Engaged Buddhism, Anger, and Retribution

| June 13, 2017
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Many Western philosophers admit that Buddhism is a rich philosophy. It has a plausible theory of personal identity: the separate self is merely a conventional concept, which can become dangerously addictive.  It also contains a theory of wellbeing: the ideal state is the calm contentment that comes with realising one’s deep interconnections with the rest of the world.1 But can Buddhism make important contributions to the field of political philosophy?

Within the wide and varied world of Buddhism, one area to look for an accessible and plausible political philosophy is “Engaged Buddhism”: a movement led by figures such as Thich Nhat Hanh, Robert Aitken, the Dalai Lama, Sulak Sivaraska, Maha Ghosananda, and Joan Halifax.2 Contemporary in its expression, potentially metaphysically minimalist in its commitments, and practical in its focus – it seems as good a place as any to find a political theory in Buddhism.

I will briefly sketch some of the hallmarks of Engaged Buddhism. The prime political virtue seems to be peace. Prominent Engaged Buddhists mention the value of human rights, but often with an instrumental justification, as a necessary condition for peace.3 The emphasis (as with Care Ethics) is less on building the right institutions than on fostering the right relationships, including one’s relationships with oneself. Engaged Buddhists stress that political change occurs via individual transformation. When Thich Nhat Hanh spoke to the U.S. Congress in 2003, instead of recommending particular policies, he asked that the representatives practice mindful breathing on the way to work.4 The attitude of Engaged Buddhism towards action-guiding principles is one of pragmatic particularism. Engaged Buddhists appear to be concerned first and foremost with finding skillful means (upaya) to reduce suffering. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “You cannot prefabricate techniques of nonviolent action and put them into a book for people to use… if you are alert and creative, you will know what to do, and what not to do.”5

These particularist, relationship-focused elements prevent us from finding an Engaged Buddhist view “off the shelf” to satisfy those who see political philosophy as the project of finding and applying just principles for the basic structure of society. 6 But Engaged Buddhists do make a valuable contribution to one long-standing problem in Western political philosophy. To achieve peace, they say, we must eschew retributive justice—the practice of inflicting penalties on wrong-doers because it is what they supposedly deserve.7 We find many examples of this in practice. The Vietnamese Nhat Hanh led a courageous movement during the war in his country that refused to side with either the North or South, and since has organised healing retreats for American veterans of the Vietnam war.8  In Cambodia, at the end of the conflict with the Khmer Rouge, Maha Ghosananda led Cambodians on popular peace walks, including through zones of simmering conflict. Ghosananda, along with other Buddhist leaders, according to Sallie King, resolutely rejected calls to initiate for war crimes trials or a truth commission at the end of the conflict.9 As well as practicing equanimity in the midst of conflict, Engaged Buddhists also advocate that others free themselves from the bonds of a recriminatory mindset.10

Engaged Buddhists propose three reasons why performing or institutionalising retribution is wrong. The first is the familiar pragmatic reason: that retribution is too close to retaliation, which sets up a cycle of recrimination that never ceases. “It is a law of the universe,” writes Ghosananda, “that retaliation, hatred, and revenge only continue the cycle and never stop it.”11

The second reason is that Buddhism’s non-essentialist theory of personal identity suggests we are more intimately connected with those who do wrong than we often want to think. In his discussion on his widely anthologised poem, “Call Me by My True Names,” Nhat Hanh recounts that, on hearing of a refugee girl raped by a pirate at sea, he immediately sought retribution on the pirate. However, this changed. “I learned after meditating for several hours that I could not just take sides against the pirate. I saw that if I had been born in his village and brought up under the same conditions, I would be exactly like him. Taking sides is too easy.”12 In other work from the early 90s he goes further, emphasizing what Buddhists see as the ultimate truth—that we are intimately connected with our apparent enemies.Who is President Bush? President Bush is us. We are responsible for the way he feels, for everything he does.”13 If Nhat Hanh is seriously suggesting that you or I could personally be held responsible for actions or motivations of the U.S. commander-in-chief, that would be ridiculous. Likewise, there is no doubt that Nhat Hanh sees the rape of the refugee as deeply wrong, and he has devoted much of his energy to assisting refugees. But if the words are performative—emphasizing the lack of a substantial separate self in order to generate compassion for an “enemy”—his words might replace a desire for revenge with a commitment to peace.

