Wednesday 13 November 2019

Heroes of Progressive Buddhism: Myawaddy Sayadaw of Burma/Myanmar

Last year I started a series on "Heroes of Progressive Buddhism" as a way to help build a portfolio of sorts of Buddhists around the world doing great, progressive work.

The first in this series was Sebene Selassie, Executive Director of New York Insight. Selassie is a woman of color and as I noted last year, "What comes out in particular is Selassie’s commitment to Inclusion and Diversity outreach."

This time we have an example of inclusion and diversity outreach from Burma/Myanmar.

Myanmar’s Military Seeks to Jail Buddhist Monk over Criticism

 As Myanmar has seen a resurgence of Islamophobic, violent fundamentalist monks, it has also seen numerous leaders like Myawaddy seeking to build bridges and end violence. Now he and his work are under threat. From the article:
" ... renowned for his work with peace and interfaith groups,* the abbot has been accused of defamation by Myanmar’s politically powerful military following an interview he gave to the local Yangon Khit Thit news website in June. During the conversation, he questioned the propriety of a more than 30 million kyat (US$20,000) donation by an army commander to the ultra-nationalist Buddhist organization the Buddha-Dhamma Parahita Foundation." 
“I will contest whatever lawsuit they use. Suing us shows there are no rights, but it will not stop me from speaking the truth,” said Myawaddy Sayadaw. “I will keep saying what should not be done and what should be avoided. I’m a Buddhist monk and this is my duty to show the right path for everyone.”

Standing up to repressive ideas (as the Buddha did with aspects of the caste system and entrenched gender inequality) and governments is central to a decidedly progressive Buddhism, as it follows the right understanding of our social and political context and puts it into right action. Not all Buddhists will do this, and that's okay.

For some, Buddhism will be primarily a path of devotion or merit accumulation, chanting, prostrating, reading texts, etc. But this active, engaged, progressive stance is every bit a part of Buddhism today as any other path.

This is the first  second in a planned series on the topic of “Progressive Buddhism.” That term is admittedly vague, despite a blog being devoted to the topic since 2007 and a facebook group since 2015 (both administered by yours truly at present). I hope in the coming months to develop a set of principles and ideals to guide thinking around and discussion of Progressive Buddhism, and to point out “heroes,” or people who embody some of those principles and ideals in their life and work. Sometimes these will be in depth, sometimes brief vignettes.

Saturday 31 August 2019

Do You Have to be Leftist (to be a Progressive Buddhist)?

One of the teachings of the Dharma is that our tendency to attach names to forms, and with those names, meanings. That’s very handy—we’d all be walking in front of busses, and not even knowing what hit us without that habit. The problem arises when we start to think the bus has some “bus-ness” to it, and that the name “bus” and the “bus-ness” actual means something more than that thing with four wheels and people inside it is a mode of transportation. 

“Mass transit is Good!” “Those people in that bus must have lost their drivers licenses, they must all be drunks...or poor.” Neither of these statements is true or false. Taking a bus instead of a car may be a responsible choice environmentally, or it may be the only choice if you happen to be an unlicensed poor drunk. Making these value judgments and assigning good and bad qualities only mires us further into this Sahā World that we must endure. 

And so it is with “IdPol,” Identity Politics. Both “Progressive” and “Buddhism” can be (and often are), loaded with stereotypes, and heavily-dosed with “meaning” and expectations. “Progressive” at its most literal is defined as growing, developing, moving forward. “Buddhism” is simply a follower of the Buddha and one who lives according to these teachings. We’re not all vegans or vegetarians, we’re not all members of the Comintern. “Conservative” Buddhists May be those who want to stay close to the Buddha’s teachings, eschewing the new-agey aspects some have pinned on by or about Buddhists. 

In all likelihood, there are combinations of identifications we or others attach to us. It is said that when asked about “Engaged” Buddhism, Thich Nhat Hann replied, “Is there any other kind?” And that’s a telling statement. Being engaged is just seeing the interdependence of all dharmas. In realizing this “interbeing,” as TNH would call it, we embody compassion by our involvement in the world, Sahā world though it may be. Embodying compassion is being progressive. We want to move forward toward a world where compassion is the norm. We move this along by being compassionate ourselves. For those of us who have taken the Bodhisattva Vows, we try to “save all beings” through our compassion. 

