“In the twentieth century, a politically and socially active form of Buddhism called Engaged Buddhism came into being and quickly became a large and powerful movement throughout Buddhist Asia; toward the end of that century, it also became very influential among Western Buddhists. In the Buddhist-majority countries of Asia, Engaged Buddhism became a vehicle capable of giving voice to the people’s political aspirations and bringing down national governments. It became a path of psychological and practical liberation to oppressed peoples and of economic development to impoverished peoples…

What is Engaged Buddhism, and why did it emerge so dramatically in the twentieth century?”

So read the opening lines of Sallie B. King’s book, Socially Engaged Buddhism  (University of Hawai’i Press, 2009)


  • The title of my talk this morning is “Socially engaged Buddhism: Heroic practices for dire times”
  • I have chosen this topic for a combination of reasons:
    • Primarily because it seems so relevant to the dire times in which we ourselves are living these days
    • But also because I do not know much about engaged Buddhism and want to  learn more, and this seemed a good way to begin looking into it
  • I have been reading a lot about engaged Buddhism in the past few weeks, but in this talk I will lean very heavily on the book by Sallie King from which I just quoted
    • She has been described as one of North America’s foremost experts on the topic, and this book is the source that I have found the most helpful
    • There will be opportunities later to get into many other sources
  • I hope that this talk can serve two purposes simultaneously:
    • One, I hope it can stand as a self-contained, brief introduction to the topic of engaged Buddhism
    • Two, I hope it can also serve as an invitation to learn more about this fascinating topic, if it piques your curiosity and stirs you to look further into it
  • To facilitate this, Jackie Miller and I plan to offer a weekly Zoom discussion group on the subject during September and October
    • This will not be a class, but rather a “let’s-learn-more-about-this-together” kind    of endeavor, which Jackie and I will facilitate, not teach; even though Jackie lives and practices engaged Buddhism, neither of us feel we know enough about the topic to teach a class on it
    • I will say more about this group at the end of my talk

Definition and brief general description

  • So, what is socially engaged Buddhism? Sallie King offers the following definition:

“Engaged Buddhism is a contemporary form of Buddhism that engages actively yet nonviolently with the social, economic, political,…and ecological problems of society. At its best, this engagement is not separate from Buddhist spirituality, but is very much an expression of it.” (ibid., 1)

  • King emphasizes the essential importance of nonviolence and of being an expression of the ideals of Buddhism. This is to make clear that not every activist Buddhist engagement with social and political issues can be considered engaged Buddhism, and she cites the “chauvinist Buddhist nationalism” of one of the governments in SE Asia at the time as an example of what she does NOT mean
  • King also makes the following points:
    • Engaged Buddhism is not a centralized movement or new Buddhist sect; rather it is a phenomenon that sprang up separately in several different places, involving many different activists
    • It is not defined by geography: “…(I)t…is found wherever there are Buddhists with sufficient political freedom to engage with social and political issues as they see fit.” (ibid.)
    • It also is not limited to any particular existing Buddhist tradition or sect: there are Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana, and nonsectarian Buddhists involved with engaged Buddhism, and there also are Buddhists from all of these traditions that not involved with engaged Buddhism
    • In the second half of the twentieth century, many engaged Buddhist movements arose throughout Asia, each responding to social, economic, political and/or ecological crises in its own country; the similarities among the movements stem from the traditional Buddhist teachings and values that they all share, despite their diverse origins
  • These crises included such things as World War II, the Vietnam War, foreign invasion and cultural genocide in Tibet, exploitative colonial occupation, repressive local governments, ecological disasters, and long-standing local social problems, among others (ibid., 2-3)
  • Today we face a world wide pandemic, enormous economic upheavals, repressive state-sponsored violence in many places, deeply entrenched racism, and impending global ecological cataclysm; might there not be some important role for engaged Buddhism in our own dire times?

