Engaged Buddhism is a crock of sh*t.

Or at least the delineation of a new “engaged” branch of Buddhism is.

Bernie Glassman hinted on this new movement when he stated that an ongoing challenge to socially engaged Buddhism is to be able to practice social engagement as a Buddhist without be “drummed out of Buddhism” or accused of “staining the Dharma.”  It seems that what Mr. Glassman (I am not sure if he is addressed as Roshi) is really talking about is politicizing Buddhist practice and then having people not agree with his politics.  Good luck with that.  Far as I can see, some people will always disagree with some aspect of your political leanings.

 The answer to his question, however, is simple: Don’t practice social engagement as a Buddhist.  Don’t practice charity as a Buddhist.  Don’t show compassion as a Buddhist.  These are the things that every personal practice should contain without contraining them with religious identity.  When you chose to show charity, compassion or social engagement as a part of your personal practice you can do so without waving a religious banner.  Do it for the benefit for others.  Period.  End of sentence.  No strings attached.  No politics or banners.  Slogans or comments.  No conversions or evangelizing. 

The goal of peace needs to be replaced with the process of peace ~ peace as a practice.  We can neither win or wage a lasting peace nor can we make or create a lasting peace for others.  It is a state which has to be worked at day and night unceasingly, unstintingly with constant commitment to a personal practice that is not deliniated by religious belief or dogma.  Peacekeeping is similar to housekeeping:  it is a series of repetitive, occassionally monotonous, and always exacting tasks which maintain the continuity of living for all sentient beings.  The only variable is the size of the household.

Engaged practice is not glamorous, and it is not does not provide instantaneous results.  Just like meditative practice ~ it is not always daring, exciting or momentous.  It demands patience, fortitude, and unending effort without thought of goal or success.  It is the internalization of new patterns of behavior, innovative ways of thinking, new ideas and hope. 

For these reasons I prefer the 14 Precepts of Engaged Buddhism  as outlined by Thich Nhat Hanh as a launching point for any “engaged” practice.  As with any precepts, these are meant to be internalized into a daily practice and not followed as directives or rules.  They do not deliniate “engaged” Buddhists from “regular” Buddhists.  The more I apply these precepts to my daily actions (all actions are engaged) the more I practice in a manner that is beneficial to others, compassionate and wise.

Personally, when I hear that someone or some group wishes to “create” a peaceful society, my hackles go up.  To create or mold the thoughts of others through an institution or religion lies the roots of tyranny and oppression.  Or at very least, very annoying t-shirted people slinging a side of benefit with a huge heaping serving of evangelism. 

Are you performing civic deeds as an excuse to wave a banner or are you trying to help others?  Practice isn’t a goal but a process.  Apply that to daily activity and you will be as engaged as you need or are able to be.

I am eating a bacon sandwich

on a pony

while saving the world

one moment at a time.



15 thoughts on “Engaged Buddhism is a crock of sh*t.

  1. on a pony? Why on a pony? :PGood post. I think we all need to realize that things like these (politics, social justice, savinf hare NOT Buddhism. We are assigning values and creating conditioned states using the discriminating mind. This is dualistic thought.

  2. Bah Damit, i was logged in as my wife. Here is the comment from me… 10,000 bows, excellent post! I think that politics and social justice and whatever else someone undertakes is admirable, but as you point out, when they do them as “Buddhist” or in the “name of Buddhism” they are no better than the 700 club or the Southern Baptist Convention.I got a lot of crap for saying this, and you might too. Its the in thing to be “socially engaged”, but as you perfectly say “To create or mold the thoughts of others through an institution or religion lies the roots of tyranny and oppression.”Woot!

