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The Intersection of Engaged Anthropology and Engaged Buddhism

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Scenes from the Life of the Buddha, Pakistan-Afghanistan, ancient Gandhara. Courtesy of Freer Gallery.

Four Scenes from the Life of the Buddha, Pakistan-Afghanistan, ancient Gandhara. Courtesy of Freer Gallery,

As some of you may know, in addition to all the other hats I wear, I am a bonafide cultural anthropologist. In fact, my beginning years as a dharma practitioner coincided with getting a graduate degree in anthropology at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco from 1993 – 1996.

This year, I was invited to participate on a panel at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, held last month in San Francisco. The panel was titled, “The Anthropology of Buddhism and the Buddhism of Anthropology: Crossing the Borders Between Religion and Science” which dovetailed nicely with the theme of the entire conference: Borders and Crossings.

I thought some of you might be interested in reading the paper that I presented at the conference, a rather personal reflection on my experiences as both a Buddhist and an anthropologist… and an exploration of what “engagement” might mean. I’d love to hear your comments.

“Towards An Engaged Anthropology:
What Socially Engaged Buddhism Can Teach Us”

November 2012

When Les Sponsel [the organizer of the panel] first sent me an email to be part of this panel, I thought he had sent it to the wrong person. Since I haven’t worked formally as an anthropologist for a number of years now, I thought he was probably looking for my colleague and good friend, Dr. Joan Halifax. Dr. Halifax is an anthropologist, Zen Buddhist teacher, and founder of Upaya Zen Center.

But no, Les reassured me that he was, indeed, looking for me. Once we got that sorted out, I was thrilled to be invited to be part of this panel and offer some personal reflections on being both an anthropologist and a practicing Buddhist.

Writing this paper has given me the opportunity to reflect on my multiple identities – anthropologist, writer, editor, and Buddhist chaplain. (And I’m leaving out a whole lot of other identities!) The intersection of Buddhism and anthropology is a subject that is near to my heart, and one that I’ve been exploring for quite a long time now, though in ways that might be unconventional for most anthropologists.

Back in 1996, I gave a paper at a symposium held at the California Institute of Integral Studies where I earned my master’s degree. That paper was titled, “Toward an Engaged Anthropology: What Engaged Buddhism and Mindfulness Practice Can Teach Us.”

You’ll notice that my paper today has a nearly identical title. Even though the title is almost the same, much has changed in the 16 years since I gave that first talk.

First of all, the world itself has changed, dramatically. Back in 1996, I was just getting my feet wet with writing papers on a computer rather than a typewriter. I don’t remember being able to do research on the Internet (this was pre-Google, after all). And there was no Facebook or any other kind of social media to distract me from writing my thesis.

In 1996, the World Trade Center towers were still standing, there was no such thing as a global war on terror, we boarded airplanes as we pleased and said goodbye to our loved ones at the gate.

In 1996, I was very new to both anthropology and Buddhism. I had begun my meditation practice in 1994, and I graduated from CIIS with a master’s in anthropology in 1996. But even at that early stage of the game, I could sense them as parallel paths. Some things have stayed constant. What I wrote in my original paper still feels true:

As both an anthropologist and a Buddhist practitioner, I have been struck by the parallels between these two disciplines. On a personal level, both have functioned for me as a kind of spiritual practice, what I like to think of as the way of awareness.

So today, I want to re-visit that original paper, informed by where I’ve been in the past 16 years as well as how the field of anthropology has evolved. These are the questions I want to explore in this paper, which we might call “Toward an Engaged Anthropology, 2.0”:

  • What does it mean to be an anthropologist who practices Buddhism?
  • What does it mean to be a Buddhist who practices anthropology?
  • What are the implications of being “engaged,” in both disciplines?


Over these past 16 years. I’ve worked as a magazine editor, a nonprofit organization executive director, a writer, a research associate, a bookseller, an organizational consultant, a fundraiser, and now I’m even a Buddhist chaplain.

