Introduction

3 of 5

Inner work, outer work

Engaged Buddhism entails both inner and outer work.  We must change the world, we must change ourselves, and we must change ourselves in order to change the world.  Awareness and compassionate action reinforce each other. In a letter to fellow practitioners, two Dutch Buddhist activists write:

We are learning how necessary personal development is for social change.  The great ideologies have not survived and cannot take us into the new century.  When we think of the world as something we can change without changing ourselves, we will not go very far.

By the same token, an exclusively inner transformation, however profound, is not the end of the trail.  Greed, anger, and delusion—known as the "three poisons" in Buddhism—need to be uprooted in personal lives, but they also have to be dealt with as social and political realities.  Throughout the world today, large-scale systems cause suffering as surely as psychological-spiritual factors cause suffering.  Traditional Buddhism focused on the latter; engaged Buddhism focuses on both.      

Buddhist activists value engagement not only as a potential contribution to the world, but also as a potential instrument of personal development. 

Social action is itself a kind of meditation and can be a great ripener of compassion and equanimity.  Philip Kapleau

Further, wisdom is not authentic unless expressed in action.  Before enlightenment, an old Buddhist metaphor maintains, one's inherent Buddha nature is like a mirror in a box.  For engaged Buddhists, the same image applies to awakening in relation to the world—a mirror functions fully and freely only when it is out of the box. Contemporary Buddhists are therefore looking for models of spirituality that go beyond the solitary meditator as prototype.  The spiritual quest is deeper and richer than a fixed self getting some thing called enlightenment. 

It may even be that the knower, the actor, the 'unit' of enlightenment, is not the single person. Donald Rothberg

Although Buddhist tradition has handed down bountiful descriptions of predominantly inner paths, there are few comparable maps of spiritually motivated involvement in the world.  Initially, many people assume that the "outer" realms are sufficiently visible and familiar not to require a map.  Yet, for those who seek a modern, this-worldly spirituality, the signposts seem scattered, and guidelines are far from self-evident.  As Robert Aitken has acknowledged, "This is a step beyond the monastery walls, uncharted by the old teachers. . . . Not an easy path, certainly."  Given the differences between past and present Buddhists—differences of historical context, religious imagination, and meaningful modes of practice—a new map may be helpful.