Four Movements in the History of Socially Engaged Buddhism and Their Central Contributions by Donald Rothberg and Alan Senauke
What is socially engaged Buddhism? It is Dharma practice that flows from the understanding of the complete yet complicated interdependence of all life. It is the practice of the Bodhisattva vow to save all beings. It is to know that the liberation of ourselves and the liberation of others are inseparable. It is to transform ourselves as we transform all our relationships and our larger society. It is work at times from the inside out and at times from the outside in, depending on the needs and conditions. It is to see the world through the eye of Dharma and to respond empathically and actively with compassion.
The history of socially engaged Buddhism provides those of us following such a path with many resources. In the limited space of this essay, we want to explore brief histories of four key movements and some of their leaders (of course, we might easily have focused on other movements and exemplary figures), identifying how each movement develops a core intention that can deeply inform our engaged practice
We have chosen first to look at the Indian movement of the Untouchables against systemic oppression based on caste, led in the first half of the 20th century by Dr. Ambedkar and continuing to this day. We then explore the Sarvodaya movement in Sri Lanka, founded by Dr. Ariyaratne and guided by a Gandhian vision of intertwining personal and community development based on shared work and practice. Thirdly, we focus on the Vietnamese Buddhist movement during the war and the work of Thich Nhat Hanh, Chan Khong, and others to widen the scope of Buddhist practice, developing a deeply influential understanding of nondual social action and conflict transformation. Finally, we move to North America to examine the work of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF), growing from Robert Aitken Roshi’s broad notion of decentralized and self-regulated Buddhist communities into a variety of organizational forms.
Dr. Ambedkar and the Movement of Untouchables in India: Responding to Institutionalized Oppression
Bhimrao R. Ambedkar was born in 1891 in Central India, what is now Maharastra. Though his family came from the Hindu untouchable Mahar caste—subject to intense economic and social discrimination—Ambedkar’s father, a non-commissioned officer in the Indian colonial army, found places for his children at the government school. But the reality of discrimination meant that Mahar children were ignored by their teachers, and literally compelled to sit outside the classroom. Ambedkar later reflected:
My poor untouchable brothers live in a condition worse then the slaves. Slaves were at least touched by their lords. Our very touch has been deemed a sin. Not even a British government has been able to do anything for us. Formerly we could not even enter the temples.
Ambedkar was brilliant student, and in 1907, he was among the first untouchable youth to enter the University of Bombay, later receiving a fellowship to study Political Science at Columbia University. By the time he re-established himself in India, he had PhD’s from Columbia and the London School of Economics, and had been admitted to the British Bar. But Ambedkar was once again confronted with discrimination; upper caste lawyers and clerks would not meet with him. However, his reputation among the Untouchables (or Dalits) was growing quickly.
Ambedkar’s original public focus was on improving the position of Untouchables within and in opposition to the constraints of the British colonial system. Over time, however, he came to see that the entrenched Hindu caste system, an almost insurmountable social and economic obstacle for Dalits, was not about to disappear quickly, despite pious intentions and legal reform. So he began to study systematically the various world religions, seeking a spiritual path that would lead to social equality, and attempting to understand the religious roots of institutional oppression. At a 1935 Mahar rally he said: “I say to you, abandon Hinduism and adopt any other religion which gives you equality of status and treatment.”
As India moved towards independence, Ambedkar was often highly critical of Gandhi and the Congress Party. Yet despite his controversial views, he was an exemplary jurist and scholar. At independence in 1947, the Congress-led government invited him to serve as the nation's first law minister and later was charged to write India's new Constitution.
By 1947, he had also seriously turned his attention to Buddhism as an egalitarian faith, native to India. Researching early Buddhism, Ambedkar found that the rigorous dialogue, process, and democratic basis of sangha life provided a solid grounding for this new constitution. Still, on presenting this constitution he wrote:
Democracy’s life is based on the liberty, equality and fraternity; there is a total lack of equality in India. We have equality in politics, but inequality reigns in the sphere of society and economics. How can a people be divided into thousands of castes and sub-castes be a nation? The way to grow strong and united is to remove all such barriers.
