It has become a bit of a tradition at Tricycle to invite a scholar to the office for a lunchtime talk. Nowadays, of course, visits are virtual, so not too long ago Donald S. Lopez Jr., prominent scholar of Buddhism, joined us by Zoom. The staff gathered to hear him speak on what traditional Buddhist schools can contribute to social action. The short answer? “Not much. And that’s OK.”
For the many activists who draw inspiration from Buddhist teachings and texts, his answer will be disappointing; and, of course, many will disagree. But as Lopez argues in “Buddhism and the Real World,” dharma teachings and practices, with the emergence of “engaged Buddhism,” have been applied only relatively recently to social and political movements. Historically, he writes, “Buddhism has been more concerned with the future than the present, more about the next world than this one,” and more often aligned with governing powers than not.
Yet the absence of a Buddhist social gospel is not necessarily a problem for the development of one today (that’s the “OK” part); as Lopez notes, religions are always changing. Still, it would be a mistake to project modern sensibilities onto Buddhism’s historical expressions; engaged Buddhism was born of the dharma’s encounter with modernity. Concluding his essay, Lopez makes this point—and leaves room for innovation—by quoting the poet Gary Snyder: “The mercy of the West has been social revolution,” Snyder wrote; “the mercy of the East has been individual insight into the basic self/void. We need both.”
It was the German theologian Paul Tillich who pointed out that religions deal with matters of “ultimate concern.” And in a context informed by classical humanism and Hebraic notions of justice, political life and social movements count among such matters. This is not to say that there will be agreement about what that entails for Buddhists; rather, it simply means that it will have to be included in the field of discourse, one in which Buddhism will come to terms with its modern context. This is no small challenge, however, and much is at stake, as contributing editor Seth Segall wrote in an earlier issue:
Religions thrive, wither, or die according to their ability to address the existential concerns of particular times and places and harmoniously coexist with the wider culture’s deeply held beliefs. As religious traditions evolve, traditionalists strive to maintain fundamental ideas and practices that may no longer be relevant or meaningful, while innovators try to adapt them to meet the needs of the moment. Religions that survive over millennia manage to thread the needle between these extremes.
(“The Best Possible Life,” Spring 2021)
This is precisely the challenge that we at Tricycle have taken on over the past three decades. Engaging traditionalists and innovators alike in a dynamically evolving dialogue has in good part characterized this magazine’s pages. And it is a dialogue that has taken place under historically unique circumstances. Never before, as the Shin Buddhist priest Rev. Dr. Kenneth Tanaka notes in “The Land of Many Dharmas,” have Buddhists of virtually all traditions gathered in one country—even in a single city—as they have in North America. Engaging with one another, critically and yet at the same time constructively, is the needle we seek to thread. What will emerge from such encounters is not yet clear, and what new forms Buddhism will take remains to be seen.
It’s been thirty years, yet we are still learning—and we are just getting started.