Engaged Buddhism

by Mia Livingston – Network of Engaged Buddhists journal Indra’s Net, December 2011

I felt that I had to somehow make it to the Engaged Buddhism conference. If I didn’t go, surely that would mean that I was disengaged!  But then, one of my weaknesses is to fall for dualism…

Engaged Buddhism has been a catchphrase in and out of Buddhist circles for decades. This particular conference was the brainchild of Western Chan Fellowship Chair Jake Lyne, one night as he was driving home from retreat.  The rest of the group gathered around to make it happen, particularly founder John Crook. John has since passed and his presence was much missed.

70 of us gathered in a hall covered in bats and broomsticks, over Halloween weekend in Bristol. Immediately I was impressed by everyone’s warmth and approachability. There were no starched suits or frozen smiles, and if you wanted to stand alone in a corner to contemplate, that was fine too. Most walks of Buddhism and some other walks too were represented, but despite any differences it felt very much like we were on the same page.

Key speakers included American author and teacher David Loy, Wesleyan Professor of Religion Jan Willis, author and founder of the Network of Engaged Buddhists Ken Jones, Devin Ashwood of the Angulimala Prison Trust, and an impressive line-up from the Western Chan Fellowship. They were all very practised at engaging our big group, and I felt shy as if I’d been locked away in a monastery the whole time.

We spoke of abuse within the sanghas, ecological destruction, contemplation v. engagement, Wall Street and Martin Luther King.

Buddhism was always engaged

Jan’s phrase “Buddhism was always engaged” echoed again and again. She had first said it at Bernie Glassman’s farm retreat. “Engagement is what it’s already about,” she explained. She had grown up in Jim Crow’s racist South as an African American girl, following Martin Luther King. Jan showed us a striking black-and-white picture of King standing with Thich Nhat Hanh. Hanh was a pioneer of Buddhism in the west, and Jan was among the first Tibetan Buddhist practitioners in America.

She was attracted to Buddhism because it had a lot in common with her Baptist roots, but it was also very practical. The two faiths share the tenet of forgiveness, for example. When racist thugs terrorised a friend’s birthday party, Jan as a little girl knew she was supposed to love her enemy. King had taught her that “in one hateful moment one has not seen everything that one person is. There is more to him and to us. Be willing to win the enemy’s friendship.” But how, when we are overwhelmed with fear and anger? In Buddhist meditation Jan came to see more clearly that “empathy is not something we have to create: it’s just being human.”

Marian Partington, the sister of one of Rosemary West’s murder victims, chimed in with a powerful example of Buddhism in practice. As she writes in the Forgiveness Project, “Until then I hadn’t thought of myself as a murderous person, but at that moment I was capable of killing. In other words, I was not separate from the Wests.” The willingness to remain open to such visceral emotion allowed her to begin to heal, and today Marian campaigns for restorative justice.

Ken Jones blew to bits any remaining prejudices that Buddhists are sweet and peaceful. “Working on emotional awareness is not just about the mindful washing of dishes. It’s deep and visceral.”

On this note the delightful Fiona Nuttall of WCF led us in an exercise where we paired up and spoke or listened in a stream-of-consciousness for five minutes at a time about “what engagement means to me”. The same approach has been taken with koans such as “Who am I?” in spiritual growth workshops since the 1970s. The immediacy of speaking and being listened to, while staring into someone’s eyes (although you’re not necessarily supposed to do that the whole time!), brought home to me what engagement can achieve. In Britain we’re less used to talking a lot, especially about ourselves. Sharing that confrontation with someone is like an active version of intimate sitting together in silence.

The sharing of words which were mine but which at the same time were not mine, brought to the fore things that I’d never noticed about myself previously. In only twenty minutes, I came to understand old reasons that I’d been holding back from engaging fully. The next question we asked ourselves was “What would it take for me to take my engagement up a notch?” and the hall as if by magic was energised with as many solutions and ideas as there were people.

