In the last thirty or so years of Buddhism’s transmission to the West, most practitioners have been preoccupied with the daunting tasks of introducing and strengthening Buddhist forms and practices, developing sanghas, and building buildings. During this period of internal focus, some practitioners have also wondered how to create a Buddhist-based response to external suffering, often drawing on the long-standing traditions of Western social change movements.
Christopher Queen’s new book, Engaged Buddhism in the West, shows us how this initially small and somewhat fringe movement has become a thriving form of Buddhism today—generally known as socially engaged Buddhism. In this companion volume to his earlier Engaged Buddhism (which focused on Asia), Queen and his coauthors present socially engaged Buddhism in its full diversity, complexity and vibrancy.
Socially engaged Buddhism can be difficult to identify. It forms are diverse and characteristically grassroots. The term itself can be vague, with multiple meanings. Yet Engaged Buddhism in the West succeeds in allowing readers to conceptualize it in its totality. This book provides a much needed map, rife with concrete examples of the many manifestations of socially engaged Buddhism throughout the West. It is a tremendous contribution to the field, both as a resource book and a philosophical tool. The bibliography alone is excellent.
Queen reflects the diversity of his subject matter in the structure of the book. He introduces us to individuals (such as Paula Green), grassroots networks (Buddhist Peace Fellowship), charismatic leaders and activists (Thich Nhat Hahn, Joanna Macy), small local groups (Gay Buddhist Fellowship), and Buddhist temples (Toronto Buddhist Church). He describes the variety of approaches that define socially engaged Buddhism: the service work of literacy and immigration projects; the activism of fasting for peace or bearing witness at a nuclear test site; and structural change through the creation of alternative forms such as the Zen Peacemakers Order or the wide array of Buddhist-based prison and hospice projects.
Engaged Buddhism in the West has a global scope. It provides a history of Buddhism in South Africa, Canada, Australia and parts of Europe. Queen sensitively explores both Buddhism’s ethnic and convert communities. Janet McLellan’s essay, “Social Action among Toronto’s Asian Buddhists,” is particularly insightful in describing the experiences of Asian Buddhists living in the West. I appreciated this perspective, since we tend to limit our notion of Buddhism in the West to non-Asian converts, frequently overlooking the many ethnic temples that still comprise the majority of Buddhists in the West today.
Within socially engaged Buddhist circles, many of us are questioning its philosophical and analytical underpinnings, and this book makes an important contribution to that debate as well. Some chapters (“The Angulimala Lineage,” by Parkum and Stultz) look to textual, canonical references for an approach to social problems: “What did the Buddha say?” In other chapters (“New Voices in Engaged Buddhist Studies,” by Ken Kraft), the authors reflect on placing the dharma in the context of contemporary issues: “What would the Buddha have said?”
More significantly, many authors make these questions highly personal and relevant to our lives as practitioners, in that sense merging theory with practice. “Meditate or organize a protest?” “Can spiritually oriented activists make a difference in the high-pressure political world?” When I read these essays, I felt a sense of relief, as if, yes, someone is actually addressing the questions I face all the time in trying to live as a socially engaged Buddhist.
One small disappointment with this book is that some articles can seem excessively scholarly and repetitive. Also, because socially engaged Buddhism is developing almost exponentially, many newer projects have been left out or were created since the book was published. At the very least, however, it stands as a historical marker in time.
In the end, what I found most significant about Engaged Buddhism in the West was that it provided real inspiration to act. I was struck again and again by the sheer variety and vibrancy of expressions of socially engaged Buddhism. My hope is that readers will likewise be inspired to create their own new forms or to get involved with existing ones. I feel tremendous gratitude for the work that is being done around the planet to awaken the compassionate heart to address the political and social crises of our times.