Lumbini-Kapilvastu Day Blog

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Engaged Buddhism in a Global Context

Posted by Ram Kumar Shrestha on July 28, 2012

By Kishore Sherchand

The concept of Engaged (सकृय) or Socially Engaged Buddhism is not new in a global context but it sounds may be somewhat unfamiliar to Nepalese monks and scholars. The reason behind is obvious. Nepal, although claims to be the birthplace of the historic figure Sidhartha Gautam Buddha, does not seem to have much that has had contributed to the world as a teachings of Buddhism. Buddhism has had its dazzling capacity to adopt and adjust to the environment where it went. In the present context of the expansion of Buddhism in the more elite world, it tried to seek yet another avenue of finding not only “Sit, Meditate, Realize the Three Pillars – Buddha, Dharma and Sangha” but also apply meditation and its teachings into the social, environmental, economic and political actions.”


Donald Rothberg and Hozan Alan Senauke gave the notion that came into the Western society popularly known as “Socially Engaged Buddhism” is a Dharma practice that flows from the understanding of the complete yet complicated interdependence of all life. It is the practice of the Bodhisattva vow to save all beings. It is to know that the liberation of ourselves and the liberation of others are inseparable. It is to transform ourselves as we transform all our relationships and our larger society. It works at times from the inside out and at times from the outside in, depending on the needs and conditions. It is to see the world through the eye of the Dharma and to respond emphatically and actively with compassion.


Buddhism so far in the lands of Buddha are basically divided into three categories or sects: Therabad (Way of the elders), original form of Buddhism mostly popular in Sri Lanka, plain India and other South East Asia; Mahayana (great vehicle) popular in East Asia China, Korea, Japan and part of Vietnam and Vajrayana form of Mahayana popular in Tibet, Himalayan region of Nepal, India, Bhutan, Mongolia, part of Eastern Russia. The fourth one coming up as the Western Form of practice composed with socially engaged, may be living room-based, more secular, may be non-monastic, more philosophically approached than the traditional lands of Buddhism. This is termed like Engaged, Socially Engaged, Humanistic or Navayana. In the Western context, I would also prefer to call it Dhyanayana (meditational).


The Engaged Buddhism was not familiar to me until I attended a three day orientation meeting at Bhaktapur, organized by one Youth Bouddha Shangha of Nepal facilitated by International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB). The main teacher was an American lady. I thought, in the beginning, this notion was coined by some Westerner to practically apply in social uplifting like education, health and development as we observe in Christianity way of doing. I felt, this is a good way of serving the needy society – refers to Buddhists who are seeking ways to apply the insights from meditation practice and Dharma teachings to situations of social, political, environmental, and economic suffering and injustice.


The first person who coined the term “Engaged Buddhism” is a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay), inspired by the Humanistic Buddhism reform movement in China by Taixu and Yinshun. Finding its roots in Vietnam through the Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh (They), Engaged Buddhism has grown in popularity in the West.


Precepts of Engaged Buddhism:

Zen Buddhist Thich outlined fourteen precepts in order to apply the meditation and Buddhist practices into the society as a tool of social, political, spiritual movement. This surely gives us a new and dynamic application awakening the society to uplift. This is another version of how the modern way of Buddhism parallel to much more we can visualize in Christianity, humanistic models of health, education and developmental services. The fourteen precepts outlined by Thich Nhat Hanh are summarized as follows:


  1. Do not be bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist systems of thought are guiding means; they are not absolute truth.
  2. Do not think the knowledge is changeless, absolute truth. Learn and practice nonattachment from views in order to be open to receive others’ viewpoints.
  3. Do not force others, to adopt your views. Apply compassionate dialogue, to renounce fanaticism and narrow-mindedness.
  4. Do not avoid suffering or close your eyes before suffering. Awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world.
  5. Do not accumulate wealth while millions are hungry. Live simply and share time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need.
  6. Do not maintain anger or hatred. Turn your attention to your breath in order to see and understand the nature of your hatred.
  7. Do not lose yourself in dispersion and in your surroundings. Practice mindful breathing to come back to what is happening in the present moment.
  8. Do not utter words that can create discord and cause the community to break.
  9. Do not say untruthful things for the sake of personal interest or to impress people. Have the courage to speak out about situations of injustice, even when doing so may threaten your own safety.
  10. Do not use the Buddhist community for personal gain or profit, or transform your community into a political party.
  11. Do not live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature.
  12. Do not kill. Do not let others kill.
  13. Possess nothing that should belong to others, but prevent others from profiting from human and other species suffering.
  14. Do not mistreat your body. Learn to handle it with respect. Do not look on your body as only an instrument. Preserve vital energies (sexual, breath, spirit) for the realization of the way of life.


