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Reviewed by:
  • Socially Engaged Buddhism
  • John Schroeder
Socially Engaged Buddhism. By Sallie B. King. Dimensions of Asian Spirituality series. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2009. Pp. vii + 192.

Socially Engaged Buddhism by Sallie B. King is a concise, intelligent, and thoughtful study of the complex social and political movements of Engaged Buddhism. It aims to show what is authentically Buddhist about Engaged Buddhism, and argues that the [End Page 286] various Buddhist activist movements that have emerged over the past century are firmly rooted in the spiritual and philosophical foundations of traditional Buddhism. The book is organized into chapters on three basic themes: the philosophical, ethical, and spiritual foundations of Buddhism (chapters 1-3); the application of traditional Buddhist principles to issues of war and peace, economics, the environment, and human rights/criminal justice (chapters 4-7); and confrontations with traditional Buddhism over issues of karma and gender (chapter 8). King concludes the work by stressing that Engaged Buddhism is a unique form of social activism that combines the values of nonviolence, reconciliation, and peace with the Buddhist views of "emptiness," the interconnectedness of "self" and "others," and an ethics based in compassionate wisdom.

Readers familiar with King's previous book, Being Benevolence: The Social Ethics of Engaged Buddhism (University of Hawai'i Press, 2005), may find themselves disappointed by the present book. As part of the Dimensions of Asian Spirituality series, King's Socially Engaged Buddhism is meant to be shorter and more succinct than her larger work on Engaged Buddhism, yet easily gives the impression of treading familiar ground—but without the same high level of critical reflection or analysis. Unlike her previous book, Socially Engaged Buddhism lacks a critical discussion on Engaged Buddhism and avoids questions dealing with the limits of nonviolence and social ethics, with how Engaged Buddhists would handle large political issues such as national defense and criminal justice, whether Buddhist economic models are viable in a globalized world, or why Engaged Buddhism lacks a concrete analysis of institutional power. Moreover, while retaining popular Engaged Buddhists such as the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, King's new book significantly diminishes the importance of other Asian Engaged Buddhists such as Bhikkhu Buddhadasa, P. A. Payuto, and Sulak Sivaraksa, who were championed in her previous book as principal actors and thinkers of Engaged Buddhism in Southeast Asia.

This does not mean that King's new book on Engaged Buddhism lacks substance. On the contrary, as my discussion of the book will show, Socially Engaged Buddhism is a lucid account of the main currents of Engaged Buddhism and offers a convincing argument for what is distinctively Buddhist about Engaged Buddhism. It also includes three subjects not covered in her previous work: Buddhist ecological movements, the issue of women and gender, and the inclusion of Western Engaged Buddhists. Being Benevolence intentionally excluded Western Engaged Buddhists because it sought to focus on the perspectives of Asian Buddhists without "muddying the waters" by including Western voices, but it also failed to include Buddhist ecological movements and the issue of women and gender. As such, it neglected some of the most exciting and important work being done by Engaged Buddhists in Asia. Socially Engaged Buddhism attempts to fill these gaps by including a chapter on Buddhist environmental movements, a section on gender and Engaged Buddhist women, and, to avoid separating Engaged Buddhism into Eastern and Western hemispheres, the important work of Western Engaged Buddhists.

Before evaluating specific issues and individuals of Engaged Buddhism, King devotes two chapters to the philosophical, spiritual, and ethical foundations of [End Page 287] Buddhist thought, and argues that the roots of Engaged Buddhism lie deeply within traditional Buddhist values. King explains from the outset that Engaged Buddhism is a heterogeneous movement that developed in response to the particular social, political, and economic crises of different Asian countries, and that it cuts across all the major Buddhist sects and extends internationally from the streets of Bangkok to San Francisco and from Tibet to New York City. Nevertheless, King argues that all the major Engaged Buddhists share the traditional Buddhist virtues of loving-kindness, compassion, generosity, and nonviolence, and that their philosophical views derive from the basic...