Buddhist Practice, Buddhist Politics: Critical Strategies for Lasting Social Change



This article is a product of my own personal spiritual journey. Twenty years ago, in 1994, I went on a Buddhist pilgrimage in Nepal and North India. I lived with Sherpas in the snowy Himalayas for two months, lived in a Tibetan monastery in Kathmandu and taught English to political refugee monks for one month, toured on a bus with students of Tarthang Tulku from Berkeley to sacred Buddhist sites for another month, traveled for another month in North India to places such as Varanasi, Delhi and Rajastan, and then spent the final month living in a hermitage in Dharamsala, listening to the Dalai Lama’s annual public lecture all day each day for seven days.


At one point, I was at Bodhgaya, the site of Shayamuni Buddha’s enlightenment, where I sat at the now-famous Bodhi Tree, surrounded by 20,000 Tibetan Buddhist monks, nuns and pilgrims, for ten days. Every night, I went to see a play about the founder of Tibetan Buddhism, Padma Sambhava. I became friends with the director, Lama Ugyen Wangdi, a monk from Bhutan. I have continued to support his work, and the building of his monastery, since I met him backstage in a nomadic tent surrounded by monks who he had cajoled into becoming actors. Several years later, I was able to obtain an Asian Cultural Council grant to bring him to University of Massachusetts, Amherst to do a collaborative work with Indian dancer Ranjaanaa Devi. My point in telling this story is to reveal a little about my relationship with Buddhism, as it was an interest I cultivated for about five years before delving more deeply into Yoga and Hinduism. Over these twenty years, I have focused first and foremost on my spiritual growth—reading and practicing—and secondly, reflecting on this practice through my career, writing, and community work.


I was twenty-two years old when I went to India, and this life-changing journey lives on in my heart and soul. My trip did not have an ethnographic purpose. I carried spiritual books and talked to spiritual masters. I learned the basics of Buddhist philosophy and struggled with their application to life. “Life is suffering. Everything that is subject to arising is subject to cessation.” These were very different from the laws of life I had learned growing up in America. On this trip, I also began to study yoga along the way with private teachers. A few years later, I became more dedicated to yoga, because of the physical and bhakti practices which appealed more to my personal inclination. As I learned more about the philosophy of yoga, I realized that ancient yoga teachings, called by the Hindus “sanatan dharma,” were in fact the original basis for Buddhism. I eventually decided to take up the yoga path with dedication, after I found my yoga teacher Swami Sitaramananda and continued my spiritual journey from there within the lineage of Swami Sivananda Saraswati (Dashanami Sampradaya).


Somewhere along the way I decided to take my activist leanings into teaching politics. All along while teaching public policy, I was intrigued about the subject of “Engaged Buddhism.” It seems for some reason that Buddhism has something “in it” that seemed to encourage political engagement for Westerners earlier than that of our current yoga activists. Or at least that scholars and activists have chosen to identify Buddhist activism as a field in itself. Many activists and public intellectuals—such as Joanna Macy, Andrew Harvey, and Marianne Williamson– on the global scale refer to Engaged Buddhism as a source of inspiration. This paper is an exploration of what engaged Buddhism is, and, more specifically, how it is practiced in community settings. Because of my interest in ecology and alter-globalization, my goal is to find possible application of these principles for other social settings.


Special thanks to my original traveling companion in India, Mark Ackermoore who is now working on these ideas in practice through the Dharmalaya Institute in Bir, Himachal Pradesh, India (dharmalaya.in), and for editorial revisions from Praba Pilar and Dr. Larry Bogad at University of California, Davis.



“Two thousand, five hundred years ago, the Buddha Shakyamuni predicted that the next Buddha will be named Maitreya, the “Buddha of Love.” I think the Buddha of Love may be born as a community and not just as an individual. Communities of mindful living are crucial for our survival and the survival of our planet. A good Sangha can help us resist the speed, violence, and unwholesome ways of our time.”

– Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace



INTRODUCTION: Community, Space and Ritual

I am concerned primarily here with the formation of Buddhist communities, and how they function as oppositional agents against the forces of poverty-inducing social regimes. While they number in the thousands in terms of variety and intensity, communities constructed out of Buddhist principles represent as a whole a subversive potentiality in response to the dominant structures of inequity-based economics, hierarchical social power, and glorified violence. People living in these communities utilize practices that deconstruct typical power relations and which are expressed through very specific, Buddhist-informed notions of space, ritual and language. In the performance of these intentional communities, people’s effort towards systemic social change is grounded in local actions, and governed by the alternative concepts of: mindfulness, cooperation, and non-violence, which in turn further the possibility of sustainability and permaculture.

