Socially Engaged Buddhism
A Buddhist Practice for the West
by Philip Russell Brown
This article presents the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF),The "Tiep Hien" Buddhist Order (The Order of Interbeing) andthe work of the Sakyamuni Buddhist Centre as examples of Non-Sectarian,Socially Engaged and Ecologically Responsible Buddhist Practice. Theauthor believes that these kinds of organisations are likely to beof interest to those Western Buddhists for whom spiritual practiceis inseparable from social action on humanitarian and environmentalissues.
Socially Engaged Buddhism defined and its Role in the West
The term "Socially Engaged Buddhism" refers to active involvementby Buddhists in society and its problems. Participants in this nascentmovement seek to actualize Buddhism's traditional ideals of wisdomand compassion in today's world.
Because Buddhism has been seen as passive, otherworldly, or escapist,an "engaged Buddhism" may initially appear to be a self-contradiction."Isn't one of the distinguishing features of Buddhism its focus onthe solitary quest for enlightenment?" (Kraft,1985) The view takenby many engaged Buddhists is"that no enlightenment can becomplete as long as others remain trapped in delusion" and that "genuinewisdom is manifested in compassionate action". (Kraft,1985)
Furthermore, the engaged Buddhists who contributed to the recent work"The Path of Compassion: Writings on Socially Engaged Buddhism(ed.Eppsteiner,1985), found that in re-examining Buddhism's 2500-year-oldheritage,"the principles and even some of the techniques ofan engaged Buddhism have been latent in the tradition since the timeof its founder. Qualities that were inhibited in pre-modern Asiansettings, they argue, can be actualized through Buddhism's exposureto the West, where ethical sensitivity, social activism, and egalitarianismare emphasized" (Kraft,1985).
According to an American Zen teacher: "A major task for Buddhism inthe West, it seems to me, is to ally itself with religious and otherconcerned organizations to forestall the potential catastrophes facingthe human race: nuclear holocaust, irreversible pollution of the world'senvironment, and the continuing large-scale destruction of non-renewableresources. We also need to lend our physical and moral support tothose who are fighting hunger, poverty, and oppression in the world".(Kapleau,1983,p.26.)
One can get the impression from some Buddhist commentators that totake immediate social action is rather futile because only massiveand widespread change in the level of human consciousness will significantlyreduce suffering in the world. Take for example Ayya Khema's wordson world peace:
"Every thinking person bemoans the fact that there is no peace betweennations. Everybody would like to see peace on this globe. Obviouslythere isn't any.In this century there has been a war somewhere practicallyall the time. Every country has an enormous defence system wherea lot of energy, money and manpower is used. This defence systemis turned into an attack system the minute anyone even makes the slightestunfriendly remark or seems to be moving towards an invasion of airspaceor territorial waters. This is rationalised and justified with, 'We haveto defend the border of our country in order to protect the inhabitants'.
Disarmament is a hope and a prayer, but not a reality. And why? Becausedisarmament has to start in everyone's heart or wholesale disarmamentwill never happen. The defence and attack which happens on a largescale happens constantly with us personally. We're constantly defendingour self image. If somebody should look at us sideways or not appreciateor love us enough, or even blame us, that defence turns into attack. Therationale is that we have to defend this person, 'this country' whichis 'me', in order to protect the inhabitant, 'self.' Because nearlyevery person in the world does that, all nations act accordingly.There is no hope that this will ever change unless every singleperson changes. Therefore it is up to each of us to work for peaceinside ourselves. That can happen if each ego is diminished somewhat,and ego only diminishes when we see with ruthless honesty what's goingon inside us." (Khema,1987,pp46-47)
In stark contrast to this, Fred Eppsteiner of the Buddhist Peace Fellowshipmade the following comments about the Fourth Precept of the sociallyengaged "Tiep Hien" Buddhist Order:
"The fourth precept goes to the heart of Buddhist compassion and directsa challenge to all practitioners. Is it enough to practiceformal Dharma in order that some day in the future we'll be able tohelp all living beings? Or, rather, can the suffering of thesebeings diminish through our compassionate involvement in the present? Thisprecept seems to imply that contemplative reflections on the sufferingof living beings is not enough, and that the lotus can grow only whenplanted deep in the mud."
Eppsteiner goes on to recall "talking to a Vietnamese monk about Kuan-Yin,the Bodhisattva of Compassion. He (the monk) remarked that peoplemistakenly think that the only way to worship her is by putting offeringsin front of her image and praying. Holding up his own two hands andlooking directly in my eyes, he said, 'These are the best offeringone can give Kuan-Yin.'"(Fred Eppsteiner in Thich Nhat Hanh, 1987b,p.6)(Italics mine)
In their book "Seeking the Heart of Wisdom", Joseph Goldstein andJack Kornfield suggest that both inner practice and social serviceare important elements of the spiritual path. "Vipassana in the West",they say, "has started by placing a great emphasis on inner meditationand individual transformation. Buddhist teachings have another wholedimension to them, a way of connecting our hearts to the world ofaction.