Engaged Buddhists:

Organizations such as the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF), the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) and the Zen Peacemakers, led by Roshi Bernard Glassman are devoted to building the movement of Engaged Buddhists. Other Engaged Buddhist groups include the Benevolent Organization for Development, Health and Insight, Gaden Relief Projects, the UK’s Network of Buddhist Organizations, Fo Guang Shan, Think Sangha, Sathirakoses-NagapraDeepa Foundation and Tzu Chi. Other prominent figures in the movement include Robert Aitken Roshi, Joanna Macy, Gary Snyder, Alan Senauke, Sulak Sivaraksa, Maha Ghosananda, Sylvia Wetzel, Anthony Stultz, Diana Winston, Fleet Maull, Joan Halifax, Tara Brach, Allen Walace, and Ken Jones.


The other one best known who followed the path of Buddhism in a socially and politically way that pertains very much to the concept and practices of Engaged Buddhism was Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. Baba Sahib Dr. Ambedkar, the founding father of modern Indian constitution, in defiance of hierarchical Hindu caste system that existed in India and Nepal, with his  announcement in public, followed Buddhism and converted at one time almost half a million Indians of lower Hindu caste. He is widely considered as the main figure who was responsible in bringing back Buddhism in India that was kept exiled for over 800 years. In his words, while accepting Buddhism as his religion, “I will accept and follow the teachings of Buddha. I will keep my people away from the different opinions of Hinayana and Mahayana, two religious orders. Our Buddha Dharma is a new Bouddha Dhamma, Navayana (Neo Buddhism).” (Navayana, 1956). Many Buddhist scholars like George Boeree (2002) and founder of the Buddhist Society in England (1906-1967) Christmas Humphreys, have favorably commented on Navayana coined by Dr. Ambedkar, another way of recognizing Engaged Buddhism.


The Visible Women Activists in Engaged Buddhism:

  1. Ven. Ngawang Sangdrol is a young Tibetan nun and prisoner of conscience.
  2. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is the General Secretary of the National League for Democracy in Burma and has frequently been arrested and imprisoned for her non-violent beliefs.
  1. Roshi Joan Jiko Halifax, A student of Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh, and a founding member of the Zen Peacemaker Order.  She is also the founder of Upaya, a Buddhist organization dedicated to education and practices that foster effective action and right livelihood
  2. Roshi Sandra Jishu Angyo Holmes was the second Abbot of the Zen Community of New York. Along with her husband, Roshi Bernie Glassman, she co-founded the Zen Peacemaker Order.
  3. Bell Hooks is a brilliant thinker and social critic concerned with the political implications of gender, race, and class inequities in America, and also a Buddhist practitioner in the tradition of the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh.
  4. Dr. Joanna Macy is an activist, ecologist and author, is one of the pioneers of “engaged Buddhism” on The Dharma of Natural Systems.
  5. Helena Norberg – Hodge  is a Swedish linguist, environmental activist, and author of Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh — is the founder of The Ladakh Project in India and also the director of the International Society for Ecology and Culture (ISEC).
  6. Sensei Enkyo Pat O’Hara is a Soto Zen Priest, a Founding Teacher of the Zen Peacemaker Order. She manages the Buddhist AIDS Network, and is deeply involved in issues of race, class, sexuality and health, homelessness and urban poverty.
  7. Lesslie Williams operates the Engaged Buddhism webpage, an inspiring project with extensive links to resources on human rights and social justice. Her current Urgent Action campaign is the Campaign to ban Landmines.
  8.  Master Cheng Yen is a Bhikkhuni in Taiwan who, moved by the plight of the poor, established the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation in 1966; providing charity and medical treatment to the needy worldwide, granting treatment to all irrespective of ability to pay; also works in education and culture, international disaster relief, bone marrow donation, environmental protection, and community volunteer service.


Dimensions of Engaged Buddhism:

The areas of concerns how Engaged Buddhism can contribute to the global issues are basically globalization, consumerism, environment, community development, health, education, and sex and gender issues.


The INEB Founder Sulak Sivaraksa states, “The relentless drive by world-wide corporate entities to force their products on to the richer sectors threatens the global balance of natural resources and the lifestyle of indigenous people.”


