Journal of Buddhist Ethics

An online journal of Buddhist scholarship related to ethics.

Rethinking Buddhist Materialism

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 20, 2013

Liberation as Revolutionary Praxis: Rethinking Buddhist Materialism

James Mark Shields
Bucknell University

Although it is only in recent decades that scholars have begun to reconsider and problematize Buddhist conceptions of “freedom” and “agency,” the thought traditions of Asian Buddhism have for many centuries struggled with questions related to the issue of “liberation”—along with its fundamental ontological, epistemological and ethical implications. With the development of Marxist thought in the mid to late nineteenth century, a new paradigm for thinking about freedom in relation to history, identity and social change found its way to Asia, and confronted traditional religious interpretations of freedom as well as competing Western ones. In the past century, several attempts have been made—in India, southeast Asia, China and Japan—to bring together Marxist and Buddhist worldviews, with only moderate success (both at the level of theory and practice). This paper analyzes both the possibilities and problems of a “Buddhist materialism” constructed along Marxian lines, by focusing in particular on Buddhist and Marxist conceptions of “liberation.” By utilizing the theoretical work of “radical Buddhist” Seno’o Girō, I argue that the root of the tension lies with conceptions of selfhood and agency—but that, contrary to expectations, a strong case can be made for convergence between Buddhist and Marxian perspectives on these issues, as both traditions ultimately seek a resolution of existential determination in response to alienation. Along the way, I discuss the work of Marx, Engels, Gramsci, Lukàcs, Sartre, and Richard Rorty in relation to aspects of traditional (particularly East Asian Mahāyāna) Buddhist thought.

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A Buddhist Vision of Social Justice

ISSN 1076–9005
Volume 7, 2000

Selflessness: Toward a Buddhist Vision of Social Justice

Sungtaek Cho
State University of New York at Stony Brook

The difficulty of developing a theoretical framework for Buddhism’s engagement with contemporary social issues is rooted in the very nature of Buddhism as an ontological discourse aiming at individual salvation through inner transformation. It is my contention, however, that the concept of “selflessness” can become the basis of a Buddhist theory of social justice without endangering Buddhism’s primary focus on individual salvation. In this article, I show how the key concept of selflessness can provide a viable ground for Buddhist social justice by comparing it with one of the most influential contemporary Western theories of social justice, that of the American philosopher John Rawls. Drawing on the bodhisattva ideal and the Buddhist concepts of “sickness” and “cure,” I then demonstrate how selflessness can serve as a link that allows Buddhists to be socially engaged even while pursuing the goal of individual salvation.

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