In 1956, Ambedkar publicly converted to Buddhism, receiving the traditional Three Refuges and Five Precepts from a senior Buddhist monk. Then Ambedkar himself turned and offered the refuges and precepts to the nearly 400,000 Dalits in attendance. However, only six weeks following this historic conversion, he passed away, three days after he had completed his abiding work, The Buddha and His Dhamma.
His untimely death left a void of leadership among the Dalits that took years to fill. Ambedkar reframed traditional Buddhism—emphasizing its social teachings, and the understanding of karma as moral opportunity rather than fate —in ways that would clearly resonate with and uplift the oppressed and dispossessed. Much like Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders, and like many now working to connect Buddhist practice and attention to various forms of oppression—linked with race, ethnicity, class, gender, and sexual orientation—Ambedkar saw the inseparability of spirituality and social liberation.
Ambedkar’s contemporary legacy can be seen among millions of ex-Untouchables and hundreds of communities and organizations, some highly political and some religious. TBMSG (Trailokya Bauddha Mahasangha Sahayaka Gana) represents an impressive non-sectarian network of Buddhist communities across India, in which dharma and social service are closely entwined. TBMSG provides grassroots, indigenously-led meditation retreats and Buddhist training for thousands of Dalits, many of them living in urban slums. Meditation and practice inform TBMSG’s social work—childcare, schools, literacy projects and the development of libraries, medical programs, and training for self-sufficiency and livelihood. After nearly thirty years, a new generation of Dalit leaders is emerging in TBMSG, building new and confident Dharma communities in India for the first time since Buddhism’s decline there nearly a thousand years ago. And there have also been initial connections between Dalits and Buddhist People of Color in the United States, sharing some of their experiences and ways of practicing.
Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne and Buddhist-Based Community Development
If Ambedkar’s vision was about linking spirituality to a movement for the rights of a downtrodden people, then Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne and the Sarvodaya movement point to the importance of what we might call community development.
Dr. Ariyaratne, or Ari, as he is familiarly known, was born in November 1931 in Galle, Sri Lanka. His middle-class family was devoted to education and Buddhism, and the young Ariyaratne advanced through school quickly. In 1956, he was hired as a science teacher at the prestigious Nalanda College. In that first year, on his own, he surveyed the Rodiya communities of Untouchables living in terrible poverty. The following year Ariyaratne visited rural Gandhian communities across India, meeting and traveling with Gandhi’s famed disciple, Vinoba Bhave. Vinoba had formed a nonviolent social movement based on giving (particularly land), for which he used the Gandhian term, Sarvodaya, or “the welfare of all.” This social-spiritual vision deeply influenced Ariyaratne.
Returning to Sri Lanka, he reflected on how these principles might guide a form of communal action that he called shramadana, “a gift of labor.” In December 1958, Ariyaratne, along with a group of Nalanda students and teachers, organized the first shramadana work camp in the Rodiya village of Kanatoluwa. With the villagers themselves, they surveyed the area, assessed resources, discussed what needed to be done, and clarified the spiritual principles supporting the project. After the first project’s success, requests for shramadana camps soon came in from numerous impoverished villages. As these camps developed, they created new local infrastructures, based on the empowerment of all involved. Dr. Ariyaratne was finding that his amalgam of Buddhist and Gandhian principles and practices was working very well, as they were building roads, clinics, and schools in cooperation with local peoples. Their motto was: “We build the road and the road builds us.”
From these seeds, an organization— Sarvodaya—grew to become the largest grassroots development network in Sri Lanka. Today, this network comprises some 15,000 villages and 34 Sarvodaya district offices.
In their work, Dr. Ariyaratne and his partners in Sarvodaya reframe the teaching of the Four Noble Truths, giving it a social interpretation designed to resolve community problems, asking: “What is the problem? What are the roots of the problem? What is the solution? How do we get there?”
