Photo by Paul Keller, some rights reserved.Posing with Hezbollah flag, Khiam, Lebanon, 2007.
The system stinks, as Robert Aitken Roshi liked to put it.
We now possess the productive capacity to eradicate hunger, most infectious diseases, and provide everyone on the planet with the basic necessities, a basic education, and basic healthcare. We have the technology to do that sustainably. Yet billions continue to scrape by at a subsistence level. Hundreds of millions are illiterate. We're using up natural resources at nearly double the sustainable rate. A small minority of us live lives of luxury—including yours truly—and a tiny, tiny fraction become obscenely rich.
"Whoever dies with the most stuff, wins" is a pretty sorry excuse of a foundation for society. Buddhists might have some ideas about how to improve that.
It's clear that there is a case for change. Nobody can do that alone. Change can only happen socially. For that to happen, two things are needed: a degree of consensus, and a degree of organization. Religious groups provide both. Socially engaged religion is a natural development. It would be surprising if this never happened with Buddhism.
When considering the question of socially engaged Buddhism, it might be worthwhile to look at a highly successful example of socially engaged religion.
A history of oppressionIndependent Lebanon was a Maronite Christian project. The Maronites are Roman Catholics who follow the Syriac rite. They have had close contacts with the French for over 500 years. When the Ottoman empire broke up and the European colonial powers carved up its provinces, France got dibs on what is now Lebanon. With their help, the Maronites created what was to be a homeland for Christian Arabs on prime Syrian coastline. They did what anyone would have done in their place—they grabbed as much land as they could get away with.
Much of that land was inhabited by Shi'ite Muslims. Already in Ottoman times, the Shi'ites were at the bottom of the totem pole. Most were illiterate peasants or sharecroppers eking out a subsistence-level existence, as their feudal overlords—a small number of rich, cosmopolitan families quite at home among the Ottoman aristocracy, and later with the Maronite elite—kept them in a tight grip.
In the 1960's, one Imam Musa Sadr entered the scene. He founded a group called the Movement of the Disinherited. Its purpose was to organize the Shi'ites in order to help them improve their lot. Imam Musa Sadr was a remarkable character. Like some of his Lebanese contemporaries, his vision transcended sectarian divides: he wanted justice not only for the Shi'ites, but for everybody. Naturally, he got himself removed from the scene: he disappeared into thin air on an official visit to Libya in 1978.
Then, in 1982, Israel invaded.
To start with, the Shi'ites as represented by Amal, the successor to Musa Sadr's movement, didn't feel too bad about that. Southern Lebanon had been under Palestinian control, and just like everybody before them, the PLO was keeping them cowed with violence and terror.
Israel didn't leave. What's more, it just stepped into the shoes from which it had ousted the Palestinians: it allied with the Christian minority of South Lebanon, recruiting them into a proxy army, and continued to stomp on the Shi'ites.
This time, they fought back.
Imam Musa Sadr's work had left them with an effective political organization, and had given them their first taste of being able to do something to look out for themselves. The Palestinians languishing in their refugee camps told them what the alternative to fighting would be, and the PLO the Israelis had ejected had given them a taste of military organization and guerrilla tactics.
Then they found a powerful supporter a few countries across to the East, in Iran, where the Islamic Revolution of 1979 had ousted the Shah and put their coreligionists in power.
The conditions, the consensus, the organization, the skills, the precedent, and the means had come together. Out of these ingredients stewed in the witch's cauldron of the Lebanese civil war arose Hezbollah—a movement that combined the social engagement and mutual-help activism of Imam Musa Sadr with a fierce fighting spirit, a reverence for martyrdom, ruthless tactics born from having to fight dirty because fighting clean never was an option, and a massive grudge with every one of their historical oppressors.
Hezbollah in powerHezbollah is continuing Imam Musa Sadr's work. Every year, Beirut's Southern Suburbs are looking less like a slum and more like a regular part of town. Impressive mosques, schools, and hospitals appear between cinderblock homes. Roads have been paved. Sewers and streetlights have been installed. Order is being maintained. Most Shi'ites now have access to primary education and basic health care. The Hezbollah even provides social security of a kind—more to families of martyrs for the cause, but others as well. Many are learning foreign languages—especially French, since English is associated with American cultural imperialism.
Hezbollah's social work is not a cynical ploy to maintain the support of the population. It is fundamental to their values, program, and vision. It is not a very big exaggeration to say that the Hezbollah is Shi'ite Lebanon.
Hezbollah-controlled areas are also more or less off-limits for people who are of a different color—politically, or physically, in the case of pale-skinned foreigners. You might come across a shiny new KFC, but the row of yellow-and-green posters facing it, with their grim men sporting beards and turbans, make it clear that you're not in Kentucky anymore.
Most significantly, Hezbollah is a major pain in the ass for anybody who isn't a supporter, as well as being a serious obstacle to peace—both civil peace in Lebanon, and regional peace among Syria, Lebanon, and Israel, with the Iranian involvement amplifying the movement's power to make it globally significant.
