The worldliness of Buddhism. (ancient religion)

Donald K. Swearer

The Wilson Quarterly
Vol.21 No.2 (Spring 199)

COPYRIGHT 1997 Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

            Despite Buddhism's growing presence in the West, most Americans 
            still badly misunderstand this ancient world religion. The leaders 
            of Philadelphia's Thai community were rudely reminded of this 
            unpleasant fact during the 1980s when they set out to buy land for a 
            Buddhist temple and monastery not far from the City of Brotherly 
            Love. After searching nearly a year, the Thais were delighted to 
            find a lovely 10-acre site overlooking a lake in southeastern 
            Pennsylvania's Chester County. All that was needed was the local 
            zoning board's permission to use the site for religious purposes. 
               Arriving on the appointed day for their hearing before the board, 
            the group's leaders were surprised to find an angry, 
            standing-room-only crowd packing the room. One after another during 
            the long evening, impassioned residents rose to vent their fears 
            about the Buddhists' plans. A Buddhist presence would destroy the 
            community's Christian and American values, some speakers said. 
            Others worried that proselytizing Buddhists would brainwash their 
            sons and daughters and lure them into esoteric religious practices. 
            Buddhism to these Americans was barely distinguishable from the Hare 
            Krishnas and other cults, an exotic threat to their world. The 
            dismayed Thais immediately withdrew their application. No one had 
            asked them about their intentions or aspirations. Nor did it seem 
            likely that anyone would. 
            Unfortunately, the opponents of the Buddhist temple in Chester 
            County were no worse informed about the nature of Buddhism than most 
            other Americans. To be sure, the view of Buddhism as a mystical 
            religion far removed from the realities of the workaday world has 
            been a major part of the faith's appeal in the West. Yet whether 
            this picture of Buddhism-as-esoteric-religion is seen in a negative 
            or positive light, it is still a flawed and one-dimensional 
            portrait. It is a portrait, however, with a long history. Some of 
            the earliest Western explicators of Buddhism, such as W. Y. 
            Evans-Wentz in Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrine (1935) and Alexandra 
            David-Neel in Magic and Mystery in Tibet (1929), painted Tibetan 
            Buddhism in shades of the exotic and esoteric. During the 1950s, D. 
            T. Suzuki's depiction of Zen Buddhism as antirational and 
            iconoclastic had great appeal to Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac 
            (author of The Dharma Bums [1958]), and other members of the Beat 
            Generation. The appeal spilled over into the counterculture 
            movement, which made books such as Alan Watt's Way of Zen (1957) and 
            Herman Hesse's Siddhartha (1922; translation 1951) part of the 
            young's standard equipment. Today, Buddhism is probably personified 
            for most people by the Dalai Lama and celebrity followers such as 
            actor Richard Gere. (That is only the beginning: the Dalai Lama is 
            featured in two upcoming Hollywood movies.) 
            The view of Buddhism held by many Westerners is one-sided, but not 
            totally without foundation. From its very beginning some 2,500 years 
            ago, there has been within Buddhism a tension between the 
            this-worldly and the other-worldly. This tension was at the heart of 
            many early doctrinal controversies about such matters as the nature 
            of Nirvana, the purpose of monastic life, and the character of the 
            relationship between monks and the laity. Its origins go back to the 
            life of the founder, Siddhartha Gautama, known as the Buddha, or the 
            Enlightened One. 
            Buddhism emerged in what is now southern Nepal during the sixth 
            century B.C.E. The traditional dates of the Buddha's life are 
            563-483 B.C.E., although some modern scholars place his lifetime 
            more than 100 years later. It was a time of unusual upheaval and 
            change throughout the world, as the widespread adoption of iron 
            tools and weapons revolutionized farming and warfare. During the 
            Buddha's lifetime, the vast plains of northern India nourished by 
            the Ganges River and its tributaries were being remade. The region's 
            thick forests were disappearing as an expanding population claimed 
            more and more land for paddy rice and other cultivated crops. New 
            towns and cities sprang up, and with them came a radically new 
            political order as powerful rulers absorbed the region's many small, 
            autonomous states into larger kingdoms and empires. The Buddha 
            himself lived to see the land of his clan, the Sakyas, overrun by 
            another kingdom, which itself later fell to an even larger empire. 