The first truth, the truth of suffering and unsatisfactoriness, translates as the fact of a village in trouble. The scholar George Bond writes, “This concrete form of suffering becomes the focus of mundane awakening. Villagers should recognize the problems in their environment such as poverty, disease, oppression, and disunity.” Understanding the second truth, the origin of suffering, is to see the role of factors like greed, hatred, and selfishness. The third truth is that the villagers’ suffering can cease. The means to solve the problem lies in the fourth truth, the Eightfold Path. This truth encompasses all the shared abilities, wisdom, and efforts of the community, organized for its own liberation. Dr. Ariyaratne writes: “The struggle for external liberation is the struggle of internal liberation from greed, hatred, and ignorance, at the same time.”
Sarvodaya has also played a vital peacemaking role in the context of the violent civil war in Sri Lanka that erupted starting in 1983. It has carried out the difficult and dangerous work of creating connections across Buddhist Sinhalese and Hindu Tamil lines, creating a peace movement based on such connections, although the risks have been great. At the first BPF Summer Institute in 1991, Ari told us how Sinahalese nationalists come into his home office with guns drawn, ready to kill him. His response was to say: “Well, you can do that if you wish to, but please explain to me how that is going to be a resolution to the suffering you’ve experienced.” They left without harming him or anyone else.
More than 100,000 young people are involved in Shanthi Sena, the nonviolent peace brigade, responding to inter-religious and inter-communal strife. They have organized huge peace gatherings in the last 10 years; in 2002, some 650,000 people met and meditated together in support of the recently enacted peace accords and ceasefire. Sarvodaya has also played a huge and highly-praised role in the wake of the December 2004 tsunami. Tens of thousands of volunteers brought material, psychological, and spiritual help to devastated villages, and are continuing to support their rebuilding.
The work of Dr. Ariyaratne and Sarvodaya has had a significant impact on many Western engaged Buddhists, in part through Ari’s regular visits to BPF and sanghas in North America. Joanna Macy, to give another example, spent a year with Sarvodaya in 1979-1980, which deeply impacted her own highly influential work in developing groups, organizations, and communities able to open to and transform the pain of the world, and in articulating social interpretations of many of the core Buddhist teachings and practices.
Thich Nhat Hanh and the Vietnamese Buddhist Movement: Non-Dual Conflict Transformation in the Midst of War
There is a long history of an engaged approach to Buddhism in Vietnam that goes back over 1000 years, often connected with the defense of the country and the people, and offering many examples of engagement as a place of practice, liberation, and social change. Hence, when a new wave of engaged Buddhism emerged in the 1930s, in large part aiming to end French colonialism (France had invaded Vietnam in 1858), there was considerable historical resonance.
According to Thich Minh Duc, there were three broad phases of the engaged movement in Vietnam. The first, starting in the 1930s, was called “Buddhism for Everybody” (Nhan Gian Phat Giao); the intention was to bring Buddhist teachings and practices out of the monasteries, to help guide daily life. The second, starting in the 1950s in the midst of war, was called “Buddhism Goes into the World” (Phat Giao Nhap). This was expressed especially through service—to meet the basic needs of the people, particularly refugees, for shelter, food, education, and medical care. The third phase, “Getting Involved” (Da’n Than), started after the crackdown on Buddhism in 1963, and involved explicit activism, intended especially to stop the war and the persecution of Buddhists.
Thich Nhat Hanh, born in 1926, participated in all three phases. After entering the Tu Hieu monastery in Hue at 17, he soon rebelled against the limited monastic curriculum, and moved to Saigon where he could connect traditional Buddhism with the exploration of contemporary literature and philosophy. In the 1950s and early 1960s, he founded or co-founded several communities and centers of Buddhist studies and activism, the School of Youth for Social Service, and the Tiep Hien Order, for practitioners of engaged Buddhism. He also was very involved in speaking and acting against the war. After his 1966 Western speaking tour (during which he met Thomas Merton and Martin Luther King, Jr., influencing significantly King’s decision to speak out on Vietnam in 1967), he was forced to begin his life in exile, advised by Buddhist leaders in Vietnam not to return, for fear of assassination or imprisonment.
