Buddhist Activists

Over the years there have been lots of discussions regarding Buddhism and activism.  The concept of activism is often linked to politics but it is not exclusively political. I will outline what activism actually means and why clear definitions are important in later sections of this post.

Some of the types of comments I’ve culled from various forums include:

  • There’s no such thing as Buddhist activists.
  • Buddhists are pacifists so they can’t be involved in protests.
  • We’re not supposed to complain.
  • We have to be mindful of ourselves first.
  • If you’ve got a problem with this you need to get back to the cushion.
  • Right Speech means to be quiet if you don’t agree.
  • Buddhists shouldn’t criticize. [criticism written by a Buddhist]

In many of these cases the messages mean, “I’m not comfortable with your involvement in this forum or in those causes”,  “I don’t want to get involved so you shouldn’t either”  or “I disagree with you so shut up.” In other cases they are attempts to generalize a misunderstanding of the dharma or a personal opinion on to the entire spectrum of Buddhist practice.  All of them to some extent belie the spirit of inquiry and compassion that is at the center of Buddhist practice.

The Importance of Clear Communication

In the Confucian Analects (Chapter XIII, verse 3) there is a doctrine called The Rectification of Names which brings an interesting perspective to the discussion.  It can be summarized as:

“If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything.” (source)

While it may seem a little over the top to link social disorder and confusion to imprecise use of language there are a few recent examples that do indicate there may be something to this idea. Consider the words of the late Alexander Haig, “As of now, I am in control here, in the White House…” during the assassination attempt on former President Reagan. People were confused, and even outraged until lengthy clarifications were made over the following days. We could also cite the numerous Bushisms that generated both laughter and dismay at such a high ranking public figure.  In some cases public confidence was undermined to a significant degree.

This doctrine of The Rectification of Names is reminiscent of one of the dictums of Neuro-Linguistic Programming. I’m not personally a big proponent of that particular set of theories in general but there are some interesting aspects that it highlights in intertwining the fields of linguistics with psychology. One of these is:

The meaning of your communication is the response you get.

The significance of this viewpoint is that when we attempt to bring forward an idea, the way in which it registers with others will often not accord with what we mean. A concept, such as activist, in casual use means different things to different people. The context in which one utters this word as well as the context of the receiver of the word are both conditioned by the experiences, knowledge and abilities of the participants in the communication.

In the Buddhist realm, particularly from the standpoint of the Abhidharma, we can also look at the concept of Nama-Rupa, that is name and form which are part of the twelve Nidanas. Nama-Rupa underlies the six sense spheres in the cycle of Samsara and it’s origin is the first Nidana of ignorance. Nama-Rupa deals with form and names. That means it’s about labeling and dealing with the world in terms of labels, in a second hand sort of fashion from an operating entity labeled as “I” that seems separate from the other similarly labeled or named forms. If we can stick a name on something it becomes identified with our other conceptions that categorize in a similar fashion and it is compartmentalized along with all the other knowledge and not dealt with on it’s own terms or in it’s relationship to the one experiencing or to  context. It becomes independent, detached from both situation and observer.  It is a separate object which we who understand interdependence know is illusory. It resides in it’s conceptualization in mind rather than as it is. This manifestation of ignorance is a significant cause of social injustice since all sorts of accretions become attached to labels held in knowledge and they are very difficult to dismantle.


Diagram of The Wheel of Life (Dependent Origination) from A Manual of Abhidhamma (Abhidhammattha Sangaha) by Narada Maha Thera (located on Buddhanet’s ebook library page) Nama-Rupa appears in position 4.

Nama-Rupa is sometimes also translated as Mind and Matter. The form is the matter component and the name is the mind or mental component that becomes attached to the form. It is a mental replica and as such it is prone to distortion and particularly the delusion that the name, which is only a concept, is in and of itself something tangible. This is what is often meant in commentaries and sutras in admonitions against clinging to concepts. Labels can change, the meaning of labels can change, the accretions attached to labels can change and especially forms can change so the labels become outmoded. Then clinging to standard labels without investigating their validity is like trying to hold onto a shadow.

This is also why attention to the precise use of words is important. Words are like outlines of forms and describe the actions of those forms. If they are distorted or unclear it will not be possible to ascertain what form they are delineating nor what is even happening in a broader sense. Then further attempts to progress through the cycles of Samsara and especially to escape the process will be hindered by these distortions and our attachments to them.  It does not mean that Names and Forms are irrelevant and we are to go blank when we encounter Form. It means that Names as attached to Forms need to be seen as they are in reality and the interconnection between Name and Form is recognized. This is also where Right View is important as well.

