Friends on the Path of Socially Engaged Buddhism

By Jack Lawlor

Many of us attracted to the teachings of the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh have an interest that is often referred to as socially engaged Buddhism, variously defined. I would like to describe some of the ways this interest is manifesting in Chicago, regardless of whether the practitioner’s specific interest is in protecting the environment, issues of war and peace, economic justice, or another subject of equal concern.

Preliminary Insights

Mindfulness practitioners approach socially engaged Buddhism in a variety of ways, and no one approach, no matter how inspiring, will appeal to everyone. While Thich Nhat Hanh Sanghas share a characteristic spirit of tolerance and generosity, it would be incorrect to assume that there is unanimity among Sangha members on legislation, political parties, candidates, and how to proceed on any given issue attracting public attention. In addition, many Thich Nhat Hanh practitioners already have full-time jobs in social work, healing, not-for-profit law, and education that are inherently socially engaged. Traditional Sangha participation is a form of refuge that helps these practitioners avoid burnout by providing a stable atmosphere in which to enjoy sitting and walking meditation without placing additional responsibilities on their shoulders.

In an effort to avoid politicizing the local Sangha in a manner inconsistent with the 10th Tiep Hien Mindfulness Training, and to preserve the local Sangha’s success as a refuge for those who are already socially engaged, several members of Lakeside Buddha Sangha in Evanston, Illinois, helped revive the Chicago chapter of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF) about ten years ago, to help address some of the challenges facing our society. Utilizing BPF for this purpose is not surprising. Thich Nhat Hanh has played an important role in supporting BPF, and his earliest visits to North America were sponsored by the national BPF organization. Dean Kaufer, Charles Strain, and Kevin Havener of Lakeside Buddha Sangha have been lovingly persistent guiding lights in creating and nourishing the BPF chapter in Chicago.

How We Relate to the Local Sangha and to Activist Groups

Our procedure is simply to make our Chicago-area BPF organizational meetings and our BPF chapter activities known to our regular Sangha members by including brief descriptions of them at the same time brief announcements of other Sangha activities are made. These opportunities are described in a manner that is not overtly proselytizing, and there is no pressure placed on anyone to participate in what the Chicago BPF is doing.

There have been many advantages to this approach. Our BPF chapter is comprised not only of Lakeside members but also Buddhist practitioners from other denominations, facilitating inter-denominational cooperation and innovation among Chicago temples and centers, although Lakeside and a Soto Zen Temple provide the vast majority of BPF chapter participants. While two ordained Dharma teachers have been consistently involved in BPF efforts over the years––me and Soto Zen priest and teacher Taigen Dan Leighton, the author of fine books on socially engaged practice––the atmosphere is not hierarchical, and responsibilities such as chairing our meetings are shared.

We also work closely with non-denominational groups who are working on the same topics. The benefits of doing so are especially bountiful. Those of us from the Buddhist community have learned an immense amount from leaders of seasoned environmental and peace organizations who join us in co-sponsoring events.

For example, last winter, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Against War felt the need to express support for President Obama’s efforts to continue negotiations with Iran regarding the issue of nuclear proliferation despite demands from some quarters to break off these negotiations, possibly leading to military action. At that time, a Senate vote disparaging further negotiations was likely due to be scheduled within less than two weeks, given the number of Senate co-sponsors. Chicago area veterans wanted to host an anti-war, pro-negotiation event in support of the President’s efforts at the Chicago Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the banks of the Chicago River as soon as possible.

On one of the coldest, snowiest evenings in Chicago’s bitter 2014 winter, several dozen veterans of the Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan conflicts conducted an incredibly mindful meeting on complex issues, including how to word the critical press releases and work with public media. Many knots in planning what to do and what not to do were untied within a two-hour meeting without the use of language stuck in ideology or dogma. The result was a successful event with a well-articulated message. About one hundred people supporting the President’s efforts to continue negotiations initially convened in front of a national TV network newsroom in Chicago and then walked together to the Chicago Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Chicago River, where additional statements of support for good faith negotiations were offered in the midst of heavy snowfall. Their message, given the location, could not have been more poignant.

What We Can Contribute as Mindfulness Practitioners

Another advantage of this interaction is that we have an opportunity to lend our root teacher’s practices of deep looking, deep listening, appropriate speech, and awareness of suffering caused by misperception, to our joint efforts with other Buddhist denominations and sectarian peace and environmental groups. It is usually easy to identify students of Thich Nhat Hanh in the meetings, conferences, and workshops because they tend to be the calm people in the conference room, remaining fresh in often crowded quarters, consistently refraining from the use of inflammatory rhetoric that demonizes others as we endeavor to untie some of our societal knots and work toward peace and environmental sanity.