We will look at Buddhist concepts and thinkers­­­–namely, Vietnamese monk and activist Thich Nhat Hanh, founder of Plum Village in South France and A.T. Ariyatne, founder of the Sarvodaya movement in Sri Lanka­–­to identify some basic tenets of Buddhist activist principles and how those are reflected in the process of lived community. One of my goals here is to place these concepts in conversation with Western critical philosophy, in order to translate them into a framework that can prove useful for community organizers and policy planners.

As a starting point, I inter-relate foundations of Buddhist philosophy with the Western philosophy of Husserlian phenomenology. Buddhist spaces are, in turn, analyzed through the critical lens of Henri Lefebvre. His theories of spatiality are reflected upon in relation to Thich Nhat Hanh’s explanation of the intrinsic Buddhist concept of community. David Kertzer’s theoretical work on ritual in politics informs the discussion of repetitious acts, both of a worshipful and alternative political nature. Communication and language in Buddhist communities will be analyzed in terms of Foucault’s conception of how self-knowledge and communal understanding can be enacted through discourse. More specifically, language is related to the performance of self in relation to community, through analyzing rituals associated with the concept of ego-negation (such as meditation, singing, and facilitated group meetings). Aspects of Buddhist social organizing are also touched upon in the conclusion, in relation to the role of pro-active social action in the greater society.

This paper analyzes the significance of Buddhist symbolism rooted in communal daily living, and how these particular social symbols challenge relationships to larger, more dominant social networks, with application to global relationships between countries and companies. The performance of “being in community” consists of ritual acts of survival, representing a radical response to the violence, despair and environmental degradation endemic to the 21st century. In conclusion, I will address the question of sustainability for social movements, and whether or not Buddhist community formation provides a good model for resistant groups with a more secular focus. The larger social question is how the worldwide movements for peace, justice and sustainability may be able to find new, and creative, avenues for action through the Buddhist model of non-violence and community empowerment.


BUDDHISM: Philosophical Engagement

In approaching Buddhism and politics, we will follow two roads. Initially, through a discussion of basic Buddhist principles and the idea of community, I consider isolated Buddhist groups that operate strictly on classical Buddhist teachings and practices. As my discussion turns to the integration of spiritual development with social action, we will turn to the Sarvodaya movement in Sri Lanka to see how Buddhism has been successfully applied to community development across ethnic and religious divisions.

In Being Peace, Thich Nhat Hanh describes the main Buddhist concept that “life is suffering,” meaning that everyone suffers from mental, social and emotional pain. Basic Buddhist teachings—known as “The Four Noble Truths”–contend that through the illusion of attachment to the material world, people create pain for themselves. An ensuing cycle of karma and reincarnation keeps people from understanding freedom through non-attachment to material objects, which are a product of socialization. According to Shakyamuni Buddha, “Everything that is subject to arising is subject to cessation.” It is the Eastern equivalent of Husserl’s foundational concept of phenomenology—namely that there is no ontological status for objects outside or transcendent from consciousness itself. In 1917, during his inaugural lecture at the Albert Ludwig Univerity at Freiburg, Husserl gave the following remarks:

Through this exposition of the concept of “phenomenon” we obtain a preliminary conception of a general phenomenology, viz., a science of objective phenomena of every kind, the science of every kind of object, an “object” being taken purely as something having just those determinations with which it presents itself in consciousness and in just those changing modes through which it so presents itself. It would be the task of phenomenology, therefore, to investigate how something perceived, something remembered, something phantasied, something pictorially represented, something symbolized looks as such, i.e., to investigate how it looks by virtue of that bestowal of sense and of characteristics which is carried out intrinsically by the perceiving, the remembering, the phantasying, the pictorial representing, etc., itself. (Husserl 1917) [my emphasis]


Husserl rejected the idea that natural objects could be seen to have any objective or inherent “meaning.” Without slipping into reductive reasoning, Husserl’s theory of the object is raised here to put him outside of the historical debate over whether he was a realist or an idealist. Through insisting that sense experience take precedence over object permanence, Husserl echoes the Eastern concept of “maya,” or sense illusion. As a philosophy, Buddhism likewise emphasizes the significance of the individual’s mind, or consciousness, in the manufacture of gross physical, emotional, and mental states. In the practice of Buddhism, the practitioner applies techniques to reduce attachment to the material world, and see the transcendent nature of phenomena.