Their first universal guidelines teach about the moral precepts andthe cultivation of generosity. These are the foundation for any spirituallife. Beyond this, Buddhist practice and the whole ancient Asiantradition is built upon the spirit of service. For some, servicemay seem to be simply an adjunct or addition to their inner meditation.But service is more than that; it is an expression of the maturity ofwisdom in spiritual life. Understanding of this spirit of serviceand interconnectedness grows as our wisdom deepens."( Golstein & Kornfield,1987,p165 ). It is this spirit of service which the following BuddhisOrganisations exemplify.
The Tiep Hien Order (The Order of Interbeing) and its Precepts
The Tiep Hien Order was founded in Vietnam in 1964 during the war. Itderives from the Zen School of Lin Chi, and is the 42nd generationof this school. (Thich Nhat Hanh, 1987a,p85) "The words "Tiep" and"Hien" have several meanings. "Tiep" means to be "in touch with" and"to continue". "Hien" means "to realise" and "to make it here andnow". (Thich Nhat Hnah, 1987b,p11)
The order was founded in the following manner. "In 1964, respondingto the bourgeoning hatred, intolerance and suffering, a group of Vietnamesebuddhists, many deeply grounded in Buddhist philosophy and meditation,founded ..(the).. Order to become an instrument of their vision ofengaged Buddhism. Composed of monks and nuns, laymen and laywomen,the Order of Interbeing (Tiep Hien) never comprised great numbers,yet its influence and effects were deeply felt within their country. Highlymotivated and deeply committed, members of the Order and their supportersorganized anti-war demonstrations, printed leaflets and books, ransocial service projects, organized an underground for draft resisters,and cared for many of the wars suffering innocent victims.
During the war, many members and supporters died, some from self-immolation,some from cold-blooded murder, and some from the indiscriminate murderof war. At this time, it is impossible to say whether any remnantof the Order still exists in Asia, even though several members didemigrate to the West, and have recently ordained a number of Westernersand Vietnamese refugees.
Yet (the) Fourteen Precepts that they recited weekly, whilewar, political repression, and immense suffering tore apart theirfamiliar world, are now being offered to us".(Eppsteiner,1985,pp152-153)
"The fourteen precepts of the Tiep Hien Order are a unique expressionof traditional Buddhist morality coming to terms with contemporaryissues. These precepts were not developed by secluded monks attemptingto update the traditional Buddhist Precepts. Rather, they were forgedin the crucible of war and devastation that was the daily experiencefor many Southeast Asians during the past several decades."(Eppsteinerin Thich Nhat Hanh,1987b,p5.) They are as follows:
The First Precept:
Do not be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology,even Buddhist ones. All systems of thought are guiding means: theyare not absolute truth.
The Second Precept:
Do not think the knowledge you presently possess is changeless, absolutetruth. Avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views. Learnand practice non-attachment from views in order to be open to receiveothers' viewpoints. Truth is found in life and not merely in conceptualknowledge. Be ready to learn throughout your entire life and to observereality in yourself and in the world at all times.
The Third Precept:
Do not force others, including children, by any means whatsoever,to adopt your views, whether by authority, threat, money, propagandaor even education. However, through compassionate dialogue, helpothers renounce fanaticism and narrowness.
The Fourth Precept:
Do not avoid contact with suffering or close your eyes before suffering.Do not lose awareness of the existence of suffering in the life of theworld. Find ways to be with those who are suffering by all means,including personal contact and visits, images, sounds. By such means,awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world.
The Fifth Precept:
Do not accumulate wealth while millions are hungry. Do not take asthe aim of your life fame, profit,wealth or sensual pleasure. Livesimply and share time, energy and material resources with those whoare in need.
The Sixth Precept:
Do not maintain anger or hatred. As soon as anger and hatred arise,practice the meditation on compassion in order to deeply understandthe persons who have caused anger and hatred. Learn to look at otherbeings with the eyes of compassion.
The Seventh Precept:
Do not lose yourself in dispersion and in your surroundings. Learnto practice breathing in order to regain composure of the body andmind, to practice mindfullness and to develop concentration andunderstanding.
The Eighth Precept:
Do not utter words which can create discord and cause the communityto break. Make every effort to reconcile and resolve all conflicts,however small.
The Ninth Precept:
Do not say untrue things for the sake of personal interest or to impresspeople. Do not utter words that cause division and hatred. Do notspread news that you do not know to be certain. Do not critize orcondemn things that you are not sure of. Always speak truthfullyand constructively. Have the courage to speak out about situationsof injustice, even when doing so may threaten your own safety.
