Engaged Buddhist Visions of the Future by Kenneth Kraft

“The Kind of World We’d Like to Live In”

The Symposium on Western Socially Engaged Buddhism held recently in Montague, Massachusetts was an extraordinary event. The reports that emerge will surely be as varied as the people who attended. As the discussion unfolded, I took notes on a developing theme: the promise of the future. Here are some further reflections. (purchase DVD’s of Symposium)


Engaged Buddhists use a variety of voices in relation to the future. Those who speak in a prophetic voice call for massive change. Robert Aitken Roshi, who was honored in absentia, liked to carry a protest sign that read, “The system stinks.” Peter Matthiessen quoted a tribal elder from an Arctic region decimated by oil spills and climate change: “God may forgive you, but your children won’t.” Alan Senauke and David Loy insisted that an effective movement must have a sharp countercultural edge.


Others seek ways to make Buddhist resources more widely available in mainstream culture. This is an assimilationist voice. We learned, for example, that the low-ranking United States women’s hockey team won Olympic silver after adding mindfulness to their training regimen. Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence has been translated into thirty languages. Mindfulness-Based Stress-Reduction is fast becoming a standard part of modern medicine.


A third variation, the visionary voice, takes best-case scenarios seriously. “We can say a lot about what we’re against,” Rabbi Michael Lerner told the group, “yet we don’t have a coherent vision of what we’re for.” Jan Willis invoked Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of a Beloved Community. Jon Kabat-Zinn suggested that we are on the verge of a second Renaissance. Melody Chavis, who works with prisoners on death row, applied nonlinear thinking to the future—however gloomy current trend lines may be, good things unexpectedly happen.

Each of the Symposium’s chosen themes—justice, social entrepreneurship, wellness, the arts, community—became a domain ripe for realization. The following summary can be read merely as a wish-list. But it can also be read, in the spirit of the conference, as a mini-visualization of a possible world.

  • Justice. Restorative justice replaces retributive justice. Nonviolence is the norm. Nuclear weapons vanish. The work of peacebuilding spreads exponentially, yielding reconciliation near and far. Humanity lives in harmonious balance with nature.
  • Social Entrepreneurship. Social relationships take precedence over economic relationships. Emotional intelligence pervades the workplace. The bottom line includes environmental and social metrics. Communities have the power to revoke corporate charters.
  • Wellness. Gross National Happiness is the foremost measure of societal well-being. Hospitals are hospitable. The dying are honored with compassionate care.
  • The Arts. Artistic expression is woven into the fabric of life. Artists are wholeheartedly supported. Masters of their craft (there were several among us) are recognized as Living National Treasures.
  • Community. Diversity is celebrated, women are empowered, and bodhisattvas go where they are needed. Practitioner-activists support one another in groups large and small, as modeled by the Buddhist Alliance for Social Engagement. The global cybersangha flourishes.

Another question arises: What is the most suitable role and profile for Buddhadharma? Several degrees of intensity, from leitmotif to major presence, can be identified. A good society is, in the words of one participant, “the kind of world we’d like to live in.” Ideals that are already well known—such as government of the people, by the people, for the people—achieve fulfillment. Secular and sacred worldviews coexist fruitfully. A small-b buddhism embraces pluralism and eschews evangelism.

In a culture of awakening, a concept advanced by Buddhist thinker Stephen Batchelor (not in attendance), transformation of consciousness becomes a guiding principle of organization. “The challenge now,” Batchelor has written, “is to imagine and create a culture of awakening that both supports individual dharma practice and addresses the dilemmas of a pluralist world.” Sarah Weintraub, the final speaker on the final panel, stated a premise that would sustain such an undertaking: “Our human nature, that is, our buddha nature, is a sangha nature.”

For the full-throttle version, an enlightened society, we turn to Robert Thurman, who has proposed “a vision quest for the creation of the mandala of an enlightened America.” At the Symposium, Bob praised a culture wise enough to provide “a free lunch for dedicated meditators.” That’s Thurmanesque shorthand for a collective inner revolution that will “complete the American experiment in democracy and fulfill, albeit in unexpected ways, the American dream of genuine freedom and happiness.” Jon Kabat-Zinn switched into this mode when he imagined Congress meditating sincerely before an important vote.

