After recently reading a collection of essays about Engaged Buddhism (entitled “Not Turning Away”), I was inspired to dig up my own introductory article on the subject, first published in 2004.
The term “engaged Buddhism” was first used in the early 1960s by a Vietnamese
monk named Thich Nhat Hanh. Faced with the dilemma of whether to continue to practice
in monastic isolation or to actively confront the suffering wrought by the escalating war,
Hanh and his fellow practitioners decided they must do both. This decision led to the
formation of Tiep Hein (Order of Interbeing). Because of his peaceful political
activities, Hahn was exiled from Vietnam, and has since written over 75 books, been
nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize (by MLK, no less), and has helped forge a global
movement aimed at fostering peace on both a personal and societal level.
While Thich Nhat Hahn is regarded as a founder of the engaged Buddhism
movement, his ideas and ideals are not entirely new. His commitment to nonviolent direct
action is inspired by Mohatma Ghandi, while his ethics are rooted in a religious and
philosophical tradition born in India over 2500 years ago.
Buddhism and Action
A widely-held misconception about Buddhism is that it is inherently passive,
escapist, or nihilistic. This description, however, applies more to Hinduism as practiced at
the time of the historical Buddha, Siddartha Gautama, who rejected such otherworldly
asceticism. After nearly starving to death, the Buddha abandoned the path of self-mortification in
order to help alleviate the suffering of others through his teachings, which outlined the
Middle Way between renunciation of the world and attachment to its elusive treasures and
Another common impression is that the Buddha – with all his talk about suffering –
espoused a cynical, “life sucks” kind of philosophy. This is based partly on a
misunderstanding and mistranslation of the Pali word dukkha, which the Buddha used to
describe all forms of suffering, from physical agony to the kind of subtle anxiety we might
experience even when we feel good, yet are worried that it might not last. Furthermore, the
perception of Buddhism as a bummer philosophy overlooks two of its most important and
positive concepts: that suffering has a cause, and that it can be overcome. Implicit in these
basic tenets is the idea that responsibility lies squarely with the individual, rather than on
some external authority. If we want ourselves and others to suffer less, it’s not enough to
possess good intentions, pray for deliverance, or adopt a particular set of beliefs; we have
to take action.
The Role of Meditation
For most Buddhists, taking action usually means engaging in a formal practice
geared toward freeing the mind from its attachments. This usually involves some form of
Of the many types of meditation, the one familiar to most Americans is “sitting”
meditation, in which the practitioner adopts a comfortable but attentive posture for a given
length of time, commonly between 30 and 60 minutes, maybe longer. To a non-practitioner,
this type of meditation certainly appears passive and perhaps escapist. After all, there’s a
person sitting with their eyes closed, not talking or moving a muscle. What’s so active or
“engaged” about that?
Seated meditation emphasizes the importance of both concentration and observation.
Concentration is usually honed by focusing exclusively on one particular thing such as the
breath. This exercise usually leads to a calmness from which the meditator can more clearly
and objectively observe the workings of the mind and body. In general, there is no special
or altered state to strive for; the main point is to devote “bare attention” to everything that
occurs, whether pleasurable or painful, which is quite the opposite of escapism. In an
important sense, the meditator is actively engaged with the present moment, without the
usual distractions offered by cell phones, television, the Internet, drugs and alcohol, etc.
Of course, meditation is just a technique, not the goal itself. The experience and
insight gained on the meditation cushion is meant to carry over to “real life” and all of its
inevitable trials, tribulations and triumphs. While many people do choose to practice or live
in an isolated setting, most of us lead rather hectic, complicated, and stressful lives.
(to be continued)