Socially Engaged Buddhists and Nekorpa

Nekorpa’s Executive Director, Matteo Pistono, sits on the Executive Council of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB). INEB held its 20th Anniversary Conference near Chiang Mai, Thailand, in mid November 2009. Over 300 delegates attended the conference representing most South, South East and East Asian countries, as well as Australia, South Africa the United States, Holland, Belgium and the United Kingdom.

Ajan Sulak Sivaraksa

INEB came into being in 1989 on a river boat in the central Thai town of Uthai Thani when Thai social activist and writer Ajan Sulak Sivaraksa gathered a small circle of like-minded friends, Buddhist practitioners and activists from Asia and the West. Ajan Sulak proposed a vision that a network of individuals and organizations could be formed that took human relationship as the fulcrum for personal, as well as societal, transformation. Thus a network of socially engaged Buddhists was born. It was a time when the Dalai Lama was about to enter the world stage by winning the Nobel Peace Prize. A few years later, Aung San Suu Kyi, with her Buddhist background and practice would also be awarded the Nobel Prize. Still, at that time, socially engaged Buddhism was very little known or understood.

While the roots of socially engaged Buddhism may be found in the teachings and actions of the Buddha himself and other great teachers of the past, socially engaged Buddhism can be understood principally as a movement that began in the late 19th century as a response to western colonialism in Asia. It may be most well known through its political movements, such as the struggles by the Tibetan, Burmese, and Vietnamese Buddhists for political self-determination, democracy, and peace. At the same time, socially engaged Buddhism has flowered over the last thirty years to encompass a vast range of issues, including the environment, gender, development, death and dying, alternative education, among others.

Taking their patrons of the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh as examples, INEB believes that it is not sufficient to simply state that one is an engaged Buddhist because one is involved with society and happens to be a Buddhist as well. Rather, engaged Buddhists critically and creatively use the Buddha Dharma to transform themselves and the active role in their societies. The conference in Chang Mai was testament to the efforts of INEB to develop creative responses to today’s challenges, including engaging with those of all faith and non-believers in the spirit of cooperation, compassion, and non-harming.

Attendees at the conference reflected, critiqued, and celebrated the work of the last two decades, while also further developing and planning a vision for the next decades – one that emphasizes the transformation of not just the individual, but their relationships, communities, and organizations. The strongest quality of the conference is that it is not an academic discussion. Rather, it is a platform for dialogue among Buddhist scholars, ordained monks and nuns, social activists, thinkers, community leaders and grassroots leaders.

“This interplay of spiritual practice, social action, and developing human relationships is the key to INEB’s work, and to the conference,” said Jonathan Watts, an INEB Executive Council member who works at the International Buddhist Exchange Center in Yokohama.

The conference’s week and half of activities included a three-day meditation retreat, talks and panels, national and issue based strategy sessions, cultural evenings at Suan Dok Temple, an international alms round collecting money and medicine for Burmese refugees, a day-long festival of engaged Buddhism, and an evening peace walk through the canal-lined and market streets of Chiang Mai. Action plans were made for the coming years on key INEB issues including:

  • Advancing peace and reconciliation
  • Supporting human rights and social justice activist
  • Combating climate change and environmental degradation
  • Developing alternative economic models
  • Promoting youth and spiritual leadership development
  • Supporting gender justice, including the full ordination of Buddhist women and the dismantling of patriarchal structures and culture.
  • Encouraging inter-religious and ecumenical work
  • Reforming and revitalizing Buddhist institutions
  • Engaging in social justice work in nations and regions of critical concern such as Burma, Tibet, Sri Lanka, Korea, and so forth.

Hozan Alan Senauke, a long-time INEB member and organizer, summarized the collective and personal aims of INEB at the concluding peace march in Chang Mai, “These concerns, wherever they arise in the world, are our concerns. They are close to our hearts. In the Buddha’s way and in the way of every great religion, we know that we must meet this suffering not with faith alone, but with all our efforts and action day by day.”

The Kyoto Journal featured the conference in a photo essay by Bhanuwat Jittivuthikorn.

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