               Elsewhere in the ancient world, similar changes were bringing 
            forth other thinkers and prophets, from Confucius and Lao-tse in 
            China to Thales, Heraclitus, and other pre-Socratics in Greece. In 
            India, the Buddha and other mendicant truth seekers including 
            Makkhali Gosala and Mahavira, the respective founders of the 
            Ajavikas and the Jains - attracted small groups of disciples who 
            followed an informal code of religious discipline and shared many of 
            the same religious concepts. They set themselves against the 
            dominant Brahmanism, which elevated a priestly caste to prominence. 
            The charismatic challengers, although not revered as divine, were 
            honored both for their teachings and for magical feats achieved 
            through the disciplines of yoga, meditation, and asceticism. 
            Solid facts about the Buddha's life are scarce. The earliest sacred 
            biographies, such as the Buddhacarita (The acts of the Buddha), 
            written in the second century B.C.E., are mostly myth and legend. 
            Buddhism's many different traditions have different versions of the 
            Buddha story, and there even are variations within each tradition. 
               In the version accepted by Theravada Buddhists, who are 
            predominant in Southeast Asia, the Buddha was born Prince Siddhartha 
            Gautama, the son of the ruler of the Sakya clan in the foothills of 
            the Himalayas. Shortly after his birth, eight learned fortunetellers 
            predicted that Siddhartha would become either a universal, 
            world-conquering monarch or a fully enlightened Buddha. Distressed 
            at the prospect that his son might not succeed him, Siddhartha's 
            father surrounded him with material pleasures and possessions. At 
            the age of 16 the prince married, and his father built him three 
            splendid palaces, one for each season, where he was attended by 
            servants and concubines and no less than 40,000 dancing girls. 
            During the next 17 years, according to legendary accounts, 
            Siddhartha was "wholly given over to pleasure." 
            The story takes a dramatic turn when the prince encounters a 
            decrepit old man, a grievously ill man, a corpse, and finally an 
            ascetic. These experiences threw Siddhartha into despair. His 
            palace, "as splendid as the palace of the chief of the gods, began 
            to seem like a charnal ground filled with dead bodies and the three 
            modes of existence [past, present, future] like houses of fire." He 
            vowed to live the life of a wandering ascetic in a quest for an 
            eternal truth beyond the transient truths of ordinary sense 
            perception and beyond the inexorable realities of aging, sickness, 
            and death. For six years he wandered northern India with five 
            disciples (one of whom was one of the original eight 
            fortunetellers). To no avail, he studied the teachings of the great 
            philosophers and masters of yoga and practiced extreme forms of 
            renunciation and asceticism, at times living on a single grain of 
            rice per day, at others going completely without food. These years, 
            says one Buddhist text, "were like time spent in endeavoring to tie 
            the air into knots." Finally, after he collapsed during a long fast 
            and was given up for dead by his followers, the Buddha abandoned 
            this path. 
            After he regained his health, the Buddha seated himself beneath a 
            tree and resolved not to rise until he had found enlightenment. To 
            achieve it he was forced to confront Mara, the lord of the senses, 
            who is strongly associated with death. Again, accounts of this epoch 
            battle between good and evil vary, but in the end Siddhartha defeats 
            the hosts his foe sends against him, calling on the power of Mother 
            Earth to defend himself. He spends the rest of the night in deep 
            meditation, finally attaining insight into the nature of suffering, 
            its cause and its cessation - a state of understanding and 
            equanimity called Nirvana. The tradition dates this event to 528 
            B.C.E., and the Buddha's first words uttered after his enlightenment 
            have been passed down in poetry and legend: 
            Long have I wandered; Long bound by the chain of life. Through many 
            births I have sought in vain The builder of this house [mind and 
            body]. Suffering is birth again and again. O housemaker [craving], I 
            now see you! You shall not build this house again. Broken are all 
            your rafters, Your roof beam destroyed. My mind has attained the 
            unconditioned, And reached the end of all craving. 
