Buddhist Activism and Public Policy: An Interview with Jonathan Watts of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists

by Matt B. on July 31, 2012

Jonathan Watts. Photo courtesy of Watts.

Jonathan Watts. Photo courtesy of Watts.

Jonathan Watts is a member of the executive board of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB). He is also the coordinator of Think Sangha, a Buddhist think tank affiliated with INEB.  In addition, he is a fellow at the Jodo Shu Research Institute in Tokyo, a fellow at the International Buddhist Exchange Center in Yokohama, and the author or editor of several books on engaged Buddhism and social justice.

This interview took place via telephone on July 2.

MATT BIEBER: Let’s start with Think Sangha and the International Network of Engaged Buddhists. You’ve described Think Sangha as a venue in which you and others analyze social problems through a Buddhist lens – in which you try to “to think like a Buddhist.” What does it mean to think like a Buddhist?

JONATHAN WATTS: We feel like there are a lot of people who are socially engaged who, as another friend said here, “just happen to be Buddhists”. They’re engaged and they’re Buddhists, but their Buddhism is not really informing their social action. They tend to understand social issues using other frameworks, like Marxism for example, and not bringing concepts and ways of thinking unique to Buddhism to their social activism.

A really influential book and essay has been Ajahn Buddhadasa’s Dhammic Socialism, written in the 1970s. In [that book] he talks about the difference between Marxism and the socialism of the day and what he understands as Buddhist socialism.

That kind of spirit and that kind of thinking is what’s behind Think Sangha. We’re looking at the importance of engaged Buddhism on a certain level – what’s special about Buddhism that we can bring to social issues? We feel like Buddhism brings a lot of different important perspectives, so that’s why we try to think like Buddhists.

Diana Winston wrote a good essay on this called A Socially Engaged Buddhist Methodology. She has these different categories: One is to find textual resources, so can we go back and find something that the Buddha said that’s related to the social issue that we’re working on and use it as a means for legitimizing our action or developing our thought.

Another one is socializing or applying Buddhist principles and themes. This is something that A.T. Ariyaratne, the founder of the Sarvodaya Movement in Sri Lanka, did a tremendous amount of. An example of this is re-expressing the classic teaching of the Four Noble Truths as: What’s the social problem? What are the causes, especially looking at structural and cultural violence? What’s the vision? How do we realize it?

And thirdly there’s the aspect of radical creativity in Buddhist practice. If I’m a seriously practicing Buddhist, then much of what I do will embody Buddhist principles, so I will act out of my Buddhist creativity.

We’ve had – I wouldn’t call it a tension; it’s sort of more of a different flavor. In our work in Think Sangha, we have people like me and Santikaro (a leading disciple of Buddhadasa) and other people who come from Theravada backgrounds who love to follow the second style, kind of Abidhamma-like – taking principles and applying them and thinking about modern society using Buddhist conceptual models. And some of our Zen friends dislike that, feeling it is artificial. They tend towards the third style of radical creativity, trying to speak more directly, and not using overly conceptualized models. I think both styles are useful.

MB: Right – various schools of Buddhism think about social problems pretty differently. So, when you say that you strive to think like a Buddhist, are you calling on what you take to be a common set of resources across all of Buddhism? Or is that statement more aspirational– that you think this is the best of what Buddhism has to offer and you’re therefore claiming the label?

I could also see self-identifying in this way for strategic reasons – knowing that this will have a cachet for a certain sector of the population, that it will lend you credibility and influence.   

JW: Well, I think fundamentally we use the word “Buddhist” as an identity marker – we’re proclaiming our identity. We’re first and foremost Buddhist, maybe even before we’re social activists (‘socially engaged’ Buddhism is a modifier of ‘Buddhist’). So I think the common grounding is that we’re Buddhists, and then we have become socially active.

