Socially engaged Buddhism


AO2 – Social justice as a requisite for the observance of Buddhist teachings & as a distraction on the path to Awakening.

Buddhist teachings encourage the removal of dukkha in all its forms and on karuna (compassion). Social justice involves both of these.

Enlightenment and a positive rebirth are the goals of Buddhist teachings and these are achieved through disciplined focus the self. Thus, social justice is not a requisite and can actually be a tempting distraction in the face of the great difficulty of the discipline required to adhere to the Buddhist path to awakening.

Arguably, as the Buddha taught in the Andha Sutta (AN 3.29), social justice has to be addressed as a requisite because it is only when a person has their basic needs satisfied that they can then focus on the dhamma. A person is unable to focus on the self without some degree of social justice.

The prevalence of the three poisons/fires in society prevents the observance of Buddhist teachings such as following the ethical precepts. Social justice decreases their prevalence.

Buddhist teachings have never shown active concern with social justice as the presence of dukkha in society is one of the lakshanas – a universal truth. Focusing on social justice as a requisite is a denial of this truth and it can even be a distraction from the path of observing Buddhist teachings.

The Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh – two very significant Buddhist leaders, have emphasised the importance of social justice as a requisite. Should not their authority as sources of wisdom in this area be recognised?

Buddhists in past centuries from Theravada, Mahayana, Pure Land, Nichiren and Zen, have shown full observance of Buddhist teachings without having any interest in social justice.

Arguably social engagement provides a new ‘yana’ (vehicle) for the modern age which is part of the ekayana (one path/vehicle) leading to Awakening? Dana (generosity) is a central Buddhist virtue and practice on the path to Awakening. Putting dana into practice today requires full social engagement because the modern context is one of social interconnectedness.

Following the dasa sila, the Noble Eightfold Path or achieving the paramitas and the Bodhisattva path of Mahayana all imply the need for attention to the well-being of others. This suggests that social justice is a requisite. The task of Bodhisattvas is to show compassion to all sentient beings as they journey towards Awakening. That journey is only possible if there is compassionate engagement with any issues in society which prevent that journey from taking place.

The well-being of others is not the same as social justice, however. The focus on social justice has been largely taken up through Western influence and ‘convert’ Buddhism. Whilst it might be a requisite there, with regard to Buddhism overall, it is not. Buddhists should of course work for peace, but ‘social justice’ also implies action against inequality in society and capitalism itself. Arguably ‘social justice’ is too broad a term here?

Social engagement is not a distraction on the path to Awakening because it simply means addressing key issues covered in the dasa sila such as harming others, misuse of sex and addiction to substances which cloud the mind. Arguably social engagement is thus already present in the path to Awakening through key aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path such as right action and right livelihood?


In Theravada, the monastic sangha relies upon the well-being of laypeople for support as bhikkus follow the path to Awakening. Therefore, given their symbiotic relationship, social engagement with the concerns of laypeople is essential.