The Tenth Precept:
Do not use the Buddhist community for personal gain or profit, ortransform your community into a political party. A religious community,however, should take a clear stand against oppression and injusticeand should strive to change the situation without engaging in partisanconflicts.
The Eleventh Precept:
Do not live with a vocation which is harmful to humans and nature. Donot invest in companies that deprive others of their chance to live.Select a vocation which helps realize your ideal of compassion.The Twelfth Precept:
Do not kill. Do not let others kill. Find whatever means possibleto protect life and to prevent war.
The Thirteenth Precept:
Possess nothing that should belong to others. Respect the propertyof others, but prevent others from enriching themselves from humansuffering or the suffering of other beings.The Fourteenth Precept:
Do not mistreat your body. Learn to handle it with respect. Do notlook on your body as only an instrument. Preserve vital energies( sexual, breath, spirit ) for the realization of the Way. Sexualexpression should not happen without love and commitment. In sexualrelationships, be aware of future suffering that may be caused. Topreserve the happiness of others, respect the rights and commitmentsof others. Be fully aware of the responsibility of bringing new livesinto the world. Meditate on the world into which you are bringingnew beings.
The Order is truly non-sectarian. It "does not consider any sutraor any group of sutras as its basic text. Inspiration is drawn fromthe essence of the Buddhadharma as found in all sutras. The Orderdoes not recognize any systematic arrangement of the Buddhist teachingas proposed by various schools of Buddhism. The Order seeks to realizethe Dharma spirit within primitive Buddhism as well as the developmentof that spirit throughout the sangha's history and the teachings inall Buddhist traditions". (Thich Nhat Hanh,1987)
In the Order "there are two communities. The Core Community whichconsists of men and women who have taken the vow to observe the 14precepts of the Order. Before being ordained as a brother or sisterof the Order, one should practice at least one year in this way.
Upon ordination, the person has to organize a community aroundhimself or herself in order to continue the practice. That communityis called the Extended Community. This means all those who practiceexactly the same way, but have not been ordained into the Core Community.The people who are ordained into the Core Community do not have any specialsign at all. They don't shave their heads, they do not have a specialrobe. What makes them different is that they observe a number ofrules, one of them is to practice at least 60 days of retreat, ofmindfulness, each year, whether consecutively or divided into severalperiods.
If they practice every Sunday, for instance, they will have 52already. The people in the Extended Community can do that, or more,even if they don't want to be ordained. In the Core Community peoplecan choose to observe celibacy, or lead a family life."(Thich NhatHanh, 1987a, pp87-88).
The Zen Buddhist Master, Thich Nhat Hanh, believes that this typeof Buddhist practice will be acceptable to many Western practitioners. Heand his colleagues have experimented with it for 20 years and in hisopinion it seems suitable for modern society.(Thich Nhat Hanh, 1987a,p85.)
The Tiep Hien Order has a small but committed membership in Australia.(See below for more information)
The Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF)
The "Statement of Purpose" of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship is asfollows: "To make clear public witness to the Buddha Way as a wayof peace and protection for all beings; to raise peace and ecologyconcerns among American Buddhists and to promote projects throughwhich the Sangha may respond to these concerns; to encourage the delineationin English of the Buddhist way of nonviolence, building from the richresources of traditional Buddhist teachings a foundation for new action;to offer avenues to realize the kinship among groups and members ofthe American and world Sangha; to serve as liaison to, and enlistsupport for, existing national and international Buddhist peace andecology programs; to provide a focus for concerns over the persecutionof Buddhists, as a particular expression of our intent to protectall beings; and to bring the Buddhist perspective to contemporarypeace and ecology movements."
The fellowship "was founded in 1978 to bring a Buddhist perspectiveto the peace movement and the peace movement to the Buddhist community.Buddhists of many traditions join the Buddhist Peace Fellowship to explorepersonal and group responses to the political,social,and ecological sufferingin the world. Drawing on the teachings of nonviolence and compassion,and recognising the essential unity and interdependence of all beings,BPF members and chapters seek to awaken peace where there is conflict,bring insight into the institutionalized ignorance of political systems,and offer help in the Buddhist spirit of harmony and loving kindnesswhere it is needed."
"As a network of individuals and local chapters, BPF serves to promotecommunication and cooperation among sanghas in the work of nourishingall beings and resisting the forces of exploitation and war. TheBuddhist Peace Fellowship is a member organisation of the Fellowshipof Reconciliation and participates with other denominational peacefellowships in programs of ecumenical concern. National staff andlocal chapters respond to regional, national, and international peaceand social action issues. Operating within the broad guidelines ofthe BPF Statement of Purpose, chapters retain their autonomy and functionindependently. New chapters may form wherever BPF members and friendsare actively supporting each other in practices of engaged Buddhism. Membersand local chapters have been involved in disarmament, environmemtalactivities, and human rights, including campaigns opposing politicaloppression of Buddhists in Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Tibet. Chapterand national activities have included":
- education and support for personal choices to live simply, conserving energy, and resist harmful products and policies
- sponsoring teaching retreats and conferences
- letter-writing campaigns for human rights
- participation in vigils and demonstrations
- work with refugees from struggling countries
- support for socially conscious financial investment and consumerism,
- days of mindfulness practice
(The above information has been quoted from the BPF Membership information Leaflet.)
