Issue 13: Spring


Socially Engaged Buddhism

By Michael Elsmere

Socially Engaged Buddhism

Socially Engaged Buddhism as practised in the West 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 question may be asked how could a Buddhist practitioner not be engaged in his or her society rising from practice to extend a Bohdisattva’s compassion and wisdom to those in need? Why then has this term and the wide network of ‘socially engaged Buddhists’ arisen? Perhaps we have to go back to the early history of Buddhism to discover in part the answer to the question.
When Mahayana Buddhism began to develop possibly around the first century C.E. the combining of the doctrines of ‘dependent co-arising,’ and the ‘bodhisattva ideal’ occurred. From this there perhaps evolved a stronger recognition that we truly belong to each other, that we are all indeed bodhisattvas and that moreover this was our true nature. It does seem to be the inherent moral and practical imperatives within the teachings that over the centuries has encouraged Buddhist practitioners to reach out to those in need or distress. In a not dissimilar manner this also occurred in Islam, Judaism and Christianity although it is clear that one does not need to be the adherent of any faith in order to act in a humane and compassionate manner. ‘Do unto others as you yourself would be treated,’ is a common moral theme in many societies and cultures.
Despite this strand of social engagement running through Buddhist history at times, what we now recognise as Socially Engaged Buddhism seems to have evolved from the work of Thich Nhat Hanh during the Vietnam war 1965 to 1975. Here he and his sangha attempted to alleviate practically the terrible suffering they saw around them as a result of the war at some personal cost to themselves. In an attempt to define this work and its vision Thich Nhat Hanh drew up a set of fourteen precepts that practitioners would attempt to live by. See footnote
An important early advocate of Socially Engaged Buddhism probably even before this term entered our vocabulary was Robert Aitken who founded the Diamond Sangha in Honolulu, Hawaii in 1959. As far back as the 1940s Aitken was prominent in the protest movement against nuclear weapons, vigorously criticised the Vietnam war during the sixties and was one of the first to recognise the importance of the impending ecological crises facing the planet. He co-founded the Buddhist Peace Fellowship in 1978, an organisation that still devotes itself to obtaining conflict resolution across conflict zones of the world.
With the rapid development of Buddhism in the West particularly in U.S.A during the 1970s the fundamental ideas that had evolved in Vietnam under Thich Nhat Han were developed by Bernie Glassman. He had been a student of Taizen Maezumi in Los Angeles. In 1982 Glassman opened Greyston Bakery in New York in an effort to help alleviate the widespread homelessness in the area. The proceeds helped to fund what he called the Zen Community of New York, who would transform condemned or old buildings into new housing areas for the homeless.
He employed low-skilled workers, many of whom were homeless themselves, and sold his bakery goods to shops and restaurants in Manhattan. This later developed into a highly successful business which was the basis for a Foundation which presently offers HIV/AIDS programs, job training and housing, creches, educational opportunities, and other endeavors.
Roshi Joan Halifax founded the Upaya Community in 1990 in New Mexico after a lifetime in anthropolgy and social protest. Here caring stewardship of the land and its resources have been a constant factor in the development of the centre and is a direct powerful expression of the community’s practice. Joan Halifax has also done extensive pioneering work on ‘being with dying,’ and her 1997 book of the same title is a seminal work on the topic that has profoundly influenced the attitudes to care of the dying in the medical profession in USA as well as offering an inspiration for the developing hospice movement.
San Francisco Zen centre has for many years had a wide number of outreach programmes that include distributing food to homeless people; providing dharma books, pen-pals, and meditation classes for prison inmates; working with families in transitional housing; enhancing cultural diversity within Zen Centre; facilitating the formation of satellite sitting groups; and advocating for compassionate action on social and a wide number of ecological issues.
The term Socially Engaged Buddhism is a useful one but by its nature can be limiting. Through our practice and deep felt awareness of co-dependent arising and our Bodhisattva selves we are enabled to take ourselves into society and do what we can at all times. When we are truly abiding fully in each moment what else can we do?



The 14 Precepts of Socially Enagaged Buddhism propounded by Thich Nhat Hanh:

  1. Do not be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones.
  2. Do not think the knowledge you presently possess is changeless, absolute truth. Avoid being narrow minded and bound to present views. Learn and practice non-attachment from views in order to be open to receive others viewpoints.
  3. Do not force others, including children, by any means whatsoever, to adopt your views, whether by authority, threat, money, propaganda, or even education. However, through compassionate dialogue, help others renounce fanaticism and narrow-mindedness.
  4. Do not avoid suffering or close your eyes before suffering. Do not lose awareness of the existence of suffering in the life of the world. Find ways to be with those who are suffering, including personal contact, visits, images and sounds. By such means, awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world.
  5. Do not accumulate wealth while millions are hungry. Do not take as the aim of your life fame, profit, wealth, or sensual pleasure. Live simply and share time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need.
  6. Do not maintain anger or hatred. Learn to penetrate and transform them when they are still seeds in your consciousness. As soon as they arise, 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. Be in touch with what is wondrous, refreshing, and healing both inside and around you.
  8. Do not utter words that can create discord and cause the community to break. Make every effort to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.
  9. Do not say untruthful things for the sake of personal interest or to impress people. Do not utter words that cause division and hatred. Do not spread news that you do not know to be certain. Do not criticize or condemn things of which you are not sure. Always speak truthfully and constructively. 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. A religious community, however, should take a clear stand against oppression and injustice and should strive to change the situation without engaging in partisan conflicts.
  11. Do not live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature. Do not invest in companies that deprive others of their chance to live. Select a vocation that helps realise your ideal of compassion.
  12. Do not kill. Do not let others kill. Find whatever means possible to protect life and prevent war.
  13. Possess nothing that should belong to others. Respect the property of others, but prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other species on Earth.
  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 realisation of the Way. (For brothers and sisters who are not monks and nuns:) Sexual expression should not take place without love and commitment. In sexual relations, be aware of future suffering that may be caused. To preserve the happiness of others, respect the rights and commitments of others. Be fully aware of the responsibility of bringing new lives into the world.

The Three Tenets which serve as the foundation for the Zen Peacemaker’s Work and Practice.

Entering the stream of engaged Spirituality I vow to live a life of:

  • Not Knowing thereby giving up fixed ideas about ourselves and the universe
  • Bearing Witness to the joy and suffering of others
  • Loving Actions towards ourselves and others.

Useful links
Plum Village
Buddhist Peace Fellowship
Upaya Zen Centre
Zen Peacemakers
San Francisco Zen Center

Ko Gan Mu Ju

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