In the political sense, materialist critics of spirituality—both academics and activists—assume that the transcendental approach leads to an erasure of social difference. A common challenge to Westerners practicing Eastern religion is that it is escapism in the most leisurely sense: “If we all just sit on a cushion, the world will disappear and everyone will be happy.” From personal experience, I can say that usually quite the opposite occurs. Meditation brings reality to the forefront of consideration. In his essay “Spiritual Practice and Social Action,” meditation teacher Jack Kornfield recounts the Islamic phrase “Praise Allah, and tie your camel to the post.” (Kotler 15) In response to such materialist critiques, I propose that the history of engaged Buddhism fully indicates that through study of Buddhist philosophy and integration of practices, people can potentially overcome social barriers that prevent cooperation and peaceful development.

Thich Nhat Hanh describes the Buddhist antidote to the predicament of mind delusion, or the phenomena of consciousness, mainly through the practice of taking refuge in the “Three Gems” (the Buddha, dharma (truth teachings) and sangha (spiritual community). Through practicing the teachings of Buddha and mutual association with like-minded individuals, the reasoning is, personal and social suffering can be relieved and overcome. The Buddhist lifestyle, or what classical philosophers would consider to be simply the pursuit of one’s own truth, is oriented around a structure laid out by Guatama Buddha called “The Noble Eight-Fold Path.” These are: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Buddhist communities are organized and inhabited with these ethical and mental guideposts in mind.


SANGHA: The Buddhist Community

As one of the Three Jewels at the foundation of their faith, the Buddhist concept of sangha implies honoring community. In its most traditional sense, sangha indicates the ordained Buddhist monastic order. Sangha in various countries and types of Buddhism vary greatly in their customs and rituals, but the same core principles operate across the cultural and linguistic lines. Early Western Buddhist scholar Christmas Humphreys established the first Buddhist Society in Europe in 1924, and traced the lineage of Buddhism’s contact with the West in his 1951 book Buddhism: An introduction and guide. In it he reflects perfectly Westerners’ initial reaction to the formalism of the sangha, where monks were obligated to maintain 227 “Rules of the Order”: “The interest between Western Buddhists and the Sangha has always flowed both ways…The tendency, at present, therefore, is for those who wish to devote their lives to the study and practice of Buddhism in the East to follow the Anagarika Dharmapala and to remain on the fringe of the Sangha as an anagarika, or ‘homeless one’, keeping most of the Bikkus’ Precepts, but retaining the right to adapt the Bhikkus’ life to Western needs.” (226-7)

Over the years, as Buddhism has developed in the West, monks like Thich Nhat Hanh have established full communities of Westerners living together with an adapted form of the classical Buddhist sangha, to bring that knowledge into the West in an acceptable form. When French philosopher Michel Foucault visited a Zen temple in Japan in 1978, he said what interested him most was “life itself in a Zen temple, that is to say the practice of Zen, its exercises and rules. For I believe that a totally different mentality to our own is formed through the practice and exercises of a Zen temple.” (1999)

As Zen Buddhist Richard Baker notes,


The Buddhist sangha is one of the oldest continuing institutions in the worlds. It represents the potential or capacity of a society to live together—if a few people can find a way to live together, then many people can find a way to live together. It is this effort and example, rather than the scale of its success, that offer a society a model and an opportunity to deepen its expression. A community can give us the space and support needed to express ourselves individually and with others in the simplest, most adequate way. (Kotler 191)


In The Engaged Buddhist Reader, Thich Nhat Hanh touches on the importance of community for the development of personal mindfulness, a state of mind that in turn assists in the production of peaceful communities. Hanh privileges the communal aspect of living over the study of sutras, the Buddhist spiritual scriptures. He stresses, “If you are a psychotherapist, a doctor, a social worker, a peace worker, or an environmentalist, you need a Sangha. Without a Sangha, you will burn out very soon.” (198) Spiritual practices are only relevant in terms of their communal expression. Hanh further relates, “I practice for you, and you practice for me. Other people are very important.” (197)