  3. Reformed Buddha,That is why I say it on my practice blog. Like 6 people have viewed this post so far and I am VERY liberal in the use of delete on my post here.Politics is fine and dandy but when you mix them too heavy-handedly with religion or practice you alienate others for no reason. It is perfectly ok to be a seriously political person but I don’t like grandstanding on political views from a pulpit or a cushion. My little sangha is political (mostly liberal) and individuals have their own causes. Some help feed the homeless, some are Big Brothers/Big Sisters, others volunteer but when you compare that to the local Christian Furniture store (yes, you heard me correctly) that insists on all employess hold specific religious, political and social views as well as act upon them in protests etc, I feel a tad sick to the stomach.I never want to see my sangha with as close-minded and afflicted with tunnel-vision as that.Cheers.

  4. “Are you performing civic deeds as an excuse to wave a banner or are you trying to help others?”Which cause creates a better effect in your view?

  5. Well, it’s kind hard to let a post with this title pass by! It probably won’t surprise you that I’m in the dissenting camp here. But I also don’t disagree with you on some of the points you make. It seems like the assumption you’re coming from is that “engaged Buddhism” is a kind of add-on, something that some Buddhists put on when they need to feel especially righteous, as they wave their (usually) liberal banner around on various issues.And that can be the way some people embody engaged Buddhism. That annoys me too, frankly.But it’s hard to imagine how you might be including people like Aung San Suu Kyi, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and the monks who marched peacefully for human rights in Burma in that grouping. When dharma practice is so deeply embedded in a person that it naturally extends out to a larger community than just themselves, and they act from that place, that, to me, is genuinely engaged Buddhism. And really, adding the “engaged” on to it is redundant. Robert Aitken Roshi used to say that all the time…. all Buddhism is engaged. I think you’re kind of getting at that too.But it also goes beyond political beliefs. One of the people I admire most is a dedicated dharma practitioner who also happens to be politically conservative and, in fact, even works in one of the nation’s most prominent conservative think tanks. (I’ll be featuring one of his articles soon on The Jizo Chronicles.) So, it’s not a matter of being “right” or “left” — but of realizing that our practice encompasses all beings. Anyway, just my two cents. Thanks for stirring up the conversation.

  6. Sometimes I note that the banner of “engaged Buddhism” gets put up in order to rationalize idiot compassion or other such demonstrative activities. The purpose of which seems more often than not to make the banner bearers feel better about themselves rather than take some concrete actions. So my viewpoint is probably not too far from Maia’s in that way. I don’t have a problem with anyone doing anything “as a Buddhist” though. It seems the problems start to occur not when one self-labels but when one makes assumptions that their way is the only way to “be Buddhist”. Then we get into the “good” and “bad” Buddhist crap. It’s a bit of tricky territory since there are so many lines that can easily get crossed. And it can get into a lot of semantics as well. Blogging for example. Is one blogging “as a Buddhist”, “a Buddhist blogger”, “blogging while being informed by Buddhism”, “blogging about Buddhism” and so forth? What’s the difference between all these? Questions of degree and perspective it seems to me. Adding in the engaged label may delineate something or it just may complicate things, depending upon the circumstances. I use that label to delineate certain perspectives on social issues that I have as well as activities in which I am involved. It seems useful for people to know that. Kind of a social short hand. It’s not appropriate for everyone just like the words “activist”, “liberal”, “socialist” are not. They are position descriptors with regard to socio-political issues. Culture as well as personality or individual psychology is an intertwining of the social, political, religious, and many other strands. It is not possible to “purify” any of these realms from the “pollution” of the others. The best we can hope for I think is to recognize the mutual influences.If one doesn’t “act as” a Buddhist, a woman or man, a citizen of a particular nation, a parent (or not), a worker in a particular industry, a person of a certain age, etc. what does inform that person’s action? Without knowing that it is difficult to deal with human behavior. Can they legitimately “act as a human” when that descriptor is merely one of the animal kingdom? You see how absurd this can become if labels are utterly rejected. Removal of labels does not remove differences. And differences do exist on the relative level.As a middle-aged, straight, liberal-socialist-ish, engaged-Buddhist, lower-middle class, Canadian expatriate woman I personally like my nama-rupa in good alignment since it saves me a lot of confusion. But it is still nama-rupa as part of pratītyasamutpāda. On the statements by Glassman Roshi, I think he’s kind of whining. But what I think about it hardly matters. The Dharma is not some trinket kept in a little glass box on an altar. Who gives a shit what the Buddhist community/establishment etc has to say about it? And why? Permission is not required to be a Buddhist, to act from Buddhist inspired motivations or to call yourself whatever kind of Buddhist you want to. In this case also long-winded Buddhist. Sorry.

