Socially Engaged Buddhism

By Matthieu Ricard on August 24, 2010

On August 9 in Massachusetts, I had the opportunity to participate in the first ‟symposium on socially engaged Buddhism,” organized by Bernie Glassman, where I spoke on the subject of ‟compassion in action.” Bernie is a remarkably warmhearted man, gifted with indefatigable diligence to serve those most in need.

In the 1990s he founded ‟Zen Peacemakers,” an organization that integrates social action into the practice of Zen Buddhism. At first he was criticized by many of his colleagues for this unorthodox approach to Zen practice.

But Bernie's benevolence soon triumphed over such arguments, and his organization became famous for its ‟street retreats” during which participants commit themselves to beg for their food and all their needs for the duration of the retreat (5 to 7 days). They sleep in the streets, under bridges, and in railway stations, using whatever they can find on the streets to use as a bed. The goal of those retreats is to bridge the gap between those who have and those who don't.
Even though the participants of the retreat know that, after a few days, they will return to the comfort of their homes, this experience allows them to see the homeless in a different way and to never again turn their eyes away from them.

Every year Bernie also leads a retreat at Auschwitz, where he brings together survivors from the camps, or their descendents, with descendents of their persecutors.

Zen Peacemakers also organize training programs to help the homeless, prisoners, and the dying, and conduct seminars on the environment and on conflict resolution. Bernie himself participates in a program that he calls ‟Clowns without Borders” that offers performances in schools with poor children and refugee camps.