Dharma of Social Innovation & Creativity

Engage! is the dharma of critical engagement. Engage! has explored numerous social justice issues, social problems, current events and politics. What Engage! has not focused on, up till now, is social innovation. I have considered in the past focusing on the Commons as a new form of social organization, but that seemed too narrow; the Commons only one form of social innovation. Similarly, the focus on current social problems, events and politics are reactionary, reacting to immediate crises. With the election of Donald Trump, and the inauguration of a White Supremacist regime, it seemed right and necessary to focus on the numerous crises that Trump’s white supremacist/fascist regime deliberately generates. Those crises continue and intensify as Trump’s regime continues through its electoral term. We must remain vigilant and oppositional. Engage! will continue to track these crises, but to examine them from the perspective of deep, intrinsic structures of racism, capitalism and social inequality.

Once again, I am shifting the contents of Engage! toward a particular direction, this time in a direction known popularly as social innovation. I chose social innovation because of its emphasis on social problems and problem solving, but from the long-term perspective, from the perspective of deep, intrinsic social structures and processes, sometimes called ‘the long view’, what Joanna Macy calls “deep time.”

Social innovation experiments with new models of social organization and innovative solutions. The emphasis is on experimentation and creativity. However, social justice is an integral part of any social innovation program. Social innovation begins with the premise that social injustice and inequality is at the core of most social problems and must be addressed at the core of innovative solutions.

The emphasis of social innovation is on creativity. Therefore, Engage! will continue to reference the arts as vital sources of creativity, innovation, cultural development and spiritual growth. I like to bring that same kind of artistic creativity into my exploration of dharma. My forays into Buddhist Naturalism has been an attempt at this kind of innovation, opening up the world of Buddhist doctrine and practice to whole new realm of knowledge and imagination.

Buddhism in the West, as it has been practiced up until now in convert communities (I cannot speak for Buddhism in Asia or western Asian communities since I have never had the experience), has focused on the preservation of a reconstructed tradition, tending toward orthodoxy, conservatism, quietism and disengagement from social issues. There has been much critique of this kind of practice (see Speculative Non-Buddhism) but little in the way of constructive alternatives or innovative practices. Much of the practice by convert communities in the West has been obsessed with authenticity, ‘getting it right’, exactly understanding and practicing Buddhism so as to present an ‘authentic’ Buddhist practice in the non-Asian West.

This emphasis on tradition and authenticity in convert western Buddhism has stifled innovation and creativity. One of the most interesting things I’ve learned about the way that contemporary Buddhists from India and South Asia practice Buddhism is that it is almost the mirror-opposite of western convert Buddhism. Buddhists in India, following Dr. Ambedkar, see the Buddha’s teachings as having  social implications that are immediate and obvious, particularly concerning social equality and the caste system. They see Buddha not as the ancient founder of a venerated tradition, but as a avatar of innovation, creativity, as a spiritual leader who went against tradition, who broke tradition, who created a completely new spiritual and social paradigm, drawn from ancient traditions, yes, but completely upending them, redefining them and creating something brand new out of them. In other words, they see the Buddha as a maverick innovator, not a traditionalist.

It is from that place that I begin again with Engage! focusing on social innovation and creativity, on devising experimental solutions to intransigent and long-term social problems, creating new models and visions for new societies.

If you would like to contribute to this project of social innovation and creativity, please contact me at sbartone22@gmail.com

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