Monday, March 7, 2011


During the course of its 2600 year history (at one time a third of humankind were the Buddha’s students or followers), this religion has settled in many countries and cultures, Eastern and Western, and been transformed by them all. This is as it should be, because the Dharma (teachings) makes clear that everything is impermanent and subject to change, including Buddhism.  Although the sangha (community of Buddhists) in the United States is still small and growing, practitioners in our country have made a very American contribution to the teachings, one that is not at all surprising in a nation that gave rise to the social gospel over a century ago and states in one of its most sacred, secular documents, the “Declaration of Independence,” that everyone has the right to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”  Concern with social justice is as American as apple pie and jazz. This progressive concern---the American flavor of the Buddhadharma---is known as “Engaged Buddhism.”

Engaged Buddhists are inspired by that outstanding teacher, Thich Nhat Hahn, who was nominated by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for a Nobel Peace Prize, and who says the sangha includes all sentient beings. In his workshops, he distributes a page containing what he calls, “The Five Mindfulness Trainings.” The first of these declares, “Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I vow to cultivate compassion and learn to protect the lives of people, animals, plants and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to condone any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, and in my way of life.” The third vow goes farther: “I will respect the property of others, but I will prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other species on earth.”
To put this another way, followers of the Buddhadharma, fully aware of impermanence and the illusion of dualism, yet also aware of the ubiquity of suffering, feel obliged to oppose the origins of duhkha in the social world. They will, I believe, share the dreams stated by Dr. King in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1964, where he said, “Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts…Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time…The foundation of such a method is love…I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down men other-centered can build up.” (From my essay “Reading the Eightfold Path” in Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing, p. 26.)

No comments:

Post a Comment