“How can we use Buddhist values to create a better society?” This is the central question posed by the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, and it was the question framing a two-week training on Socially Engaged Buddhism that I and eight other Princeton students were fortunate to participate in this summer. Socially Engaged Buddhism teaches social action and social critique based on Buddhist philosophy and values. Developed by Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhadasa Bhikku, and Sulak Sivaraksa, the philosophy recognizes suffering in the modern world as connected to structural violence and ‘mass delusion,’ and promotes personal spiritual development, social critique, and network-based action in response to social ills and injustices.
Our training group included twenty young Buddhist activists from across Asia and our group of visiting Princeton students. We spent our two weeks learning about topics like ecology, economics, development, gender justice, consumerism, commercialization of Asian countries, teambuilding, and governance – all from a Buddhist perspective. The common thread was of understanding domination of all kinds and learning to respond to it from a place of wisdom, teamwork, and compassion. The deeper we went into exploring this philosophy, the more challenges it presented, because domination is so embedded in our cultures. This was especially true for those of us raised and molded in the West. Asian cultures are increasingly coming face-to-face with the domination inherent in models of development, in globalization, and in modern social structures.* Western cultures built these models. Engaged Buddhist philosophy (as well as liberation theology, feminism, and other philosophies that challenge domination) ask Westerners to consider our own cultural legacies and privileged positions vis-a-vis the rest of the world.
But engaged Buddhism is not just about international issues; it is also local and personal. Engaged Buddhism is innovative because it applies the same basic methodology to domination and suffering in ourselves (the domain of traditional Buddhism), locally, and globally. The Buddhist path of transformation directs us to recognize the existence of suffering. It asks us to consider and deeply understand suffering and its causes. It asks us to reconcile with suffering – including our own role in causing it – and find deep inner peace. From deep understanding and inner peace and strength, we can take action to end suffering. Engaged Buddhism teaches social action based on compassion, and its proponents argue that one cannot exist without the other.
Our training offered us tools for transformation in our personal lives as well as in our immediate communities, and perhaps one day in broader society. We learned that it’s not effective to simply join an organization or a movement – transformation must come from within. Personal transformation is the basis of any broader action. Personally I feel empowered to become more peaceful and slow, and more gentle and compassionate in my relationships. A common refrain among most of the Princeton students in the training was a desire to simplify our lives. I would like to continue working with the four-staged Buddhist methodology of transformation and I’m curious to see where it takes me (and my community work) in this final year at Princeton.
* Not that “traditional cultures” didn’t have domination and control – but back then it wasn’t backed up by borders and passports, state police and so-called justice systems, and national economic plans, and people could escape simply by walking away into the forest. Nowadays even forests are controlled.