile, I take some solace in the thought that, as Wallace Stevens put it, "Questions are better than answers" and I look forward to exploring the matter further and more deeply with others in this still-growing community of wise friends.
After staffing BPF as a volunteer in its first years, Nelson Foster went on to work for nearly a decade with the Quaker-based American Friends Service Committee and to found the Pacific Campaign for Disarmament and Security. He is author-editor (with Jack Shoemaker) of The Roaring Stream: A New Zen Reader and teaches Zen, as a Dharma-successor of Aitken Roshi, both in California and Hawaii.

(see also David Loy's response)

Nelson Foster is one of Robert Aitken's dharma heirs and head teacher of the Honolulu Diamond Sangha. He is also resident teacher at Ring of Bone Zendo in the Sierra foothills of California and one of the founders of Buddhist Peace Fellowship.