No matter what job I’ve held, I’ve always brought my anthropology lens with me. I see in terms of culture and systems, and I’ve learned to ask questions that help people identify the assumptions they may be carrying. I know the importance of building rapport, of taking things slowly when I enter a new situation in order to come to a deeper understanding of what’s going on around me, and enlisting the “natives” in any given environment to help me understand what might be happening from their point of view. In ways that I couldn’t have anticipated, I think this made me a much better executive director than I would have been otherwise, as well as an organizational consultant.

It’s been just as true that during the times when I have held positions with the title of “anthropologist,” I bring my Buddhist or dharma filter with me. What’s interesting is how similar the Buddhist and the anthropology lens are, and how well they complement each other and have enriched my life over the past 16 years.

In my 1996 paper, I focused on one aspect of Buddhist practice – mindfulness – and wrote about how it informed my work as an anthropologist:

The practice of mindfulness means looking deeply into the present moment and situation, and realizing the nature of our interconnection: all things arise from conditions, nothing has a separate self identity. In a similar way, I view anthropology as a practice of questioning our assumptions, and doing so with a compassion that recognizes the cultural conditions which shape our world view and those of the people with whom we work.

A core Buddhist concept that informs my anthropology practice is this teaching of dependent co-arising. Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh explains the concept very simply but eloquently. He writes,

Can you see the sun in a grain of rice? For without the sun on the rice fields, there would be no rice. Can you see the cloud in a wooden table? For without the cloud there would be no rain to water the tree, and there would be no wood to make the table. (1990, p. 75)

In 1998, I became a member of the Zen Peacemaker Order founded by Roshi Bernie Glassman. Glassman is a pioneer in socially engaged Buddhism. He took traditional Buddhist teachings and rendered them into a more contemporary language. The three tenets of the Zen Peacemaker Order that Glassman and others developed are:

  • Not knowing
  • Bearing witness
  • Compassionate action

I find each of these to be very compatible with an anthropological perspective. Not knowing is the starting point. This means acknowledging that will never know everything. And that, in fact, most of the time we know nothing. The trouble comes when we lose sight of that truth or do not understand it to begin with. Here’s what Glassman says about “Not Knowing”:

This doesn’t mean not having enough information. Information is great. Study different languages, read books, talk to the large heads and the small heads. Put it all in your backpack, but don’t get attached to it. Not knowing means entering a situation with openness and listening deeply. You don’t arrive with the idea that you’re going to fix something. (2011)

This is the most foundational practice in Buddhism and, to my mind, in anthropology as well. We have to be willing to acknowledge that our perspective will always be limited. There’s a wonderful phrase that conveys this, from 12th century Japanese Zen master Eihei Dogen, founder of the Soto school of Zen: “merely looking through a bamboo pipe at a corner of the sky” (from Dogen’s Mountains and Rivers Sutra). From an anthropologist’s standpoint, we can never truly know what it is like to be the “other,” and it is only by acknowledging that very fact that we are able to approach a more accurate understanding of the other’s life and perspective.

Glassman compares the second tenet, Bearing Witness, to “grokking,” a term coined by Robert Heinlein in his 1961 book Stranger in a Strange Land. Glassman writes:

…grokking is the intermingling of intelligence that necessarily affects both observer and observed. Heinlein: “Grok means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed—to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience…” Bearing witness means spending time in a situation trying to get into the space of non-duality, until you become the situation. (2011)

Bearing witness, then, sounds a lot like ethnography.

The third tenet is loving action. Glassman writes, “If you can do numbers one and two [Not Knowing and Bearing Witness], then loving action will arise. Attempts to heal will occur.” (2011)

Whenever I enter a situation as an anthropologist, these practices are deeply embodied within me. They have become my framework for understanding what it means to be a skillful ethnographer. The last tenet, “Loving action,” also leads us to look at the concept of  “engagement” in both anthropology and Buddhism.


