Disengaged Buddhism

Hi faujidoc1,

It’s interesting that these conversations come back to “liberating oneself vs liberating others”. I don’t actually see that dichotomy. Helping others can be useful as part of developing the path (generosity, right action, etc). I don’t see helping as the same as trying to liberate.



Gautama had a choice between becoming the Buddha and a cakravartin. It’s an interesting dilemma but not one I, as an everyday lay practititioner, need to wrestle with. The issue for most of us today is whether to engage not from the top-down but from the bottom-up. Lele doesn’t help me much on this:

The aim of this article is not to critique what engaged Buddhists do (that would be a very different article), but how they think and write, especially about the Buddhist past. I am critiquing the scholarship and advocacy, rather than the practice, of engaged Buddhism.
This article is in sympathy with James Deitrick’s claim that, to date at least, American “socially engaged Buddhist social ethics is derived less from Buddhist sources than from the American religious culture in which it has grown".
(PDF) Disengaged Buddhism. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/337367324_Disengaged_Buddhism [accessed Dec 29 2019].

When I consider what sort of actions I might participate in, I see that I have further choices; political engagement and social engagement are different, and social engagement can be activist or altruistic. This lands me in the domain of sila.

It is conceptually crucial to distinguish social and political engagement, in this sense of activism, from other different phenomena which are sometimes confused with with it. First, as Queen (14-17) rightly notes, engagement is not at all the same thing as altruism, kindness, or compassion.
(PDF) Disengaged Buddhism. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/337367324_Disengaged_Buddhism [accessed Dec 29 2019].

Lele offers no advice about we might think about whether or how to engage, but it is a really useful read in terms of helping us understand the historical tradition.

If it is to remain an intellectually defensible project, I submit, en- gaged Buddhism must take the value of activism as a conclusion to be defended, not as a premise to be assumed. Engaged Buddhists must recognize the ways in which the likes of Aśvaghoṣa and Śāntideva oppose politics and social activism, and explain why they reject these thinkers’ positions. It should no longer be considered acceptable either to pretend disengaged Buddhist views did not exist or to dismiss them as a “failure” or “undeveloped.” Rather, we must respect them and take them on as partners in dialogue.
(PDF) Disengaged Buddhism. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/337367324_Disengaged_Buddhism [accessed Dec 29 2019].

Helpful. Thank you. These are two deeply conditioned but contradictory views of how things are, and it is very hard for individuals to shake off such conditioning.



You both appear to be advocating altruistic social engagement rather than activist social/political engagement.

I like a comment made offline by @Gralock: “… I like David Loy’s advice to do everything you can but try to be mindful as possible that you act out of compassion rather than anger and importantly develop enough equanimity to not be attached to the outcome. Suspect Analayo would say much the same.”
(More from @Gralock on David Loy’s book here.)


Here are my two cents

I think one issue here is the word “disengaged”, because it makes one think that what is being argued for is complete isolation. But the Buddha did “engage” with people in the sense that he taught them Dhamma, so in this sense even the classic position being spelled out by Lele is engaged in this particular sense. Perhaps “apolitical” would be a better term to use.

Likewise, the position being defended here seems to be mainly a monastic perspective. It makes sense for monastics to be more apolitical because their main job should be to preserve and teach Dhamma, and getting involved in politics (even discussing politics!) might make some people less amenable to listening to the Dhamma (since politics is so polarizing) and gets in the way of pursuit of awakening (since it is seen as pointless speech and can lead to view clinging, disputes etc). However for laypersons, the “engaged Buddhist” perspective might make more sense and this is not incompatible with the classic Buddhist view of lay disciples.

It seems to me then that both “engaged” and apolitical teachings are useful for different people who are practicing at different levels of renunciation. But there is a hierarchy here, in that the higher perspective seems to be the “apolitical” one (just like the higher calling is seen as the monastic life). This is not to devalue the lay/engaged way of life however.

Also, as has been mentioned, politics in the ancient world was much more cutthroat and today’s laypersons do not engage in politics in the same way as people in the ancient world did (voting is a far cry from being a local chieftain of the Sakya clan). So this needs to be taken into account when discussing “engagement”.


You don’t see many marginalized groups arguing against reconciling spirituality and politics. It’s often men, or people of a country’s ethnic majority, presenting these passive-aggressive critiques. The rest of us can’t afford the luxury of disengagement.

