The Worldliness of Buddhism

Donald K. Swearer

  Despite Buddhism's growing presence in the West, most Americans
 still badly misunderstand this ancient world religion. The leaders of
 Philadelphia's Thai community were rudely reminded of this unpleasant
 fact during the 1980s when they set out to buy land for a Buddhist temple
 and monastery not far from the City of Brotherly Love. After searching
 nearly a year, the Thais were delighted to find a lovely 10-acre site
 overlooking a lake in southeastern Pennsylvania's Chester County. All
 that was needed was the local zoning board's permission to use the site
 for religious purposes.
 Arriving on the appointed day for their hearing before the board, the
 group's leaders were surprised to find an angry, standing-room-only crowd
 packing the room. One after another during the long evening, impassioned
 residents rose to vent their fears about the Buddhists' plans. A Buddhist
 presence would destroy the community's Christian and American values,
 some speakers said. Others worried that proselytizing Buddhists would
 brainwash their sons and daughters and lure them into esoteric religious
 practices. Buddhism to these Americans was barely distinguishable from
 the Hare Krishnas and other cults, an exotic threat to their world. The
 dismayed Thais immediately withdrew their application. No one had asked
 them about their intentions or aspirations. Nor did it seem likely that
 anyone would.
 Unfortunately, the opponents of the Buddhist temple in Chester
 County were no worse informed about the nature of Buddhism than most
 other Americans. To be sure, the view of Buddhism as a mystical
 religion far removed from the realities of the workaday world has
 been a major part of the faith's appeal in the West. Yet whether this
 picture of Buddhism-as-esoteric-religion is
 seen in a negative or positive light, it is still a flawed and
 one-dimensional portrait. It is a portrait, however, with a long
 history. Some of the earliest Western explicators of Buddhism,
 such as W. Y. Evans-Wentz in Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrine (1935) and
 Alexandra David-Neel in Magic and Mystery in Tibet (1929), painted
 Tibetan Buddhism in shades of the exotic and esoteric. During the
 1950s, D. T. Suzuki's depiction of Zen Buddhism as antirational and
 iconoclastic had great appeal to Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac (author
 of The Dharma Bums [1958]), and other members of the Beat
 Generation. The appeal spilled over into the counterculture movement,
 which made books such as Alan Watt's Way of Zen (1957) and Herman Hesse's
 Siddhartha (1922; translation 1951) part of the young's standard
 equipment. Today, Buddhism is probably personified for most people
 by the Dalai Lama and celebrity followers such as actor Richard
 Gere. (That is only the beginning: the Dalai Lama is featured in two
 upcoming Hollywood movies.)
 The view of Buddhism held by many Westerners is one-sided, but
 not totally without foundation. From its very beginning some 2,500 years
 ago, there has been within Buddhism a tension between the this-worldly
 and the other-worldly. This tension was at the heart of many early
 doctrinal controversies about such matters as the nature of Nirvana,
 the purpose of monastic life, and the character of the relationship
 between monks and the laity. Its origins go back to the life of the
 founder, Siddhartha Gautama, known as the Buddha, or the Enlightened
 Buddhism emerged in what is now southern Nepal during the sixth
 century B.C.E. The traditional dates of the Buddha's life are 563-483
 B.C.E., although some modern scholars place his lifetime more
 than 100 years later. It was a time of unusual upheaval and change
 throughout the world, as the widespread adoption of iron tools
 and weapons revolutionized farming and warfare. During the Buddha's
 lifetime, the vast plains of northern India nourished by the
 Ganges River and its tributaries were being remade. The region's
 thick forests were disappearing as an expanding population claimed more
 and more land for paddy rice and other cultivated crops. New towns
 and cities sprang up, and with them came a radically new political order
 as powerful rulers absorbed the region's many small, autonomous
 states into larger kingdoms and empires. The Buddha himself lived to
 see the land of his clan, the Sakyas, overrun by another kingdom,
 which itself later fell to an even larger empire.
