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Ten Guiding Principles for Socially Engaged Buddhism

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I think it’s time to bring out this piece, developed by my friends Diana Winston and Donald Rothberg. It seems like there are a number of people in the blogosphere who are questioning the whole notion and point of socially engaged Buddhism (see for example this post from The Reformed Buddhist and this one from Point of Contact)  — is it really any different than someone with liberal politics who slaps a Buddhist sticker on to their beliefs and then heads out to a protest?

I think the answer is yes. There’s a qualitative difference. Diana and Donald have done a good job of distilling the qualities that characterize socially engaged Buddhism.

And by the way, in the near future I’m going to post an article that I believe will demonstrate that socially engaged Buddhism is not always synonymous with a liberal/progressive political stance. That should be interesting.


Ten Guiding Principles for Socially Engaged Buddhism

by Diana Winston and Donald Rothberg

1. Setting Intention, Clarifying Motivation:
Our actions can be dedicated to the benefit and awakening of all beings. Keeping this intention in mind helps our actions to go beyond mere “do-gooding,” fighting so-called oppression, or just “getting things done,” into the realm of dharma practice.

2. Interbeing and Co-Responsibility:
We look at our tendencies to separate “us” and “them,” and “inner” and “outer.” We see in ourselves the same structures of greed, hatred, and delusion that we seek to change. We realize that there is ultimately no “other” to fight against, yet we also recognize that some are indeed in positions of greater responsibility for suffering and oppression.

3. Not Knowing, But Keep Going:
Our work is to remain open to what is unknown, mysterious, and confusing, and to avoid easy answers and habitual views. Maybe we’re wrong or incomplete. We cultivate the ability to listen openly, to hold the multiple questions and perspectives that arise, and to be present with whatever is coming up.

4. Opening to Suffering:
In our meditation practice, we learn to be present in the face of suffering, working through out reactivity, denial, avoidance, and fears, and exploring and transforming the roots of suffering. We bring this skill outward, not turning away from the suffering and injustice that we find in our families, communities, work, society, and world. Our action comes increasingly out of our compassion.

5. Acting from Equanimity:
Can we bring equanimity–the state of even-mindedness and balance–to all our actions, balancing acceptance and understanding of the present moment and its causes and conditions with compassion and the intention to respond to suffering?

6. Being Peace:
Thich Nhat Hanh says that “peace is every step.” We are careful in balancing task- and process-orientation, ends and means. Beyond ideological differences, we share a commitment to be in ourselves that which we are trying to bring about in the world–peace and freedom.

7. Mindfulness and Presence in Action:
Open, mindful awareness is the fundamental nature of our being. How can we cultivate this presence in our actions in any domain, and cut through tendencies to be distracted, to be caught in fixed views and habitual patterns of thought, body, and emotion?

8. Embracing Paradox:
How can we hold in creative tension what often seem to be contradictory perspectives–that all is “as it needs to be” and that we feel deeply moved to respond to suffering, that we are both personal and universal, that nothing needs to happen and that everything needs to happen?

9. Devotedly Do… Without Attachment:
In our practice, we learn of the roots of suffering in compulsive attachment to objects, experiences, ways of doing things, views, and outcomes. Yet non-attachment does not mean complacency, passivity, separation from life, lack of commitment, or non-doing. We have to act. Action that comes from clear seeing and an open heart can be deeply committed, yet without attachment.

10. Loving Kindness: Taking Care of Ourselves, We Take Care of the World:
Like the parent who uses the mask in an airplane emergency first, before helping the child, we need to attend to our long-range well-being. We need to attend to the signs of burnout of resentment. Cultivating our own awakening and joy, we may truly be of use, and naturally seek the well-being of others.


If you enjoyed this post, I invite you to visit my other website: The Liberated Life Project — a personal transformation blog with a social conscience.

About Maia

I've been practicing and studying the Buddha way since 1994, and exploring the question "What is engaged Buddhism?" since the late 90s. As former executive director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and editor of its journal, Turning Wheel, I had the honor of meeting and working with many practitioners of engaged dharma, including Roshi Joan Halifax, Joanna Macy, Alan Senauke, and Robert Aitken Roshi. I write about socially engaged Buddhism on my blog, "The Jizo Chronicles," as well as on the theme of personal and collective freedom on my website, "The Liberated Life Project." Through my Five Directions Consulting, I offer support to individuals and organizations who aspire to integrate awareness into their work.

16 responses »

  1. Its a nice list. It really is. But how is this different from what any practicing Buddhist does. I went down each list and can check each one as an aspect of my practice (as with TNH’s Engaged Precepts although I stumble from time to time)

    How is this different than mundane/non-engaged/boring Buddhism? Because still the only difference I see in the inclusion of social activism. And with that inclusion you can count me out. My activism is not dictated by my religion but is an organic creation from my personal, day-to-day practice.

    Why put a meaningless label on it?

  2. I guess what I am saying is that you have done a wonderful job of describing Buddhist practice. Why slap a label and a t-shirt on it? Where is the need?

  3. John,

    I get the sense that you and others are wanting a separation where none can really be made. If you truly live the practice, anything you do in the social/political realm, regardless of whether you label it or not, will be influenced by your practice. People seem to be fussing a lot about the labels, but I really think that’s a red herring. This is an old, old debate between those who argue Buddhism is about working to disengage from worldly concerns, and those who see Buddhism as a path that includes coming back to “the marketplace” (Ox Herding Pics) if you will. I think everyone is on a continuum between these two extremes, from solitary monks living in the mountains to lifelong social activists whose work is deliberately guided by Buddhist teachings.

