With the emergence of Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh in the mid-1960s during the beginnings of war in Vietnam, Buddhists around the world have debated the merits of engaged or inward practice forms of the religion.
Hanh, who lived through the horrors of the Vietnam War, coined the phrase “engaged Buddhism” as a consequence of the suffering he witnessed in his home country during the war. He maintains that it is the duty of every practitioner of Buddhism to become fully engaged in the social, political and moral struggles of their time. Traditional Buddhists maintain that the teachings of Buddha focus entirely on individual spiritual practice as embodied in the Four Noble Truths and the Eight Fold Path.
As embraced by Hanh, engaged Buddhism knows no denominational barriers and can be exhibited in the world by every Buddhist regardless of their role in life -- monks, nuns, and householders alike. Traditionalists shun this approach, preferring to concentrate on ridding themselves of the burden of reincarnation through the inward practice of meditation and the accumulation of personal merit outside everyday social arenas. Further, they point to the Buddha’s teaching that states that claim our difficulties are rooted in ignorance.
They posit the question: How much does a person truly know about the issues in which they choose involvement? Political and social engagement, they argue, is often no more than the perpetuation of suffering through naïve struggles against existing social order. Losing their grounding by not concentrating on the silence and inward exploration afforded by a rigorous practice of meditation, those who champion activism are likely only to increase ignorance in the world, according to the traditionalists.
Hanh suggests fourteen precepts to help guide those who feel it is their responsibility to better the world in which they live. These precepts are intended to help Buddhist activists not to become lost in their worldly struggles by, first, not clinging to any dogma or ideology, even Buddhist ones. By not clinging to any “truth” as unchanging, Hanh suggests that narrow mindedness can be avoided, that through the fluidity of allowing new information to enter the picture, ignorance can be avoided.
Further, he recommends that activists not propagandize others, that the avoidance of anger and reproach will ensure decisions made in the course of engagement will be guided by compassion. At the same time, he cautions that the suffering of others cannot be avoided simply by ignoring it. Mindful breathing, central to most forms of Buddhist meditation, is still recommended by Hanh as the way to stay grounded in the present moment, no matter how unpleasant. Avoiding harmful words is yet another way the monk suggests activists can stay within the bounds of the Buddha’s teaching.
Right livelihood, right action (by avoiding harm to one’s own body and others) and right intention are also part of Hanh’s strategy for remaining true to the intentions of Buddha’s 2,600 year old teachings. The debate between engaged or inward practice forms of Buddhism will long continue, with both sides of the argument convinced they are in keeping with those ancient teachings.