As American Buddhists contemplate the present political moment, we may experience considerable confusion about what—if anything—we should do to make a difference. Isn’t the real work of Buddhists the individual inner work of rooting out the defilements (the kilesas) that impede our spiritual awakening? In 1992, while staying at a Thai forest monastery, I was told this by an eminent Western monk, who suggested that social work may help, but shouldn’t be confused with the heart of Buddhist practice.

This view, which I have also heard from Mahayana teachers, has a basis in Buddhist tradition. The central focus of the Buddha’s teachings was on individual transformation for monastics. A clear boundary separated the monastery and “politics,” which was understood (in a way very different from Western notions of politics) as related to the activities of kings. “Danger from kings” was a greater concern than danger from robbers, fire, or wild animals.

On the other hand, contemporary socially engaged Buddhists—such as Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, activist Joanna Macy, and Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi—advocate connecting individual practice with a response to social conditions. “Mindfulness must be engaged. Once there is seeing, there must be acting,” writes Thich Nhat Hanh in Peace Is Every Step. “We must be aware of the real problems of the world. Then, with mindfulness, we will know what to do and what not to do to be of help.”

This view also can find support in Buddhist tradition. The Buddha sometimes expressed concerns about cultivating the conditions for social harmony, and intervened several times to prevent wars. The five ethical precepts—which urge us to refrain from killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct, and the harmful use of intoxicants —have often been interpreted as guidelines for society. The great Indian king Ashoka gave edicts based on the precepts—laws that stipulated the protection of animals and the elimination of the death penalty. The Mahayana movement popularized the inspiring figure of the bodhisattva, dedicated to the awakening both of self and of others.

But even if we want to be engaged, we face further challenges. What should be our guidelines, given that the Buddha gave relatively few social teachings, and that the contemporary world is very different from the agrarian world of the Buddha? How do we participate as Buddhists in contexts that are guided by secular assumptions, including the separation of church and state?

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