From Past to Present...

...From East to West
Insight Meditation in the Theravada Tradition
The Theravada tradition preserves a wide variety of meditation techniques for cultivating the mind, derived from the early Buddhist teachings. The two major forms of meditation practice are samatha (calm abiding) and vipassana (insight). The practice begins with increasing one’s attentiveness to a specific object to focus the mind and achieve calm abiding. One then proceeds to the practice of vipassana to develop insight into dukkha [suffering], anicca [impermanence], and anatta [no eternal self], the three marks of existence.
As taught by the famous Burmese meditation master Mahasi Sayadaw (1904-1982), vipassana practice begins by simply watching one’s breath as it flows in and out, focusing attention on the rise and fall of the abdomen. To keep the mind concentrated on the present movement, rather than being distracted by uncontrolled, conditioned responses, one continually makes concise mental notes of what is happening: “rising” and “falling.” Other vipassana masters suggest observing a point on the upper lip as the breath goes in and out of the nostrils, posting one’s attention like a gatekeeper at that point. Despite the attempt to hold the restless mind to one point, inevitably other thoughts and feelings arise in the restless mind. As they arise, one simply notes these thoughts and feelings — “imagining,” “wandering,” “remembering” — and returns one’s attention to the rising and falling of the breath. Body sensations are handled in the same way, noting “itching,” “tight,” “tired,” and so on, as they arise, but maintaining an observer’s attitude rather than letting one’s mental equanimity be diturbedby reacting to the sensations. Periods of sitting meditation are alternated with periods of walking meditation, during which one notes the movements of the body in great detail: “lifting,” “moving,” and “placing.”

If ecstatic states or visions arise in the process of meditation, one simply notes them and lets them pass away without attachment. In the same way, emotions that arise are simply observed, accepted, and allowed to pass away, without evaluating them as “good” or “bad.” ... Dukkha (suffering and dissatisfaction), anicca (impermanence), and anatta (no eternal self) — become apparent during the process of meditation. As one continues the practice, the mind becomes calm, clear, attentive, flexible, and free from the disturbances of likes and dislikes. The next step is to carry this same type of mindfulness over into every activity of everyday life. (Living Religions, 151-2)

Socially Engaged Buddhism?
Mahayana Buddhists critiqued the Theravada tradition on the grounds that its focus on the Arhant ideal (i.e. emancipation from suffering by oneself for oneself) prevented one from truly overcoming the ultimate cause of sufferingattachment to self. But does Theravada Buddhism really lack the emphasis on compassion that is inherent in the “Bodhisattva” ideal of the Mahayana tradition? Is karma sufficient to generate the type of social engagement that demonstrates real compassion for the suffering of other sentient beings? On the other hand, is the Mahayana emphasis on helping others attain spiritual emancipation (i.e. nirvana) any more effective in generating the kind of compassion that leads to concrete actions to alleviate the physical suffering of the world’s poor?
Engaged in Sri Lanka
In the socially engaged Buddhism of modern Asia, the liberation sought has been called a “mundane awakening” (laukodaya), which includes individuals, villages, nations, and ultimately all people (sarvodaya), and which focuses on objectives that may be achieved and recognized in this lifetime, in this world. George Bond has summarized the comprehensive nature of the liberative vision that inspires volunteers in the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement , including moral, cultural, spiritual, social, political, and economic dimensions. Thus, in addition to being a society based on the Buddhist precepts and offering opportunities for obtaining wisdom, happiness, and peace, Ariyaratna and his colleagues have focused on the “ten basic human needs” that must be met for liberation to be possible: a clean and beautiful environment, an adequate and safe water supply, clothing, balanced diet, simple housing, basic health care, communication facilities, energy, education related to life and living, and free access to cultural and spiritual resources. The list is offered as a modern version of the Buddhist “middle way” — a balancing of the material and spiritual aspects of social change.
        We may conclude that a profound change in Buddhist soteriology — from a highly personal and other-worldly notion of liberation to a social, economic, this-worldly liberation — distinguishes the Buddhist movements in our study. The traditional conceptions of karma and rebirth, the veneration of the bhikkhu sangha, and the focus on ignorance and psychological attachment to account for suffering in the world (the second Noble Truth) have taken second place to the application of highly rationalized reflections on the institutional and political manifestations of greed, hatred, and delusion, and on new organizational strategies for addressing war and injustice, poverty and intolerance, and the prospects for “outer” as well as “inner” peace in the world. (Anthology of Living Religions, 131-2)
  • Is this “engaged” Buddhism truly new to the Theravada tradition ... or is it rooted in the social dimension of the Buddha’s original teachings?
  • Should Buddhism be engaged in social issues at all, or should it merely focus on the internal transformation of the individual?