The Sakyamuni Buddhist Centre (ACT)
"The Vietnamese tradition of Mahayana Buddhism to which the Abbotof the Van Hanh Monastery and director of the Sakyamuni Buddhist Centre,Venerable Thich Quang Ba, belongs is engaged Buddhism. In thistradition, to practice the Buddha's teaching is not to withdraw fromsociety but to become engaged with it as Dharma practitioners. Accordingly,the Sakyamuni Buddhist Centre operates a range of social welfare programs."(Robleski,in Sakyamuni News,Oct,1991) Two particularly noteworthy programsare the Refugee Assistance Fund and the Vietnam Sangha Appeal. Theaim of the Refugee Assistance Fund is "to assist one of those groupsmost in need, those who have found the Government in their nativecountry so oppressive that they have risked their lives to escape. Theprogram assists mainly (but not only) Vietnamese refugees, most ofwhom have been in refugee camps for years."(Robleski,in SakyamuniNews,Oct,1991,p3.)
The Vietnam Sangha Appeal aims to provide financial support for thetraining of monks and nuns who will be reestablishing Buddhism inVietnam. "Since the Communist victory in Vietnam Buddhism has sufferedpersecution and oppression, leaving it in a very weakened state. Althoughconditions are still bad, over the past few years the Vietnamese Governmenthas found it necessary to develop contacts with the outside worldand attend to its international image, and so there has been sometoleration of religious activities. As part of this new reform policyabout ten Buddhist training institutes have been allowed to open,for the education of monks and nuns."
"These institutes are under Government control, but still Sutra Vinayaand other Buddhist subjects can be studied by approximately 1,000students. These institutes are, however, desperately poor. Theyare in need of even the most basic requirements - food, clothing andshelter - as well as money for books and their study materials."
"If Buddhism is to revive in Vietnam it must have the leadership ofa trained and educated Sangha....In a country as poor as Vietnam alittle hard currency goes a long way, and even $7.00 a month wouldprovide a scholarship that could support a student monk or nun."
"Thich Quang Ba hopes to be able to provide these institutes withmuch-needed financial support. He plans to send money direct to theindividual institute, and also wants to launch a scheme in which peoplecan sponsor a single sangha member, providing him or her with a personalscholarship. These students, the best and brightest, would be selectedby the head of their school." (Kearney,1992)
Has Buddhism ever been Socially Disengaged ?
It is strictly speaking incorrect to see Buddhism as "engaged" or"disengaged". There is simply Buddhism and it is by its very nature"engaged". So when we speak of "socially engaged Buddhism" we arein fact implying that a significant degree of "engagement" is partof the particular Buddhist practice being discussed.
In a recent conversation with Venerable Thich Quang Ba, he emphasizedthe inherently "engaged" nature of Buddhism and the fact that "engagedBuddhism" is not a recent innovation. Supporting this view he madethe following observations: Firstly, the place of "interdependence"in Buddhist philosophy predisposes Buddhism to social engagement.Secondly, in the Buddha's lifetime, very few Bikkhus asked for orwere granted permission to live solitary lives of practice. His followerswere deeply engaged in work at the village level. Thirdly, we areconstantly being engaged by life. It is extremely difficult to bedisengaged from life and hence it is really how we engage life asBuddhists which matters. Fourthly, the Golden Ages of Buddhism inIndia, China and Vietnam provide significant examples of sociallyengaged Buddhism. Thich Quang Ba is pleased that Thich Nhat Hanh hascoined and popularized the term "socially engaged Buddhism" in hiswritings. He also agrees that it may provide an emphasis in practicewhich is appealing to Westerners but counsels them to see it not asa new form of Buddhism but as Buddhism with a particular emphasis.(Brown,1992)
It is this emphasis which may have particular appeal to Westernpractitioners who are not so much interested in the traditional lifein and around the Temple as they are with individual meditation practiceand the humanitarian and environmental issues of the day.
Let us conclude with the words of the world's most renowned sociallyengaged Buddhist,Tenzin Gyatso,the XIVth Dalai Lama:
"Each of us has the responsibility for all mankind. It is time forus to think of other people as true brothers and sisters and to beconcerned with their welfare, with lessening their suffering. Evenif you cannot sacrifice your own benefit entirely, you should notforget the concerns of others. We should think more about the futureand the benefit of all mankind."(Tenzin Gyatso in Eppsteiner,1985,p8.).
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