This is to discuss Lele’s paper “Disengaged Buddhism”.
Buddhist modernism has brought us Engaged Buddhism, the idea that Buddhists, including monastics, should be engaged in social issues, participate in activism, and even try to influence politics.
According to Lele, engaged Buddhists have failed to engage (pun intended) with the classical Buddhist arguments against political engagement and instead have either seen classical Buddhism as lacking or deficient (Lele calls them modernists) or have seen them as always having been engaged (traditionists).
But, argues Lele, classical Indian Buddhists often argued for “disengagement” with politics and larger society. In his paper he presents the arguments for this from Pali suttas, Asvaghosa, Santideva and Candrakirti.
For example, Lele cited the following texts:
"Becoming a cakravartin is something that every buddha is capable of doing—and yet every buddha decides not to do it. The Pāli texts repeatedly proclaim that a great person (mahāpurisa) has only two options: to be a cakravartin, or to be a buddha. 11 Several texts praise the buddhas for declining the former option and selecting the latter. They have the option of not merely improving, but effectively perfecting, society—and they decline it. "
The Rajja Sutta 13 (SN I.116-117) goes yet further. Here, even to rule according to dharma (dhammena) is presented to the Buddha as a temptation from Māra, the evil tempter figure. As the Buddha comes closer to awakening, he wonders: “Is it possible to exercise rulership righteously [dhammena]: without killing and without instigating others to kill, without confiscating and without instigating others to confiscate, without sorrowing and without causing sorrow?” Māra replies that he can and should indeed rule righteously. But the Buddha, of course, refuses this temptation, and proceeds instead on the monastic path.
In the Gilāna Sutta (SN IV.302-304), the highly regarded householder disciple Citta is sick and about to die, and the gods ask him to vow that he will become a cakravartin. But he turns them down, saying: “That too is impermanent; that too is unstable; one must abandon that too and pass on.” Citta is not a bodhisattva or aspiring to be a buddha; he is simply aiming at arhatship, the lower kind of awakening possible for a normal person. But even that is a greater goal than being a ruler who will bring general prosperity and flourishing to his society.
So far, I have cited only mainstream (non-Mahāyāna) texts. One might imagine that the thoroughgoing altruism of the Mahāyāna would demand political engagement for the benefit of the world. But Śāntideva, one of the greatest Mahāyāna ethical thinkers, lists learning about law and politics (daṇḍanīti śāstra) among the kinds of learning that are fruitless, against liberation, and leading to delusion, which should therefore be avoided by bodhisattvas (ŚS 192). When he offers advice to kings, the advice is that they give their kingdoms away (ŚS 27). Nor does the alleviation of poverty take high priority in his work, as he asks: “If the perfection of generosity consists in making the universe free from poverty, how can previous Protectors [buddhas] have acquired it, when the world is still poor, even today?” (BCA V.9). Candrakīrti, too, quotes and comments approvingly on a verse that a “sensible person does not acquire a kingdom” (CŚ IV.13).
For Lele the main reason that engagement is rejected by classical Buddhist texts is:
First, they reject the idea that social problems such as war or poverty are significant causes of suffering (dukkha), when that suffering is properly understood. The Second Noble Truth states that the origin of suffering is craving; disengaged texts typically agree that the causes of suffering are primarily or entirely within the sufferer’s mind. To the extent that these texts identify causes of suffering beyond the sufferer’s mind, they are inevitabilities of life from which no amount of privilege will allow escape, such as old age, illness, and death. For that reason, they claim, attention to social problems is a distraction at best. So, the Tiracchāna Kathā Sutta explains why one should abstain from talk of society and its problems: “Because, monks, this talk is unbeneficial, irrelevant to the fundamentals of the holy life, and does not lead to revulsion, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbāna” (SN V.420).
In the Rajja Sutta, Māra notes the Buddha is so powerful he could create great prosperity, sufficient to turn the Himalayas to gold. But the Buddha refuses, noting that any wealth always leaves one wanting more: “If there were a mountain made of gold, Made entirely of solid gold, Not double this would suffice for one . . .” (SN I.116-117). Śāntideva, as is well known, takes the well-being of others as his first priority. That he is an altruistic thinker, concerned with others’ well-being, is not in dispute. And yet, as we saw clearly in the previous section, he still explicitly rejects social and political engagement. Why? Because that social engagement does not actually remedy the real causes of suffering. For him as for the non-Mahāyāna thinkers, the real causes of suffering are mental: “all fears and immeasurable sufferings arise from the mind alone” (BCA V.6). Furthermore, the things of this world are unworthy of our attention because they are metaphysically empty. (See Lele “Metaphysical” 273-277.) They will not get us out of suffering; they may even trap us there further.