We also do our best to lend the mindful calm and equanimity of our root teacher to public demonstrations in streets and public plazas. Our Chicago BPF chapter participated in marches that focused on the NATO conferences held in Chicago two years ago. These conferences ultimately attracted small but intense outbursts of violence caused by a tiny group of black-clad demonstrators, which had also occurred at other NATO and World Trade Organization conferences in other US cities in the past. We’ve learned the importance of following the example of our root teacher in truly practicing walking meditation while in the midst of thousands of other people streaming along crowded downtown streets. We’ve concluded that it helps to invite the use of medium-sized, iron mindfulness bells and public recitation of the Discourse on Love from time to time in such public demonstrations.

Transformative Experiences

Another advantage to joining hands and going as a Mahasangha on environmental and peace efforts is that our ability to engage more people in mindful deliberations grows. In one sense, we are a small number of Buddhist practitioners attempting to function as a “community of resistance,” to use Thay’s phrase from his book with Father Daniel Berrigan entitled The Raft Is Not the Shore, in a world that is overrun with materialistic compulsions and that is forgetting the lessons of the recent past on issues of war and  peace. But when we work together, we increase our ability to invite our society to stop and reflect on its compulsive behavior and our foreign policy.

Our BPF chapter has joined with other groups to organize good old-fashioned “teach-ins” on how the world looks to the people of Iran. The groups create opportunities to work together toward peace. One event attracted over eight hundred people to an Evanston, Illinois, Unitarian church on a weeknight in one of the worst blizzards ever witnessed in Chicago. The use of teach-ins seems an appropriate Buddhist means to dispel ignorance, prejudices, notions, and concepts through direct interaction with others.

We generally succeed in including Iranians in our panel discussions and public forums. Large groups attended other Iran-oriented events, which we hosted together with the Chicago chapter of Protest Chaplains, as well as at Loyola University and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Taigen Dan Leighton and I have led a series of programs on socially engaged Buddhism at DePaul University, Loyola, and the University of Chicago that attracted a large number of students. The series provides background on the historic roots of engaged Buddhist practice and introduces students to its contemporary manifestation in the efforts of our root teacher, Sister Chan Khong, and the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings of the Order of lnterbeing developed for use by both lay and monastic practitioners.

In recent years, our work has included:

  • Joint efforts with the Protest Chaplains on anti-drone demonstrations and teach-out efforts on drone warfare at the Chicago Air Show, long before the use of drones attracted US media attention

  • Demonstrations and information dissemination at Chicago Transit Authority stations during rush hour on the needs of political prisoners in Myanmar

  • Correspondence to leaders of the Buddhist monastic community in Myanmar accused of fueling anti-Muslim sentiment and violence, encouraging these monastics to change their rhetoric toward the Islamic community, shortly after Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, and other Buddhist leaders made the same request in late 2013

  • Peaceful demonstrations outside the Chinese consulate in Chicago regarding Tibetan human rights

  • Countless vigils with the Occupy movement outside the large banking institutions on Chicago’s LaSalle Street

  • Special forums with speakers including Joanna Macy and Alan Senauke

Our members’ most recent efforts are focused not only on the ongoing issues of war and peace throughout the Mideast, but also on the needs of the Japanese living near Fukushima and energy industry pollution in Lake Michigan.

In addition to these collective efforts, there have been countless, individual, socially engaged contributions by our Sangha members, including art programs with Iraq war veterans, author appearances on environmental topics in inner city schools, probono legal work for food pantries and Buddhist nonprofit organizations, widespread mindful caregiving for aging parents and young grandchildren, and various charitable activities. Laurie Lawlor testified at Wisconsin legislative hearings related to hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas and other mining activity, including the proliferation of gravel pits on prime Midwestern farmland and the impact of mining on Native American and local water resources.

Mindful Continuation

Our numbers are modest, and the needs are many. Perhaps the activities described above function primarily as a mindfulness bell for our own denomination and for society.

From time to time, one can feel frustration arise, but regular participation in the sitting and walking meditation practice helps prevent burnout. We learn so much from our interaction with others, and the Buddhist emphasis on transforming suffering by dispelling ignorance and misperception through meditation and other mindfulness practices are important gifts to contemporary public dialogue.

Although the issues we face seem to be arriving at considerable velocity, we have learned, as our root teacher has pointed out, that if you touch one issue deeply, due to the workings of interdependence you touch all the other issues as well. Thanks to Sangha practice, someone is always strong when we feel a bit weak, with the result that our step-by-step efforts have continued year after year in mindfulness without relying on the white sugar of anger or dogmatism as our fuel. Our energy comes from mindfulness, concentration, and insight giving rise to the energy of bodhicitta.

Although these efforts are modest, and we are in the early innings of engaging Buddhism in the West, despite occasional discouragement, it simply feels right, it feels appropriate, to join hands and walk together as a Mahasangha in this way to engage our mindfulness practices to serve the present age.

Jack Lawlor, True Direction (shown with his wife Laurie and three of their four grandchildren), was ordained as a Dharma teacher by Thich Nhat Hanh in 1992. He has served as president of the Buddhist Council of the Midwest and on the national Board of Directors of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. He currently serves on the Caretaking Council of The Plum Village Lineage North American Dharma Teachers Council, comprised of US and Canadian Dharma teachers ordained in Thay’s tradition.