Are Ethnocentric/Nationalist Buddhists Engaged Buddhists? Certainly Not.

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 30, 2023

Are Ethnocentric/Nationalist Buddhists Engaged Buddhists? Certainly Not.

Sallie B. King
James Madison University

This is a brief response to Donna Lynn Brown’s article, “Beyond Queen and King: Democratizing ‘Engaged Buddhism’,” (Journal of Buddhist Ethics Vol. 30, 2023) and indirectly to others who have argued that ethnocentric and/or nationalist Buddhism could be a part of Engaged Buddhism. To this question, I will argue that this is not possible. Secondarily, I take up the question of the “oneness” of Engaged Buddhism.

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2 thoughts on “Are Ethnocentric/Nationalist Buddhists Engaged Buddhists? Certainly Not.”

  1. Reading Dr. King’s article responding to mine, two things strike me: first, her article does not try to defend the consensus, other than one of its requirements—-that engaged Buddhism should be non-violent; and second, that it does not refute or even discuss my article, instead refuting a claim my article does not make—-that engaged Buddhism includes violent ethno-nationalism. This claim is made by Paul Fuller in his book, An Introduction to Engaged Buddhism (which she does not cite) but I do not make it: I offer a definition of engaged Buddhism that excludes most violent, divisive, or military activities, and explicitly state that my definition excludes these (9-10, 46).

    I find value in King’s description of how some Asian individuals and groups currently use the terms “engaged Buddhism” and “Buddhist social engagement.” Although her intent may simply be to counter either Fuller or myself, in fact she adds new data to discussions about violent ethno-nationalist activities in Asia and how they are perceived by other Asian Buddhists. She thus contributes to today’s debates, and I appreciate her efforts to gather and present useful data.

    Where King’s article may confuse the reader is her statement that her argument responds to my article “Beyond Queen and King: Democratizing Engaged Buddhism.” Because her article’s aim is to deny that violent ethno-nationalism should be called “engaged Buddhism,” the claim that she is responding to my article implies that my article’s aim is to label violent ethno-nationalism “engaged Buddhism.” In fact, nowhere does my article state this—-quite the opposite. Like Christopher Queen in his response to my article, King appears to be responding to Fuller rather than me, although she does not mention or cite Fuller or his book.

    If I may address the question of violent ethno-nationalism, my view is that, as a defense of the consensus, discussing it is largely a red herring, directing attention to a small group of ethno-nationalist Buddhists and away from the far larger number of other Buddhists the consensus excludes even though they undertake inarguably beneficial activities. The consensus excludes them because their Buddhism is traditionalist rather than modernist, or they are politically conservative, have a mild ethnic orientation (like Fo Guang Shan), or undertake social service activities that are insufficiently socially transformative to live up to the consensus’s ideological requirements. Focusing on violent ethno-nationalism perpetuates the consensus habit of overlooking these socially beneficial Buddhists. It allows consensus supporters to avoid discussing why their scholarship on engaged Buddhism excludes them.

    On the topic of ethno-nationalism, King overlooks three points my article makes:

    1. Not all activities done by groups with cultural, ethnic, or national orientations are violent or harmful—-far from it. There is a difference between the kinds of ethno-nationalism that claim superiority over others and use violent means, and the more common forms of cultural, ethnic, or national thinking that inform many Buddhists—-such as Tibetans and Fo Guang Shan members. Scholars have had a tendency to lump these together as if any valuing of cultural, ethnic, or national identity leads inexorably to violence and harm. This is not a helpful approach given how widespread ordinary ways of honoring one’s own culture are in Asia and elsewhere, and how much beneficial socially oriented activity is undertaken by Buddhists who value and seek to preserve their own culture. My article explains why I believe that separating such activity conceptually from the activity of Buddhists who are consensus-approved has a negative impact on scholarship.

    2. Some scholars of engaged Buddhism fabricate a binary. King’s article, for example, portrays only two kinds of Buddhist social engagement: the kind consensus-supporting scholars define as “engaged Buddhism,” and violent ethno-nationalism. However, my article demonstrates that many socially engaged Buddhists fit neither category, so the binary is false. Excluded Buddhists include traditionalist Buddhists, Buddhists with ordinary ethnic, national, state-supportive, or politically conservative orientations, and a wide range of Buddhists doing social service. These Buddhists, often excluded from consensus-supporting scholarship on engagement, are the concern of my article—not violent ethno-nationalists.

    3. Regarding violent ethno-nationalist acts, my suggestion to scholars is to consider, not so much whether they are “engaged” or “Buddhist,” but whether they should be classed as “social.” They do not fit my own definition of Buddhist social engagement (9-10, 46), not because they are not involved in material life, and not because they are not Buddhist (longstanding Buddhist texts do sometimes allow for violent or military activity), but because they are not aimed at reducing material suffering in the immediate term. If indeed such acts are considered by their agents to be Buddhist and engaged (a question requiring more data), they might best be classed as Buddhist military or political engagement, not Buddhist social engagement.

    Regarding King, I am left wondering: given that her only critique of my article is of a claim the article does not make, does she have any substantive disagreement at all with the article? Does the fact that her defense of the consensus is only of the element of non-violence mean that she accepts that all (non-violent) Buddhists and their socially oriented activities should be brought into scholarship on engagement, and that the study of Buddhist social engagement should be made plural, democratic, and inclusive as I propose? It would seem so. In his response to my article, Queen similarly avoids defending the consensus other than its requirement for non-violence. With neither Queen nor King defending it, is the consensus now finished?

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