 Elsewhere in the ancient world, similar changes were bringing forth
 other thinkers and prophets, from Confucius and Lao-tse in China to
 Thales, Heraclitus, and other pre-Socratics in Greece. In India,
 the Buddha and other mendicant truth seekers--including Makkhali Gosala
 and Mahavira, the respective founders of the Ajavikas and the
 Jains--attracted small groups of disciples who followed an informal
 code of religious discipline and shared many of the same religious
 concepts. They set themselves against the dominant Brahmanism,
 which elevated a priestly caste to prominence. The charismatic
 challengers, although not revered as divine, were honored both for their
 teachings and for magical feats achieved through the disciplines of
 yoga, meditation, and asceticism.
 Solid facts about the Buddha's life are scarce. The earliest sacred
 biographies, such as the Buddhacarita (The acts of the
 Buddha), written in the second century B.C.E., are mostly myth and
 legend. Buddhism's many different traditions have different versions
 of the Buddha story, and there even are variations within each
 In the version accepted by Theravada Buddhists, who are
 predominant in Southeast Asia, the Buddha was born Prince Siddhartha
 Gautama, the son of the ruler of the Sakya clan in the foothills of the
 Himalayas. Shortly after his birth, eight learned fortunetellers
 predicted that Siddhartha would become either a universal,
 world-conquering monarch or a fully enlightened Buddha. Distressed at
 the prospect that his son might not succeed him, Siddhartha's father
 surrounded him with material pleasures and possessions. At the
 age of 16 the prince married, and his father built him three splendid
 palaces, one for each season, where he was attended by servants and
 concubines and no less than 40,000 dancing girls. During the next 17
 years, according to legendary accounts, Siddhartha was "wholly
 given over to pleasure."
 The story takes a dramatic turn when the prince encounters a
 decrepit old man, a grievously ill man, a corpse, and finally an
 ascetic. These experiences threw Siddhartha into despair. His palace,
 "as splendid as the palace of the chief of the gods, began to seem
 like a charnal ground filled with dead bodies and the three modes of
 existence [past, present, future] like houses of fire." He vowed to
 live the life of a wandering ascetic in a quest for an eternal truth
 beyond the transient truths of ordinary sense perception and beyond
 the inexorable realities of aging, sickness, and death. For six years
 he wandered northern India with five disciples (one of whom was one of
 the original eight fortunetellers). To no avail, he studied the
 teachings of the great philosophers and masters of yoga and practiced
 extreme forms of renunciation and asceticism, at times living on a
 single grain of rice per day, at others going completely without
 food. These years, says one Buddhist text, "were like time spent in
 endeavoring to tie the air into knots.'' Finally, after he collapsed
 during a long fast and was given up for dead by his followers, the
 Buddha abandoned this path.
 After he regained his health, the Buddha seated himself beneath a
 tree and resolved not to rise until he had found enlightenment. To
 achieve it he was forced to confront Mara, the lord of the senses, who is
 strongly associated with death. Again, accounts of this epoch battle
 between good and evil vary, but in the end Siddhartha defeats the hosts
 his foe sends against him, calling on the power of Mother Earth to
 defend himself. He spends the rest of the night in deep meditation,
 finally attaining insight into the nature of suffering, its cause and
 its cessation--a state of understanding and equanimity called
 Nirvana. The tradition dates this event to 528 B.C.E., and the
 Buddha's first words uttered after his enlightenment have been passed
 down in poetry and legend:
 Long have I wandered; Long bound by the chain of life.
 Through many births I have sought in vain
 The builder of this house [mind and body].
 Suffering is birth again and again.
 O housemaker [craving], I now see you!
 You shall not build this house again.
 Broken are all your rafters,
 Your roof beam destroyed.
 My mind has attained the unconditioned,
 And reached the end of all craving.
