Bhikkhu Bodhi on the Secular Buddhist

An interview with Bhikkhu Bodhi on the Secular Buddhist podcast. Someone always worth listening to.


Tragic that this practitioner explicitly speaks of of Buddhist engagement as “progressive”.
[Correction: Bhikkhu Bodhi speaks of social engagement as “progressive” twice. He does not acknowledge any other form of Buddhist engagement.] In addition, the persons and organizations, named in the podcast are ones that probably would self-identify as “progressive” or politically left.
(I will credit for focusing on their food and nutrition mission)

Among western Buddhists especially there seems to a blind and uncritical assumption that politically “progressive” ideology is somehow the standard for Buddhist engagement. This pattern leads to a systematically non-self critical and non-reflective practice.
In general there are few to no better known western Buddhists who acknowledge the lack of intersectionality and the pattern of ideological privileging that dominates and has ‘colonized’ western Buddhist expressions of “engaged Buddhism”.

In this regard I commend the example of - “a politically diverse group of more than 1,700 professors and graduate students who have come together to improve the quality of research and education in universities by increasing viewpoint diversity, mutual understanding, and constructive disagreement.”

Ideological frameworks, including political orientation, powerfully inform the assumptions Buddhist scholars, teachers and practitioners professors make, the questions they ask, the outcomes they value, and the way they interpret their data and their world.

When sangas and communities don’t include ideologically diverse voices within the scope of the dharma, and don’t engage seriously with dissenting ideas, the community misses the opportunity for their thinking to be challenged. They don’t get the chance to figure out which ideas hold up within the crucible of open inquiry. Biases go unchecked. Critical thinking is abandoned. Wisdom doesn’t grow.


People tend to use the word “progressive” in vague and conflicting ways. Is Buddhist Global Relief engaged in any specific efforts that you find objectionable or worrisome?

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Yeah, I would like to hear what points or ideas led you to feel it’s tragic.

Are there actual ideas spoken that you feel are incorrect that show an extreme unbalanced and politically biased agenda? Or are you just caught up in the polarity of identity politics to the point where you hear the word “progressive”, which is one extreme opposite side of the political spectrum so you just see the word progressive with a negative connotation? Or perhaps you like to think of yourself as neutral, so anything “progressive” that doesn’t have “conservative” to “balance” it out, is seen as wrong and tragic?

Balance isn’t right all the time. It’s not that simple. It’s not like you play tug of war with the two sides of the political spectrum and you magically get “the correct” option. Not to mention the whole left/right, conservative/progressive thing is just a very very very narrow way of looking at things that is arbitrary anyway. The objective should be to benefit people, support people, help those in oppressive situations… Not to choose an option that follows in the middle of current American identity politics so both sides feel justified…


Thanks for posting this Dan. I listened to it driving this morning and it was a good start to the day.


In the spirit of your questions I would counter with: Is this the first time you asked a series of loaded question in pursuit of your aims?

You begin to make interesting questions but in total I think your rhetoric is more an argument and not an inquiry.

Please note that my comments addressed both the interview and the backdrop of western Buddhism against which it occurs. I wrote separately and specifically to each.

I agree.
However, if you attend with sufficient attention to multiple (at least two) informed perspectives you stand a better chance of reaching a more nuanced, wiser decision as well as more harmonious and helpful speach. The psychological dynamics of group think are powerful and lead to suffering. Exposure to multiple viewpoints is the path that tends to liberation.

When sangas and communities don’t include ideologically diverse voices within the scope of the dharma, and don’t engage seriously with dissenting ideas, the community misses the opportunity for their thinking to be challenged. They don’t get the chance to figure out which ideas hold up within the crucible of open inquiry. Biases go unchecked. Critical thinking is abandoned. Wisdom doesn’t grow.

I recommend taking a serious look at The Problem – Heterodox Academy


In my experience politically aware or active people are more careful in the use of the word “progressive”. Also “progressive” often has different connotations than “progress”.

