This a revised version of the article initially posted on SBN by Mike Slott, Katya de Kadt, and Karsten Struhl on 12 January 2022. Based on feedback and suggestions from individuals in the Buddhist and Left communities, we have included new material and revised the presentation of our perspective.
We are three individuals who have had a lifetime of engagement with radical politics who have found that core Buddhist insights are essential to living a more fulfilling life and being mindful, compassionate participants in movements for social change. As white, middle class, and cisgender individuals who came to Buddhism later in our lives, our particular location within the overall Buddhist community in the U.S. is at the intersection between a secularly inclined approach to the dharma and a form of socially engaged Buddhism which is oriented toward systemic change.
We recognize that there are many Buddhists in a variety of traditions and lineages who adhere to the notion that the cause of suffering is due to the greed, hatred, and delusion of individuals; and that the solution to suffering is for individuals to develop the wisdom, ethics, and meditative practices to free themselves from these “three poisons.” Within this framework, it is argued, that over time if enough people worldwide engage in the Eightfold Path, the world will become a freer, more peaceful, and loving place. While individuals becoming more mindful and compassionate certainly has a positive impact on society overall, we don’t think that the ripple effects of individual transformation can sufficiently remedy the social causes of suffering. What is required is the simultaneous, mutually related work of individual transformation and working with others in political movements to transform the political, economic and social systems of oppression and exploitation that manifest and reinforce the three poisons.
A significant percentage of Buddhists irrespective of tradition in the U.S. do recognize the need to engage with social problems as part of their practice, but most understand social engagement as the provision of therapeutic and other services to suffering individuals and involvement in various reform efforts. While such activities are important and laudable, we believe that the social problems and crises which are causing so much suffering today – e.g., climate change and the degradation of the biosphere, racism and other forms of oppression (sexism, homophobia, ageism, and the disregard of persons with disabilities), social inequality, and poverty – can only be fully addressed through movements to dismantle the social, political, and economic forces in which these problems and crises are rooted.
In our approach to the dharma, we put aside the goal of achieving nirvana, the complete liberation from suffering and the cessation of rebirth found in traditional versions of Buddhism. Instead, the goal of our practice is to reduce suffering and promote the flourishing of all beings in this one life. While we recognize that the shift in focus from nirvana to flourishing does not in itself entail support for radical change or even social engagement, we believe that the goal of promoting flourishing cannot be achieved unless we challenge through political movements the underlying causes of social suffering.
From our perspective, Buddhism offers us essential insights about the causes of and remedy for suffering, but it lacks an adequate explanation of social dukkha and the need for radical social change. That is why Buddhist insights must be complemented with a radical, non-dogmatic social theory based on political perspectives such as humanistic Marxism, anarchism, socialist feminism, and critical race theory. On the other hand, radical social theory lacks an account of the ways in which, at an existential-psychological level, individuals cause their own suffering and the suffering of others. Thus, both Buddhism and radical social theory are in themselves limited and incomplete. Brought together in a productive dialogue, we believe that they can complement each other and provide us with a theory and practice which can facilitate flourishing at all levels.
What are the implications of this perspective for Buddhist practitioners? In what follows we provide in an outline form the five key tasks of a radically engaged Buddhism by reconstructing and revising the Four Noble Truths, which is a foundational statement of Buddhism. In so doing, we don’t in any way disparage or disrespect the existing formulations. We don’t see our approach as the “right way” or the “true” form of Buddhism. Instead, based on our interests and values as radically engaged Buddhists, we are attempting to lay out the essential elements of a spiritual, psychological, and political path aimed not just at the reduction of the suffering of individuals but also at dismantling the social, political, and economic systems which cause harm and suffering to all beings. And we offer this in the hope that practitioners of all forms of Buddhism will find it useful in developing their path to a radically engaged Buddhism.
In all, we offer this in the spirit of dialogue, to foster a critical examination of what kind of life we ought to live in our time.
Five Core Tasks for Radically Engaged Buddhists
There are five key tasks for radically engaged Buddhists based on our core beliefs about the capacities (for good and bad) of human beings, the causes of suffering, and the need to integrate individual transformation with radical social change. In what follows we describe those tasks and contrast each with their counterpart in the traditional formulation of the Four Noble Truths.