From the earliest times Buddhist sources have been quite clear that individual human life begins at conception, a view widely shared in contemporary Buddhist societies. ... Paradoxically, despite the clear anti-abortion position in textual sources, in Buddhist countries abortions are common. In Thailand (where abortion is illegal) there are something like 27 abortions per 1,000 women of childbearing age, which compares with 24 in the United States. Abortion rates have also been extremely high in Japan and South Korea. In Japan, an efficient (and profitable) abortion industry has emerged to deal with the problem of unwanted pregnancies, and a special ritual known as the mizuko kuyo memorial service has evolved. Although only ever resorted to by a minority of women who had abortions or miscarriages, the ritual became extremely popular in the 1960s and 70s, since which time its popularity has declined. The mizuko kuyo service is generally a simple one in which a small figure of the bodhisattva Jizo represents the departed child. Jizo is a popular bodhisattva in Japan who is regarded as the protector of young children, and statues and shrines to him are found throughout Japan. He is shown dressed in the robes of a monk carrying a staff with six rings on it, which jingle like a child’s rattle.

The majority of Buddhist organisations in Japan do not endorse mizuko kuyo, regarding it as a modern innovation based on questionable theology and lacking any basis in the sutras. One of the largest Buddhist organisations in Japan, the Jodo Shinshu, actively opposes the rite for this reason, pointing out that according to orthodox Buddhist teachings a ritual cannot wipe away the bad karma caused by an abortion. The more unscrupulous temples in Japan have also sometimes exploited the ritual commercially, promoting the idea of tatari, or retribution from departed spirits. Undoubtedly, many temples saw the ritual simply as a money-making scheme and ruthlessly exploited vulnerable women.
Opposition on the part of the Jodo Shinshu and others, however, has not taken a political form, and Japanese Buddhists have not campaigned to change the law on abortion or sought to influence the practice of the medical profession. Japan has not seen the kinds of attacks on abortion clinics and their personnel which have taken place in the United States. This approach is in line with the non-judgemental stance that Buddhism traditionally adopts on moral issues. Buddhism is also renowned for its benevolence, toleration and compassion. It recognises that the pressures and complexities of daily life can cloud judgment and lead people to make wrong choices. The appropriate response in these cases, however, is compassion and understanding rather than vociferous condemnation. (

