“American Buddhism: Beyond the Search for Inner Peace”

Religion Dispatches Magazine
February 19, 2013

An interview with Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi

Joshua Eaton

Eaton: You have said that there is support for social engagement in “Buddhist doctrine, ethical ideals, archetypes, legends, and historical precedents.” Which of those do you find most inspiring for your own social justice work?

Ven. Bodhi: In terms of doctrine, I would start with the Buddha’s tenet that suffering originates from the three unwholesome roots: greed, hatred, and delusion. Classical Buddhism regards these “defilements” as embedded in individual minds and thus primarily deals with the problem of personal suffering: the suffering that arises when one acts in their grip.

But in the modern world, social systems and institutions molded by greed, hatred, and delusion have become so pervasive in their reach that they deeply impact the destinies of whole populations, both nationally and globally. Greed, hatred, and delusion thus generate suffering not merely as factors in individual minds but also in their systemic and institutional embodiments.

For this reason, a solution to the problem of suffering requires that its roots be extricated at multiple levels, including those collective levels touched only distantly by classical Buddhism. This would entail developing a keen diagnosis of how these defilements produce collective suffering, and how we can adopt alternative ways of living that would mitigate their harmful impact.

On top of this, I would add the Buddha’s emphasis on generosity and helpfulness to others as a source of happiness; the value he ascribes to the four “immeasurables”—loving-kindness, compassion, altruistic joy, and impartiality; the five precepts [to refrain from (1) killing, (2) lying, (3) stealing, (4) sexual misconduct, and (5) intoxication] with their foundation in avoiding harm to others; and the guidelines he laid down for the monastic Sangha.

Among these last I would highlight the “six principles of harmony and respect”: (1-3) loving-kindness in deed, word, and thought; (4) sharing righteous gains; (5) observing precepts in harmony; and (6) holding views in harmony. Not all these principles can be observed by a whole society in the way they are prescribed for the monastic order, but their underlying intent is sufficient.

In the search for an ethically based politics the figure of the “wheel-turning king” can serve as a model—the king who rules righteously for the good of all in his realm, including the birds and beasts. This last point is critical, for the way we treat our “fellow passengers” is morally atrocious. Historically, King Asoka, as revealed in his edicts, comes closest to exemplifying the ideal of the wheel-turning king. And of course there is the figure of the bodhisattva, who vows to liberate countless beings from suffering. If this meant only teaching them to train their minds, without also transforming oppressive social systems, that would strike me as a big omission.

[Excerpt. For full interview, visit “American Buddhism: Beyond the Search for Inner Peace.”]