Thich Nhat Hanh extends his discussion of sangha outside the intentional community, because he reveals that many people come to secluded communities in order to escape their problems. He relates those exhibiting avoidance to the mythical hungry ghosts of Buddhist folklore, who wander forever with their huge, hungry bellies but with throats too small to accept the nourishment being offered to them. He suggests that people can develop community in their own homes, by considering all the elements of their life as a part of community. He advises people to invite friends around to share in spiritual activities. Hanh proposes, “Combining the nuclear family with the practice family may be a successful model.” (201)

He discusses the invention of the nuclear family and its drawbacks of isolation, of personal problems and despair at approaching social ills, and suggests a way forward through a social concept he calls “interbeing.” Hanh explains, “Our sorrow and suffering, our joy and peace have their roots in society, nature, and those with whom we live. When we practice mindful living and deep looking, we see the truth of interbeing.” (199)

Even though Western culture–the United States in particular, especially since the modernist era–has been characterized as focused on the success of the “individual-entrepreneur-auteur” sine qua non, communal collectives have their own history within the West. Utilizing an extremely limited series of Greek texts, Michel Foucault, in his book Fearless Speech, recounts a similar philosophy within the community life of ancient Epicureans who “with the importance they gave to friendship, emphasized community life more than other philosophers at this time.” (108)

Foucault describes a meeting practice that he calls “mutual confession,” an activity that parallels the “interbeing” referred to by Thich Nhat Hanh. Epicurean group members would gather together to provide feedback to one another to “disclose their thoughts, faults, misbehavior and so on,” a practice described by Philodemus in his essay “On Frank Speaking” as “salvation by one another.” (114) Foucault notes that it is through the group process, and mainly in a secluded community, that philosophical concepts were cultivated and spread to the culture-at-large. This interbeing, also a reflection of the Buddhist concept of non-duality, unsettles the modern Western notion of individuality.

A way that interbeing is expressed externally is through language and cultivating non-violent communication. In his book about mindfulness and public service, Thich Nhat Hanh explains the power of what he calls “deep listening and loving speech.” He describes the ways in which a person can listen compassionately to another even when the other is full of anger and hatred. This technique is used in retreats worldwide to re-establish dialogue among partners, friends, and colleagues. (Hanh 2005) In another book Peace Begins Here, he describes his work with Israelis and Palestinians, who at the beginning of a reconciliation retreat cannot even bear to look directly into each others’ faces or eyes. (Hanh 2004) Hanh notes that it is not finding a solution to a problem that is largely out of their own hands, but rather, finding a way to listen that provides a way forward for both groups.

A common reason that dialogue tends to break down among social groups is that their goals and strategies for achieving them are fundamentally different. This leads to misunderstanding and is at the root of most conflict situations. As one of the pillars of the Buddhist eight-fold path, right speech is critical toward self-realization and developing compassion for others. In a Buddhist community, students are routinely self-correcting and communally correcting behavior towards a compassionate way of being. This progress is built into the nature of the spiritual path, but is lacking in many families, organizations and communities today. Clinical psychologist Marshall Rosenberg has documented ways to navigate these treacherous waters in his training manual Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, as well as set up the Center for Nonviolent Communication that trains people throughout the world. His techniques were originally developed out of work in meditation and peacemaking with civil rights activists during school desegregation in the 1960s.

An interesting aspect of the training is that it first concerns the person with interacting with oneself in a compassionate way, in order to facilitate peaceful negotiations and solution finding with others. The four nonviolent processes of communication include: 1. Observing the events that are affecting our wellbeing, 2. How we feel in relation to that, 3. The needs, values and desires that are creating our feelings, 4. The concrete actions we request in order to enrich our lives. Rosenberg points out in his manual that the two defining characteristics of this communication are: honesty and empathy. (7) In his conclusion, Rosenberg widens the discussion by describing nonviolent communication as a way of dismantling a social setting that he calls “damaging cultural conditioning”:

Not only have we never been educated to be literate about our needs, we are often exposed to cultural training that actively blocks our consciousness in this way. As mentioned earlier, we have inherited a language that served kings and powerful elites in domination societies. The masses, discouraged from developing awareness of their own needs, have instead been educated to be docile and subservient to authority…By encouraging us to separate observation and evaluation, to acknowledge the thoughts or needs shaping our feelings, and to express our requests in clear action language, NVC heightens our awareness of the cultural conditioning influencing us at any given moment. (171-2)


