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Open Collection of Student Writing (OCSW)

Socially Engaged Buddhism

In most Asian countries, there is a predominant Buddhist influence. In this region of the world and with the passing of many, many generations, names and borders of countries have changed. War has raged killing great swathes of populations from the wars themselves to the lingering after effects that come with the rebuilding, disease, injury malnutrition, but not just with the people but the land as well. The low in stature was now influenced by a global market of goods and information, thus what was once reserved for upper classes was now within reach to the masses. Modern Buddhists started to see and feel the need to heal their peoples, as well as their lands. To treat social, community and environment with the same respect and guidance that they would a person’s. This was the birth of Western and Socially Engaged Buddhism.

This change from the original Buddhist teachings did not happen uniformly with the same vision, nor at the same time and locations. Many of the leaders that envisioned these changes had very similar ideas, though there were differences with each. The predominant locations in Asia were Vietnam, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, China and India. Many other desperate locations with leaders rising happened as well, though these are the most well known.

Cambodia was in great turmoil under the rule of the Khmer Rouge from 1975-79. It’s estimated that between two to three million people died during this time, from disease, starvation, exhaustion, torture and execution. Buddhist temples were destroyed to the last one, totaling thee thousand six hundred. Samdech Prea Maha Ghosananda, who was the Supreme Patriarch of Buddhism in Cambodia, stood fearless and rebuilt temples in the refugee and resettlement camps. Before this time Buddhist Monks and Nuns stayed in or close to the temples devoting time for their progression, now Ghosananda was asking them to come join the people, no matter their faith, to love and lift them up, while supporting others progression. Ghosananda proclaimed. “…we Buddhist must find the courage to leave our temples and enter the temples of contemporary human experience, temples that filled with suffering…. The refugee camps, the prisons, the ghettos, and the battlefield will become our temples…. We only need to remember that our temple is with us always. We are our temples.”  He saw human suffering; not just Buddhist suffering. The need to feed the hungry, heal the sick, comfort the hopeless. He saw the need to help all people, even those considered enemies, for if you bring peace and light to another, they in turn may pass it on. (Mitchell, Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience, 2008, pp. 332-333)

War and famine take a very heavy toll on physical and emotional health, in Sri Lanka the spiritual health being watched by its leaders was taking just as serious a decline. We do not put much thought in buying our next smart phone or automobile, at least not much more than how does it look and what can it do. We do not often stand back and measure what it took us to earn that purchase or who it might affect. A.T Ariyaratne watched as Sri Lankans focused on work to earn enough to buy their next want or need and not take notice of their fellow neighbor’s needs.  Where at one time the community would help one another, they now focused on self or immediate family. Inspired by Mahatma Ghandi’s idea of Sarvodaya or “the well-being of all”, Ariyaratne founded a movement named Sarvodaya. He saw this as a way for members of the community to work and earn enough to support and help others in the community, bringing society up together. The members of this movement would share what they could with those that had little or nothing, and in doing so would change their own conscience and move closer to nirvana. “Loving kindness means a respect for all persons. This leads to compassion for those persons one loves who are in need.” Spiritual growth cannot flourish when hungered temporally. Buddha said… “no one suffering from hunger can comprehend the Dharma.” This idea made the movement spiritually necessary, if the community did not have its basic needs met, then they could not grow spiritually. Having the community serve one another it is able to flourish and is now the largest indigenous organization in the world with some eleven million persons who have benefitted from its ideals and services.


Mitchell, D. W. (2008). Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience. In D. W. Mitchell, Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mitchell, D. W. (2008). Buddhism: Introducing the Buudhist Experience. New York: Oxford University Press.



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