And as suggested in my comment, there are multiple lines of evidence that point in the same direction.
Not my first social/political rodeo partner.

No. As I wrote:

(I will credit for focusing on their food and nutrition mission)

What in that that sentence causes you to ask?

That’s evident.

Expanding on previous comments – there are a number of parallels between western Buddhist social activism/engagement and the professoriate of western universities.
For instance, Musa al-Gharbi, a fellow in sociology at Columbia University and a research associate at the Heterodox Academy writes:

It is no longer a matter of dispute whether increasing diversity of perspectives enriches understanding of social issues. Conversations about it typically turn on questions of race, gender and sexuality. More recently, class, geography and the intersections between categories of under-representation have also received attention.

However, diversity of viewpoint remains controversial. Many believe that it is acceptable – and even desirable – to exclude non-progressive perspectives. Indeed, while increased education mitigates prejudice on the grounds of factors such as race, it actually renders people more likely to discriminate against those who hold different beliefs or commitments.

In fact, while there has been noteworthy progress made since the 1990s in terms of representation for women and racial minority groups, the ideological under-representation problem is growing worse.
If conservative views are not represented in social research, leftists will suffer most | THE Opinion

Already, in the humanities and social sciences, the scale of ideological under-representation is vastly more pronounced than disparities along the lines of gender, sexuality or even race.

Of course, particular institutions need not strive for perfect parity with the general population along any demographic dimension. After all, under-representation (or over-representation) is often a result of selection effects. However, it becomes worrisome under two conditions. One is a hostile environment and/or active discrimination. The other is if insufficient input from certain constituencies lowers research quality and impact. Unfortunately, both of these conditions seem to apply.

I argue that a parallel situation exists for Buddhism today. In my listening to numerous talks and interviews the existence of viewpoint diversity regarding Buddhist engaged action is rarely acknowledged. This lack of diversity interferes with the rightful influence of the dharma and the impact of social action.

There is evidence of active discrimination against conservatives (and more broadly, a suppression of views that defy the prevailing orthodoxy), and this does undermine the accuracy and effectiveness of social research.

After all, conservatives have never been on the receiving end of systematic oppression, exploitation and exclusion on the basis of their political ideology in ways that even remotely approach how women have been subjugated on the basis of their gender, or how blacks have been persecuted on the basis of their race. This is simply a historic fact. Therefore, even if we agree that it is wrong to discriminate against conservatives, and even if we acknowledge that, in absolute terms, ideological under-representation seems to be a bigger problem in social research these days, there would still seem to be a greater normative urgency to addressing racial or gender disparities.

This I do not doubt. However, ideological diversity is not distinct from other forms of diversity. Indeed, a commitment to empowering and defending women, people of colour and other minority groups actually makes it more important to protect and enhance freedoms of conscience, expression and enquiry.

As Jonathan Haidt and I have previously demonstrated, it is primarily women, minorities and progressives who suffer when free speech protections are undermined on campus. It is generally women and people of colour – usually progressives – who pay the cost when administrators are encouraged to weigh into political disputes. These same groups will also bear the brunt of continued erosion of public trust in institutions of higher learning.

In my opinion, there is ample reason for Buddhist’s to question to current trend in western Buddhist activism as well as the judgement of activist dharma teachers and scholars.
A bit of open acknowledgement of the issue would go a long way.

One example of the research behind Musa al-Gharbi’s numbers:

Source: Data on how Ideological (Under)Representation Compares to (Under)Representation Along the Lines of Race, Gender or Sexuality – Heterodox Academy

My post was simply an interview with Bhikkhu Bodhi about the formation and work of Buddhist Global Relief. Although Venerable Bodhi makes an offhand reference to “progressive” social action, the reference is not developed in the interview, and seems to play no role in the vision of Buddhist Global Relief, which is articulated in scrupulously Buddhist terms. Nor does @Feynman have any apparent objections to the work of Buddhist Global Relief.