Obviously, there are people who became socially active first and then became Buddhists later. I mean, there are plenty examples of that, like our colleague Alan Senauke who was a student radical at Columbia University in the 60s and then came into Buddhism later. But eventually what happens is that Buddhism becomes the core identity, because it’s seen as the grounding for social work, and without that grounding, you can lose what we feel are essential aspects of social activism, like non-violence, open-mindedness, and holding suffering without over-reacting.

In INEB, almost everyone agrees that if they don’t have that Buddhist identity (which means that they’re a Buddhist practitioner), then they won’t be able to properly do their social work or accomplish what they want to accomplish, because the Buddhist practice offers them a variety of really important tools for grounding themselves and understanding how to deal with others.

We talk about three different levels of engagement. There are the tools that you use for personal practice that help keep you grounded, that can help keep you from burning out and that help to see how to deal with the world. Then there are relational tools that Buddhism has for dealing with others, dealing with enemies, dealing with difficult people. And then at the third level are the Buddhist tools for understanding the world and how to see and understand society.

MB: I just finished a book called The Great Awakening by the progressive evangelical thinker Jim Wallis. He argues that the most successful social movements have typically been led by people of faith. Without faith, he thinks, it’s more difficult to maintain the motivation necessary for social activism.

I don’t remember whether he says so outright, but it seems pretty clear that he’s referring to faith in some sort of metaphysical being. You, on the other hand, are saying, “Well, our identity [and one might call it a religious identity] is very important to our capacity for social activism, because it provides crucial personal and communal resources. But none of that requires a faith in anything other than the world as we see it and as we’ve come to understand it.” In other words, it doesn’t require metaphysics.

JW: Yes, that’s Buddhism! But regardless of whether you believe in the metaphysical or not, we share with people of other faith communities the feeling that you need to be grounded in a spirituality that gives you a world view, an understanding of the meaning of life, and an ethical and moral compass. And whether I believe that Christianity is wrong or right because they have a metaphysical view becomes much less important – or almost not important – when I see Christians doing social work and manifesting what I think are not Buddhist but rather Dharmic principles through their actions and behavior.

One of the great things about engaged Buddhism – and then on the broader level, engaged spirituality – is that it cuts across doctrinal lines. In INEB, we’ve had many years of fruitful relationships with people from other religions based on common commitments to social issues. And at INEB conferences, we have people who come together, who probably if you had them at just a Buddhist conference or a Buddhist scholars’ conference, they might not be able to become friends because they’re coming from different doctrines or may not even really like each other’s Buddhism. But within INEB, they find that the social issues – dealing with people’s suffering – become their common ground, and then they connect on that level. And then they become close or they become friends because they find they have solidarity on the same social issues and they have the same social views.

And that’s great, because it becomes a way of cutting through stumbling blocks. You know, “Do I have to go and talk to that Tibetan person? They believe in reincarnation.” Or you’ve seen all these silly stereotypes and viewpoints, you know. The Theravada people believe the Mahayana people subscribe to some kind of later cultic offshoot of Buddhism, while Mahayana people believe Theravadans are stuck in some kind of selfish Buddhism of personal enlightenment. At the last INEB conference, we had these two guys who became really good buddies who are on the absolute opposite ends of the Buddhist spectrum: One is a Sri Lankan monk and the other is a guy here in my office in Yokohama belonging to a new Buddhist denomination that is completely lay. So, from a Buddhist standpoint, they have nothing in common. Their respective Buddhisms are almost unintelligible to each other, but they became good friends.

MB: Let’s talk a bit about Think Sangha. Can you describe how the organization got started?

JW: It was there in kernel form since the beginning of INEB in 1989. At the INEB conference in 1992, we created a mini-forum, called the “Buddhism and Social Analysis” group, with people who wanted to think about social issues from a Buddhist standpoint. That group met every year until 1995, when we held our own separate conference called The Dhammic Society: Towards a Vision of Engaged Buddhism. Finally, it became Think Sangha proper in 1997.

