August 11, 2010

Top Seven Challenges of Western Socially Engaged Buddhism

The following seven challenges were expressed by participants at the first major Symposium for Western Socially Engaged Buddhism taking place August 9-14, 2010.  The event is hosted by the Zen Peacemakers and you could check out detailed coverage of the Symposium at the Bearing Witness Blog.

Bernie Glassman

1. To practice social engagement as a Buddhist without being “drummed out of Buddhism” and accused of “staining the Dharma” (Bernie Glassman).

Glassman mentioned that such accusations had been leveled at him by peers in his early days as a pioneer of socially engaged Buddhism. Yet, he said, according to Dogen – the thirteenth century founder of Soto Zen Buddhism in Japan – “the Dharma cannot be stained.” Certainly, he implied, such an argument should not be used to restrict social action by Buddhists.

Alan Senauke, Bill Aiken, Mirabai Bush, Bernie Glassman

2. To sustain a radical and internationalist Dharma vision (Alan Senauke).

According to Senauke, the Buddha’s original vision was a politically radical, egalitarian one, which continues to be embodied by socially engaged Asian Buddhists today, such as Thich Nhat Hanh or the untouchables in India who engage in mass conversions to Buddhism in order to defy the restrictions of caste. We can’t limit our view of socially engaged Buddhism to the West, Senauke declared: “our labors are interwoven with those of people far away and out of our sight” across the oceans. He also mentioned Gary Snyder on the need for not only a Western social revolution, but for the inward-directed insights of the East.

4. To propagate a sense of hope (Bill Aiken).

Aiken also stressed the need to find an issue that “people of faith”—not only Buddhists—can coalesce around, and suggested that the environment could be such an issue. “Buddhists shouldn’t exist in a sealed vacuum apart from society,” he asserted. “We should cultivate our inner life, then decide what to do with it. The area for action is as broad as the universe,” and we need to find cause for optimism.

3. To have contemplative and mindfulness practices accepted by our broader society (Mirabai Bush).

Bush emphasized that the acceptance of such practices is better than it was 15 years ago, but resistance remains. She mentioned specifically universities, where mindfulness practice often is seen as an obstacle to critical thinking; and social activists, who find it hard to accept that they can work from compassion rather than anger; and lawyers, who ask, “How can I be a zealous advocate if I have compassion?” Nevertheless, Bush said, “The opportunities for practice among people you’d least expect to be open to it is extraordinary. We need to start by honoring where people are, and learn to speak their language without diluting the practice.”

5. To establish emotional and inner strength and balance, and cultivate wisdom and compassion (Mathieu Ricard).

Ricard added that compassion is about “removing suffering in all its forms, on the streets and in the world.” Moreover, compassion without action “is just sterile. When people respond to suffering by saying ‘it’s not my job’—I don’t see that; if something comes your way, engage in compassionate action.”

6. To support each other as socially engaged Buddhists (Bernie Glassman).

Glassman said that it’s necessary to do this without getting stuck on telling other Buddhists “you have to do it my way.” Buddhism teaches that we’re all interconnected, Glassman said, so why aren’t socially engaged Buddhists practicing this among themselves – why aren’t they working together more?

7. Packaging (Ari Pliskin)

Ari wondered what is the proper way to present effective methods for reducing suffering. How can we stay true to a Buddhist tradition, but not use terminology or religious trappings that trigger people’s prejudices and turn people off?

Ari and Kanji

Ari Pliskin and Author Steve Kanji Ruhl (above)

Photos by Clemens Breitschaft (

Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Open Enlightenment | The Ruthless Truth blog's picture

[...] The comments to Rev. Danny Fisher’s article Top Seven Challenges of Western Socially Engaged Buddhism, show just how the popular Buddhist scene prefers political paralysis over actual compassionate [...]

