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  • Being Benevolence: The Social Ethics of Engaged Buddhism
  • Rita M. Gross
Being Benevolence: The Social Ethics of Engaged Buddhism. By Sallie B. King. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2005. 291 pp.

This discussion of the social ethics of Engaged Buddhism is organized into chapters on four basic issues: the relationship between individual and society, human rights, nonviolence and its limits, and justice/reconciliation. Setting the context for these issues are an introduction, a chapter on how Engaged Buddhist social ethics is built from Buddhist tradition, and another surveying Engaged Buddhist [End Page 174] ethical theory. The author's conclusions and evaluations of the movement, for the most part, are found in the last chapter, the book's eighth.

In her preface, King explains a crucial decision she made regarding the extent of her analysis of Engaged Buddhism. She realized that an important question about Engaged Buddhism concerns its relationship with Western thought and decided that she could better focus on that question and "avoid muddying the waters" (p. xii) by not including Western Engaged Buddhist thinking in her survey. She further justifies this decision by claiming that Western Buddhists are still largely students of Asian Buddhists who need to overcome familiar cultural habits "to clearly perceive the otherness of Buddhism and what it has to offer" (p. xii). This decision makes sense in its own context, and I agree that many Western Buddhists seem to not understand that the spiritual and philosophical foundations of Buddhism are quite different from those of Western religions. Unfortunately, the decision to not include Western Engaged Buddhists also furthers a view that Buddhism is "foreign," and, therefore, not directly relevant to Westerners or to the issues that most occupy Westerners in our day. Many Western Buddhists are at pains to undercut precisely that view of Buddhism. However, I do concede that including Western Engaged Buddhists in her analysis would have complicated her task enormously.

King's concerns about the relationship between Engaged Buddhist thinking and Western thinking have more to do with refuting the claim made by "traditional" Buddhists, both Asian and Western, that the Engaged Buddhist movement is merely the product of Western influences and, therefore, not truly Buddhist. She refutes this claim by demonstrating that the most influential Asian Engaged Buddhist leaders are intelligent, well-educated people who are unlikely to meekly adopt foreign ideas. Cogently, she argues that Western influences on Engaged Buddhism do not make Engaged Buddhism "the product of Western influences" and that the claim that Engaged Buddhism is the result of Western cultural imperialism denies what it is trying to protect: "the subjectivity and agency of the Engaged Buddhist leaders themselves" (p. 3). She demonstrates that Asian Engaged Buddhist leaders are selective about which Western concepts they include in their discussions of social ethics and that their thinking about social ethics has deep consonance with utterly basic Buddhist concerns, such as interdependence, the Four Noble Truths, anatman (lack of independent abiding self), the enlightenability of human beings, the importance of compassion, the importance of varied self-transformative practices, and nonviolence.

Before delving into Engaged Buddhism's major concerns in depth, King provides a lengthy chapter in which she outlines Engaged Buddhist ethical theory. She does not claim that Engaged Buddhists have worked out a systematic ethical philosophy, but rather that certain ideas and claims underlie their recommendations and actions, although not all of them are used by every Engaged Buddhist or in every situation. Natural law ethics, which claims that ethical requirements are not culturally relative because they stem from the nature of reality itself, not human invention, is an important element in Engaged Buddhist thinking, she [End Page 175] claims. (King, however, does not discuss the difficulty that the different religions have very different analyses of the nature of reality.) Engaged Buddhists also use a developmental perspective, recognizing that, as individuals develop, ethical understanding also develops. That developmental perspective implies that ethics is more about principles than about rules. Engaged Buddhist ethics are holistic, in that intellect and emotion are not thought of as at odds with each other in ethical decision making, but are well integrated with each other. A nonadversarial stance is critical...


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pp. 174-179
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