Engaged Buddhism is a term which came into use in the Buddhist world in the later part of the twentieth century. It emerged as Buddhist practitioners tried to evolve a practice situated within the social and ecological realities of their times. There are precedents for a socially engaged Buddhism throughout Buddhist history. But it also marks an attempt to reframe Buddhist practice in new historical times – where social agency, social change, citizenship and historical consciousness became important characteristics of modern life.
While much of the inspiration for engaged Buddhism lies within the tradition itself, it also suggests a critique of tendencies within Buddhism towards a withdrawn and quietistic interpretation of Buddhist practice. In this way it can be seen as a revitalising strand within contemporary Buddhism. It not only re-dynamicises the tradition, but also protects it from being swallowed up by the individualistic, narcissitic, and consumerist tendencies of early 21st century.
In many interpretations of Buddhism, compassionate engagement is seen as integral. The bodhisattva ideal of Mahayana Buddhism emphasizes the union of wisdom and compassion, and replaces the aim of personal liberation with a motivation to practice for the benefit of all sentient beings. The Mahayana sees the creative tension that this motivation sets up, between the inner work and outer engagement, as a powerful catalyst for liberation.
Engaged Buddhists place an emphasis on the need for compassion to find expression in action, and for action to be situated consciously within the historical moment. For how we understand this see Self + Society: A Radical Response and our Engaged Buddhist Training Series.
As the Dalai Lama suggests, Buddhist practice is rooted in compassionate action – but engaged Buddhism refers to those aspects of action which are more public, more collective. Kenneth Kraft, an important contributor to the development of Engaged Buddhism, writes that: “an exclusively inner transformation, however profound, is not the end of the trail. Greed, anger and delusion… need to be uprooted in personal lives, but they also have to be dealt with as social and political realities.”
Ken Jones, who founded the Network of Buddhist Organisations in the UK, says that because Buddhists point to the interconnectedness of things, sometimes “it is claimed that ALL authentic Buddhism must inevitably be “engaged”. But, there are many cases where historical Buddhism has tended towards escapism, or where its social forms are at odds with the core values of the tradition. To avoid a discussion that goes round on circles, Jones writes: “It usually comes down in discussion as to what “engagement” means. This is why I prefer “SOCIALLY engaged Buddhism” This social engagement can take many forms which span from activism and campaigning, to social, educational and care work. Engaged Buddhists working in all these fields seek to explore how their practice can inform and find expression through this work.
Engaged Buddhism can be understood as an expression of interconnectedness. Buddhist thought suggests that life is an intricate web of interconnections, in Thich Nhat Hahn’s words, we all “inter-are”. This means that every event – near or far, past or present is to do with us. We are connected with it and our response to it can help to heal or perpetuate its dis-ease. Each and every situation – locally and globally is an opportunity for compassion, for generosity, for truth and for equanimity.
Maitrisara, from the Network of Engaged Buddhists asks: “So what has Buddhism got to offer when “something needs to be done in the world”?” Her answer is, “effectiveness and sustainability”. “Effectiveness: How many times have decisions that have adversely affected our communities and our planet been based on rage, revenge and the egotistical craving to be noticed and to make a mark on the world? To understand our deeper motivations and to be realistic about the motivations of others, helps us to get to grips with the action which would really make a difference. And in terms of sustainability, Buddhist based mind trainings encourage calm, balance, patience, energy and courage. Above all, the practices help to address greed, hostility and confusion – replacing these with simplicity, contentment and clarity.”
For more see: