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Because the fundamental issue at stake was never just class privilege or capital although they are certainly important dimensions of the problem. Then what is the basic issue? What does a Buddhist perspective reveal?

Socially Engaged Buddhism in the UK

In response, we need to highlight some fundamental Buddhist principles that are generally understood as important for our personal practice, but whose social implications are just as significant. The following ones are the principles that I think are most important. From a Buddhist perspective, it is not enough to say that the basic problem dissatisfaction, frustration of our lives is caused by craving or delusion. Rather, Buddhism relates our dukkha specifically to a delusive sense of self.

It can never become secure because it has no reality of its own, being constructed. Many of us devote our lives to seeking symbolic realities such as money, fame, and power, but they cannot make us real, or help us evade our mortality. In addition to such personal implications, which are more or less familiar to us from traditional Buddhist teachings, this relationship between dukkha and sense-of-self also has very important consequences for the way we understand larger social issues. More on that later.

It is ironic, if not tragic, that institutionalized religion tends to reinforce this sense of group self, because religion at its best encourages us to understand and subvert the destructive aspect of this dualistic process. According to Buddhist teachings, for example, whether or not you consider yourself a Buddhist is not in itself very important, because there is nothing salvific about that label or, for that matter, about merely believing in the Buddhist teachings.

What is important is how one practices and embodies those principles. A bodhisattva does not vow to save all other Buddhists; he or she vows to help liberate all sentient beings. The focus of the problem expands from ego- dukkha to wego- dukkha : that is, to the problem with establishing and aggrandizing an in-group identity at the cost of out-groups.

If my constructed sense of being an individual self is dogged by a sense of lack that I can never quite resolve, so a collective sense of self is also haunted by a collective sense of lack that, historically, has tended to work itself out aggressively on others.

What’s Buddhist about Socially Engaged Buddhism? (David Loy)

In both cases, constructed self-identity is a delusion insofar as it obscures our interdependence with the other s ; and in both cases the solution is to realize our nonduality with the other s , and to integrate that realization into the way we live our lives.

In fact, might we go a little further and suggest that this perspective on the dukkha -inducing dynamics of group-self is a fundamental concept that can serves the same analytic role as capital and class analysis have done in Marxism? Rather than providing the solution to every social tension, this principle works better to provide the question: do we see such a dynamic operating? More often than not, the answer will be yes.

Adaptation and Developments in Western Buddhism: Socially Engaged Buddhism in the UK

In this regard too, our situation is somewhat different from that of Shakyamuni Buddha. Today we have not only more powerful scientific technologies but more effective forms of bureaucratic organization, which coordinate large numbers of people by subordinating them to their roles within the organization. Those outside such institution are controlled by those inside the institutions, who are themselves controlled by the way the institutions work. Think of modern school districts, modern welfare systems, modern military machines. I emphasize the modern , because the scale and efficiency of such bureaucracies is distinctively modern, with a quantum leap recently due to new information technologies.

Such institutions work to institutionalize the collective sense of self, and thereby tend to take on a life of their own as new types of wego. The most important and dangerous instances of this are nation-states, large corporations, and military-industrial complexes. Consider, for example, how a corporation works. To survive in a competitive market, it must adapt to the constraints built into that market.

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Even if the CEO of a multinational company wants to be socially responsible, he or she is limited by the expectations of stockholders and Wall Street analysts; if profits are threatened by his social sensitivity, he is likely to lose his job. This means we are now confronted by new forms of impersonal collective self, which are very good at preserving themselves and augmenting their power, quite apart from the motivations of the individuals who serve them.

We are challenged to find new ways to address the institutionalized forms of dukkha they now create and reinforce.

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So much for the first basic principle of socially engaged Buddhism. Another Buddhist principle helps us unpack this connection between dukkha and collective self: the three roots of evil , also known as the three poisons. Curiously, Buddhism does not have much to say about evil itself, and certainly does not postulate the duality between good and evil as a basic metaphysical principle in the way that Manichaeism and some early forms of Christianity did although there has been a recent revival in some forms of political discourse in the U.

It is not difficult to see how these three work together: my greed reinforces my ill-will toward those who obstruct it, and both reinforce my sense of separation from others; my delusion of separation also reinforces my greed and thus my ill-will, etc. Their interaction creates the dukkha of bad karma, affecting not only me but those around me.

To end dukkha , these three need to be transformed into their positive counterparts: greed into generosity, ill will into loving-kindness, delusion into wisdom. The important question for engaged Buddhism is: does this second principle also work impersonally and structurally, in modern institutions? Do the three roots of evil operate collectively today? I is difficult to overestimate the social effects of individual greed and resentment.

Institutionalized greed. Despite its advantages in some ways, our economic system institutionalizes greed in at least two ways: corporations are never profitable enough, and people never consume enough. To increase profits, we must be conditioned into thinking of themselves as consumers, who find the meaning of our lives in buying and consuming.

Contrary to what we are repeatedly told, however, such an economic system is neither natural nor inevitable.


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  • It is based on an historically-conditioned worldview that views the earth as resources, human beings as labor, and money as capital to be used for producing more capital. Everything else becomes a means to the goal of profit, which can have no end except more and more of the same thing. Greed has taken on a life of its own. Institutionalized ill will.