Karl Marx wrote, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people” (in Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 1843).
It was particularly Christianity that Marx had in mind when he penned those oft-quoted words, for Christianity was clearly the dominant religion of Europe and Great Britain at the time. And to a certain degree Marx’s analysis was correct: most forms of popular Christianity at the time were individualistic and “other-worldly.” The focus of faith was on inner peace in the present and eternal bliss in the future.
Marx’s assertion about religion was also applicable to the religious tradition of India and Tibet (Hinduism and Buddhism). Through the centuries (millennia), those religions have stressed inner tranquility far, far more than social action.
In recent decades, there has been a new type of Buddhism, often referred to as engaged Buddhism (or sometimes socially-engaged Buddhism). This movement is particularly linked to the Vietnamese Thien (Zen) Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. But it is, clearly, a new form of Buddhism.
To a limited degree, the Dalai Lama has been linked with engaged Buddhism. But I did not get that impression from his public talk in D.C. on July 9 or from his essay titled “A Human Approach to World Peace” about which I wrote in my previous posting.
In fact, it seems that the Dalai Lama’s emphasis was much too individualistic, and his stress on inner happiness (regardless of the outward circumstances) was the kind of viewpoint that Marx was referring to when he called religion “the opium of the people.”
The emphasis on the individual and inner peace was long a feature of popular Christianity, to be sure. That was seen, for example, in Billy Graham’s Peace with God: The Secret Happiness (1953).
Perhaps that “fault” is even greater in Tibetan Buddhism, however. Meditation is its foundational practice. (The same is true for traditional Zen.) But here is the problem: meditation can be, and often is, an escape from the larger world rather than preparation for active engagement in seeking to solve the problems of society now.
There needs to be a two-way movement, such as Elizabeth O’Connor articulated well in her seminal book Journey Inward, Journey Outward (1968). Meditation or other means of cultivating the “inner” life, emphasis on what now is often called spirituality, is of great importance. But the “journey outward” is equally important.
Many Christians, doubtlessly, have not adequately implemented that needed two-way movement. But in his recent public talks as well in his previous essays, the Dalai Lama has not adequately dealt with the “nitty-gritty” of engagement with the problems of society either.
It is well and good for the Tibetan Buddhist leader to declare that “we must generate a good and kind heart, for without this, we can achieve neither universal happiness nor lasting world peace.” But to emphasize the development of a compassionate heart without a challenge to engage in societal change is, perhaps, to foster a mentality that proves largely to be “opium” for contemporary people.