Engaged Buddhism at Sixty-Five

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 30, 2023

Engaged Buddhism at Sixty-Five: Nuancing The Consensus

Christopher Queen
Harvard University

After more than 65 years of public activism and social service by engaged Buddhists in Asia and the West, it is time to reconsider the nature of engaged Buddhism and how faithfully it has been represented by scholars. In “Beyond Queen and King: Democratizing ‘Engaged Buddhism,’” Donna Lynn Brown argues that the category should be expanded to include “overlooked Buddhists” who may have traditional, ethnic, national, state-supported, or conservative orientations; those who perform social service; and those who engage in violence. Furthermore, Brown claims that engaged Buddhism is a narrative imposed by Western scholars on Asian Buddhists who may not know or approve of it. In this response, I will focus on three characteristics of engaged Buddhism that Brown and other scholars she cites have misunderstood or rejected in their critique: (1) the practice of compassionate service by engaged Buddhists; (2) the commitment of engaged Buddhists to nonviolent social change; and (3) the decentralized, hybrid, and evolving nature of engaged Buddhist ideology and praxis which reflects the contribution of voices and values from Asia and the West.

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One thought on “Engaged Buddhism at Sixty-Five”

  1. I appreciate Dr. Queen taking the time to respond to my article. I believe, if I understand him correctly, that he is expressing agreement with it when he states that he now includes, in engaged Buddhism, social service, traditionalist Buddhists, Buddhists who support the state or are politically conservative, and Buddhists with cultural, ethnic, or nationalist orientations doing socially beneficial work. This is a departure from his earlier writings, although he may be suggesting that he has always included them (overlooking what he wrote in his earlier publications). It appears, although it is not certain given his writing style, that Queen is abandoning the consensus and supporting the changes I propose to engagement terms’ usage.

    Unfortunately, Queen’s article is sharply misleading in one area. Like Sallie B. King in “Are Ethnocentric/Nationalist Buddhists Engaged Buddhists? Certainly Not” (her response to my article), Queen claims that my article states that violent activities should be termed “engaged Buddhism” (e.g., see his abstract). My article does not say that; rather, I note that such activities do not easily fit my definition of Buddhist social engagement (“many political and military activities are bound to be excluded” [9-10, 46]). I suggest labeling violent and divisive activities political or military engagement rather than social engagement. This is because they generally lack the aim to reduce immediate material suffering, an aim I consider part of Buddhist social engagement.

    Worse than merely misinterpreting my views on violent ethno-nationalism, Queen misattributes quotes and ideas to my article that apparently come from somewhere else, perhaps from Paul Fuller’s book An Introduction to Engaged Buddhism (which Queen does not cite). He writes, apparently referring to my article,

    it is not correct to say that ‘all Buddhism is engaged and always has been.’ Nor is it justified to ‘democratize’ engaged Buddhism by claiming that Buddhist attempts to protect the country, an ethnic identity, or Buddhism itself, by whatever means, must be considered ‘engaged Buddhism.’

    Yet my article does not say that “all Buddhism is engaged and always has been.” I am not sure why Queen uses quote marks here; he is not quoting me. No citation is given and the context and word “democratize” point to my article, but these words are not found there. Nor is that idea. The same is true of the remainder of his comment. My article does not say or suggest that “Buddhist attempts to protect the country, an ethnic identity, or Buddhism itself, by whatever means, must be considered ‘engaged Buddhism.’” I give a definition for engaged Buddhism which excludes activities not aimed at reducing material suffering, and thus most violent activity (9-10, 46). If Queen is referring to someone else’s work, he should say so and cite it. Inventing a quote or inaccurately assigning ideas to the wrong author is not what I would expect from a scholar of Queen’s standing.

    Overall, for a more detailed response to Queen’s and King’s misreading of my article’s statements on violence, please see my comment posted on King’s article.

    Queen and I diverge in one other area. My article discusses the possibility that the consensus is Orientalist, citing concerns raised by Thomas Yarnall, Victor Temprano, and Alexander Hsu. Queen, in his response, asserts that the consensus is not Orientalist given Asian agency and the global circulation of ideas. Those interested in this question might be best to read his remarks as well as the relevant section in my article. I do not think that Queen’s response is sufficient to dismiss Orientalism concerns, but the question requires further discussion. As well, Asian input—-including from Buddhists beyond those approved by the consensus—-is needed.

    In sum, on violence, Queen mischaracterizes my article and even invents a quote, assigning to me words and ideas presumably drawn from other sources. Like King’s, Queen’s most significant critique of my article is thus of a claim that it does not make. Other than that, his main disagreement concerns Orientalism: he defends the consensus from the allegations of Orientalism I discuss.

    On the core claims of my article about the boundaries scholars place around Buddhist social engagement, Queen apparently agrees with me: these boundaries should be expanded to include the (non-violent) Buddhists and activities his earlier work and the consensus exclude. He thus abandons rather than defends the consensus. That neither Queen nor King, in their responses to my article, defend the consensus, is surely a sign of its demise.

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