MB: One of the first issues the group thought and wrote about was modern consumption patterns. Since that time, Think Sangha has dealt with issues ranging from globalization to violence in the modern world. What has Think Sangha been working on more recently?

JW: Our most recent meeting was in March of 2011 in India. We had agreements and ideas to have a project come out of it, like we usually do, but in the middle of the conference, the tsunami and nuclear disaster went down in Japan and I’ve been sort of in a crisis mode here, dealing with my own life and dealing with what was to me more emergency activism that needed to be done, and so I made the book This Precious Life: Buddhist Tsunami Relief and Anti-Nuclear Activism in Post 3/11 Japan, just published this past Spring.

Right now, Think Sangha’s in a bit of a dormant place. That doesn’t mean that the kind of things Think Sangha was doing are dormant. If you look around, you continue to see engaged Buddhists who are writing and developing their understandings of engaged Buddhism in a Think Sangha-type manner, especially many of our core Think Sangha members like Alan Senauke and David Loy here in the States. One of our recent goals has been to put together a training manual on how to do various kinds of workshops on engaged Buddhism to help people develop an understanding of engaged Buddhism and an understanding of society from a Buddhist standpoint, and then some ideas about how to use those understandings as grounds for activism.

MB: If I understand correctly, then, INEB is a forum in which engaged Buddhists from all over the world can get together, bridge differences, and talk about social problems in a somewhat more general way. Think Sangha, on the other hand, is more focused on developing precise conceptual models, analyses, and critiques. Is that fair?

JW: Sort of. Think Sangha is just one of many different interest groups within INEB. The way you just explained it, it sounds like they’re sort of two parallel organizations, which they aren’t. Think Sangha’s very much within INEB and an example of an INEB activity. It’s people from a lot of different countries coming together on a common interest and working together collaboratively. INEB’s been really growing recently, so we have a number of these sub-groups now. We have a group on the environment that’s going to stage a major international conference in Sri Lanka at the end of September. We have a Buddhist economics group. We have a group that does training for youth, developing young Buddhist social leaders. And this doesn’t even take into account what’s probably a more common INEB method, which is just simply collaborations between two or three different groups or people.

MB: You described some of the interaction between people from different parts of the Buddhist world. It strikes me that these interactions would be smoothest at the most general level, and that they’d become more challenging as the ideas in play become more conceptually specific. When Think Sangha seeks to build or apply conceptual models to social problems, then, what does the process of analysis look like within the group? How does it sort between various Buddhist perspectives?

JW: That’s a problem for certain kinds of people but not a problem for other kinds of people. Some people aren’t conceptual; some people aren’t even ideological. The fundamental ethos of INEB is what we call kalyana-mitta, which is spiritual friendship. So the foundation is creating relationships, and we do that at our meetings. That grounds us before the ideology comes in, so we have people who differ greatly on a number of issues, from their own approach to Buddhism to their ways of understanding society, yet they are still able to be collaborative because the culture that we’ve created is to put the relationship before any of those differences.

MB: I don’t mean to harp on disagreements –

JW: No, that’s fine. Sulak is somebody who believes one of the core components of kalyana-mitta is to critically challenge each other. In this way, he never shies away from, and often incites, disagreements.

MB: Are there are instances in which there are conceptual disagreements, despite the relationships that have been created? If so, how are those disagreements settled, practically speaking? What kinds of decision-making processes does INEB use? Are there voting mechanisms?

JW: No. What happens is if the conceptual problems are too big, then people decide not to work together. It becomes like a dating system; people may meet each other, become quite interested, work a bit together and find that their approaches are a bit irreconcilable and then they decide not to work together anymore, but they still remain friends. At the last Think Sangha meeting, we were in India. The Indians are already naturally argumentative and ideological and they differ on a number of positions, both in terms of Buddhism and social activism. As we as a network have recognized the importance of the revitalization of Buddhism in India, we have almost formed a sub-INEB group working on Indian issues and trying to get all the different Indian communities that we work with to overcome their differences and work in solidarity together.