It is tempting here to add some of the ideas from post-modern philosophy particularly as applied semiotics (signifiers, signified and related terminology) but for the purposes of this post there is already more than enough to work with in the theory department.

All these theories point to the same basic idea. That idea is about definition, actuality and sources of misunderstanding. They can be applied to any aspect of life where one is seeking more clarity and understanding.

So with those three theories in mind-Rectification of Names, meaning-response and Nama-Rupa I would like to outline the concept of Buddhist Activism a little more clearly and address comments about it’s actuality and surrounding misunderstandings.

What is an activist?

An activist is not simply a protester, terrorist,  freedom fighter, crusader, rebel or resistor.  These may be examples of sometimes extreme direct action in service to a cause but they do not by any means define what activism is. Unfortunately, in terms of popular culture though, extremes often become identified with a general term particularly if such extremes are of a negative nature. This process is the origin of stereotypes.

Word Origin

“one who advocates a doctrine of direct action,” 1915; from active (q.v.). Activism in this sense is first attested 1920; earlier (1907) it was used in ref. to a philosophical theory.

That “doctrine of direct action” is generally related to social good and/or social justice or reform.

Historically this would be something like the suffragette movement which gave women the vote and rights as people under the law. Another such example that is ongoing and often not so public would be the controversies surrounding judicial activism, which establishes new precedents or departs from traditional jurisprudence to reflect more current social reality. This demonstrates that activism is a broad concept again usually related to social change and reform.

In the example of judicial activism there are:

five core meanings of “judicial activism“: (1) invalidation of the arguably constitutional actions of other branches, (2) failure to adhere to precedent, (3) judicial “legislation,” (4) departures from accepted interpretive methodology, and (5) result-oriented judging. (source)

These bring to the fore the use of the words activist and activism in the realm of legislation, governance, reform and particularly justice directly. It can be a slippery slope to separate personal belief from the responsibilities of upholding the social good and justice within the careful and often narrow confines of the legal world. The term judicial activist has been applied to the new justice Sonya Sotomayor in the United States Supreme Court particularly with reference to her history of dissenting opinions but many other countries have a history of judicial activism as well. It appears most prominently when legislation that transgresses an established constitution or bill of rights or a contradictory piece of legislation are challenged in court and the court strikes down a proposed or established law thereby setting new precedents. This type of example would be “(3) judicial legislation” in the above definition-Roe v. Wade in the U.S. is one such instance of this.

Definitions of Activist

  • one who takes an active part in events, especially in a social context
  • a disputant who advocates reform
  • an especially active, vigorous advocate of a cause, esp. a political cause.
  • one who advocates a cause or engages in activism
  • one who is politically active in the role of a citizen; especially, one who campaigns for change
  • one who follows a doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue
  • one who is aggressively active on behalf of a cause.
  • one who advocates for a particular position on an issue publicly
  • one who seeks social change through action

There is no qualifier on most of these definitions regarding intensity, motivation, duration or extent of involvement in activity. So it could include everything from displaying a bumper sticker advocating a particular position, signing a petition or linking to social causes on a blog, to writing on social issues,  walking a peace picket or outright demonstrations for or against any given social situation. A recent example comes to mind in the Buddhist blogosphere. In the media there were numerous erroneous characterizations of Buddhism and Buddhist practice. The Hume situation was one. Bloggers wrote many posts and comments, and even letters to news media to correct these misapprehensions. That is an example of activism done with the motivation of Buddhadharma both on an individual and collective level.


active participant, organizer, partisan, social reformer, dissident, militant, proponent, enthusiast, demonstrator, campaigner, progressive, objector, protestor, crusader

Passivism vs Pacifism

A lot of the confusion regarding activism in the Buddhist context comes from lack of distinction between the concepts of passivity and pacifism. Passive is the opposite of active. It simply means one who does nothing at all as opposed to one who does something. It means one who is not involved in any way. And in the case of passive-aggressive it means one who is involved, usually in an angry or resentful way and is trying to pretend to themselves and others that they are not either angry or involved. Passive-aggressive behavior is a form of denial and self-imposed ignorance of social and psychological reality.