Finally, Engaged Buddhists also point out that retributive punishment, to the extent that it is justified by anger, or legitimises anger, harms ourselves.14  Anger, to the Engaged Buddhists, belongs to the class of kleshas: “poisons” or “afflictions.” Through mindfulness (non-judgmental awareness of immediate experience) we might realise just how physically and emotionally painful it is to be in a state of anger—“anger burns the mind and the body.”15 Furthermore, anger tends to function in a feedback loop: it becomes both the cause and the effect of seeing ourselves as fundamentally separate from and above others.16 It is only when anger falls away that, Buddhists say, we find the peace of true, interconnected happiness.

Compare the Engaged Buddhist view with Martha Nussbaum’s recent position in Anger and Forgiveness.17 Nussbaum, like the Engaged Buddhists, sees anger and retributive punishment as deeply linked, and argues that anger (in its typical form) is not an appropriate political emotion. Nussbaum leaves us understanding both the importance and difficulty of relinquishing anger, but unsure of a systematic way to do so. Whatever else can be said about the Engaged Buddhist view, it does go further, with an account of the appropriate tools to overcome this retributive impulse and special reasons to motivate each of us individually to do so.

Despite the numerous obstacles we face in drawing from Buddhism to inform political philosophy, I believe the Engaged Buddhist perspective enriches a discussion of retributive justice. What other problems in political philosophy might also benefit from a charitable exploration of Engaged Buddhism?


For more on Buddhism’s relevance to ethics & international affairs, see Amartya Sen’s 2014 essay, “The Contemporary Relevance of Buddha.”

  1. Owen Flanagan, The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011) is a fine example of a contemporary analytic philosopher’s engagement with a version of Buddhism stripped of extravagant metaphysics.
  2. For this “Fourth Vehicle” of Buddhism see Christopher S Queen, “Socially Engaged Buddhism,” in A Companion to Buddhist Philosophy, ed. Steven M Emmanuel (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013). See Matthew J Moore, Buddhism and Political Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016) for a good account of political theory in canonical Buddhism (as well as the 1850-1950 period).
  3. See, e.g. Thich Nhat Hanh, Love in Action: Writings on Nonviolent Social Change (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1993) ch. 12. Tenzin Gyatso Human Rights and Responsibilities (Speech delivered to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights) available in Tenzin Gyatso, The Political Philosophy of His Holiness the Xiv Dalai Lama: Selected Speeches and Writings (New Dehli: Tibetan Parliamentary and Policy Research Centre, 1998).  Google searches for “Engaged Buddhism” and “peace” return twice as many hits as “Engaged Buddhism” and “justice.”
  4. Thich Nhat Hanh, “There Is No Path to Peace. The Path Is Peace (Address to Congress September 10, 2003) ” available at: https://plumvillage.org/letters-from-thay/thich-nhat-hanh-address-to-us-congress-september-10-2003/ (accessed June 7 2017)  (2004).
  5. Nhat Hanh, Love in Action: Writings on Nonviolent Social Change. (45)
  6. See Flanagan, The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized. p. xii and 122 and Somparn Prompta, An Essay Concerning Buddhist Ethics (Bangkok: Chungkalorn University Press, 2008) p.111 for this kind of reaction.
  7. Engaged Buddhists are typically not so idealistic as to suppose that we can do without the deterrent effect of punishment. See, e.g. Gyatso, The Political Philosophy of His Holiness the Xiv Dalai Lama: Selected Speeches and Writings. Ch. 24.
  8. Sallie B King, Socially Engaged Buddhism (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2009) p. 82
  9. Ibid. (p. 93)
  10. Sallie King tells a particularly interesting story in which Buddhist mediators to the Palestine-Israel conflict were struck, much more than mediators of other faiths, by the way both sides seemed to be “nourishing their suffering” by holding onto the wrongs of the past. Ibid., (p. 36).
  11. Maha Ghosananda, Step by Step (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1992) p.69
  12. Nhat Hanh, Love in Action: Writings on Nonviolent Social Change. p. 107
  13. Ibid. p. 78
  14. Of course, proponents of retributive justice might argue that the impulses that attract people to retributive institutions are irrelevant to the justification of those institutions. Instead, they might say, considerations of fairness or what people deserve might directly support retributive institutions. I find this view implausible, and in any case the retributivist still has to justify why such institutions given their risk of  legitimizing anger as an independent response to wrongdoing.
  15. Ghosananda, Step by Step. p. 58.
  16. See Robert Aitken, The Mind of Clover: Essays in Zen Buddhist Ethics, vol. 1 (Berkeley: North Point Press, 1984) ch. 10 and Daniel Goleman, Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama (New York: Bantam, 2008) esp. ch. 4.
  17. Martha C Nussbaum, Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016)
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