It would be nice if we could post news of these kinds of limited and not particularly ideological ventures in Buddhist social engagement from time to time, without the thread immediately turning into another propaganda screed on behalf of Heterodox Academy and its agenda to reform US higher education, a parochial US agenda driven by the peculiarities of the US domestic political scene, which does not offer anything particularly relevant to the main currents of Buddhist thought.


@DKervick response is remarkable.

The statement, I would say, is false. As a speach act I would think fair minded people, if one were to review the interview, would find that @DKervick 's comments are an example of false or wrong speach.

I just quickly scanned the interview. About 2 minutes of a approximately 25 minute interview was about Buddhist Global Relief. The section on Buddhist Global Relief starts at about min 27 on the recording. The claim that the interview was “simply … about … Buddhist Global Relief” are shown false.

@DKervick’s follow-on accusations in the second paragraph of a “propaganda screed” consists of an opinion based upon the untruth above that, in my judgement, is of no better quality. Instead of being peculiar to the US as @DKervick suggests, the problems of poor judgement are universal and lead, as the EBT’s suggest, to illusion.

In the main, @DKervick’s “screed”, to use his word, illustrates roughly the opposite of what is claimed. If @DKervick’s post is an example of a venture in Buddhist social engagement then the case for a better path to reduce illusion and suffering is stronger than ever.

My post was not a venture in Buddhist social engagement. I passed on an interview with Bhikkhu Bodhi, in which he discusses both his life in Buddhism and some of his recent social engagements.

As is often the case, you used the post to pursue your own obsessions and propaganda goals, making almost no contact at all with the interview, other than to note the “tragedy” of Venerable Bodhi’s use of the word “progressive” - which set the usual bees buzzing in your bonnet, and elicited another irrelevant emission of Heterodox Academy content.

Just because the Buddha had some things to say about his particular conception of right speech doesn’t make everything you personally want to say about how other people should speak a contribution to Buddhist thinking.

Things look to be heading a bit off the course, here. Those interested in pursing a discussion on “progressive” politics can start another thread if it’s relevant to the forum. In any case, whatever the thread, please keep things respectful.


Image a conference in your region of the world described as

A gathering of Buddhist practitioners, scholars, activists and teachers

You read the first 5 paragraphs which speak of topics such as “our conscience as followers of the Buddha-Dharma” and about “values of equality and justice vs. practices of domination and supremacy over others”. Then you get to paragraph 6:

White male Christians, Jews, and Muslims already have organizations in place that mobilize their followers on issues of public policy. The time has come for Buddhists to step forward as a unified community re-dedicated to the struggle for greater justice, peace, environmental care, and respect for all people.

We are working on the national and local levels to create a collaborative Buddhist white male action network – and we need your help.

Our gathering is being organized in solidarity with efforts to create a national alliance of American white male Buddhists.

The conference aims to provide optimal conditions for a free exchange of ideas about inclusivity, efficiency, and effectiveness.

We are many, and in action we can have a big impact as a unified Buddhist community drawing on our ancient values and applying them to the c­­ritical demands of justice, peace, and compassion.

If that hypothetical doesn’t raise some concerns in your mind then I guess the gravamen of my other posts in this thread won’t register much with you.

But except for swapping out the words “white male” for “progressive” the quotes above were taken from the announcement for the conference that was the subject of 9 out of the 27 minute interview that is the subject of the OP.

Well, there are lots and lots of Buddhists out there, so I’m sure one can find conservative and other kinds of Buddhist action groups if that is one’s political taste.

As for me, I don’t think the early Buddhist texts provide much basis for any specifically Buddhist form of worldly political action or ideology. I am sure all Buddhists believe the Buddha taught a way of life that prioritizes friedliness, compassion and harmlessness, and that Buddhist practice provides insight into the causes of suffering. But those bare essentials don’t take one far into any detailed course of political action. So insofar as I get involved in political action, I refrain from attempts to rope the Buddha in on my side.

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