Pacifism on the other hand means non-violent action. It is a peaceful, as opposed to violent, method of action. Pacifism is based on the concept of ahimsa, which is the Sanskrit term for non-harming, and particularly non-violent action. The very public activism of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King both embraced these methods in the past. Presently organizations such as Amnesty International, PEN International, Zen Peacekeepers,  The Interdependence Project, Buddhist Peace Fellowship and people such as the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hahn, the latter actually having coined the term “engaged Buddhism”,  use methods to bring about change and address social injustice inspired by ahimsa.

Types of Activists

In doing the digging around for information related to this post I encountered quite a number of activist types. Here’s a partial list:

  • AIDS activist
  • animal rights activist
  • anti-abortion activist
  • anti-poverty activist
  • civil rights activist
  • consumer activist
  • corporate activist-often known as lobbyists although lobbyists are also used in attempts at government persuasion by other groups as well
  • cyber activist-such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation
  • environmental activist
  • gay rights activist
  • human rights activist
  • militant activist
  • neo-Nazi activist-here is an interesting article outlining the increasing usage of this term by the media. Activist = A new media definition? In the next section this will be discussed a little.
  • peace activist
  • prison abolition activist
  • pro-choice activist
  • shareholder activist
  • union activist
  • vegan activist
  • women’s rights activist-also known as feminist
  • youth activist

It would appear that anyone who acts upon an opinion is per the definitions above an activist. From organized and well-funded lobby groups to individuals with bumper stickers activism encompasses an entire spectrum of intensity as well as opinion.

The Dismissal of Activism

Activism has generally been associated with social reform. That is, classically, a somewhat liberal (although there are a few exceptions), progressive or leftist ideology . But increasingly the word activist is becoming identified with anyone who advocates for change particularly from an extremist or fundamentalist point of view. This narrows the definition considerably and thereby attempts to marginalize any effort that may be of an activist nature in the broader sense. Referring back to the idea of rectification of names, these are quite different categories of action.

There was a very good point made in the above link re: neo-Nazi extremists. The author wrote:

If a far right group can by virtue of being described as activist or by appropriation of the term themselves, a subtle reinforcement of the lie that neo-nazism can bring political and economic equality to its would-be followers occurs. At its crudest, it uncuts the linguistic notion of the far right as reactionary. There is a notion of progressive, of change in the term activist; there is a life denying absence in the words and practices of neo-nazism. If they are defined as neo-nazi activist, the link to reactionary is lost, and the pretense of change, as agents of good, is introduced. (source)

This is one of many examples where careless labeling can result in damage to sincere social justice efforts. With no one wanting to be equated with extremism of any form, activism as social change or reform becomes a position that is increasingly being held in contempt without fully understanding the meaning of the words activism or activist. It is often the case that substituting terms based on superficialities leads to loss of meaning and therefore effectiveness of language.  In this case the media likens the activity of certain vocal activists (such as those who protest loudly) who are a very small minority of all activists, with a group that also tends to demonstrate loudly(Neo-Nazis) but has quite different and definitely non-progressive aims. It’s just sloppy, lazy and imprecise when done casually. When done consciously for some effect it is a highly effective propaganda technique.

If activists or dissenters of all levels of involvement are labeled as extremists then the status quo will prevail and further entrench. If one dissents from the mainstream, from the status quo, there is an increasing likelihood that such extremist labels will become applied to any form of dissent. This is equally true of Leftists, Libertarians or anyone holding any position outside the center of the majority. The bell curve of acceptability becomes increasingly steep and narrow.

This may be fine for those who favor corporations granted personhood and with the Chinese government with regard to Tibet and health insurance companies making massive profits and avid death penalty advocates and those comfortable with racism, sexism and any other structure, government or ideology that would favor very narrow interests and deny freedom and equality to all. I am not comfortable with any of that hence by definition I am an activist because I attempt to do something about it on numerous fronts.

Buddhist Activist History

There are quite a few examples that could be outlined throughout history but I will confine it to one for the purposes of this post. King Asoka radically departed from the normal kingly practices to introduce some major social reforms.

In his edicts, written on pillars throughout his kingdom, he reformed social situations on a massive scale. In an introduction to his translation of the Edicts of Ashoka, Ven. S. Dhammika writes:

Asoka’s edicts are mainly concerned with the reforms he instituted and the moral principles he recommended in his attempt to create a just and humane society…

There is little doubt that Asoka’s edicts were written in his own words rather than in the stylistic language in which royal edicts or proclamations in the ancient world were usually written in…

As to the content of the Edicts, Ven. S. Dhammika has summarized some of them as well as given them historical context in that same introduction.