Since I wrote my paper in 1996, I went on to spend a great deal of time within the socially engaged Buddhist movement. From 1999 to 2008, I worked at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF). BPF was founded in 1978 to link Buddhist teachings of wisdom and compassion with progressive social change. One of BPF’s co-founders was the late Robert Aitken Roshi, a Zen master who drew on his in-depth knowledge of 19th and 20th century anarchism as well as his long experience as an anti-war activist.

In 2005 and 2007, as part of my work, I helped to organized two “Buddhist Peace Delegations.” These were groups of Buddhists who converged in Washington, DC, to join mass marches calling for an end to the war in Iraq. During each march, around 200 people walked together in silence, ringing a bell of mindfulness, in the midst of the loud and agitated conduct of many of our protesting comrades. Throughout the day, many people gravitated toward our group, telling us that they had been hungry for a way to take part in the action without getting so caught up in anger and divisiveness.

So in these past 16 years, I’ve gotten quite a bit of miles under my tires in both theory and practical applications of socially engaged Buddhism.

Then there is engaged anthropology. When I wrote my paper in 1996, there wasn’t a great deal of literature on that concept. Roy Rappaport (1995) wrote about it in his foreword to Global Ecosystems: Creating Options Through Anthropological Perspectives, a publication of NAPA. That same year, Nancy Scheper-Hughes used the phrases “critical applied anthropology” and “militant anthropology” (1995).

Since that time, the field of engaged anthropology has been given a much more thorough treatment through articles (e.g. Lamphere, 2003), books (e.g. Sanford and Angel-Ajani, 2006), and symposiums and conferences. One landmark event was “Anthropology Put to Work/Anthropology That Works,” organized in 2005 by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, and later published as a book (Field and Fox, 2007).

In January of 2008, Setha Low and Sally Engle Merry presented a workshop titled, “The Anthropologist as Social Critic: Working toward a More Engaged Anthropology” in New York. This workshop evolved into an AAA Presidential Symposium held at the annual meetings in 2008. A collection of articles from that symposium was published as a supplement to Current Anthropology in 2010. In the introduction to that supplement, Low and Merry (2010) propose six forms of engaged anthropology: Sharing and support, Teaching and public education, Social critique, Collaboration, Advocacy, and Activism.

So I think it’s safe to say that anthropology has a more nuanced understanding of what it means to be “engaged” than was true in 1996, and even a beginning taxonomy of the types of engagement.

When it comes to the dynamic of engagement, Buddhism and anthropology share similar characteristics. Anthropology has always pushed the envelope of the subject/object division so prevalent and often unquestioned in other scientific disciplines. Long before quantum physics introduced this idea into the mainstream, anthropologists have known that the observer cannot but help impact that which she or he observes.

Participant observation, as a methodology, begins to break down the duality between the researcher and the community she is studying. There is a growing body of literature that focuses on how ethnographers have been impacted by their fieldwork. Paul Rabinow’s Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco (1977) was seminal in this category; other works include Ruth Behar’s The Vulnerable Observer (1996).

Similarly, Buddhism is also a project to break down the subject/object division. In fact, one of the fundamental concepts in Buddhism is annata, the Pali term for no-self. Over and over, the historical Buddha emphasized the importance of direct experience over dogma. And like anthropology, Buddhism gravitates toward noticing the granular level of reality rather than formulating universalizing truths.

For both disciplines, experience is primary. Knowledge or wisdom is derived from direct experience, not from theory. In that way, both Buddhism and anthropology are inherently engaged.

The historical Buddha is often described as a physician who diagnosed the condition of human suffering and prescribed an antidote to it in the form of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path (Bodhi, 2006). The phrase “engaged Buddhism” often refers to viewing everything as an opportunity for practice – washing the dishes can be an act of engaged Buddhism when we do so mindfulness.