  7. @NellaLouYes. It is fine to act out of Buddhist motivation as it is to work out of Christian motivation but when it comes to engaged vs. nonengaged what are we talking about?From what I can gather it is really political motivated vs. non-political motivated practice. The “engaged” is a description that is not describing what it needs to describe.”Engaged” is a description of every Buddhist I have met so far. Rarely to I meet one that isn’t. What Mr. Glassman is advocating is social/political activism through a Buddhist pulpit. While this is fine, I do not prefer that type of practice. Whether it is a group of Christians protesting a mosque or abortion clinic or a group of Buddhists protesting something liberal (probably) I see the same thing. Wasted breath.Cheers,

  8. @Maia,I don’t see engaged Buddhism as an “add-on”. Buddhist practice is engagement. But I see the label of “Engaged Buddhism” as really social/political activism. Which, as I stated, is fine but don’t expect everyone to agree with your politics.If asked whether I would prefer to be openly political, I would answer I would prefer my practice to do the talking rather than my political beliefs.As far as Aung San Suu Kyi or HHDL or TNH, were they moved by compassion or politics? That is the question we need to ask. Was the Rev. King an “Engaged” Christian as is the Christian pastor that just posted bomb making instructions on Facebook to encourage the bombing of a Planned Parenthood building.My point is that our practice does the talking not some nominal label that means nothing.Cheers,

  9. I enjoyed your post Jack! Great title, whenever someone has a strong position you’ll have an equal amount of opposition. Makes for some good writing and debate.What had the most impact for me is this line. The goal of peace needs to be replaced with the process of peace.I’m a little weary of any group that uses religion as their banner to perform an act of service.Question is there such a thing as a selfless act?

  10. “Is there such a thing as a selfless act?” Yes. maybe. But then again losing the self is a tough one, even for Buddhists. I think “pretending” and “rationalizing” come into play here as well as quotation marks and ponies.”Only if there exists a good question.”Really the only bad question is … “Where is this relationship going?” The rest are completely fine. Except for koans. Those questions are completely without merit.

  11. Thanks for the comments. I really enjoyed your post and like reading your blog.I’ve been thinking about the question is their such a thing as selfless act. My current thinking is their is no such thing as a selfless act, unless you have completely released ones ego.I am a child when it comes to Buddhism. I’m stumbling and learning along the way. Thanks for putting out your point of view. _/|\_

  12. “Don’t practice social engagement as a Buddhist. Don’t practice charity as a Buddhist. Don’t show compassion as a Buddhist.”Heck, don’t practice Buddhism as a Buddhist! Why stop there? It sounds like those criticizing Socially Engaged Buddhism could be more attached to the label than the practitioners are. Many practitioners like to identify themselves as one of the many schools of Mahayana, Theravada, and Tibetan Buddhism with all the cultural and political trappings and detritus that come with them. Why are the Engaged Buddhists singled out?

  13. I agree in the sense that our motives not should be based by our religious leanings or beliefs, but rather the fundamental basic human values that tie us together: love, compassion, honesty, sincerity etc. We should not help people because of the religion we subscribe to, or the political groups that we belong to, rather we should help people because that is our duty to one another. Why should we then start realizing we need to care about society through this form of engaged Buddhism? Should caring and helping society not be an ongoing process, regardless of the different movements that come up along the way? I agree in the sense that we need to focus much more on the progress on our society, as opposed to the goals that we put it. For if we merely stick up goals and label our ideas with names, we are merely creating the illusion of making a difference, when we have in fact not done anything at all. I think that people have the right to their religious opinions or beliefs, but that they should not impose their beliefs on people, because we all subscribe to different opinions.

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