Non-violent communication is a modern-day version of speaking that reflects the Buddhist concepts of non-duality and interbeing, and provides possibility for encouraging self-reflective political awareness in the citizenry of late capitalist societies. This notion is echoed in Foucault’s research on the classical Greek concept of parrhesia. In it, Foucault recounts the role of speaking and language in the ancient Western world, as the concept translates literally—“to say literally.” Parrhesia speaks to the social relevance of communication as it moves its power from the private sphere into the public sphere. Foucault emphasizes the ethical boundaries of such speech: “To my mind, the parrhesiastes [“truth speaker”] says what is true because he knows that it is true; and he knows that it is true because it is really true. The parrhesiastes is not only sincere and says what is his opinion, but his opinion is also the truth. He says what he knows to be true…The fact that a parrhesiastes says something dangerous—different from what the majority believes—is a strong indication that he is a parrhesiastes.” [his emphasis] (14-15)

Parrhesia is also a particular kind of “speech act,” in the sense implied by John Searle in that it is not only about speaking the truth, but also quintessentially a self-referential gesture, implying self-knowledge at the same time as communicating the speech content. (2001, 12-13) The one exhibiting parrhesia is consumed by an awareness, or sampanajanna in the Buddhist sense of clarity and presence of mind, about how s/he arrived at that point of truthful understanding. The awareness is translated into action–first through self-development, then through compassionate speaking, and finally through communicating the needs of the group or society for social betterment. For the remainder of the paper, I will discuss how the philosophies of community and interbeing are facilitated and developed beyond language, through particular spatial and ritualistic practices in Buddhist communities.


SPACE: The Buddhist Topography

In the field of critical spatiality, how people interact within a space indicates varying levels of social difference and commonality. In a place such as the Middle East, the wall that the Israeli government is constructing around the West Bank and Gaza Strip is a very obvious marker of spatiality. The wall speaks of separation, division, and social hierarchy. Since space is such a marker of social thought, Zen Buddhism, as an iconoclastic approach to the religion, takes very seriously the idea of space. As Baker relates: “The physical care and expression of our situation and life are very important in Zen practice.” (Kotler 191)

Religious studies scholar Jon Berquist has outlined various critical approaches to spatiality in order to understand how people experience their lives in terms of space. According to Berquist, “space is inherently relational.” He notes that the most important theorist for critical spatiality is Henri Lefebvre. As a Marxist, Lefebvre holds the view that “ideas of space are creations of political practice, social system, division of labor, and mode of production.” (Berquist 1999) In the Buddhist worldview, these spatial functions are inter-woven through a sonic and ritual landscape facilitating self-awakening and compassionate social interaction.

Baker describes life in a Zen Buddhist community, including visual aspects and those related to physical movement and their facilitation of communal familiarity and social bonds. Bells, drums and sounding boards all “articulate and relate space and events.” Physical passages are designed according to what people are doing in the space, and stone walkways go the long way around buildings in order to change people’s pace and encourage mindful thinking. As a practice, meditation also creates space, a mental kind of space that allows for community building. As a mode for personal change, it also facilitates subsequent social bonding. Baker suggests that meditation is “the provider of a deep sense of openness and space that reduce many of the problems that naturally occur in community.” (191)

Mindful work is also an important aspect of the Zen Buddhist community, as people spend time together taking care of the basic needs of their existence. Baker remarks, “The work we do together is too valuable to sacrifice to machines or the saving of time.” (192) Baker contrasts the Buddhist community ethic to the Western idea of individuality, and the decline of “association and mutuality” in the West. “Few people understand or act through the responsibility of association and mutuality. Community represents that compassionate good will and realistic regard for others and ourselves that establishes and maintains a human social order. It is the natural expression and necessary basis of real freedom.” (192)

Baker’s reading of Buddhist sangha is one that resists dominant culture. It is a response to competition and the labor-driven market. This communal strategy for cooperation interwoven with the individual’s search for dharma, or personal truth, echoes Lefebvre’s concept that space is “an active force that is knowledge and action.” (Berquist 1999) Building on Lefebvre’s theory, Edward Soja emphasized the idea of space as resistance, qualifying three social levels for each space lived in. The first space describes the geophysical realities as perceived; thus, the bells and walkways serve to guide the person physically. Second space includes “mapped realities as presented,” which include the teachings and conventions related to sangha, a community that lives, works, and seeks the truth “in harmony and awareness.” (Hanh 1987) Finally, Soja’s “third space” covers “lived realities as practiced,” such as meditation, eating communally in silence, or studying stories about the Buddha’s life.

