2016-06-30
"It is easier to meditate than to actually do something for others. I feel that merely to meditate on compassion is to take the passive option. Our meditation should form the basis for action, for seizing the opportunity to do something."--His Holiness the Dalai Lama

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.

Konrad Ryushin Marchaj, a seasoned mountaineer, monk, and director of operations at ZESI, holds that insight alone makes one an activist. He claims that the term "Engaged Buddhism" is almost redundant. The action taking place is the enlightenment in itself; in other words, the journey is the goal. "We practice, not to be enlightened, but because we are enlightened,” says Marchaj. You don’t wait—you just practice and in that practice, that manifestation of compassion, that activism germinating is already looking for an outlet of appropriate expression."

Another way that Buddhist activism differs from secular environmental action is that Buddhists feel the idea of individuation-- that there is an individual self--is a misconception. In Buddhist teachings, this notion has led to the false distinctions: self and other, man and animal, nature and non-nature. In his well-known primer, "Peace is Every Step," Thich Nhat Hanh outlines this notion of interbeing—our interconnectedness that calls us to act from a position of empathy. To Hanh, if we truly see how everything relates, we cannot treat the “other” as “other,” but as part of ourselves. "Buddhists believe that the reality of the interconnectedness of human beings, society, and nature will reveal itself more and more to us as we gradually recover,” Hanh writes, “as we gradually cease to be possessed by anxiety, fear, and the dispersion of the mind."

Sulak Sivaraksa, founder of International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB), an organization based in Thailand. Sivaraksa has been jailed and exiled by his country’s government several times for speaking out against environmental devastation, human rights violations, and dictatorial government policies—and has been nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize. Through education and grassroots action, the INEB has increased sustainable development in Asia and encouraged ecological conservation through creative methods. For example, in Thailand, trees were adorned with yellow Buddhist robes to affirm their sacredness. In a 2002 interview with Life Positive magazine, Sivaraksa explained his unorthodox ways of encouraging environmentalism. “Those who cut trees see them as a source of money. If I go and tell them that to harm trees is to harm ourselves, they will not listen. But they belong to the same Buddhist culture as me in which a monk's yellow robes are symbolic of the Buddha. So when we put them on the trees after performing a ceremony, nobody dares touch them. This is an example of what in Buddhism is called upaya, or skillful means.”

Both Hanh and Sivaraksa are spiritual peers of His Holiness, The Dalai Lama, also a strong voice for the environment, noting that the inner environment is necessarily connected with the ecology. In a 1992 address to the Parliamentary Earth Summit of the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development, the Dalai Lama pointed out the need for individual responsibility.
“Basically, every human individual carries responsibility for the benefit or welfare of humanity and for the planet itself, because this planet is our only home. We have no alternative refuge,” he said. ”Therefore, everyone has the responsibility to care not only for our fellow human beings but also for insects, plants, animals and this very planet.” His Holiness has followed his own word; in the past year he has requested that Tibetan citizens stop killing animals, namely tigers and leopards though their skins have been used as adornment in Tibetan culture for centuries. In a ritualistic demonstration in Eastern Tibet in 2006, activists burned the skins to respect the exiled Dalai Lama’s request.

Engaged Buddhists work for environmental well-being through non-violence. Through the realization that all is one, action becomes imperative. As Marchaj says; “Everything is me. If you really see that, how could you not act on behalf of that body?”

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