The Western Buddhism attempts to link the crisis of consumerism with physical, psychological and spiritual materialisms that is threatening the every culture of the World. The Buddhist philosophy and its practices recommend the precept of generosity – giving up – to the needy. Generosity is the virtue that produces peace. Generosity is a practice which overcomes our acquisitiveness and self-absorption, and which benefits others. Committing to this practice may produce our greatest legacy for the twenty-first century.


With increased communication and cooperation among Buddhists around the globe, Buddhist-inspired environmentalism is also becoming manifest in national and international arenas. Kenneth Kraft in “The Greening of Buddhist Practice” states that Socially Engaged Buddhism is one of the notable developments in late twentieth-century Buddhism, and Environmental Buddhism is an important stream within this larger movement.


Also, increasingly, some of notable organizations are working how to change the life of inmates so that they can come back to their previous normal life supporting prisoners in the practice of contemplative disciplines, with emphasis on the meditation practices of the various Buddhist traditions.


Two of the few notable organizations are worthy to mention here.


  1. a.    Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF):

One of the earliest organizations that has made a rousing (उत्साहीत) call on how the precepts of Dharma can be linked to the contemporary social, political and humanistic problems. The BPF with help from Mushim Ikeda-Nash, Maia Duerr, Roshi Joan Halifax, and Chris Wilson, supports the recent movement “Occupy Wall Street” in the following actions:


  1. Interconnection.  We are moved by the interconnectedness expressed in this movement.  Occupy Wall Street is not about one environmental situation or one war, but rather about all of the systems which create suffering for all beings, and which are all related to each other.  Our spiritual practice is not just for our individual enlightenment, but to end suffering for all beings, so we are moved to address this system.


  1. Ending suffering means changing the conditions of inequality. The influence of money, corporations, and banks in our U.S. political system blocks all of the human and environmental goals that BPF works towards.  Numerous Buddhist texts point out that if an individual lives in poverty it is not due to karma as a form of personal punishment, but rather that poverty exists within a web of collective causes and conditions. The Buddha also noted that the way to build a peaceful society is to ensure equitable distribution of resources.
  2. The means are the ends.  We are moved by and in agreement with the nonviolent tactics of the movement.  We believe in the power of compassionate presence, of bearing witness, and of nonviolent strategies toward spiritual awakening and liberation. The people on the streets in New York, and around the country and world, are in the process of being the change they wish to see, to use Gandhi’s phrase.
  3. We participate in solidarity with the 100%—with all beings.  While we want to change the situation of disparity in world, we don’t want to exile the 1% from our hearts.  Furthermore, we are aware that lumping people together, whether into the 99% or the 100%, can invisibilize people’s experiences, especially those of people of color, and the many others who bear the heaviest burdens of inequality in the U.S. and in the world.


  1. b.    International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB):

The International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) was founded in 1989 in Thailand, initiated by the Thai social, ecological and spiritual activist Ajahn Sulak Sivaraksa under the patronage of H. H. the 14th Dalai Lama, the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, and the Venerable Buddhadasa Bhikkhu as representatives of the three main Buddhist traditions.


The INEB has also supported the current “Occupy Wall Street” movement that are being waged in the face of economic downturn and massive unemployment but remaining as the cradle of maximum corporate profit in the US and other Western countries.  David Roy quotes on Slavoz Zezek and Michael Stone who attempted to link the Buddhist precepts with the economic one in Buddha terminology “Awakening of”. From this presentation what can be judged is “Awakening of” by sofar Buddhist applies to individualism only. On the other hand awakening of in the movement “Occupy Wall Street” as a collective approach is to justify from Buddhist perspective.


David Roy states that the burgeoning power of corporations became institutionalized in 1886, when the Supreme Court ruled that a private corporation is a “natural person” under the U.S. Constitution and thus entitled to all the protections of the Bill of Rights, including free speech. Ironically, this highlights the problem: as many Occupy Wall Street posters declare, corporations are not people, because they are social constructs. Obviously, incorporation (from the Latin corpus, corporis “body”) does not mean gaining a physical body. Corporations are legal fictions created by government charter, which means they are inherently indifferent to the responsibilities that people experience. A corporation cannot laugh or cry. It cannot enjoy the world or suffer with it. It is unable to feel sorry for what it has done (it may occasionally apologize, but that is public relations). Most important, a corporation cannot love. Love is realizing our interconnectedness with others and living our concern for their well-being. Love is not an emotion but an engagement with others that includes responsibility for them, a responsibility that transcends our individual self-interest. Any CEOs who try to subordinate their company’s profitability to their love for the world will lose their position, for they are not fulfilling their primary – that is, financial – responsibility to its owners, the shareholders.


