Whenever we work on our inner development, every act of kindness and compassion has a positive effect on ourselves, on other people, on society and on environment.
When thinking about Buddhist monastics, people often imagine monks living secluded from society, immersed in their meditative practice. This perception evokes the belief that the Buddhist social engagement is just a new movement fitted into the modern world. However, this is not a recent innovation and, strictly speaking, something as disengaged or engaged Buddhism does not exist. There is only Buddhism that is, at its very core, engaged.
In many traditions, social engagement often builds on the spirit of service. Nevertheless, service should not be understood merely as a supplement to meditation or as an obligation to perform ceremonies and rituals for laity. The service is more than that.
With Bodhisattva vows, Buddhist monastics promise to liberate everyone from suffering and delusion and to attain enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. In addition, the principle of interdependence also points to the social tendency of Buddhism. Namely, the understanding that everything is interconnected and interdependent leads to the realisation that every personal activity can automatically become an engagement.
When such an activity is coupled with the understanding of Buddhist core principles, the application-oriented nature of Buddhist practice is emphasised, and the artificial gap between Buddhists monks and laity is closed, giving birth to the so called “Engaged Buddhism”. This term may be considered as a novelty chosen because it seems to be more appealing to secular practitioners who are less interested in traditional Buddhist practice and prefer the so-called modern approach: individual meditation practices for their own well-being, eventually paired with humanitarian and environmental issues of the day.
By embracing the principles of interconnectedness, engaged Buddhism naturally seeks to ally with religious, social and other concerned organisations, in order to raise awareness on the potential catastrophes that life on Earth faces (1). In addition, engaged Buddhists offer physical and moral support to those struggling against hunger, poverty and oppression in the world.
And although such support may look the same as any other secular support provided by non-profit, charity or social organisations, the difference exists. While worldly support mainly provides material resources such as shelters, food, clothing, or education, Buddhist support has an extended role by offering also methods to transcend suffering and promote personal growth.
Another difference between secular and Buddhist support lies with the addressed population. The Buddhist act of compassion is not limited only to those who suffer material deprivation, but attempts to reach everyone, including those who seem to be more fortunate or less affected at first glance; those who have a greater influence on the economic and socio-political situation, and therefore carry greater responsibility for world welfare.
In other words, the primary goal of Buddhism is not to improve the quality of life through material means, but to increase the non-material human potential that leads to a mindful and compassionate world.
These differences constitute an alliance between secular institutions and engaged Buddhism of utmost importance. While existential needs and comforting words must be provided, people must also recognise the causes of suffering and learn to deal with it, in short – they must develop. Even more, if internal development is ignored, social support does not show lasting results, even if material conditions are improved. This leads to a situation where the problem will most likely reappear as soon as it is triggered again.
Generally speaking, all social problems are consequence of internal conflicts, and at the same time internal conflicts are triggered by social problems. This produces a vicious circle with a global character, which is not a big surprise because, with so many people and so many unsolved inner struggles, socio-economic problems repeatedly trigger individual crises, which again manifest themselves at the level of society - through economic collapse, crime and wars.
Although everyone longs for peace and the end of suffering in the world, they ignore the fact that on a global level, peace never really existed and that war and hunger last as long as humanity. Only the location, the weapons and the justifications for war and deprivation have partially changed over the centuries. As a result of this ignorance, people do not see that the real cause of suffering lies much deeper than economic and political solutions can reach. Even more, offered secular solutions often cause only the shift or amplification of the problem.
Already Buddha has realized that the core of the problem lies in the ignorance and craving of every individual. Yet, even 2’600 year later, we ignore the fact that individuals, full of personal fears, anger or greed, are building blocks of society. This unawareness leads us to look for a source of problems beyond ourselves, denying our own responsibility for the situation we live in. Such attitude has brought humanity to this moment in time with its specific culture, society and way of life, which we criticise. Even more than that, we persistently walk the same path and yet expect to get to a better destination.
Since the society is merely the mirror of its building blocks (individuals), we must understand that blaming others or society is just a way of shifting shared responsibility to a higher instance. Furthermore, we must acknowledge that the only way out of this vicious circle comes with the simultaneous change at both the personal and the social level.
And it is precisely this that demonstrates the necessity of interaction between secular social work and engaged Buddhism - on the one hand, direct social support is provided, and on the other hand, there is a far-reaching change in the level of human consciousness. In other words, the social approach acts through diminishing of the symptoms, while the spiritual approach targets the roots of the problems. Not until these two approaches are joined can a significant reduction in suffering in the world be achieved.
This is not an easy task and its realisation depends on both, personal and global maturity.
The realised people on the Bodhisattva path, who have attained spiritual and personal maturity, observe the world from another perspective. Not only do they cease to perceive the so-called Self and other as separate entities, or that in their perception duality is completely lost, but also for them suffering ceases to be an enemy and instead represents only an indispensable medium of human development. Nevertheless, they are still aware of the seriousness of the suffering that others feel and realise that practicing Dharma in solitude is not enough to eliminate the suffering of the world, and therefore, through acts of compassion, try to infiltrate into a society the spirit of Dharma.
For those who follow the path to realization, both individual transformation and social engagement are essential practice. Alone by embracing the five basic Buddhist precepts (2) they spread a positive influence, leading at the same time by example.
Nevertheless, not only those who decided to walk Bodhisattva path, but also everyone else can contribute to the world transformation by cultivating compassion and kindness. That is, if we want to end the war, disarmament must begin in every heart; to eradicate famine, we must understand our own hunger and constant struggle to satisfy our own craving; to conquer "-isms" (3), we have to realise that our fight with others is due to artificial identities and unsustainable self-images.
To conclude with the words of the world's most prominent socially engaged Buddhist, Tenzin Gyatso, the XIVth Dalai Lama:
"Each of us has the responsibility for all mankind. It is time for us to think of other people as true brothers and sisters and to be concerned with their welfare, with lessening their suffering. Even if you cannot sacrifice your own benefit entirely, you should not forget the concerns of others. We should think more about the future and the benefit of all mankind." (4)
(1) irrevocable pollution of the natural environment, continued destruction of non-renewable earth resources, reduction of natural diversification and species extinction, deforestation and CO2 over-saturation, or nuclear pollution
(2) not taking life, not taking what is not given, refraining from sexual misconduct, refraining from unwise and idle speech, and abstaining from intoxicants that cloud the mind
(3) i.e. racism, marxism, feminism, nationalism....but also Buddhism
(4) Tenzin Gyatso in Eppsteiner,1985, pp8.