This anti-social strain that occasionally appears in Theravada circles has, perhaps, been my biggest issue with this tradition, or this Westernized version of it. A religion, in my view, should inspire personal and social growth, not drive people away from everything, and call that progress.

In essence, defending human rights, raising awareness about the environment for the sake of all life, and so on is teaching Dhamma. Lay followers and monastics alike—for the benefit of both themselves and others—should feel free to lend their voice to these discussions.

These four people are found in the world. What four? One who practices to benefit neither themselves nor others; one who practices to benefit others, but not themselves; one who practices to benefit themselves, but not others; and one who practices to benefit both themselves and others. (…) The person who practices to benefit both themselves and others is the foremost, best, chief, highest, and finest of the four.
AN 4.95


I think some people would disagree, but I understand completely what you are saying.

Nowadays, many people—que pop psychologist “Dharma Teachers”—who claim they teach the Dhamma through their exposition of modern psychological findings, etc. In my opinion, that is not the Dhamma, and it is not Dhamma practice. Albeit they are helpful and the techniques may be helpful as well, it is just not what the Buddha taught, and not Dhamma practice in my opinion.

The same applies to saving the ocean. Is it a great thing to do? Sure. Is it Dhamma practice? Don’t quite think so.

But as with everything I post, I could be off base completely.


For me, and likely others, social action is metta in action.


Perhaps this is the differentiation the paper is trying to touch on? I will admit, I don’t have much interest in reading it.


SuttaCentral This sutta really explains a lot about this topic…

There are six kinds of lay happiness and six kinds of renunciate happiness. There are six kinds of lay sadness and six kinds of renunciate sadness. There are six kinds of lay equanimity and six kinds of renunciate equanimity.

The goal of renunciation is really the jhanas and full liberation.

Therein, by relying and depending on the six kinds of renunciate happiness, give up and go beyond the six kinds of lay happiness.

Therein, by relying on the six kinds of renunciate sadness, give up the six kinds of lay sadness.

Therein, by relying on the six kinds of renunciate equanimity, give up the six kinds of lay equanimity.

1 Like


This is where, I think, ‘social action’ needs a definition. There’s a continuum from small scale charity works through to violent political insurrection on behalf of the repressed. I suspect that X number of Buddhists would draw the line in X number of places along this continuum.


Dear Bante,
This is, of course, one point of view. On the other hand, training perhaps soldiers or police officers in mindfulness could also decrease events of “happy triggers” or help them manage stress in difficult situations. We’ve all seen in the last few years people being shot by police in situations that could perhaps be avoided if a little more mindfulness were present. As far as I know the training of soldiers and other security workers on mindfulness is not brainwashing them into killing without thinking.
With metta,
David Cohen


You should check out Ron’s book. This is the exact kind of thinking he talks about. It’s not about managing stress. There are fundamental issues with mindfulness being used to create subjects who do as they are told with the least amount of resistance. Wether it is in the military or in the classroom, this is essentially the purpose of McMindfulness. We could go down a whole different rabbit hole on this one.


Yeah, I’ll second @rcdaley’s suggestion to read the book (or at least listen to the podcast I linked above) as this exact point is brought up in both places. Mindfulness training certainly can be (and in some places is) used to help e.g. reduce racially biased violence by American police officers or to help returning soldiers manage their PTSD, etc. However, the program that Purser reports on explicitly has … other aims.

I’ll also suggest that this rabbit hole get its own thread if people would like to pursue it.


Thank you for this contribution David.

I agree it could. Indeed, it should. Many many techniques can be used for either good or ill.


Well, the issue I have with ill thought out engagement with the world (ie Samsara) is that it doesn’t take into account that:-

  1. Samsara is conditioned, arising co dependently based on multiple factors (both contributory and concurrent).
  2. Most of those factors are completely outside our volitional control … (and that is ignoring the issue of our volition itself being conditioned).
  3. It is not possible for anyone to know all and to see all simultaneously … viz to be Omniscient.
  4. Any ill thought out engagement comes from the roots of Greed, Hatred or Delusion and is bound to lead to bad outcomes.
  5. Enlightened beings acting from the good roots of Renunciation, Loving Kindness and Wisdom are the exception, not the rule.
  6. Samsara is anyways endless … with no beginning and no end.

