17th Karmapa: Engaged Buddhism as a Humanist Spirituality

I would like to respond to the thoughtful critiques that people have posted of a recent post, “Buddhism as a Practice, Not a Religion.” I appreciate the critiques because it makes me rethink and clarify my position.

51DQDCqXsyL._SL300_In response, I would like to present the ideas of Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the 17th Karmapa, from his book The Heart is Noble: Changing the World from the Inside Out (2014, Shambhala Publications). This beautiful book is a primer of engaged Buddhism, covering a wide range of social justice issues in the global context, and elucidating a Buddhist response. He proposes the practice of Buddhism as a humanist spirituality:

In this book, I have been outlining what could be called a kind of humanist spirituality. Of course, I am drawing on what I have learned from Buddhist teachings. Yet everything I have been saying is a logical consequence of the interdependence that binds us to others and to the planet. You could come to these conclusions yourself, because they are grounded in observations and experiences that anyone could have, regardless of religious orientation. When a truth is universal, it cannot belong to any single religion—or any singular secular view either. 

I am suggesting ways to look at the world and to live life that do not require any particular religious affiliation. I am doing so with the hope that this book might serve anyone who wishes to live a fuller, more compassionate, and more meaningful life. (O.T. Dorje, The Heart is Noble: Changing the World from the Inside Out, 2014, Shambhala Publications, p. 143).

Although the 17th Karmapa likens his approach to humanist spirituality based on Buddhist teachings, he does not cherry-pick or water down those teachings for a general audience. The first chapters of the book get right into the thorniest dharma teachings of Buddhism, non-self and emptiness, or anatta and shunyata, and he applies these teachings to the practice of engaged Buddhism.

I think this approach, practicing Buddhism as a humanist spirituality, is particularly relevant for engaged Buddhists. We must necessarily work across religions and cultures on issues that affect broad segments of the world’s population. We must be flexible, open-minded, without prejudice, and completely open to the faiths and secular ideas of people who are very different from us. I think this is also why Sulak Sivaraksa cautioned participants at the last conference of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship not to limit their social justice work to working only with “card carrying Buddhists”, but to work with all people of all beliefs and practices, and with secularists.

My experience of my own path is that it does not fit into any one Buddhist lineage or community. My path cannot be contained by any one Buddhist organization. I draw from Theravadin and Mahayana practices, from yoga and certain Hindu dharmic practices, and from secular humanism. I also have the experience of more than two decades with 12 Step Recovery groups, in which we must learn to respect everyone’s “higher power”, whatever it is, whether it be “God” or a particular religion or spirituality, secular humanism or atheism. This is the kind of spiritual community that I am accustomed to, so that I find it difficult to be part of a group that has only one way of viewing the spiritual life and tends to exclude all others. But I am not a Libertarian, as some have suggested. On the contrary I am deeply communitarian—but I define “community” as beyond just my particular spiritual practice. My community is my neighbourhood and my city. It extends globally and includes people of many different faiths, spiritualities, and secular ideas.


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