169 - Looking to Buddhism to Support Values and Beliefs We Already Hold – Part 1
171 - Five Requirements for Effective Practice with Any Issue

Continuing with the case study of social action, I follow the discussion of Donald S. Lopez’s article on whether Buddhism – in particular, the bodhisattva ideal – has much to offer in the domain of social action. Then I discuss why it matters to some of us that our faith tradition – whatever it is – encourages and supports the values we already hold, and what we might do about it when that isn’t the case.

Read/listen Looking to Buddhism to Support Values and Beliefs We Already Hold – Part 1



Quicklinks to Outline Headings (sorry for incomplete text):
The Values and Beliefs We Bring to Buddhism
Does the Mahayana Ideal of the Bodhisattva Encourage Social Action?
What Does Buddhism Offer Us If We Want to Improve the World?
Does It Matter that Buddhism Doesn’t Explicitly Encourage Our Values?
The Longing for Buddhism to Be Complete
“The Fire Shut Up in My Bones”
Honor Our Tradition(s), Or Demand They Evolve to Incorporate Our Values?


The Values and Beliefs We Bring to Buddhism

This is the second episode of two exploring the idea that many of us bring deeply cherished values and beliefs to our understanding and practice of Buddhism, some of which may not actually be much supported or encouraged or emphasized in the tradition. These values include but are not limited to:

  • Values of justice, equality, and appreciation for nature.
  • An admiration for lay practice as an equal or even higher path than the monastic one – not just because practice is possible in lay life, but because the challenges of daily life provide rich practice opportunities lacking in monastic practice.
  • The importance of deeply appreciating our lives, including the sensual, beautiful, artistic, relational, familial – not just because this appreciation doesn’t interfere with practice, but because such appreciation is one of the primary rewards of practice, and life lived without such appreciation is a waste.
  • Celebration of the individual in the sense that each of us has our unique path and an essential part of practice is self-acceptance, self-love, self-care, and self-expression.
  • And, close to my heart, a moral obligation to try and make our world a better place, where all living things have a chance to thrive.

What do we do when Buddhism as a tradition doesn’t do much to support our deepest beliefs and values? Do we look for inspiration, guidance, practices from outside Buddhism? Many if not most Buddhist practitioners probably have not problem whatsoever with doing this. However, if our heart of hearts tells us that, for example, fulfilling the bodhisattva vow absolutely requires us to stand up for racial justice, doesn’t this become an essential part of Buddhism? Don’t your fellow Buddhists similarly have such an obligation? Or this just a matter of personal preference, your personal “interpretation” or manifestation of the bodhisattva way?

“Buddhism” is not just a personal philosophy, where every individual just picks and chooses what they like. It’s a tradition held in common. Or, more accurately, many traditions held in common. But then, each of us is exhorted to verify the value of Buddhist practice through our own direct experience, and especially when it comes to lay practice you are free to act according to your own conscience as opposed to towing some party line. Buddhism, of course, exists somewhere in the dynamic middle between it being a fixed tradition and being whatever we feel like saying it is. I hope you, like me, will find this an interesting – if challenging – topic to explore.

Note: There’s definitely a time and place in our practice where it’s time to let go even of our cherished beliefs (or even especially our cherished beliefs), but this “letting go” is a practice we do in order ground ourselves and gain a larger perspective. Letting go is balanced with engagement and manifestation. What I’m talking about in this discussion is how we practice on the manifestation side of things. How do live our daily lives, make our choices, establish priorities?

In the last episode and this one, I am discussing one modern value in particular as a case study: The moral obligation to make our world a better place, or what some of us might call social action/activism. In the last episode I followed Lopez’s arguments about how original Buddhism had little to offer in the domain of social action, even in its teachings on dana, or generosity, and the Brahmaviharas, the four divine abidings or social attitudes. In this episode I’ll continue to follow the thread of Lopez’s article with a discussion of whether this is also true of Mahayana Buddhism and the bodhisattva ideal.

Then I’ll briefly return to the question of why it matters to some of us that our faith tradition – whatever it is – encourages and supports the values we already hold, and what we might do about it when that isn’t the case. I hope I will manage to convey that this is the central question here, not so much specifically whether Buddhism encourages social action, a question that may or may not be of particular interest to you. I’ll bet something on the list of values I listed at the beginning of this episode is central to your way of being, so it will remain central for you whether or not Buddhism supports it.

