One of the recurring, and more controversial, themes in my dissertation was Śāntideva’s strong suspicion toward political involvement, as when he proclaims that texts on law and politics (da??an?ti) are fruitless and lead to delusion. When I first presented a chapter of the dissertation at a workshop, a colleague was critical of my attempt to use Śāntideva as a resource for contemporary ethical reflection. I don’t remember his exact words, but they ran along the lines of: “We cannot today accept an ethical system that does not involve working for political change.” For him, Buddhism could only now be acceptable if it was Engaged Buddhism. You can find similar points made in many other places; my friend and occasional mentor Jeff Kripal frequently insists (in the joint article Quietism and Karma, for example) that “quietistic” ascetic traditions cannot be “an adequate resource for contemporary ethics.”
But why should this be? The most typical argument has to do with a variety of “after”s: rhetorically, it is assumed that “after colonialism, after Auschwitz and Hiroshima, after Gandhi’s satyagraha…” political inaction is morally suspect or even unethical. (The quote is from Jeff’s book Crossing Boundaries, pp. 56-7.) I’m skeptical of such claims. History is full of genocides, massacres and struggles, dating back as far as it is recorded. What, if anything, makes our age different? Political quietism has been defended as perfectly ethical, for about as long as it has existed. Why shouldn’t it be similarly defended now?