          The Buddha's victory represents the core teaching of early Buddhism:
 suffering and death can be overcome only when ignorance and desire have
 been put aside. This message was encapsulated in the Buddha's first
 post-enlightenment teaching, Setting the Wheel of the Truth in Motion.
 This discourse, delivered to his five disciples at what is now the
 Deer Park in the holy city of Benares, enumerated the Four Noble
 Truths: that life's pleasures and satisfactions are ultimately
 unsatisfactory or unfulfilling, that this sense of dissatisfaction is
 rooted in selfish attachment and greed based on an erroneous
 perception of ego; that a deeper sense of purpose and meaning
 (Nirvana) is achieved when the false sense of ego is transcended, and
 that the way to this saving knowledge is by means of the Noble
 Eightfold Path. The Path's eight elements are right understanding,
 right intention, right speech, right conduct, right vocation, right
 effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
 Before the five followers would accept his teaching, however, the
 Buddha had to persuade them that in casting off his life as an ascetic
 he had not merely embraced its opposite, a life of pleasure. The
 path to enlightenment, he told them, required following a Middle Way,
 avoiding the extremes of self-mortification and
 self-indulgence. The Middle Way is a life of simplicity, not discomfort.
 When the skeptical disciples finally accepted the Buddha's teaching they
 became the first members of the sangha, or religious order. They,
 too, eventually became, like the Buddha himself, arhat (perfected
 ones), though their enlightenment was not the equal of the full and
 perfect enlightenment of the Buddha.
 Soon the sangha had 60 members, all of whom traveled to spread the
 Buddha's teaching within an area of perhaps 200 square miles in northern
 India, and all of whom became arhat. Their leader himself spent 45 years
 as a mendicant teacher. According to Buddhist accounts, he attracted
 followers from many social classes and walks of life, including
 merchants, aristocrats, and even ascetics such as the great yogi
 Kasyapa, whom the Buddha converted through feats of
 levitation and clairvoyance. After some debate, the Buddha reluctantly
 allowed women to undertake the monastic life. Mahaprajapati, who
 was the Buddha's aunt as well as his stepmother, became the first
 Buddhist nun.
 The Western scholars and travelers who took up the study of
 Buddhism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were enthralled by
 this story of the Buddha's renunciation and enlightenment. In
 their writings they implicitly contrasted Buddhism with the
 faith-based theism of Christianity, portraying it as a rational
 religious philosophy pursued through a quiet life of renunciation and
 meditation. A few of these early observers emphasized the more
 mystical and esoteric aspects of Buddhism, but they shared with other
 Westerners a focus on what the famed German sociologist Max Weber called
 religious "virtuosos''--the Buddhist monks who performed heroic feats of
 fasting and meditation in pursuit of absolute truth.
 It is largely because of these earlier writers, especially Weber,
 that the West has acquired a skewed portrait of Buddhism as a
 world-denying religion. Idealizing the sangha as a company of
 renouncers, they tended to dismiss the everyday devotional Buddhism of
 the faith's many ordinary adherents--including such things as
 their veneration of the sangha and of Buddha images and relics--as a
 corrupt form of Buddhism that arose as illiterate peasants throughout
 Asia embraced the faith after the Buddha's death. In these writers'
 hands, Buddhism was made to appear a faith virtually without historical,
 sociological, and political dimensions.
 But the "worldliness'' of Buddhism may be said to have begun
 with the Buddha himself. He was, after all, a man of considerable
 charisma who worked ceaselessly after his enlightenment to show
 others the way to the truth. Among his most important early supporters
 were local kings and nobles in northern India, men who had been
 moved by his words and deeds, such as King Bimbisara, the ruler of the
 kingdom of Magadha.
