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Engaged Buddhism


Every major faith and Earth wisdom tradition offers inner resources for social action. I am especially grateful to Buddhist teachings for the inspiration and guidance they have given to my life and work.

The Buddha's central doctrine of the "dependent co-arising" reveals the dynamic interdependence of all phenomena. Its insight and practices help to free us from the prison cell of egocentricity, and from the greed, hatred, and delusion it engenders. The term Engaged Buddhism refers to the social application of these teachings, as they bring us into responsible and resilient relationship with the world around us.


My Teachers

I encountered the Buddha Dharma in 1965 while working with Tibetan refugees in northern India (see Widening Circles, A Memoir), and it became central to my life and work. My revered teachers in the Tibetan Kargyu tradition include the Ven. 8th Khamtrul Rinpoche, Sister Karma Khechog Palmo, Ven. Dugu Choegyal Rinpoche, and Tokden Antrim of the Tashi Jong community.

My main meditative practice is vipassana in the Theravadin tradition, for which I thank Nyanaponika Thero and Rev. Sivali of Sri Lanka, Munindraji of West Bengal, and Dhiravamsa of Thailand, as well as a number of fine American teachers.

When I returned to graduate school, I harvested teachings from Buddhist scriptures. My doctoral work at Syracuse University focused on the Buddha's doctrine of dependent co-arising and its convergences with general systems theory (see my book Mutual Causality).

Extensive fieldwork in Sri Lanka with Sarvodaya, a village self-help movement (see my book Dharma and Development), taught me more about the relevance of Buddhist teachings to social change--as have also my many colleagues in the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, where I serve on its Advisory Council. My understanding of Engaged Buddhism is reflected in my books Mutual Causality and World as Lover, World as Self.

Dependent Co-Arising

When the Buddha taught, he was said to turn the Wheel of the Dharma. Indeed, his central doctrine is like a wheel, for through it he taught the dependent co-arising of all things, how they continually change and condition each other in interconnections as real as the spokes in a wheel.

I have been deeply inspired by the Buddha's teaching of dependent co-arising. It fills me with a sense of connection and mutual responsibility with all beings. Helping me understand the non-hierarchical and self-organizing nature of life, it is the philosophic grounding of all my work.

The recognition of our essential nonseparateness from the world, beyond the shaky walls erected of our fear and greed, is a Dharma gift occurring in every generation, in countless individual lives. Yet there are historical moments when this perspective arises in a more collective fashion and when, within Buddhism as a whole (if we can even talk of "Buddhism as a whole"!), there is a fresh reappropriation of the Buddha's central teaching. This seems to be occurring today. Along with the destructive, even suicidal nature of many of our public policies, social and intellectual developments are converging now to bring into bold relief the Buddha's teaching of dependent co-arising--and the wheel of the Dharma turns again.

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Mother of All Buddhas

Adapted from Joanna's Memoir, Widening Circles

My encounter with the Mother of All Buddhas was preceded by a dreary spell of studying the Abhidharma, a canonical body of thought written three centuries after the Buddha. In it scholastic monks employed the tool of analysis to demonstrate the illusory nature of the self: they took ordinary experience and broke it down into tiny, ephemeral psycho-physical events called dharmas (with a small d). These dharmas with their subtle distinctions were enumerated and listed, categorized and classified, all with mind-boggling diligence and much debate. The entire exercise came to be understood as wisdom (prajna in Sanskrit, or panna in Pali).

My head swam. I was confused and bored with all this attention to hypothetical dharmas, and a little irritated, too. To view them as the building blocks of reality struck me as reductionistic--and, aside from that, the scholastic hair-splitting reminded me of the early church fathers.

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Bearing Witness: A Newsletter for Western Socially Engaged Buddhism


A Newsletter for Western Socially Engaged Buddhism

The Zen Peacemakers founder, Bernie Glassman has created the first clearinghouse on Socially Engaged Buddhism in the West. We are pleased to invite you to receive our FREE monthly online publication.

You will learn about:

  • Who?: Profiles, links and articles on the individuals and groups practicing service and working for social justice as Buddhist practice
  • What?: Emerging service projects and social actions, including opportunities to train and get involved
  • Why?: The history, ethical bases and philosophies that inspire the global movement of Buddhist communities towards social engagement

Previous issues include Bernieís recent meeting with His Holiness the Dalai Lama as well as a survey of Buddhist chaplaincy programs.†† You are invited to e-mail submissions for our February issue featuring work in prisons to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .†† For your free subscription, please go to:

We are also building two related directories:

Groups and Activists


Learning Resources

Itís easier than ever to access information and to get involved!"


The Third Turning of the Wheel

Homage to Thomas Berry by Joanna Macy

The turning wheel is a powerful symbol of the mystery at the heart of life. Planets and solar systems and electrons in their orbits are wheels revolving within larger wheels, just as the hours and seasons of day and year rotate too, and the circulation of the blood in the body, and the vast hydrological cycles that sustain our living world. Like the sacred hoop of the Native Americans and the round dances and mandalas of ancient peoples, the wheel reminds us that all is alive and moving, interconnected and intersecting.

This truth flamed at the core of the Buddha's message two and a half millennia ago. When he began to teach, he is said to have turned the Wheel of the Dharma: the law or teaching of dependent co-arising.

