Buddhism has always been socially engaged in one sense of the term. Buddha’s own decision to teach the dharma might be considered the first act of social engagement, and his insistence that all could join the sangha regardless of their caste position, as well as his eventual willingness to admit women, was certainly at odds with the caste and patriarchal ideology of his times. Furthermore, all schools of Buddhism have forefronted the virtue of universal and impartial compassion, which entails that the goal of extinguishing suffering must be extended from oneself to all sentient beings who suffer.
Nonetheless, Buddhism did not, throughout most of its history, attempt to challenge the organization of society outside the monastery and, in fact, generally accepted and even supported the political authorities upon which the development of its monasteries relied. Thus, the traditional understanding of Buddhist compassion has generally been focused on internal existential-psychological suffering and on the liberation of individuals from the cycles of samsara rather than on the suffering and liberation of those who were socially immiserated, exploited, and oppressed.
Socially engaged Buddhism is a phenomenon of recent modernity
What is today called ‘socially engaged Buddhism’ is very much a product of the 20th and now the 21st century. We might date its first emergence to October 14, 1956, when B.R. (Babasaheb) Ambedkar, the prominent leader of India’s Dalit (Untouchables) community, converted to Buddhism along with almost half a million other Dalits. The underlying reason for this conversion was Ambedkar’s concern that there could be no significant challenge to the caste system within the framework of Hinduism and that only Buddhism could provide the possibility of social and political liberation. However, Ambedkar also realized that Buddhism, in both its traditional Theravāda and Mahāyāna forms, was inadequate to challenge caste oppression beyond the monastery walls. He therefore organized what he called ‘Navayana Buddhism’, which reinterpreted Buddhism as having a commitment to social equality, class struggle, and the emancipation of women, and which also abandoned the ideas of karma and rebirth that he saw as lending support to the caste system. Thus, Ambedkar’s Navayana Buddhism might be considered the first political manifestation of socially engaged Buddhism.
Ambedkar’s movement, however, never used the term ‘engaged Buddhism’. The term was first used by Thich Nhat Hanh in the 1960s in Vietnam. Thich Nhat Hanh called for a collective awakening of individuals and communities and developed a set of what he called ‘fourteen guidelines for engaged Buddhism.’ These guidelines increased the Buddhist ethical precepts from five to fourteen and gave all of them a specific political, social, and economic twist. For example, the first Buddhist precept to abstain from killing is transformed as follows: ‘Do not kill. Do not let others kill. Find whatever means possible to protect life and prevent war.’
Reflecting on this guideline, Thich Nhat Hanh argues that while it is important to oppose wars, it is even more important to oppose the causes of wars before they begin; and he focuses both on the psychological internal roots of war and on its social and economic causes. ‘The way to prevent war is to make peace…first in our daily life by combating fanaticism and attachment to views, and working for social justice. We have to work vigorously against the political and economic ambitions of any country, including our own’ (1993, 42).
Thich Nhat Hanh transforms the second Buddhist precept to abstain from stealing as follows: ‘Possess nothing that should belong to others. Respect the property of others, but prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other species on Earth’ (1993, 43). Reflecting on the latter part of this guideline, Thich Nhat Hanh insists that this is not just the obligation of ‘legislators, politicians, and revolutionary leaders’ but also entails the obligation of each of us to ‘stay close to oppressed people and help them protect their right to life and defend themselves from oppression and exploitation’ (1993, 44).
How socially engaged Buddhism transforms traditional Buddhism
Bhikkhu Bodhi has argued that as Mahāyāna Buddhism inaugurated a second stage in the development of Buddhist ethical consciousness, socially engaged Buddhism initiates a third stage, perhaps even a third yana, and that it represents ‘a decisive shift in emphasis…away from the attainment of transcendent liberation or a heavenly rebirth…to the task of transforming the oppressive systemic structures that cause grave suffering for people in this present world of concrete experience’ (2009, 15). While claiming that it is a third yana may be an overstatement, socially engaged Buddhism certainly represents a significant extension and transformation of Buddhism. The extension and transformation follows from the recognition that there is a fundamental connection between individual dukkha and social dukkha and that Buddhist compassion for all sentient beings needs to address all the causes of suffering.
Thus, socially engaged Buddhism addresses both the social external causes as well as the psychological-existential internal causes of suffering. The psychological-existential manifestations of suffering are rooted in the illusion of self, in our program of self-cherishing and self-grasping; in our craving, attachments, and reactive tendencies; in the poisons of greed, ill will, and delusion; in our difficulty in accepting impermanence; and in our inability to control illness, old age, and death. Socially engaged Buddhism extends compassion to an attempt to confront and alleviate such socially caused forms of suffering as impoverishment, homelessness, social devaluation and various forms of oppression – racism, sexism, homophobia, and ageism – as well as militarism, social delusion (ideology), and ecological degradation and climate change. Socially engaged Buddhism sees these social forms of suffering interacting with and reinforcing the internal existential-psychological processes that traditional Buddhism addresses. This follows from the recognition of what Thich Nhat Hanh calls ‘interbeing’. Thus, I cannot extinguish individual dukkha without confronting the causes of the social suffering of other beings to whom I am inevitably connected just as, conversely, I cannot extinguish social dukkha without confronting the causes of individual dukkha.
