Where does this leave us? Concluding reflections on Humanistic Buddhism

Naomi Fastovky

Harvard Divinity School ’23

This blog post is the final piece in a five-part series on Taiwanese Humanistic Buddhism, written by Naomi Fastovsky as part of her Religion and Public Life Capstone Project at Harvard Divinity School, co-supervised by JLI. Read the first blog here. The second blog, on the Taiwanese Buddhist organization, Foguangshan, can be found here. The third blog, on the Dharma Drum Mountain organization, can be found here. The fourth blog, look at the role of Tzu Chi, can be found here.

This blog sought to look at the presence of Buddhism in the humanitarian sector by looking to one branch of Buddhism—Humanistic Buddhism—and spotlighting three giants in this arena, the international Taiwanese organizations Foguangshan, Dharma Drum Mountain, and Tzu Chi.

In telling the stories of each of these organizations, each blog post was threaded together by a common throughline of pushing back against the some popular ways of thinking about Buddhism and humanitarian work, including those that make Buddhism serve humanitarian goals rather than the other way around, fall into harmful stereotypes about what Buddhism should be rather than the diverse lived reality of what it is, and treat the presence of Buddhism in the sector as self-evident rather than emerging from a history of colonization and Christian missionary work. In sum, the blog is not designed to be a comprehensive reference tool, but rather a lens to practice problematizing certain assumptions that might not be in line with the humanitarian principles, namely neutrality and impartiality, and the Grand Bargain. Throughout, we tried to keep in mind the extreme diversity within not only the broader category of Buddhism, but also Humanistic Buddhism itself.

To do so, we looked first to Foguangshan and its founder, Hsing Yun, noting how Humanistic Buddhism has a long history enmeshed with European imperialism and Christian missionary work that shaped the way important Humanistic Buddhists like Tai Xu perceived the relationship between religion and society. In the end, we situated the notion of “doing good” in history, challenging its objectivity. We next focused on Dharma Drum Mountain and its founder Sheng Yen, discussing his use of the words “environmentalism” and “education” to tap into modern, secular discourses. Yet, we also pointed out how these words are not removed from Buddhist cosmological ideas of rebirth, karma, and salvation, which must be taken seriously. Finally, we turned to Tzu Chi and its founder Cheng Yen, not only noting how its founding is emblematic of the bias of “doing good” in the sector, but how the decolonial North-South framework is not sufficient to think in a nuanced way about powerful international organizations like the three examined here. How can we do justice to the work being done, recognize that it is itself a product of a colonial legacy, and still hold it to the standards of the Grand Bargain?

Of course, this blog was only surface level and vague in several spots. My hope is that the resources cited will be avenues for further reliable research for interested readers to follow up on their questions. Moreover, I have tried to present a view of religion that emphasizes multiple truths, plurality, and a degree of relativity. It should be understood that this is not the only legitimate view of religion, but one that reflects my own values, and bias, as a non-practitioner scholar. 

That being said, my hope is that this blog has exercised a muscle of critical thinking and served as a jumping off point for humanitarian practitioners who wish to work with the Buddhist organizations discussed or others in the future but are less familiar with East Asian, Asian, or Buddhist contexts.


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