 The Buddha himself is said to have warned his followers on more
 than one occasion against worshiping him. In the Samyutta-Nikaya, he
 sends away an overly attentive disciple named Vatkali, saying "What
 good to you is this body of filth? He who sees the dharma [teachings]
 sees me.'' Yet in his own lifetime the Buddha received generous
 offerings from devoted lay followers, and veneration of his
 bodily relics may have begun immediately after his death
 (apparently from dysentery) and cremation in 483 B.C.E. According to
 Buddhist sources, the Buddha's cremated remains were divided among
 eight Indian rulers, who enshrined them in reliquary mounds (stupas) in
 their kingdoms. Legend also recounts that King Asoka, who ruled Magadha
 from about 273 to 232 B.C.E. and eventually extended his
 dominion--and the influence of Buddhism--over much of the Indian
 subcontinent, re-enshrined these relics at 84,000 locations
 throughout India. As Buddhism later spread throughout Asia, ever more
 elaborate and beautiful stupas were built.
 The cult of stupas was one of the earliest forms of Buddhist
 devotional religion. The stupa not only symbolized the Buddha but in a
 magical sense made him present. Freestanding images of the Buddha
 that began to appear as early as the first century B.C.E. served a
 similar purpose. In his own lifetime, the Blessed One and the
 sangha received offerings from their lay followers, who came not only to
 hear religious teachings but hoping to gain some boon or benefit--if not
 in this life then in some future one. After his death, pilgrims
 traveled to the stupas in order to be in his presence, bringing
 offerings of incense, flowers, and material goods. Monks, who were
 originally respected chiefly as teachers of the Buddha's dharma,
 came to be revered as representatives of his sacred wisdom
 and repositories of his power. They, too, were showered with offerings by
 hopeful laypeople.
 Ordinary religious practice developed along different lines in
 different countries, but it generally combines a concern with
 otherworldly affairs with a very ordinary interest in such things as
 good health and good crops. The faithful may worship at home before
 their own shrines and at weekly temple rituals. Throughout the
 Buddhist world, ceremonies and festivals mark major events such as
 the lunar New Year, Buddha's Day, and changes in the agricultural
 cycle. Some holidays are unique to certain locales or specially attuned
 to local tastes. Chinese, Korean, and Japanese Buddhists honor their
 ancestors during All Souls feasts. In Tibet, the new year festival
 includes a ritual exorcism of evil; in Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand,
 an image of the Buddha is paraded through the streets in hopes of
 ensuring the onset of the monsoon rains. A day at a temple fair with
 the raucous noise of hawkers and entertainers would convince most
 outsiders that Buddhism is not all about withdrawal and meditation.
 These rituals, ceremonies, and festivals elevate life from the
 mundane and give meaning to the seemingly random nature of human
 experience by connecting it to a Buddhist narrative framework.
 Buddhism also helps to define social ethics for laypeople, upholding the
 virtues of generosity and loving kindness toward humans and animals
 and placing a high value on honesty and uprightness. All Buddhists are
 expected to embrace the Five Precepts--which forbid killing,
 stealing, lying, adultery, and the consumption of alcohol. From the
 renunciant elements of Buddhist practice comes an emphasis on the
 values of simplicity, equanimity, and nonviolence. These values are
 not confined to the monastery. Lose your temper in a 20th-century Chiang
 Mai market, and ordinary Thais will soothe you with the words jai-yen
 (literally, have a cool head).
 While Buddhists have evolved various conceptions of salvation,
 early Buddhism did not look for release in an eternal hereafter. The
 Buddhist conception of existence is cyclical, with escape from the pain
 of worldly existence possible only for those who attain Nirvana after
 many lifetimes of effort. In Buddhism there is rebirth but no
 reincarnation. The Buddha taught that the idea of a self or soul is
 an illusion (a teaching that has caused endless debate among his
 followers). What is reborn is a consciousness conditioned by the sum
 of all past actions, or karma.