As engaged Buddhist visions coalesce, past Buddhist visions appear in a new light. On the first day of the gathering, Bhikkhu Bodhi cited a Kutadanta Sutta passage in which the Buddha counsels a king:

To those in the kingdom who are engaged in cultivating crops and raising cattle, let Your Majesty distribute grain and fodder; to those in trade, give capital; to those in government service, assign proper living wages. Then those beings, being intent on their own occupations, will not harm the kingdom. Your Majesty’s revenues will be great, the land will be tranquil and not beset by thieves, and the people, with joy in their hearts, will play with their children, and will dwell in open houses. (Maurice Walshe, trans., The Long Discourses of the Buddha, pp. 135-136)

Sister Clare Carter, of Nipponzan Myohoji, contributed a Mahayana source when she chanted a verse from the Lotus Sutra. It included these lines:

When living beings witness the end of a kalpa

and all is consumed in a great fire,

this, my land, remains safe and tranquil,

constantly filled with heavenly and human beings.

The halls and pavilions in its gardens and groves

are adorned with various kinds of gems.

Jeweled trees abound in flowers and fruit

where living beings enjoy themselves at ease.

The gods strike heavenly drums,

constantly making many kinds of music.

Mandarava blossoms rain down,

scattering over the Buddha and the great assembly.

My pure land is not destroyed.

(Burton Watson, trans., The Lotus Sutra, pp. 230-231)

The Symposium itself refracted a desirable society. We managed, albeit imperfectly, to follow rules, treat one another with respect, identify common values, teach, learn, spark individual transformation, and make friends. We created a “heterotopia,” which French philosopher Michel Foucault described as “a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted.” (Foucault, “Of Other Spaces,” Diacritics, spring 1986, p. 24) The far-reaching presentations offered further evidence that key elements of an alternative future are already taking shape.

Buddhism’s development in the West during the last half-century has been remarkable. No one suspected that the arrows let fly in Zen in the Art of Archery, published in 1953, would one day alight on something called engaged Buddhism. Will the next fifty years bring another leap, equally inconceivable from our present vantage point?

(purchase DVD’s of Symposium)

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Video: Engaged Buddhism Symposium Welcome

View the trailer now for excerpts of the welcome at the August 2010 Symposium For Western Socially Engaged Buddhism.  If you purchase the DVD, you could view this segment and others while supporting the community work of the Zen Peacemakers.

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In this trailer Sensei Eve explains how the Montague property serves as the mother house of the Zen Peacemakers Sangha.   Bernie explains how the Symposium is rooted in the three tenets of the Zen Peacemakers and Chris Queen describes the “Thus Have We Heard” feature in which Ari Pliskin and Kaji Ruhl guide reflection on Symposium proceedings.

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Engaged Buddhism: Service or Revolution? by Alan Senauke

Musings on Montague: The Western Socially Engaged Buddhism Symposium — August 2010.  Originally posted at the Clear View Project.

What is socially engaged Buddhism?

Over the course of the week it was easy to see a number of contrasts or kinds of activities that all can be considered “Engaged Buddhism” or “Socially Engaged Buddhism.” I don’t see a particularly useful distinction between these two rubrics.  Engaged Buddhism, Socially Engaged Buddhism — both include a systemic view of suffering and liberation.  Elsewhere I have written:

What is socially engaged Buddhism? It is dharma practice that flows from an understanding of the complete and endlessly complicated interdependence of all life. It is the practice of the bodhisattva vow to save all beings. It is to know that our liberation and the liberation of others are inseparable. It is to transform ourselves as we transform all our relationships and our larger society.

Or, as Gary Snyder wrote, nearly fifty years ago in the Journal for the Protection of All Beings #1:

The mercy of the West has been social revolution; the mercy of the East has been individual insight into the basic self/void. We need both.

Social Service

These definitions, of course, demark a wide field of action. (The notion of a Western Socially Engaged Buddhism is something I will address later.)  On one end of the field is social service.  This might include hospice, tending the ill, feeding the hungry, bringing material and spiritual support to institutions and places in which people are suffering.  These places are essentially dukkha warehouses, with their own gravity or magnetism, drawing in and generating further suffering. In his early teachings the Buddha set down Four Requisites for establishing a practice of liberation: food, shelter, clothing, and medicine.  Providing these requisites in the spirit of compassionate, selfless action, without the smell of charity and without proselytizing, is Buddhist social service.