In the Buddhist paradigm, then, there is a hyper-awareness of how space figures into social evolution motivated by self-understanding. This space is not only a physical space, but also preeminently a psychic one that facilitates greater levels of conscious “beingness” on a personal level and, in turn, the social level. Rituals in the Buddhist community are enacted to craft a state of “mindfulness” within the self. In Peace Is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh describes the “bells of mindfulness” at Plum Village. “In my tradition,” he remarks, “We use the temple bells to remind us to come back to the present moment. Every time we hear the bell, we stop talking, stop our thinking, and return to ourselves, breathing in and out, and smiling. Whatever we are doing, we pause for a moment and just enjoy our breathing. Sometimes we also recite this verse: Listen, listen. This wonderful sound brings me back to my true self.” (18-19) [his emphasis]

In fact, the verse is not only recited, but is purposefully embedded into a somatic ritual. The residents will mentally think “listen listen” as they breathe in, and while breathing out, say to themselves “this wonderful sound brings me back to my true self.” Bells are a symbol of the Buddhist concept of “awakening,” a state of pure consciousness that emerges through the process of increasingly developing awareness. The bell initiates a process of embodied self-reflection that creates mindfulness in the practitioner—of life as a whole entity, of the simple nature of reality—and allows space for breathing and thinking (or non-thinking, as it were). This connection to the greater whole operates for the Buddhist as a psycho-social loop as it were, bringing the person back into a space where s/he acts upon life with “present moment awareness.”

In Ritual, Politics and Power, political scientist David Kertzer struggles with balancing the role of ritual as both a controlling and liberating force for politics, although Kertzer’s theory is incomplete as it relies rather heavily on the prescriptive nature of ritual. He writes: “paradoxically, what is persuasive about ritual is the way it discourages critical thinking. As a form of formalized communication, it presents us with a well-defined course of action.” (85) The “bells of mindfulness” appear to be a strange example in that, like parrhesia, as a ritual of self-awareness, the end product of the ritual emphasizes the transparency of the process itself.

It is this type of rupturing ritual, like bells of mindfulness, that can be integrated into progressive mechanisms for social change—not necessarily in the literal sense, but certainly in a figurative one. The practice has multiple applications, as Thich Nhat Hanh comments, for instance, that “even non-sounds, such as the rays of sunlight coming through the window, are bells of mindfulness.” (20) Consider the struggle undertaken to truly respect “consensus governance” in affinity groups and all manner of social organizing. It is often thrown out in favor of majority rule for time’s sake. By incorporating the philosophy—and perhaps practice, as well–of mindfulness bells, consensus-driven politics may be undertaken in a completely different way—one that acknowledges reflection while reducing reactivity, and allowing space for consensus to emerge.


CONCLUSION: Relating Buddhism to Social Movements

            The tenets of Buddhism also have a more general application to social movements outside secluded communities. The Sarvodaya movement in Sri Lanka has taken the concepts of Buddhism and applied them to community development in 12,000 villages over the past forty years. Sarvodaya was a term used by Gandhi, which he adopted to mean “well being of all” or “awakening of all.” (Chappell) In Buddhism at Work, Northwestern University scholar George Bond portrays the Sarvodaya Movement as a model for communities around the world attempting to cope with the intersecting forces of corporate globalization and terror. This examination of the movement’s history and principles covers how both economic and political empowerment are achieved through this form of community organizing. Sarvodaya founder A.T. Ariyaratne, describes it as “an integrated self-development approach to counteract the causes that bring about conflicts, crimes and war.” (Chappell 70) He uses the Buddhist notion of “dependent arising” to highlight social interdependency and its usefulness for grassroots organizing. Even though founded and moved by Buddhism, the movement has reached out to and included community members of all faiths, including Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity. Ariyaratne has written that “the goal of Sarvodaya is a no poverty/no affluence society where there is sustained peace and justice for all.” (Chappell 70) Sarvodaya attempts to give communities the skills and resources to satisfy their own needs over reliance on the government and non-governmental organizations.