            The Buddha's victory represents the core teaching of early Buddhism: 
            suffering and death can be overcome only when ignorance and desire 
            have been put aside. This message was encapsulated in the Buddha's 
            first post-enlightenment teaching, Setting the Wheel of the Truth in 
            Motion. This discourse, delivered to his five disciples at what is 
            now the Deer Park in the holy city of Benares, enumerated the Four 
            Noble Truths: that life's pleasures and satisfactions are ultimately 
            unsatisfactory or unfulfilling, that this sense of dissatisfaction 
            is rooted in selfish attachment and greed based on an erroneous 
            perception of ego; that a deeper sense of purpose and meaning 
            (Nirvana) is achieved when the false sense of ego is transcended, 
            and that the way to this saving knowledge is by means of the Noble 
            Eightfold Path. The Path's eight elements are right understanding, 
            right intention, right speech, right conduct, right vocation, right 
            effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. 
            Before the five followers would accept his teaching, however, the 
            Buddha had to persuade them that in casting off his life as an 
            ascetic he had not merely embraced its opposite, a life of pleasure. 
            The path to enlightenment, he told them, required following a Middle 
            Way, avoiding the extremes of self-mortification and 
            self-indulgence. The Middle Way is a life of simplicity, not 
            discomfort. When the skeptical disciples finally accepted the 
            Buddha's teaching they became the first members of the sangha, or 
            religious order. They, too, eventually became, like the Buddha 
            himself, arhat (perfected ones), though their enlightenment was not 
            the equal of the full and perfect enlightenment of the Buddha. 
            Soon the sangha had 60 members, all of whom traveled to spread the 
            Buddha's teaching within an area of perhaps 200 square miles in 
            northern India, and all of whom became arhat. Their leader himself 
            spent 45 years as a mendicant teacher. According to Buddhist 
            accounts, he attracted followers from many social classes and walks 
            of life, including merchants, aristocrats, and even ascetics such as 
            the great yogi Kasyapa, whom the Buddha converted through feats of 
            levitation and clairvoyance. After some debate, the Buddha 
            reluctantly allowed women to undertake the monastic life. 
            Mahaprajapati, who was the Buddha's aunt as well as his stepmother, 
            became the first Buddhist nun. 
            The Western scholars and travelers who took up the study of Buddhism 
            in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were enthralled by this 
            story of the Buddha's renunciation and enlightenment. In their 
            writings they implicitly contrasted Buddhism with the faith-based 
            theism of Christianity, portraying it as a rational religious 
            philosophy pursued through a quiet life of renunciation and 
            meditation. A few of these early observers emphasized the more 
            mystical and esoteric aspects of Buddhism, but they shared with 
            other Westerners a focus on what the famed German sociologist Max 
            Weber called religious "virtuosos" - the Buddhist monks who 
            performed heroic feats of fasting and meditation in pursuit of 
            absolute truth. 
            It is largely because of these earlier writers, especially Weber, 
            that the West has acquired a skewed portrait of Buddhism as a 
            world-denying religion. Idealizing the sangha as a company of 
            renouncers, they tended to dismiss the everyday devotional Buddhism 
            of the faith's many ordinary adherents - including such things as 
            their veneration of the sangha and of Buddha images and relics - as 
            a corrupt form of Buddhism that arose as illiterate peasants 
            throughout Asia embraced the faith after the Buddha's death. In 
            these writers' hands, Buddhism was made to appear a faith virtually 
            without historical, sociological, and political dimensions. 
               But the "worldliness" of Buddhism may be said to have begun with 
            the Buddha himself. He was, after all, a man of considerable 
            charisma who worked ceaselessly after his enlightenment to show 
            others the way to the truth. Among his most important early 
            supporters were local kings and nobles in northern India, men who 
            had been moved by his words and deeds, such as King Bimbisara, the 
            ruler of the kingdom of Magadha. 