Social Activism

On the other end is social activism, social change, and even, as Snyder proposed, social revolution. This is the prophetic dimension of engaged Buddhism.  Since Buddhism really has no prophetic tradition, this vision of social transformation is truly a merging of West and East. Yet it has been transmitted from Asian teachers like Thich Nhat Hanh and Sister Chan Khong, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar.  A.T. Ariyaratne, Sulak Sivaraksa, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and many others, known and unknown.  Now it is part of our practice: resisting war and militarization, advocating against the death penalty and the delusion of retributive justice, holding the multinational corporations accountable for their destruction of life and the environment. Looking at the Four Requisites, Buddhist activists understand, for example, that the for-profit medical system in America creates illness and death without dignity for vast numbers of people.  We understand that affordable housing has ceased to be seen as a goal and a common good by the powerful banks and lending bodies.  As Robert Aitken Roshi was always ready to say: the system stinks!

Dharmic Action

But these ends are not in contradiction.  They are part of the common field of human action, which includes enlightenment and delusion. Simply feeding a man in need, comforting a woman in her last hours is necessary dharmic action.  At the same time, if we can stop or slow down the wheels of war, lives are saved.  That is also dharmic action.  And social service can be combined with social change. One can simultaneously do hospice work and fight for universal medical care. When teaching in prisons I carefully (and quietly) present my understanding that the American prison system itself is essentially most part unjust, racist, and self-perpetuating.

The teachings of right view tell us to see what is directly in front of us.  At times that vision is very close and intimate.  In other moments it reaches the most distant horizons.  Wherever we look we are seeing into the nature of interdependence itself, seeing that things change.

On the Symposium’s first day I was on a panel considering challenges for Engaged Buddhists.  I began by speaking about Aitken Roshi, who had died several days earlier in Hawaii.  He was an unstoppable voice calling out for justice, despite the fact that Buddhism speaks much more about what is just — balanced and harmonious — than about justice. Engaged Buddhism may not have taken shape without him.  Certainly there would be no Buddhist Peace Fellowship.  As for me, I would not be writing these words without Aitken Roshi.  I went on to say:

The challenge that faces socially engaged Buddhists in the West is to sustain a radical and internationalist vision.  That means finding common action and common practice with the most oppressed and those most hungry for dharma here in the U.S. and around the world.  It means, further, understanding just how our privileged lives in the this country depends on and is interwoven with the labors and resources of peoples far away and out of our immediate sight.

Editor’s Note: DVD’s of Alan’s presentation can be purchased at the Symposium web page.

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From Vision to Buddhist Social Action

“How do we go from vision to action?”

This question was asked at the recent Symposium on Buddhist Social Action at Zen Peacemakers. Here is a brief  account of what I found helpful in going from vision to action after completing my Zen Peacemaker seminary training for ministry. From spring 2009 through spring 2010 I co-lead with Kanji Ruhl the first 14 months of establishing Appalachian Zen House in Bald Eagle Valley in central rural Pennsylvania. This, the first of Zen Peacemakers’ Zen Houses is now led by Kelle Kirsten and Bob Flatley.

Our mission was to serve, as an integral part of our Zen practice, the under-served people, beings, and natural environment in this depleted rural valley.

Bald Eagle Valley in Pennsylvania

The valley was Kanji’s childhood home, but I had never visited Pennsylvania before. Nor did I know well any other current secular community after being a monastic in a Zen Monastery for 8 of the 10 years prior.

So my first task was to immerse myself in experiencing the life here. Meanwhile I was finding out the needs of the people. And I was finding out who could be attracted to serve in “enhancing the community’s ability for inclusive, non-sectarian, responsive and sustainable activity in harmony with the natural environment.”

I was very fortunate to form relationships within three main groups of people that participated in our endeavors –

  1. the local protestant Christian communities, a dominant social aspect of the valley,
  2. liberal community- and environmentally-minded folk, and
  3. impoverished local people who were not overtly part of the above groups.

Connections were also forming over the 14 months with teachers and students at Penn State University, as well as with other Buddhist groups, and I expect that these too are continuing to grow.

1.    Joining the local protestant Christian communities. An essential first step for my own connection with the local people, life, and area was for me to rent a cheap apartment and live alone in a small village. In this way I was dependent on my new neighbors for information and social interaction. Despite my foreign accent and their awareness that I was a strange “Buddhist,” these tightly-knit Christian communities were warmly welcoming and very generous. They included me in many social and community events. “I am sure I have met you before!” they said often.

I attended Baptist church on Sundays, shared communion with the local Methodist church, attended Quaker meetings, and joined church workdays in the community. Through this I experienced the great importance of the many small churches of the valley in each shaping a highly supportive and energized social community encompassing all age groups.