Does the Mahayana Ideal of the Bodhisattva Encourage Social Action?

Returning to the question, then, of whether Buddhism support social action, as discussed by Lopez in his Tricycle article (Buddhism and the Real World). What about the Mahayana Buddhist ideal of the bodhisattva? Surely this is where Buddhism encourages social action! The Bodhisattva vow says, “Beings are numberless, I vow to save them [all].” Mahayana Sutras, many of which I have quoted on this podcast, describe the tireless and selfless service of a bodhisattva.

One of the most eloquent and inspiring description of bodhisattva practice is by Shantideva, the 8th century writer of The Way of the Bodhisattva. If there are any passages in Buddhism that could be seen to encourage social action, they can be found in this work:

“As long as sentient beings are ill,
Until their ailments are cured,
May I be their medicine, their doctor,
And their nurse as well.

May showers of food and drink relieve
The torments of hunger and thirst.
In intermediate aeons of famine,
May I become food and drink.

May I be an inexhaustible treasure
For poor and deprived beings
And stay nearby them as the various
Things they need and want.

To benefit all sentient beings,
I give without hesitation
My body, my belongings, and
All virtues of the three times.”[i]

Elsewhere, Shantideva says something about there being two types of bodhichitta: “The mind aspiring for awakening and engagement in awakening.” [ii] He says both are beneficial, but just as there’s a big difference between the wish to go somewhere and actually going, engaged bodhichitta has much more of an impact. When I first read this, I thought, right! There is it is! This isn’t just about sitting around cultivating a holy attitude, it’s about getting off your ass and putting the bodhisattva vow into action!

And maybe you can get that meaning out of it, but it may very well be that Shantideva was just differentiating between wishing you felt more generous, and actually having the bodhisattva’s attitude of non-attached, completely uninhibited generosity. Lopez points out another passage in the Way of the Bodhisattva, where Shantideva points out that the perfection of generosity can’t be tied to the actual alleviation of poverty. Shantideva writes:

“If ridding the world of poverty
Made generosity transcendent,
There are still paupers, so how could
The past protectors [buddhas] have transcended?

The wish to give all your belongings
And the results to everyone
Is taught to be transcendent giving,
And therefore that is mind itself.”[iii]

Lopez writes, “Therefore, the perfection of giving is an attitude. In Sanskrit it is described as cittam eva, ‘just a thought.’” He goes on to quote an inspiring passage by the 4th-century Indian scholar Asanga, describing how a bodhisattva attends selflessly and tirelessly to all suffering beings: Nursing the sick, helping the disabled get around, teaching sign language to the deaf, protecting beings from all kinds of fears, taking away grief, and providing all manner of necessities to anyone who wants them. Lopez says:

“This passage, as inspiring as it is, portrays the bodhisattva as a cosmic social worker… It does not portray the bodhisattva as a political organizer.”[iv]

It’s tricky interpreting all this stuff, of course. But it’s easy to allow ourselves to be led by what’s present in the teaching – lovely descriptions of bodhisattva service – and fail to take note of what not present in the teaching. Namely, any commentary that the world ought not to be full of so many suffering beings, any analysis of unjust or greed-centered systems that result in unnecessary suffering, or any suggestion that the world can or should be improved in order to stem the tide of needy beings.

What Does Buddhism Offer Us If We Want to Improve the World?

Lopez explores some questions toward the end of his article, including, “When we think of social problems, does Buddhism have more to offer in diagnosis than it does in cure?” and “Are we forced to conclude that what makes Buddhism so strong at the personal level is what makes it weak at the political level?”

Certainly, I’ve used Buddhism as a useful framework for understanding the ills of the world, including:

Episode 59 – The Three Poisons [of Greed, Hate, and Delusion] as the Root of All Evil

Episode 109 – What Does Buddhism Have to Say About Mass Shootings?

Episode 149 – Understanding People’s Actions Through the Six Realms Teaching

The teachings and practices of Buddhism help me frame and deal with the world. They alleviate much of my personal fears and anxieties, as I discuss in Episode 32 – The Practice of Not-Knowing: Relief, Intimacy, and Ground for Effective Action. In other words, as an activist, I rely all the time on my faith and practice for clarity, strength, grounding for my values, and inspiration.

