Theravada Buddhism and Social Engagement

A discussion on all aspects of Theravāda Buddhism
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Dhammanucara
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Theravada Buddhism and Social Engagement

Post by Dhammanucara »

I'm wondering how a Theravadin would view about social engagement - as in involvement in developing or improving the society or making the world a better place to live through community service or volunteer work to reduce hardship, poverty, hunger and promoting peace in the world. While I do understand that this may differ between Theravadins in the West and East, I specifically wish to know how and why a Theravadin would wish to involve or not involve in such humanitarian work.

On a second note, while I understand that a monk's primary duty is to practice the Dhamma and is observing Vinaya rules about involvement in the society, I wish to know if monks should also be involved in such humanitarian work, for example, maybe traveling with lay devotees to help out in disaster reliefs or other humanitarian work.

Thanks for your input!

With metta,
Dhammanucara :namaste:

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Ben
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Re: Theravada Buddhism and Social Engagement

Post by Ben »

Greetings Dhammanucara

I suggest you have a look at the link in my signature.
For many of us 'selfless service' is an important aspect of practice.
kind regards

Ben
“No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one's heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes.”
- Cormac McCarthy, The Road

Learn this from the waters:
in mountain clefts and chasms,
loud gush the streamlets,
but great rivers flow silently.
- Sutta Nipata 3.725

Compassionate Hands Foundation (Buddhist aid in Myanmar) • Buddhist Global ReliefUNHCR

e: ben.dhammawheel@gmail.com..

Dhammanucara
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Re: Theravada Buddhism and Social Engagement

Post by Dhammanucara »

Ben wrote:Greetings Dhammanucara

I suggest you have a look at the link in my signature.
For many of us 'selfless service' is an important aspect of practice.
kind regards

Ben
Thanks Ben!

With metta,
Dhammanucara :namaste:

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Kim OHara
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Re: Theravada Buddhism and Social Engagement

Post by Kim OHara »

Hi, Dhammanucara,
The subject has come up here before, though the only thread I could find was http://www.dhammawheel.com/viewtopic.php?f=22&t=2427. It may give you some pointers.
To me, Social Engagement is a natural outcome and expression of compassion, which in turn is central to my relationship with society. That makes it pretty important.
When you ask about what monks should or should not do, I think you're on difficult ground. As people whose whole life is dedicated to spiritual practice, they ought to always do what they 'should' do, don't you think? So if they don't do it, it's because they shouldn't do it?
I guess you then have to find out how much of that sort of thing they do already do, which probably varies according to tradition in different countries.

:namaste:
Kim

P.S.: http://www.ecobuddhism.org/ may be of interest.
Last edited by Kim OHara on Tue Jun 07, 2011 4:19 am, edited 1 time in total.

chownah
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Re: Theravada Buddhism and Social Engagement

Post by chownah »

It is my view that since the Buddha expounded alot of rules of behavior for monks and that he did so over a long period of time (I think) that from this we can assume that monks did pretty much whatever was allowed and that sometimes it went beyond what the Buddha thought was appropriate in which case the Buddha created a rule...........in other words monks do whatever is allowed.......so.....I guess then if a monk engages in the activities you suggest and these are not dissallowed then its ok for them to do that......also I have not studied the rules for monks much but it seems that there are alot more rules disallowing things then there are rules requiring them to do things....so it would seem that monks are not obligated to do humanitarian work like you describe although some people are of the view that just being a monk is a humanitarian work because of the example they set etc......etc....
chownah

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Jason
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Re: Theravada Buddhism and Social Engagement

Post by Jason »

If you haven't already read it, I suggest checking out The New Social Face of Buddhism by Ken Jones. While not strictly Theravadin, I definitely think it's interesting and worth reading.
"Sabbe dhamma nalam abhinivesaya" (AN 7.58).

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leaves in the forest (non-Buddhist related blog)

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Phra Chuntawongso
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Re: Theravada Buddhism and Social Engagement

Post by Phra Chuntawongso »

Here at our temple we are often engaged in various activities.
Yesterday we had a hospital send some staff here so that children from the local school next door to us could get free medical check ups, including eye tests, blood pressure checks etc.
The Abbot of our temple is involved with many community projects, including building play areas for children, exercise parks, we are slowly getting donations together for our international meditation center and on the 11th of this month we have a tree planting activity taking place.
We are also involved in schools for both Shan refugee children and for adults and children of various hill tribes.
Some of our activities can be seen at http://www.watsriboenruang.wordpress.com" onclick="window.open(this.href);return false;
If you look for the chuntawongsotube link on the right hand side of the home page, this links to a few videos of some of our activities.
Of course we also have foreigners who come and stay at the temple who we give Dhamma lessons and Vipassana Meditation lessons to. This is another very important form of social activity.
With metta, Phra Greg
And crawling on the planets face,some insects called the human race.
Lost in time
Lost in space
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Dhammanucara
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Re: Theravada Buddhism and Social Engagement

Post by Dhammanucara »

Thanks all for your great posts.

