Justify Your Love: Finding Authority for Socially Engaged Buddhism

Ways of Relating Buddhist Tradition and Practice with Social Theory

by Diana Winston

As the field of socially engaged Buddhism (SEB) has developed, there has never been a coherent or systematic attempt to create an authoritative basis for the work of SEB. Many of our elders, including Joanna Macy, Thich Nhat Hanh, Robert Aitken Roshi and others have all written movingly on the socially engaged imperative. Yet most have operated in isolation. This paper is meant to address the lack of coherency and to put the approaches into a systematic whole. The hope is this background work will help others to move forward in the field of SEB. It may provide impetus for generation of new theoretical and practical work, and an exploration of existing SEB responses - all in service of the emerging SEB movement. Keep in mind that although the models are presented linearly, they are actually complimentary and are in no particular order. They may build upon each other and function somewhat like a mandala - part of a larger non-linear whole.

The concerns of this paper arise when we have been asked, how does one know SEB is a valid form of Buddhism? What texts do we trace it back to? Or, is there another way of finding (textual or other) authority for SEB? This paper may provide the initial steps for a response.

1. Finding Buddhist Textual Resources

The first and perhaps most obvious response would be to examine Buddhist texts for clues as to what the Buddha and other great Buddhist teachers recommended about society and politics.

We can search within the Buddhist texts and finding canonical references to social action such as where suttas or sutras make recommendations for social welfare or provisions for the poor, and so forth. Where does the Buddha (or others great Buddhists) discourse on suffering inherent in social systems? What antidotes or recommendations have been made?

For example, in the Sutta Nipata I, 6, it is stated: "To have much wealth and ample gold and food, but to enjoy one's luxuries alone - this is a cause of one's downfall." This teaching can be seen as a Buddhist dictate towards charity and to not accumulating wealth. This may be viewed as a critique of avarice, and we can apply this to our lives or to the systems and institutions under which we live. We can confidently say that the Buddha discouraged large accumulation of wealth, simply, this is one of the Buddhas social teaching .

One significant question may be, which texts? Who is the authority here? The Buddha? The Pali Canon? The commentaries? The Mahayana sutras? What about subsequent teachers (historical and contemporary) who were reputed to have enlightened minds? What about Dogen Zenji or Je Tsongkapa? His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Shunryu Suzuki or Ajahn Buddhadasa or other contemporary teachers for that matter? Which texts and traditions have the so-called final word? What if they conflict (such as gradual vs. sudden paths)? Further, when does the role of personal experience come into play?

As this approach is the obvious one, it is important to keep in mind a few caveats. First, the Buddhist tradition is not originally a textual tradition (although one could argue that the writtren Buddhist tradition is as strong as the oral one) , but an oral one. What happens when we begin to locate authority in the texts of a non-textual tradition? Further, there are many current debates, particularly in schools of postmodernism, over who controls the text. In this case a relevant question is also who translated the texts.

A final note is that there are not so many examples, particularly in the Pali, of social teachings. It appears that the Buddha himself was much more focused on personal liberation rather than ending political or social suffering, although this may be a dualistic interpretation. However, there are some contemporary SEB theorists who believes there are much more of these social teachings in the Pali Canon than we think. Joanna Macy says that the nineteenth century translators were reacting against the cultural emphasis on social theory by turning to a personally liberatory Buddhism. Translators edited out the social passages, which is why the text mostly have a soteriological bent. This point is debatable and is not unique to SEB, but is a problem with all Buddhist translation.

Since the amount of Buddhist teachings with social and political relevance is minimal, this should not be seen as a cause for discouragement nor should it be "proof" that SEB is a radical western innovation with no grounding in the texts. When one considers the trajectory of Buddhism as it traveled to various countries and merged with local customs and traditions, it is inevitable that it will merge with progressive social change teachings as it develops in the west. Further, and most importantly, the current socio-political conditions on the planet are far different than at the time of the Buddha and demand that we address them. From this perspective it is important to find other approaches than merely finding authority in texts.

2. "Socializing" or Application of Buddhist Principles and Themes

Unlike Method (1), we are not asking "What did the Buddha say?" but instead questioning, "What would the Buddha have said?"

Within this area, there are several approaches we may take:

A. We can root out thematically relevant Buddhist themes, texts, and archetypes and clarify them as core teachings for Buddhist based social change work.

We can take the classic dharma teachings found in the mainline schools of Buddhism, not previously and explicitly treated as social, and consider them as basic principles underlying socially engaged Buddhism. What core teachings are relevant to liberating one from "social dukkha" ?

Some of the relevant principles include: mutual causality (idapaccayata), dependent origination (paticca samuppada), interdependence, no separation of theory and experience (vijjacatana sampanno), mindfulness, not knowing, nonduality, indivisibility of wisdom and compassion, the root poisons of greed hatred and delusion, and so on.

Ultimately we can create a body of principles underlying Buddhist social engagement such as "Tenets of Buddhist Activism", "Buddhist principles for addressing structural violence", among others.

B. We can then apply these principles and teachings to respond to and critique contemporary problems, institutions, and social structures.

In this case we would take these principles and deliberately "socialize" them (abstract them out to social and political situations) within particular contemporary contexts. For example, what would be a "social reading" of the first precept of non-harming and how could it be used to critique militarization and nuclear weapons? ". In David Loy's recent article on "Greed and Globalization," he takes the Lion's Roar Sutra (MN) and applies it to the larger issues of economics.

