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  • Socially Engaged Buddhism’s Role in the Buddhist Revival in

    India and in the Re-Articulation of Buddhism in the 21st Century

    Jonathan S. WATTS

  • Research Center for Buddhist Cultures in Asia (BARC)

    Socially Engaged Buddhism’s Role

    in the Buddhist Revival in India and

    in the Re-Articulation of Buddhism in the 21st Century

    Jonathan S. Watts


    The original scope of this research project was entitled “Socially Engaged Buddhism’s

    Role in the Buddhist Revival in India”. While the main scope of research work took

    place in India, the topic widening greatly for two reasons:

    1) As India is the birthplace of Buddhism, all other Asian Buddhist traditions share

    direct linkages to Indian Buddhism. In the revival of Buddhism in India, these various

    Asian, and now even western, Buddhist traditions are actively taking part. This fact was

    strikingly seen at the main site of the research, Bodhgaya, where Buddhists from all

    over the world are very actively involved in worship and the revival of the tradition at

    this most sacred of Buddhist hold sites.

    2) The research was conducted largely through the lens of the activities of the

    International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB). INEB has a very strong Indian

    membership, as witnessed by their hosting of the INEB bi-annual general conference for

    the second time in 6 years (first time, Nagpur in 2005). The scope and nature of the

    Indian Buddhist revival has a very important socially engaged aspect as seen at the core

    of this movement in the conversion of mass numbers of formerly “untouchable” (Dalit)

    classes to Buddhism as articulated by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar (1891-1956), famed civil

    rights activists and drafter of the modern Indian constitution.1 As with the first general

    point above, socially engaged Buddhism in India, especially within the context of INEB,

    involves the influence and participation of Buddhists from the rest of the world.

    In this way, this research report will begin within the Indian context of the INEB

    general conference held in Bodhgaya from October 19-29, 2011 and extend outwards to

    1 Dahiwale, Mangesh. (2009). “An Awakened Vision: Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s Struggle to Re-ethicize Indian Society.” In Watts, Jonathan S. Ed. Rethinking Karma: The Dharma of Social Justice. (Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books). pp. 67-90.

  • see how not only Asian Buddhism, but Buddhism throughout the world, is being

    re-articulated and re-created by this growing movement called Socially Engaged


    Defining Socially Engaged Buddhism & Introducing INEB

    Socially Engaged Buddhism, or simply Engaged Buddhism, can be defined as:

    the practice of Buddhism not simply for individual enlightenment but for the

    enlightenment of all sentient beings through the realization of social

    transformation and social justice. As such, while Engaged Buddhism seeks to

    relieve immediate suffering through social welfare activities, it goes deeper to

    discover, examine, and root out the causes of suffering in structural violence

    and cultural violence. This engagement takes place through critical

    self-awareness and transformation on three levels: the personal or individual,

    the relational or communal, and the social or systemic. Finally, the

    understanding of Buddhism is as dharma, an inclusive and ecumenical way of

    practice that rejects evangelical aims and serves all sentient beings.

    The International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) began

    in February 1989 in Siam (Thailand) at a conference of 36

    concerned ordained and laypersons from 11 countries. From the

    beginning, the network has been guided by leading founder

    Sulak Sivaraksa of Thailand.2 He more than any other has

    formed the foundation of INEB’s culture not only through his

    strong personality but also through his incredible international

    network of kalyanamitra (spiritual friends), which served as the

    original base of the INEB network.

    Three of Ajahn Sulak’s most important Buddhist kalyanamitra became INEB’s

    original three patrons: His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet, Thich Nhat Hanh of

    Vietnam, and Buddhadasa Bhikkhu of Thailand. INEB describes the role of these

    patrons as “acting as guiding lights for the entire network through their lifelong

    2 Swearer, Donald K. (1996). “Sulak Sivaraksa’s Buddhist Vision for Renewing Society.” In Queen, Christopher S. and King, Sallie B. Engaged Buddhism: Buddhist Liberation Movements in Asia. (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press). pp. 195-235.


  • commitment to the Dharma”.3 As figureheads, in a positive sense, these three Buddhist

    masters have established an approach and understanding of Buddha Dharma and

    manifested it in a way of living and engaging in society that serves in many ways as an

    ideal template for INEB work.

    Over the years, the network has expanded to assemble Buddhists as well as

    non-Buddhists from more than 20 countries from Asia, Europe, America and Oceana.

    Out of this diversity, INEB has become the leading voice in articulating Socially

    Engaged Buddhism in the world, while integrating the practice of Buddhism with social

    action. This commitment to global community based on the universal truths of wisdom

    and compassion is said to guide all of their activities.

    INEB brings together Buddhist and non-Buddhist based organizations around the

    world to share resources and to support each other’s work. The network also links

    activists, spiritual leaders, academics, and young people in areas of common concern.

    INEB speaks of how it roots itself in “the treasure of personal relationship that raises the

    original spirit of sangha in a contemporary, multi-cultural context.”4 INEB participants

    work in a decentralized manner, while the Secretariat in Thailand maintains a flow of

    information, support, and cohesion, with programs and joint activities that build

    participants’ capacities.

    The general goals of INEB are to:

    1. To promote understanding and cooperation among Buddhist countries,

    Buddhist sects, and socially conscious Buddhist groups.

    2. To identify and address the structural and personal suffering facing our

    communities, societies, and the world.

    3. To articulate the perspective of engaged Buddhism regarding this suffering,

    and to train Buddhist activists to respond effectively.

    4. To serve as a network of information and resources on engaged Buddhism.

    5. To cooperate and collaborate with activists from other spiritual traditions and

    social change organizations.5

    From these general goals, INEB has developed key areas of concern and engagement

    around which it is building sub-networks and specific programs:

    3 INEB Constitution, unpublished document, 2010. 4 INEB Concept. 5 INEB Concept.

  • • Alternative development and Buddhist economics (including the INEB Right

    Livelihood Fund)

    • Peace and reconciliation

    • Environment (including the INEB Inter-Religious Dialogue on Climate


    • Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality (including the Buddhist

    Education for Social Transformation (BEST) program)

    • Alternative education

    • Human rights and social justice

    • Reform and revival of Buddhist institutions

    • Youth and spiritual leadership development (including the INEB Young

    Bodhisattva program)

    • Inter-religious Dialogue (including INEB’s Buddhist-Muslim Dialogue)

    • Dharmic culture and art

    Participation in INEB is open to all, Buddhist and non-Buddhist, who share the same

    interests and a fundamental commitment to non-harmful engagement. Their level of

    participation and responsibility in INEB depends on the individual’s ability to devote

    time and energy to communicate and cooperate with others.

    Overview of the INEB 2011 Bi-annual Conference in Bodhgaya, India

    The main platform for the development and intercultural exchange of INEB’s vision,

    aims, objectives, and action is the general conference, held every two years on a rotating

  • country basis. The INEB 2011 Bi-annual Conference was held in Bodhgaya, India,

    coinciding with the 2,600-year celebration of the Buddha’s enlightenment. The

    conference was attended by over 250 people from the Asian region and beyond,

    including, of course, a large representation from India The diversity of participants who

    attended the conference from 31 countries illustrated the strong spirit of non-sectarian

    Buddhism that INEB embodies.

    The conference venue was located among the temple grounds of the new Thai

    temple, Wat Pa Buddhagaya. The temple supported an atmosphere balanced between

    the seriousness of discussion and dialogue on the conference theme - The Future of

    Buddhism: From Personal Awakening to Global Transformation - with the core INEB

    philosophy of building relationships among diverse partici


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