With a wealth of metaphor, story, and philosophic argument, he showed the interdependence of all phenomena. In contrast to thinkers of his time, he saw all things in process, intrinsically connected and sustaining each other in intricate patterns of mutuality. To give social form to this reciprocity at the heart of nature, he inspired the creation of community, or Sangha, for practicing wisdom, compassion, and sharing.

Five centuries later, the Wheel of the Dharma is said to have turned again. The time had come to reclaim and recast in fresh language the Buddha's core teaching, which had become obscured for many by generations of scholastic and analytic thought. With the Perfection of Wisdom sutras, to convey the intricate interexistence of all things, come new terms, like sunyata or emptiness of separate being; new metaphors like "deep space"; a new playful, paradoxical style; and a new model, the bodhisattva.

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The Bodhisattva

(excerpted from a talk at Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, The Wings of the Bodhisattva, Insight magazine, spring/summer 2001)

In the major religions, the spiritual journey seems to be presented in two ways.
One is like a journey out of this messy, broken, imperfect world of suffering, into a sacred realm of eternal light. At the same time, within the same tradition, the spiritual journey is also experienced and expressed as going right into the heart of the world--into this world of suffering and brokenness and imperfection--to discover the sacred.

In Buddhism, this movement into the world is associated with the bodhisattva. In early, Theravada, Buddhism the term bodhisattva refers to the earlier lives of Gotama the Buddha. He had lots of them, and in each he practiced and grew in compassion and wisdom. These are the hallmarks of a bodhisattva: compassion and insight into the interconnecredness of all beings. And he developed those capacities not just in human lives, but also in non-human lives. Many of you probably share my delight in the Jataka stories, where these earlier lives, with wondrous displays of courage and compassion, are recounted. In some of them the Buddha was a rabbit, or a monkey, or an elephant, or a snake, as well as a merchant and a prince, and a counselor to kings.

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Taking Refuge In Earth

In Buddhism the pratitioner traditionally "takes refuge" in the three jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. This act is comparable to expressing allegiance and finding ground to stand on. Cynthia Jurs suggests that Earth, as an embodiment of the three jewels, is an immediate and suitable refuge and focus of reverence.Indeed, the Buddha on the eve of his enlightenment, affirmed this by "summoning the Earth to witness"--which is the Cynthia's piece, excerpted below.


by Cynthia Jurs

The following are some thoughts about how the Earth, in all itís vastness, is like an embodiment of the Three Jewels and how we might practice taking refuge in the whole Earth.

To see the Three Jewels embodied in the Earth, we look to the natural world and see that when nature is working in harmony that is enlightened nature! And when it is not, the Earth points out what we need to learn directly--ask any gardener!

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The Sarvodaya Movement in Sri Lanka, active in over 10,000 villages, is a living example of Engaged Buddhism. My 1985 book about Sarvodaya, called Dharma and Development, may be ordered through Kumarian Press. George Bond's Buddhist Social Change (2003) provides an up to date study of the movement.

  • Description of the Movement
  • Meditation That Can End a War
"Sarvodaya means everybody wakes up"

Adapted from World as Lover, World as Self and Joanna's memoir, Widening Circles

"We Build the Road and The Road Builds Us."

"Real development is not free trade zones and mammoth hydro-electric dams," the young trainer told us. "It's waking up to our own needs and our own power."

I was sitting in an open-walled classroom with two dozen Sri Lankan village workers, absorbing the principles of a movement that promised to revolutionize Third World development. "This awakening happens on different levels. It's personal and spiritual as well as economic and cultural. These aspects of our lives are all interdependent." I wished planners at the World Bank could hear him.

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Spiritual Practices for Activists

To heal our society, our psyches must heal as well. Haunted by the desperate needs of our time and beset by more commitments than we can easily carry, we may wonder how to find the time and energy for spiritual disciplines. Few of us feel free to take to the cloister or the meditation cushion to seek personal transformation.

We do not need to withdraw from the world or spend long hours in solitary prayer or meditation to begin to wake up to the spiritual power within us. The activities and encounters of our daily lives can serve as the occasion for that kind of discovery. I would like to share five simple exercises that can help in this.

The exercises--on death, loving-kindness, compassion, mutual power, and mutual recognition--happen to be adapted from the Buddhist tradition. As part of our planetary heritage, they belong to us all. No belief system is necessary, only a readiness to attend to the immediacy of your own experience. They will be most useful if read slowly with a quiet mind (a few deep breaths will help), and if put directly into practice in the presence of others. If you read them aloud for others or put them on tape, allow several seconds when three dots (...) are marked, and when more are marked (......), leave additional time, as appropriate.

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Introduction to George Bond's book on Sarvodaya

Introduction to George Bond's book on Sarvodaya

The state of the world at the onset of the 3rd millennium reveals the dark side of globalized capitalism. For all its proclaimed advantages, the unconstrained drive to maximize corporate profits brings spiraling poverty and ecological devastation in its wake. Now, more than ever, in all walks of life, people are questioning the core values this system embodies and promotes. Must our "bottom-line" be monetary gain for the privileged few? Are we doomed to compete for a place at the top, or can other values organize our culture and serve our well-being? Every person, who is concerned with such questions, deserves to know the story of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement.

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