 Buddhism's concern with earthly affairs began, in a sense, at the
 top. As it spread through Asia during the centuries after the
 Buddha's death, it owed much of its success to the support of powerful
 kings, many of whom were attracted to Buddhism because it provided a
 cosmological scheme legitimating a powerful, centralized rule, a scheme
 rooted in a cyclical view of history. In the golden age, a
 universal monarch presided over a realm free from poverty, violence,
 and wrongdoing. But in a world marked by strife, hostility, and
 greed, kings must maintain order in the secular realm, by force if
 necessary, while the sangha presides over spiritual life and guides
 monarchs to further the welfare of their subjects.
 Probably not by accident, many of the important legends concerning
 kingship date from about the time of Buddhism's most famous royal patron,
 King Asoka. In about 264 b.c.e. Asoka conquered Kalinga, the most
 powerful kingdom in India still independent of his rule, but was so
 appalled by the horrors his armies had inflicted on the Kalingans that
 he embraced the Buddha's teaching of nonviolence and compassion. Asoka
 became convinced that the only true conquest was not by force of arms
 but by the force of the teachings of religion. If his heirs should also
 become conquerors, he wrote, "they should take pleasure in patience and
 gentleness, and regard as (the only true) conquest the conquest won by
 Asoka himself may not have been a practicing Buddhist, but there is
 no doubt that he was an active supporter of the faith. He
 generously subsidized the monastic order and did much to aid the spread
 of Buddhism. He was, by all accounts, a wise and humane ruler,
 and tolerant of other faiths (as were many later Buddhist rulers). On
 rocks and stone pillars he erected throughout the lands under his
 control--a number of them still standing--he engraved edicts
 extolling virtuous behavior, commending specific Buddhist texts,
 and encouraging his subjects to make the pilgrimage to Bodh-Gaya, the
 Buddha's birthplace.
 A religion that lives by royal patronage can also die without it.
 Little more than 50 years after King Asoka's death in 232 B.C.E., when
 his empire passed into the hands of Hindu successors, Buddhism began to
 wane in the land of its birth. It would revive under royal patronage,
 but after the 10th century c.e. its last lights in India would flicker
 out under the combined assaults of a resurgent Hinduism and invasions by
 the followers of Muhammad.
 Throughout Asia, the relationship between state and
 sangha would be vitally important to Buddhism's condition. In north
 China, Buddhism flourished until the Northern Wei emperor decreed in 446
 c.e. that all Buddhist temples and stupas were to be destroyed. The
 religion was later revived but fell again after 846 when a T'ang
 imperial edict led to the destruction of some 4,600
 monasteries and 40,000 temples and forced more than 260,000 monks and
 nuns to return to lay life. Buddhism by then was too thoroughly
 integrated into Chinese life to disappear, but it would never regain
 the vibrancy it had once enjoyed. Today, in other parts of Asia, the
 state's role remains important, for better and for worse. In Thailand,
 Buddhism flourishes as the state religion, while in Cambodia, the
 faith is still recovering from Pol Pot's murderous assault on monks and
 religious institutions.
 Asoka's patronage, however, was especially important in the history
 of Buddhism, for he not only sustained the faith at an important
 point in its development but spread it far beyond his own borders.
 According to Buddhist accounts, two of his children brought Buddhism to
 Sri Lanka, and another carried it to Central Asia. It was chiefly from
 Sri Lanka, especially around the 12th century c.e., that Buddhism
 spread to Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, and Vietnam. But
 Buddhism also traveled by many other routes. Central Asia became a major
 center of Buddhism by the first century c.e., and from there the
 faith spread along the Silk Road and into China and Korea. It also
 traveled from India across the Bay of Bengal to the region around
 Thailand. It was a two-way traffic. Pilgrims also journeyed to India
 from China and other far-flung regions in search of knowledge from
 the source.
 They did not always find the same Buddhism--and for good reasons:
 the Buddha's teachings were not even written down until several centuries
 after his death, and sanghas existed in widely scattered locales, many
 nurturing their own distinctive interpretations and producing their
 own texts. Tradition has it that there were 18 different schools of
 Buddhism in these early days. But the main division, arising as early
 as the first century B.C.E., separated Hinayana Buddhists and
 reformist Mahayana Buddhists, who took for themselves the mantle of
 "Greater Vehicle,'' sticking their rivals with the "Lesser Vehicle''
 There are within these great schools many lesser divisions.
