Engaged Buddhism: Bridging Spirituality and Social Activism for Lasting Change

phap dung panel at USC for engaged spirituality

To create sustainable, lasting social change in a world of suffering, a spiritual dimension is essential. Brother Phap Dung shares insight on how recent and past events echo the need for mindfulness practices to actively address societal challenges.

Thirty-one years ago, Los Angeles residents, including a young and determined Brother Phap Dung, found themselves in the midst of societal injustices that ignited a fierce cry for change in L.A. and beyond.

Students at the University of Southern California (USC) experienced a pivotal moment when fury spilled into the streets in response to the violent treatment of Rodney King, a black man who was beaten by mostly white police officers.

What transpired in the aftermath of those days inspired Phap Dung (pronounced “fap yueng”) to pursue a greater purpose and the path of Engaged Buddhism, a path rooted in social justice and compassionate action.

The echoes of those events still resonate today, as they birthed a national conversation about the pressing issues of racial and economic disparity and the use of force by law enforcement. Brother Phap Dung vividly recalls that time, riding his bicycle to retrieve his belongings from his studio amidst the chaos, with military tanks looming on the streets.

“I remember riding my bike to go to my studio at night to get my stuff so I could leave L.A. because there were military tanks everywhere.”

– Brother Phap Dung

While those events unfolded more than three decades ago, recent times have seen an alarming recurrence of such challenges. From the tragic death of George Floyd to ongoing wars in the Middle East and humanitarian crises and social injustices around the world, it’s no wonder many are pondering these profound questions: 

“How can my personal spiritual practice contribute to social change and make a real, tangible impact in the world?”

“In a world of such pain, crises, and tragedy, how can one just sit on a meditation cushion?!”

“I feel powerless against the world’s problems. How can I help and take action toward causes that I care about?”

The University of Southern California Center for Religion and Civic Culture (CRCC) is engaged in answering those questions, sharing stories of spiritual activists worldwide who are fostering real and tangible change through spiritual and religious endeavors – change that takes spiritual practice from the cushion to the collective.

We sat down with the former abbot of Deer Park, Brother Phap Dung, to delve into his inspiring journey and a recent visit to his alma mater, USC. He spoke about the importance of Engaged Buddhism and how Deer Park and the Plum Village community as a whole are practicing social consciousness to create tangible shifts on our planet today.

During our conversation, Brother Phap Dung shared a poignant chapter in his journey that brought him full circle back to his alma mater to participate in a panel of “spiritual exemplars” from around the world, an event hosted by the CRCC.

Brother Phap Dung didn’t travel alone. He was accompanied by a van-load of fellow aspirants and brothers, a practice he inherited from his revered teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, so as not to attract too much attention to himself as an individual.

This visit was not only a personal milestone but also a symbolic return to the place where his life took a pivotal turn. It was a moment of reflection on the 31 years that had passed since the Rodney King riots and the path that had led him from architectural studies at USC to becoming a senior Dharma teacher, carrying the torch of Engaged Buddhism.

(Although it would take just six years after the injustice he witnessed in Los Angeles to become an ordained monastic in 1998, it took much longer to finally return his library books. He shared with me that he finally returned them during this recent visit and we had a good laugh about that.)

The panelists – which ranged in demographics, including a Black queer Jewish rabbi and a Catholic Priest – shared their stories of how they are actively engaging with society and instigating change through their actions, fostering a sense of unity and hope in a world yearning for transformation.

Inspired by Thay’s teachings, Brother Phap Dung emphasizes the concept of Engaged Buddhism. He explains that during wartime, Thich Nhat Hanh coined this term to describe the imperative of actively addressing the suffering in the world, rather than confining spirituality to the monastery.

Engaged Buddhism isn’t just about offering prayers and wishes for change; it’s about actively participating in the transformation of our society. It’s about recognizing the interconnectedness of all beings and understanding that true insight should inspire us to alleviate suffering and promote positive change.

The term “Engaged Buddhism”, as Brother Phap Dung explains, has evolved into “Applied Buddhism.” It’s a call to integrate Buddhist teachings into our daily lives and actions. It’s a reminder that our spiritual practice shouldn’t end when we rise from the cushion; it should continue throughout the day, shaping how we interact with the world.

Mindful Activism

Brother Phap Dung reflects on how to balance self-care with selflessness. He underlines that self-care is not selfishness; it is a fundamental aspect of our spiritual journey. 

“To be resilient and to be sustaining, you must take care of yourself. Especially for service-oriented people like doctors, teachers, social workers, and activists. That’s why we are quite the refuge for many activist groups and many people engaged in social change, environmental justice, and racial inequality; we’ve become like a refugee camp for those activists,” explains Phap Dung.

In these times of uncertainty, we need to embrace “mindful activism.” To effect real change, we must act with compassion, not anger or fear. Anger, as history has shown, often leads to internal conflict within movements. Instead, we must find the three C’s of Engagement: Clarity, Compassion, and Courage.

“The Buddhist practice, our teachings, and our practice help us maintain ourselves so that we can take care of our emotions, our body, and we’re not overwhelmed with what is at hand,” explained Br. Phap Dung. “We know, we’re saddened by it, and energetically challenged by it. And we’re affected differently depending on our background. Whether you’re involved in a peace demonstration, a call for an end to the war, or something else, you are coming at it with compassion rather than anger and fear.”