Like Thich Nhat Hanh, Ariyaratne discusses the inter-relatedness of various social problems. He praises the protection and harnessing of ancient cultural values, such as spirituality, the extended family, and community, which he believes are still effectively operating in 85 percent of the world, but are routinely overlooked by bureaucratized social development organizations. Ariyaratne summarizes this approach: “We believe that by raising the level of spiritual consciousness of people in a physical and social environment where needs are satisfied as a result of self-reliance, we are laying a strong psychosocial foundation for lasting peace within human minds and among communities.” (Chappell 72) Ariyatne has rejected international finance and corporate development, emphasizing localization and also encouraging states to refuse to repay foreign debt. Activist Joanna Macy has commented on the Sarvodaya movement, stating that it represents a social empowerment effort that respects the people’s intelligence, who themselves form the foundation of the social movement. (Ingram)

As a movement, the organization has graduated levels of local, state, inter-state and global committees to facilitate change, but the core of the program rests on its local organizing efforts. On the individual level shramadana peace camps are the first step, and communicate to community members the importance of the brahma-viharas (Four Divine Abidings): loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. (18) Shramadana means “the gifting or the voluntary sharing of one’s labor and resources for the awakening of oneself and others.” (70)

Peacebuilding occurs mainly through work projects at the local level, encouraged by utilizing techniques such as cooperative work, singing, meditation, training camps, subsequent organizational formation, and developing strategies to respond to multinational problems. There are strict guidelines for organizing communities after the initial peace camp, into committees that are balanced on age, gender and religion, and continue organizing efforts through the organization at regional and national levels.

There are two basic concepts at work in this model—gram swaraj and deshodaya. “In Sarvodaya’s usage, the terms are closely related: gram swaraj signifies the liberation of the village through the creation of economic and social programs at the grassroots level; and deshodaya signifies the national and political outcome of this village liberation process.” (104) In the development of a national organization, these personal ethics are tied rhetorically to related political models. “Sarvodaya’s leaders refer to the Gandhian panchayat ideal and the ancient Buddhist republics…to provide authoritative models to counter the Western political and economic model.” (112-113) Unfortunately, even though Sarvodaya’s leaders understand that these are mere models open to critique, the followers do not always understand flexibility and fear ecuminicity, thus making it more difficult to build a political base for widespread buy-in. It seems the power in this model of organizing is at the local level, and that the most difficult process is extrapolating it to the national and international level, a subject that warrants further consideration but which is somewhat beyond the bounds of the current discussion.

Sarvodaya survives in deep contrast to the perception in the United States of our failed legacy of communal living attempted in the 1960s and 70s. But perhaps we can take a broad view to see the impact of those experiments. As a child, I can remember playing in the muddy irrigation ditches at my mother’s family farm in Elk Grove, California. Grandpa had passed away, and Grandma moved to town with her new boyfriend, leaving the dairy farm that had been built by a Japanese family to my mom’s brother—traditional bathhouse and all. These were the early 70s, and my uncle was one of those who was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam draft, had run off during high school to the Yogananda ashram in Nevada City, and was now home running the family farm under the moniker of “Dharma Gardens.” He helped start the Sacramento Food Co-op, and used his knowledge from a community college degree in botany to diversify the family crops. Now, fast-forward thirty years—Uncle Ted is still living on a farm, now on an island in Oregon.

Only the face of things has changed–this is how I would like to look at the legacy of Sixties communal living. I grew up in communities that were products of those experiments in ecology, spirituality and free living. On the one hand, there was a change in consciousness—turning away from the 1950s myth of domestic bliss—towards a more accepting, non-hierarchical society. This is evidenced, for example, in the ongoing lifestyle choices of communities in places like Bolinas, the Russian River Valley, and towns scattered throughout the Sierra Nevada Mountains—people working tax-free, squatting or building sustainably, and continuing to live creatively in response to the capitalist, corporate marketplace.

Out of this general cultural transformation emerged, notably, the ecology movement, “alternative culture,” and a number of spiritual based institutions. While the majority of communes themselves did not last (and there are several that have), intentional communities founded on Eastern philosophy have continued to thrive (e.g. Green Gulch, Spirit Rock, Mount Madonna, San Francisco Zen Center, Esalen, Harbin Hot Springs, Sivananda Ashram, Yogananda ashram, etc. and etc.) As an experiment, the yoga-Buddhist paradigm for social change has persisted slowly and steadily, with spiritual communities working in relationship with local communities and serving as a base and meeting place for teachers, activists and eager students. The key here is not so much to see Buddhist or intentional communities as an ends, but rather in their role as facilitators of non-hierarchical social values. Instead of moving everyone to a Zen monastery, how might we view Buddhist values as a way to encourage people to find their own solutions to problems in their communities, like in the Sarvodaya model?

