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Religion Library: Zen

Vision for Society

Written by: Julia Hardy

Buddhist philosophy is itself being recast and restated in new language that supports the principles of Engaged Buddhism. There has been a significant shift, a change in emphasis, for example, in the interpretation of suffering, which some have charged is a distortion of the Buddha's teachings. In early Buddhism the concept of accepting responsibility for one's own suffering was a basic tenet of the religion, and a key to finding one's way to salvation, although certainly meditation on the suffering of others and the cultivation of compassion were essential practices. The "new" emphasis on elevating suffering is thus not really new at all.

Others have argued that a focus on social action stems from a western instrumental approach that is fundamentally incompatible with Buddhism. The intention of these critics is not to condemn Buddhist social projects, nor to claim that there is some innate conflict between Buddhism and social action, but rather to make people aware that these changes have sometimes obscured a more subtle understanding of the Buddhist message of the power of silence, mindfulness, and subjectivity. They argue that Buddhism teaches that the most effective way to change the world for the better is to start within oneself.

Both critics and Engaged Buddhists alike agree that if one concentrates on eliminating greed, anger, and delusion from within, and if one strives to develop mindfulness, tranquility, compassion, and other virtues, the results of this work of self-cultivation will flow naturally toward one's family, friends, and community.

Study Questions:
1.     Contrast the Buddhist focus on samsara with that of social justice.
2.     Why is having a “Buddha-nature” important to Zen philosophy?
3.     How have monks engaged in social service?
4.     What is the “engaged Buddhist” movement interested in?
5.     Why is the engaged Buddhist movement often rejected?


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