“IdPol” may as well be eliminated from being a progressive Buddhist, because we do our best for everyone and everything, in order to enable them to realize their innate Buddha. Hating does nothing to liberate either ourselves or others. Isn’t that reason we all practice?

Wednesday 23 January 2019

Growing Deeper, Engaging Further: a future for Progressive Buddhism

As this blog enters its 10th year, I find myself wondering: what next?

The blog has had its ebbs and flows, as has Buddhist blogging in general (and all blogging perhaps?). Perhaps it has been replaced by facebook groups? (such as our own, founded in 2015) Maybe it has been replaced by a few 'big name' thinkers?

In any case, what next? I imagine we all have requests and ideas, and I'd love to hear them - here in the comments section of the blog.

As for myself, an idea has been percolating for a while to clarify and develop the ideas of "Progressive Buddhism." The hope is to make Progressive Buddhism clearer both to us (this very loosely knit band of writers and readers) and to the greater world. Think of the development of Secular Buddhism in recent years, or if you're a historian you can think of the ways that Buddhism developed unique and new schools in places like Tibet, China, and Japan. Existing schools will remain, but in a new land, new needs and new contexts present new challenges, and we can respond creatively or ossify and either cut ourselves off, or as often happens, find that [our narrow version of] Buddhism doesn't work for us.

The idea would be to develop on the progressive side a "platform" of sorts: a set of ever-changing ideas and principles to adhere to, movements and developments we tend to support, prejudices and "regressive" tendencies we hope to move humanity away from, etc.

On the Buddhism side, a set of characteristics and practices we might affirm, not as a creed or dogma, but perhaps more in line with the Unitarian Universalist tradition, adopting general principles and sources.

A start:

Progressive - (dedicated to, in no particular order)

  1. Tackling climate change
  2. Fighting racism and structural racial injustice
  3. Reducing wealth and income inequality
  4. Increasing understanding, tolerance, and kinship among all peoples
  5. Ensuring access to healthcare, education, clean air and water and food and shelter for all
For example, we can pool ideas, seek out experts, and work together for small and large-scale solutions to these issues. Some of us can enact them. Others can help existing schools of Buddhism sign on and help. This is not about establishing and us-vs-them mentality, but about bringing all of humanity together through our ideals and practices. 


  1. Welcoming and affirming all Buddhisms
  2. Establishing a broad curriculum in Buddhist history, philosophy, and practice
  3. Supporting and engaging with practices that bring ancient tradition into the current world
Lively discussions can bring out our understandings of Buddhism as individuals and as a community. Essays could be collected, books written, etc. The Buddhist canon is ever-evolving and grew in Tibet and grew in China, and so on. Some people consider Gary Snyder's 1969 "Smokey the Bear Sutra" to be part of the Buddhist canon. Why not? As long as it delivers the wisdom or practical instruction of the tradition in ways appropriate to the age, it should at least be considered.
Photo by Samuel Austin on Unsplash

One might look to the Unitarian Universalist "Seven Principles" and "Six Sources" for further inspiration. The principles, for instance, might go virtually unchanged as borrowed into Progressive Buddhism:

UU Seven Principles

We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote:
  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
(replacing congregations with either sanghas or communities)

And the six sources can likewise be borrowed, though with greater emphasis on Buddhist traditions as primary, but not exclusive, sources of the new tradition.

UU Six Sources, repurposed slightly

  • Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
  • Words and deeds of reformers and philosophers which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
  • Wisdom from Western religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
  • The many Buddhist traditions' in all of their manifestations
  • Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.
  • Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.
Establishing this community of ideals, we might argue less about specifics of faith (a favorite pastime it seems of many convert Buddhists) and focus more on growth and development, both as individuals and as a community.

Given this, I must recognize that I'm mostly just an 'ideas person' - I'm not a natural organizer or leader or any number of key roles that will need to be filled for the launch of a New Progressive Buddhism. What would you like to see here? What role can you play?

Some guidelines:

If you're not interested, that's fine. Perhaps some aspect of the Buddhist status quo is 100% just fine with you. Good. Join them, practice, learn, etc.

We're not interested just now in debate (there has been plenty of that). The affirmed aim of Progressive Buddhism is already to bring the tradition anew into contemporary life. This implicitly critiques existing traditions, but not wholesale and not lightly. In fact, we would argue that this critique (and change and growth) is part of living traditions already and is essential for their continued existence.