    As for the list, #2 and #4 explicitly point to a deliberate interaction with and engagement of systemic manifestations of suffering. The list isn’t pointing to just everyday activities like washing the dishes, being kind to co-workers and strangers, etc. It’s suggesting that there are a wide array of ways we might engage in the world springing forth from our understanding of Buddhist teachings. All of it is part of the path in my view. No one person need be “engaged” if you will in all facets of action within the world suggested by these principles, but to suggest that all social action work is outside the realm of Buddhism is, as I already said, creating a separation where none can be found.


    • Honestly Nathan, what I am saying is that there is no distinction between “Engaged Buddhism” and Buddhist practice. I have never seen a case where individual practice did not pepper the practitioner’s view and actions in the world.

      I don’t want a seperation. I am as engaged a buddhist as you (who are very political at least in your blog which is lovely) or kyle or any other practioner out there.

  4. Thanks to both John (the author of the provocatively titled “Engaged Buddhism is a Crock of Sh*t” post that I linked to above) and Nathan (author of the blog “Dangerous Harvests”) for your comments.

    Nathan, once again, I bow to your eloquence… you articulated what I am trying to say.

    John, one way to respond to your questions is from the perspective of activism. It is quite possible to be engaged in activism without grounding in spirituality of any kind. The result is sometimes effective, in the sense of winning one’s position, but it also often re-creates the same dynamics that the activist has been seeking to dismantle. And this is where the wisdom that comes from our religious traditions, be they Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, or something else, can help shape activism with a different intent, and a different direction. This is where it can be useful to name these traditions and explore what they have to offer to activism. Hence — Liberation Theology, Satyagraha, Engaged Buddhism. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Aung San Suu Kyi are exemplars. In your comment back to me on your blog, you asked if these people were moved by compassion or politics. My answer would be–they were moved by compassion but they also lived in unavoidably political realities. All were dealing with power structures that created inequities between people, and those inequities were a source of suffering. To me, Buddhism doesn’t make a distinction between liberation from suffering that is personal and liberation from suffering that is systemic.

    Ironically, your original post was directed at Roshi Bernie Glassman, who I would say is not all that politically involved, at least on an overt level. His work and that of the Zen Peacemakers addresses many situations of social suffering, but doesn’t often wade into the waters of analysis about social conditions that created that suffering, nor addressing power inequities (unless I’ve missed something, which is quite possible). For that, look instead to the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, and people like Alan Senauke, Donald Rothberg, and David Loy who do take on systemic oppression.

    I think of it like this… if the heart of Buddhism is about liberation from suffering, and if in our practice we come to the realization that “our” suffering is not ours alone but is interconnected with all beings, then that’s where practice flows, no matter what we call it.

    • “And this is where the wisdom that comes from our religious traditions, be they Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, or something else, can help shape activism with a different intent, and a different direction”

      What world do you live in where “Christian” activism is anything but … ugh. Nevermind. If you want to pepper your practice with activism go ahead. I never stated anyone should or shouldn’t.

      All I am saying, again, is that Buddhism is engaged with or without throwing in activism or politics into the mix. If that is your bag then rolling it down the hill but if Buddhist activism meets the model of Christian activism then you can count me out. Completely. I would walk right out of a sangha if that is where we are going with this.

      So, agian, Buddhism is engaged. Pure and simple. We address suffering in our practice in our own ways. Throwing a new name on it does nothing. As you stated you are wading into waters.

      I address suffering in my life and the life of others. I see no reason to throw a Buddhist banner around it.

  5. I’ll repeat what I said on Nathan’s post since I really have the same things to say about it.

    However, I’m sure we all agree that their are numerous political views within each spiritual traditions. It is impossible to reconcile certain political stances on the basis of “this is what Buddhism has taught me”, since we all come to different conclusions. When we say I am making this decision because I am Buddhist, it is important be mindful that other Buddhists may not.

    Furthermore, I think it is important to be mindful that we do not push a socio-political view to others because of our religion. Maybe if this political approach continues, we may fall into the trap of judging other Buddhists as poor Buddhists or misguided Buddhists because they don’t come to the same conclusions about social matters. That is dangerous ground to tread on.

    I wouldn’t say you or others are like the Christian right at all. But more importantly, I think we need to make room for all people who are interested in Buddhism, regardless of their views or actions.
    I am and have always been fervent that the Buddhist tradition is something people become attracted too. Perhaps we are all after the same thing, since I really do want others to find peace from dukkha through Buddhist teachings. And towards that end, Buddhism should be something that won’t put people off because of an emerging political view that dominates the conversation. Suffering is universal, and Buddhism offers the best way to find a way beyond that suffering.

  6. Pingback: My thoughts on “Socially Engaged” Buddhism « Fly Like a Crow

  7. peace is every step is my mantra that i repeat to myself as i enter each day tor work as a doctor in a prison. i enjoyed seeing that someone else found this saying helpful. i’d say each one of those 10 priniciples is helpful to me each an every day. thank you for formulating them on paper. they will be helpful to remember to keep on with my work.

  8. Are there socially engaged Buddhist bloggers who consider themselves fiscally conservative?

  9. Pingback: Engaged Buddhism and Dualistic Thought « Bayou City Buddhist

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  11. Pingback: What's All the Hubbub About Socially Engaged Buddhism, Bub? | DukkhaGirl: One Woman's Search for Everything Here and Now and in Her Own Backyard

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  13. Thanks everyone for sharing. I read your comments meditatively and enjoyed learning your points of view. I am very much like one of the blind men who tried to describe the elephant.

    I made acronyms out of the ten principles: SIN-O-AB-MED-L. Good recipe, but the outcome is up to the CHEF’s skills and quality of the ingrediants. SINg,0uch,,ABdomen,MEDicine,Love. Wish I could just meet you all and celebrate New Year’s Eve. May you have the happiest and most prosperous New Year 2554(2011).

  14. give correct principles of buddhism but not engaged buddhism


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