This paper shares findings from a recent qualitative study with 35 leading Zen Buddhist social activists in the United States. This research used a social constructionist grounded theory methodology to explore how its participants conceptualize and approach social action from the standpoint of Zen Buddhism. Participants in this research explicitly and implicitly discussed how Zen in the present-day USA integrates, adapts to, and critiques current social theory. For example, some participants viewed social theory as a demand for Buddhism to adapt beyond its historical tendencies (e.g., feminism requires Buddhism to reckon with its legacy of patriarchy). Other participants spoke in terms of social theory to describe the broad soteriological project of Buddhism (e.g., collective awakening in Buddhism necessarily includes a collective awakening to the ills of systemic oppression, including racism and colonialism). Participants also shared Buddhist critiques of social theory (e.g., Buddhism offers a way to acknowledge systemic oppression without falling into demonizing forms of identity politics). By examining this conversation between Zen and social theory–especially in a time and place of intense social-political divisions and crises–the findings of this study demonstrate how religion absorbs and influences the social discourses that surround it.
Senior Lecturer, Social, Therapeutic, and Community Studies, Goldsmiths, University of London, United Kingdom
Buddhism, Social Theory, Social Action, Syncretism
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