I guess I should perhaps explain the background that I'm trying to set the problem (to me). In one of our dhamma discussions in our Buddhist society here, one of the issues that popped up is whether both the monastics and the lay should involve in humanitarian work as a reflection of the Buddha's message of compassion. Given that the Buddhist society that I was engaged in is a non-sectarian one with many Mahayana Buddhists as well, most of them quote Thich Nhat Hanh's Order of Interbeing as well as Taiwan-based Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation's Master Cheng Yen (dubbed the Buddhist Mother Theresa) as prime examples that Buddhists in general should be involved in such humanitarian activities to relieve beings from sufferings so that they could be at ease (at least better than the previous situation) and could be comfortable listening and practicing the Dharma. Besides that, for the Mahayana Buddhists, since following the Bodhisattva path is the ideal way of living up as a Buddhist, this also forms the their basis why they should involve in such compassionate humanitarian work.

The problem that came to me was that I was trying to find a prime Theravadin example of Buddhists being involved in humanitarian work, as well as the basis why they are involved. I could think of several, including agreeing with the point that by relieving the beings from their physical sufferings, they could be more at ease to listen and practice the Dhamma. I also quoted the Brahmavihara to show why compassion should be practiced along with the other three components. However, I didnt think I did a good job in finding a good example of Theravadins involved in humanitarian work until Ben and Phra Greg's posts. Thanks for the examples provided!

Furthermore, while I was explaining the above, I was thrown into a difficult position when one of the members asked me how I would resolve the inconsistency between the Buddha's admonition to the monks to focus on their spiritual development through meditation as emphasized in the Theravada tradition and Theravada monks (and possibly lay disciples) being involved in humanitarian work, which may take up most of the time that could be devoted to meditation practice. "Would focusing on meditation practice here seems a little bit more individualistic and not being concerned with the others? And how effective is this approach [improving yourself first through meditation] compared to the approach of both humanitarian work and meditation in promoting world peace or reducing suffering?" These were the last questions thrown to me; taking them as a way of intellectual discussion with no possible sarcastic intention behind, I was rather tongue-tied and could not produce an explanation since I clearly do not know about it. How would you respond if you were thrown with these questions? :thinking:

With metta,
Dhammanucara :namaste:

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ground
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Re: Theravada Buddhism and Social Engagement

Post by ground »

I think the conflict between seeking liberation and engaging in worldly humanitarian affairs cannot be resolved or "rationalized away". One has to accept that there are different kinds of human beings. Some are predominantly inclined to the former and some to the latter. Doing a bit of this and a bit of that is either an instance of distraction/wavering or based on a firm (positive) view of "merit making" in the context of worldly humanitarian affairs which then (if the view is firm) supports liberation.


Kind regards

chownah
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Re: Theravada Buddhism and Social Engagement

Post by chownah »

How would you respond if you were thrown with these questions?
I would say that Theravada takes the Tipitaka scriptures as the teachings of the Buddha and that these teachings do not include much (if anything) in the way of the Buddha telling people to go out and do humanitarian works and in regards to monks the focus and stress is obviously on individual practice.....but it also should be remembered that morality is an important part of the teachings but it is not expressed by overtly telling people to go out and do humanitarian work. The idea that meditation will interfere with the time available for doing humanitarian work is an issue for probably less than 1% of practicioners....for most people watching tv, socializing with friends, or engaging in other entertaining activities is a larger issue inregards to not having enough time to do humanitarian work. That people view this as being too individualistic is just that...a view...it does not change what is given in the scriptures.
chownah

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Ben
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Re: Theravada Buddhism and Social Engagement

Post by Ben »

GReetings Dhammanucara

I remember a sutta where the Buddha relates the story of an acrobat and his apprentice who are used as an example of why it is important to look after your own welfare first. Sorry, I don't have the sutta on hand to share with you.
So, I think its important that we see to our own practice as our first priority before seeking to aleviate the suffering of others. By that I mean that we should always make time for ourselves first before attending to the needs of others rather than waiting until enlightenment before helping others.

The second thing I would like to say is the importance of selfless service as part of many sub-traditions within the Theravada. There maybe less opportunity for monastics to engage in some forms of service but I think it is a mistake to think that monastics can't get involved in some form or aspect of humanitarian service. Bhikkhu Bodhi is a case in point: http://www.buddhistglobalrelief.org/intro.html" onclick="window.open(this.href);return false;
All the best!

