The topic of socially engaged Buddhism is complex and very important to the future of the dharma in our troubled, fast-moving and intensely competitive global world. Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor says that phrase “socially engaged Buddhism” was coined in the 1930s when some monks opposed France’s occupation in Viet Nam.

In his lucid historical study, The Awakening of the West: the encounter of Buddhism and Western culture (1994), he tells the story of Thich Quang Du who, while sitting in meditative calm repose on a street in Saigon, poured gas over his body and torched himself on June 1, 1963.

Images of monks aflame—“seated like a Buddha engulfed by fire in a country ravaged by war sears itself into the Western mind” (p. 353)—aroused incomprehension among those who imagined Buddhists as totally other-worldly.

But the practice of “engaged Buddhism” could really be said to begin with the Buddha himself. The Buddha didn’t remain silently seated under the Bodhi tree, keeping his awakening to himself, hidden in his soul’s depths. Rather, he went out into the world, and the dharma began to engage with its culture and society of 2500 years ago.

He created the sangha, a kind of community of resistance to the existing caste and hierarchical system. In itself, it was a model of community and community development. The Buddha also taught about worldly affairs. Yet we must recognize that the Buddha taught not only perennial truths about the human condition and the way to happiness. He also articulated his understanding of human suffering (dukkha) in the Iron Age world where society was viewed essentially as a collection of individuals (Stephen Batchelor, After Buddhism: rethinking the dharma for a secular age [2015], pp. 1-28).

Some Buddhist scholars argue that the socially engaged Buddhist movement is really the creation of modernity. That is, the central preoccupation of Buddhist Asian civilizations has not been the “saving of the world.”

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