For most people, the word "Buddhist," conjures a figure seated in meditation, connecting to universal oneness in a deeply serene state. There's not a lot of the busy-ness associated with other faiths—no singular god to vocally petition, no songs to sing (outside of occasional chanting), no mission trips, no letter-writing campaigns, no voter mobilization drives; in other words, even to outsiders who deeply admire them, Buddhists appear more solitary sitters than organized do-ers. Yet for Buddhists of various traditions, activism—particularly the kind that champions the environment—is a significant part of the path.
Engaged Buddhists, as these practitioners are known, value a symbiotic relationship to nature and have long sought to nurture peace and protect the Earth. For Engaged Buddhists, finding the inner path through meditation and non-violence allows activism to grow from a loving and compassionate heart. For some of them, action is meditating in a forest to teach others about ecology; others solicit their local governments to seek alternative energy sources or practice reforestation by planting trees.
Engaged Buddhist activism differs from the standard picket-waving fare in a few ways. For starters, it emphasizes personal, inner change to truly benefit society. While one does not necessarily need to be ordained in order to act, the exploration of Buddhist notions through the practice of education, meditation and selflessness serve as the foundation for action. Action, in Buddhist terminology, is different than our Western secular perception. For Buddhists, the “middle way” is about non-extremism and non-violence. The chances of catching a Buddhist setting fire to Hummers at a car dealership are pretty much nonexistent. However, you might catch a group of Buddhists meditating on the need for alternative fuel sources to minimize reliance on finite resources.
Thich Nhat Hanh the world-renowned Vietnamese Buddhist peace activist, coined the term “Engaged Buddhism” in the late 1960s. Confronted with the Vietnam War, social injustices, and the destruction of his beloved homeland, Hanh and his sangha (spiritual community) carried the practice of mindfulness and meditation into socio-political realms wherever they found suffering. The “Engaged” part of the phrase signifies the application of one’s spiritual practice on a social scale. Hanh has continued to inspire Buddhists internationally, through his works in Vietnam like developing agricultural cooperatives, rebuilding bombed villages, and setting up schools and medical centers. He has written many books on Engaged Buddhist practice and continues his influential teachings at the Plum Village in France and around the world.
The Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF), founded in 1978, is a strong force that helps organize Buddhist activism in the West. BPF participates in many forms of service work--from volunteering at hospice to campaigning alongside environmental groups. Through the Buddhist Alliance for Social Engagement program (BASE), begun by the BPF in the mid-1990s, six month-long support community workshops gather for the study of Buddhism and the practice of social engagement, placing mentors in charge of facilitating whatever form of compassionate action necessary at a given time. “What makes our position uniquely Buddhist is that we make a point of being for peace,” says Jacqueline Kurtz, a regional representative of the Michigan chapter of BPF, “not against any person or group. We try to do this without judgment of those who take a different view.”
One of the significant environmental projects that the BPF has been involved with is the Vote Solar Initiative, a plan to convert cities across the country to solar energy. Working on a more philosophical level, Buddhists such as those at the Zen Environmental Studies Institute (ZESI) in Mt. Tremper, New York are seeking to dissolve the "oppositional structure" of activism (a.k.a. the "us against them" paradigm intrinsic to most secular environmentalism) in favor of true insight and understanding. Again differing from mainstream environmental groups, ZESI uses Buddhist tools like walking meditation, silence, and outdoor education for insight into the profound interconnectedness of life through the exploration of the local wilderness.