Accompanying the togetherness in some settings and on rare occasions was a strongly spoken condemnation of other groups (I felt little of this directed towards myself), and seemly unquestioned acceptance of guidelines for conducting life. (Both these are characteristic ways our social organizations define themselves, our own being unlikely to be exempt.) Examples of such church guidelines that challenged my understanding were — men as the only acceptable church leaders, a belief in the virtue of technological progress at the expense of wild nature, and particular actions and beliefs being evil.

These settings strongly evoked early Christian training that I had vigorously rejected from age twelve. So that I could rest with an open heart-mind in Christian church language, I taught myself rapidly to translate Christian terminology into my “Buddhist” experience. This was a richly healing process that opened me to an inclusive potential of Christianity that I had not known. (How my translations relate to the experiences of my current Christian friends is a continuing exploration.)

Within the year there were several outcomes from these activities— I was invited to present Buddhism and meditation in several adult Christian Sunday schools and to answer their challenging questions; we formed liaisons with church groups helpful to the missions of both groups, such as volunteering to serve government-funded lunches over the summer and teach gardening to children in a trailer park; at our urging to improve fresh food supply to the impoverished in the area, two churches planted several acres of new vegetable gardens for this purpose. I found also that, in university gatherings on religion and climate change, I was able to speak about Buddhist views on interdependence with the natural world in a way that sparked considerable recognition, warmth, and interest from Christians.

2.    A second group of people and their friends with whom I was fortunate to connect was a long-term intentional community devoted to mindful use of the land. Their creativity, and their passion for and knowledge of the earth, was deep and extraordinary — as was their generosity and community spirit.

growing fresh local food

It became clear that these people had major resources for meeting an urgent need of the wider valley for fresh locally grown food, as well as the skills to develop sustainable income-providing ventures. In the surrounding area was evident, as elsewhere, high rates of obesity, inadequate nutrition, and the accompanying miseries of ill health at all ages. It was a “food desert.” The nearest food shop to for example this particular community, was a 25 minutes drive, and was a gas station. Fresh produce was not readily available in the valley while food costs were exorbitant at distant supermarkets. (The prototype 4’ x 8’ raised bed vegetable garden I constructed reduced the weekly cost to feed just myself by up to $30 and supplied surplus to share with neighbors.)

Establishing a basis in the valley for creating an inexpensive, fresh, nutritious and secure local food supply — along with the knowledge to grow and process it for income — appeared to be an immediate and promising direction for me to help meet our Zen House’s mission of serving the impoverished in collaboration with these skilled new friends.

My Buddhist zendo offerings (of meditation throughout the week, Dharma talks, private interview, group council circle, liturgy, zazenkai, and pastoral care (with appreciation to Kanji Ruhl for guidance in the latter)) were pivotal in my creating trust on which to develop our action together, even though  my new friends’ own strong spiritual practices meant that Zen was not their primary scheduled commitment. Shared experience was built also on many potluck dinners with animated discussion around the table, excursions into the forest parks, my presentation of seminars and workshops, gardening together, and with a few sweat lodges and swims in the lily pond.

Meanwhile I listened carefully to their dreams and passions as well as their perceived frustrations that prevented their fruition. I continually opened the vision of interactive supportive community to include not only like-minded neighbors but the whole of the valley. I acted to open the blockages, and rouse mutual support to get underway their activities  as well as those relevant to the Zen House. “I am not good at organizing!” “I don’t know how to promote it!” “I am not sure of the details of what we actually can do!” “We need a web page, and a blog! And some posters!” “I haven’t the time to put it together!” So we did it!… Together.

trailer at the community farm stand painted by local artists

Among several aspects of community building that we worked on and actualized, one that holds considerable potential is a community-farm stand where anyone can sell locally-made, locally-grown, or recycled items. Teen entrepreneurs are welcomed. Anything that sells well presents potential for generation of income for people to grow or process more next year. (And there are several beautiful products already available.) Seasonal family fun and celebrations, educational workshops, and demonstrations center on the farm stand. This is the gathering place (somewhat akin to the spirit of Zen Peacemakers’ Montague Farm Café) where enjoyment of each others company can be nurtured, joyful community created, and we learn from the participating local people their skills and aspirations so we can work together to develop them.

making salve from calendula flowers

I organized building of  demonstration raised bed gardens on the farm-stand site. Raised bed gardens were built and donated to those in need. A workshop was held to build a chicken tractor (movable enclosure where chickens’ feeding turns over and fertilizes areas for planting.) Surplus food is donated to the nearest soup kitchens, food pantries and shelters. Community garden space and casual garden work is offered to locals.

