Disengaged Buddhism

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 26, 2019

Disengaged Buddhism

Amod Lele
Boston University

Contemporary engaged Buddhist scholars typically claim either that Buddhism always endorsed social activism, or that its non-endorsement of such activism represented an unwitting lack of progress. This article examines several classical South Asian Buddhist texts that explicitly reject social and political activism. These texts argue for this rejection on the grounds that the most important sources of suffering are not something that activism can fix, and that political involvement interferes with the tranquility required for liberation. The article then examines the history of engaged Buddhism in order to identify why this rejection of activism has not yet been taken sufficiently seriously. Read article

2 thoughts on “Disengaged Buddhism”

  1. Amod Lele writes that most scholars of engaged Buddhism do not consider the arguments against social and political engagement offered in the early literature. One reason for this may be that the engaged Buddhists they study are generally not guided by Buddhist literature, but rather by a global conversation on human rights, distributive justice, social progress and, perhaps more urgently, the threats they perceive to human dignity and survival. Inasmuch as these attitudes have few parallels in the classical formulation of Buddhism, I have argued that “the general pattern of belief and practice that has come to be called ‘engaged Buddhism’ is unprecedented, and thus tantamount to a new chapter in the history of the tradition” (Engaged Buddhism in the West, 2000, p.1). Whether the thoughts and actions of the new Buddhists conform to traditional guidelines or not, they are worthy of study on their own terms. The forty scholars who contributed to the volumes Engaged Buddhism: Buddhist Liberation Movements in Asia (1996), Engaged Buddhism in the West (2000), and Action Dharma: New Studies in Engaged Buddhism (2003) were, for the most part, sympathetic to engaged Buddhism. Most wrote descriptively, some normatively, but none claimed that the new Buddhists were not Buddhist. So, in the end, we are confronted with another example of fundamental transformation in the history of religions, one that may make some traditionalists uncomfortable.

  2. A lot, a whole thesis, could be said on Amod Lele’s article and ideas.

    I find interesting Venerable Pandita’s answer to Achim Beyer in answer to his own article on sexual misconduct in this same Journal: “the Buddha, or his followers, never bothered with how to implement his ethical values in the society.”

    Suppose it is so, which can always be debated, does that mean “we,” nowadays, in a completely different world, should not bother? In essence that’s what Christopher Queen answered.

    And by the way, of course, it applies to Ven. Pandita’s own contribution, on which a lot could be said as well, since the underlying problematic is the same: what do we do with ancient textual formulations in our present situation? Actually Ven. Pandita goes even further, for he seems to refuse (at least on the theme of sexuality) to consider any constructive and beneficial value in formulations subsequent to the days of writing down the compilation of the Pāli Canon.

    There is a deep irony here, reflected in both articles, considering the Bhagavan’s position (He had one) on textual or scriptural authority. But also considering his teachings on anicca. Things change. Oh ya ?

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