In the years since then, he and a number of collaborators, particularly Chan Khong, have articulated a highly influential interpretation of engaged Buddhism, particularly centered on a non-dual approach to transforming conflicts. While there were significant aspects of the Buddhist movement that reflected an often dualistic anti-French and anti-American nationalism, the non-dual approach was central, especially through 1966.
We can formulate six basic elements of such non-dual conflict transformation:
Pointing to the Dualistic System of Conflict: The leaders of the Buddhist movement identified the roots of the war in the struggle between apparent polar opposites (Communists versus Capitalists), that reflected the projections of the superpowers onto Vietnam. Their intention was to transform this oppressive system of conflict, which they saw as the source of immense suffering.
Not Taking Sides: Their strategy was to avoid taking sides between the two extremes, thus pointing beyond the dualistic conflict. They did not posit either of the sides as the “enemy” or “oppressor.” According to Thich Nhat Hanh,
The Vietnam War was, first and foremost, an ideological struggle. To ensure our people’s survival, we had to overcome both communist and anticommunist fanaticism and maintain the strictest neutrality. Buddhists tried their best to speak for all the people and not take sides, but we were condemned as “pro-communist neutralists.”
Grounding in the Ethics of Non-Harming: Their commitment to the ethics of non-harming, of nonviolence, which was generally followed in the Buddhist movement, expressed the basic Buddhist ethical precepts, their refusal to take sides in a violent conflict, and a strategy for peacemaking through ending the cycles of violence.
Responding to Suffering: Their focus was in large part to respond to suffering—of the people, of the war, and of the two sides. Thich Nhat Hanh comments: “We were able to understand the suffering of both sides, the Communists and the anti-Communists. We tried to be open to both . . . to be one with them.”
Not Taking Sides Does Not Mean Not Responding: Through their actions, they showed that not taking sides in a dualistic conflict does not at all necessarily mean standing aside or not acting. Those in the Buddhist movement rebuilt homes and schools, dispensed medical care and set up clinics, helped with refugees, and demonstrated to end the conflict.
The Aim is Reconciliation, Not Victory: Their long-term intention was not the defeat of one of the two sides (taken as an “enemy”), but reconciliation. Such efforts required considerable patience and the “long view.” Thich Minh Duc comments, “We did not think that by demonstrating we’d turn things around immediately. Rather, we had to look to the long-term process of practice (tu). Tu means to transform bad to good—today one inch, tomorrow another inch. . . . For one hundred years, we were controlled by the French. We knew that it would take years to untie the knot.”
Robert Aitken Roshi and Buddhist Peace Fellowship: Developing a Network of Decentralized Spiritual Communities
BPF was born in 1977 on the back porch of Robert Aitken’s Maui Zendo. This informal circle of practitioners was appalled by another American proxy war in Central America, and by the flourishing arms race. Originally, their idea was to organize a chapter of the nonviolent Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). But FOR, which has separate fellowships for different faiths, suggested they start a “Buddhist Peace Fellowship.” Co-founders Nelson Foster, Robert and Anne Aitken, and other local Zen friends were soon joined by other Western Buddhists drawn to social engagement, including Gary Snyder, Joanna Macy, Jack Kornfield, Tai Unno, Al Bloom, Ryo Imamura, and others.
In the early years the BPF was a loose ecumenical network, linked by friendship and common purpose, with members clustered especially in Hawaii and the San Francisco Bay Area. Within three years the network had grown to several hundred members, moved its office to Berkeley, hired a part-time coordinator, formed the first chapters, and organized several conferences and meetings. The newsletter, edited by Nelson Foster, then Fred Eppsteiner, and then Arnie Kotler, became more professional in appearance. In time, under Susan Moon’s astute editing, Turning Wheel was born, documenting a growing engaged Buddhist movement.