            The Buddha himself is said to have warned his followers on more than 
            one occasion against worshiping him. In the Samyutta-Nitkaya, he 
            sends away an overly attentive disciple named Vatkali, saying "What 
            good to you is this body of filth? He who sees the dharma 
            [teachings] sees me." Yet in his own lifetime the Buddha received 
            generous offerings from devoted lay followers, and veneration of his 
            bodily relics may have begun immediately after his death (apparently 
            from dysentery) and cremation in 483 B.C.E. According to Buddhist 
            sources, the Buddha's cremated remains were divided among eight 
            Indian rulers, who enshrined them in reliquary mounds (stupas) in 
            their kingdoms. Legend also recounts that King Asoka, who ruled 
            Magadha from about 273 to 232 B.C.E. and eventually extended his 
            dominion - and the influence of Buddhism - over much of the Indian 
            subcontinent, re-enshrined these relics at 84,000 locations 
            throughout India. As Buddhism later spread throughout Asia, ever 
            more elaborate and beautiful stupas were built. 
            The cult of stupas was one of the earliest forms of Buddhist 
            devotional religion. The stupa not only symbolized the Buddha but in 
            a magical sense made him present. Freestanding images of the Buddha 
            that began to appear as early as the first century B.C.E. served a 
            similar purpose. In his own lifetime, the Blessed One and the sangha 
            received offerings from their lay followers, who came not only to 
            hear religious teachings but hoping to gain some boon or benefit - 
            if not in this life then in some future one. After his death, 
            pilgrims traveled to the stupas in order to be in his presence, 
            bringing offerings of incense, flowers, and material goods. Monks, 
            who were originally respected chiefly as teachers of the Buddha's 
            dharma, came to be revered as representatives of his sacred wisdom 
            and repositories of his power. They, too, were showered with 
            offerings by hopeful laypeople. 
            Ordinary religious practice developed along different lines in 
            different countries, but it generally combines a concern with 
            otherworldly affairs with a very ordinary interest in such things as 
            good health and good crops. The faithful may worship at home before 
            their own shrines and at weekly temple rituals. Throughout the 
            Buddhist world, ceremonies and festivals mark major events such as 
            the lunar New Year, Buddha's Day, and changes in the agricultural 
            cycle. Some holidays are unique to certain locales or specially 
            attuned to local tastes. Chinese, Korean, and Japanese Buddhists 
            honor their ancestors during All Souls feasts. In Tibet, the new 
            year festival includes a ritual exorcism of evil; in Chiang Mai, in 
            northern Thailand, an image of the Buddha is paraded through the 
            streets in hopes of ensuring the onset of the monsoon rains. A day 
            at a temple fair with the raucous noise of hawkers and entertainers 
            would convince most outsiders that Buddhism is not all about 
            withdrawal and meditation. 
            These rituals, ceremonies, and festivals elevate life from the 
            mundane and give meaning to the seemingly random nature of human 
            experience by connecting it to a Buddhist narrative framework. 
            Buddhism also helps to define social ethics for laypeople, upholding 
            the virtues of generosity and loving kindness toward humans and 
            animals and placing a high value on honesty and uprightness. All 
            Buddhists are expected to embrace the Five Precepts - which forbid 
            killing, stealing, lying, adultery, and the consumption of alcohol. 
            From the renunciant elements of Buddhist practice comes an emphasis 
            on the values of simplicity, equanimity, and non-violence. These 
            values are not confined to the monastery. Lose your temper in a 
            20th-century Chiang Mai market, and ordinary Thais will soothe you 
            with the words jai-yen (literally, have a cool head). 
            While Buddhists have evolved various conceptions of salvation, early 
            Buddhism did not look for release in an eternal hereafter. The 
            Buddhist conception of existence is cyclical, with escape from the 
            pain of worldly existence possible only for those who attain Nirvana 
            after many lifetimes of effort. In Buddhism there is rebirth but no 
            reincarnation. The Buddha taught that the idea of a self or soul is 
            an illusion (a teaching that has caused endless debate among his 
            followers). What is reborn is a consciousness conditioned by the sum 
            of all past actions, or karma. 
