Exploring the Method of Socially Engaged Buddhism

by Jonathan Watts, Think Sangha Coordinator, Source: INEB, The Buddhist Channel, Dec 13, 2005

Bangkok, Thailand -- Here’s a question to entertain: Are Buddhist teachings (like not-self or emptiness) ideas and concepts to be understood OR practices and methods in which to engage? After answering, then ask yourself: What’s the difference if I answer one way or the other?

Issue vs. Method

Most of our projects, meetings and life activities focus on a single issue, in social work this might be globalization, violence, environment, etc.. While it is important to provide a focus, we also have a tendency to become more rooted in the issue and ideological positions surrounding it, rather than rooting ourselves in the human relationships from which the issue evolves.

In the over emphasis on ideology, we tend to become blind to the central importance of methods – that is how we go about actually confronting the issue. A typical situation may occur where an organization espouses a progressive agenda (environmentalism, gender equality, etc.), yet is unaware or unable to face the unprogressive means or methods it uses to confront the issue (their own authoritarian and/or patriarchal organizational sturcture).

Because the focus is on ideology, most of us cannot comprehend the essential importance of method much less the power of embracing and developing multiple methodologies. In the end, arguments and divisions tend to occur between groups, because individuals not only cling to their ideological positions but also to one preferred method. From a Buddhist standpoint, we might understand this point from the Buddha’s core teaching of the four types of clinging (upadana) which not only include views or ideologies (ditthi) but also rules or methods (sila). Further, various Buddhist metaphors indicate the essential importance of remaining open to new ways of seeing and acting in the world, such as “dharma” as any manifestation of truth, the 84,000 dharma doors, and the thousand armed Avalokiteshvara.

A central theme of all Think Sangha work since its inception in 1997 has been to develop creative ways to apply Buddhist ideas to modern problems. Our project work over the last three years has made an important step forward in this work – for the first time we were able to discover a method in which the contemplative social theorists and the grassroots social activists in our sangha could understand each other more clearly and collaborate more directly. In short, this method is a three part process of story telling- structural analysis – ethical praxis [for details, see: http://www.bpf.org/tsangha/tsm03report/longreport.html].

In this way, our 4 th International Think Sangha Meeting held from February 20-25 focused on further developing this work by exploring and experiencing the different approaches and methods of the participants to their work. We came together as seventeen from Tibet, India, Sri Lanka, the United States, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Australia, and Korea; a mix of teachers, academics, community organizers, NGO workers, monks, nuns, and generally, socially engaged Buddhist activists. The focus of the program was on how we do our work rather than the issue we are working on. The ultimate goal was to learn from each other in an experiential way in order to develop a wider and richer repertoire of skills and abilities for applying to our own non-violent Buddhist social change activities.

In keeping with this focus on process and method, we also did our best to keep the meeting agenda and plan flexible and open to change. Though this may sound beautiful in words, practically it was a very difficult task – specifically within the pre-imposed confines around the meeting which were: 1) the meeting was organized by the author and five other core Sangha members, 2) there were new participants invited who had no direct experience in the Sangha or in this type of workshop, 3) these new participants were invited by different core members and tended to gravitate more closely to that core member. Our goal was to create a democratic group oriented process. However, there were already dynamics of power and intimacy from the beginning: between core and new, and between directly related and indirectly related particpants.

Right Speech & Deep Listening

From our previous meeting, we knew that in order to confront this natural imbalance that exists when any group comes together we needed an initial process building our trust, friendship and community through story telling. Story telling we have found to be a powerful tool for making sure that everyone is heard. This helps to empower the speaker and to encourage compassion through deep listening. It is also an essential group dynamic tool by helping to highlight the varities of relationship and expose the nature of power in these relationships.

As we not only wanted to focus on our process but to experiment in developing a uniquely Buddhist process, we organized this story telling session into three parts based on the Triple Gem of Buddha-Dhamma-Sangha. So breaking into small groups of 3-4, we shared our personal experiences based on the following questions: 1. Buddha - Recall how you were “awakened” both to your spirituality and to your concern for society?; 2. Dhamma - How do you sustain yourself spiritually and what Dhamma is important to you in this regard?; 3. How are you sustained by others (people, organizations, etc.) and what Sangha is important to you in this regard?

Through mutliple rotations of these small groups, the result was a rapid and relatively deep group intimacy established by the end of the day. These small groups allowed for a much more intimate setting in which everyone could be heard more easily, especially for those without a high level of English, and everyone could listen more deeply. However, the success of these small groups highlighted the first problematic encounter in the shift back to the large group at the end of the day for a short report back.

The very qualities which made the small groups successful (i.e. the intimacy which empowered a dynamic of expression and listening) became diluted in the large group - those with better English tended to speak more, those with more assertive personalities spoke more, and deep listening became more of a challenge. When empowered speaking and deep listening become lost, the fault lines of our social conditioning and of power (patriarchy, class, ethnicity, nationality, education, etc.) begin to manifest. After a day mostly dominated by an intimate process, however, these fault lines could not be seen yet, and the day ended on a very energetic and deeply connected feeling.

Again following the process we developed in the 2003 Think Sangha meeting, we introduced on the second day more analytical work (structural analysis) after the grounding of relationships had been established on the first day. In keeping with the focus on process and method, this day’s agenda was about critically examining our approaches and methods to activism. So we broke into three groups of concern based on our present work or immediate interest: 1) Conscientization – education and awareness raising; 2) Training – giving concientized persons tools and skills to more actively practice and engage and become leaders; 3) Organizational Building and Transformation – bringing together people into organizations or transforming organizations along Buddhist guidelines.

