Robert Thurman was a monk ordained by the Dalai Lama and also became an Ivy League professor of religion. One debate that is surfacing at the Symposium for Western Socially Engaged Buddhsim is whether social engagement is part of historical Buddhism or whether it was introduced by a synthesis with Western concepts of human rights. Thurman came down strongly in the side that Buddhists have always been socially engaged. He described the monastic Sangha as ‘free lunch’ community organizers. ‘Bikkhu’ doesn’t exactly mean monk, but rather ‘free luncher’. In a society that recognizes that cultivating awakening takes time and energy and provides social benefit, people support monks. So the monks go begging for lunch and after lunch, they throw in a sermon or some mediation. This is a type of community organizing.
This idea goes against the dominant Protestant ethic of ‘there is no such thing as a free lunch.’ The dominant ethic, wrapped up with American consumerist culture, is also reinforced by the university system, where dissertations that acknowledge enlightenment to the interconnectedness of life are regarded as fluffy romanticism. The roots of the word Buddha come both from awakening and spreading it. Historically, he argues, Buddhists have spread their faith less violently than other groups. While they have been involved in some unholy wars, they have not generally gotten involved in holy wars. Thurman talked about the upcoming Newark Peace Making Summit, which follows a similar conference 10 years ago and includes the participation of the Dalai Lama.
photos by Clemens M. Breitschaft