In his edicts, he spoke of what might be called state morality, and private or individual morality. The first was what he based his administration upon and what he hoped would lead to a more just, more spiritually inclined society, while the second was what he recommended and encouraged individuals to practice. Both these types of morality were imbued with the Buddhist values of compassion, moderation, tolerance and respect for all life.

The Asokan state gave up the predatory foreign policy that had characterized the Mauryan empire up till then and replaced it with a policy of peaceful co-existence.

The judicial system was reformed in order to make it more fair, less harsh and less open to abuse, while those sentenced to death were given a stay of execution to prepare appeals and regular amnesties were given to prisoners.

State resources were used for useful public works like the importation and cultivation of medical herbs, the building of rest houses, the digging of wells at regular intervals along main roads and the planting of fruit and shade trees.

To ensure that these reforms and projects were carried out, Asoka made himself more accessible to his subjects by going on frequent inspection tours and he expected his district officers to follow his example. To the same end, he gave orders that important state business or petitions were never to be kept from him no matter what he was doing at the time.

The state had a responsibility not just to protect and promote the welfare of its people but also its wildlife. Hunting certain species of wild animals was banned, forest and wildlife reserves were established and cruelty to domestic and wild animals was prohibited.

The protection of all religions, their promotion and the fostering of harmony between them, was also seen as one of the duties of the state.

It even seems that something like a Department of Religious Affairs was established with officers called Dhamma Mahamatras whose job it was to look after the affairs of various religious bodies and to encourage the practice of religion.

We can see that many of the concerns of King Asoka are concerns we still have today as individuals and societies.  And these concerns are are taken up by legislators and activists in many parts of the world. So reform, social justice, ecology, active concern for the well-being of a society are not exactly new inventions nor is it new that Buddhism inspires such activism.

Critiques of Buddhist Activism and Some Responses

The act of writing a critique against Buddhist Activism using Buddhist principles as points of argument is an act of Buddhist Activism itself.  It is a critical opinion written and presented (an action) against critical opinion and action. It’s very existence denies it’s central premise. That is on the broader level.

More narrow criticisms though may be addressed individually.

My point here is not that everyone who declares the Buddhist path in some form must take up some form of activism. Just as it is not necessary to identify as vegetarian or liberal to be deemed Buddhist. The relevant point is that some people do activist things and do them for reasons related to their Buddhist practice.

Some of the specific criticisms of Buddhist activists include: 

A lot of people just use Buddhism to justify their activism. This brings up a lot of related questions that a Buddhist activist may want to ask themselves. Questions such as:

  • Which came first the Buddhism or the activism? Are they even related?
  • Am I taking this action because of my Buddhist practice and beliefs?
  • Would I take this action if I were not on the Buddhist path?
  • Does my participation in these actions accord with Buddhist teachings?

In some instances I think this criticism has valid points. Using Buddhism as an ego-adornment to appear righteous and important, even  more “Buddhist-like”, is just self-deluded if not to mention rather irritating to those who witness it. It is pimping the Dharma for one’s own purposes disguised as altruistic behavior. But those instances, for as much as they stand out, don’t represent the majority of Buddhist activists.

Even if someone is an activist before taking up Buddhism, this doesn’t negate the possibility of Buddhism informing their social activity. Just as Buddhism may inform the activity of parents, workers, doctors, students, artists, partners, teachers and leaders there is no logical reason to cordon off political activity or social justice issues as some special category that Buddhist thought and Buddhist-inspired motivation may not enter. To do so is to attempt to segregate Samsara into categories of comparison that are irrelevant. It’s all Samsara. And even the most enlightened being still resides in it’s midst until their dissolution into death.

Many Buddhists attempt to force opinions on other Buddhists by calling them “Buddhist opinions” rather than personal opinions dressed up in Buddhist garb. I agree with this criticism to some extent as well. If an opinion can be justified with Buddhist teachings and it agrees in spirit with the Dharma and some part of Right Intention enters into it, then it may be a Buddhist-informed opinion. However if it is an opinion based on emotional appeal or personal preference and labeled Buddhist just because the person professing the opinion happens to identify as Buddhist then it would be difficult to deem it representative of Buddhism. Not everything a Buddhist utters is categorically “Buddhist opinion”. The specific does not necessarily represent the general. Not without a lot of support at least.