 Theravada Buddhism, with roots in the Hinayana tradition embraced and
 transmitted by Asoka, is predominant in Southeast Asia. Mahayana Buddhism
 includes many schools--including Zen in China, Korea, Vietnam, and Japan,
 and Vajrayana in Tibet, and Jodo Shin Shu (or the Pure Land) in
 The Theravada-Mahayana division has its origins partly in
 disagreements over the all-important rules of conduct governing monks,
 and partly in disputes over the meaning of certain Buddhist
 teachings about the nature of the self and the Buddha. Theravada
 Buddhists are said to be "original'' Buddhists in that they adhere to the
 notion of the historical Buddha and the faith's early emphasis on monks
 striving for enlightenment. Mahayana Buddhism offers a more metaphysical
 reading of the Buddha, placing more emphasis on his previous lives as
 bodhisattva, or aspirant to Buddhahood. Many interpreters insist
 that Mahayana Buddhism makes the prospect of achieving Buddahood more
 of a possibility for laypeople as well as monks, and that it
 encourages all Buddhists, as bodhisattvas, to work for the
 liberation of other people, just as the Buddha did. But this distinction
 is debatable. What can be safely said is that Mahayana Buddhism blurs
 the distinction between monk and laity far more than classical
 Theravada did.
 Everywhere it took root, Buddhism assumed a different
 coloration, engaging the world as it adapted to local cultures and
 religious practices. In many places, relatively simple and unorganized
 animistic faiths prevailed, offering relatively little resistance to
 Buddhism. In Thailand Buddhism encountered the phi, in Myanmar the
 cult of nats. In Tibet, a form of Tantric Buddhism (itself related to
 mystical Hindu Tantrism) that arrived in the 8th century c.e.
 blended with the local Bsn shamanism, creating a unique form of
 Buddhism. By the end of the 16th century, Tibet had become a Buddhist
 theocracy ruled by the Dalai (great ocean) Lama (teacher), revered as an
 incarnation of Avolokitesvara, the kingdom's protective deity. The
 current Dalai Lama is the 14th in this line.
 Buddhism was most profoundly altered in China, Korea, and Japan,
 where Mahayana Buddhists faced well-established and sophisticated
 doctrines. In all of these countries, the monastic structure of
 Indian Buddhism gradually yielded to a more laity-based religious
 practice. In China, for example, Buddhism clashed with the secular,
 pragmatic doctrines of the Confucian elite, who could hardly have seen
 the "otherworldly'' Buddhist pursuit of enlightenment and Nirvana as
 anything but alien and threatening. The withdrawal of monks from family
 and society, their dependence on others for their support, and their
 claims of independence from worldly government all cut distinctly
 against the Confucian grain. Chinese Taoism, too, with its emphasis on
 the living and on achieving harmony with the forces of nature, did not
 readily give way before Buddhism. So Buddhism in its many forms
 accommodated itself to China, attaching itself to existing
 doctrines where it could and adapting in other cases. In the
 meditative traditions that developed in India, for example, enlightenment
 is a goal realized only after many lifetimes of arduous practice under
 great teachers, while in the most authentically Chinese forms of Zen,
 enlightenment is a sudden, spontaneous experience.
 The coming of Western colonialism and Christianity
 beginning in the 16th century cast a pall over the Buddhist world. In Sri
 Lanka, for example, by the time the Portuguese were expelled (by the
 Dutch) in 1658, some 150 years after their arrival, only five ordained
 Buddhist monks remained. In places where the Westerners were less
 zealous in their efforts to convert those they conquered or where other
 circumstances were more auspicious, Buddhism fared better, but only
 Thailand and Japan completely escaped colonization.
 By the 19th century, resistance to colonial rule in many Asian
 nations was beginning to coalesce around a new Buddhist nationalism.
