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“It is not enough to be compassionate. You must act. There are two aspects to action. One is to overcome the distortions and afflictions of your own mind, that is, in terms of calming and eventually dispelling anger. This is action out of compassion. The other is more social, more public. When something needs to be done in the world to rectify the wrongs, if one is really concerned with benefiting others, one needs to be engaged, involved.” - The Dalai Lama
What is Engaged Buddhism?
Engaged Buddhism is a term coined in the later part of the twentieth century as a way of animating the altruistic aspect of Buddhism practice, responding to the pressing social issues of our times, and to combat a perception that Buddhism is largely about seeking peace for one’s own sake. Lokabandhu in a Free Buddhist Audio Dharmabyte on ‘Buddhism and Activism’ draws out this point: Buddhism and social action are not two separate things but, rather, social activism is part of being Enlightened and therefore part of the Buddhist path.
Of course this altruistic dimension has always been present in Buddhist practice throughout the centuries - for example, the Bodhisattva Ideal is a very important dimension of Buddhist practice, particularly in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, and one that is strongly emphasised in the Triratna Buddhist Community. A Bodhisattva is one who seeks to gain Enlightenment for the sake of all living beings. Sangharakshita speaks about this in terms of the ‘trend of involvement’: when we contemplate all the suffering that is in the world,
…how can I possibly think simply in terms of getting out of it all on my own? How can I possibly think of getting away by myself to some private nirvana, some private spiritual experience, which may be very satisfactory to me but is of no help to others? (The Essential Sangharakshita, p. 568)
One recent example of this trend towards engagement is in Buddhist efforts to address the persecution of Muslims in Burma/Myanmar - all the more pertinent as the aggressors in this case claim to be Buddhist.
The Example of Dr Ambedkar
In a previous post for this series (Buddhist Voices Around the World) we looked at how a number of individuals involved in Triratna are engaged in social action. In this regard, perhaps one of the most influential examples of engaged Buddhism is that of Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar. Ambedkar was born into the ‘untouchable’ Hindu caste and as a result suffered from the oppressions that went with it - including exclusion from education and healthcare, being forced to work in the most menial jobs, and living with discrimination where the very sight of a so-called ‘Untouchable’ was deemed to ‘pollute’ those of higher caste. Despite this, due to his own extraordinary aptitude as well as the educational opportunities granted to him, Ambedkar rose to eventually become law minister in India, finally helping to draft the Indian constitution after Independence from Britain. He wanted to help others who were ostracised in Indian society, and explored several ways of doing so - political, legal and economic - before eventually coming to the conclusion that only converting from Hinduism would help liberate the so-called ‘untouchables’. He saw that the problem of caste was mind-made and that the solution was also, therefore, to be found in the mind. He converted to Buddhism himself, and in doing so, inspired 300,000 of his followers to follow suit. Since his conversion in 1956 there are now about 20-30 million ‘new’ Buddhists in India, who have better educational prospects than those who remain within the caste system.
Ambedkar’s life highlights the difference that one person can make to a situation. Subhuti suggests there are four reasons that Ambedkar should be remembered and celebrated:
On the 14th October 2016 Triratna marked the 60th anniversary of Ambedkar’s conversion by launching a new ‘stories’ space about Ambedkar and by reporting on the celebrations in Nagpur, India, which included a ‘Social Engagement and Liberation’ conference. This event also coincided with the launch of the first part of Sangharakshita’s Complete Works, including his Dr Ambedkar and the Buddhist Revival, 1.
The life and example of Ambedkar has inspired many - not just the millions of new Buddhists in India. Ambedkar’s life and work has also found a resonance with the Gypsy community in Hungary who face similar discrimination to the Dalits (so-called ‘Untouchables’) in India. The Triratna-affiliated Jai Bhim network was set up in Hungary (Jai Bhim! is an expression that Ambedkarites use to denote their joy at Ambedkar’s achievement) which in turn established a school - called the Dr Ambedkar High School - to help Gypsies in Hungary complete their education and thus help them have better opportunities in life.
Help save the Dr. Ambedkar High School!
Read Jai Bhim! by Nagabodhi (free download)
Buddhist Action Month: A Festival of Buddhist Social Action
Another means of drawing out the ‘trend of involvement’ in our spiritual lives is Buddhist Action Month, which takes place every June. This inter-Buddhist initiative from the UK’s Network of Buddhist Organisations, which has been readily embraced by groups and Centres across Triratna, began in 2012 as a day event, gradually expanding to a month-long opportunity to reflect on our values and to take action as a Sangha that will help alleviate suffering in the world.
In our own community we’ve now extended this effort to encourage more sustained, year-round effort. You can find out what events and activities are currently underway across Triratna on our dedicated Buddhist Action space.
Arising out of Buddhist Action Month, and from a concern particularly in relation to the environment, a Sustainable Buddhist Centre Accreditation scheme was developed - with ten points for Triratna Buddhist Centres to sign up to (such as using renewable energy, using and promoting Fair Trade, auditing their energy use and more). This helps clarify their commitment to making the altruistic dimension of Buddhist practice more explicit.
Action Out of Compassion: Other ‘Engaged’ Triratna Projects
Buddhist Action Month, however, is not the only ‘engaged’ Triratna initiative. The Karuna Trust (which means ‘compassion’) was founded in 1980 with the aim of providing support and empowerment for India’s Dalit community. Karuna frequently run door-knocking appeals to raise funds for projects in India as well as give participants a chance to practice deeply in intensive conditions.
Watch a short video about Karuna’s work.
Similarly, Eco-Dharma is a Buddhist Retreat Centre in the Pyrenees which offers courses, events, trainings and retreats on the themes of Engaged Buddhism. Here are some reflections on Buddhism and social action from Eco-Dharma.
Buddhafield - which offers the Dharma in the Great Outdoors during a camping festival in the summer and via a series of wonderful retreats - has recently begun to offer a more explicitly ‘engaged Buddhism’ dimension to their work by means of their ‘Green Earth Awakening’ project. The theme of this year’s Green Earth Awakening is ‘Dance of Life and Death’ and it will explore engaged Buddhism, community living, land skills and creative responses to forging social resilience.
Green Earth Awakening 2018 runs from the 12th to 16th September
The Dharma First: Engaging with the Issues
“If we want to find a distinctively Buddhist response to politics, I suggest that we should think first of the Dharma and only secondly of the issues.” (Vishvapani, The Endless Knot)
There are many issues that we can respond to as Buddhists, motivated by compassion and in awareness of the cries of the world. At The Buddhist Centre Online we try to bring you a Dharmically-infused perspective on this issues: from reflections on veganism and Buddhist ethics over on our Vegan blog to the challenges of developing diversity within our community (check out this talk by Vimalasara on diversity and the ‘New Society’ and this conversation about gender diverse Sangha).
Watch this space for more ‘engaged’ and engaging content!