This is an excellent practical starting point for taking stands or positions on current issues position paper much in the way FOR or AFSC writes position papers on current events. If we can locate our objections within Buddhist principles (if not the orthodox reading of the texts), we can create a rooted substantiated Buddhist response to social issues. What would be a Buddhist position on nuclear war? Consumer capitalism? Television? Environmental destruction? Palestine/Israel conflict. WTO? Ultimately, we can then use these critiques to promote our ideas about paths of social transformation

C. We can systematize this research and scholarship to create a body of dharma-based social teachings that help us better understand and critique structures of injustice.

Dr. A. T. Ariyaratne began this work years ago with his social paramis and extensive reinterpretation within a social context of basic teachings. Thich Nhat Hanh and Sulak Sivaraksa did this when they first began looking at precepts or sila (for example) from a social lens. Many of us have followed these footsteps... Jon Watt's social kandhas, an anti-consumerism political paticca samupada, Santikaro Bhikkhu's "Four Noble Truths of Dhammic Socialism," etc.

D. One slightly different approach that keeps in the spirit of socializing the teachings would be to use Buddhist tools of analysis of personal suffering and apply them in a social and political context. We can analyze how existing social mechanisms, institutions, and structures came about and sustain themselves using the four noble truths, paticca samupada, and the various causal factors - the defilements, poisons, and fetters described in the teachings. The Buddha was a doctor who diagnosed his patients and found how to lead them out of suffering. We can do the same with social conditions and institutions - not socializing the teachings, per se, but applying them to a different context - the social and political arena. Further, we can explore the conditions necessary to generate socially transformational behaviors, paths and movements - both personal and political.

3. Inner/Outer

Drawing on the Kalama Sutta and the Buddha's injunction, ehipasiko, to come and see for one's self, a SEB methodology would not be complete without bringing in one's inner life.

In this method, we can bring the personal experience and insight of the meditative, inner practice of contemplation and other Buddhist practices (dana, sila, merit-making, prayer, ritual) into the social dimension in order to mutually illuminate both areas. This technique could help to dissolve barriers between self and other, us and them, and personal and political; we can explore the mutual causality and interdependence of these pairs. This modality is also a radical approach to social theory in that it insists that the personal is as important as the structural, political and systemic.

Put simply, what goes on in one mind is mirrored in the world; looking inward is a hallmark of a socially engaged Buddhist critique. We can discover "where am I implicated?" For example, where are the very same structures of greed, hatred, and delusion present in my own mind? How do my inner kilesas create or mirror external reality/institutions? This "turning inward" invokes compassion for others who perpetuate structures of violence as well as can provide insight into understanding both how and why these structures work, and what could be done about them.

Second, this gives us a starting point for critique because by referencing personal experience we can break the seemingly enormous social problems into more easily understandable, personal, bite-sized explanations of how structural violence works. More significantly, when we look at our Buddhist practice and see personal responses to suffering and how we antidote or work with kilesa on a personal level, we might be able to abstract these same "personal antidotes" or practices out to the social level. Further, this approach illustrates how the authority of an oppressive structure rests not on something objective, but on the collective and often unconscious agreement of individuals. This agreement can be made conscious and people can choose to act differently.

As a brief example, we can look at the issue of speediness in American culture with its ever forward moving pace of technological innovations, information, job turnover, consumer goods, changing relationships, etc. One can easily say this is a problem, as various social scientists have commented. However, what would be a uniquely Buddhist response to this speed, drawing from the "inner/outer" paradigm? First one would look to see where the same structures exist in one's own mind. In meditation practice I have observed a continual forward motion of my mind, propelled by desire and fear of boredom. I want novelty and change, they keep my mind apparently happy and engaged, although they often send me into distractions and much restlessness at the expense of my presence in the moment. I recognize the external structures inside me. I can then have compassion for their multiple and nefarious outward expressions. It is not just "them" but also me. Second, I can think about the ways in which I work with restlessness in my meditation practice (applying more concentration, learning to sit with the unpleasantness of the underlying wanting) and reflect whether this can be applied as an antidote on the social level. Could people be taught to sit with discomfort? How could advertising play a role? And so on.

It is very important here that although we are enjoined to follow our direct experience, that we also utilize the third treasure of the sangha. It is easy to get deluded and we must check our personal responses and "intuitions" with a socially engaged sangha and teachers whom we respect. This may be difficult when there are few teachers who are trained in SEB, but this will change over time.

4. Radical Creativity - Moving Beyond Concepts

From this perspective, we must be open to a variety of responses towards social change that come from no particular "authority" but are grounded in the radical creativity that comes when all concepts fall away. Can there be a theory based in "no theory"? Who is it that is theorizing, anyway? This is the challenge, and perhaps the edge of SEB.

However, it is important when moving too far into non-dual theorizing (if such a thing exists) to return at some point to the practical - how do our actions relate to the ending of greed hatred and delusion?

Essentially here I am referring to socially engaged Buddhists who act and manifest the spirit of SEB without a need for authority of their work. People who sit in vigil on death row, who start hospices or who work ceaselessly for the end of suffering in whatever form. Somehow they seem beyond the need to authorize their work, yet they too fit into the system of approaches to SEB.


Clearly the work of understanding the textual and other roots of SEB is at its beginning stages and will be open to ongoing discussion and dialogue. In addition, one of the tenets of SEB is that it is not only a theory but completely dependent upon action and practical lived experience. All of this theory must be rooted in the work that we do to address suffering, and it is this cycle of action and contemplation that develops the theory further. This paper is meant as a starting point and an invitation for further inquiry in the service of the liberation of all beings.

Diana Winston
Program Director - Buddhist Peace Fellowship
Berkeley, CA
E-mail: dwinston@bpf.org