By the time BPF began, Robert Aitken had been an activist for decades, speaking out on labor issues, nuclear disarmament, and opposition to war. For some years he was a tax resistor. Aitken also had a long background in Buddhist practice, which had its origin in his three years in an internment camp in Japan during World War II. By chance the well-known teacher and translator R.H. Blyth was interned in the same camp, and in the course of their captivity, Aitken received a vivid introduction to Zen, haiku, and literature in general. After the war, he took up Zen practice with Nyogen Senzaki in Los Angeles, studying in Japan in the early 1950s. In 1959 Robert and Anne Aitken founded what was to become the Diamond Sangha in their home in Honolulu, which continues to be Koko-An Zendo.
Aitken Roshi’s study of anarchist writing—Proudhon, Kropotkin, Landauer, Emma Goldman, and many others—reinforced his belief in personal autonomy, decentralization, and spiritual community. These are principles which are also the essence of Buddhist sangha:
The traditional Sangha serves as a model for enterprise in this vision. A like-minded group of five can be a Sangha. It can grow to a modest size, split into autonomous groups and then network. As autonomous lay Buddhist associations, these little communities will not be Sanghas in the classical sense, but will be inheritors of the name and of many of the original intentions. They will also be inheritors of the Base Community movements in Latin America and the Philippines—Catholic networks that are inspired by traditional religion and also by l9th century anarchism.
Unlike the visions of Ambedkar, Ariyaratne, and Thich Nhat Hanh, Aitken’s intention for BPF was not the creation of a new mass organization or religious order, but a web of like-minded Buddhist activists. So there were, and are, local BPF chapters functioning with great autonomy, bound by their mutual practice. This is a small step in the direction of what Aitken Roshi calls Buddhist Anarchism, which itself is a small step towards the healthy remaking of society. Aitken Roshi frequently cites the old Wobbly (Industrial Workers of the World) motto: “Build the new within the shell of the old.”
Aside from addressing the pressing realities of U.S. militarism and the encroachment of an all-devouring corporate capitalism, BPF early on was drawn to matters of religious freedom and human rights in Asia. In the first BPF newsletters, one reads about the plight of Tibet, religious suppression in Vietnam, and the oppression of tribal Buddhists in Bangladesh. And just as we are still wrestling with the depredations of militarism and global capitalism, it is interesting to see we have many of the same international concerns today as thirty years ago.
BPF has grown from that initial vision as straight and true as we could manage. The network of decentralized communities remains, and BPF’s Buddhist Alliance for Social Engagement (BASE) program, founded by Diana Winston and named to reflect affinity with the Catholic base community movement, has organized or facilitated over 30 6-month trainings for small, autonomous groups of practitioners. BPF’s many other projects have included working in prisons, organizing youth, investigating race and diversity, and seeding social activism in countless Buddhist centers and sanghas in America. Its mission is limitless, like the bodhisattva vows themselves:
• To make clear public witness to Buddhist practice and interdependence as a way of peace and protection for all beings; • To raise peace, environmental, feminist, and social justice concerns among North American Buddhists; • To bring a Buddhist perspective of non-duality to contemporary social action and environmental movements; • To encourage the practice of nonviolence based on the rich resources of traditional Buddhist and Western spiritual teachings; and • To offer avenues for dialogue and exchange among the diverse North American and world sanghas.
Donald Rothberg, a member of the Spirit Rock Teachers Council and the faculty of Saybrook Graduate School, is the author of The Engaged Spiritual Life: A Buddhist Approach to Transforming Ourselves and the World. He directs “The Path of Engagement,” a two-year Spirit Rock training program in socially engaged Buddhism.
Alan Senauke is vice-abbot of Berkeley Zen Center, senior advisor to Buddhist Peace Fellowship, and founder of the Clear View Project providing Buddhist-based resources for relief and social change. In his spare time, Alan is a father, musician, writer, and activist.
This essay is based on a presentation by Alan and Donald at the May 2008 Path of Engagement retreat at Spirit Rock.