What is an engaged Buddha?


For me, Buddhism is about waking up, to see reality for what it is without the storylines and projections I layer on top of it. This includes the reality of what I see around me in my day to day life, as well as the reality of the societal, environmental, economic or political situations that surround me. When my friend doesn’t respond to my text immediately, my go-to storyline may be that she doesn’t prioritize me as a friend (maybe a reflection of my own sense of self worth), when in reality she was feeling overwhelmed at her new job. This insight is often coupled with compassion in what is known as the two wings of the bird of mindfulness. When I can engage both insight and compassion, I feel like I am touching into the truest version of myself - expansive, infinite, timeless, at one with all beings. When insight allows me to see reality for what it is, whether it’s something from my own daily life or seeing situations farther away like the communities most impacted by climate change, compassion compels me towards action to help alleviate suffering and injustice.


Many think of Buddhism and mindfulness as passive and neutral. This is in contrast to many teachings that call for action. The path of the Bodhisattva is one in which individual liberation is put off until all beings are liberated. The Buddha’s teachings on ethical living involve practices that cannot be done without action (e.g. generosity, taking a stand against injustice and harm). Compassion practice, one of the four brahma viharas or heart practices (the other 3 being loving kindness, sympathetic joy and equanimity), involves not just feeling empathy but inclining yourself towards alleviating suffering. To me, all of this is in the service of our interconnectedness - when I know that the pain of other beings (including non-human beings) will ultimately come around to impact me and my community as well, it adds a sense of urgency to that inclination towards action.


Thich Naht Hanh, the beloved Vietnamese Zen master who recently passed, coined the term Engaged Buddhism, inspiring Buddists all over the world to take our practice off the cushion and into the world. To me, Thay (as he was affectionately called by his students) was a living embodiment of peace, spaciousness, and joy. It was from this deeply practiced and compassionate place that he spawned entire communities of activists (including the Earth Holder Community), and was nominated by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr for the Nobel Peace Prize for his activism against the Vietnam War.


The superpower that I think Engaged Buddhists bring to the table, and what Thay taught, is the grounding in compassion and mindfulness in order to engage with social and political issues skilfully, with love as well as with what I call fierce kindness when needed. To quote Thay, “Buddhism has to do with your daily life, with your suffering and with the suffering of the people around you. You have to learn how to help a wounded child while still practicing mindful breathing. You should not allow yourself to get lost in action. Action should be meditation at the same time.”


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