168 - Is This IT? Dogen's Everyday Activity (Kajo) - Part 1
170 - Looking to Buddhism to Support Values and Beliefs We Already Hold - Part 2

As modern, mostly lay Buddhists – particularly those of us who are western, adult converts to the religion – we may seek encouragement and guidance from within the tradition for values we already hold. How much support does Buddhism actually give for things like social action, the importance of justice, honoring our connection to nature, enjoying our family and our daily lives, and learning to love ourselves? If we don’t find support within Buddhism for our values, do we simply look elsewhere, or do we expand Buddhism? In this episode I focus specifically on social action/activism, but the discussion is relevant for any deeply held concern or value you bring to Buddhism.



Quicklinks to Rough Outline Headings:
The Values and Beliefs We Bring to Buddhism
When Defining Buddhist Values, What Is “Buddhism?”
The Nature of Generosity, One of Buddhism’s Core Values
The World of Samsara Cannot Be Saved
Buddhist Values and Virtues Are Not Really About Others


This episode, first of two: Maybe not as organized as I like my episodes to be, but beginning to explore a huge, complex, and rather tricky topic:

As modern, mostly lay Buddhists – particularly those of us who are western, adult converts to the religion (not sure how this may apply if you were born into a Buddhist family or culture, but I imagine it may still apply if you are trying to embrace Buddhist practice in a very active and personal way) – we may seek encouragement and guidance from within the tradition for values we already hold, largely because of the culture we find ourselves in, or perhaps simply because of who we are as individuals.

How much support does Buddhism actually give for things like social action, the importance of justice, honoring our connection to nature, enjoying our family and our daily lives, and learning to love ourselves? If we don’t find support within Buddhism for our values, do we simply look elsewhere, or do we expand Buddhism? In this episode I focus specifically on social action/activism, in part as a case study, and in part because it is the issue closest to my heart, but I think the discussion is relevant for any deeply held concern or value you bring to Buddhism.

The Values and Beliefs We Bring to Buddhism

All started: I read an interesting article recently in the latest Tricycle Magazine: Buddhism and the Real World, By Donald S. Lopez Jr. (https://tricycle.org/magazine/history-of-buddhism-and-activism/) “As calls for social action resound throughout the land, what resources are provided by the dharma?”

Subtitle of the article: “For most of its history, the dharma has had little to offer in the domain of social action. But that’s OK.”

Why this article is particularly interesting to me: Social and ecological issues, culminating in Climate emergency, seeking support and basis in Buddhism for my sense of moral obligation to take action, have felt sorely disappointed.

Not that Buddhism generally forbids action, and there are things within it that can be taken and interpreted as encouraging action to improve the world, but do so takes some effort, and alternative interpretations are always there too.

I was interested in what Lopez, a Buddhist scholar, had to say about this… but I was also particularly interested in his “But that’s okay” subtitle…

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

I don’t think I’m alone among “people of faith” in looking to find guidance, support, and resources within their faith tradition, including teachings, texts, and community. (E.g. Episode 59 – The Three Poisons [of Greed, Hate, and Delusion] as the Root of All Evil and Episode 109 – What Does Buddhism Have to Say About Mass Shootings?)

You may or may not be so concerned about the question around activism… but I suspect there are other deeply held values and concerns you have that you hope are reflected in Buddhism, or that you hope Buddhism at least doesn’t conflict with. Here’s a list of values and concerns I think many of us bring to Buddhism, for which there is very limited support within the tradition, if any (arguably, of course!):

  • 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, and relational – 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.

When Defining Buddhist Values, What Is “Buddhism?”

Certainly, many modern Buddhist teachers interpret the traditional teachings and practices in such a way that these values and concerns are incorporated into what is presented as Buddhist practice and teaching today, including Sharon Salzman with radical self-acceptance, Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams around racial justice, and David Loy around environmental concerns.

This discussion raises many, many questions, not all of which I’ll be able to address in this episode and the next, including, what is “Buddhism?” 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?

The “Buddhism” I’m talking about here is the tradition as maintained in Japan, China, Korea, and southeast Asia, and inherited by Western convert Buddhists. Buddhism has constantly evolved over the centuries, but generally speaking, I think something can be considered “traditional” if has stood the test of time and remained significant within the tradition for at least a few centuries. Obviously, there is huge variation within the Buddhist tradition even if you define “tradition” this way, and there’s no magic marker of how far back we need to go before something can be called “traditional.” But just because it’s impossible to draw a clear and definitive line, it doesn’t mean the concept of tradition is meaningless.

What is traditional probably matters more to me as a teacher of Buddhism than to you, if you are a student or practitioner but are not trying to teach it. My authority as a teacher, as I see it, rests not in my personal wisdom but in my training and grounding in the tradition. I may want more than anything to use my platform as a teacher to exhort people to act now on the climate emergency because we’re headed for extinction and there’s no Buddhism at all on a dead planet, but my integrity demands that I make such an exhortation only if the tradition supports it.

