Monday, 2 January 2012

Progressive Buddhism is Engaged Buddhism

Happy New Year! On behalf of the Taego Order Overseas Parish, and with the explicit permission of my honored Teacher the Venerable Dr. Jongmae Kenneth Park, Bishop of the Overseas Parish, it is my pleasure and honor to post up my first entry on this blog site. I hope in the year to come, I can post up some interesting topics for the audience that follows this blog, and I thank the blog moderator for accepting me as a writer here.

Please kindly note, that any opinions I post on this site, are my own opinion only, and must NOT be construed as the official position of the Taego Order.

When I first came across this blog site, I was immediately intrigued. The notion of 'Progressive Buddhism' is interesting to me because, I feel it describes my own perspective on the Buddha-Dharma. In our times, the word 'Progressive' has become synonomous with left-leaning political action, so the integration of my political inclinations with my spiritual practice, seems natural and appropriate to me.

But if we consider the teachings of the Buddha-Dharma carefully, it seems very clear that the Buddha discouraged political affiliation or factionalism. The Buddha taught that when we support a particular political agenda, we are plunged straightaway into the world of false views and dualism: Hot and cold, good and evil, up and down, left and right, Democrat and Republican. For this reason, many Buddhist practitioners are wary of political engagement.

However, not all practitioners feel as though these injunctions must be dogmatically and narrowly interpreted, myself among them. Like some aspects of the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha were a product of his time and place. For example, I am a married monk, and the Order I serve-- the Taego Zen Order of Korea-- is one of the few Buddhist Orders in the world that permits married clergy. Here is one aspect of the teaching that has been updated for our times. Another example might be the Precept for monks not to sit on high chairs, which is obviously less relevant in Western culture than in Asian culture. And so forth. There are other examples as well.

Buddhism emerged in a time and place where our modern notions of participatory democracy simply did not exist. 'Politics' in the Buddha's time meant 'Monarchy' and 'dynastic factionalism.' The Buddha could not imagine a political system where common folk could vote. Therefore, if one is to strictly and literally interpret the Dharma-- like some Christians do with the Bible-- then we end up with a belief system that would basically require Buddhists to drop out of participatory democracy.

But most Buddhists I know are not literalists (that would not be 'Upaya' or 'Skillful Teaching'), and as anyone who has spent any time in a western Zen center will tell you, a majority of western Buddhists seem to be political progressives.

Yet this is certainly not the case in Asia. In many Asian societies, the Buddha-Sangha is decidedly conservative in their social and political affiliations. Likewise, these are societies with little historical tradition of democracy, until fairly recently (in the 20th century). If the truth be told, the Asians are just as new at this business of integrating Buddhism with Democracy, as the westerners are.

So if we look closely at the Asian Buddhist experience with democracy, what we find is a fairly high level of political engagment. In fact, the very concept of 'Engaged Buddhism' emerged from the anti-war and politically active career of Thich Nhat Hanh. He was protesting the Vietnam War and the destruction of his country. "You cannot meditate when bombs are falling outside" he once said. Likewise, in Tibet a substantial number of monks have been arrested by the authorities for protesting Chinese rule, and in Burma the Buddha-Sangha has emerged as the primary nexus of resistance against the brutal military junta that rules the nation. So even in the Asian experience, we find that Buddhist monks, laymen and women are resisting oppression in our times.

It is therefore clear that in Asia, Buddhists stand against injustice and (more importantly) are willing to take action against it. This is why I find the idea that Buddhists must not be politically engaged to be incomprehensible, the equvalent of saying that we must not respond to the injustices around us. I did not sign up to ignore injustice.

This is also the reason why most western Buddhists seem to be politically left-leaning. Buddhism teaches us to see clearly, without delusion, so naturally many Buddhists apply this to the democratic political landscape around them. And what do we see? Here in the States, we see that both principal political parties are beholden to Wall Street; but it is also clear that one party has an agenda that is anti-science, anti-immigrant, anti-gay, nursing greivances and favoring policies that re-distributes income and wealth upwards. This looks like injustice to me.

So can a Buddhist be a political conservative? If by 'conservative' we merely mean someone who subscribes to market economics, the answer is yes. But increasingly, in our times simple market economics are also associated with the ugly agenda noted above, so my sense is that a politically conservative Buddhist, would have to engage in some amazing mental gymnastics in order to reconcile that agenda, with the compassionate nature of the Buddha-Dharma.

In the end, that is what attracts so many westerners to Buddhism: the compassionate nature of the Buddha's teachings. And that is why the notion of 'Progressive Buddhism' is NOT an oxymoron, because at its core the concept of 'Progressive Buddhism' is really just 'Engaged Buddhism,' which in turn is-- in my opinion-- inherent in the teachings of the Buddha-Dharma.

