November 8, 2009

Drawing Lines Beyond Labels

From Rev. Danny Fisher’s blog feed, I learned about the Jizo Chronicles by Maia Duerr (not to be confused with the Great Vows of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva blog). In the post Socially Engaged Buddhism Beyond Labels, Duerr strikes a contrast between engaged Buddhism and socially engaged Buddhism.

So here’s my theory (others, like Ken Jones, have articulated it in a similar way). I see engaged Buddhism as akin to what Rev Coffin is talking about when he talks about charity. On a very basic level, it’s pretty hard to avoid being an engaged Buddhist. We see suffering, and we respond. There are many Buddhist groups that are organized in this way, like the Tzu Chi Foundation — doing relief work, addressing immediate needs such as hunger, medical needs, etc.

Socially engaged Buddhism, in contrast, is about looking at the structures that lie underneath these forms of suffering, and then responding to those structures. At the root of the hunger and homelessness, for example, are systems of economic and racial injustice (to name just a couple) where some people have the odds stacked against them. This doesn’t mean that people can’t transcend their conditions; of course they can. But it’s a system that contributes to a vast amount of suffering, and the big question is: does it need to be that way?

I don’t understand where Duerr draws the line that separates engaged Buddhists from socially engaged Buddhists. Specifically what makes the Tzu Chi Foundation not a socially engaged Buddhist organization?


  1. Hi,

    Thanks for noticing the new blog, Jizo Chronicles. I actually did write another paragraph which I deleted at the last moment that addresses the issue you raise, at least to some degree. The paragraph left out: "Of course, sometimes it's not so clearly defined, and some organizations work on both levels simultaneously. Dividing things up like this will probably get me in trouble for being dualistic--the the ultimate Buddhist sin in some circles--but it is interesting to see how much more common 'engaged Buddhism' is compared to 'socially engaged Buddhism,' using this definition."

    Appreciate the thoughtfulness of your posts,

  2. Thanks for your comment, Maia—much appreciated!

  3. Thanks for pointing this blog out Arun. I appreciate it.