The advent of Buddhists who are concerned about world peace, human rights, the environment, and other sociopolitical issues is a development that challenges some common assumptions. Isn’t Buddhism an inwardly focused religion that gives precedence to meditation over any kind of social activity? Isn’t it contradictory to speak of a “socially engaged Buddhism”? While the heart of the tradition may indeed be a solitary spiritual quest, Buddhism also displays remarkable diversity, and there is increasing recognition of the ways in which Buddhists and their institutions become involved in the world. Understandably, Buddhism often appears to promote personal transformation at the expense of social concern. Some Buddhist teachings claim that the mind does not just affect the world, it actually creates and sustains it. According to this view, cosmic harmony is most effectively preserved through an individual’s spiritual practice. Yet other Buddhists amend the notion that mind is the primary or exclusive source of peace, contending that inner serenity is fostered or impeded by external conditions. Buddhists who place importance upon social factors and social action believe that internal transformation cannot, by itself, quell the world’s turbulence.

In China, countless generations of Confucianists accused Buddhists of withdrawing from the world out of selfishness. Wang Yang-ming (1472-1529) charged that Buddhists were “afraid of the troubles involved in the relationships between father and son, ruler and subject, and husband and wife; therefore [they] escape from these relationships.” In Japan, Buddhism is faulted for becoming too subservient to the state. D. T. Suzuki, ordinarily a defender of Zen, did not exalt its role in the sociopolitical realm: “[Zen] may be found wedded to anarchism or fascism, communism or democracy…or any political or economic dogmatism.” Most Western scholars have also tended to perceive Buddhism as world-denying, passive, or socially inept. Max Weber was one of the first to declare that Buddhist devotees carry the “asocial character of genuine mysticism…to its maximum.”

Yet there are other specialists who have begun to question such interpretations. Instead they perceive in Buddhism a creative tension between withdrawal and involvement, an underlying synonymity between work on oneself and work on behalf of others. Evidence supporting this viewpoint is found in doctrine, in practice, in legend, and in history. Thus the preeminent virtues in Theravada Buddhism are self-restraint and generosity; in Mahayana Buddhism, the highest goals are wisdom and compassion. According to Tibetan scholar Robert Thurman, certain Mahayana texts reveal the outlines of a society that is “individualist, transcendentalist, pacifist, universalist, and socialist.” Carried to an extreme, such interpretations envision an ideal Buddhism too far removed from its actual historical development. But the thrust of the argument is constructive: to show that the Buddhist tradition contains untapped resources for skillful social action and peacemaking, accessible to Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike.

It is noteworthy, in this regard, that the story of the Buddha’s spiritual journey climaxes with his enlightenment but does not end there. Even as he was savoring the blissful state that followed his awakening, he was approached (in the traditional account) by a delegation of gods, who begged him to give up his private ecstasy so he could share his awakening with those who still suffered. This encounter and its outcome, however legendary, make the point that spiritual maturity includes the ability to actualize transcendent insight in daily life. The Buddha is said to have wandered across northern India for forty years, tirelessly teaching the dharma. His decision to arise from his seat under the Bo tree and go out into the world can be considered the first step of a socially engaged Buddhism. The Buddha’s discourses, which had revolutionary force in the society of his time, include countless passages dealing with “this-worldly” topics such as politics, good government, poverty, crime, war, peace, and ecology.

A socially engaged Buddhism raises compelling questions. For instance, is it necessary to prove that engagement was an integral feature of original Buddhism, or is it enough to demonstrate that it can be derived naturally from Buddhism’s past? What are the differences between Buddhist-inspired activism and activism that arises from other religious or secular belief systems? A number of challenging practical issues also emerge: Is it possible to become involved without becoming attached? Must one be partially or fully enlightened before one can act in the world with true wisdom and compassion? Such topics are of particular concern to Buddhism’s new adherents in the West.

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