…when we do not acknowledge the importance of individual transformation, social transformation is repeatedly subverted by powerful elites taking selfish advantage of their position.
David Loy on why the bodhisattva ideal is what the world needs now.
Unless you’re on a long retreat in a Himalayan cave, it’s becoming more difficult to overlook the fact that our world is beset by interacting ecological, economic, and social crises. Climate breakdown, species extinction, a dysfunctional economic system, corporate domination of government, overpopulation—it’s a critical time in human history, and the collective decisions we have to make during the next few years will set the course of events for generations to come.
Yet the more we learn about our situation, the more overwhelmed and discouraged many of us become. The problems are so enormous and intimidating that we don’t know where to start. We end up feeling powerless, even paralyzed.
For those inspired by Buddhist teachings, an important issue is whether Buddhism can help us respond to these crises. As Paul Hawken points out in Blessed Unrest, there are already a vast number of large and small organizations working for peace, social justice, and sustainability—at least a million and perhaps over two million, he estimates. The question is whether a Buddhist perspective has something distinctive to offer this movement.
Historically, churches and churchgoers have played an important part in many reform movements; for example, the anti-slavery and civil rights campaigns. But much, perhaps most, of the impetus in the West for deep structural change originates in socialist and other progressive movements, which traditionally have been suspicious of religion. Marx viewed religion as “the opiate of the people” because too often churches have been complicit with political oppression, using their doctrines to rationalize the power of exploitative rulers and diverting believers’ attention from their present condition to “the life to come.”
This critique applies to some Buddhist institutions as well—karma and rebirth teachings can be abused in this way—but at its best, Buddhism offers an alternative approach. The Buddhist path is not about qualifying for heaven but living in a different way here and now. This focus supplements nicely the Western focus on social justice and social transformation. As Gary Snyder put it half a century ago, “The mercy of the West has been social revolution. The mercy of the East has been individual insight into the basic self/void. We need both.”
We need both because when we do not acknowledge the importance of individual transformation, social transformation is repeatedly subverted by powerful elites taking selfish advantage of their position.
Democracy may be the best form of government, but it guarantees nothing if people are still motivated by greed, ill will, and the delusion of a self whose well-being can be pursued indifferent to others’ well-being.
We need both personal and social transformation so we can respond fully to the Buddha’s concern to end suffering. The Buddha emphasized that all he had to teach was suffering and how to end it. This implies that social transformation is also necessary in order to address the structural and institutionalized suffering perpetuated by those who benefit from an inequitable social order.
Is there something specific within the Buddhist tradition that can bring these two types of transformation together in a new model of activism connecting inner and outer practice?
Written by David Loy and originally published as Enter…the Bodhisattva in the Shambhala Sun, November 2012
David Loy is a professor of Buddhist and comparative philosophy and a Zen teacher in the Sanbo Kyodan tradition. His books include The World Is Made of Stories and Money, Sex, War, Karma, both published by Wisdom.