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?
I’ll try and keep up with your current posts, Amod, but I also wanted to comment on this older one. As someone with strong Marxist tendencies before my Christian conversion, I have really struggled with this. The question concerns the role of instrumentalism, I think: by putting the glorification of God first, Christianity lets us labour for justice and peace without being responsible for a successful outcome. My experience of Marxism was of constant and inevitable failure, since injustice persists. I recently came across this quote from Thomas Merton, which I think nicely expresses my anxiety about trusting in an ultimate justice while living in a modern, goal-oriented world: “Contemplation in the age of Auschwitz and Dachau, Solovky and Karaganda is something darker and more fearsome than contemplation in the age of the Church Fathers. For that very reason, the urge to seek a path of spiritual light can be a subtle temptation to sin. It certainly is sin if it means a frank rejection of the burden of our age, an escape into unreality and spiritual illusion, so as not to share the misery of other men.” What this means for my behaviour in the world is something I’m just beginning to work out.
I would say Merton’s quote is an example of what I’m disagreeing with here. Humans have been capable of evil and brutality throughout recorded history, amply demonstrated by the record of that history. That’s one of the reasons why a Marxist worldview feels so much like an experience of failure; but in a sense it’s an argument for quietism in itself. There is a valuable peace that comes from being able to say: certain things are not my problem. If one feels that one cannot be happy because there are a billion miserable suffering people in the world, one simply increases the number to a billion and one. The Christian solution you mention is certainly preferable, since at least one can remain happy that way. But I’ve always been a little uneasy with the idea that the outcome doesn’t matter (the Bhagavad Gītā’s view as well). Surely the outcome is supposed to be the point?