Engaged Buddhist Movements in Asia: A Retrospective Overview
The religion of Buddhism based upon the core principle of tolerance, largely comprises of ethical, moral values and meditation and this is why it has sparked interest among all societies of the world. The impression of Buddhism in the eyes of the rest of the world is that it is the religion of peaceful, spiritual people, promoting love and compassion. The values of compassion, kindness, humanity and equality have been promoting the peaceful and harmonious coexistence of individuals around the world. Dating back to 50s or so, the concept of Buddhist movements seemed vague and its practice was restricted to meditation. It was the time of Vietnam War in 1960s when movements for the application of Buddhism ethics and values to social, political and environmental sufferings of people came to their rise. It is then that some Zen Buddhist teachers like Thich Nhat Hanh coined the term of Engaged Buddhism. Buddhist traditions tied many Buddhist groups together for same purpose. (King, pp. 13)
What does mean by Engaged Buddhism?
Engaged Buddhism is one of the relatively modern Buddhist terms, which is inspired from Humanistic Buddhism, another branch of Buddhism pioneered by Buddhist monastic like Taixu and Yinshun that promotes the philosophy of applying Buddhism practices in to daily lives. Thich Nhat Hanh originally wanted to respond to the misery and suffering around him during Vietnam War through the spiritual means and meditation. He insisted that Vietnam War was a complete violation of Basic human rights and steps taken to end the suffering due to it. He and some of his followers then realized that this task was not separate from meditation practices.
Although there is a difference, but both the terms Humanistic Buddhism and Engaged Buddhism used interchangeably sometimes. Chinese Buddhist interpreted this term as “Left-wing Buddhism”, as it has a relatively liberal approach. There was a Nobel Prize award to Buddhists in recent years for their efforts to liberate their compatriots from dictatorial regimes.
After its origin, different engaged Buddhist movements spread rapidly in many countries of Asia as well as West. In fact, the engaged Buddhist movement means ‘Bodhisavvta’ that refers to saintly mission of becoming pleasure for others. The purpose of this movement was to feel the sentiments of others whether it is the matter of joy or sorrows. (Keller, Ruether, Cantlon, pp. 1093). Engaged Buddhist movement became source of civil war and many other violations in south Asian countries. This movement implies welfare of humanity in different ways with the help of Buddhism spiritual guidance so that it does not affect the human rights in any discipline.
Buddhism in general and engaged Buddhism in particular has found its ground in Sri Lanka in past recent years. Sri Lanka is the greatest achieving developing countries in Asia. Even though the country has been experiencing welfare politics and economic growth, the country is still facing social-economic development issues, mostly in the rural area and in empowerment and gender problems. Help to the disadvantaged people can be through access to education and information as well as political mobilization. Coming up with better opportunities for the disadvantaged women includes promoting their rights to credit and land, improving their admission to education and developing their bargaining power. Various organizations are better equipped to raise poor groups situations since they have they have the funding, they are flexible and are closer to the groups.
The Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement in Sri Lanka provides an alternative model for an inclusive and sustainable development that has widespread moral demand. Its idea supports true self-realization through devoted service to the community, mostly in poorer areas; therefore, it is a communal ethic for the wellbeing of all. Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement in Sri Lanka goes ahead to argue that development is the practice of arousing of families, individuals, urban groups, rural communities and the world. The practice of arousing carried out on all stages of the society, as microfinance provides funds for all projects undertaken. Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement fulfils a huge need in the modern world, and its principles beneficially transferred to and put into practice by other organizations and groups concerned with human development.
Sarvodaya, which means “the arousing of us all” puts together social and spiritual change and accentuates illumination through sharing. Shramadana, which is a Sanskrit word, interprets to donating one’s effort without material returns, as payment comes in the form of good fortune for the future and peace of mind. Dr. A.T Ariyaratne, who was a teacher at a prestigious Buddhist high school who desired to better his students by helping them understand various poverty problems, formed the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement in Sri Lanka in 1958. He achieved this through ‘holiday work camps’. This involved his students living with the villagers, planting gardens, listening to their problems and building temples and schools, this experience led to other schools coming up with similar camps.
Sarvodaya has now developed to become Sri Lanka’s leading native NGO with a development approach and course of its own. It is the world largest examples of Buddhist movements. (H. Jones, Jones, pp. 185)
It is a national group with worldwide links and incorporated by an ACT of parliament in 1972.the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement rejects both the communist model of development, the capitalist model of development, which advocates competition, individualism, affluence and consumerism. It therefore tries to get a holistic middle path to socio-economic development, building harmony between ethnic groups, emphasizing projects associated with honoring cultural continued existence, organic agriculture, community economics and projects for preserving biodiversity. Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement’s vision of a new social order is influenced by the ethos of non-violence voiced by Gandhi, together with the teachings of the Buddha dharma and goes in line with the Buddhist principle that one who minds for one’s divine happiness minds for others, and one who cares for others cares for ones spiritual well-being. The Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement acknowledges four principles of personality development as the foundation of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist rural culture, compassion, loving kindness, equanimity and sympathetic joy.
The Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement philosophy based ultimately on detachment from desires, compassion and the cessation of suffering. Socio-economic and Buddhism development are not necessary contradictory, as long as Buddhist principles shape, control and restrict the means and aims. Sarvodaya theorists are not divergent to the well-being of the public, other than to the state which takes away individuals initiative.
Therefore, they predict a culture wherein the citizens prepare and fulfill welfare vocation for their well-being, and the duty of state power is restricted to stimulating and cheering them in this responsibility as well as offering assistance when they require it. The Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement believes that access to work is the start of everything. It encourages people to work towards double liberation in the Buddhist sense. Liberating the community from unjust socio-economic conditions in a non-violent way and freeing one’s mind of limitations, by sharing, by doing work and by participating in the holistic development of the community. The movement has a long-term development plan, where there is consideration of peace as an important factor. It points out that the results of the Sri Lanka’s civil war were because of European colonization, and estimates the healing will need some time.
The Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement considers poverty as being a sense of individual and combined inability and awakening must take place through economic, social and political interaction. The movement insists on the interconnectedness of reality and calls for arousal at four levels: the village, the personal, the world and the nation. The idea of awakening has six main dimensions; cultural, moral, spiritual, political and economic there ought to be balanced growth along these dimensions. Personal arousal seen as being interdependent with the awakening of one’s local community, but they both play a part in the further arousal of the nation and finally the world.
The Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement defines development as a task carried out across all sectors: economic, cultural, ecological, social and political.
Even some Buddhist socials disparage on Sorvodaya for being so famous. (K. Swearer, pp. 186) Sorvodaya projects begin with the poorest people and achievements calculated by socio-economic growth in addition to human revolution. It has recognized ten elementary and basic requirements for developing human ability in the Buddhist sense, adequate provision of clean drinking water, a clean and beautiful environment, minimal supplies of clothing, simple housing, adequate and balance nutrition, basic communication facilities, basic health care, holistic education, a minimal supply of energy and satisfaction of intellectual and cultural needs. Economic development for maximization of profit and creating consumer society seen to cause greed, ignorance and desire which in Buddhist thinking leads to suffering. Therefore, sarvodaya’s approach to development is to pursue an alternative, sustainable and simple lifestyle based on reducing material desires to counter consumerism and the resulting widened divide between poor and rich.
Village arousal is one of the most vital parts of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement. The achievement of a thriving society is achievable if villages are developed and autonomy established, and sarvodayas main endeavor is to build up the 23,000 villages of Sri Lanka in which almost 90% of the Sri Lankan people live. The first program was carried out in 100 selected villages in 1966. Gramodaya programme actually has ten components, childhood growth, development of the village infrastructure, and development of incorporated schooling, communication development, applied research and peace work youth work.
Identification of opposing external and internal forces is important before the establishment of a shramadana camp, and elimination of both outer and inner constraints in order for the awakening to take place. Domestic forces might include exploitation, conflict and mistrust amid the residents themselves, whereas outside forces could be truant landowners, intermediaries, moneylenders and traders. Village level mobilization and consultation is an important feature of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement approach to development, therefore it has evolved to a process, known in secular development terminology as participative decision-making. In this process, the removal of the aforementioned constraints to gramodaya and the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement depends on neighboring communities for expansion projects and makes sure that the projects initiated are in accordance with the requirements of the community. The Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement helps villagers with the opportunity to get together to achieve a simple but important goal and those involved receive good karma by assisting each other.
Although enormous numbers of individuals have been turning towards Engaged Buddhism in the recent past, the sparking of many controversies and criticism regarding engaged Buddhism by some Orthodox schools of Buddhism arose terming it as western influenced agenda. Due to such criticism, the pioneers of this movement of Buddhism, like Thich Nhat Hanh have even been facing death threats and have landed in jail as an outcome of their efforts to promote social justice through Buddhism. Even now there are some Buddhist leaders who think that Buddhists ought not to get involved in any such activities which they thing challenges the political establishment.
However, one strong argument that people in favor of engaged Buddhism propose is that we are a part of this world where nobody takes care of each other and we have to come forward to end our miseries and sufferings. It states that one of the most principle motives in Buddha’s teachings have been to end human suffering, so why get practically involved in doing so. One of the activity engaged Buddhism covers is the act of charity, which has been defined as one of the wonderful qualities of people by Buddha. Thus, they argue that they are right in accordance with the basic teachings of Buddha and in fact, the concept of engaged Buddhism has actually been originated from the teachings of Buddha. Moreover, the engaged Buddhism covers the aspect of economic justice, which is also right in accordance with Buddhism. In the words of Buddha, one of the four kinds of happiness people have is economic happiness. This school of thought in Buddhism has embedded Buddhist teachings into the modern world and therefore, has received massive acclaim, not only in Asia but also all over the world.
Rosemary Skinner Keller, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Marie Cantlon. Encyclopedia of women and religion in North America, Volume 3. Indiana University Press, 2006.
Ken H. Jones, Ken Jones. The new social face of Buddhism: a call to action. Wisdom Publications, 2003.
Sallie B. King. Socially Engaged Buddhism. University of Hawaii Press, 2009.
Donald K. Swearer. The Buddhist World of Southeast Asia. SUNY Press, 2010.