Panelists at Symposium Discuss Socially Engaged Sanghas

“The Buddha of the future,” said moderator Alan Senauke, speaking at the Symposium for Western Socially Engaged Buddhism and paraphrasing Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, “will be sangha” — that is, community.

But what makes a socially engaged community? Senauke, a Soto Zen priest and vice-abbot of Berkeley Zen Center and founder of the Clear View Project, asked this question of his panelists on August 10. “What makes your community work?” he added. ‘What are the challenges?”

In war-torn Colombia, building a socially engaged community can mean helping to support villagers in their work to heal strife and create productive lives, said Sarah Weintraub, executive director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF).

She explained that the BPF’s Dharma in Action Project works with the Reconciliation Accompaniment Project in Colombia, allowing participants to be “present with those people and bearing witness” so that the Colombian villagers involved in the project “can live their peace work and grow their crops.” It also trains socially engaged leaders through “hands-on, on-the-ground experience.”

Another example of community social engagement, Weintraub said, is the BPF’s Buddhist Alliance for Social Engagement (BASE), focusing on “practice, study,and action. It’s awareness training, in relation to each other and social change, taking who we are as a starting point for action.”

Yet a third example of socially engaged community-building, according to Weintraub, are efforts such as the “BPF 2.0” project, connecting people through Facebook and through other sites online.

Socially engaged community also can mean a monastic group that ventures into the world to confront injustices. Clare Carter, a member of the Nipponzan Myojoji Japanese Buddhist Order, has walked on lengthy international pilgrimages to raise awareness of the legacies of slavery and racial oppression, and to demonstrate for peace.

Yet living in community can itself be a powerful practice, she emphasized.  “In sangha we run into things and keep working on it minute by minute — it’s constant practice, with no getting away from it.”

Young people often live in desperate need of community, and Ken Byalin and John Bell spoke of their own inspiring work in developing opportunities for youth.

“The educational system was worse than I thought,” said Byalin, a Soto Zen Buddhist priest, speaking of how he came to found the Lavelle Preparatory Charter School. “I was ready for a bigger community.” As a result, the Lavelle Prep School was created to help students who encounter emotional challenges learn how to flourish in a demanding yet nurturing college preparatory program that features small classes, outstanding technological resources, first-rate teachers and a curriculum — and educational community — designed to meet students’ emotional and social needs.

When such needs are met, extraordinary things can happen. John Bell, of YouthBuild USA, spoke movingly of how that organization has helped thousands of young people choose new directions for their lives, through right action — forging peace treaties between gangs, for example — and right livelihood, through projects such as young people building affordable housing within their communities.  “Youth are despairing but they want to know their true nature,” Bell said. “They want to make a contribution, to be happy and safe.”

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