It may be that I need to move beyond that limitation, but I can assure you that if I did, many if not most of my students and podcast listeners would desert me. Most people, I believe, would say that it is up to each of us to interpret Buddhism for ourselves – that it gives us meditation and tools for self-reflection, but it’s up to each individual to decide how to manifest practice in the world.

I hope you’ll get something out of this exploration. In discussing how traditional Buddhism may very well not offer a compelling reason for social and environmental action, or for other cherished values and beliefs we may hold, I don’t in any way mean to disparage or discredit the tradition. Ultimately, I believe the truth of Buddhism resides within your own direct experience, and therefore your practice must reflect and manifest your deepest convictions. In that sense my whole discussion is irrelevant. However, central to Buddhist practice is the idea that everything – absolutely everything – should be subjected to light of truth. Everything is fair game to be questioned and examined. That examination may be uncomfortable, it may lead to some disillusionment, it may require us to change our views or behavior – but ultimately it is beneficial. We come out with more clarity and strength, because behavior built on assumptions or avoidance tends to perpetuate delusion and generate dukkha.

In this first episode of two on this topic I’ll followed Lopez’s arguments about how original Buddhism had little to offer in the domain of social action. In my next episode I’ll continue to follow Lopez’s argument with a discussion of Mahayana Buddhism, particularly the bodhisattva ideal and whether that can be mined for encouragement or guidance for social action, and then address the overarching question: Is it important that our faith tradition encourages or supports what we already deeply believe or value? When we don’t find much encouragement or support, do we look for it elsewhere, or do we change Buddhism?

The Nature of Generosity, One of Buddhism’s Core Values

Lopez begins with a story. He was at a Tibetan refugee monastery in India doing his dissertation research many years ago and noticed that the young monks of the monastery were suffering from what looked like a treatable skin condition. Lopez had scholarship money he could spare to have the monks treated, and he offered this to the abbot of the monastery. The abbot said it wasn’t necessary and instead suggested Lopez contribute to the construction of a new Buddha statue.[i]

Statue of Maitreya Buddha, Diskit Monastery, Nubra Valley, Ladakh.

As Lopez goes on to discuss, while we may emphasize and enjoy the Dharma teachings on Dana, or the perfection of generosity, throughout Buddhist history the emphasis has been on practicing that perfection by giving to the Buddhist Sangha. Historically that meant support of the monastics and the construction and support of temples and monasteries. The belief is that giving allows the donor to accrue merit, and the most meritorious giving is to the purest of persons and causes: The Buddhist monks and the temples.

This is just one example of something Lopez brings up again and again in his article, although he doesn’t phrase it this way: There is the ideal of Buddhism, and then there is the practical. It’s not difficult at all to conceive of how practical it is for the Buddhist monks to teach that giving to the Sangha was the best kind of giving – their lives were very literally dependent on lay generosity.

Is this a reason to feel cynical about Buddhism? Imagining scheming monks lying to the lay members of the Sangha in order to profit? This may have been the case on occasion, but far more likely is that the monastics and lay people alike co-created a culture of mutual benefit, where the monks got fed and the lay people could rest assured that they were accruing merit by feeding them, such that the lay people could earn a fortunate rebirth.

This is in stark contrast to Christianity, which specifically identifies charity and service to the poor and suffering as an ideal… although of course, Christian churches and monks managed to craft the situation to their material benefit throughout the millennia nonetheless.

Now, what actually happened in the context of Buddhist communities is the practical aspect of generosity; what about the spiritual ideal of the perfection of giving? Maybe in reality the manifestation of Buddhism has been imperfect, but what about the teachings in a pure sense (if such a thing is possible to consider)?

Even in modern times, our emphasis is usually on the attitude of the giver, particularly non-attachment. Not much – if anything – is said about the importance of the effect on the receiver, especially on a societal or cultural level. If there is anything said in Buddhist texts or teachings about the importance of alleviating poverty in a permanent way, either for an individual or within a society, I am not aware of it.

The World of Samsara Cannot Be Saved

In alignment with this fact, in his article Lopez goes on to say, “Buddhism has in many ways been more concerned with the future than the present, more about the next world than this one.”

This may sound odd seeing as Buddhism doesn’t emphasize a permanent heaven realm. However, Buddhism did arise within the assumption of rebirth, and in some ways is even more drastically world-renouncing than religions that focus on the possibility of an eternity in heaven after death. In Buddhism, even heaven is temporary, so the goal is to be liberated from the entire cycle of rebirth… (more about rebirth and why it’s grim)

Even more than that, Lopez explains, from early on there was a belief in Buddhism, based in part on the Buddha’s teachings (at least as recorded in the Pali Canon) that our universe was going through inevitable stages of decay, divided into periods of the true dharma (Shakyamuni’s time and immediately thereafter), the semblance of the true dharma, and the demise of the true dharma. According to this idea, it would become more and more difficult to achieve the spiritual liberation taught by the Buddha!

