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Religion Library: Zen

Vision for Society

Written by: Julia Hardy

Specific movements toward social change have also emerged directly from western Buddhists. The spiritual head of the Buddhist activist movement has been, in many ways, Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. Thich Nhat Hanh created the term "Engaged Buddhism" to describe an approach to Buddhism that is directed outward and focused toward social change.

Nhat Hanh also created the term "interbeing" as the philosophical underpinning to this movement. He emphasizes the interconnectedness of all things, not just humans or even animate objects, but all forms of existence in the universe. It is because all things are interconnected that individuals should be concerned for the wellbeing of all.

Nhat Hanh's teachings articulate the concept of Buddha-nature in modern terms. His thoughts and those of other contemporary Buddhist thinkers have been embraced by environmentalist movements as a way of looking at the natural world that is compatible with their vision for ecological balance and for bringing an end to destructive human practices.

The Engaged Buddhism movement has not been limited to the cause of environmental change. Nhat Hanh's social engagement began when Vietnam was under French occupation, and continued during the military conflicts there. As an advocate for non-violent solutions to human conflicts, Nhat Hanh's name was entered into nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1967.

Today there are a number of Engaged Buddhist movements in both the West and in Asia, addressing a wide variety of issues, including social and gender equality, peace, environmental protection, economic exploitation, hunger, poverty, disease, slavery, and many more. Asian Engaged Buddhist groups are sometimes at odds with the Buddhist establishment in their countries, claiming that traditional Buddhism is too closely aligned with governments and not responsive to the needs of the people. In other cases, Buddhist organizations have taken a role in leading opposition to their government's actions and policies.

Among Zen Engaged Buddhist groups in the United States are the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, founded in 1978 by Zen master Robert Aitken, which engages in community development, prison reform, and international relief efforts, and Peacemaker Circle International, founded by in 1996 by Zen master Bernie Glassman. Glassman also founded the Greyston Mandala, a network of for-profit and not-for-profit organizations that coordinate projects on behalf of the inner city community of southwest Yonkers, New York. The latter includes the Greyston Bakery, a very successful for-profit business begun in 1982 that trains and employs people traditionally regarded as unemployable. The bakery has been touted as an effective model for combining business with social action.


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