Buddhism & Complexity

In the over seven years I’ve been a part of this forum, some of you may have noticed that one of my favorite things to do is stir the pot a little, to ask difficult and sometimes challenging questions. This isn’t just because I think it’s fun, which…it is, but also because one the most interesting things to me is the intersection of Buddhism and complexity.

My questions as such have almost always been met with negativity/dismissal (yay!), such as when I asked why so many American Buddhists were pro-choice, or how there could be Buddhist extremists in Myanmar. The response in both of these threads seemed to be that people who had such views weren’t Buddhist, or there would be an effort to try to find texts to support or dismiss such views. But my question has never been ‘what is the textual support behind this view,’ my question is always, how can we look at Buddhism more complexly and more openly to understand those who may have Buddhist values and are Buddhist (this is important!), but who do things that are contrary to Buddhist values of morality and legality.

This is topic that has been largely ignored by Theravadins, which I don’t blame them, it’s an uncomfortable discussion to have. And it’s one that I’m starting to try to get at publicly in articles such as my recent one in Lion’s Roar/Buddhadharma – not whether extremist Buddhists are actually Buddhist (they are!) or if their values are textually verifiable – but rather, how can we hold these seemingly contradictory things together in ways that create more compassion and understanding.

This is an open question – I don’t have an answer on how to do this. I’m actually fairly bad at this myself from a practitioner point of view (the minute I realized my community wasn’t willing to do anything about Climate Change or any social issues I bailed lol). So this is more of a question on ways to develop tools and skills to engage with such complexity, and how do we morph this into creating more welcoming spaces for others?


This is a matter of matrix of reference. If Buddhism is viewed from the conventional standpoint it seems filled with complexities. On the other hand looking from the Buddhist view, conventional reality is always unresolved. The Buddha’s aim is the removal of suffering, not like science to explain the cosmos. In Buddhism a lot of questions including investigating the creation of the world, are said to lead to madness.

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Hello Brenna. Possibly we can use a horizontal axis and list various spectrums of worldly social-political views, from what we regard as ‘extreme-left’ to ‘extreme-right’, plus, as suggested, all of the in-betweens. Then, without any reference to ‘mere hatred’ or ‘anti-this’ (such as ‘homophobia’ or ‘anti-vax’), list on a vertical axis the concerns & worries of each political group, i.e., what each socio-political group believes is suffering or a threat for them. Try to objectively, without prejudice, understand the self-perceived suffering or worries of each group. For example, LGBTQ people obviously are worried or concerned with threats of discrimination & violence towards them; which are suffering. Or the old-fashioned Communists were concerned about exploitation of the working class; which was suffering. Then as we move towards the right, people are concerned about threats to free-speech, threats to bodily autonomy, such as the right to abortion or right to refuse a certain vaccination, which they believe may be harmful to them or actually harmful to the society. So as the spectrum moves towards the right, what are these people concerned & worried about that they personally believe will cause suffering & problems to their lives? Do this analysis without judgment, without prejudice, without one’s own personal hubris. :slightly_smiling_face:

I imagine, whether valid/realistic or invalid/unrealistic, these people were/are concerned about losing their Buddhist ways of life. (Note: I never believed the Rohingya matter was about an Islamic threat but somehow related to foreign developments of oil & gas resources, including a pipeline, in the Rakhine State (a ‘complex theory’ is here). But imagine if countries, such as Sri Lanka or Myanmar, became ruled by Christianity or Islam. Obviously its easy to get people worried about these things, like Americans got worried Iraq was a threat to America, even though Iraq was 10,000km away. :saluting_face:

Since Buddhism is about ‘causality’, I think it is open to complexities of possible causality. :slightly_smiling_face:

If the intention is to create a more welcoming space for others, then i would avoid setting the benchmark neither when i attempt to understand Buddhism nor when i attempt to understand my fellow practitioners. Setting a benchmark, while it might appear to be addressing complexity, in a way its doing exactly the opposite.

Whose values? Who decides what counts as “Buddhist values,” if it isn’t the Buddhists themselves? Or do you mean whose behavior doesn’t live up to their own values?

How can you hope to understand Buddhists without allowing them recourse to their own texts? I’m genuinely confused. What are you looking for?


I can refer to myself as ‘an extremist’. I feel that it is just human nature to become extreme because this is what (strong) passion does with the mind. It leads you into the extremes. Extreme views, extreme emotions, extreme attachment, extreme behaviour. It is easy to become extreme when one has a lot of passion.

If one has a tendency to become obsessive, fanatic, aflame, like me, one probably shows this in work too, in views, some hobby, and also when one seeks refuge in religion, also in buddhism. One will become a fanatic buddhist, fanatic in reading, in studying, in discussing, in defending, rejecting. In a sense the pattern of attachment does not weaken but finds new support in religious ideas.

It is like a former drug-addict who becomes a fanatic religious person. It is like the passion, the greed, the hate and the attachments does not end but only shifts. It shifts from drugs to religion but one is still the obsessive, greedy, fanatic person.

When you have this fanaticims, this strong passion, it is hard to controll without something to fight for.
It seeks a battleground, as it were, everyday. That is also the problem. It is like one is a loose canon.

I feel that is also so challenging in Buddha-Dhamma. We are so fond of fighting. Fighting for this and that. That is also often the way we feel (ego) alive and kicking. What is life without something to fight for?

We can justify all this passion, this fanaticism, this extreme behaviour but it is deceit to pretent this is in line with buddhism. This is not complex at all. It is just defilement. It is hard to deal with strong passions.

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Buddhism is certainly not Theravadins, which are just one tradition.

The Chinese Buddhism based on both Mahayana and Samyukta/Samyutta Buddhism is also, and essentially useful for today’s complexity.