Contemplation and Engagement

Roughly speaking it could be said that there were three levels of activity among us: those who were socially and/or politically active; those who spent most of their time looking after their family; and those who led more contemplative lives in retreat (although understandably they were in a minority at this busy conference!)  I heard guilt from many of those who spent their lives being householders.  But all the speakers agreed that Buddhist engagement is not limited to external politics. In Jake Lyne’s words, “Engaged Buddhism is an approach, so it includes engaging with work, engaging with family, and so on. Even a hermit can be engaged, because what he does mirrors what we do.” Jan Willis agreed that “that meditative place automatically spreads peace in our surroundings, whether we intend it or not.” One delegate added, “at this time meditation is the most radical statement we can make, because that is the one time that we are not consuming.”

The 1970s feminist slogan resurfaced in Ken’s talk, “the personal is political”. Personal delusion is as social delusion, and if enough of us build awareness, we can reach critical mass. “It’s a mindfulness revolution!” he smiled (somewhat manically ;-). “We are sufficiently at ease with ourselves not to be drawn into destructive ideologies, so there is potential for a radical culture awakening. But beware of it turning into a shallow fad.”

We moved together from talking to meditating, and it seemed easy and seamless when we shared the motivation. Both states were active and did not oppose each other, the way they sometimes do in my dualistic thinking (when I’m looking for excuses not to meditate at home).

While contemplation doesn’t have to lead to social activity for everyone, when it does, it contributes: Simon Child said “if the self is out of the way, then that is one way of starting.” Or as Ken said, “once you are free, you are useful.”

Buddhism, society and solutions

Jan Willis called us to action. “Don’t forget that the problems are not all in here (pointing to her heart); they are also out there!” As a Buddhist it is easy to look inwards too much, “but there is systemic institutional hatred and delusion, and we should work to defeat those too. One in six people is hungry right now, and it can’t wait until you’re perfect.”

David Loy, also a brilliant and warm speaker, highlighted areas of modern social ills from a Buddhist perspective. “Greed, hate and delusion have now been institutionalized as corporate consumer capitalism, militarism, and the media.” Buddhist practice helps us spot fundamental misunderstandings that drive people, such as the belief that there is lack and that money symbolises its end.

Another common misunderstanding is that good and evil are separate. As David said, “Good and evil are dualistic: if you want to think of yourself as good, you will be preoccupied with avoiding evil.  One of the main causes of evil is our attempt to destroy evil, to ‘remove impure elements’ and ‘create a perfect society’.”

Thankfully we are not alone; as Bernie Glassman tweeted, “We are the 100%”. If we thought we had to fix it all ourselves, Loy said, “heaven help us.” Occupy Wall Street was ongoing on as we spoke, and according to the think tank New Economics Foundation, 81% of Britons believe that the government should prioritise the greatest happiness, not the greatest wealth. The think tank is working with the government to harness “mental capital”. “There are people burning bright everywhere,” said Ken. “Usually there’s one or two in every office. Look out for them.”

There is no Buddhist line on social justice. “When you are awake you are inherently moral,” David explained. “You are no longer inclined to take advantage of people. That is psychological and spiritual freedom.”

Ken warned us to watch out for “righteousness and certainty which are signs of ideology too. Buddhism is not a guiding belief, so much as a way of cleaning the windows.” “Don’t judge if others are doing it or not,” agreed Jan. And don’t fall into despair; recognise the progress that has been made, and that you always have choices.

Our responsibility both as Buddhists and humans is to hold the faith and to give our willingness to continue. “The Buddha didn’t offer social solutions,” said David. “Buddhism focusses on removing the obstacles that interfere with our attempts to work out the answers. Then there are many possibilities. Maybe there will be different solutions in different places.”

What we can do, is help to show perspective and to contribute vision. Jan said “find out what you do and it will probably be exactly what the world was looking for. An artist for example can communicate beauty, which uplifts people. Start where you are; hook up with people who are interested in the same stuff as you. Do it – don’t think about it!”

Many of us made new friends at the conference, so to the WCF, the speakers and delegates I’d like to repeat David’s words with a bow, “the only real prayer is thank you.”

Books and links mentioned at the conference


Vala Publishers, a participative publishing company which aims to contribute “a new, inclusive and productive energy to the world of books and ideas”

The Amida Trust’s engaged Buddhism groups

The US-based Network of Spiritual Progressives

The Forgiveness Project

Thich Nhat Hanh’s fourteen precepts of Engaged Buddhism in his book Interbeing

Novelist Chris Abani’s moving TED talk on humanity

Books on Engaged Buddhism by Ken Jones, David Loy, Joanna Macy and John Crook

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