The following seven challenges were expressed by participants at the first major Symposium for Western Socially Engaged Buddhism taking place August 9-14, 2010.  The event is hosted by the Zen Peacemakers and you could check out detailed coverage of the Symposium at the Bearing Witness Blog.

Bernie Glassman


1. To practice social engagement as a Buddhist without being “drummed out of Buddhism” and accused of “staining the Dharma” (Bernie Glassman).

Glassman mentioned that such accusations had been leveled at him by peers in his early days as a pioneer of socially engaged Buddhism. Yet, he said, according to Dogen – the thirteenth century founder of Soto Zen Buddhism in Japan – “the Dharma cannot be stained.” Certainly, he implied, such an argument should not be used to restrict social action by Buddhists.

Alan Senauke, Bill Aiken, Mirabai Bush, Bernie Glassman

2. To sustain a radical and internationalist Dharma vision (Alan Senauke).

According to Senauke, the Buddha’s original vision was a politically radical, egalitarian one, which continues to be embodied by socially engaged Asian Buddhists today, such as Thich Nhat Hanh or the untouchables in India who engage in mass conversions to Buddhism in order to defy the restrictions of caste. We can’t limit our view of socially engaged Buddhism to the West, Senauke declared: “our labors are interwoven with those of people far away and out of our sight” across the oceans. He also mentioned Gary Snyder on the need for not only a Western social revolution, but for the inward-directed insights of the East.

4. To propagate a sense of hope (Bill Aiken).

Aiken also stressed the need to find an issue that “people of faith”—not only Buddhists—can coalesce around, and suggested that the environment could be such an issue. “Buddhists shouldn’t exist in a sealed vacuum apart from society,” he asserted. “We should cultivate our inner life, then decide what to do with it. The area for action is as broad as the universe,” and we need to find cause for optimism.

3. To have contemplative and mindfulness practices accepted by our broader society (Mirabai Bush).

Bush emphasized that the acceptance of such practices is better than it was 15 years ago, but resistance remains. She mentioned specifically universities, where mindfulness practice often is seen as an obstacle to critical thinking; and social activists, who find it hard to accept that they can work from compassion rather than anger; and lawyers, who ask, “How can I be a zealous advocate if I have compassion?” Nevertheless, Bush said, “The opportunities for practice among people you’d least expect to be open to it is extraordinary. We need to start by honoring where people are, and learn to speak their language without diluting the practice.”

5. To establish emotional and inner strength and balance, and cultivate wisdom and compassion (Mathieu Ricard).

Ricard added that compassion is about “removing suffering in all its forms, on the streets and in the world.” Moreover, compassion without action “is just sterile. When people respond to suffering by saying ‘it’s not my job’—I don’t see that; if something comes your way, engage in compassionate action.”

6. To support each other as socially engaged Buddhists (Bernie Glassman).

Glassman said that it’s necessary to do this without getting stuck on telling other Buddhists “you have to do it my way.” Buddhism teaches that we’re all interconnected, Glassman said, so why aren’t socially engaged Buddhists practicing this among themselves – why aren’t they working together more?

7. Packaging (Ari Pliskin)

Ari wondered what is the proper way to present effective methods for reducing suffering. How can we stay true to a Buddhist tradition, but not use terminology or religious trappings that trigger people’s prejudices and turn people off?

Ari and Kanji

Ari Pliskin and Author Steve Kanji Ruhl (above)

Photos by Clemens Breitschaft (


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