I guess the issue is that they are not really contradictory. One can be a Buddhist and yet do unethical things or at least, fail to do certain ethical things.

We all fail in different ways after all, nobody is perfectly ethical or a perfect Buddhist, whatever that means. The same holds true for Buddhist communities. We are all just stumbling around and trying to do our best in this confusing samsara.

The suttas make the issue very clear:

And what is the nutriment for the three kinds of misconduct? It should be said: non-restraint of the sense faculties. Non-restraint of the sense faculties, too, I say, has a nutriment; it is not without nutriment. And what is the nutriment for non-restraint of the sense faculties? It should be said: lack of mindfulness and clear comprehension. Lack of mindfulness and clear comprehension, too, I say, has a nutriment; it is not without nutriment. And what is the nutriment for lack of mindfulness and clear comprehension? It should be said: careless attention. Careless attention, too, I say, has a nutriment; it is not without nutriment. And what is the nutriment for careless attention? It should be said: lack of faith. Lack of faith, too, I say, has a nutriment; it is not without nutriment. And what is the nutriment for lack of faith? It should be said: not hearing the good Dhamma. Not hearing the good Dhamma, too, I say, has a nutriment; it is not without nutriment. And what is the nutriment for not hearing the good Dhamma? It should be said: not associating with good persons.

  • AN 10.61

I think some people make the choice not to go as far onto the path, which is fine. However, I think there is a growing contingent of people who, as a result of choosing not to adjust themselves to develop in the Dhamma, look to adjust the scriptures and themes to fit that choice. It seems to be a complex reconciliation whereby the shame of not committing to the Dhamma is combined with the looming guilt associated with potentially turning away from the world (if they did commit). As AN 10.61 says, there are layers of support that contribute towards misconduct and/or just a general sentiment of not being committed to the Dhamma on account of being committed elsewhere. All in all, I think the reconciliation is the result of not being honest with what one’s actual intentions are with the Dhamma.


@Brenna, I think the issue you raise is largely one for convert Buddhists, specifically convert Buddhists from non-Buddhist countries. I think many converts have had to self-create their image of Buddhism and what it means to be Buddhist. And in the process have come up with something that is very two, if not one, dimensional.

If you grow up in a Buddhist culture, it is obvious that there is complexity. Just as when you grow up in a Christian culture you will see complexity there. And perhaps it is even this complexity in Christian culture, which often presents as hypocrisy, that drives people to Buddhism. So then they are less likely to tolerate complexity in their Buddhist experience.

For example, many convert Buddhists will say that Buddhists should not be concerned with politics or social issues. (This is a common theme among right-wing Buddhists on-line.) But what does that mean when 80% of the people in a country/culture are Buddhists? That a whole community should not care about society, otherwise they aren’t Buddhists? It’s silly.


The argument for disengagement is a bit more nuanced than that, for me at least. I think if a Buddhist is living a normal lay life and simply keeping the 5 precepts then of course they can be political. If a Buddhist however is aiming for awakening, as a monk or nun or as a lay person, then it’s best to disengage from political issues. So, engagement with politics depends on what you want from the Dhamma. Remember, the Buddha did teach that monks and nuns shouldn’t get caught up in discussing politics. Instead they should be focusing on nibbana.

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Something I’ve thought about over the years regarding Buddhism and the western struggle to become Buddhist is that people often find it impossible to think in ways contrary to the beliefs that they adopted when they were growing up. This comes up alot regarding the belief in rebirth. In the west, this belief was long ago replaced with the one life view of existence by Christians. That view easily carried on with the rejection of Christianity and the adoption of materialism. People often hit a wall when they try to really believe there’s a problem of rebirth that makes Nirvana a religious goal.

By the same token, I think the native religion of western societies today is political thought. We think and believe in things that political movements tell us and argue for us to think and believe. They even define what’s moral or not in modern times. They’ve replaced the institution of religion. Religions like Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism still exist, but they are increasingly vehicles of political belief. This process is well advanced in other religions, so it isn’t very surprising that it’s happening among Buddhists, too.

It’s a distressing thing to me, really, because European political thought has produced some of the most hellish wars of human history. They have rivalled and exceeded the brutality of the Mongol hordes even as they present themselves as the most advanced stage of civilization. It’s really quite amazing and terrifying to me, in equal parts. These political philosophies do seem civilized in that they hang on moral arguments and propaganda slogans similar to those devised by the missionaries of the world religions when they converted foreign cultures. It’s like a hollow echo of ancient times.

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I was speaking of the general situation, not any one person’s nuanced view. I have absolutely seen big push back against any Buddhist group or individual that wants to address any kind of social problem. And I think that relates to the issue of lack of awareness of complexity in the Buddhist experience. But it is true that a particular form of vitriol is spewed against monastics.


That was well said. I agree.

I agree that it is silly, but these western converts do care about society on account of bringing along their right-wing politics. So, their hypocrisy is layered even more so.

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Well there probably is some misunderstanding, and I don’t agree with vitriol, but I do agree that monastics shouldn’t be political. The same for laypeople who are aiming for awakening.

I didn’t grow up in a Buddhist culture, but I did come to the Dhamma via my local Thai Wat, which is, of course, complex… I’m thankful that I didn’t come to it with the idea that monastics are supposed to be perfect people who have to spend all their time hiding themselves away seeking awakening - some of our monastics teach not only Dhamma, but language and culture to the offspring of Thai immigrants. And some I’ve met were far from perfect, and I’m fine with that. Monastic or lay Buddhist life is about development.

As for politics, the Buddha advised various people, including kings. I actually think that it’s problematical if monastics (and other religious leaders) don’t speak out on important issues. Better for experts to speak out than for amateurs…

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