Hence ill thought out engagement only contributes to the further continuation of Samsara (ie more suffering for all concerned). It is seldom possible to intervene on a large scale to alleviate one set of problems, without setting off a cascading chain of events leading to yet more unforeseen problems.

It would be the height of conceit to think that all people in positions to influence the world in a significant way in the past acted unthinkingly. Yet the world today, 2500 years after the Buddha probably has the same if not more Suffering.

There is neither any starting point to this Suffering, nor is there any end point. The victims of today become the oppressors of tomorrow.

To illustrate, I offer the following, admittedly simplified example. Though this is drawn from politics, the same kind of chain reaction is apparent with most kinds of ill thought out engagement (Just consider Drought - Dam building - Environmental damage). I am neither condoning nor condemning any action/ event, merely illustrating the problem with linear thinking vis a vis seeing events as cyclic:

1914 Axis (Oppressors) initiate WWI against the Allies (Victims)… Allies (Oppressors) win and demands reparations from Germany (Victims) … Hitler comes to power and leads Germany (Oppressors) into war against the Allies, targeting Jews (Victims)… Allies win again and give the Jews a homeland ie Israel (Oppressors) who evict the Palestinians from their land (Victims) which inflames their Middle Eastern cousin Osama to launch Jihad (Oppressors) against the US (Victims), thereby triggering the US (Oppressors) to target Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Iran (Victims)…Throughout all this escalating Dance of Death, Suffering reigns on both sides… . does anyone really think that it will stop here?

And these are just the highlights of the past 100 years of history. Mankind has been around for 300,000 years!

Dhp 1-20

“He abused me, he struck at me, he overcame me, he robbed me,”
those who bear ill-will towards this their hatred is never appeased.
“He abused me, he struck at me, he overcame me, he robbed me,”
those who do not bear ill-will towards this their hatred is appeased.

For not by hatred do hatreds cease at any time in this place,
they only cease with non-hatred, this truth is surely eternal.

The others do not understand that we should restrain ourselves here,
but for those here who do understand, through that, their dissensions will cease.

I hope this explains my discomfort at seeing Society, with senses inflamed, advocate mass action casting one party as ‘Right Regardless’ and the other as ‘Definitely Wrong’.


I’m not sure if the society can be brought to “better society”, society never solve roots of problem, always short terms solution, because the cause is in there is an “I” and “You”.

We can only do our best in harmonising the society, nothing really can be done because society itself is formed based on individual’s greed and fear. Like when you are doing goods to victims, you also doing bad by hating , despising the suspect.
Our discrimination is not the real metta karuna mudita, how can you help?

Buddha saw through these and decide to help in different way, the root of society problem he solved.

We can only engage society by contributing in 3 ways :
helping beings’ survival,
share happiness and
practice dhamma


We don’t have total control over our own actions, especially not the effects of our actions.
We can’t control the direction in which societies move.
We can do our best to act compassionately in every situation that comes up.
When discussing issues we can generously attempt to define our terms.

I think that’s it from me. :pray:


I’ve been trying to find examples where political action actually was beneficial, or at least less harmful. The following perhaps?

  1. The Japanese after WW2
  2. Gandhi and the Indian freedom movement
  3. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement
  4. Nelson Mandela and the Truth and Reconciliation comission

All based on ideals similar to what the Buddha propounded… :thinking:

I see those turn around time, human always caught in this play of good and bad, someone will eventually play the good role when all things went bad and the opposite.

But nobody ever solve human problem, after no war, people enter the drugs / chemical era, then the industrial era, technology era, now depression level is highest in human history, cancers also the highest.

Because when we solve the survival problem, next is happiness, desperately they looked into chemicals, leads to sexual things which more crazy than ever, porn in kids phones etc and so on

The real problem is inside every human, if you cant even solve yours, how do you expect to solve others, you’ll end up doing things in circle, the samsara


I will check the book. Hopefully this usage of mindfulness is an exception and not the rule. Thanks for replying.

1 Like

I believe that it can be used for good, I do. In the proper context of course. His book gives a great perspective. Also reading Dana Becker’s book one nation under stress is very insightful and is actually mentioned in Ron’s book if I remember correctly.

1 Like