The Greek philosopher Plato once said, "Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber." And less compassionate, I might add. Is this not clear by now to every Buddhist?

I am a Progressive Buddhist, and I am not alone. I look forward to being part of this blog in the year to come, and once again I wish you all Happy New Year.


  1. Same to you! and here's the latest tweet from

    HHDL talks about nonviolence at the Mahatma Gandhi International Award for Reconciliation & Peace ceremony on Jan 4.

  2. If you were truly a progressive Buddhist you would not be part of the Taego Order which has double standards for females--females in the Taego Order must be celibate in order to be fully ordained while males may be married.

  3. Nor does the Taego order ordain homosexual clergy.

  4. I'm kind of shocked that a Taego monk is blogging here. Maybe they pass for progressive in Korea but, with the blatant discrimination against homosexuals and women, they certainly aren't progressive in the West.

  5. Two quick points: first, pretty much all Buddhist orders have some aspects here or there that may strike us as wrongly repressive/regressive/conservative, etc. Progressive Buddhism isn't about finding and defending from on high the best order or way of being a Buddhist. Second, if a Taego monastic wants to write here, and is approved by his elders, that at least has to say SOMETHING about the order's progressiveness in being willing to dialog with others. Let's encourage every order and individual toward broader, more inclusive ideals - instead of *excluding* them for their affiliations or past.

    1. @Buddhist_philospher

      I completely agree. That being said..

      @Hae In Sunim Ernest Lissabet

      Would you like to address the concerns regarding the Taego Order surrounding the discriminatory nature of its attitudes toward women and gays (even if as no more than your own opinion)?

    2. Yes.. Thank you for saying this..

  6. Rev. Hae In has responded to some of these criticisms of the Taego Order and its training and ordination practices as they arose over the last two years at the DharmaWheel discussion board. You can find those threads easily enough by google search, and decide for yourself if they have been addressed adequately.

  7. Greetings All,

    I am not a regular blogger as I spend more time practicing the Dharma than criticizing other orders.

    However, a few quick responses:
    (1) Buddhism is in its nature inherently 'Progressive' so if you try and create something -other- than just Buddhism, you are doing harm to the Dharma;
    (2)To 'Jessica' from January 12: Wow, you are shockingly judgemental for a person claiming to be a Buddhist;
    (3) for 'Al' on January 14-- in fact, we have gay monks in our Order who chose to make it work for them, and so the unkind words being written totally crash on them-- so I recommend practicing 'Right Speech;'
    (4) The Taego Overseas Parish has already succeeded in modifying many of the ordination standards in favor of America culture, they continue to evolve in accomodation withh western culture thanks to the magnificent work of our Bishop Ven. Jongmae Kunsunim, and so the refusal of some people to openly see or acknolwedge **the gradual liberalization going on in our Order,** are acting from either ignorance or wilfull blindness. Some people just want to harm others because they don't qualify.

    The Taego Order continues the process of adaptation to North America. For those who are so impatient that they demand that everything from Asian societies conform to our North American social standards RIGHT NOW-- I recommend deep breathing and the practice Kshanti Paramita. Try writing something positive and hopeful about other Buddhists, please.

    Those of you who took one look at my affiliation and decided I can't 'possibly' be a "Progressive Buddhist," are guilty of leaping to wrong conclusions without knowing me personally, my political beliefs, my personal standards, and so forth. Not one of you knows how I voted in the last election, for example.

    Change is real, but everything takes time and patience is required.

    Buddhist_Philosopher: Thank you for your sensible words on Feb. 15.

    May All Sentient Beings Attain Enlightenment !

    Hae In Sunim

  8. Ah, I have since learned that the Taego order will ordain homosexuals but they, like ordained female clergy, are not allowed to be married or have sexual relations. Of course, heterosexual male clergy do not have this limitation within Taego.

    Yes, that really does sound "Progressive," doesn't it?

  9. Oh, and as for "Right Speech," Hae, you kind of left out the ability to moralize there with your opening sentence about bloggers.

  10. We can and should look at differences and while people should stand up to discrimination, clearly there are also shared ideals/aspirations than can and should be used as common ground for dialogue, understanding and collaboration..

    I don't think there is a community, order, religion etc that is perfect or not evolving in its understanding and inclusiveness.. Our choice is whether we will engage with others or will we shut out those who might not fit the totality of our vision or ideals? Even though I agree with equality for female and homosexual clergy, are we that sure that we are absolutely right? What if our understanding is only partial, evolving and imperfect? What if someone else's understanding is moving in a positive direction along the "moral arc of the universe"?

    Can compassion and generosity be more important than being "right"?

    How can we have "engaged" Buddhism if we still need to engage with each other?