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Due to American global heft as an outsized military power, economy, resource consumer, and cultural exporter, American behavior today has outsized consequences for the entire planet. This essay consequently speaks from and to the American context, focusing on what American Buddhists can and should do to engage the social, political, and environmental crises of our times. The reflections are framed in terms of interactions between American Buddhism and trialogue partners drawn from Christian Liberation theology and Quakerism.
From Liberation Theologians Gustavo Gutierrez and Adolphe Gesché is drawn an emphasis on the suffering of the innocent. In our time, we are surrounded by suffering innocents—abused minorities, children separated from their parents at the US borders, poor people, and planet Earth itself, with all its inhabitants and components—none of whom "deserve" the harm and abuse coming toward them. Yet, it is a significant challenge to Buddhist thought to think in terms of undeserved harm to innocents.
From Quaker Chuck Fager, American Buddhists receive the challenge to think strategically in order to engage with social and political problems, planning in terms of decades and with big picture strategies. A focal challenge is: What would it take to make American Buddhism a meaningful player in American social and political issues?
Surveying Quaker and American Buddhist social engagement, we note that it is important to build from one's religion's strengths. American Buddhism is doing so with a variety of institutions engaged in training the individual in Buddhist-inspired contemplative practices that aim to heal the individual and the world. These could help the culture to evolve. We note, however, that climate change and present and imminent ecological disasters cannot wait for these slow processes to work their changes, nor can those innocents who are suffering acutely right now wait. American Buddhists must also decide whether they want spiritually based social engagement to be normative in American Buddhism.