Introduction

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Engaged Buddhism's new questions

Engaged Buddhism . . . an international movement whose participants seek to apply the Buddhist ideals of wisdom and compassion to present-day social, political, and environmental issues.

The process of reconnoitering spiritual paths continues today, as exemplified by recent developments in engaged Buddhism. Although traditional Buddhism has typically given priority to the spiritual liberation of the individual, engaged Buddhists look for ways to expand the notion of spiritual liberation to other arenas (without abandoning the essential role of individual enlightenment).  How might awakening be interpreted in social and political terms, to embrace families, nations, or all people?  How can it be interpreted in environmental terms, to embrace animals, plants, or ecosystems? 

Just to be able to discuss such possibilities requires new language.  Some recent coinages are thought-provoking even without their definitions: a culture of awakening, the politics of enlightenment, enlightened society, ecological awakening, eco-karma. 

Indian Buddhists once asked, "How do I leave the world?" Contemporary Buddhists ask, "How do I heal the world?  If I cannot responsibly leave the world, how do I follow a spiritual path in the world?"  Such questions lead to new forms of practice. For example, ordinary activities are reframed as conducive to spiritual development.  In East Asia, Zen monks have long viewed manual labor as a vital aspect of training and an expression of insight.  There is no spiritual affair loftier than "carrying water and gathering wood."  In the West today, comparably mundane activities include grocery shopping, studying, driving to work, and so on. Can such tasks be transformed by the alchemy of intention and awareness into modes of self-realization and compassionate service? 

When people talk about war
   I vow with all beings
to raise my voice in the chorus
and speak of original peace.

Zen teacher Robert Aitken, in a recent book, composed a series of four-line verses based on everyday situations.  Each poem, in the form of a vow, serves as a reminder to practice more deeply. 

An appendix of nearly three hundred "occasions for practice" confirms the inclusive spirit of the enterprise: indexed entries range from "check my face in the mirror" and "nastiness" to "car keys" and "tire blows out." This approach departs from the Indian Buddhist view that mundane existence is a form of bondage.  While some schools of Buddhism advocate a single type of practice as sufficient and all-encompassing, Aitken and other engaged Buddhists assert that in today's world, spiritual practice needs to be flexible, diverse, and inventive.