Western scholars of (socially) engaged Buddhism have often also considered themselves practitioners of engaged Buddhism, in a way that is more common than with other forms of Buddhism. Thus scholarship on engaged Buddhism often tends to take on a theological cast. I don’t think this is a bad thing. I’ve long tried to advocate that non-Western traditions should be treated as partners in dialogue, not as mere objects of study; we should be doing ethics and not only doing ethics studies. The field of engaged Buddhism is one where scholars often do Buddhist ethics and not merely study other people who do Buddhist ethics, and I appreciate that about the field very much – against those like Victor Temprano who object to such normative work.
Now theological scholarship still is, and should be, scholarship, subject to standards of academic rigour. This is where engaged Buddhist scholarship has sometimes been lacking. Engaged Buddhist scholars often write as if all Buddhism is socially engaged Buddhism, ignoring the Buddhists who advocate social disengagement. I’ve said my piece about that part. Today I want to point to another area where engaged Buddhist scholarship has lacked rigour in the past: the question of what engaged Buddhism is.
Wherever we stand on the political spectrum, there are going to be Buddhists engaging in politics from a different place than us. Like myself, most engaged Buddhist scholars typically come from a standpoint of left-wing non-violent action. This is not the standpoint of Wirathu, of the Bodu Bala Sena, of the militant monks of southern Thailand. One might argue that these are bad Buddhists (and I do), but they are still self-identified Buddhists. And by any normal or commonsensical definition of the words “engagement”, “social engagement” or “political engagement”, they are socially and politically engaged: they are acting in organized movements to change society and government.
So if they are engaged and they consider themselves Buddhists, does that make them engaged Buddhists? The obvious answer would be yes. But that isn’t the answer you would get from reading engaged Buddhist scholarship. (Chris Queen recently claimed that “It is hard to comprehend the grounds on which Brown and her colleagues believe that these violent ethnocentric and nationalist Buddhists should be called ‘engaged Buddhists.'” Really? They’re engaged in politics and they’re self-proclaimed Buddhists – is that really so hard to figure out?)
For far too long, engaged Buddhist scholarship’s approach to right-wing nationalist Buddhists was largely to ignore them, just study more sympathetic figures like Thich Nhat Hanh and pretend the unsympathetic ones don’t exist or are irrelevant. Brian Victoria’s pathbreaking work helped greatly to change this, by showing how many Buddhist teachers admired by Western scholars had supported the fascist Japanese government in World War II. Such right-wing or violent Buddhists are fortunately no longer ignored. But the question of whether they count as engaged Buddhists is still a live one, for several engaged Buddhist scholars would still argue that they do not and should not.
Fortunately, this is at least now a debate. Paul Fuller’s book on engaged Buddhism counted right-wing and violent Buddhists as engaged; friend of this blog Donna Brown recently argued in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics that the concept of engaged Buddhism “should be democratized to include all Buddhists and their social engagement.” But the older conception still has its defenders: Sallie King recently responded to Brown, claiming “Becoming a socially engaged Buddhist displaces being a nationalist Buddhist. One cannot be both.” So King’s argument merits a closer look.
King’s argument focuses on the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB), a group of politically active Buddhists and Buddhist organizations originally founded in Thailand by Sulak Sivaraksa. King correctly notes that INEB’s members are mostly Asian, and view themselves as engaged Buddhists. She also notes INEB’s claim that it “has never wavered from its commitment to non-violent engagement”, and aims at “creating solidarity with individuals and groups who hold similar such values from other religions”. King notes that the latter point stands in contrast to the Asian Buddhists who persecute Muslims or Tamil Hindus, and points to an email communication that “INEB does not include any Buddhist nationalists-ethnocentric Buddhists in its organizational structure”.
The question is, what do all these points actually entail? INEB is one group of self-identified engaged Buddhists. That doesn’t give it the right to speak for all engaged Buddhists. There are Theravādin self-identified Buddhists who would say that Mahāyāna is “not really Buddhism”; if those self-identified Buddhists don’t get the last word on who counts as a Buddhist, then why would a network of self-identified engaged Buddhists get the last word on who counts as an engaged Buddhist? Were Wirathu or the Bodu Bala Sena also to self-identify as engaged Buddhists, it is not clear why the INEB’s approach should stop us from classifying themselves as such, for they would be just as much self-identified Asian engaged Buddhists as the INEB is.
Now it is important in this regard that, as far as I know, right-wing or ethno-nationalist Buddhists generally don’t call themselves “engaged Buddhists”; I don’t get the impression that they have found the concept or movement of engaged Buddhism to be worthy of their consideration. So we could restrict the concept of “engaged Buddhism” to those who self-identify as engaged Buddhists. Or, in a similar and probably more helpful vein, we could argue that “Engaged Buddhism” names a historically specific Buddhist social movement, and not a general tendency within Buddhism. (This would be an excellent reason to capitalize the E, as King does.) I think King implies such a view when she proclaims that “the name ‘Engaged Buddhism’ (and ‘Socially Engaged Buddhism’) is already taken!” The term would then name the modern movement (or set of movements) going back to Thich Nhat Hanh and his predecessor Taixu, and those individuals and organizations – including the INEB – who see themselves as following that movement. On that account, being a Buddhist who is socially engaged does not itself make you an Engaged Buddhist, just as being against fascism doesn’t itself make you Antifa.
Let’s be clear of the implications of what that move would be, though. It would rule out the interpretation that Tom Yarnall calls “traditionist”, according to which past Buddhist figures and texts – King Aśoka, Nāgārjuna’s Ratnāvalī – can be counted as Engaged. For those thinkers and texts did not self-identify as Engaged any more than Wirathu does, nor were they part of the modern Engaged Buddhist movement. (Queen, and others whom Yarnall calls “modernists”, would likely be okay with that implication.)
I think that’s a move we can make, though it might make several engaged Buddhists uncomfortable. But we do need clarity. Perhaps Engaged Buddhism is a historically specific modern movement going back to Thich Nhat Hanh and the ideology he set out, and those not affiliated with that movement don’t qualify. Or perhaps engaged Buddhism is a broader, more literal thing: Buddhists who engage in politics are engaged Buddhists, and they’ve been around since at least the time of Aśoka. It may be that both usages remain appropriate depending on context – but we need to be clear about which we’re using. I suppose we could do worse than using “Engaged Buddhism” with a capital E to name the first, and “engaged Buddhism” with a small e to name the second. But we need to be clear: if Wirathu isn’t an Engaged Buddhist, then neither was Aśoka.