Special Topics: Engaged Buddhism

JSIS C 490/ 590
  • Quarters: Autumn

Engaged Buddhism refers to the contemporary movement of socially engaged Buddhist action and practice in response to war and political situation in Vietnam.  Scholars argue that engaged Buddhism is strictly a modern phenomenon since it represents new forms of Buddhism that arose in response to colonialism and modernity; as such it is antithetical to the traditional Buddhist ideal of ending human suffering through radical detachment (or dis-engagement) from the world. For these scholars, engaged Buddhism stands for the fourth vehicle that comes on the heel of the traditional three vehicles, or the earth vehicle because of global issues engaged Buddhism addresses, or neo-Buddhism that represents reformist Buddhism to meet the needs of particular time and place. Other scholars opt to view Buddhism to have always been engaged socially and politically and that engaged Buddhism in modern period is simply the latest manifestation of the perennial Buddhist goal (end of suffering) and motivation (compassion). The course runs as a seminar: its goal are: 1) explore the varieties and characteristics of engaged Buddhism not only in Asia but also in other parts of the world and to critically assess the methodologies employed (phenomenological, historical, philosophical, sociological, feminist, etc.) in scholarships; 2) consider the definitional issues and questions of engaged Buddhism and engaged Buddhist studies; 3) revisit the relationship between history/tradition and engaged Buddhism. The currently available scholarship on engaged Buddhism focuses almost exclusively on modern and contemporary activism and movements and consequently lacks historical contextualization. We will explore whether the question of rupture vs. continuity could or should be reframed as both rupture and continuity to expand the scope of engaged Buddhist studies currently accepted in the field.