Engaged Buddhism? What are it's aims, and how
should Buddhists engage, generally speaking?
In Taiwan and the Chinese Buddhist world it is called Humanistic Buddhism, and is a reaction to perceived past failures of earlier generations coupled with an attempt at emulating the Catholic church, often by their own admission. Zhengyan, the founder of Tzu Chi, for instance, was unable to reply when Catholic nuns asked her what Buddhists did for the downtrodden.
Humanistic Buddhism as an ideology was formulated especially by Yinshun, who was a teacher of not just Zhengyan, but also Bhikkhu Bodhi, the present champion of Engaged Buddhism in America.
There are various approaches to the idea, but basically the notion is that Buddhists should not be cloistered up in mountains or forests away from society. They should be actively engaged in charity work and fighting for social rights. The parallels with other religious movements, particularly liberal Christianity, should not be surprising at all, as the Buddhists got these ideas from them when Buddhism had taken a serious hit from the wars in Asia and communism.
Personally I think the ideology is often misused. At one level, as a pauper you can't help others with their debt. Likewise, as a common being with little wisdom, you can't teach others even the beginnings of the path to liberation. Nevertheless, it is often said that work is practice, and working for your Buddhist organization is meritorious. People often believe that doing mundane tasks for your Buddhist organization, perhaps for free too, is equal if not superior to study and meditation.
This actually ends up being a kind of salvation through good works and faith, rather than being oriented around practice.
You find this in some areas of Theravada as well. I have met bhikkhus from eastern India who insist that if they build clinics, the locals will stop converting to Hinduism. Likewise, in Sri Lanka the bhikkhus are increasingly trying to justify their existence by opening and operating clinics and other such facilities which will aid the locals and perhaps ensure their loyalty to the sangha.
The parallels with Catholicism should be evident.