            Buddhism's concern with earthly affairs began, in a sense, at the 
            top. As it spread through Asia during the centuries after the 
            Buddha's death, it owed much of its success to the support of 
            powerful kings, many of whom were attracted to Buddhism because it 
            provided a cosmological scheme legitimating a powerful, centralized 
            rule, a scheme rooted in a cyclical view of history. In the golden 
            age, a universal monarch presided over a realm free from poverty, 
            violence, and wrongdoing. But in a world marked by strife, 
            hostility, and greed, kings must maintain order in the secular 
            realm, by force if necessary, while the sangha presides over 
            spiritual life and guides monarchs to further the welfare of their 
            Probably not by accident, many of the important legends concerning 
            kingship date from about the time of Buddhism's most famous royal 
            patron, King Asoka. In about 264 B.C.E. Asoka conquered Kalinga, the 
            most powerful kingdom in India still independent of his rule, but 
            was so appalled by the horrors his armies had inflicted on the 
            Kalingans that he embraced the Buddha's teaching of nonviolence and 
            compassion. Asoka became convinced that the only true conquest was 
            not by force of arms but by the force of the teachings of religion. 
            If his heirs should also become conquerors, he wrote, "they should 
            take pleasure in patience and gentleness, and regard as (the only 
            true) conquest the conquest won by piety." 
            Asoka himself may not have been a practicing Buddhist, but there is 
            no doubt that he was an active supporter of the faith. He generously 
            subsidized the monastic order and did much to aid the spread of 
            Buddhism. He was, by all accounts, a wise and humane ruler, and 
            tolerant of other faiths (as were many later Buddhist rulers). On 
            rocks and stone pillars he erected throughout the lands under his 
            control - a number of them still standing - he engraved edicts 
            extolling virtuous behavior, commending specific Buddhist texts, and 
            encouraging his subjects to make the pilgrimage to Bodh-Gaya, the 
            Buddha's birthplace. 
            A religion that lives by royal patronage can also die without it. 
            Little more than 50 years after King Asoka's death in 232 B.C.E., 
            when his empire passed into the hands of Hindu successors, Buddhism 
            began to wane in the land of its birth. It would revive under royal 
            patronage, but after the 10th century C.E. its last lights in India 
            would flicker out under the combined assaults of a resurgent 
            Hinduism and invasions by the followers of Muhammad. 
            Throughout Asia, the relationship between state and sangha would be 
            vitally important to Buddhism's condition. In north China, Buddhism 
            flourished until the Northern Wei emperor decreed in 446 C.E. that 
            all Buddhist temples and stupas were to be destroyed. The religion 
            was later revived but fell again after 846 when a T'ang imperial 
            edict led to the destruction of some 4,600 monasteries and 40,000 
            temples and forced more than 260,000 monks and nuns to return to lay 
            life. Buddhism by then was too thoroughly integrated into Chinese 
            life to disappear, but it would never regain the vibrancy it had 
            once enjoyed. Today, in other parts of Asia, the state's role 
            remains important, for better and for worse. In Thailand, Buddhism 
            flourishes as the state religion, while in Cambodia, the faith is 
            still recovering from Pol Pot's murderous assault on monks and 
            religious institutions. 
            Asoka's patronage, however, was especially important in the history 
            of Buddhism, for he not only sustained the faith at an important 
            point in its development but spread it far beyond his own borders. 
            According to Buddhist accounts, two of his children brought Buddhism 
            to Sri Lanka, and another carried it to Central Asia. It was chiefly 
            from Sri Lanka, especially around the 12th century C.E., that 
            Buddhism spread to Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, and 
            Vietnam. But Buddhism also traveled by many other routes. Central 
            Asia became a major center of Buddhism by the first century C.E., 
            and from there the faith spread along the Silk Road and into China 
            and Korea. It also traveled from India across the Bay of Bengal to 
            the region around Thailand. It was a two-way traffic. Pilgrims also 
            journeyed to India from China and other far-flung regions in search 
            of knowledge from the source. 
            They did not always find the same Buddhism - and for good reasons: 
            the Buddha's teachings were not even written down until several 
            centuries after his death, and sanghas existed in widely scattered 
            locales, many nurturing their own distinctive interpretations and 
            producing their own texts. Tradition has it that there were 18 
            different schools of Buddhism in these early days. But the main 
            division, arising as early as the first century B.C.E., separated 
            Hinayana Buddhists and reformist Mahayana Buddhists, who took for 
            themselves the mantle of "Greater Vehicle," sticking their rivals 
            with the "Lesser Vehicle" label. 