At the last INEB conference, we had a bit of a row. We had a plenary session on “The Future of the Sangha.” One of the speakers was a member of the TBMSG, one of the Ambedkharite groups in India, who don’t have fully ordained bhikkus. They have ordained laypeople. It was funny because he got criticized not by orthodox Theravada people or from any other countries with traditions that put the monastic traditions at the center; he got criticized by other Indians, some of whom were also from the same, previously-untouchable backgrounds, saying, “Well, if we follow the way of your Sangha, there won’t be a Bhikkhu Sangha anymore; the Bhikkhu Sangha will be gone in a hundred years if we follow your way,” and so on and so forth. I was in charge of moderating this plenary, and it got quite charged for a bit. But that is the culture of INEB, very much set by Sulak; and so we aired our views, but it didn’t damage our conference or our general solidarity as a network of “spiritual friends”.

MB: Let’s talk about the relationship between INEB and the broader public, and whether you see tradeoffs in self-identifying as Buddhists when you work in the public square. (I’m sure this differs in various countries.)

On one hand, I can imagine how identifying openly in this way would allow you to announce your identities, create solidarity within the group, and provide a kind of support and foundation for your activism.

On the other hand, as you pointed out, it’s an identity marker, one that might unintentionally exclude folks that you wish to – and otherwise be able to – attract. Does INEB worry about this?

JW: Absolutely. There are two edges to it. There are a lot of people in INEB who don’t even have particularly Buddhist organizations – they’re just doing a kind of social work and they almost keep their Buddhist identity in the back. They don’t really hide it, but they keep it in the back and they seek to connect with people more on the basis of what they are doing as a social issue.

But there are quite a lot of people in INEB who sail into the wind. They realize that presenting themselves as socially engaged Buddhists is not going to attract a huge mainstream audience. But we believe so strongly in the viewpoint of engaged Buddhism that we fly into the wind anyway, and on two levels.

One is within Buddhism itself; we see that engaged Buddhism is an essential way of understanding Buddhism, that there are too many Buddhists who have fallen into the Buddhism stereotype, which is like, “We should not be connected to the world somehow; we should be off meditating or just doing our own religious thing.”

And then on the other level, which is flying into the face of basically secular, material society and going, “There needs to be a place for progressive spirituality/religion” – it’s not even secular society; it’s also the spread of intolerant fundamentalist religion. So there’s a certain amount of, you could almost say “evangelical engaged Buddhism,” in that a lot of us are out there going, “We really believe in this viewpoint. And yes, maybe we’re not attracting hordes of fans but we believe this perspective is really important and that it needs to be made, whether people necessarily like it or not.”

A lot of our role models were iconoclastic and persevered in the face of a lot of criticism from the mainstream. Buddhadasa, Sulak, Thich Nhat Hanh and Ambedkar – these are all people who ended up being hugely appreciated by history and hugely appreciated in the end, but in the beginning they weren’t.

I think there’s an understanding that one can’t be fundamentalist when it comes time to sit down and work – that you have to connect with people. I think there’s a strong ecumenical thrust in INEB – we seek to practice ecumenical values. You have to put aside issues and be able to talk to people in a regular way.

But at the same time, there’s also what we consider important viewpoints. So it really depends on what you’re working on. A lot of INEB work may be consciousness-raising work, where you’re asked to give a talk about some social issue. And when INEB people do that, they don’t hide who they are. They come out and speak about Buddhism and the importance of Buddhism for social issues. But when you’re trying to help refugees in Burma, you have to put some of your ideological concerns in the background.

MB: I wanted to circle back to the Fukushima disaster. I know this is obviously very important to you, given the book. I hadn’t realized there was such a personal element to your experience.  

JW: Well, I live in Tokyo, on the edge of the disaster itself, and I’m affected by it directly. I have to watch out what I buy in the stores. I’m using bottled water for my daughter.

