American Bodhisattvas and Engaged Buddhism

Disclaimer — this is an unedited version of a post.  I am going ahead and putting it up because I will be gone for the next 3 days.  I wrote it last weekend but haven’t had a chance to get back to it and refine it.  So it may come off more harsh than I intend for it to, and of course it will be filled with spelling, formatting, and grammatical errors.  Please forgive all of those.

This post loosely ties into a recent post at No Zen In The West that I encourage everyone to read.

American Bodhisattvas and Engaged Buddhism

Before you save the world you must first save yourself.

Before you try to save the world, learn to make an omelet. 

I couldn’t find the author to attribute the above quotes to.  I’ll get back to them in a minute.

What is a bodhisattva?  Wikipedia tells me a “bodhisattva is the Sanskrit term for anyone who, motivated by great compassion, has generated bodhicitta to attain buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings.” And without getting stuck in a Wikipedia hyperlink vortex, bodhicitta ‘may be translated as “awakening mind” or “mind of enlightenment”’  In every traditional explanation that I could find of what a bodhisattva is, it is always some variant of someone who helps save others and get them to enlightenment. 

So why in Zen circles do I constantly see and hear people refer to a bodhisattva as anyone that does any generous act?  See a person give a dollar to a homeless man? “Ah, what a great bodhisattva!”.  See a person rescue a kitten from a tree? “Ah, how wonderful!  What a bodhisattva!”  Are these actions true actions of a bodhisattva?  Or are they just people being nice to their fellow sentient beings?  Is there a difference?

I think American Zen is getting sidetracked.  I commented on a popular Zen blog the other day that I don’t know how much good we are doing by feeding the homeless.  I stopped there but should have completed my thought.  I promise I am not that inhumane.  I just come from the school that you should teach a man to fish.  You can feed him while you’re teaching him, but by just feeding him you are not helping him in the long run.  He will always be dependent upon someone else.

So that brings me to “Engaged Buddhism”.  Engaged Buddhism has taken a life of its own since being brought over from the West.  What started there as Humanistic Buddhism, which was a way for our Asian brothers to bring Buddhism literally back to life from the death rituals it had devolved into, has been turned into social charity work.  That in and of itself isn’t a bad thing.  But it seems the focus of American Zen is switching from the permanent cessation of suffering of all sentient beings (the original job of the bodhisattva) to the temporary alleviating of suffering of perceived downtrodden and political activism on behalf of those perceived downtrodden.  I think American Zen is the further watering down of the Dharma.

I believe a bodhisattva’s job is to help people learn how to fish on their own, not just to give them their next fish.  Both are important.  But there are plenty of people and organizations that can help you get that next fish.  How many can help you learn how to fish and cook for yourself?  And Heaven forbid I bring a Theravada point up, but shouldn’t we save ourselves first THEN save the world?  We have to make several omelets ourselves before we can become a chef and make them for others.  Pardon all of my mixed metaphors and parables. 

Zen is about attaining enlightenment.  Over and over again.  Then helping others do the same.  Don’t lose sight of this.

So am I wrong?  Just misguided?  Is a bodhisattva just a really nice person?  Or is a bodhisattva a person whose focus should be primarily on helping others realize enlightenment? 

9 thoughts on “American Bodhisattvas and Engaged Buddhism”

  1. I had many discussions like this with my father before he died at 94. He was a professor of social welfare at UC Berkeley who dedicated his life to helping others. I usually played the devil’s advocate and, like you, I took the view that giving immediate, temporary care and help like money and food was not much good, and would encourage dependency if it didn’t get at the root of the problem, i.e. giving them a skill like fishing to care for themselves. His answer was that of course getting someone to take care of themselves was better but the cost in time and money to do that is so much more and the need so great, that it just wasn’t going to happen. In the meantime we shouldn’t use that as a justification not to take action to help where it is needed so desperately.