Initially it could be hard work to persuade busy people to take up such activities in service to the community, but when I heard them say afterward “That was the best fun we have had in ages. Let’s do it again!” I knew I was meeting my objective. The magic of joyful community service was creating the desire for more.

A related aspect was my working was to develop the design of an existing summer camp for children (based on gardening and cooking) into a camp we ran for teenagers.

at our summer youth camp — connecting with the earth

This included both mindful and practical experiences of wilderness, mindful eating (if carrots, tomatoes, corn and celery are the only vegetables they will eat, that is where to start), study of their own consuming, and many other fun and creative experiential activities in nature. Awareness for all of us in these areas is integral to deepening our relationship with ourselves, food, community and the earth. I developed mindfulness hiking in the beautiful State Parks around, and ran several consumer mindfulness workshops in Walmart and supermarkets. I would like to have taken these workshops also to strip mines and trash dumps too.

3. Learning from local impoverished people was an ongoing activity.

I talked with people in drop-in centers, on buses, in local shops, during long waits at the free health clinic (tick bites were rampant last year), during night visits to Walmart for the purpose of such interactions, and on the supermarket checkout line. I listened to children at our summer camp, and those in our grief circle with family members who had died. I had particularly poignant conversations while walking regularly in the village graveyard.

After being bitten by a dog I had a series of visits with a toothless young couple living with their four dogs in a collapsing trailer to check that none of us had rabies. When our local fresh food scheme was in place, I offered this as a reason to take more well-off friends door knocking in trailer parks, into pubs, shops, and gas stations, to meet the residents, learn about their enjoyments and needs, and offer our activities. Volunteering to serve government-funded lunches to children in a trailer park with Christian friends extend these connections.

In summary, my moving from vision to action involved –

  • establishing ongoing zendo activities,
  • living among and being dependent on the people I wished to serve,
  • connecting in as many ways and levels as I could imagine with the people and the land,
  • listening deeply to the aspirations, gifts, and struggles of each person,
  • constantly offering the Zen Peacemaker vision of community inclusion and mutual caring,
  • responding with all appropriate training, experience and skills of myself and willing others to take community action in line with our mission,
  • being sure about my overall aim, while shaping actions from the changing ingredients and awareness immediately before me,
  • a great pleasure in the experience of action creating a desire for more.

As we would say in the self-depreciating culture in which I grew up, “Pretty obvious really!” … And yet a wonderful journey … like no other!

It was with sadness that I left Pennsylvania after 14 months because of red-tape around my not being a US citizen. My own story in this work though is just beginning. Appalachian Zen House’s too!

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Podcast: Comments from Symposium for Socially Engaged Buddhism

From Interdependence Project:

Joshua Adler and Patrick Groneman took time at the Symposium for Socially Engaged Western Buddhism to speak with some of the participants and panelists about the socially engaged work that they are practicing, what drives them to do this work, and what, if anything, makes their work “Buddhist.”

Music in this episode is taken from a live performance by Akim Funk Buddha.

Organizations and Projects Referenced in this episode:

Zen Peacemakers

The Linage Project
Buddhist Global Relief
Akim Funk Buddha
Wherever You Are Is The Center of the World

Download the Podcast Here
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David Loy at the Tricycle Book Club

Join us Monday, September 20 at the Tricycle Book Club for the discussion of David Loy’s The World is Made of Stories. In this small book about big ideas, Loy attempts to tell the story of stories by engaging in a playful, energetic dialogue with wisdom quotations from a wide variety of sources. Everything that we know, Loy contends, we know from stories. He writes: “We play at the meaning of life by telling different stories.”

If stories hold this much power, and we’re all storytellers (Loy also points out that to not tell a story is to tell a story), then what can we take away from this understanding? What stories should we tell about ourselves and our world?

Come talk it out with us at the Tricycle Book Club. It’s free and easy to sign up. We’re looking forward to seeing you there.

Buy the book from Wisdom Publications here.

David Loy is a frequent Tricycle contributor. His previous books include The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory and The Dharma of Dragons and Daemons. He is the Besl Professor of Ethics/Religion and Society at Xavier University in Cincinnati.

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