#1 – Recognize, accept, and embrace our finite life in all its complexity.
The first of the Four Noble Truths is that suffering, in both subtle and obvious ways, is an inevitable part of life and is the core problem to be addressed. While we agree, our focus is not the complete cessation of suffering but the need to reduce suffering while promoting flourishing within our lives. The reduction of suffering and the promotion of human flourishing are dialectically related.
Our initial task is thus the need to face our life, the reality that we experience, as it is. We must recognize, accept, and embrace our finite life in all its complexity, including the tragic dimensions of life. In the time that we have to live, we will unavoidably experience the “10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows” of life. While we have some ability to shape the course of our life in order to reduce suffering and to experience more joy and happiness, much of what we experience is beyond our control.
As we face the personal joys and sorrows of our own life, we need to connect with the joys and sorrows of other lives both far and near. This connection is a recognition of what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “interbeing,” the idea that we are inextricably connected to and interdependent with other beings and nature. Consequently, we can’t just focus on our own needs, but must recognize and take on the suffering of other human beings that are in different social locations, statuses, and conditions from our own and of members of other species.
#2 – Fully understand the three basic causes of suffering.
The second of the Four Noble Truths is that the cause of suffering resides in each individual’s craving for good or pleasant experiences, aversion to bad or painful experiences, and craving for existence, all of which are based on a fundamental ignorance of ourselves and of reality. Suffering is thus basically rooted in individuals’ unskillful thoughts, feelings, speech, and actions.
We assert that this traditional notion of the cause of suffering is too limited and misses a key aspect of our experience. Suffering is caused by the fact that we are finite, limited beings, by how we typically relate to our own experiences, and by social systems which cause harm. Therefore, we must understand, both cognitively and in an experiential manner, the three interrelated causes of the “10,000 sorrows” of life. The sources of our suffering are:
- The inevitable pains and losses connected with our finite life and our relative lack of control over the processes of sickness, aging, death, not getting what we want, getting what we don’t want, etc.
- Our biologically evolved tendency to cling or relate to what we experience in a reactive way, based on the desire of wanting something (greed) or wanting something removed (aversion, hatred), as well as our fundamental tendency to view ourselves and the world from the perspective of the isolated, egoic self. The tendencies to cling and a delusory understanding of the self combine to create surplus suffering (the “second arrow”) on top of the inevitable suffering connected with being finite, limited beings.
- Social systems of exploitation and oppression (capitalism, racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, disrespect of persons with disabilities, etc.) mutually interact with and reinforce our tendencies to crave and to cling and have a delusory understanding of the self. In addition, these structures of exploitation and oppression directly harm individuals and groups in various ways while reinforcing the harmful human tendencies that develop out of the three poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion.
We need to understand how these sources of suffering interact with and fortify each other. For example, as an exploitative socio-economic system, capitalism reinforces our craving for and clinging to material/consumer objects and facilitates a destructive form of competition based on pervasive competition and domination.
#3 – Use our human capacities for wisdom, mindfulness, and compassion to reduce suffering and promote flourishing.
The Third Noble Truth is that each individual can free oneself of suffering if one stops craving and clinging, rooted in the illusion of a permanent, independent self. In the traditional view, this complete cessation of craving, clinging, and the illusion of self results in nirvana, a state of absolute and unconditioned peace and liberation.
Recognizing that we are finite, limited, and embodied beings who are always embedded in the natural world, we don’t believe that the complete and permanent cessation of craving and clinging is possible. In addition, as long as other people are suffering from individual and social harm, we cannot be totally at peace or liberated. Thus, we can and must act to use our biologically evolved and socially mediated human capacities for wisdom, compassion, and mindfulness to diminish suffering and to promote the flourishing of all beings in this world.
While human flourishing is the highest good for radically engaged Buddhists, human flourishing is only possible if we value and respect other forms of life and the natural world. In fact, respect for other forms of life and the natural world entails that we embrace the goal of the flourishing of all sentient beings, of all life forms, and of all ecosystems.
