Should Buddhists Be Social Activists? (Part 2)

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This is the second part of a series of articles by Ian James Kidd on Buddhism and social activism. Find the first article in the series here:


Ian James Kidd: Should Buddhists Be Social Activists?

Buddhism is widely admired in the West for its commitments to progressive social activism. But is this really in the spirit of true Buddhism?

In an earlier piece for Daily Philosophy, I challenged the idea that the Buddha’s teachings on compassion and the overcoming of suffering provide support for social activism. ‘Changing the world’, challenging patriarchy, revolution, and the whole ethos of radical reformism is nothing like what the Buddha taught. Karuna – ‘compassion’ – really means smaller, modest acts of caring responsiveness. It doesn’t involve structural changes or collective actions. Dukkha – ‘suffering’ or ‘dis-ease’ – is a cosmic fact to be accepted, not a removable aspect of our world we could ever ‘tackle’ through collective action. I ended that piece by noting questions a critic might ask. Can the Buddha not endorse our concerns with injustice? Wouldn’t he largely share in our sense of what is wrong with our world? Isn’t large-scale activism a natural extension of the Buddha’s teachings?

In this piece and the next one, I suggest the answer to all these questions is ‘No’.

Condemnations and endorsements

A student of mine once remarked that Buddhism seemed to her a ‘suspiciously good fit’ for modern progressive moral outlooks. An Iron Age Indian spiritual teacher born into a richly religious culture turns out to share almost the same values and concerns as late modern advocates of ‘liberal morality’. Like us, the Buddha condemns injustice and social discrimination. Like us, the Buddha takes moral practice to be continuous with radical political goals. Like us, the Buddha is anti-sexist and a champion of equality and climate action. ‘How remarkable!’, said my student. Their suspicions were well-founded. A careful look at the suttas reveals a rather more complicated picture.

It is tempting to assume that historical moral figures should share our own values and outlooks. Sometimes, of course, they do – Jesus condemned greediness, Confucius praises honesty, and Native American traditions urged appreciative attention to the lives of non-human animals. Care should be taken, though, not to allow our expectations take the place of evidence. Pleasing agreements are often accompanied by uncomfortable differences. Confronted with moral visions from different times and cultures, we should not assume they are basically identical to us.

It is tempting to assume that historical moral figures should share our own values and outlooks. 

We should not presuppose – or invidiously pretend – that the Buddha did or would share our particular moral concerns. Nor should we assume he used or would recognise or endorse our moral concepts – ‘human rights’, …

Originally appeared on Daily Philosophy Read More

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