Social movements expressed in religious formHezbollah is a social movement first and foremost. It springs from massive injustice. It takes its form from Shi'a Islam. Many of these forms are extremely well suited for war and politics—a reverence for martyrdom, a theological justification for defensive war, a detailed template for ordering a society.
These are not essential ingredients.
Any religious identity would have served as a basis for a movement much like it in the conditions that gave it birth. If the Shi'ites had been Buddhists, I have no doubt whatsoever that something very similar would have emerged.1
When the conditions for social mobilization of religious movements are present, such mobilization will happen. The Roman Catholic Church played a central role in breaking the hold of Soviet Communism in Poland. Expressed through Liberation Theology, Catholic clergy are working to better the lot of the weakest in Latin American society. The IRA and the UDA in Ireland were based around Catholic and Protestant identity. Jewish social and political engagement runs the gamut from Neturei Karta to Kach. Buddhist monks constitute the sole organized opposition to the Burmese military junta.
The Heavy Cost of SuccessHezbollah has done a tremendous amount of good for Lebanese Shi'ites. Without the movement Imam Musa Sadr started, they would still be living in abject poverty and ignorance in third-world conditions. They would not have a voice in Lebanese society, let alone a voice that is heard around the world. The Maronites, Israelis, Palestinians, or their old feudal overlords would not have looked out for them. Yet now they have painted themselves into a corner.
The problem for Hezbollah is that the greatest strength of socially engaged religion also sets its limits. Hezbollah is a movement of, by, and for Lebanese Shi'ites. They cannot step outside those bounds, nor can they let anyone else in. This puts them permanently at odds with the other sects in Lebanon and with the Israelis to the South, and makes their alliance with the Syrians a marriage of convenience at best.
This illustrates a fundamental dynamic in socially engaged religion. The common ground given by identity and ideology gives such movements a cohesiveness and power that makes them astoundingly effective. At the same time, they by definition divide people into 'us' and 'them,' and keep 'us' in and 'them' out. A movement of socially engaged Buddhists would, by definition, exclude Christians, Muslims, Jews, or the nonreligious, even if they should share many of their goals. Such a movement also puts pressure on 'us' to be 'in,' even if we have qualms about it, or its goals.
Social movements based on religious identity can be incredibly powerful and effective; powerful enough to fight one of the strongest militaries around today to a standstill. That power comes at a great cost. That price must be paid if the movement becomes successful, and almost invariably the price poisons the very heart of the spiritual practice from which the movement sprung.
The very existence of a social movement with a religious identity accentuates and deepens divides between religious identities. Hezbollah has become a bogeyman for America, and, in a way, a very hostile public face for Shi'ite Muslims in general. In Lebanon, its existence and power has made an already bad case of sectarianism much worse.
The worst outcome is having a religious based social movement gain power. As systems of governments go, theocracies are just about as awful as it gets. I would have hated living in old Tibet at least as much as in modern Saudi Arabia or Spain of the Very Catholic Ferdinand and Isabella.
Tikkun olamHad I been a Lebanese Shi'ite in the 1960's, I would have enthusiastically supported the Movement of the Disinherited. If I was a South American Catholic clergyman, I would embrace Liberation Theology. If I was a Burmese monk, I would use that special position in society to resist the military junta.
But I'm not.
The divide between Muslims and Westerners—both Christians and those who consider themselves heirs to the Enlightenment—is the single greatest structural threat to world peace today. Islamophobia in the West has its flip side among Muslims, and those who are working to bridge the divide rather than widen it seem to have their voices drowned out ever more effectively. I am not convinced that adding yet more social movements with sectarian identities would help with this problem. It did not help for Lebanon. I do not see any reason why it should help for the world.
Tikkun olam—healing the world—is a Hebrew expression for a universal concept. There is an imperative to heal the world in any spiritual practice. The bodhisattva vow is to liberate all beings. To defer that to some future date when you have first become perfectly enlightened yourself empties it of all meaning. A spiritual practice that has no ethical component is not worthy of the name. Anyone sincerely pursuing such a practice will find himself practicing not just on the zafu, or in church, or when reciting the Shahada. There is not the smallest shred of doubt in my mind about that.2
Whether that engagement should be made under the banner of that particular practice is a different and more complex matter. In the circumstances where I find myself, I choose not to do so. I would not wish to participate in a sangha that came with political baggage. I believe that in the context of an open society where opportunities for social and political engagement abound, there are better ways to take my practice to the world. Some of these ways certainly involve political activity. Just not under the banner of Buddhism.
Recommended readingHala Jaber: Hezbollah: Born with a Vengeance
1The Druze of Lebanon are rather similar to Buddhists in many of their religious ideas. They organized into a highly effective—and bloody—militia as well.
2No, I don't think the converse is true—that a spiritual practice is a prerequisite for wanting to 'heal the world,' whatever that may mean. I've wanted to do that a great deal longer than I've had anything resembling one.