#4 – Engage in a life-long path of transformative change based on the integrated cultivation of skillful virtues and attitudes, wisdom, meditative and reflective practices, an ethical life, and political praxis.
Our fourth task is similar to the Fourth Noble Truth – the Eightfold Path. To reduce suffering and promote flourishing requires us to cultivate a variety of capacities and it is a never-ending, life-long process. But while the Eightfold Path in Buddhism contains three key elements – wisdom, ethical conduct, and mental discipline – we expand the range of capacities to integrate a collective, political dimension into our path. That is why we explicitly include skillful virtues prominent in Buddhism and the forms of collective praxis we engage in to effect social change.
To contribute to the reduction of suffering and to the promotion of human flourishing through individual transformation and collective action, we must commit ourselves to an integrated personal, political, and spiritual path based on the life-long cultivation of:
- Skillful virtues and attitudes of loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity (the brahma-viharas) as well as generosity, refraining from harm, discernment, diligence, patience, truthfulness, determination, etc. (the paramitas). The development of these virtues and attitudes counters our tendency toward self-interest and egoism while enabling us to recognize and embrace our interconnection and commonality with other beings. They provide the basis for peaceful, cooperative, and egalitarian relationships with others and are thus essential for developing a society which promotes human flourishing, the flourishing of other sentient beings, and a sustainable relation to the ecosystems of which we are a part.
- Wisdom, in the form of a critical and comprehensive understanding of the essential aspects of the human condition and our relationship to the rest of nature. The essential elements of a such a perspective include an understanding of:
- three basic aspects of human experience: impermanence, interconnectedness , and the sources of our “10,000 sorrows”
- the conditioned nature of all events and processes as well as our capacity to effect change within that context
- the essential aspects of human nature, as biologically evolved, psychologically shaped, and socially mediated
- the history and processes of socio-economic systems and their relationship to human beings and nature
- Meditative and reflective practices which help us to reduce clinging and reactivity, develop a critical and comprehensive understanding of the human condition, promote ethical behavior, and facilitate skillful engagement in movements for social change.
- An ethical life based on the values of care, compassion, non-harm (ahimsa), and a respect for the interconnection of all sentient and living beings.
- Forms of collective praxis in sanghas, communities, and political movements which promote individual transformation and a liberatory society based on mindfulness and compassion.
#5 – Make transformative changes at both the individual and societal levels.
There is no comparable Noble Truth to our fifth task, which highlights that the reduction of suffering and the promotion of flourishing requires both individual and social processes of transformation. The traditional Four Noble Truths do not make that link because the cause of and remedy for suffering is primarily located in the individual.
The reduction of suffering and the promotion of human flourishing requires the simultaneous and mutually interactive processes of individual transformation and collective action to achieve an egalitarian, cooperative, and compassionate society that is in harmony with the rest of nature. In short, it requires the construction of an ecosocialist, anti-racist, and anti-patriarchal society. To achieve this, we need to make transformative changes at both the individual and societal levels. The “personal” and the “political” spheres of life are mutually related and equally important to the process of transformation.
For example, to the extent that we can transform ourselves through meditative practices, we can be more effective in our political practice and can further develop our sensitivity and motivation to engage in activities whose goal is to alleviate human suffering and the suffering of other species. At the same time, our political practice should aim not just at social transformation but at individual transformation. With this understanding, mindfulness practice is itself a component of political praxis and political praxis becomes a component of mindfulness.
We recognize that we have presented the key tasks and beliefs for a radically engaged Buddhist in outline form, and that each of the elements of our approach need to be more fully developed. At the same time, we have not addressed the specific strategies and actions that are consistent with this approach, including which forms of individual transformation and what political movements are most likely to lead to a reduction in suffering and the promotion of flourishing. Finally, given our class, racial, and gender location, we recognize the need for those outside that social location, particularly people of color, to bring their insights and experiences to the process of developing a radically engaged Buddhist approach. We hope that our joint effort will facilitate a fruitful discussion and exploration of these and other crucial issues.