Similarly, anthropological knowledge and findings, from the start, were applied to problems such as serving the needs of colonial administrators (Bennett, 1996). In this definition, engagement is usually apolitical and does not recognize or grapple with socio-political complexities. Early anthropologists, for example, did not usually question the ethical implications or long-term consequences of their relationships with those colonial administrators.

However, there is a second way to define engagement. The Buddhist and the anthropologist who are willing to get their hands dirty by wading into the muddy waters of political analysis and critique, of advocacy and activism, are not simply engaged, but socially engaged. Buddhist scholar and Zen teacher David Loy (2004) describes the distinction:

…homelessness in the United States is a serious problem that confronts many of us everyday… We don’t help homeless people because we are Buddhist. We help them because they are not separate from us and they need help; and ultimately, in the act of helping, we do it for no reason at all. Nevertheless, there are broader issues here that need to be considered, by Buddhists as much as anyone else. Why are there so many homeless people, in a country that is by far the richest that has ever existed on earth? Why, for that matter, are there any homeless people in such a fabulously wealthy society? What does that imply about the policies of our local, state, and national governments? If government is an expression of our collective will, what does that imply about us?

To ask these questions is to delve into difficult problems about what kind of society we want to have and how to work toward it – theoretical issues that often seem like a distraction from our Buddhist focus on «just this!»


Socially engaged Buddhism and engaged anthropology are powerful modalities precisely because they occupy a space between paradigms. In a binary world, socially engaged Buddhism bridges the gap between contemplation and action. Engaged anthropology bridges the gap between theoretical and applied, between academic and activist.

Earlier I noted that you have to be willing to get your hands dirty in either of these fields. Both Buddhists and anthropologists who are oriented toward this more political kind of engagement will face criticism from those who believe that these Buddhism and anthropology should be left in a “pure” and unsullied state, and not involved in the power struggles of our time.

The practice of socially engaged Buddhism has helped me to develop more equanimity. It’s also given me a moral and ethical framework that clarifies the importance and necessity of speaking truth to power. I resonate very much with what Stuart Kirsch wrote: “activism is the logical extension of the commitment to reciprocity that underlies the practice of anthropology” (2002:178).

I want to conclude with what I wrote in my original paper, which feels just as true to me now as it did 16 years ago:

Engaged anthropology is not only “applied,” but personally and often painfully involved. Ruth Behar, in her book, “The Vulnerable Observer,” writes that, “anthropology that doesn’t break your heart just isn’t worth doing anymore.” I found that in my own fieldwork with people who call themselves psychiatric consumers and survivors, engaged anthropology meant bringing my past experiences as a mental health professional and all the emotions connected with that fully into my work. Far from being an obstacle to understanding what I was seeing in fieldwork, I found these emotions were actually often the vehicle for my ethnographic understanding. Being engaged also meant becoming more politically committed to the advocacy of people experiencing oppression based on their status as current or former mental patients….

Much like mindfulness practice, I believe that engaged anthropology has to do with looking deeply at situations of suffering and conflict, going beyond dualities, and holding a space of ambiguity amidst pressure to “solve the problem,” or to take sides. This does not mean not speaking out against oppression. It does mean seeing into all the conditions that contribute to the situation and the connection between the oppressor and the oppressed. If an engaged anthropology is an anthropology that breaks our heart, engaged Buddhism reminds us, as Buddhist scholar and systems theorist Joanna Macy (2007) says, “the heart that breaks open can hold the whole universe.” (p 129)


Behar, Ruth. 1996. The vulnerable observer: anthropology that breaks your heart. Boston: Beacon Press.

Bennett, John W. 1996. Applied and action anthropology: ideological and conceptual aspects. Current Anthropology 37:23-53.

Bodhi, B. 2006. The noble eightfold path: way to the end of suffering. Onalaska, WA: Pariyatti Publishing.

D’Andrade, Roy. 1995.  Moral models in anthropology. Current Anthropology 36(3):399-408.