Relation of socially engaged Buddhism to naturalized Buddhism
To what extent does socially engaged Buddhism need to reject the underlying metaphysical assumptions of the traditional forms Theravāda and Mahāyāna Buddhism? One reason for raising this question is that today many individuals who are involved in more traditions forms of Buddhism are beginning to take seriously the need to be socially engaged. For example, although Bhikkhu Bodhi writes approvingly of socially engaged Buddhism and is, in fact, himself a socially engaged activist, he remains a Theravādin Buddhist committed to the such assumptions as karma and rebirth as well as to the idea of nirvāṇa as an unconditioned realm of being. While this is not necessarily a contradiction, I would argue that a naturalized Buddhism – a Buddhism that rejects the idea of a supernatural world and is compatible with our understanding of the natural world as informed by the natural and social sciences – fits better with socially engaged Buddhism.
It is a better fit, since by not being tied down with assumptions about karma, rebirth, and nirvāṇa as an unconditioned, transcendent realm, it can more easily focus on the attempt to alleviate suffering and promote flourishing in this life, the only life that we can know that we have. In contrast, traditional forms of Buddhism which assume that what we did in our past lives is at least partially responsible for our present social location tend to undercut our ability to challenge the social and institutional forces responsible for social and political oppression. It was for this reason that Ambedkar, when he embraced Buddhism, found it necessary to reject karma and rebirth.
Furthermore, the traditional Buddhist assumption that we can have future lives takes away the urgency to change the social conditions of this life, since we can always have another go at it. In addition, the assumption that attaining nirvāṇa provides an escape from the cycles of samsara suggests that suffering can ultimately be transcended without social struggle. Finally, insofar as the goal of traditional Buddhism is for all human beings to escape rebirth, the cosmic consequence of this is mass extinction. Although this ultimate goal generally operates in the background, it can erode the attempt to preserve the web of life in the biosphere.
Socially engaged Buddhism needs to be radically engaged
I want to make one more claim before concluding this discussion. To be simply socially engaged is not sufficient. In order to confront the underlying causes of suffering in the contemporary world, Buddhism needs to be radically engaged. The social causes of suffering derive from systematic forms of oppression, exploitation, and domination that are rooted in institutions with long historical trajectories and are supported by dominant social, economic, and political forces. Thus, while providing support to those in need – helping people who are homeless, providing material support to the hungry, teaching mindfulness in prisons, etc. – are worthwhile goals, the problems will persist unless the roots of these problems are addressed.
This will require an analysis which goes beyond Buddhism. It will require an analysis of the institutional structures that cause homelessness, hunger, and other significant social and economic problems, and it will require a willingness to challenge those institutional structures. Just as Buddhism‘s analysis of dependent origination recognizes a complex of causes, this analysis will proceed to see a variety of social, economic, and political causal links that bring about these forms of social suffering. For example, while the most immediate economic cause of homelessness is the real estate industry which is sustained by political forces financially beholden to this industry, behind this is the imperatives of finance capital and the entire structure of corporate capitalism.
Furthermore, the problems and causal forces which Buddhism identifies interact with the problems and causal forces that bring about social suffering. To quote from a radically engaged Buddhist manifesto that I co-wrote with Mike Slott and Katya de Kadt, ‘Social systems of exploitation and oppression(capitalism, racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, etc.) mutually interact with and reinforce our tendencies to crave and to cling and have a delusory understanding of the self. In addition, these structures of exploitation and oppression directly harm individuals and groups in various ways while reinforcing the harmful human tendencies that develop out of the three poisons - greed, hatred, and delusion.’
Thus, engaged Buddhism needs to be rooted in forms of analysis that go beyond Buddhism – the analyses of various forms of radical social theory – e.g., a Marxist critique of capitalism; an anarchist critique of bureaucracy and domination; a feminist critique of patriarchy; a critical race analysis of the way in which white supremacy is imbedded in our social, political, and economic institutions; and an eco-critique of the domination of nature and of the ideology of continuous aggregate economic growth. As radically engaged, Buddhism also needs a vision of a society that can address both the institutional as well as the existential causes of suffering – an egalitarian, cooperative compassionate eco-socialist society that is anti-racist and anti-patriarchal and a society whose individuals are free from the illusion of self and the motives of self-cherishing and self-grasping.
If Buddhism is to become radically engaged, it will need to further develop its mindfulness, loving kindness, and compassion practices so that we each can recognize how we participate in the oppressive and exploitative institutions that cause suffering and so that we can disrupt and dismantle the internal-psychological patterns that motivate such participation. This will also entail that Buddhists join with others in social and political movements that confront the forces that bring about social and economic forms suffering and attempt to dismantle the institutions that sustain them.
Furthermore, Buddhists can also employ their mindfulness, loving kindness, and compassion practices within the social and political movements in which they participate in order to help diminish the tendencies toward obsessive hatred, despair, and burnout that so often infect these movements. In all, a radically engaged Buddhist practice can become part of larger movements for radical social change and can bring Buddhist skills to help develop and guide those larger movements, just as the visions and modes of analysis of those social movements can help guide radically engaged Buddhists.
Bhikkhu Bodhi (2009). ‘Socially Engaged Buddhism and the Trajectory of Buddhist Ethical Consciousness.’ Religion East and West 9, 1-23.
Nhat Hanh, Thich (1993). Interbeing: Fourteen Guidelines for Engaged Buddhism. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press.
This article is the text of Karsten Struhl’s presentation on 12 October 2023 for an online course sponsored by the New York Insight Meditation Center, called At the Crossroads of Secular and Socially Engaged Buddhism