            There are within these great schools many lesser divisions. 
            Theravada Buddhism, with roots in the Hinayana tradition embraced 
            and transmitted by Asoka, is predominant in Southeast Asia. Mahayana 
            Buddhism includes many schools - including Zen in China, Korea, 
            Vietnam, and Japan, and Vajrayana in Tibet, and Jodo Shin Shu (or 
            the Pure Land) in Japan. 
               The Theravada-Mahayana division has its origins partly in 
            disagreements over the all-important rules of conduct governing 
            monks, and partly in disputes over the meaning of certain Buddhist 
            teachings about the nature of the self and the Buddha. Theravada 
            Buddhists are said to be "original" Buddhists in that they adhere to 
            the notion of the historical Buddha and the faith's early emphasis 
            on monks striving for enlightenment. Mahayana Buddhism offers a more 
            metaphysical reading of the Buddha, placing more emphasis on his 
            previous lives as bodhisattva, or aspirant to Buddhahood. Many 
            interpreters insist that Mahayana Buddhism makes the prospect of 
            achieving Buddahood more of a possibility for laypeople as well as 
            monks, and that it encourages all Buddhists, as bodhisattvas, to 
            work for the liberation of other people, just as the Buddha did. But 
            this distinction is debatable. What can be safely said is that 
            Mahayana Buddhism blurs the distinction between monk and laity far 
            more than classical Theravada did. 
            Everywhere it took root, Buddhism assumed a different coloration, 
            engaging the world as it adapted to local cultures and religious 
            practices. In many places, relatively simple and unorganized 
            animistic faiths prevailed, offering relatively little resistance to 
            Buddhism. In Thailand Buddhism encountered the phi, in Myanmar the 
            cult of nats. In Tibet, a form of Tantric Buddhism (itself related 
            to mystical Hindu Tantrism) that arrived in the 8th century C.E. 
            blended with the local Bon shamanism, creating a unique form of 
            Buddhism. By the end of the 16th century, Tibet had become a 
            Buddhist theocracy ruled by the Dalai (great ocean) Lama (teacher), 
            revered as an incarnation of Avolokitesvara, the kingdom's 
            protective deity. The current Dalai Lama is the 14th in this line. 
            Buddhism was most profoundly altered in China, Korea, and Japan, 
            where Mahayana Buddhists faced well-established and sophisticated 
            doctrines. In all of these countries, the monastic structure of 
            Indian Buddhism gradually yielded to a more laity-based religious 
            practice. In China, for example, Buddhism clashed with the secular, 
            pragmatic doctrines of the Confucian elite, who could hardly have 
            seen the "otherworldly" Buddhist pursuit of enlightenment and 
            Nirvana as anything but alien and threatening. The withdrawal of 
            monks from family and society, their dependence on others for their 
            support, and their claims of independence from worldly government 
            all cut distinctly against the Confucian grain. Chinese Taoism, too, 
            with its emphasis on the living and on achieving harmony with the 
            forces of nature, did not readily give way before Buddhism. So 
            Buddhism in its many forms accommodated itself to China, attaching 
            itself to existing doctrines where it could and adapting in other 
            cases. In the meditative traditions that developed in India, for 
            example, enlightenment is a goal realized only after many lifetimes 
            of arduous practice under great teachers, while in the most 
            authentically Chinese forms of Zen, enlightenment is a sudden, 
            spontaneous experience. 
            The coming of Western colonialism and Christianity beginning in the 
            16th century cast a pall over the Buddhist world. In Sri Lanka, for 
            example, by the time the Portuguese were expelled (by the Dutch) in 
            1658, some 150 years after their arrival, only five ordained 
            Buddhist monks remained. In places where the Westerners were less 
            zealous in their efforts to convert those they conquered or where 
            other circumstances were more auspicious, Buddhism fared better, but 
            only Thailand and Japan completely escaped colonization. 
