Meditation In Action

The Emergence of Engaged BuddhismKenneth Kraft

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The advent of Buddhists who are concerned about world peace, human rights, the environment, and other sociopolitical issues is a development that challenges some common assumptions. Isn't Buddhism an inwardly focused religion that gives precedence to meditation over any kind of social activity? Isn't it contradictory to speak of a "socially engaged Buddhism"? While the heart of the tradition may indeed be a solitary spiritual quest, Buddhism also displays remarkable diversity, and there is increasing recognition of the ways in which Buddhists and their institutions become involved in the world. Understandably, Buddhism often appears to promote personal transformation at the expense of social concern. Some Buddhist teachings claim that the mind does not just affect the world, it actually creates and sustains it. According to this view, cosmic harmony is most effectively preserved through an individual's spiritual practice. Yet other Buddhists amend the notion that mind is the primary or exclusive source of peace, contending that inner serenity is fostered or impeded by external conditions. Buddhists who place importance upon social factors and social action believe that internal transformation cannot, by itself, quell the world's turbulence.

In China, countless generations of Confucianists accused Buddhists of withdrawing from the world out of selfishness. Wang Yang-ming (1472-1529) charged that Buddhists were "afraid of the troubles involved in the relationships between father and son, ruler and subject, and husband and wife; therefore [they] escape from these relationships." In Japan, Buddhism is faulted for becoming too subservient to the state. D. T. Suzuki, ordinarily a defender of Zen, did not exalt its role in the sociopolitical realm: "[Zen] may be found wedded to anarchism or fascism, communism or democracy...or any political or economic dogmatism." Most Western scholars have also tended to perceive Buddhism as world-denying, passive, or socially inept. Max Weber was one of the first to declare that Buddhist devotees carry the "asocial character of genuine mysticism...to its maximum."

Yet there are other specialists who have begun to question such interpretations. Instead they perceive in Buddhism a creative tension between withdrawal and involvement, an underlying synonymity between work on oneself and work on behalf of others. Evidence supporting this viewpoint is found in doctrine, in practice, in legend, and in history. Thus the preeminent virtues in Theravada Buddhism are self-restraint and generosity; in Mahayana Buddhism, the highest goals are wisdom and compassion. According to Tibetan scholar Robert Thurman, certain Mahayana texts reveal the outlines of a society that is "individualist, transcendentalist, pacifist, universalist, and socialist." Carried to an extreme, such interpretations envision an ideal Buddhism too far removed from its actual historical development. But the thrust of the argument is constructive: to show that the Buddhist tradition contains untapped resources for skillful social action and peacemaking, accessible to Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike.

It is noteworthy, in this regard, that the story of the Buddha's spiritual journey climaxes with his enlightenment but does not end there. Even as he was savoring the blissful state that followed his awakening, he was approached (in the traditional account) by a delegation of gods, who begged him to give up his private ecstasy so he could share his awakening with those who still suffered. This encounter and its outcome, however legendary, make the point that spiritual maturity includes the ability to actualize transcendent insight in daily life. The Buddha is said to have wandered across northern India for forty years, tirelessly teaching the dharma. His decision to arise from his seat under the Bo tree and go out into the world can be considered the first step of a socially engaged Buddhism. The Buddha's discourses, which had revolutionary force in the society of his time, include countless passages dealing with "this-worldly" topics such as politics, good government, poverty, crime, war, peace, and ecology.

A socially engaged Buddhism raises compelling questions. For instance, is it necessary to prove that engagement was an integral feature of original Buddhism, or is it enough to demonstrate that it can be derived naturally from Buddhism's past? What are the differences between Buddhist-inspired activism and activism that arises from other religious or secular belief systems? A number of challenging practical issues also emerge: Is it possible to become involved without becoming attached? Must one be partially or fully enlightened before one can act in the world with true wisdom and compassion? Such topics are of particular concern to Buddhism's new adherents in the West.