Engaged in America
The Laity, Gender, Psychology & Ecumenism
Growth in the numbers of Americans practicing some form of Buddhism has been phenomenal. ... But American Buddhism has developed differently from Asian Buddhism. For example, most Buddhist practitioners here are lay men and women with families and jobs rather than monks and nuns living in monasteries and convents.
“When I was starting out, the first obstacle was the idea that to be a serious practitioner you had to leave everything and go to a monastery,” a Zen priest in Illinois, Susan Myoyu Andersen said. “On the one hand, the intensive practice is very important and I am glad I have that under my belt. I also see that most people simply can’t leave their jobs and families for years or even three months.” One solution that Buddhist sanghas and centers across the country are developing is to offer weekend or week-long silent retreats and encourage people to do as much as they can without pushing them or making them feel guilty that they can’t devote their entire lives to meditation. Most meditate alone daily and with a group once or twice a week. (Anthology of Living Religions, Volume 1, 136)
In the West, women are more likely to be leaders, not just of other women, but of mixed-gender sanghas and retreat centers. And the structure of the sanghas themselves is more democratic than hierarchical, with many people contributing their ideas and insights. Engaged Buddhism, in which social action is considered essential to Buddhist practice, has become a strong thread in American Buddhism. ...
Another segment of American Buddhism focuses inward. ... Kenneth Porter, a New York psychiatrist who has been a Vipassana practitioner for 13 years, says Buddhism has become closely linked to psychotherapy because meditative approaches that help people let go of attachments are similar to techniques that Western psychotherapists use to help patients overcome certain problems. In addition, Porter said, the Buddhist teaching that the core of all human beings is a sane and healthy “Buddha nature” is a welcome, healing corrective to the feelings of self-hatred that plague so many people who enter therapy. ...
Western Buddhism is also much more ecumenical than it is in Asia, both within its own house and in relationship to other world religions. The three major traditions — Zen, Tibetan, and the Vipassana branch of Theravada, which have been separated for thousands of years in different Asian countries — are learning from and influencing each other through shared practices and cross-fertilization here. In addition, many Americans are combining Buddhist meditation with their Christian or Jewish religious practices. (Anthology of Living Religions, Volume 1, 133-4)
“Buddhism is a religion, but a funny kind of religion,” said Kenneth Porter. “It is as much of a spiritual technology, which is compatible with many different religions, as it is a path in itself. It doesn’t require the same kind of total ideological loyalty that some other religions require.” (Anthology of Living Religions, Volume 1, 136)

Engaged in Tibet...
...Engaged in the World
In 1949, seeing that the Chinese Communists, with the decisive support from I.V. Stalin, were gaining control of China, the Kashag expelled all Chinese connected with the Chinese government, over the protests of both the Kuomingtang and the Communists.[130] The Chinese Communist government led by Mao Zedong which came to power in October lost little time in asserting a new Chinese presence in Tibet. In October 1950, the People’s Liberation Army entered the Tibetan area of Chamdo, defeating sporadic resistance from the Tibetan army. In 1951, Tibetan representatives participated in negotiations in Beijing with the Chinese government. This resulted in a Seventeen Point Agreement which formalised China’s sovereignty over Tibet.[131]
... The destruction of most of Tibet’s more than 6,000 monasteries occurred between 1959 and 1961.[146] During the mid-1960s, the monastic estates were broken up and secular education introduced. During the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards[147] inflicted a campaign of organized vandalism against cultural sites in the entire PRC, including Tibet’s Buddhist heritage.[148] According to at least one Chinese source, only a handful of the religiously or culturally most important monasteries remained without major damage,[149] and thousands of Buddhist monks and nuns were killed, tortured or imprisoned.[150][not in citation given]
... Riots flared up again in 2008. Many ethnic Hans and Huis were attacked in the riot, their shops vandalized or burned. The Chinese government reacted swiftly, imposing curfews and strictly limiting access to Tibetan areas. The international response was likewise immediate and robust, with some leaders condemning the crackdown and large protests and some in support of China’s actions. (
The Dalai Lama
Statement on Tibetan National Uprising Day
For more than sixty years, Tibetans, despite being deprived of freedom and living in fear and insecurity, have been able to maintain their unique Tibetan identity and cultural values. More consequentially, successive new generations, who have no experience of free Tibet, have courageously taken responsibility in advancing the cause of Tibet. This is admirable, for they exemplify the strength of Tibetan resilience. ... The Chinese government frequently states that stability and development in Tibet is the foundation for its long-term well-being. However, the authorities still station large numbers of troops all across Tibet, increasing restrictions on the Tibetan people. Tibetans live in constant fear and anxiety. More recently, many Tibetan intellectuals, public figures and environmentalists have been punished for articulating the Tibetan people’s basic aspirations. They have been imprisoned allegedly for “subverting state power” when actually they have been giving voice to the Tibetan identity and cultural heritage. ... In our efforts to solve the issue of Tibet, we have consistently pursued the mutually beneficial Middle-Way Approach, which seeks genuine autonomy for the Tibetan people within the PRC. In our talks with officials of the Chinese government’s United Front Work Department we have clearly explained in detail the Tibetan people’s hopes and aspirations. The lack of any positive response to our reasonable proposals makes us wonder whether these were fully and accurately conveyed to the higher authorities. (