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Reviewed by:
  • Socially Engaged Buddhism
  • Brian Karafin
Socially Engaged Buddhism. By Sallie B. King. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2009. 192 pp.

In a chapter on the philosophical and ethical foundations of the socially engaged Buddhist movement, Sallie King retells a story from the Burmese liberation struggle against military dictatorship. The story was originally told by Aung San Suu Kyi (b. 1945), the Burmese Buddhist activist who is one of the several representative figures (heroes and heroines) of King’s synoptic account of the modern tradition of Engaged Buddhism. An activist against the dictatorship, Uncle U Kyi Maung, being interrogated by officers of military intelligence as to why he had joined the National League for Democracy, the organization headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, Uncle Maung replied: “For your sake” (p. 32).

This story of Buddhist resistance can stand as a representative anecdote for King’s useful history of Engaged Buddhism. The context is one of political oppression and torture, abuse of human rights and repression of democracy, and the attempt to respond to this historical situation from a perspective rooted in the traditional Buddhist spirituality of Asia in a fashion that makes that spirituality relevant to the crises of modernity. The interrogated activist responds to the threat of torture with courage rooted in a Buddhist spiritual practice, and thus is able to assert a political stance grounded in a compassionate recognition of his interdependence with the so-called enemy who is temporarily holding power over him. This constellation of factors illustrates the phenomenon of Engaged Buddhism: It is a form of Buddhist spirituality, not a departure from tradition but an application of traditional ideas—of compassion, interdependence, impermanence, no-self, karma, and others—to the modern period, and specifically to a modern Buddhist Asia riven by war, political oppression, ecological crisis, and capitalist globalization in economics and culture. [End Page 215] This application of Buddhist spirituality to modern Asian (and global, though King’s focus is on Asia) history represents an alternative form of politics, and specifically of political resistance: nonviolent, nonadversarial, rooted in indigenous Asian cultures rather than imported from the West (as would be the case with the various Marxist and liberal political ideologies also at play in the colonial and postcolonial period that saw the development of engaged Buddhism). This is a political resistance, in King’s presentation, grounded in compassion rather than justice, and thereby offering to global observers a significantly different slant on modern politics than the Western ideologies and movements, secular as well as religious.

“Engaged Buddhism” as a term, says King, was coined by Thích Nhất Hạnh (b. 1926) in the context of the war in Vietnam. This was to be a form of Buddhism that drew on the traditional sources (wisdom that knows interdependence/emptiness and compassion that acts on that wisdom) but found skillful means to intervene concretely in the multiple crises related to the war: in the form of social service work including education, but also political activism to address the underlying causes of the war. King demonstrates with this example of Thích Nhất Hạnh and Vietnam the combination of traditional Buddhist ideas with modern contexts of practical application that characterize the movement as a whole. The template of the “four noble truths” is foundational to Thích Nhất Hạnh’s thought—suffering, its causes, the cessation of suffering and the path to that cessation. But in a world of war and political oppression the causes of suffering cannot be only located intra-psychically—yes, the afflictive mental states of greed, hatred, and delusion are the ultimate sources, but the deluded collective hatred that issues in war must be seen as a relatively autonomous factor calling for its own analysis and response. If the orphans of a bombed-out village can be said to suffer from afflictive mental states it is really the minds of those carrying out the bombing who must be transformed, and this obviously requires intervention into the political realm, given that the war makers are not themselves usually willing to sit down and explore the causes of their unskillful behavior. Hence, engaged Buddhism is Buddhism in...