The central Buddhist tenet of nonviolence is freely interpreted and applied by contemporary Buddhist activists, in part because traditional sources cannot provide case-by-case guidelines for behavior. Are there situations in which a violent response would be justified? Though certain scriptural passages contend that a Buddhist "must not hate any being and cannot kill a living creature even in thought," one influential sutra states that in order to protect the truth of Buddhism it may be necessary to bear arms and ignore the moral code. Certain schools refrain from addressing such issues theoretically; instead they claim that people who have trained themselves to live each day consciously and nonviolently will intuitively know how to react in a given situation. One commendable response to an imminent attack is illustrated in a Zen anecdote:

When a rebel army swept into a town in Korea, all the monks of the Zen temple fled except for the abbot. The general came into the temple and was annoyed that the abbot did not receive him with respect. "Don't you know," he shouted, "that you are looking at a man who can run you through without blinking?" "And you," replied the abbot strongly, "are looking at a man who can be run through without blinking!" The general stared at him, then made a bow and retired.

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kulachic's picture

I agree with the statements from some of the above commenters. If one comes from the realized (or higher) point of view, there is no separation between Being and Doing. The very essence of that person expressed in any way, be it perceived silence, stillness, or visible action, is activism (perhaps of the non-action in action type) at it's very best, and will have much more impact on the world than activism that stems from an egotistical, dualistic (however subtle and well meaning) viewpoint. You cannot help anyone until you have helped yourself to knowledge of the Way, and once this is done, it is impossible not to benefit the world.

patrice16953's picture

I am curious to learn what Kenneth Kraft thinks of Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche's efforts to create an enlightened society through "engaged Buddhism."

buddhajazz's picture

I would like to see Engaged Buddhism turned into a "political movement"....similar to Ghandi's and Martin Luther King's socio/politico expression of their philosophies of "no harm." I'm even ready to buy the t-shirt.

Dominic Gomez's picture

As Buddhism is life itself, the personal (practice) is political. As well as societal, familial, work-related, etc. Gandhi and MLK were acting as Buddhism teaches, though they may not have directly acknowledged it.

safwan's picture

Non-duality (in terms of one's identity) teaches the inseparability of self and environment.
You cannot identify yourself without others. Inner transformation cannot be achieved in an isolated cave of meditation, but in perfecting behaviour in dailylife's efforts (with others around affected by our behaviour).
As mentioned earlier in this thread: "We do not live in a vacuum".

Engagement in social life may lead to voicing one's compassionate Buddhist views - such as about the treatment of refugees, the destruction of the environment, the greed in pursuing fortune on account of others... A certain political party may reflect - to a certain percentage - values that can be supported by Buddhists. But this is different from making of the engagemnt in politics a way to seek authority over ordinary people.

Buddhist reformer, Nichiren, after declaring his teaching to attain enlightenment based on the Lotus Sutra, immediately engagged in writing to the government officials about Attaing Peace and Security of the Land.
That was an act of compassion and wisdom, care for humanity.

kammie's picture

I like what he says. He said, "How do you expect to leave everything behind when you enter a meditation center?" Referring to our interbeing. And I love the part about the leaf-child becoming the leaf-mother of the tree and how he brings out the feeling of each of us, products of our time, transforming effortlessly into caretakers of our age.

enronal's picture

Thich Naht Hahn is inspiring, but in general, I'm leery of mixing Buddhism with social or political activism. Partisanship pervades so many areas of life that I wouldn't want it to spill into Buddhist practice or programs. Also, my observation suggests that Buddhism doesn't seem to point the way unerringly to politically successful outcomes. Did their wisdom and inner peace help the Tibetan Budhists when they were over-run by the Chinese in 1951? Does it increase their effectiveness vis-a-vis China today? It doesn't really look like it to me. We can and should work for our convictions as individuals, but let's take care not to make Buddhist practice any sort of political movement.

michaelstumpf's picture

What's the difference of mixing and being informed by a nondual perspective,even the Buddha interacted with the politics of his time.True he didn't do this without being informed by a nonattached view to the outcome,plus for me his view of community is rightly understood Politics,we don't live in a vacuum.

glenzorn's picture

I tend to agree with Thich Naht Hahn that "Engaged Buddhism" is just Buddhism. Even in the forest traditions, just the idea of a bunch of people who produce nothing tangible but are still valued is a powerful and highly subversive one, especially to the currently dominant capitalist paradigm which, like Wilde's cynic, knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.