    Instead of giving that homeless person a handout, have you ever taken them home with you and really tried to help them get their life together? Of course not, because it’s an overwhelming task, not just for you but for society as a whole. Still we must do what we can, not just as Buddhists, but as fellow humans, who just beneath the surface of this temporary, transient individual existence are really living just one interconnected life. When you help others and your world, you’re helping yourself. That is the end result of that enlightenment you speak of.

    1. I’m not saying charity is bad. Of course we need charitable organizations and nice people to volunteer for them. And luckily there are plenty of great ones out there. But Zen is not about charity. Or not just about charity. And if it is about charity, it’s about a different kind.

      There are plenty of nice people out there. There are few that have awakened. I think the awakened ones need to focus their charity on helping others awaken.

      I’ve asked several Zen teachers why the teachers of the past didn’t mention charity or any type of Engaged Buddhism. So far I haven’t received a satisfactory answer. Actually, I haven’t received an answer. Just avoidance of the question.

      1. Dana (Generosity or giving) is the first of the six Buddhist paramitas and the one that is mentioned most often — for example in the Diamond Sutra where we are repeatedly encouraged to give without any attachment, even to results. It’s pretty hard to “give” someone enlightenment, but not so difficult to show a little kindness. Relinquishment, or giving, not just to those who are close to you, but to everyone, is a natural result of enlightenment, as well as a prerequisite for getting there.

        1. Every major religion encourages generosity, correct? There is nothing exclusive to Zen about generosity. Nor should there be.

          The Bodhisattva Ideal is exclusive to Mahayana Buddhism. THAT is what I think has been corrupted by American Zen. It has turned a specific act of generosity–saving all beings– into a generic act of dana (although one admittedly not practiced enough).

          1. THAT saving of all beings is pretty vague. There’s dedication of merit and actively teaching zen to others. There appears to plenty of both in zen. Dedication of merit is pretty hard to quantify but there are plenty of teachers and wannabe teachers. Not much in the way of generic acts of giving, so apparently that Ideal hasn’t been corrupted much.

  2. Thanks for this. I find the dichotomy troubling – help the world or help beings be free of the world. I like how Kyodo Williams equates “personal liberation” with “meritocracy” – maybe that needs more unpacking, but it’s really resonant. Liberation, like “success”, is about conditions (and granted the tradition struggles philosophically to cross that chasm where collected conditions become unconditioned awakening/nirvana). Conditions matter, and conditions aren’t equal opportunity. So to whom is this “liberation” and “liberating practice” available? And what would it be to make it available – to “take” the Dharma places where it’s not, or to try to improve the conditions of the world such that more beings are in realms suitable for liberation. I’m not sure that makes sense as it’s expressed here, but to me at least it’s a really important point.
    I think the other commentor is right though on the Perfections and the Bodhisattva Path – I think Shantideva is a good example. “May I be…” . And for the Zen side, it’s even more clear: appropriate response. It’s misleading to reify liberation as something in addition to or different than the other stuff of helping & being.
    If I had to choose between “helping” a being and “freeing” said being, or helping “the world” and freeing “the world”, then maybe there’d be a hard choice. But the fact is there is always something happening, always something to do, and liberation or not takes place right there. Let’s let the something happening be our best attempts at actually helping this place we’re stuck in be a better place to be stuck. It’s not “be free” or “wash the car”. It’s “be free washing the car”.

    1. Is there a dichotomy? If we are helping beings be free of the world we are also helping the world. I’m not sure it works in the reverse though. The deva realms are free of suffering, but there isn’t any enlightenment happening. Nobody gets saved in a perfect world.

      I think by helping this place we’re stuck in be a better place you are missing at least half the point of Buddhism. Ultimately this place will be gone one day, no matter how much we help it. Ultimately I will be gone one day, no matter how much you help me. Help me get liberated before either of those happen.

      1. Ha, ha. Hae Mun, do you really think there’s some other place? This is it. Changes are passing through here, but there’s just this. Better make the best of it.

        1. Yes, there is just this. And just this. And just this.

          So, you can attempt to temporarily relieve my suffering by acts of kindness (which even if it doesn’t seem like it, I think is important) in each moment, OR you can assist me in attaining enlightenment by being a Bodhisattva.

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