Buddhism: Social Justice | 14
On the surface it would appear that Buddhism would not be a religion that lends itself to taking an active role in social issues, given that at its core is the individual search for individual salvation:
It is imperative, however, to understand that the Buddha set out for his quest for Enlightenment not out of a selfish quest for spiritual fulfilment
but out of compassion and the burning desire to alleviate the suffering of all beings, and it is this fundamental emphasis on compassion that informs and orients the Buddhist sense of social justice.
In the latter part of the 20th century there emerged across the Buddhist world a phenomenon that scholars and Buddhists alike have labelled Engaged Buddhism, a broad and varied movement that addresses issues such as poverty, education, and human rights.
The number of Buddhist organizations addressing economic issues throughout the world has grown tremendously since the middle of the 20th century.
These organizations participate in a staggering range of activities, from those that operate purely on the village level to those with a decidedly international scope.
One of the most interesting modern Buddhist groups to deal with the issue of poverty is Sarvodaya, which began in 1958 with the purpose of addressing social, economic, and environmental issues in Śrī Lanka:
In 1987 Sarvodaya started Sarvodaya Economic Enterprises Development Services (SEEDS), intended explicitly to address poverty and economic issues.
The goals of SEEDS are nothing short of the eradication of poverty, accomplished through developing, at the local and village level, means for sustainable livelihood.
SEEDS provides vocational training, helps local groups develop projects related to agriculture and marketing, assists in technical issues, and provides low-interest loans to help start sustainable projects.
Although this is a movement specific to Śrī Lanka, countless other such movements have emerged in South, Southeast, and East Asia:
For instance, the Metta Dāna Project, based in central Myanmar (Burma), is a similar grassroots organization that focuses not only on poverty but also on health care and educational issues.
Likewise, the Tzu Chi Foundation, in Taiwan, in addition to addressing a large range of social issues, provides a range of charities and economic relief, including home repair, medical aid, food distribution, and funeral assistance.
In India the Karuṇā Trust, formed in 1980 by a group of Western Buddhists, focuses specifically on India’s approximately 6 million formerly untouchable Buddhist converts, sometimes called Dalit Buddhists, providing disaster relief and support for a wide range of economic development projects.
Buddhist education has traditionally been in the monasteries—this is where monks receive their formal education and where laypeople traditionally go to hear dharma talks:
One of the first people to promote a more formal educational system was Henry Steele Olcott, who, along with the Śrī Lankan reformer Anagārika Dharmapāla, established a network of distinctly Buddhist schools in Śrī Lanka in the latter half of the 19th century.
Since then Buddhist schools have been founded, with varying degrees of success, throughout Asia.
One particularly important aspect of this has been the education of women:
As new female monastic movements have emerged across Asia, such groups have focused specifically on the education of girls and young women.
In Taiwan the Fo Kuang Shan movement has been active in Buddhist education, establishing a network of Buddhist schools from primary schools to college.
Buddhist groups specifically concerned with human rights began to draw widespread recognition during the Vietnam War,
when Buddhist monks took an active role in protesting not only American military involvement in Vietnam and Cambodia but also the activities of the communist governments in those countries.
One particularly prominent figure in this movement has been Thich Nhat Hanh, an outspoken monk who left Vietnam in 1966 and took up residence in France, where he has continued to be an important voice:
He is the founder of Plum Village, a Buddhist retreat that promotes a cross-cultural, interdenominational appreciation of human life.
Buddhist human rights activists have been particularly active in Myanmar (Burma) and Tibet.
The Free Burma Coalition (FBC), for instance, is an umbrella organization that was founded in 1995 by a group of Burmese and American graduate students to address human rights violations by Myanmar’s military.
FBC is associated with the National League for Democracy, a group that has been led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1991 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
FBC is a large network, particularly active on the Internet, of activists, dissident academics in exile, labour groups, and refugees, all working to ensure the protection of human rights in Myanmar’s highly volatile political climate.
Tibet has been an even more consistent focus of human rights groups since the 1950s and the exile of the Dalai Lama to India:
In part motivated by the Dalai Lama himself, numerous groups in the West and in Tibet have worked to monitor and protect human rights in that country
by organizing pro tests, mounting letter-writing campaigns, appealing to foreign governments for political and economic pressure, and so on.
Prominent Buddhist organizations such as Soka Gakkai and Fo Kuang Shan in East Asia are also actively engaged in human rights issues, as are countless distinctly Buddhist human rights organizations and movements throughout Asia and the West.