Field, Les, and Richard Fox. 2007. Anthropology put to work. London: Berg Publishers.

Bernie Glassman. 2011. From a talk given at Hart House Theatre in Toronto, Sept. 9, 2011. Accessed on:

Kirsch, Stuart. 2002. Anthropology and advocacy: A case study of the campaign against the Ok Tedi mine. Critique of Anthropology 22: 175-200.

Lamphere, Louise. 2003. The perils and prospects for an engaged anthropology: A view from the United States. Social Anthropology 11, 2: 153-168.

Low, Setha M., and Sally Engle Merry. 2010. Engaged anthropology: diversity and dilemmas. Current Anthropology 51(Supplement 2):S203-S214

Loy, David. 2004. “What’s Buddhist About Socially Engaged Buddhism?” Accessed at:

Macy, Joanna. 2007. World as lover, world as self: A guide to living fully in turbulent times.  Berkeley: Parallax Press.

Nhat Hanh, T. 1990. Present moment, wonderful moment: mindfulness verses for daily living. Berkeley:Parallax Press.

Rappaport, Roy.1995. Foreword to Global Ecosystems: Creating Options Through Anthropological Perspectives. In Bulletin of the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology, #15.

Sanford, Victoria, and Asale Angel-Ajani. 2006. Engaged observer: anthropology, advocacy, and activism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. 1995.  The primacy of the ethical: propositions for a militant anthropology. Current Anthropology 36(3):409-420.

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. 1992. Hungry bodies, medicine, and the state: toward a critical, psychological anthropology. New Directions in Psychological Anthropology. Edited by T. Schwartz, G. White, and C. Lutz, p. 221-247. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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.

9 responses »

  1. Maia, I appreciated how the reading of this showed me some biases I brought to it, and lead me to allow the process of the content to work on me as I read. An enactive engagement was alive and well even in that attending to simple information. One bias was that I wanted ‘original contribution’, some novel app unvailed as breakthrough, a first-time-ever stunningly riviting insight. What I received was better. Reading, I saw that the background anticipations I held ran counter to bearing wittness, and that in order to discover what you might mean I must let those orientations recede, letting the practice of engagement play on ‘both’ sides of the page. I came looking for a description of engaged anthrolpology/buddhism, and got a demonstration, a participation in and by the topics discussed. Remarkable.

  2. cool article, Maia. I’m reading Fruitful Darkness and find it amazing. Mike

  3. wow, maia, this so much takes me back to my sociology studies and how i always felt that especially in macro-sociology it left out the most important parts of the equation – unbiased observation and reporting (you always go in with a hypothesis), and what to do about it.

  4. Pingback: » The Intersection of Engaged Anthropology and Engaged Buddhism

  5. A pleasure to read this. It really resonated with my studies in cross cultural political sociology and the importance of being aware of ourselves as we enter our subject of inquiry. This problem of dualism and our own unquestioned assumptions (regarding concepts like freedom, justice, choice, etc) permeate our approach and shape our conclusions. The question is how to become aware, and I think you point out the best solution I have found so far — breath in, breath out, recognize dependent arising, anatta, to the best of our ability. It’s an arduous process, and I continue to hope that academics will incorporate this into to their methodology, producing more honest and meaningful work. Thank you for writing! -Adam

  6. Pingback: The Intersection of Engaged Anthropology and Engaged Buddhism | Buddhist Art News

  7. Reblogged this on The Stoked Daily. and commented:
    Post-WWI through contemporary anthropological theory has many striking parallels with buddhist philosophy.

  8. I am a student of anthropology and journalism, and I am slowly building on my Dharma practice. I have always found parallels between the two disciplines; it is such a joy to find that these ideas are shared and so well-developed! Using the mass media as a tool to spread awareness and appreciation rather than negativity and skepticism, I earnestly believe that these ideas will eventually spread through the social sciences and into the mainstream, slowly but surely. Beautiful writing!


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