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"An Introduction to Engaged Buddhism" by Maia Duerr

26 March 2010

“Socially engaged Buddhism is a dharma practice that flows from the understanding of the complete yet complicated interdependence of all life. It is the practice of the bodhisattva vow to save all beings. It is to know that the liberation of ourselves and the liberation of others are inseparable…It is to see the world through the eye of the Dharma and to respond emphatically and actively with compassion.”
                 (Donald Rothberg and Hozan Alan Senauke, Turning Wheel Summer/Fall 2008)

Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh is credited with coining the phrase “Engaged Buddhism.” During the Vietnam War, he and his community of monks and nuns had to decide what to do when the villages around them were being bombed – should they continue to meditate in their monastery, or should they go out into the streets to help the people who had been hurt? They decided to do both – to help people and to do so in mindfulness.

One of the first organizations dedicated to the practice of engaged Buddhism was the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, founded in 1978. Later, Roshi Bernie Glassman founded the Zen Peacemaker Order, and more recently a number of other engaged Buddhist groups have been established (see the list below).

Engaged Buddhists draw on the teachings of the Buddha to inform their actions on issues such as war, nuclear weapons, poverty, globalization, the criminal justice system, and climate change. A key passage from the Dhammapada states: “In this world, hate never yet dispelled hate. Only love dispels hate.” Thousands of years later, this principle would be echoed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


Thich Nhat Hanh: What is Engaged Buddhism? (10 min) 

Buddhist Peace Delegation Slide Show (6 min 30 sec)

Raising the Ashes - a clip from a film about the Zen Peacemaker’s Bearing Witness retreat at Auschwitz (8 minutes)

Bearing Witness street retreats/interview with Fleet Maull (2 min)

Articles and Interviews

In addition to the articles on this website, visit:

"The Meaning of the Dalai Lama for Today" by Robert Thurman. Shambhala Sun, 2003.

"No Buddhists in Washington?" by Rev. Danny Fisher. Religion Dispatches, Nov. 29, 2009.

"A Profile of Bernie Glassman" by Joan Duncan Oliver. Tricycle Magazine (subscription required: http://www.tricycle.com/feature/bernie-glassmans-excellent-adventure)

"Rules for Engagement" by Kaz Tanahashi. Mountain Record, Vol 17 Issue 4, 1999.

"What’s Buddhist About Socially Engaged Buddhism?" by David Loy. zen-occidental.net, Feb/Mar 2004.


Buddhist Peace Fellowship

Zen Peacemakers

Interdependence Project

Peacemaker Institute

Joanna Macy

Ecological Buddhism: A Buddhist Response to Global Warming

Buddhist Global Relief

Tzu Chi Foundation


Not Turning Away: The Practice of Engaged Buddhism, ed. Susan Moon
(Shambhala Publications, 2004)

An Engaged Spiritual Life: A Buddhist Approach to Transforming Ourselves and the World, Donald Rothberg (Beacon Press, 2006)

Mindful Politics: A Buddhist Guide to Making the World a Better Place, ed. Melvin McLeod (Wisdom Publications, 2006)

Maia Duerr is a writer, editor, anthropologist, and founder of Five Directions Consulting. She practices Zen Buddhism and has worked with the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, Upaya Zen Center, Parallax Press, and the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. She writes The Jizo Chronicles, a blog on Socially Engaged Buddhism, found at http://jizochronicles.wordpress.com/.


Major funding provided by: National Endowment for the Humanities, PBS, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by: the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, the Shinnyo-en Foundation, the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation, the Bumper Foundation, and viewers like you.