The decline of the world is described pretty vividly, including “five degradations” including, as described by Lopez: A shortened human life span; wrong views become rampant; negative emotions become stronger; the physical and mental powers of sentient beings weaken, and the physical environment deteriorates.

Now, the same teaching says that eventually a new Buddha will come (Maitreya) and cycle will begin again, but that’s a long time from now!

Lopez writes:

“In Buddhism, therefore, we live in a world of samsara, a world that is by its very nature marked with suffering, impermanence, and no self, a world that is in irreversible decline, a world that is irredeemable. Tibetans translate the Sanskrit term loka, “world,” as “disintegrating foundation.” And so, in any of the texts known as lamrim (“stages of the path”) or ngondro (“preliminary practices”), we find some version of the “four things to turn the mind away from the world”: contemplations of the rarity of human birth, the inevitability of death, the faults of the six realms of samsara, and the inexorability of karma. We should come to think of life as like a prison from which we must escape, with all the urgency of a person whose hair is on fire. These texts say little about trying to repair the disintegrating foundation.”[ii]

Buddhist Values and Virtues Are Not Really About Others

There is nothing in the literature or teachings of original Buddhism encouraging us to improve the world for the sake of the world. The world is portrayed unequivocally as an unreliable place driven largely by the forces of greed, hate, and delusion. Altruistic virtues such as generosity, moral behavior, or the benevolent use of power by lay people should be practiced either to ensure a fortunate rebirth, or for the spiritual cultivation of nonattachment – resulting in liberation from internal suffering achieved largely through a lack of concern about worldly affairs.

This includes the Brahmaviharas, which I have discussed at length on this podcast. I’ve called them the “Sublime Social Attitudes,” and they are presented in original Buddhist teachings as prerequisites for progress on the Buddhist path, especially for the stillness of meditation: Goodwill or Loving-Kindness (Metta), Compassion (Karuna), Sympathetic Joy (Mudita), and Equanimity (Upekkha). In his article, Lopez points out that these virtues were taught as things “meant to be cultivated on the meditation cushion and not in the marketplace.” He also says:

“…in their original articulation, equanimity is the highest of the four [virtues], present in the fourth level of concentration, the level most highly praised, and the state from which the Buddha himself entered nirvana. When we read what the 5th-century Indian scholar Buddhaghosa says about equanimity in his important work The Path of Purification, we see that it is essentially the concession that each of us is subject to our own karma and there is no particular benefit in being troubled by the fate of others. As he writes, ‘Beings are owners of their deeds. Whose [if not theirs] is the choice by which they will become happy, or will get free from suffering, or will not fall away from the success they have reached?’”[iii]

So the Brahmaviharas, at least as presented in original Buddhism, are qualities of mind and heart we cultivate within ourselves in order to better be able to concentrate on meditation and spiritual development. They’re not taught as values we’re obligated to enact for the sake of others, although when we’re presented with the opportunity to be friendly, generous, or compassionate, we do so freely because of the spiritual attitude of openness and selflessness we’ve cultivated. Through it all we should maintain an attitude of equanimity and not get too involved or upset. This is a far cry from an exhortation to improve the state of the world on a personal or societal level.

I don’t think Buddhism is unique among world religions in this position with respect to the affairs of the world. Certainly, Hinduism, which arose from the same religious environment as Buddhism, shares the emphasis on two paths: First, aiming for a fortunate rebirth if you’re still attached to this world, or second, aiming for release from the world if you’re no longer attached to it. I don’t know much about Judaism or Islam, but most forms of Christianity focus on the value of charity as a way to be a good Christian and earn rebirth in heaven, without preaching a responsibility to improve the world so that charity isn’t required in the first place.

I’m not a historian of religions, so I can’t comment on those which have taken up social or environmental activism as part of their teaching. I know they exist, but certainly adherents of such religions as Quakerism or Unitarianism are vastly outnumbered by folks who grew up in, or follow, a tradition which suggests trying to improve the world is an optional activity, certainly not one central to the practice of the religion.

In my next episode I’ll continue to follow Lopez’s argument and discuss Mahayana Buddhism and the values of the bodhisattva ideal. Then I’ll address the question of whether and why it’s important that our faith tradition encourages or supports beliefs or values we already hold, and what we might do about it if it doesn’t.



[i] Lopez, Donald S. “Buddhism and the Real World.” In Tricycle Magazine, Summer 2021. https://tricycle.org/magazine/history-of-buddhism-and-activism/
[ii] Ibid
[iii] Ibid


Picture Credit

Pavithrah, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons


168 - Is This IT? Dogen's Everyday Activity (Kajo) - Part 1
170 - Looking to Buddhism to Support Values and Beliefs We Already Hold - Part 2