Buddhism has been a force for social justice since its beginning, despite its focus on escape from the world of samsara. People were admitted to the Buddhist order regardless of social class or gender, in a society with strict standards of class and gender separation. Men and women are, however, still segregated within the monastery. While the Buddha taught a message of personal salvation through the negation of the self, the fourth of his Four Noble Truths also prescribed correct methods of acting within the world. Meaning and hope were given to many by this new movement at a time of social instability and religious questioning. People were drawn together by Buddhism, and from the beginning the community, the sangha, was one of the three basic components of Buddhism.
Ashoka, the Indian ruler responsible for the early spread of Buddhism throughout south Asia and beyond, concentrated on the social message of the religion rather than its philosophy of personal salvation through extinguishing the self. Later, the emerging Mahayana Buddhist movement redirected what they believed had become the inward, overly philosophical direction of Buddhism, pushing it outward by equating samsara and nirvana. (It is important to note here that this is a deeply polemical issue, and the Mahayana and later Theravada disagree over this sort of characterization). The concept of Buddha-nature that would become central to Chan and Zen Buddhist philosophy described a world in which all things are equal, and all are one with the divine.
Zen (the term is used inclusively in this section) and other Buddhist sects have for many centuries engaged in efforts to improve the world around them, constructing bridges, building and running schools, hospitals, and other charitable endeavors. At times these were projects sponsored and carried out by monasteries and temples on their own, and at other times these efforts were undertaken in conjunction with governments, with which at times Zen was closely allied.
Despite this history, because basic Buddhism is not oriented toward social service Buddhism has been contrasted negatively with Christianity. This is the perception, but it ignores a great deal of history. In fact, monks throughout history were engaged in social and political issues long before contact with the West. Beginning in the 19th century, even more conscious efforts were made to develop this side of Buddhism—in part as a result of Christian missionary activity—and make it more like traditional Christian approaches to social service. Some of these changes were initiated by westerners in Asia, and their efforts have been identified with a larger process of the "Protestantization" of Buddhism to make it more palatable to the western, capitalized world. That said, however, many of these movements have also come from within the tradition.
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.