LaurelLorraine's picture

Being one small person here in the vastness of the Wild West, and having come from the roiling social activist source of the San Francisco Bay Area in the '60s and '70s, I find that as I am older, and -hopefully - more compassionate for myself, my activism takes on a more individual scale and this has moved it away from the politics. I work in a court system here, and daily I find opportunities to assist our "clients" in understanding legal rights and procedures and options. In doing so I find that I can help with other questions they have. Or I am able to spend a few moments with distraught individuals. It is amazing to me how in this environment I have had so many opportunites to "do good works". I believe now that these moments have long range effects for the clients, and the effort seems to bring out similar inclinations in my non-
Buddhist colleagues. When I have a moment of feeling powerless in the sea of ignorance and fear, I just anticipate the door opening for another moment to practice that compassion. The tougher the customer, the more hope I find for myself, and for a more subtle and more satisfying justice.
Thank you all for your work. Maybe someday I will find myself in a larger pond.

Bill Esterhaus's picture

I agree with Al, if socially engaged means mixing Buddhism with politics, it's not a good idea.

I believe that all Buddhism should be 'socially engaged' as we are meditating on compassion for all living beings and developing the wish to take away their suffering. When we meditate, it should be for others, not just ourself. Compassionate mental actions are underrated. What people don't understand is that developing compassion itself helps all living beings - it's not necessary to open a soup kitchen to show that you are compassionate, although it's good to help those practically who are less fortunate than ourselves.

What living beings really need, though, is the path to liberation otherwise sufferings such as poverty are simply going to be experienced in many future lives therefore we should find a way to give people imprints on their mental continuum that will help them in their future lives and guide them to liberation and enlightenment. I believe this is more important than the temporary benefit of improving social conditions. This is true socially engaged Buddhism.

christine ravenell's picture

What do buddhists believe? How did the buddhists religion start and by whom?

Al Jigen Billings's picture

I'm all for socially engaged Buddhists as long as the politics horse isn't pulling the Buddhist cart. For many socially engaged Buddhists, there politics appear more important than their Buddhism.

Twitter Trackbacks for Tricycle » Top Seven Challenges of We's picture

[...] Tricycle » Top Seven Challenges of Western Socially Engaged Buddhism – view page – cached Top Seven Challenges of Western Socially Engaged Buddhism August 11, 2010 Tweets about this link [...]

“Top Seven Challenges of Western Socially Engaged Buddhism” 's picture

[...] via the Tricycle Editors’ Blog: …Seven challenges were expressed by participants at the first major Symposium for Western [...]

Carlos's picture

I've been discussing this with some friends, and it'll be great to have the feedback of others. First of all, I'm very interested in learning more about the practices and work related to socially engaged Buddhism, and personally respect the pioneers who are making it.

At the same time, I can't avoid the impression that there's a dominance of a North American and Western European agenda, partly because of an earlier development of Buddhism in these countries; partly because there is not a deliberate and planned outreaching effort, so that Eastern Europe, Africa, Latin America and other regions also take part in a "Western Buddhism".

With the due respect for the great work being done, it's at the same time frustrating that the top 7 challenges above are related only to US or Western Europe, or when an internationalist approach mentions the East, as if it's implicitly considering the "West" represented. It feels like a Buddhist version of historical imperialism, through which the world history was written.

Kyle Lovett's picture

Certainly, as I have written before, it is important that while one can be a socially engaged Buddhist, being Buddhist does not require any type of social or political leaning. Buddhism has gotten a reputation as a religion, at least among converts, as being politically left. Indeed, the Asian community has many that tend to be more socially conservative, which is something not often mentioned in the convert community.

As more and more people are attracted to Buddhism, we are starting to see more centrists and even some conservatives interested in practice. Some may argue that socially engaged Buddhism is really apolitical, and that might be true, however it is important for those new to Buddhism to see that they don't have to shed their former identity to practice. Practice is practice, social justice is social justice, and there isn't some pre-ordained marriage of the two.