The demonstrations in Hong Kong continue to drag on. Not long after they started, reports began to cover the involvement of Christian leaders in student and activist circles. The pugilistic Catholic reverend Joseph Zen, for example, expressed support for the protesters. The president of Hong Kong’s Methodists, Tin Yau Yuen, published a letter that avoided endorsing the Occupy movement while insisting that Christianity could never remain politically neutral. But on 5 October, the Hong Kong Buddhist Association released a statement urging that Buddhists and students at Buddhist schools should avoid the protest locations and nearby areas (and likewise exhort their friends and children to do so). The explicit reference to Buddhists and students at Buddhist schools was striking, implying that Buddhists should not even be present at the protests.
Buddhism has been gaining ground in China thanks to its apolitical outlook and aversion to partisan meddling. But this has been seized on as a weakness by religious groups that see themselves as more active on issues of social justice, and particularly those affiliated with Christianity. Yet John Dunne demonstrated in Buddhist Theology that this dichotomy is too simplistic. One of Buddhism’s most valuable lessons is the refutation of essentialism: that one person or group is inherently different from another (Dunne  2003). Activism uninformed by wisdom often creates fault lines between people, dividing them in a “them and us” narrative (and this has been nowhere more obvious than in the Hong Kong protests). So the goal of socially engaged Buddhism is to critique not only the oppression of a given group, but the essentialism within those groups too (Dunne  2003, 289). This is no mean feat since the line between identity (often seen as vital to community cohesion) and essentialism is blurred—yet it must be attempted.
The nature of socially engaged Buddhism is one of unattached involvement, reflecting the pair of wings that are wisdom and compassion. Enlightened beings appear in the universe and are infinitely compassionate, although their help is “indirect” because they help suffering beings to help themselves. But indirect assistance clearly does not mean indifferent abandonment. Shakyamuni Buddha was instrumental in revealing Amitabha Buddha’s 18th Vow of universal salvation, yet only serves as an advocate within the Pure Land sutras. The true architect of liberation, Amitabha, does not even appear or speak.
In the Contemplation Sutra, Shakyamuni appears before the jailed and suffering Queen Vaidehi, but teaches her the path to liberation rather than acting as the liberator. Buddhism also proposes that the power to benefit others is proportionate to the practitioner’s degree of awakening (Magliola 2006, 259). Compassion doesn’t operate on instinct alone, but in dialectic with wisdom.
A more impatient type of activist might respond with the reproach that not everyone is fortunate enough to encounter Buddhism in his or her lifetime, let alone train sufficiently in wisdom and compassion. This is an honest concern, since even the Buddha declared that to have the chance to meet and study the Dharma is exceedingly rare and precious. But it is perfectly possible to cultivate a “humanist” approach to Buddhist social justice: it is not so much that religion should leave politics or social activism, but that it should pervade all of sentient life and existence (Puri 2003, 289). Buddhism’s values of non-violence and responsibility to others can be applied universally without strict reference to Buddhism itself.
Can Buddhists be socially engaged while remaining ideologically and emotionally unattached? In Hong Kong, the question is whether Buddhists could have had more of a presence on the streets—not to support any particular side, but to bridge the physical and ideological divide between opposing parties, rather like a spiritual Médecins Sans Frontières. Maybe Buddhist temples and charities could have set up tents and booths where protesters and police alike could enjoy refreshments for free. When the scuffles and brawls broke out, perhaps Buddhists could have been present to physically protect belligerents from one another, without worrying how others might react to their mediation.
Another powerful statement might have been to hold a meditation “flash mob.” Despite its dramatic name, it simply means dozens (hundreds, if possible) of people appearing as one in a public setting and meditating. This was accomplished with great success in London by Plum Village on 2 June 2011. If one individual sat by the roadside to meditate, she would surely attract quizzical stares or giggles. But when hundreds of people meditated together in Trafalgar Square, passers-by lowered their voices while speaking on their phones or to their companions, often unconsciously. Footsteps became more measured and less sloppy or hurried. The entire plaza was, just for a while, purified of bustle and frenzied stress. Some even stopped to observe or join in. As one writer declared, “I have a history of unease about meditation in public places. . . . I don’t know if the exercise showed anybody anything or made any point at all. But I do know that for me it was a half an hour of purest sanity.”
As a meditation flash mob did not descend on Hong Kong, at least in the fray of the protests, one can only speculate as to whether it would have helped. But it is likely that the positive energy London enjoyed would have been worth recreating, especially when diffused in the epicenters of the protests like Mong Kok and Admiralty. The flash mob idea straddles the boundary between “indirect” and “direct” help: it is a show of physical presence, but at the same time places no demands on any side. To borrow a phrase claimed by Christians, it simply “bears witness.” Its only message is one of peace and serenity—a lotus amidst the muddy waters.
At its heart, Buddhism still teaches the interconnectedness of Indra’s Net. All gems reflect one another, no man is an island, and all beings are interdependent. It seems to follow that Buddhists are never truly detached from the politics of their society. Socially engaged Buddhism should therefore allow a “retreat” from the world, as the ancient arhats advised, and then, as in the ten ox-herding pictures of Zen, encourage bodhisattvic re-engagement with fresh eyes.
Dunne, John D. (2000) 2003. “On Essences, Goals and Social Justice: An Exercise in Buddhist Theology.” In Buddhist Theology: Critical Reflections by Contemporary Buddhist Scholars, edited by Roger Jackson and John Makransky, 275–92. London: RoutledgeCurzon.
Magliola, Robert. 2006. “Afterword.” In Buddhisms and Deconstructions, edited by Jin Y. Park, 235–70. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Puri, Bharati. 2003. “The Dalai Lama’s Formulation of Engaged Buddhism: Implications for Tibet and the International Community.” The Mongolian and Tibetan Affair Commission of the Republic of China: 282–307. Accessed online 21 October 2014 at http://www.mtac.gov.tw/pages/93/Bharati%20Puri.pdf.