A few illustrative examples

  • Let’s turn now to four illustrative examples
  • King points out that the two Buddhist teachers who are probably best known and most widely beloved in the West are both engaged Buddhists: the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh
  • The Dalai Lama, of course, is the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people and the head of the ongoing nonviolent struggle for Tibetan liberation and self-determination
    • He has lived in exile in Dharamsala, India, since the Chinese invasion and occupation of his country in 1959, and has transformed the Tibetan government in exile “from a medieval institution into a modern democracy” (ibid., 4)
    • Even though all of his peace proposals to the Chinese have fallen on deaf ears so far, he is still firmly committed to a nonviolent approach to resolving Tibet’s problems
    • The Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989
  • Thich Nhat Hanh, of course, is the famous Vietnamese Zen monk, teacher, poet, and prolific author who was the principle ideological leader of the Vietnamese movement that sought to bring an end to the Vietnam War
    • He is usually credited with having coined the term “Engaged Buddhism,” often said to have been first used in his 1967 book, Vietnam: Lotus in a sea of fire; Thich Nhat Hanh himself, however, has said that he first proposed the idea of Engaged Buddhism in a series of 10 articles that he wrote in 1954
    • In any case, he worked for many years to develop the kind of Buddhism that would apply wisdom and compassion to direct action in the world
    • In King’s words: “Nhat Hanh is one of the most important leaders creating and articulating Buddhist spiritual social activism, speaking to a global audience of Buddhists and non-Buddhists…all over the world…” (ibid.,4-5)
  • Reading about these two super-famous Buddhists, I was struck that–in my ignorance of engaged Buddhism–I don’t recall ever thinking of either of them as “engaged Buddhists”; maybe I am alone in that sort of tunnel vision, but my guess is that many of us are just not very cognizant of the phenomenon of engaged Buddhism
  • Let’s turn next to a couple of examples that are much less well-known
  • The Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement was founded in 1958 by Dr. A. T. Ariyaratne (AH-ree-a-rut-nee) with a handful of volunteers; now it is the largest non-governmental organization in Sri Lanka
    • The name “Sarvodaya Shramadana” translates approximately as “welfare for all through our shared labor,” according to Wikipedia
    • According to King, Ariyaratne (AH-ree-a-rut-nee) has been a leader in the development of “Buddhist economics,” intended as an alternative to both capitalism and Communist economics, in which society is structured to meet the needs of all its citizens, including their social, cultural, psychological, political, and spiritual needs, as well as their economic and physical needs
    • Sarvodaya’s “accomplishments encompass both a radical and visionary rethinking of economic theory and extensive practical accomplishments in development and economic empowerment in the villages of Sri Lanka. Sarvodaya is now active in over fifteen thousand of Sri Lanka’s twenty four thousand villages.” (King, 105)
    • In King’s assessment, “… Sarvodaya’s programs…amount to a massive transfer of power from centralized elites external to a village…to the local, decentralized level of the village, which is progressively empowered and enabled to care for more and more of its own needs.” (ibid., 112)
  • A second example of a huge engaged Buddhist organization that I have never heard of is Tzu Chi, which is based in Taiwan
    • Tzu Chi is a charitable organization that was founded by Buddhist nunVenerable Cheng Yen (chen yen) in 1966, with about 30 volunteers; as of 2013, according to Wikipedia, Tzu Chi had grown to approximately 10 million members, and is now the largest Buddhist organization in Taiwan
    • According to the Tzu Chi website, currently they have chapters in 47 countries, including 62 offices in the United States, two of which are here in Michigan (Lansing Office in Okemos, Detroit Office in Sterling Heights)
    • Tzu Chi’s contributions have included the establishment of free medical care in Taiwan and elsewhere, creating the world’s third largest bone marrow data bank, and providing international emergency relief in various countries
    • As Cheng Yen sees it, the medical, material, and loving care that Tzu Chi provides to the unfortunate is only half the story: a core principle of Tzu Chi is that it is for the benefit of both the needy and the fortunate. Cheng Yen says, “(t)he poor and wretched receive help, the rich and famous activate their love, and thus both can be grateful to the other.” (King, 55)
    • She points out that the materially comfortable lives of the fortunate are often emotionally empty, lonely, even experienced as meaningless, and for these (materially) fortunate folks, the needy offer them something real and extremely important: an opportunity to develop their compassion, thereby contributing to their spiritual development and inner peace and joy
    • According to King, “Cheng Yen’s advice to her followers is that by immersing themselves in acts (not thoughts) of giving, the sense of a separate self  who is doing the giving…will fall away, and they will begin to feel a constituent part of the greater, natural whole, the unfolding of process, the giving and taking that is life.” (ibid., 56)
  • Although there are, of course, many fewer engaged Buddhists in the West than in Buddhist Asia, by now there also are increasing numbers here in the West as well
  • A very brief list of well-known engaged Buddhists in the West might include Bernie Glassman Roshi, Joan Halifax Roshi, Joanna Macy, Robert Aitken Roshi, Bhikkhu Bodhi, Gary Snyder, Tara Brach, Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, and Bhante Sujato
  • I hope that these four examples we will begin to give you a sense of current socially engaged Buddhist activities, and I would like now to move on to another topic