Ben
“No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one's heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes.”
- Cormac McCarthy, The Road

Learn this from the waters:
in mountain clefts and chasms,
loud gush the streamlets,
but great rivers flow silently.
- Sutta Nipata 3.725

Compassionate Hands Foundation (Buddhist aid in Myanmar) • Buddhist Global ReliefUNHCR

e: ben.dhammawheel@gmail.com..

Dhammanucara
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Re: Theravada Buddhism and Social Engagement

Post by Dhammanucara »

Ben wrote:GReetings Dhammanucara

I remember a sutta where the Buddha relates the story of an acrobat and his apprentice who are used as an example of why it is important to look after your own welfare first. Sorry, I don't have the sutta on hand to share with you.
So, I think its important that we see to our own practice as our first priority before seeking to aleviate the suffering of others. By that I mean that we should always make time for ourselves first before attending to the needs of others rather than waiting until enlightenment before helping others.

The second thing I would like to say is the importance of selfless service as part of many sub-traditions within the Theravada. There maybe less opportunity for monastics to engage in some forms of service but I think it is a mistake to think that monastics can't get involved in some form or aspect of humanitarian service. Bhikkhu Bodhi is a case in point: http://www.buddhistglobalrelief.org/intro.html" onclick="window.open(this.href);return false;
All the best!

Ben
Hi Ben,

Thank you very much for that link! I never know about its existence, this certainly opens up my eyes! :D

About the sutta that you mentioned, I guess you are referring to Sedaka Sutta, which I found it here: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka ... .olen.html

Thanks again!

With metta,
Dhammanucara :namaste:

Dhammanucara
Posts: 79
Joined: Fri Oct 23, 2009 10:23 pm

Re: Theravada Buddhism and Social Engagement

Post by Dhammanucara »

chownah wrote:
How would you respond if you were thrown with these questions?
I would say that Theravada takes the Tipitaka scriptures as the teachings of the Buddha and that these teachings do not include much (if anything) in the way of the Buddha telling people to go out and do humanitarian works and in regards to monks the focus and stress is obviously on individual practice.....but it also should be remembered that morality is an important part of the teachings but it is not expressed by overtly telling people to go out and do humanitarian work. The idea that meditation will interfere with the time available for doing humanitarian work is an issue for probably less than 1% of practicioners....for most people watching tv, socializing with friends, or engaging in other entertaining activities is a larger issue inregards to not having enough time to do humanitarian work. That people view this as being too individualistic is just that...a view...it does not change what is given in the scriptures.
chownah
Hi chownah,

I was pondering to myself after that day of discussion that maybe involving too much or solely in humanitarian work or diminishing the importance of meditation aspect could perhaps appear as one of the 'obsessions'? Oh yes, while doing humanitarian work, one may experience intense compassion and experience the value of selflessness, but it may not enable a person to penetrate into deeper insights - for e.g. the concept of selflessness in Theravada may be well associated with the idea of anatta (my own understanding); while the humanitarian work may teach a person not to cling to one's own self, but it may not completely eliminate the seemingly wrong view of self as composed of merely the five aggregates. Besides, what I thought was that sometimes the intense experience of feeling of compassion may not be too good as it may lead one to jump to the other end of doing things (I could be wrong but this is merely my own thought about it; maybe many Mahayana Buddhists may object to this I think), so to me, still, the most important aspect is equanimity where you are no longer attached or even inclined to any extremes or ends but remain on the real balance, and to me, that's the best or wisest point of making decision and action. This equanimity, to me, seems more accessible through one's meditation than other works. Oh well, I may have thought too much on the other hand, but this was what I got out from my reflection after that discussion :tongue:

With metta,
Dhammanucara :namaste:

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Ben
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Re: Theravada Buddhism and Social Engagement

Post by Ben »

Indeed that is the Sutta!
Wishing you the very best, Dhammanucara.
with Metta

Ben
“No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one's heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes.”
- Cormac McCarthy, The Road

Learn this from the waters:
in mountain clefts and chasms,
loud gush the streamlets,
but great rivers flow silently.
- Sutta Nipata 3.725

Compassionate Hands Foundation (Buddhist aid in Myanmar) • Buddhist Global ReliefUNHCR

e: ben.dhammawheel@gmail.com..

chownah
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Re: Theravada Buddhism and Social Engagement

Post by chownah »

Dhammanucara,
I think you expressed some good ideas in your last reply to me.....it seems that you are willing to put in the effort to examine these issues carefully and to look at all possibilities before coming to conclusion....my view is that this should help to lead you in a good direction.
In life we have to do something so we all must decide what to do. After providing an adequate level of security in our lives then why not do humanitarian work or at least turn our efforts away from acquiring more things and toward things that at least have potential for scooting us along the path or providing the securtiy that others need so they will have a greater opportunity to ponder their path.
chownah

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