Once in these groups, we spent the morning discussing the following questions in our work allowing each individual to talk about their particular situation: 1) How have you tried to implement Buddhist ideas into your work?; 2) What is the impact your work has had on your students/community and yourself? How do you think you have succeeded and failed? In this session, we felt it important to examine as deeply as possible the reasons for failure or success in our work. How much are our present actions in harmony with Buddhist principles and practices? These groups on the whole went very well, especially the second group on training which was not only the largest of the three but asked for additional time in the afternoon for continuing their dicussions.

Practicing the First Noble Truth of Dukkha

Finally, in the second half of the afternoon, the group came together as a whole again – and the aforementioned fault lines began to appear. We had spent parts of the last three days together as a complete group, either at meals or in morning meditation or evening chanting. However, sitting together as a group to discuss issues, especially issues around our work and ones connected to social problems, presented a much more challenging process. By the end of the session, the group found itself out of balance. The intimacy we had developed was of course still very new and fragile.

As is often is the case with deepening levels of intimacy, faults lines appear as we struggle with out own conditioned selves. In short, issues cropped up in this last session about right speech (truthful speech vs. kind speech), about the full participation of all, and about decision making authority within the group. Especially concerning the last point, we were at a critical stage in the group process where the authority of the core organizing group had to be merged to the developing membership of the other participants to create a fully consensual process.

In this way, we attempted to practice the methodological ideals outlined at the beginning of this article (being open to change in harmony with the group’s developing needs) and to actively practice Buddhist teachings (holding our conflict or dukkha mindfully and trying not to run from it or react to it). So on the morning of the the third day, we engaged in an exercise in Deep Listening & Right Speech. Deep Listening meant meant holding onto our feelings and being mindful, while Right Speech meant being true to ourselves by saying how we really felt and speaking in a way to benefit others and ourselves.

While it is not in the scope of this short report to go deeply into this session, we again struggled to find a whole group discussion process which honored deep listening and right speech in the way that the small groups had. Methdologically, we had run up against another constraint of our general meeting process: time was a significant limitation to bringing together a group of seventeen people from widely different backgrounds and creating a deep and consensual group process. Just the day before, this realization had been articlated from the group which worked on training. In their report back, they had commented that in their experience, meaningful training workshops need a lot of time, up to three months, and that many of them no longer had interest in doing shorter five day workshops.

Expanding Our Resources and Methods

After this group reflection process, we set up another process over the next day and a half to share and expand our resources. In the afternoon of the third day, everyone took about an hour by themselves to draft a large chart on newsprint relating these things about themselves: 1) the Dharma tool you use in your work and life; 2) your resources (material, friends/network/community, and inner); 3) your areas for growth and learning; 4) your needs, and 5) your plans and projects for 2005. We spent the rest of the afternoon sharing our charts with eachother in an open session called a “gallery walk” in which each participant briefly explained their poster.

Sharing these five areas with each other we felt would help everyone develop an awareness of some important aspects of their work. The first aspect is not only indentifying needs but also resources that can be shared with others. By sharing in a gallery walk style instead of just prompting people to get together with each other, we all first spent time deeply listening about each person’s work and hopefully gained some new awareness and ideas for their work. Secondly, the dharma tools section developed a rich pool of Buddhist resources in teachings and methods which evetyone could draw on. Finally, the section on plans and projects for 2005 helped everyone to think in an integrative way. So instead of creating new projects from this meeting and piling on new agendas and work to our already busy schedules, we were encouraged to see how we could fit into each other’s already planned agendas. In this way, there was the possibility of relieving work stress through direct mutal support and aid.

On the final day, participants were invited to briefly review each others’ posters and then make a list of what they could offer others and also receive from them. Then in the morning, participants were encourgaed to network on an individual basis and then slowly develop connections which included three or more people working as a group.

Although the connections and plans connected from this process are too long to list here, one notable agreement developed out of the very active session on training held on the second day. A group of participants who have been active in running training courses over the past five to ten years on socially engaged Buddhism decided to hold a small international meeting next year to develop a manual on training people as socially engaged Buddhists. This manual will not only include a basic approach to developing people as socially engaged Buddhists but also contain specific sections on Buddhist approaches to certain issues like gender, environment, media and consumerism, peacemaking, youth development, etc.

I think this intiative is especially significant because it represents much of the aim Think Sangha has held since its inception. While we were more issue driven in our first years (i.e. Think-like), in our last five years we have become more concerned with how to develop and sustain ourselves and others as socially engaged Buddhists activists (i.e. Sangha-like). This past meeting really did not develop much “intellectual” content, but it certainly marked another step in how we all understand our work and how we need to go about realizing its fullest potential.

I think we have learned much from exploring deeply the other pole of method. Now we know that while we still need to engage in issues, we must be very mindful of the method of our engagement. On the other hand, if we want to deeply develop a group process, we must commit greater time to the task. Thus, future Think Sangha meetings may depart from our usual five day gatherings and explore new ways of meeting, according the issue and method requirements.

At this point, I hope that Think Sangha will continue to engage with issues by creating writing projects on Buddhist approaches to various issues as it has done in the past. I also hope that it will now be more active to sponsor processes which develop Buddhist methods for confronting social issues, like the planned meeting for next year to create a socially engaged Buddhist training manual.

For more about Think Sangha, visit our new homepage at www.bpf.org/think.html.

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