One of the controversies

  • I was a philosophy major as an undergrad, and I have always had a weakness for intriguing controversies; I was not unhappy, therefore, to learn that there have been quite a number of controversies related to socially engaged Buddhism; discussing one of the most central of these is what I would like to turn to next
  • I don’t want to get lost in the details of King’s analysis, but I do want to give you some  background for her eventual conclusion, which I find remarkable
  • In King’s account, many of the “more traditional and conservative Buddhists in Asia” argue that it is contrary to well-established Buddhist practice to engage with the problems of samsara, i.e., to engage with the problems of this world, the world of birth, sickness, old age, and death; very much to the contrary, they believe, the Buddha taught we should practice nonattachment from all worldly things (ibid.,8)
  • On the other hand, there are those who believe that engagement with the   world of samsara with wisdom and compassion has always been an important part of Buddhism, beginning with the Buddha’s own decision–after his enlightenment–to       turn back toward samsara and share his wisdom with others through a life of teaching and service
  • In King’s view, those who are so inclined can find apparent support in Buddhist  texts  for both sides of this controversy, depending on where one looks
  • There are many things in the Buddha’s teachings that one might readily interpret to mean that worldly life as we know it–samsara–is inherently and irremediably flawed and that the wisest course is to detach from it as completely as possible and have as little to do with it as one can (e.g., “Fire sermon,” charnel ground meditations)
  • On the other hand, there also are many teachings of the Buddha that express a positive view of life in this world and/or give advice for ways of living well in the world and cultivating virtues that have nothing to do with leaving the world but that–on the contrary–can be expressed only in relationships between human beings or with other sentient beings (e.g., Metta Sutta, 7 of the 8 practices of the Noble Eightfold Path)
  • Ultimately–through a lengthy analysis of the “Fire Sermon”–King concludes there is in fact what she delicately calls a “conceptual tension” in the teachings that goes to the heart of Buddhist philosophy and that has been there since the very beginning
  • The way I would paraphrase King’s conclusion–less diplomatically–is that the Buddha tended to conflate the two major types of distress in life that in our teachings wedistinguish as pain, on the one hand, and as suffering on the other, and in this conflation he created a conceptual murkiness about the nature of suffering–and about whether the root of suffering is in our minds, in the three poisons of craving, hatred, and delusion, or out in the world of birth, aging, and death–and to this day it creates problems for those who try to understand what he taught
  • To my mind, this is a very dramatic conclusion–one that I would have hardly dared to allow myself to think, left to my own devices–but now that King spells it out for us, to me it seems very persuasive
  • Whether you agree with her on this or not, its relevance for our purposes is that engaged Buddhists tend to choose the former alternative, i.e., to believe that the root problem is in our minds and that the basic goal of practice is to free our minds of the three poisons, and to cultivate the perfection of wisdom and compassion
  • In addition, however, engaged Buddhists also embrace the goal of alleviating pain as far as possible–from poverty, hunger, brutal governments, and so on–as well the suffering of the basic human dis-ease of chronic dissatisfaction with life (ibid.,44)
  • Not because they are confused about the difference between pain and suffering, but because they believe that wisdom and compassion call for the alleviation of pain  for all sentient beings, to the extent that this is feasible

The Buddha’s “worldly advice” teachings

  • Let me touch briefly on one last point before we wrap up: despite King’s opening characterization, many engaged Buddhists believe that Buddhism has always been    socially engaged, all the way back to the Buddha himself, in his teachings and in his actions, and that they are participating in forms of practice that have a very ancient heritage, not in a movement that has emerged in the past 100 years
  • As I have been learning about socially engaged Buddhism, I have been very struck by how many secular, practical, “worldly advice” types of teachings the Buddha offered, that I mostly have not known about
  • Among these, the Buddha addressed a variety of social-political issues–both in his teachings and in his actions–that have major implications regarding the nature of good governance and the functioning of a healthy society
  • Personally, I am especially interested to learn more about these socio-political aspects of the Buddha’s life and teachings, and in thinking about what implications they might have for good governance and healthy societal functioning in our own     times, and I am looking forward to finding out more about them

The weekly discussion group

  • And this brings me to my closing plug: if your curiosity about engaged Buddhism and socially-oriented Buddhist teachings is also piqued, I urge you to consider joining the discussion group that Jackie and I plan to facilitate during September and October
  • Our plans for the group are still in process, but the basics are pretty much set:
    1. We expect to meet by Zoom on Tuesday evenings, 7:00 – 8:30
    2. We hope to start on September 22nd and run for six weeks, winding up on        October 27th, one week before the election
    3. The specific subjects to be addressed have not been decided, but they all will have to do with various aspects of socially engaged Buddhism. Some of the subjects that we hope to explore include things like: What is the relationship between individual inward-looking meditation practice, on theone hand, and outward-looking socially engaged practice on the other? What about engaged Buddhism and racial justice activism? What aboutengaged Buddhism and electoral politics? And so on.
    4. We hope to find readily available resources on line that folks can read, watch, listen to, and think about between meetings, and then discuss them together when we meet
    5. A description of the discussion group is in the process of approval and should  be up on the website soon; if you would like to join us, go to the description in the Classes and Events section, click the contact Jim link, and message me of your interest and email address
  • This brings me to the end of my prepared remarks this morning; thank you very much for your kind attention

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