Inner Peace, World Peace: Essays on Buddhism and Nonviolence
Edited by Kenneth Kraft
State University of New York Press: Albany, 1992.
148 pp. $12.95 (paperback).
Zen Awakening and Society
University of Hawaii Press: Honolulu, 1992.
200 pp. $14.95 (paperback) and $25.00 (library binding).
The question of how to extend Buddhist practice—in terms of carrying it outside the community of practitioners and into the structures and decisions of the larger society—is not a new one. The books edited by Kenneth Kraft and authored by Christopher Ives respectively, however, dig into this problem with a seriousness, depth, and concreteness not seen before. Both Kraft and Ives express concern about the danger that American Buddhists will strive to cultivate “inner peace” but let “world peace” become a cause that is expected to take care of itself. That is, both of these books insist on a Buddhism of engagement with the social and political problems of our world.
Kraft’s volume shows a fine mix of materials and perspectives among its eight contributors. Running throughout is a deep appreciation of the general norms and principles found in the Buddhist tradition but also a candid admission that those principles are not always easily translated into an exact knowledge of how to act in specific situations. As Luis O. Gomez notes,
ideals such as “respect for life” or “fulfilling the aspirations of all living beings” do not provide an unambiguous guideline for behavior … After all, the best way to make a tiger happy may be to feed it a lamb. Buddhist ethical thought, at least in its early stages, did not investigate this kind of problem.
Most of the writers here, however, chose to work not so much with theories as with what Donald K. Swearer calls “exemplars” of nonviolence. King Asoka, the present Dalai Lama, and Thich Nhat Hanh, understandably, are selected by many of these writers as fitting that category especially well. Robert A. F. Thurman’s exploration of linkages between monastic ideals and modern Tibet’s experience with nonviolence presents an especially cogent “exemplar,” and Gene Sharp, simply by quantitatively showing how often nonviolence has already worked well, deflates the criticism that it is only an unrealizable ideal.
Although Kraft’s book intends to help define a Buddhist social ethic, it turns out to be stronger in its provision of such “exemplars” of nonviolence than in the spelling out of what could be called a Buddhist ethical theory. Is this a failing? Or is it a special kind of success—that is, because even something setting out to be “Buddhist theory” gets more true to the tradition when, sooner or later, there is a choice for exemplars rather than for theories? This becomes an interesting question.
Christopher Ives’ Zen Awakening and Society is a book showing both concern and tough-mindedness. Like Kraft’s, Ives’ book is clearly written to stimulate North American Buddhists to practice more energetically and effectively within the social ambit. Ives’ study is a close look at the resources available within Japanese Zen and a bold scrutiny of many of its failings. Scholarship on the history of Buddhism, sometimes too easily put down within communities of practitioners, here becomes a valuable tool for internal watch-dogging.
Japanese Zen during the first half of our century, Ives shows, monitored itself badly. As a result it used—and was used by—the brutal forces of fascism and militarism. Many monks put a patina of good intentions on Japan’s wars against its neighbors, referring to them as the physical expression of a deeply “spiritual” struggle going on in the world. Ives’ study does not flinch from these facts. But in order not to stop with a recollection of that sorry epoch, it also considers Japanese Buddhists who after 1945 sought to chart a new course. Ives focuses attention on three individuals.
Shin’ichi Hisamatsu (1889-1980), in the modern world an exemplar of the scholar-practitioner (“Zen practice without study is blind; study without practice is powerless”), threw down a challenge to the Japanese monastic institution (“Zen within a ghostly cave”) for being on the one hand inattentive to societal needs and on the other co-opted too easily by the rally-the-troops rhetoric of the modern nation-state. Ives lays out the basic themes of Hisamatsu’s philosophy, especially his passion for a non-exclusive vision of mankind and the tools he used to critique the modern nation-state as itself being a form of egoism writ large.
Masao Abe took the insights and energies of Hisamatsu, his mentor, and has translated them into decades of widely influential teaching in North America and Europe. Abe has been the principal agent in the formation of ongoing exchanges between Buddhists and Christians and Buddhists and Jews in the West. His rich knowledge of Western religious thought also enabled him to frame many of the key questions of such interchanges. Ives notes the importance of Abe’s stress upon the need for “active compassion,” although at the same time Ives suggests that Abe skimps on the importance of “justice.”
Hakugen Ichikawa (1902-1986), a figure introduced here by Ives for the first time, is prized by Ives not for theoretical profundity but for the fact that he writes “about ethical issues in greater historical detail.” And that detail involves a concrete critique—from within—of the actual record, especially in the area of social ethics, of Zen in modern Japan. Ives brings forward twelve key points in Ichikawa’s analysis, many of which, he suggests, would repay any attention given them by Buddhist practitioners in the West as well.
These books are both excellent and important. There is also, I think, a noteworthy level of urgency in them. They imply that, for a variety of reasons, any Buddhism that is “Western” or “American” cannot afford to assume it will have millenia or even centuries to come to clarity about ethical or social issues. Ives sees a danger of Western Buddhists hoping for a “trickle-down ethic,” one that will automatically come along in time if only practitioners get their own individual, personal lives straightened out. Kraft’s book takes in more of the variety of Asian contexts and situations faced by Buddhists from different sub-traditions, but a similar theme comes through: concern for society and its concrete problems is not something that mayor can be shelved for now.
Although there is considerable agreement within these two books, there is also diversity, even disagreement. If I were to choose one issue on which there could profitably be a much deeper debate it would be the problem of relation of the sangha to the state. No one could reasonably fault Robert Thurman for ignoring the need for Buddhists to be active and concrete in the social and political world. However, in his essay, “Tibet and the Monastic Army of Peace,” in the Kraft volume, he maintains the following: “The Tibetan ideal was the unity of dharma and state, dharma and society, dharma and life. This might at first trouble us because of the American principle of the separation of church and state.”
I confess to being one of the troubled here. And, if I read Ives rightly, the reason for worry need not spring only from the “American” principle of separation (although I think it important) but also from some fairly sorry episodes in the history of Asia when it was assumed that the Dharma and the state had effectively fused. The case of what happened in modern Japan is especially egregious, but the disease of religious “triumphalism”—with all the harms it can bring to others and reactions it can unleash against religion itself—is not one against which Buddhists anywhere can show they have been once and for all immunized. Especially in view of the trials foisted upon contemporary Tibet, Thurman is surely right to insist that “whether or not a society accepts monasticism is a revealing litmus of that society.” But there is, I suggest, a difference between a society that accepts monasticism and one in which state and sangha have become one. The secular state, today under attack from so many, is one I find myself preferring.
Although not the only recent works urging forward the thinking of Western Buddhists about ethics and society, the books by Ives and Kraft are especially probing and rich. Kraft articulates things precisely when he writes that many today wish to explore in Buddhism “a creative tension between withdrawal and involvement, an underlying synonymity between work on oneself and work on behalf of others.”
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.