The Symposium on Western Socially Engaged Buddhism held recently in Montague, Massachusetts was an extraordinary event. The reports that emerge will surely be as varied as the people who attended. As the discussion unfolded, I took notes on a developing theme: the promise of the future. Here are some further reflections. (purchase DVD’s of Symposium)
Engaged Buddhists use a variety of voices in relation to the future. Those who speak in a prophetic voice call for massive change. Robert Aitken Roshi, who was honored in absentia, liked to carry a protest sign that read, “The system stinks.” Peter Matthiessen quoted a tribal elder from an Arctic region decimated by oil spills and climate change: “God may forgive you, but your children won’t.” Alan Senauke and David Loy insisted that an effective movement must have a sharp countercultural edge.
Others seek ways to make Buddhist resources more widely available in mainstream culture. This is an assimilationist voice. We learned, for example, that the low-ranking United States women’s hockey team won Olympic silver after adding mindfulness to their training regimen. Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence has been translated into thirty languages. Mindfulness-Based Stress-Reduction is fast becoming a standard part of modern medicine.
A third variation, the visionary voice, takes best-case scenarios seriously. “We can say a lot about what we’re against,” Rabbi Michael Lerner told the group, “yet we don’t have a coherent vision of what we’re for.” Jan Willis invoked Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of a Beloved Community. Jon Kabat-Zinn suggested that we are on the verge of a second Renaissance. Melody Chavis, who works with prisoners on death row, applied nonlinear thinking to the future—however gloomy current trend lines may be, good things unexpectedly happen.
Each of the Symposium’s chosen themes—justice, social entrepreneurship, wellness, the arts, community—became a domain ripe for realization. The following summary can be read merely as a wish-list. But it can also be read, in the spirit of the conference, as a mini-visualization of a possible world.
Another question arises: What is the most suitable role and profile for Buddhadharma? Several degrees of intensity, from leitmotif to major presence, can be identified. A good society is, in the words of one participant, “the kind of world we’d like to live in.” Ideals that are already well known—such as government of the people, by the people, for the people—achieve fulfillment. Secular and sacred worldviews coexist fruitfully. A small-b buddhism embraces pluralism and eschews evangelism.
In a culture of awakening, a concept advanced by Buddhist thinker Stephen Batchelor (not in attendance), transformation of consciousness becomes a guiding principle of organization. “The challenge now,” Batchelor has written, “is to imagine and create a culture of awakening that both supports individual dharma practice and addresses the dilemmas of a pluralist world.” Sarah Weintraub, the final speaker on the final panel, stated a premise that would sustain such an undertaking: “Our human nature, that is, our buddha nature, is a sangha nature.”
For the full-throttle version, an enlightened society, we turn to Robert Thurman, who has proposed “a vision quest for the creation of the mandala of an enlightened America.” At the Symposium, Bob praised a culture wise enough to provide “a free lunch for dedicated meditators.” That’s Thurmanesque shorthand for a collective inner revolution that will “complete the American experiment in democracy and fulfill, albeit in unexpected ways, the American dream of genuine freedom and happiness.” Jon Kabat-Zinn switched into this mode when he imagined Congress meditating sincerely before an important vote.
As engaged Buddhist visions coalesce, past Buddhist visions appear in a new light. On the first day of the gathering, Bhikkhu Bodhi cited a Kutadanta Sutta passage in which the Buddha counsels a king:
To those in the kingdom who are engaged in cultivating crops and raising cattle, let Your Majesty distribute grain and fodder; to those in trade, give capital; to those in government service, assign proper living wages. Then those beings, being intent on their own occupations, will not harm the kingdom. Your Majesty’s revenues will be great, the land will be tranquil and not beset by thieves, and the people, with joy in their hearts, will play with their children, and will dwell in open houses. (Maurice Walshe, trans., The Long Discourses of the Buddha, pp. 135-136)
Sister Clare Carter, of Nipponzan Myohoji, contributed a Mahayana source when she chanted a verse from the Lotus Sutra. It included these lines:
When living beings witness the end of a kalpa
and all is consumed in a great fire,
this, my land, remains safe and tranquil,
constantly filled with heavenly and human beings.
The halls and pavilions in its gardens and groves
are adorned with various kinds of gems.
Jeweled trees abound in flowers and fruit
where living beings enjoy themselves at ease.
The gods strike heavenly drums,
constantly making many kinds of music.
Mandarava blossoms rain down,
scattering over the Buddha and the great assembly.
My pure land is not destroyed.
(Burton Watson, trans., The Lotus Sutra, pp. 230-231)
The Symposium itself refracted a desirable society. We managed, albeit imperfectly, to follow rules, treat one another with respect, identify common values, teach, learn, spark individual transformation, and make friends. We created a “heterotopia,” which French philosopher Michel Foucault described as “a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted.” (Foucault, “Of Other Spaces,” Diacritics, spring 1986, p. 24) The far-reaching presentations offered further evidence that key elements of an alternative future are already taking shape.
Buddhism’s development in the West during the last half-century has been remarkable. No one suspected that the arrows let fly in Zen in the Art of Archery, published in 1953, would one day alight on something called engaged Buddhism. Will the next fifty years bring another leap, equally inconceivable from our present vantage point?
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