We need to be enlightened or at least close to perfecting ourselves before we dare attempt to take social action. As was mentioned in a previous paragraph, even the most enlightened being still resides in the midst of Samsara until their dissolution into death. They still must eat, wash, interact with surroundings and with others, observe, clothe themselves, communicate, think, sense with the body, breathe.  Every one of these activities, no matter how simple, can touch upon some social or political issue that intersects with the 8-Fold Path, the Precepts, or Buddhist doctrine. And every decision made regarding these daily activities involves an ethical standpoint that is informed by Buddhist teachings. Enlightened or not we all must deal with these issues and situations.

Here is a simple example.  Suppose the water in your well is tainted with cancer causing chemicals from a nearby factory. Do you drink it, wash in it or give it to your children?  Do you accept the situation as it is since you are not “perfect enough” to criticize? Do you knowingly harm yourself and others by doing so?  If you take action what type of action do you deem acceptable? What informs your answer to that question? Will that action violate the precepts if you have taken them? Do you wait until you are “enlightened” to sign a petition or write a letter? Unrealistic ideals of perfection in decision-making processes may not be the most beneficial course of action. They may even cause or prolong suffering.   Sometimes we must act whether we are sufficiently ready to or not.

A Personal View of Activism in the Buddhist Context

In light of the definitions and activities described in this post it would appear that activism informed by Buddhist practice is a very real long standing phenomenon. The degrees to which one is willing to act upon situations of social injustice will naturally vary. Most people cannot dedicate their entire lives to causes. Nor would they want to nor should they feel like it comes with the territory of being a Buddhist.

Attending to one’s own practice is work enough most of the time. But when that practice intersects with a situation of social injustice or something that clearly requires acceptance of situations that are in direct contradiction to our practice what is to be done?

Our response to situations can take numerous forms. And can vary in intensity. And everyone has their own method. Your response will no doubt differ from mine.

My viewpoint on Buddhist Activism is quite straightforward. Every act of Metta meditation or practice of Tonglen or reciting Nembutsu while holding others in the heart or lighting an incense or ringing the bell or mindful communication or even shikantaza contains the seed of activist mentality. That is being involved and active with the environment in which one find themselves. Quite simply there is the universe and there is suffering and there is the Buddhist path.  The recognition of the illusion of self-and-other duality brings Buddhist principles more into the light the longer one learns Dharma and undertakes Buddhist practice.  It is about interdependence, relief of suffering, compassion and it is about using the Dharma for social change to relieve suffering. Transforming the self is the first step to social change.

In his recent book, Becoming Enlightened, HH Dalai Lama wrote:

…in terms of yourself you need few activities and few purposes, but in terms of the well-being of others you need many. This is the outlook of altruism called the Bodhisattva attitude…

I cannot help but observe that we often are content with merely wishing and praying for the happiness of others, whereas for our own purposes we do everything we can for our own betterment, not just wishing! (p59)

A Sampling of Buddhist Activists

Robert Aitken Roshi– is a co-founder of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and serves on its international board of advisors. He has been active in a number of peace, social justice, and ecological movements, and his writing reflects his concern that Buddhists be engaged in social applications of their experience.(bio from the Buddhist Peace Fellowship)

Dr. B. R. Ambedkar-Dr. Ambedkar was one of the first Dalits to obtain a college education…After meetings with the Sri Lankan Buddhist monk Hammalawa Saddhatissa, Ambedkar organized a formal public ceremony for himself and his supporters in Nagpur on October 14, 1956. Accepting the Three Refuges and Five Precepts from a Buddhist monk in the traditional manner, Ambedkar completed his own conversion. He then proceeded to convert an estimated 500,000 of his supporters who were gathered around him. (preceding from Wikipedia) Each year in India tens of thousands of Dalits (formerly called untouchables) also convert to Buddhism and reject the caste system and its discrimination. There is a national holiday in India in the name of Ambedkar.  Ambedkar’s approach is now being taken up by the Roma (gypsies) in Hungary in light of their ancestral connections to India and the pervasive discrimination they face in Europe. (I have just done a post chronicling this movement)

Zoketsu Norman Fischer-founder of the Everyday Zen Foundation which is about “changing and being changed by the world”.  “Everyday Zen’s work involves many areas: traditional zen practice (talks, retreats, personal relationship); work with Jewish and Christian meditation, with the dying, with lawyers and conflict resolvers, with business, with poetry and literature. ”  He is involved with interreligious dialogue, ecology, legal projects and ethical business leadership.

Genkaku Adam Fisher – has written numerous posts in his blog about his weekly participation in the local peace picket which he attends while wearing his robes.