There’s nothing in Buddhism that expressly forbids lay practitioners from trying to improve the world. Fully ordained monastics are drastically restrained in their ability to engage in worldly life, and there are many exhortations to monks to avoid getting wrapped up in worldly affairs, but if you’re not aiming for complete enlightenment in this lifetime, trying to improve the world is okay. Not highly recommended, but okay.

Maybe, then, we just use Buddhism for what it’s good for, and don’t rely on it for everything. I think this is why Lopez concludes his article by quoting America poet and Buddhist Gary Snyder: “The mercy of the West has been social revolution; the mercy of the East has been individual insight into the basic self/void. We need both.”

Does It Matter that Buddhism Doesn’t Explicitly Encourage Our Values?

This brings me to the questions I posed at the beginning: Why is it important to me that my faith, Buddhism, encourages social and environmental action? (Action to bring about positive change in the world.) What are the implications if it doesn’t (at least not very strongly)?

Let me expand this question to ask: Why is it important to at least some of us that our faith encourages or supports deeply held values we already hold? I say “already hold” because I think we, as individuals and as members of a society, hold certain values that may or may not have their source in our religious or spiritual tradition, like those I mentioned earlier: Equality, love of family, appreciation for artistic expression, the value of hard work and personal responsibility, celebration of individuality, or a belief that a true spiritual path should be accessible to everyone regardless of their mental, physical, or spiritual capacities.

I add to that list my personal favorite: A belief that the world can and should be improved. This includes a passionate conviction that radical change is possible, based in observations of social revolutions over the last couple centuries. In relatively recent history there were times when the vast majority of people thought it was impossible to end slavery, give women equal rights, or govern countries using democracy. At least in western culture, we learned to believe that anything can be changed, no matter how daunting the opposition to the change.

Also inherent in my deeply held belief that the world can and should be improved is love for the world. Despite its flaws, this is all we have, as far as we know, and when viewed without expectations or attachment, the world and its many life forms is amazing and indescribably precious.

If I’m honest with myself, my core value about improving the world has absolutely nothing to do with Buddhism. I had it before Buddhism, and I haven’t had much luck mining Buddhism for affirmation of this value.

If you deeply value sensual pleasure and beauty, the joys and challenges of family, the satisfaction of wealth and power, the mastery of an art form, appreciation of our deep connection to nature, etc., you similarly will find little within Buddhism on those subjects to encourage or guide you.

Does this matter? Maybe not to you. I know plenty of people who have no problem at all just picking and choosing from different traditions, disciplines, authorities, etc. – finding support and inspiration wherever they can. If you’re one of those people, you might find it difficult to understand the strange compulsion some of us feel to integrate all the areas of our life into one overarching worldview, practice, philosophy, or orientation.

The Longing for Buddhism to Be Complete

It’s kind of a crazy compulsion when I think about it. And yet, when I examine my motivations I find a sincere and passionate admiration for Buddhism. Buddhism saved my life, and seems so rich and profound – how could it not affirm our moral obligation to improve the world? How could it not celebrate our deep interdependence with nature? How could it not emphasize the importance of honoring the value of each individual life by fighting injustice? How could it not include the world’s most noble values?

My wishful thinking – that Buddhism would be complete – causes me to seize on the rare teachings and passages in texts that affirm my values. But what if this is just my projecting on Buddhism?

Come to think of it, what is Buddhism? As I asked in the last episode: Is it only what’s in the ancient texts? Is it only what Buddhists were already doing hundreds of years ago? Is it only what the majority of Buddhists agree on now? When we add something to Buddhism based on new developments in society – like a reliance on the scientific method, or an understanding of human psychology, or an appreciation of collective karma – how and when do we get to start calling it “Buddhism,” rather than a recent add-on to a sacred tradition, or a “personal” interpretation?

“The Fire Shut Up in My Bones”

As a teacher of Buddhism, is there a time when some essential truth in my heart should be presented to my students as Buddhism, rather than just as my personal opinion? Let the words of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. more eloquently present my conundrum. This is from his sermon “Guidelines for a Constructive Church,” delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1966:

“You know, there are some Negro preachers that have never opened their mouths about the freedom movement. And not only have they not opened their mouths, they haven’t done anything about it. And every now and then you get a few members: ‘They talk too much about civil rights in that church.’ I was talking with a preacher the other day and he said a few of his members were saying that. I said, ‘Don’t pay any attention to them. Because number one, the members didn’t anoint you to preach. And any preacher who allows members to tell him what to preach isn’t much of a preacher.

