Engaged Buddhism or Applied Buddhism?

As I have traveled around, the concept of Engaged Buddhism, what it is, what it isn’t, has been a topic of conversations. Over the years there have been misunderstandings and misinterpretations of what is meant by “Engaged Buddhism.” To more fully understand something we really it often helps to put it in historical context. When I speak on the Buddhist teachings on mind, aka, Buddhist psychology, I try to stress the historical context of rebirth. You really can’t fully understand the teachings on mind without understanding the historical motivations behind the teachings. Part of the Buddha’s journey and many other seekers of the time was about how not to be reborn, to escape the wheel of samsara.

In this little gem Thich Nhat Hanh, Thay, briefly explains the historical context of the manifestation of Engaged Buddhism and how it was a product of its time in Vietnam. Thay continues, explaining Applied Buddhism and how it differs from Engaged Buddhism, or rather, how it is an extension of Engaged Buddhism.

As the political-social climate over the past two years has heated up, up-ended the norms, and set forth much into motion, the question of the definition and practice of Engaged Buddhism has certainly come to the forefront. In my own view, it should. There is nothing like practical application to flesh out meaning. Moreover, as the saying goes, necessity is the mother of all creations. Community members across the USA struggle, debate, share, explore and investigate how to be in these days, what to do, what not to do, how to do, and so forth. No doubt, these are certainly uncertain times – and there very few easy answers. Hopeful, this article will help clarify by bringing a new framework, a la, Thay and Plum Village, for the MahaCommunity to digest. 


Thich Nhat Hanh on the Term [Applied Buddhism] From a Dharma Talk given June 21, 2009 in Plum Village

First we had the term “Engaged Buddhism.” Engaged Buddhism means that you practice all day without interruption, in the midst of your family, your community, your city, and your society. The way you walk, the way you look, the way you sit inspires people to live in a way that peace, happiness, joy and brotherhood are possible in every moment.

The term Engaged Buddhism was born when the war in Vietnam was very intense. To meditate is to be aware of what is going on, and what was happening then was bombs falling, people being wounded and dying: suffering and the destruction of life. You want to help relieve the suffering, so you sit and walk in the midst of people running from bombs. You learn how to practice mindful breathing while you help care for a wounded child. If you don’t practice while you serve, you will lose yourself and you will burn out.

When you are alone, walking, sitting, drinking your tea or making breakfast, that is also Engaged Buddhism, because you are doing it not only for yourself, but in order to help preserve the world. This is interbeing. Engaged Buddhism is practice that penetrates into every aspect of our world.

“Applied Buddhism” is a continuation of Engaged Buddhism. Applied Buddhism means that Buddhism can be applied in every circumstance in order to bring understanding and solutions to problems in our world. Applied Buddhism offers concrete ways to relieve suffering and bring peace and happiness in every situation.

When President Obama gave a talk at the University of Cairo, he used loving speech in order to ease tension between America and the Islamic world. He was using the Buddhist practice of loving speech: speaking humbly, recognizing the values of Islam, recognizing the good will on the part of Islamic people, and identifying terrorists as a small number of people who exploit tension and misunderstanding between people.

The practice of relieving tension in the body is Applied Buddhism because the tension accumulated in our body will bring about sickness and disease. The sutra on mindful breathing, Anapanasati, presented in sixteen exercises, is Applied Buddhism.* We should be able to apply the teaching of mindful breathing everywhere—in our family, in our school, in the hospital, and so on. Buddhism is not just for Buddhists. Buddhism is made up of non-Buddhist elements.

Reprinted from EIAB Newsletter, June 2010

Mindfulness Bell  #68 Winter/Spring 2015



Q & A: The Work of Our Times

This is the Q & A from the Talk I gave in Nashville on Morality & Ethics. The content of the Q & A expanded it, getting into the nitty-gritty of it all. I thought it deserved its own title.

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Morality & Ethics

This is a talk I gave to the sangha in Nashville and is about the placement of the Trainings in our lives.

Opportunity for dana:   www.paypal.me/dharmapathways

The Year’s Journey

Dear Friends on the Path, and to Those Who Aren’t But Are Reading This Anyways,

It is mid-November here at Rose Apple in Vermont. There is a thin layer of snow blanketing the landscape outside my windows. It is slowly melting. Not quite winter, not quite fall. For some unknown reason, I appreciate and enjoy winters here. I grew up and spent most of my life in Southern California and lived a few years in Tucson. These are places people go to get away from the snowy winters. That is the reason that catapulted my family’s migration from our hometown, Chicago. So where did this affinity for snow, winter, and coldness come from? Perhaps it comes from a past life. Perhaps it speaks to my northern European roots. Perhaps I just like snowy winters. No, this isn’t something I contemplate much – I am happy just to go with it.

This year has been a very special year for me. Some of you may already know, but I decided it was time to take some time away from the monastery life this past March. It’s a way to get to know Phap Vu a little more. I don’t want to go into great details, I’ll save that for my “best-selling autobiography.” It has been, an enriching time for me: Coming into contact with the difficult, the perplexing, the wondrous, and the OK-ness of it all. Quite often one would think that the only way to get to know ourselves better is to go into full retreat mode. I  think that lone, quiet, retreats are beneficial, but is it the only way to get to know oneself. I don’t think so. I most definitely learn a lot about myself in day to day life as well. Life in the monastery has shown me this. How do we know what our path is if we don’t journey on? In my sabbatical, I have tried to incorporate both, retreat and engagement have served me well. A few days ago I returned from the last of my travels for this year and am getting ready to embrace the snow, the winter, and the contemplative spirit that it invokes. Time for my retreat.