Brother Phap Dung reminds us that activism is essential, but so is self-care. We must find that balance, that sacred pause between reacting and responding. In this space, we can truly take care of ourselves and then extend that care to others. The heart of Engaged Buddhism is to expose ourselves to the world’s suffering and, if we are in a position to help, to take action. It’s about finding the equilibrium between introspection and taking action. They are not opposing forces but interconnected aspects of the same path.

“Some people say anger, violence, and radical action are needed. But you see in history those things really backfire. Being in an angry peace movement [laughs] that’s kind of funny. It’s going to turn on its own members. Any movement you study in history, the very mechanism they use gets turned on itself. Whether it’s anger or an ego-driven, proud stance, turns on itself. And its own members bite each other” continues Phap Dung.

As we navigate the complex landscape of social activism and spiritual awakening, Brother Phap Dung’s wisdom serves as a guiding light. Engaged Buddhism, born out of the need to confront suffering, is a potent force for change. It teaches us that our spiritual journey and our engagement with the world are not separate but intertwined. It’s a reminder that, when we find harmony within, we naturally extend our compassion and support to others.

In a world that sometimes seems overwhelmed by darkness, the Plum Village teachings stand as an inspiring testament to the power of engaged spirituality. These teachings remind us that, as spiritual beings, we have a duty to uplift our world, to be the change we wish to see, and to create communities of resistance against the challenges of our times.

Brother Phap Dung’s return to USC not only symbolizes personal growth but also underscores the importance of engaging with our roots and communities. It is a reminder that our spiritual journeys, when aligned with the principles of Engaged Buddhism, have the power to create profound ripples of change, influencing not only our individual lives but the world at large.  By practicing the Dharma in our daily lives, we can affect change in the world around us.

Applied Buddhism in Action

So how does Deer Park Monastery put Engaged Buddhism into action?

The primary vehicle for change at Deer Park is through mindfulness retreats. These retreats offer respite to urban refugees, allowing us to step away from the demands of modern life and reconnect with ourselves. The core principle is that once we find balance and happiness within, we naturally extend our desire to help others. This, in essence, is the cream of the Buddha’s teachings: to find harmony within oneself and, from that place of balance, extend a hand to those in need.

Deer Park extends its commitment to social justice beyond retreats through a variety of action-oriented community service and programs, addressing issues ranging from climate change and racial inequality to sustainable living.

Climate Change Initiatives: Deer Park Monastery actively addresses the pressing issue of climate change. This commitment is exemplified by its engagement with climate change initiatives such as the use of solar panels, car-free and electricity-free days, and vehicles running on vegetable oil. Initiatives like the Happy Farm, composting, and oak planting demonstrate a dedication to environmental justice and sustainability. Join us for “Make Black Friday Brown,” an online event and campaign that resists consumerism the day after Thanksgiving.

Earth Peace Treaty: In 2007, a group of monastics at Deer Park wrote an ecological initiative for all Plum Village monasteries around the world. This effort coincided with the release of Al Gore’s documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” which raised global awareness about climate change. The Earth Peace Treaty and the adoption of veganism within monastic communities underscore Deer Park’s commitment to environmental justice. Read the Earth Peace Treaty here.

BIPOC Retreat: Deer Park Monastery serves as a sanctuary where BIPOC individuals can nurture their inner selves, find balance, and develop the capacity for compassionate action. The next BIPOC retreat will be held from May 08 – 12, 2024. This retreat marks the 20th anniversary since the first POC retreat with Thay and the Sangha during the U.S. Tour in 2004. Save the date! More information will become available in 2024.

Youth & Teen Support: Wake Up is an active global community of young mindfulness practitioners, aged 18-35, inspired by the teachings of Zen Master and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh. Wake Up programs range from retreats to online groups (Sanghas) including a LGBTQIA+ Sangha.

Education and Support: Deer Park Monastery offers support and guidance to educators and teachers through Wake Up Schools, fostering a sense of mindfulness and compassion in the education system. By infusing the principles of Engaged Buddhism into schools and supporting teachers, Wake Up Schools contribute to a more just and compassionate society from the roots.

Additional Resources

Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet

Filled with Thich Nhat Hanh’s inspiring meditations, Zen stories, and experiences from his own activism, Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet shows us a new way of seeing and living that can bring healing and harmony to ourselves, our relationships, and the Earth. Purchase here.

The World We Have – A Buddhist Approach to Peace and Ecology

In this provocative book, Thich Nhat Hanh offers a dramatic vision of the future of a planet overheated by rapidly disappearing fossil fuels, degraded by massive overconsumption, and besieged by unsupportable population growth. Thay demonstrates how the teaching of impermanence can offer inner peace and help us use our collective wisdom and technology to restore the Earth’s balance. Purchase here.

Love Letter to the Earth

Thich Nhat Hanh points to the lack of meaning and connection in peoples’ lives as being the cause of our addiction to consumerism. He deems it vital that we recognize and respond to the stress we are putting on the Earth if civilization is to survive. Rejecting the conventional economic approach, Nhat Hanh shows that mindfulness and a spiritual revolution are needed to protect nature and limit climate change. Purchase here.

Watch the “Stories of Social Change: Spirituality in Action” Exhibit Panel

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