“For the guidelines made it very clear that God anointed. No member of the Ebenezer Baptist Church called me to the ministry. You called me to Ebenezer, and you may turn me out of here, but you can’t turn me out of the ministry, because I got my guidelines and my anointment from God Almighty. And anything I want to say, I’m going to say it from this pulpit. It may hurt somebody, I don’t know about that; somebody may not agree with it. But when God speaks, who can but prophesy? The word of God is upon me like fire shut up in my bones, and when God’s word gets upon me, I’ve got to say it, I’ve got to tell it all over everywhere.”[v]

We must keep in mind as we listen to King’s words that there were many, many Christians in his time who believed their faith justified segregation and racism. Even many black Christians believed their faith counseled them to wait patiently for justice rather than agitate in the streets or call people to action from the pulpit. King and his fellow civil rights leaders, many of not most of whom were clergymen, were extremely bold, brave, and controversial. As I read King’s words, I find myself doubting I have his courage. In another sermon (Why Jesus Called Man a Fool), King says:

“…before I was a civil rights leader, I was a preacher of the gospel. This was my first calling and it remains my greatest commitment. You know, actually all that I do in civil rights I do because I consider it a part of ministry… the preacher must be concerned about the whole man. Not merely his soul, but his body. It’s all right to talk about heaven. I talk about it because I believe firmly in immortality. But you’ve got to talk about the earth. It’s all right to talk about long white robes over yonder, but I want a suit and some shoes to wear down here. It’s all right to talk about the streets flowing with milk and honey in heaven, but I want some food to eat down here. It’s even all right to talk about the new Jerusalem. But one day we must begin to talk about the new Chicago, the new Atlanta, the new New York, the new America.[vi]

Honor Our Tradition(s), Or Demand They Evolve to Incorporate Our Values?

What is there in your heart that is central to your being? What fire is shut up in your bones? What value or belief do you hold that, while it may be modern or western or otherwise not something emphasized by traditional Buddhism, is something you see as being an absolutely essential interpretation of its greatest teachings? Are you determined to love and improve the world no matter what traditional Buddhist teachings might say?

I know there are no easy or fixed answers to the question of what we should do if the Buddhist tradition doesn’t particularly support our deeply held values and beliefs. Instead, I see continued tension between maintaining a tradition that has stood the test of time, on the one hand, and other hand making it better, more complete, more profound – demanding that it evolve. Sometimes what we add to, project on, or imagine we’ve found within the tradition will be our own folly. Hopefully, such folly won’t spread widely or last because, in practice, it actually won’t be useful or relevant to many people. Other times we will demand the tradition change because of what we know in our bones must be true. I like to think that Buddhism can take it, and that 1,000 years from now – if humans are still alive on this planet – Buddhism will look very different than it does now. If it does, I suspect it will include everything it does now, but will expand to gracefully embrace new territory and values.



[i] Shantideva; translated with commentary by Khenpo David Karma Choephel. Entering the Way of the Bodhisattva: A New Translation and Contemporary Guide. Boulder, CO: Shambala Publications, 2021. Kindle Edition. Chp 3: Embracing Bodhichitta, verses 8-11.
[ii] Ibid, Chp 1: Explaining the Benefits of Bodhichitta, verses 15-59.
[iii] Ibid, Chp 5: Guarding Awareness, verses 9 & 10.
[iv] Lopez, Donald S. “Buddhism and the Real World.” In Tricycle Magazine, Summer 2021. https://tricycle.org/magazine/history-of-buddhism-and-activism/
[v] https://hollywoodrev.wordpress.com/2011/07/01/guidelines-for-a-constructive-church-by-dr-martin-luther-king/
[vi] https://www.sermoncentral.com/sermons/why-jesus-called-a-man-a-fool-by-rev-dr-martin-luther-king-jr-derek-joshua-e-lon-sr-sermon-on-evangelism-the-lost-131839


169 - Looking to Buddhism to Support Values and Beliefs We Already Hold – Part 1
171 - Five Requirements for Effective Practice with Any Issue