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Instructor Class Description

Time Schedule:

Kyoko Tokuno
RELIG 490
Seattle Campus

Special Topics

Topics vary with each offering.

Class description

Engaged Buddhism is a term coined by a Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh in 1960s in reference to the contemporary movement of socially engaged Buddhist action and practice in response to war and political situation in Vietnam. The term gradually gained currency and has come to refer more broadly to other movements, ideology, practice, and action informed by Buddhist values and principles and aimed at transforming individual, society and politics. It also has gained legitimacy among scholars as a category of research on contemporary Buddhism as the publications over the last two decades demonstrate. Many scholars argue that engaged Buddhism is strictly a modern phenomenon since it represents new forms of Buddhism that arose in response to colonialism and modernity; as such it is antithetical to the traditional Buddhist ideal of ending human suffering through radical detachment (or dis-engagement) from the world. For these scholars engaged Buddhism stands for the fourth vehicle that comes on the heel of the traditional three vehicles, or the earth vehicle because of global issues engaged Buddhism addresses, or neo-Buddhism that represents reformist Buddhism to meet the needs of particular time and place. Other scholars opt to view Buddhism to have always been engaged socially and politically and that engaged Buddhism in modern period is simply the latest manifestation of the perennial Buddhist goal (end of suffering) and motivation (compassion). Regardless whether it represents rupture or continuity, engaged Buddhism deserves serious attention for what it can contribute to the study of religion in history and modern/contemporary society.

Student learning goals

The goal of the course is three-fold. The first and main goal is to explore the varieties and characteristics of engaged Buddhism not only in Asia but also in other parts of the world and to critically assess the methodologies employed (phenomenological, historical, philosophical, sociological, feminist, etc.) in scholarships. The varieties in question can be infinite but include: social activism aimed at renewal and revitalization of society by individuals or groups; Buddhist nationalism whose goal is to revive the Buddhist identity in post-colonial society; peacemaking through cross-cultural and inter-religious encounter and dialogue, marches, non-violent protests, construction of Buddhist symbolic structures (stupas/pagodas), or negotiation with government agency; environmentalism (also called green Buddhism) that addresses ecological issues through the application of Buddhist principle of interdependence of man and nature; educational reform; introduction of mediation practice to prison inmates. One prominent characteristic of engaged Buddhism would be the role of the laity and women who in traditional Buddhism had been accorded lower spiritual and institutional status than any and all members of the ordained community. The democratization of Buddhist community is evinced in the communal, nonhierarchical organization as well as the emphasis on action that takes precedence over inaction and withdrawal from society.

The second goal is to consider the definitional issues and questions of engaged Buddhism and engaged Buddhist studies: What constitutes engagement in Buddhism?; what makes engaged Buddhism Buddhist?; what becomes of the quest for enlightenment in engaged Buddhism?; what is the relationship between personal transformation and social and political change?; how is the use of violence in some of the Buddhist nationalist movements justified and legitimized? Scholars may explore these questions using one of the three approaches: 1) S/he objectifies the subject of study: objectification itself is nothing new, but engaged Buddhist studies goes beyond the traditional approach to include non-textual sources and non-Asian Buddhist cultures: 2) S/he becomes a participant-observer for the duration of investigation: this approach reflects the skepticism in ‘value-free’ empiricism that has become prevalent in academia in recent decades: 3) S/he is a Buddhist practitioner-activist-thinker: this approach obliterates the distinction between scholar and practitioner and is the most challenging to the notion of what constitutes scholarship.

The third goal is to revisit the relationship between history/tradition and engaged Buddhism. The currently available scholarship on engaged Buddhism focuses almost exclusively on modern and contemporary activism and movements and consequently lacks historical contextualization. We will explore whether the question of rupture vs. continuity could or should be reframed as both rupture and continuity to expand the scope of engaged Buddhist studies currently accepted in the field.

General method of instruction

Recommended preparation

Class assignments and grading


The information above is intended to be helpful in choosing courses. Because the instructor may further develop his/her plans for this course, its characteristics are subject to change without notice. In most cases, the official course syllabus will be distributed on the first day of class.
Last Update by Loryn Rhea Paxton
Date: 01/17/2012