Connecting Buddhists to the Wider Society: Creating Beloved Community Circles

By John Bell

Ed. Note: Although this article is written from a Buddhist perspective, the principles are applicable to any faith community or secular organization. Think of your local DSA Religion and Socialism group or your faith community.

Many people want to engage in more direct mindful action under the umbrella of their spiritual community but either don’t know how or don’t want to do it alone.

“A lotus in a sea of fire” is a phrase that Thich Nhat Hanh used to describe the cauldron of suffering during the wars in Vietnam, as well as the essence of our true nature that sits unharmed and upright in the midst of the flames. Today we are in our own sea of fire. The climate is hot. Racial turmoil in the United States is deep. Wars rage unchecked. Viral epidemics are deadly. Democracy is imperiled. Our economy is unfair and failing most people. In those war years in Vietnam, Thich Nhat Hanh told his followers that it was not enough to sit in the temple cultivating peace when the world around them was in flames. Mindful action to relieve suffering was also needed. He wrote, “After careful reflection, we decided to do both [mindfulness and action]—to go out and help people and to do so in mindfulness. We call it engaged Buddhism. Mindfulness must be engaged. Once there is seeing, there must be acting. Otherwise, what is the use of seeing?” (Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life [Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1992], 91.)

He developed the School of Youth for Social Service, which engaged tens of thousands of young practitioners in education, health care, and agriculture in local villages. Like Thich Nhat Hanh, today we are called to respond to our suffering world with compassion, courage, and mindfulness. The Beloved Community Circles network has emerged as one way of organizing such socially engaged practice. 

What Is a Beloved Community Circle?

In brief, a Beloved Community Circle (BCC) is a group of three to eight people, geographically local to each other, who engage in spiritual practice together, care for each other’s well-being, and engage in mindful action of the group’s choosing.

It’s small and personal. A BCC is intended to be a small, intimate group of practitioners—not too few and not too many. They can go deep with each other, forge strong bonds of love and support with each other, train together, and become a dependable, reliable, courageous cohort for mindful and socially engaged action to meet the challenges of the day. Under certain circumstances, a BCC might be virtual rather than local and physical. For example, there might not be enough BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) practitioners in a particular locale, so BIPOC from various locations might form a virtual BCC.

It has a threefold purpose. A Beloved Community Circle’s purposes are as follows: (1) personal liberation: to practice deepening mindfulness for further liberation from personal suffering; (2) community building: to actively come to care about the well-being of the others in the BCC; and (3) social transformation: to collectively engage in application of practice in the wider world on issues of one’s choosing or of importance to the whole group, somewhere on the axis of racial, social, and climate justice, for the purpose of protecting and preserving all living beings and the Earth in a way that is equitable toward all races, ethnicities, and species.

There is a self-chosen focus. Each BCC determines its own action focus somewhere in the territory of racial and climate justice. A BCC might want to organize around a particular identity marker or vocation, such as a BIPOC BCC, a queer BCC, or a BCC of healers or artists or vegans. A BCC can be focused more generally on social justice or can be organized around the specific interests of its members. One BCC may focus on shutting down a coal-fired power plant in a low-wealth neighborhood. Another BCC may choose to support Indigenous leadership in water protection. Still another may be engaged in protecting voting rights.

It is self-organized and autonomous. Each Beloved Community Circle is free to act on its own, organize itself, and call itself a BCC as long as it is in harmony with the basic what, why, and how of the initiative.

There is a six-month commitment. Each member of the Beloved Community Circle commits to participate for at least six months. This minimum commitment helps create consistency, stability, and trust among the members. At the end of the time commitment, each member assesses the impact of the experience and discerns whether or not to continue, with mutual agreement among all the members of the BCC. The assessment helps illuminate what worked and how the experience might be more inclusive and effective moving forward.

It includes ongoing training. Each Beloved Community Circle receives initial on-boarding training and periodic trainings to enhance skills, all online for easy access. Over time, trainings might include skill development in good group process, healing around racial and social inequities, nurturing a strong community, Kingian nonviolent direct action, personal healing and resiliency, deep listening partnerships, nonviolent communication skills, awareness and applied ethics, and mindful action pathways. 

It belongs to a network. Local BCCs are linked into a global village through electronic platforms for sharing resources, experiences, and questions, connecting across Circles, and inspiring each other with mindful actions.

Members help sustain the network. The BCC  network requires a certain level of funds and other resources to function well. For example, funds might be needed to support trainers to develop and facilitate trainings, to provide financial assistance for retreats and trainings to members who need it, to cover costs of electronic platforms, and possibly to cover the wages of a future part-time BCC coordinator. The BCC network aspires to live into a gift economy model, trusting that each BCC member or BCC supporter will offer what they can from their wallets, resources, and hearts in a collective experiment of mutual support. (For more information about gift economy, see here.)

Spiritual practices are relevant. Wisdom traditions and Indigenous teachings have much to contribute and are exquisitely relevant to our collective efforts to face our situation, manage the grief, numbness, and fear, and attempt to curb the worst suffering. 

The development of a network of BCCs deliberately organizes people to offer these or other spiritual practices in the wider world of suffering, by embodying the teachings through action to help bring forth healing, justice, and liberation of all.

For those who have not yet found their path or group for mindful action, perhaps being part of a BCC is a practical entry point because it provides a clear sense of purpose (practice, community building, and action), an intimate group as a home base, useful training, and local action in the context of a coordinated network.

Belonging and the Beloved Community

The Beloved Community is not just a group of our closest people who share our values. True Beloved Community, as envisioned by both Martin Luther King, Jr.  and Thich Nhat Hanh, excludes no one, sees no enemies, and creates a place of belonging for each and every person. Othering and exclusion of some folks from the favored group is one of the oldest and most persistent divisive habit energies that human groups manifest. The separation that results is one of the deepest wounds that people can experience, and it becomes institutionalized through systems of oppression such as racism, sexism, classism, anti-Semitism, heterosexism, ageism, and others. A BCC deliberately works to create a place of belonging so that the Circle does not slip into recreating these dominant culture inequities.

Here is a beginning list of ways a BCC can work toward that ideal, even as we know that this work is always evolving:

  1. Incorporate basic awareness of the dynamics of oppression and conditioning around separation into the DNA of the BCC network.
  2. Engage all BCC members in on-boarding trainings on racial justice, environmental racism, and climate justice.
  3. Explore individual and collective self-audits of income, wealth, and resource status and possible ways to shift some resources.
  4. At climate justice actions (such as protesting a fracked-gas pipeline), highlight the ways the issue is also a racial justice issue. At racial justice actions (such as advocating for immigrants at the U.S. southern border), highlight the ways the issue is also a climate justice issue. Keep connecting the dots.
  5. If the BCC is based on affinity groups, make sure they are cultural sanctuaries and that they stay connected to the larger BCC network for mutual learning and actions.

A Beloved Community Circle provides an entry point for folks who are wanting or waiting for an organized, safe, personalized, and collective way to engage in the issues of the day under the umbrella of their spiritual community. The small size of a Circle is manageable in terms of caring about each other, decision-making, resolving conflicts, and determining a common action or project. The BCC network, as of this writing, is in the early stages of expansion. The vision is to develop a large, robust, coordinated network of local mindful action teams. For more information about how to start a Beloved Community Circle, write to [email protected].

This article is adapted from RS contributor John Bell’s book Unbroken Wholeness, published by Parallax Press, 2024. Bell is a Buddhist Dharma teacher in Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village Tradition.

Image credit: Buddha Eye Zen Community Temple