MB: Had the nuclear issue been a major concern for you prior to Fukushima?

JW: No, not at all. Not that I wasn’t concerned about it, but I’d never worked much on environmental issues or nuclear issues at all. Now, I’ve become deeply involved in it.

MB: And you’re fully opposed to all forms of nuclear power?

JW: Oh, yes, absolutely – absolutely anti-nuclear.

MB: What does that activism look like and how has it played out in the engaged Buddhist community in Japan? Is this something others in INEB are taking up as well, or is it more of a Japan-specific concern?

JW: Well, first of all, let me deal with Japan. Immediately after the whole tsunami-nuclear incident, I started doing translation and reporting to the international community on what was going on here within the Japanese Buddhist world. And as we moved along, I noticed that there was all this work being done for tsunami relief – very active and energetic and proactive, wonderful work – but there was nothing being done on the nuclear issue. Buddhists weren’t touching it. There were few radical priests who started coming out on the issue, or actually they’d already been out on the issue for some years. There’s a group called the Interfaith Forum for the Review of National Nuclear Policy that I profile in the book and that has been working since ’92. It happens that one of their leaders is a very close colleague of ours in JNEB [Japan Network of Engaged Buddhists] who I’ve become increasingly close with over the last couple of years named Rev. Hidehito Okochi.

So, my work last year was to try to put into English and spread awareness outside of Japan of what very few radical Buddhists were doing inside of Japan. But within Japan, I was doing my best to kind of stir the Buddhist world up and ask questions and see if anybody was going to do anything. In one of my articles in the book that I wrote, “Which Way to Peace?” I talk about Soka Gakkai and Rissho Kosei-kai, who since the 1950s have been opposed to nuclear arms and nuclear proliferation. They’ve devoted huge sums of money, made beautiful big conferences, talks with Gorbachev, all this kind of stuff, but they were dead silent after Fukushima. I kept asking their people, “Aren’t you guys going to come out with a statement? Don’t you have anything to say?” And they’re just sort of hemming and hawing.

Then slowly, things started coming out last fall, and fortunately, Rev. Yoshiharu Tomatsu (a leading engaged Buddhist in Japan and part of our INEB network) was the head of the Japan Buddhist Federation. Both I and Rev. Okochi (an old friend and colleague of Rev. Tomatsu) were always badgering him and teasing him and doing anything we could to say, “Isn’t the Japan Buddhist Federation going to do anything about this? This is an embarrassment.” It was an embarrassment because major parts of Japanese civil society had already come out on the nuclear issue and were very active on it. Japanese Buddhism, as has been its pattern over the years, just stuck its head in the sand. So, it’s really about trying to energize Buddhists here on the issue.

Did we have an influence? I don’t know. I guess we had an influence on Tomatsu-san and the priest above him, Rev. Taitsu Kono – the former president of the association who has become very stridently anti-nuclear. Fortunately, those two were the heads of the Japan Buddhist Federation and they pushed through a declaration, and so that has created a space for increasing awareness in the Buddhist world on the nuclear issue.

At the beginning of this year, I began noticing people in the Buddhist world – in my office, for example – were talking about the nuclear issue. They had never talked about it before. And then, by the spring, people were having serious discussions about it. I kept going to these demonstrations. I’ve got quite a network of priests on my Facebook page because I found that Facebook became a great way to network and find other Buddhist priests in Japan. (There are a lot of Buddhist priests who are socially active on Facebook, a lot of them doing tsunami relief work.) And so, I would announce all these nuclear demonstrations and tell them that Nipponzan Myohoji (the only Buddhist denomination consistently active in civil protest) will be there – and nobody would come. But did you see the big protest that happened last Friday (June 29)?

MB: No, I didn’t.

JW: There was a very large spontaneous anti-nuclear rally here last Friday, opposing the restart of the reactors – they were restarted on Sunday. It was a landmark event in that it was very large, very spontaneous, it got a bit out of control, and we got a group of ten Buddhist priests to come out. I couldn’t even get one before! We got a group of ten to come out, which will keep moving forward. The Buddhist world is getting increasingly and increasingly active.

