Symposium: Bikkhu Bodhi Elucidates Cannonical Roots of Engaged Buddhism

At the Symposium for Western Socially Engaged Buddhism, Chris Queen asked Bikkhu Bodhi to speak on the Canonical roots of engaged Buddhism.  Bikkhu Bodhi explained that many see Buddhism as a means of world-renouncing liberation, detachment and personal inward meditation.  Bikkhu Bodhi approached this task from the question of ‘What is the function of a Buddha?’, according to text.

In the text, a Buddha is also known as a Dhamma Raja ‘king of the Dhamma’, who discovers, realizes and proclaims the Dhamma in full range and depth, including its applications to human life in all dimensions.  It is path to world-transcending liberation, but is also the total body of truth, goodness, justice and reality.  It is one person who arises in the world for the welfare of the multitude.

In his book In the Buddha’s Words, he organizes the Buddha’s teaching according to 3 categories:

  1. Welfare in this life: teachings on moral commitment, social responsibility
  2. Welfare in future life: principles of ethics and cultivation to lead to desirable rebirth based on the law of karma
  3. Nirvana: the ultimate attainment, the escape from rebirth

Many focus on third (though in a watered down form of being happy here and now) without attention to first two.  Engaged Buddhism has to do with the first two.  If we compare Buddhism with Jainism, Brahmanism and the Upanishads there is much more focus on addressing social ails.

The Suttas identify greed as the source not only of personal suffering, but also of social problems: “Whatever action a person does because of greed, hatred, and delusion are unwholesome.  Whatever suffering a person overpowered by greed, hatred, and delusion causes upon another—by killing, imprisonment, confiscation of property, false accusations, or expulsion—all this is unwholesome too.” (Anguttara Nikaya 3:69)

The internal causes are linked to external effects.

Buddha proposes two primary practices to deal with the mind.  1) One is practice of giving generously.  If people knew the benefits, he proclaimed, they would never eat without sharing or allow miserliness to enter their hearts at all.  (Itivataka 26)

2) The second teaching from the Buddha is Silla (virtuous behavior/moral practice) This is summed up for lay community in the 5 precepts.  For example, “By abstaining from the destruction of life, the noble disciple gives to immeasurable beings freedom from fear, hostility, and oppression.”  So to with the other precepts.  (Anguttara Nikaya 8:39)

Society functions well when people conquer their internal demons and observe principles of right conduct.  Then, there are harmonious relations between people.  This is the basis for kindness, sympathy and good will. (Digka Nikaya 31) The Sutta details various types of relationships: Parents/children, husband/wife, teacher/student and lay/spiritual.  With the principle of Right Livlihood, the Buddha forbids trading in weapons, living being, meat, intoxicants and poisons.

Buddha saw the danger of tribal aristocratic republics swallowing by monarchy with arbitrary rule.  Thus in he discusses the Caka Vati Raji– wheel turning king, who rules based on righteousness (Digka Nikaya 26).  One of chief things is to see that there is no poverty.  In the Kuta Danda 5, the Buddha says that a king making sacrifices would be wiser to give to the people instead of taking from them.

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