As I said, it has been a special year for me especially due to my travels and visits with various sanghas. Earlier this year, my first journey of the year, I went to spend some time in London and Scotland. This was in June. I have been to England and Scotland, several times but I’ve never been to London before. Airport layovers don’t count here. I was in London to attend something called the Mindful Living Show, held in the center of London. I had never heard of this before. When I first read the email I thought, “Was this some kind of theatrical performance?” Out of ignorance and into the knowing – no. Actually, it was a type of convention-exhibition-symposium kind of event. The event was about all the aspects of mindfulness offered through the secular realm. Because it was a mindful event, the local OI members thought it would be appropriate to have a booth with Thay’s books and representatives of our tradition. Walking around, I soon discovered that I was the only monk there. The reason I was at the event was to give a talk on mindfulness one day and a guided meditation the next day. Both went well and everyone seemed to be engaged in what I was offering. I have to say, it was the first time I received a resounding applause for a guided meditation. It was a bit surreal in an enjoyable kind of way.

From London, I took a train to Edinburgh. My destination was Wiston Lodge, located near Biggar, several miles, I mean kilometers, southwest of Edinburgh. I have been to both Edinburgh and Wiston Lodge several times before and have gotten to know some of the sangha members over the past few years. Wiston Lodge is an old hunting lodge transformed into a facility similar to a YMCA. It also doubles as a retreat center. Hence my presence. What makes Wiston Lodge, or I should say, the folks at Wiston Lodge so special is that they focus on at-risk kids. A wonderful environment for kids to discover the wonderment of life. While I was in Scotland I facilitated Mindful Lunchtime, which is in the heart of Edinburgh, near the castle. What a great concept. Anyone can take a break and enjoy a mindful lunch practice – in the heart of a city.

After the UK, from late June to mid-July I was in the Boston area visiting the various sanghas. Again, like in the UK, some folks in Boston I have gotten to know over the years. Most there, however, I was meeting for the first time.  I visited about seven sanghas or so while I was there. I also gave a public talk in Newton. Typically, I would join the regular activities of the weekly sangha gatherings. I am happy to follow along and enjoy being part of the experience. More often than not, because there is a monastic in the midst, a Q & A would manifest. Usually, I would receive the questions but I also ask questions as well – who said I had to do all the answering in this life. There were also luncheons and dinners and just sitting around talking. Love it.

From Boston, I went down to the Washington D.C. area and was there from mid-June to early August. Actually, I wasn’t in Washington D.C. except for a few tourist excursions. I tried to get into the new African American Museum. It’s so popular that you need advanced tickets to get in. Advanced meaning months. Next time, perhaps. I actually stayed in Silver Spring which is a few stops off the metro from Washington D.C. Terrific place. Kind of urban, kind of suburb with a strong Ethiopian community. This is a real plus for myself because I enjoy Ethiopian food. In any event, there is a multitude of sanghas that span the Baltimore-Washington D.C. area. Again, there are some folks there I have gotten to know over the years but most I didn’t know.

While I was there in the BWDC area I attended a plethora of sangha events. I attended a tea to celebrate Scott Schang’s receiving the Lamp Transmission. You’re in it now Scott. I also attended a 14 mindfulness training recitation. This was the first time I recited the Trainings with an all Lay group. I also taught at a Day of Mindfulness and a mahasangha gathering in Baltimore and, oh yes, I went to prison. No, really, I went to prison – as a guest. Tim Mccormick facilitates a prison sangha and he asked me if I would join him one day. I said, yes, of course. It was a terrific experience and I am looking forward to going back. There was also a visit to the Sackler Gallery to see an exhibit on Buddhism. This was a sangha event and we had a good size group and had to break up into two or three groups for a guided tour. Our tour guide did a pretty good job and seemed to know her stuff although she seemed very nervous for some reason.

This past October I spent the good part of the month in Connecticut. I was at Bruce Nichol’s house, another new Dharma Teacher. I’ve known Bruce some time but I’ve never been to his neck of the woods before. Here my visit took on a new aspect. In addition to joining the sangha gatherings, I began to do private consultations. This is an aspect of my monastic life that I have consistently felt a sense of fulfillment. Dharma talks and Q & As are beneficial but there is nothing like a one on one, connecting on another level. Sometimes they are about something simple and straightforward, like how to practice. Sometimes they are about deep-seated pain and suffering. It’s not that I have the answers to one’s life-problems and challenges, I don’t. Rather, how can I help them find their own answers? How can I help them have their a-ha moment? This is the role of practice – their practice, my practice.

My final leg of my journey this year took me to Nashville earlier this month for about a week-long visit. This was my first time experiencing Nashville and the sangha there. I didn’t know anyone there except for Rhonda who I had only met briefly. The story goes, Rhonda was at the mahasangha gathering in Baltimore, the one I had participated in. She was in Baltimore, her hometown, visiting her family. I don’t recall seeing her there but it was a large group and there were a good number of people there that I don’t recall. In any event, I’m at the airport to head back to Rose Apple getting a cup of coffee when Rhonda came up to me to say hi. We began talking and the next thing you know she asked me if I would come to Nashville. I said yes. Not much of a compelling story but there it is and there I was.

And, here I am. I have to say that this year certainly has been one of the highlights of my monastic life. Yes, it has been a wonderful journey this year in which I was invited into so many sanghas and so many homes. So much to discover, many people to meet and get to know. Offering support while myself being supported. This is the reciprocal relationship that’s not a reciprocal relationship. A reciprocal relationship is based on two when in fact we are all in this together, one big stream. No giving and no taking, just the sense and the actuality of being beyond our borders.

Settling in for a winter’s retreat,
texts, tea, and cushion.
The snow falls and the cold wind howls,
yet, there is enough warmth to share.

– cpv