For Śāntideva, as a consequence of all these points, the way one can best benefit others is to help them learn to follow the bodhisattva path, not to alleviate any social problems they might be facing. Jenkins disputes this interpretation of Śāntideva, noting correctly that on occasion Śāntideva does say the bodhisattva gives to the poor (ŚS 274, for example). But as I have argued elsewhere (Lele, “The Compassionate”), forŚāntideva the primary purpose of the bodhisattva’s compassionate giftgiving is to make the recipient better disposed to receive the teaching. 14 The bodhisattva gives to the rich as well as the poor; the recipient, rich or poor, receives no real material benefit from the gift. It is a common mistake in discussions of Mahāyāna to miss this point: they assume that Śāntideva’s concern for others must necessarily imply social or political engagement, even though (as we saw in the previous section) he explicitly rejects it on multiple occasions. So, while King is correct to note that Śāntideva’s meditations on self and other are designed to lead us to compassionate action, she is wrong to equate compassionate action with social action (“Social Engagement,” 164). And while Macy is correct, strictly speaking, to say that Śāntideva “saw service to others as the path leading to enlightenment,” she is not correct to identify that service with social service, or to segue as she does into the Sri Lankan reformer A. T. Ariyaratne and his movement to build “repaired roads, de-silted irrigation canals, nutrition programs, and schools” (Macy 174-175).
The badness of politics is also theme in classical Buddhism
Let us turn now to politics and government, an area that, as we saw, plays a major role in engaged Buddhists’ engagement. Many classical Indian Buddhist texts reject the activity of governing because they view it as inimical to advancement on the Buddhist path because of the kinds of acts and mental states that governing requires. This is not to say the texts are anarchistic. Governing is a necessary evil—but it is no less evil for being necessary. One will be better off, progress further on the path, if one can avoid engaging in the processes of government.
The Aggañña Sutta’s brief section on the kingly (khattiya, equivalent to kṣatriya) caste has become renowned for expressing a “social contract” theory of government. (See Collins, “Discourse” 387-389.) That is, once people first begin to steal and do other bad things, other people decide together that if someone takes on the job of punishing these wrongdoers, they will reward him with a portion of rice, and the sutta presents this as the origin of government. 17 What is less frequently noted is that the text explicitly proclaims that accusation, punishment, and banishment are bad (pāpaka, akusala), just as the original thefts are (DN III.93). Their role in maintaining society does not stop them from creating bad karma and interfering with one’s progress to nirvana.
Likewise, in the Mūgapakkha Jātaka, the Bodhisatta (buddha-to be) is born as a prince whose father rules according to dharma (dhammena). Yet even so, when the Bodhisatta sees his father punishing criminals, he thinks: “Ah! my father through his being a king, is becoming guilty of a grievous action which brings men to hell” (Ja VI.3, emphasis added). So, the prince pretends to be deaf and mute in order to get out of the burden of rulership—so concerned to avoid it that he resorts to deception.
Aśvaghoṣa’s Buddhacarita makes this point as well. The family priest (purohita) tells Siddhārtha that he will fulfill dharma better as a king than a renouncer (BC IX.15-17). Siddhārtha responds that kingship is dangerous and interferes with liberation because of the harshness or fierceness (taikṣṇya) that it requires:
As for the scripture that householder kings have attained release, that cannot be! The dharma of release [mokṣadharma], where calm prevails, and the dharma of kings [rājadharma], where force prevails—how far apart are they! 19 If a king delights in calm, his realm [rājya] falls apart, if his mind is on his realm, his calm is destroyed; for calmness and fierceness [taikṣṇya] are incompatible, like the union of fire and water, heat and cold. (BC IX.48-50)
In the Buddhacarita, a major Buddhist author not only makes an explicit distinction between the domains of mokṣa and of rājya, he claims that the mental states they involve are incompatible. Perhaps there were some classical Buddhists who did not accept such a split, but Aśvaghoṣa was not among them. So, likewise, the idea of engagement as a duty is explicitly rejected: the kings tell the buddha-to-be that dharma requires his political involvement, and he says no. Indeed, the higher Buddhist dharma of liberation requires the exact opposite.
The disengaged Buddhist texts we have considered—the Mūgapakkha Jātaka, the works of Aśvaghoṣa, Śāntideva and Candrakīrti, and various Pāli suttas—are at odds with claims of both “traditionist” and “modernist” engaged Buddhists. Against the traditionists, we have seen that South Asian Buddhists not only made an explicit separation between liberation and socio-political domains but thought that the two were in direct opposition to each other. Against modernists we have seen that, far from constituting a “failure” or a lack of development, these Buddhists had plausible, considered reasons to oppose social and political engagement. The texts in question are hardly obscure; the Ten Great Jātakas and the works of Śāntideva are among the most beloved works in contemporary Theravāda and Tibetan traditions respectively. The widespread nature of disengaged Buddhism in classical South Asia should have been easy to see.
Lele then finishes the essay with a long critique of modern Buddhists, both traditionists and modernists, who have completely ignored these arguments and failed to address them, while assuming that sociopolitical engagement is a good thing a priori. He notes how his might be a reaction to the colonial critiques of Buddhism by Christians, who saw it as totally disengaged from society and therefore a defective religion.
So what do you guys think about this issue of socio-political engagement? Can engaged Buddhism mount a good defense of its position while respecting the Buddha’s words? Or perhaps apolitical Buddhism is mainly for monks, but laypersons can be politically engaged?