Traditional Buddhism advocates a withdrawal from the affairs of the outside world, emphasizing that everything, including war, suffering, power, and oppression, is empty, temporary, and illusory. To become involved in political situations would require attachment, and a belief that life is something other than an illusion.
But a modern form of Buddhism is emerging that claims mindfulness requires an awareness of the real suffering around us, and action to help alleviate it. One Buddhist tenet advises to "save all sentient beings." To some this means getting involved.
This new sphere has been called engaged Buddhism. First coined by Zen Buddhist leader Thich Nhat Hanh, he and his students decided they had an imperative to not only become aware of, but respond to the suffering they saw around them during the Vietnam war. Rather than attempting to meditate away from the problems of the world, Thich Nhat Hanh and his community saw that responding to suffering was in fact a core principal of their practice; they reached their own transcendence through reaching out to others, not in isolation.
Those involved with engaged Buddhism feel that not only is this the form of practice reflective of ancient Buddhist beliefs, but also a new, emerging evolution that is a rebirth of Buddhism - a revitalizing and much needed interpretation that reflects the modern world. As some might explain it, the wisdom gained through meditation is hollow when one's mindfulness is detached from suffering. Only when one's awareness is involved can the wisdom deepen into true compassion.
Some traditionalist Buddhists see the interpretation as a departure: after all, isn't the goal of meditation to allow oneself to detach from the everyday world with its mind-chatter and worries and trivial minutiae?
But engaged Buddhists would argue that there is historical precedence for social activism by Buddhists, and that in fact, social engagement with the world around them has always been intrinsic to any Buddhist practice. Some claim that it was actually the Westerners, unfamiliar with the history of Buddha, who placed the emphasis on detachment. In the anthology titled The Path of Compassion, author Joanna Macy writes, Early Western scholars of Buddhism, beginning with Max Weber, have perceived Buddhism as 'other worldly' and without specific formulations of social ethics. They understood the release from this world as Buddhism's goal. Yet the Pali scriptures abound in passages where the Buddha deals explicitly with social ethics, and many more cases where the social implications are certainly obvious.
According to experts, Buddhism has always been engaged. In other words, one cannot overcome one's selfishness and attachments and still save all the sentient beings. Rather, it is through interacting and engaging with the world around us that we overcome our selfishness and attachments.