It should be reminded that the very concept of Buddhism adheres to peaceful movement but traditional way of individual awakening differs from new away of collective awakening that could be the important facet of Engaged Buddhism for justice and prosperity. At the end, Slavoz and Michael emphasizes that if we continue abusing earth, our civilization will be destroyed. Buddha attained individual awakening but now we need collective awakening as well.


The other important issue the INEB is attempting to link authentic Buddhism into awakening of environmental issues such as global climate change that is destroying the mother earth. The forum will attempt to help connecting Buddhist environmental activists and bringing other religious activists together to address the climate change issues and resolve.


David Roy in his paper “What’s Buddhist about Socially Engaged Buddhism” attempts to distinguish between individual Dukha, as a consequence of greed (लोभ), ill will (गलतचाहनाand delusion (झुटोआस्था) from collective Dukha in a society and explain non-duality of personal and social practices. He suggests three implications of Buddhism – the importance of personal practices, commitment to non-violence and awakening together. The practices such as Gandhian way were to liberate India from British Colony without de-humanizing the British authorities. And that is why he was so successful. Similarly, the East European peaceful protests against the Communism showed us that the elite falls when they lose the minds and hearts of the people. Avoiding use of violence is much more important because violence invites violence. The author also attempts to interpret those five precepts of Buddhism in the context of Socially Engaged Buddhism i.e. no killing, no stealing, no lying, no harmful sexual behavior (योनदुराचार) and no harmful intoxication (नशापदार्थदुराचार). Incompatibility to these precepts as the author outlines are militarization, abuse of natural resources, deception of corporate media, sexual imaging in entertainment in advertisement and many legal as well as illegal drug uses, technological devices such as mobile, walkman, internet, etc respectively. So Dukha in what is socially engaged Buddhism is promoted by Ego-self (स्वअहंमता) as well as Wego-selves (सामूहिक अहंमता) and three collective poisons of social Dukha are institutionalized (संस्थागत) greed, institutionalized ill will and institutionalized delusion.


The hardest part of political peace protest by social and political activists in some Buddhist countries have been at the action level of “self-immolation” as seen from Vietnamese monks during Vietnam war, from Burmese monks in the uprising against Junta dictatorship and currently from the Tibetans for “Free Tibet” movement against China. However, a prominent Social Activist Sivaraksa said, “Engaged Buddhists do not allow themselves to simply be overwhelmed by their emotions and paralyzed into inaction. Rather, they are at the forefront in the struggle for human rights, for protecting our environment, and for social justice.”


The Engaged Buddhism is a new social, political and economic dimension. The world at large is confronted with many problems. The Engaged Buddhism does not advocate the use of any violent means rather through the actions of Buddha’s teachings, meditation, awakening of, etc. at every walk of life. It is a high time for Nepal confronted with political, social, cultural and economic problems, to learn something about the very concept of The Engaged or Socially Engaged Buddhism.


Buddhist Peace Fellowship Staff – Occupying the Present Moment: Why BPF Supports the Occupy Movement.

David Loy – What’s Buddhist about Socially Engaged Buddhism.

David R. Loy – Waking Up from the Nightmare: Buddhist Reflections on Occupy Wall Street. International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB), Buddhist Peace Fellowship

Dharma Net International – Engaged Practices.

Judith Simmer-Brown – The Crisis of Consumerism.

Nishikanta Waghmare, 2007. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s Contribution to Buddhist Education in India.

Sulak Sivaraksa – Buddhism and Non-Violence.

Thich Nhat Hanh – The Fourteen Precepts of Engaged Buddhism.

Ven. Sunyana Graef  – The Foundations of Ecology in Zen Buddhism. Religious Education. Vol. 85 Issue 1 Winter.1990.

Donald Rothberg and Hozan Alan Senauke – Turning Wheel Magazine/Summer-Fall – 2008.


2 Responses to “Engaged Buddhism in a Global Context”

  1. L B Thapa said

    Kishore ji thanks a lot for your article. In my opinion too all people should be enagaged in present context rather than just being GOBAR GANESH “Come into Action with whatever you have in mind than just limiting in a Talk ” NO ACTION TALKING ONLY (NATO) is not a present day solution.
    L B Thapa

  2. “Purity of listening is the best gift that you can give to other”, Mr. Thapa. It is only through dialogue and discourse that we seek truth and it is only through guided thinking process that we move forward. You do what you have in your mind so it is good to purify your thought process.

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