Socially engaged Buddhists are Buddhists who are concerned with exploring the significance of the Buddhist tradition in response to contemporary problems such as violence, poverty, discrimination, and ecological crisis. These persons and movements represent an important development within Buddhism and are contributing to new forms of Buddhist practice.
The term "engaged Buddhism" was first coined by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh in the 1960s in the context of war in Vietnam. Not content simply to practice Buddhism in the monastery while remaining detached from the turmoil that his country was experiencing, he stressed instead the need to shine Buddhist insight upon the problems of war and injustice and to find ways to act to relieve suffering. During the war, Thich Nhat Hanh founded the "Order of Interbeing," a religious order made up of monks, nuns, and laypersons committed to engaging in Buddhist principles. He also founded the School of Youth for Social Service. The purpose of the School was to train young people in Buddhist spiritual disciplines and in the skills needed to engage in projects of education, health care, community organizing, and grassroots economic development.
As the war intensified, much of the attention of Thich Nhat Hanh and his followers shifted to relief work, caring for war orphans, and rebuilding villages destroyed by the war. Thich Nhat Hanh was eventually forced into exile. He lives today at Plum Village, a Buddhist community that he founded in rural France. Along with colleagues such as Sister Chan Khong, Thich Nhat Hanh continues to work on behalf of nonviolence, reconciliation, and healing through a worldwide ministry of teaching and retreats.
Another significant proponent of socially engaged Buddhism is Sulak Sivaraksa of Thailand/Siam. He is cofounder of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB), an organization of Buddhists from around the world who are committed to working for peace, social justice, and ecological sustainability both in the global community and in their local settings. Sivaraksa has been active in the quest for political and economic democracy in Thailand. His book Seeds of Peace: A Buddhist Vision for Renewing Society provides an excellent introduction to the central principles of engaged Buddhism.
One of the most well-known grassroots social movements based on engaged Buddhist principles is the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement of Sri Lanka. Founded in 1958 by A. T. Ariyaratne, Sarvodaya Shramadana is a village-based movement that is active in thousands of villages in Sri Lanka. The movement is centered on the activity of voluntary work camps in which persons join together to share their labor for the benefit of their village (digging a well, planting gardens, digging a latrine, etc.). During the work camp, the participants also take part in sessions in which Buddhist-inspired teachings are shared through song and drama and basic Buddhist practices such as lovingkindness meditation are taught. The goal of the movement is a dual one of both personal awakening and social uplift.
Other examples of engaged Buddhist action in Asia include the ongoing struggle against human rights abuses in Tibet and the struggle for democracy in Burma, led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. In the United States, the activities of socially engaged Buddhists have taken a variety of forms. These have included involvement in the peace and environmental movements, efforts to aid the homeless, human rights advocacy, prison ministry, concern for welfare of animals, and the establishment of hospices for the dying.