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
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
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
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?
14 Precepts of Socially Enagaged Buddhism propounded by Thich Nhat
- Do not
be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology,
even Buddhist ones.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- Do not utter
words that can create discord and cause the community to break.
Make every effort to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- Do not kill.
Do not let others kill. Find whatever means possible to protect
life and prevent war.
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.
- 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 Three Tenets which serve as the foundation for the Zen
Peacemaker’s Work and Practice.
stream of engaged Spirituality I vow to live a life of:
- Not Knowing
thereby giving up fixed ideas about ourselves and the universe
Witness to the joy and suffering of others
- Loving Actions
towards ourselves and others.
Buddhist Peace Fellowship
Upaya Zen Centre
San Francisco Zen Center
Ko Gan Mu Ju
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