So I guess my role here has been sort of stirring the pot as much as I can, because I know a lot of people. Stirring the pot and also trying to bring into public view – not so much in Japan but internationally – these people who’ve been working on the issue who are Buddhists.



{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Anonymous August 5, 2012 at 7:17 pm

I don’t know. The Buddha said that Buddhism would slowly deteriorate after about 2500 years and Monks would no longer be respected. When politics, which is what we are talking about here, replace the Buddha’s core teachings of how to free ourselves from this discontent, I’m afraid it will all fall apart. People no longer have time to dedicate to jhana, those transcendental states mentioned by the Buddha thousands of times in the suttas that are so difficult to attain yet so necessary for true wisdom to arise. Jhana is being substituted by cafeteria Buddhism – whatever feels good and keeps the mind occupied playing with samsara is okay. The true followers of Buddhism in the near future will be practicing by themselves, having friends, relatives, and society turn their backs on them for being so freakish and anti-social, kind of what the Buddha himself initially experienced.

Matt August 7, 2012 at 6:31 pm

Thanks for your thoughts, urown.  I wonder, though, whether we really want to divorce Buddhism and politics so thoroughly. After all, bodhisattva vows are all about helping to end the suffering of all beings, and the Buddha himself advised monarchs and the like. I agree that we don’t want to go down the route of spiritual materialism, but it seems to me that a politics which grows out of specific spiritual insights is possible.

Luv2 Play August 13, 2012 at 11:41 am

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Monday, August 13, 2012 8:38 AM

Just the fact that he felt that he needed to refrain from using the word Buddhism in his book shows the envronment we live in this country. Increasingly narrow minded and provincial. With such ongoing pressure aimed at dumbing down American society the idea of a resposive , improvisatory intellectual culture taking root and making a difference is beyond slim to none. The preference here has always been towards the reactionary and last minute in order to avoid as long as possible upsetting the mechanisms of profit and greed. The public at large for their part seem always content with the illusion of somebody somewhere taking care of the problem so that any knee jerk reactionary response to a situation passes as an excuse to stop giving it any attention. So I think he’s right in defining our economics as attention economics but that commodity is already pretty well locked up in the most supperficial pop culture aspects of our western model. If anywhere, the ideas of clear thinkers like this find an audience in developing countries who have a bit of distance from our propaganda and can see the hole we’re digging ourselves into. “American exceptionalism”? Less and less in areas that are constructive and more and more in areas that are destructive. Best praganda and social manipulation and control techniques in the world for example. Authoritarianism defended as freedom. Quite an achievement. He could just as well couch the whole consideration in “christian” terms and it still wouldn’t be recieved any more than as written. I’ve always maintained that improvisation is a way of life and a skill which people need a lot more training in. Thank you Cecil Taylor for that lesson recieved early in my life. It fundamentally allows one to move forward with an open mind and see thing more as they are and less as a formula just waiting to have the correct pre-existing elements plugged in. That kind of thinking leads to a sort of hierarchical approach wherein certain results or formulas are always given precedence. Plug that into a Judeo- Christian culture that sees the world in terms of “dominion” and it’s the perfect formula for rationalizing endless pillaging of the earth since personal wealth is seen as the highest expression of personal goodness and the epitomization of dominion. Hence: sacred capitalism. I’ll listen to Buddhists all day long if I don’t have to hear the lies of so called “free market capitalists”. There nothing free about capitalism, except maybe the consciences of a few exceptionally sociopathic “entreprenuers” like the Koch brothers. Rant, rant, blah, blah….

kavya July 1, 2013 at 3:43 am

‘The Buddha’ tells the story of his life. It also focuses on the Great Stupa at Amaravati, a large Buddhist monument built in south-eastern India.


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