In conclusion, I would like to reference the critical work of Michael Nagler, professor emeritus at UC Berkeley, where he helped establish the Peace and Conflict Studies Program. In his book The Search for a Nonviolent Future, he reflects on the critical necessity for the philosophy of nonviolence after September 11th, 2001. In practical terms for community development, Nagler supports the “Constructive Programme,” a concept and organizing model originally espoused by Mahatma Gandhi. He notes adeptly that the Constructive Programme is like “the two edges of the sword of satyagraha.” Most people generally think of nonviolence as a pacifist strategy, which misses a great part of the Mahatma’s overall strategy. One aspect is that of refusing to accept violence, of non-cooperation with social control, domination and subjugation. Nagler calls this part an “obstructive program.” This is what we typically think of when someone mentions using Gandhian tactics, or nonviolence, in our organizing and reacting to the power structures of money, status, and violence.

But consider the other lesser known aspect of Gandhi’s nonviolence, which is a productive response “where you create things and make corrections in and on your own community.” (160) Nagler writes: “Ironically, the constructive edge is actually far more important than the confrontational/obstructive side of which we’re becoming relatively aware.” (161) Gandhi created 14 programs in India that sought to develop the society, as well as using nonviolence politically to overthrow the British colonial regime. Like Sarvodaya, the model was focused on localized action, a pattern that needs to be understood for community development to bring lasting social change and peace in our communities today.

When we talk about social movements in abstract terms, we are better able to realize positive change in actual terms. Sarvodayan organizers have had to side-step public programs in many instances in order to make these changes a reality. A Buddhist political framework assumes—and in actuality, necessitates–that lasting social change occurs primarily at the local level through community building efforts. But–how can we hope for sustained community cooperation such as Sarvodaya in a me-driven, capitalist society such as ours? What motivates people to come together? Again, it seems that the specific drive for personal realization in conjunction with community improvement at the core of Sarvodaya, and Buddhist philosophy in general, offers some promise.

Ariyaratne has reflected upon his approach: “The Sarvodaya path to justice and peace (is) through a participatory democracy that evolves from the bottom up.” (Chappell 73) He notes that philosophically grounded social change requires lots of sacrifice and is time consuming, but after 41 years, he has concluded “there is no shorter path to transform our society from a psychology of killing and threats to kill to one that is life-enhancing and spiritually fulfilling.” (ibid) And why not accept this model in the West? Perhaps it is our own cultural and intellectual arrogance that prevents us from even starting.

Foucault, even though his stay in the Zen temple was short, did travel to several temples on his numerous trips to Japan. He noted in his conversation with a Zen priest that he thought Western philosophy to be at the height of a crisis. He said: “The crisis of Western thought is identical to the end of imperialism…For Western thought in crisis expresses itself by discourses which can be very interesting, but which are neither specific nor extraordinary. There is no philosopher who marks out this period. For it is the end of the era of Western philosophy.” (1999, 113) Foucault genuinely believed that philosophical “re-examinations can be followed by confronting Western thought with Eastern thought.” (1999, 113) But even today, we find that systems of Eastern knowledge—Zen, yoga, tantra–are still not taught in the Western academy as philosophy, worthy of basing political or social models upon. Eastern philosophy is relegated to religious studies or cultural studies or area studies. In India, several universities offer Ph.D.’s in yoga history, Buddhism and classical languages, for this is their philosophical tradition.

It is not only our Western-ness that inhibits our understanding Buddhist social change. The characteristics of post-9/11 America—isolation of individuals, the nuclear family model, highly mediated culture—pose another significant challenge. In 2005, Thich Nhat Hanh entered the Los Angeles airport accompanied by 120 of his monastic students in order to give a retreat in America on transformation and healing. He was searched in a private room by security guards for over an hour, while they looked through his luggage and read his personal letters. As he tells the story, “They also questioned a fellow monk, who had a Ph.D. in Chemistry, to find out if he ever made bombs. The security guards were not looking for my Buddha nature; they were looking for my terrorist nature.” (Hanh, Calming 2005, 9)

It is exactly because of these extreme circumstances—ever-present threats to our civil liberties accompanied by high levels of fear and mistrust–that I am suggesting social movements of all kinds should consider the re-making of community, rather than new political programs, as a starting point for tackling our inter-related economic and environmental problems. Rather than creating new bureaucracies and budgets, why not approach social change as building new communities from within?


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