 In 1918, the leaders of the Young Men's Buddhist Association in
 Rangoon used the British colonials' refusal to remove their shoes when
 entering Buddhist pagodas to launch a campaign for Burma's independence.
 The country's first leader after independence in 1948, prime minister
 U Nu, saw himself in the tradition of the classical Buddhist kings, and
 like other Buddhist nationalists often evoked Asoka's name. Before he
 was displaced in a 1962 coup, he tried to create a Buddhist socialism
 under which the basic material needs of all citizens would be met by the
 state, freeing them to pursue higher spiritual ends. Today many Buddhist
 monks risk prison or death to publicly support Nobel Peace Prize
 winner Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the democracy movement that
 struggles against the military dictatorship established after U Nu.
 To Americans, modern Buddhism's engagement with the world was most
 memorably demonstrated in South Vietnam, where Buddhist protesters
 helped bring down the corrupt Ngo Dinh Diem regime in 1963. That year,
 the Venerable Thich Quang-Duc, one of many politically active Buddhist
 monks, set himself on fire in Saigon to protest the Diem regime's
 anti-Buddhist policies, an event engraved in the world's
 consciousness by photojournalist Malcolm Browne's famous photograph.
 The mobilization of Vietnam's Buddhist monks during the war years
 helped lay the foundation for a new kind of Buddhist involvement in the
 During the past four decades, an international, ecumenical
 Buddhism has emerged, led by a trio of remarkable men. The chief
 inspiration for the worldwide "engaged Buddhist'' movement, as it
 is known, has been Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen master and founder
 of the Tiep Hien Order of Interbeing, an international
 organization of laypeople, monks, and nuns headquartered at Plum
 Village, a meditation retreat in southern France. Sulak Sivaraksa, a
 Thai layman, has led efforts to fight rural poverty, prostitution,
 AIDS, and drug abuse in his native country--often battling the Thai
 government as well--and is the founder of the International Network
 of Engaged Buddhists. The groups in this alliance are transforming a
 monastery-based religion into a force against environmental
 degradation and the economic pressures that are destroying the
 social and cultural fabric of many developing countries. While friendly
 to Christianity and other faiths of the West, the leaders of this
 movement are critical of traditional Western views of nature and Western
 The world's most widely recognized representative of engaged
 Buddhism is plainly the Dalai Lama. Living in exile in the northern
 Indian city of Dharamsala, where he fled two years after communist China
 occupied Tibet in 1957, he has gained worldwide stature. He
 lectures around the world on human rights, economic justice, and
 environmental protection, and challenges the international
 community to bring pressure to bear on China to end its policies of
 ethnic cleansing and ecological and cultural genocide in Tibet.
 Accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, the Dalai Lama
 dispelled any sense one might have of Buddhism as solely an
 otherworldly religion. His speech included concrete proposals for
 Tibet and the world, including the demilitarization of his native
 country and a ban on the manufacture, testing, and
 stockpiling of nuclear weapons around the world--a ban that is
 coming closer to realization every day. His was not the speech of a
 monk locked away from the world in a meditative trance. Indeed, he closed
 his address with a short prayer that exemplifies the Buddhist spirit of
 engagement with the world:
 For as long as space endures,
 And for as long as living beings remain,
 Until then may I, too, abide
 To dispel the misery of the world.
          Engaged Buddhism thus joins a long and honorable roll of Buddhisms
 that have been born during the more than 2,500 years since the nativity
 of the founder. It is this very heterodoxy and diversity--so extreme
 that not all Buddhists bow to the same Buddha--that have proved to be
 the faith's great strength over the centuries.
    Reprinted from the Spring 1997 Wilson Quarterly
 This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for
 compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the
 author. For further reprint information, please contact
 Permissions, The Wilson Quarterly, One Woodrow Wilson Plaza, 1300
 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C. 20004-3027 (202-691-4200).