Early Buddhism was all about self-enlightenment; modern Buddhism is engaged.
Posted Mar 10, 2014
Buddhism is widely seen as quietistic, self-involved, and concerned only with personal enlightenment and the achievement of inner peace. There is some truth to this characterization (especially when applied to the earliest manifestation of Buddhism), just as some ecologists, evolutionary and molecular biologists are concerned only with their science, refusing to become involved in messy questions of politics, policy, or preservation. However, "engaged Buddhism" has grown dramatically, especially since the Vietnam War, just as environmental scientists have become more politically active, notably since the first Earth Day in 1970. Serious questions remain to be resolved, nonetheless, such as precisely how one can live in a socially and environmentally responsible manner. At minimum, engaged Buddhism and politically relevant biology both commend the practice of simplicity and self-restraint, because of its beneficial effect on our shared environment.
But what, specifically, does this have to do with Buddhism? Historically, perhaps, not very much. As I’ve already noted in earlier blogs, there is a strong case to be made that the Buddha and his original followers and early intellectual/spiritual descendants were primarily concerned with individual enlightenment and helping people transcend their own, personal dukkha (“suffering,” or “disappointment”). At the same time, there is a powerful trend within what has been called “Buddhist modernism” that generates a potent recipe for engagement in the world, especially by combining such fundamental ideas as “not-self,” “impermanence,” and “inter-dependence,” and combines them with sensitivity to dukkha as well as responsibility for our actions, which is to say, "karma."
Let’s take these one at a time, beginning in this post with dukkha.
For Buddhist thought, suffering isn’t something imposed upon human beings because they have sinned or otherwise displeased God. Indeed, Buddhists disavow any belief in an omnipotent Creator deity, whether singular or plural. Suffering is part of the nature of the world, a fact of existence. There is no need, accordingly, for any elaborate Buddhist theodicy, the effort on the part of Christian and Jewish theologians to justify their belief in an omnipotent and omnibenevolent deity in the light of so much pain and suffering in the world. As we’ll see, for many Buddhists — especially those following the earliest traditions — karma might suffice, since one can always argue that suffering in the result of a karmic burden acquired during one or more previous existences. It is a dispiriting message, however, to claim that when an infant dies of malaria, for example, she is “getting what she deserves” because of prior misdeeds!
For most Westerners, at least, a far more reasonable interpretation is that there are certain “built-in” sources of suffering, which essentially “come with the territory,” as direct consequences of our existence in the world. Perhaps the primary foundation story in Buddhism tells how the young Siddhartha Gautama grew up as a pampered prince around 500 BC, sheltered from all possible sources of sadness and unhappiness. Then, at the age of 29, he snuck out of his castle and was shocked at what he saw: A very old man, someone who was very sick, and a corpse. Appalled by these indicators of dukkha – of misery that lie in wait for everyone – the prince left his luxuries, as well as his family, in search of enlightenment, which he eventually obtained while meditating under the bodhi tree.
Story has it that the Buddha went through a long period of self-denial, mortifying his body in his desperate search. Supposedly (and nonsensically), he ate less and less until his food intake was down to one grain of rice per day. Eventually, sitting under that tree, the — presumably very skinny — Siddhartha Gautama encountered a young girl, who offered him some rice-milk, which he accepted. This acceptance is considered significant, an acknowledgment that we need body as well as spirit, that the body counts, and not simply as offensive flesh that should be mortified. The Buddha’s consumption of rice-milk is thus emblematic of the Middle Way, a denial of dualism, such that correct living is not a question of mind or body, good or evil, all or nothing, self versus the rest of the world.
To some extent, “engaged Buddhism” is an oxymoron, along with “environmentally sensitive Christianity,” since each requires a departure from its earliest traditions. In the case of Buddhism, however, the stretch isn’t nearly as great, since when the Buddha agreed to take material sustenance, he acknowledged the validity and importance of the material world. Moreover, in its earliest texts (the so-called “Pali canon”) Buddhist doctrine includes numerous admonitions that followers should treat the natural world – plants, animals, rivers, mountains, even deserts and rocks – with respect and even love; i.e., with ahimsa.
Here is a word likely to be new to most readers: soteriology. It refers to issues associated with spiritual redemption, especially as employed by Christians concerned about their personal salvation. The relation to our focus on Buddhism? Simply this: As already noted, there is reason to think that the earliest forms of Buddhism focused more on such soteriological concerns (not literally saving one’s soul, because Buddhists – I am happy to report – don’t believe in a fixed immortal soul), but rather, self-enlightenment and the relief of personal pain, rather than on social and environmental responsibility. But this “soteriological” concern is being increasingly supplanted by a wider focus, one that makes sense not only ethically but also biologically. My own recent book, in fact, is concerned not only with identifying parallels and convergences between Buddhism and biology, but also with promoting this wider focus, alligning itself with a gently subversive movement within mainstream Buddhism, which Stephen Batchelor calls “Buddhism 2.0.”
“To use an analogy from the world of computing,” he writes,
the traditional forms of Buddhism are like software programs that run on the same operating system. Despite their apparent differences, Theravada, Zen, Shin, Nichiren, and Tibetan Buddhism share the same underlying soteriology, that of ancient India outlined above. These diverse forms of Buddhism are like “programs” (e.g. word processing, spreadsheets, Photoshop etc.) that run on an “operating system” (a soteriology), which I will call “Buddhism 1.0.” At first sight, it would seem that the challenge facing the dharma as it enters modernity would be to write another software program … that would modify a traditional form of Buddhism in order to address more adequately the needs of contemporary practitioners. However, the cultural divide that separates traditional Buddhism from modernity is so great that this may not be enough. It might well be necessary to rewrite the operating system itself, resulting in what we could call “Buddhism 2.0.
For any computer mavens reading this blog who also happen to be Buddhist traditionalists, I’d like to add this reassurance: “Buddhism 2.0,” as envisioned by Mr. Batchelor, represents a software update; it does not require installing any new chips or a new hard-drive. It is still Buddhism. And it is damned good biology, too.
David P. Barash is an evolutionary biologist, long-time Buddhist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington, whose most recent book is Buddhist Biology: ancient Eastern wisdom meets modern Western science, just published by Oxford University Press.
 This is the first of Buddhism’s “Four Noble Truths,” the fact that dukkha is not only universal but also, to a large extent, unavoidable.
[i] S. Batchelor. 2012. A Secular Buddhism. Journal of Global Buddhism 13: 87-107