            By the 19th century, resistance to colonial rule in many Asian 
            nations was beginning to coalesce around a new Buddhist nationalism. 
            In 1918, the leaders of the Young Men's Buddhist Association in 
            Rangoon used the British colonials' refusal to remove their shoes 
            when entering Buddhist pagodas to launch a campaign for Burma's 
            independence. The country's first leader after independence in 1948, 
            prime minister U Nu, saw himself in the tradition of the classical 
            Buddhist kings, and like other Buddhist nationalists often evoked 
            Asoka's name. Before he was displaced in a 1962 coup, he tried to 
            create a Buddhist socialism under which the basic material needs of 
            all citizens would be met by the state, freeing them to pursue 
            higher spiritual ends. Today many Buddhist monks risk prison or 
            death to publicly support Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, 
            the leader of the democracy movement that struggles against the 
            military dictatorship established after U Nu. 
            To Americans, modern Buddhism's engagement with the world was most 
            memorably demonstrated in South Vietnam, where Buddhist protesters 
            helped bring down the corrupt Ngo Dinh Diem regime in 1963. That 
            year, the Venerable Thich Quang-Duc, one of many politically active 
            Buddhist monks, set himself on fire in Saigon to protest the Diem 
            regime's anti-Buddhist policies, an event engraved in the world's 
            consciousness by photojournalist Malcolm Browne's famous photograph. 
            The mobilization of Vietnam's Buddhist monks during the war years 
            helped lay the foundation for a new kind of Buddhist involvement in 
            the world. 
            During the past four decades, an international, ecumenical Buddhism 
            has emerged, led by a trio of remarkable men. The chief inspiration 
            for the worldwide "engaged Buddhist" movement, as it is known, has 
            been Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen master and founder of the 
            Tiep Hien Order of Interbeing, an international organization of 
            laypeople, monks, and nuns headquartered at Plum Village, a 
            meditation retreat in southern France. Sulak Sivaraksa, a Thai 
            layman, has led efforts to fight rural poverty, prostitution, AIDS, 
            and drug abuse in his native country - often battling the Thai 
            government as well - and is the founder of the International Network 
            of Engaged Buddhists. The groups in this alliance are transforming a 
            monastery-based religion into a force against environmental 
            degradation and the economic pressures that are destroying the 
            social and cultural fabric of many developing countries. While 
            friendly to Christianity and other faiths of the West, the leaders 
            of this movement are critical of traditional Western views of nature 
            and Western materialism. 
            The world's most widely recognized representative of engaged 
            Buddhism is plainly the Dalai Lama. Living in exile in the northern 
            Indian city of Dharamsala, where he fled two years after communist 
            China occupied Tibet in 1957, he has gained worldwide stature. He 
            lectures around the world on human rights, economic justice, and 
            environmental protection, and challenges the international community 
            to bring pressure to bear on China to end its policies of ethnic 
            cleansing and ecological and cultural genocide in Tibet. 
            Accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, the Dalai Lama dispelled 
            any sense one might have of Buddhism as solely an otherworldly 
            religion. His speech included concrete proposals for Tibet and the 
            world, including the demilitarization of his native country and a 
            ban on the manufacture, testing, and stockpiling of nuclear weapons 
            around the world - a ban that is coming closer to realization every 
            day. His was not the speech of a monk locked away from the world in 
            a meditative trance. Indeed, he closed his address with a short 
            prayer that exemplifies the Buddhist spirit of engagement with the 
            For as long as space endures, And for as long as living beings 
            remain, Until then may I, too, abide To dispel the misery of the 
            Engaged Buddhism thus joins a long and honorable roll of Buddhisms 
            that have been born during the more than 2,500 years since the 
            nativity of the founder. It is this very heterodoxy and diversity - 
            so extreme that not all Buddhists bow to the same Buddha - that have 
            proved to be the faith's great strength over the centuries. 
            DONALD K. SWEARER is the Charles and Harriet Cox McDowell Professor 
            of Religion at Swarthmore College. His most recent book is The 
            Buddhist World of Southeast Asia (1996).