Roshi Joan Halifax-A Founding Teacher of the Zen Peacemaker Order, her work and practice for more than three decades has focused on applied Buddhism.

Joanna Macy-scholar, ecologist and engaged Buddhist.

Kobutsu Malone of the Engaged Zen Foundation has supported many causes and brought Dharma teachings and practice to Death Row inmates for many years.

Hozan Alan Senauke-is vice-abbot of Berkeley Zen Center in California. He lives at BZC with his wife, Laurie, and their two children.  Since 1991 Alan has worked with the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, where he presently serves as Senior Advisor.  He continues to work as a socially engaged Buddhist activist, most recently founding the Clear View Project, developing Buddhist-based resources for relief and social change. (bio from Upaya Zen Center)

Sulak Sivaraksa-A Thai economist-philosopher, twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, who has used Buddhist ethics for social and spiritual transformation in his country

Gary Snyder-Pulizer Prize winning poet, essayist, lecturer and ecologist. Known also for his articles on ecology, Buddhist Anarchism and other social justice topics.

Aung San Suu Kyi-Nobel Laureate, political prisoner.

Hundreds of Burmese monks who undertook protest in the streets against the military dictatorship in recent years.

There are literally thousands of people I could list here who engage in activist and social justice and reform causes all informed by their Buddhist practice.

So the next time someone tells you “Buddhists aren’t activists” feel free to forward this post to them.

Links-Post Related

Rectification of Names-from Wikipedia

THE ORIGIN AND CURRENT MEANINGS OF “JUDICIAL ACTIVISM” from The California Law Review posted on constitution.org

Judicial Activism in Canada-a somewhat questionable article in Wikipedia-I have qualms with their definition of Judicial Activism but the examples are relevant. Perhaps the writers of that article could read the one that is linked above.

Edicts of Asoka from Access to Insight

Writers and the War Against Nature By Gary Snyder from Shambhala Sun. On artists and writers and ecology from a Buddhist activist perspective.

Soldiers of Conscience-YouTube video on how a Buddhist soldier, Aidan Delgado,  became a conscientious objector. Found via Buddhist Peace Fellowship website.

Dharmanet’s list of links on Engaged Buddhism

Activist Women in Buddhism-listing with biographies of many Buddhist women who are involved in activist projects as part of their practice

Links-Critiques and Questions About Engaged Buddhism and Buddhist Activism

Activism and Engaged Buddhism Part 1 and Part 2 from the Tengu House blog. The author provides quite a number of very valid reasons for questioning involvement in causes as a Buddhist practitioner.  I have addressed a few of these above.

Strong Lessons for Engaged Buddhists-this article is from the Anarchist/Situationist perspective. The author puts forward the claim that engaged Buddhism is too little too late and for the most part supports the status quo without addressing necessary structural changes to societies.

Justify Your Love: Finding Authority for Socially Engaged Buddhism Ways of Relating Buddhist Tradition and Practice with Social Theory by Diana Winston who was a director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship at the time of writing the article. The author describes some elements of socially engaged Buddhism and outlines the lack of coherence to the approach. She asks the questions about the validity of socially engaged Buddhism within any and all traditions and how they are supported doctrinally. She states that there are many people and groups operating in isolation with a lack of significant effects. She argues for a more coherent and unifying movement.

Review of Action Dharma: New Studies in Engaged Buddhism from the Journal of Buddhist Ethics. The review author discusses a number of the essays and approaches regarding Action Dharma and it’s place within Buddhism in the book “Action Dharma”. I’ve not encountered this book itself yet but it seems to be quite a thorough, scholarly examination of the topic and includes criticisms and rebuttals. I’ll try and get to it when time permits.

4 comments on “Buddhist Activists

  1. If there were no such thing as Buddhist activists, as it seems someone may have ever suggested, then perhaps someone might want to inform the Dalai Lama of as much?

    I can’t presume to understand the full situation, over there in Tibet, but in going on what I’ve caught about it, it seems to me that there are some Buddhist activists over there, no? and China doesn’t like it, yes? and what does the Dalai Lama, himself, think about it? I wish I could remember where I saw a certain report, about it – my kneejerk response, here, is only to suggest that it may pertain?

    Formless wind! Mirror! Tao!

    I think I shall have to return to this space, when I will not be so thrown off-axis about the possible pertinence of the matter. Gassho.

  2. I’m one of the people who tend to choke a bit on the term “Buddhist activism.” I don’t really see the need to couple these concepts. By some relatively broad definition of the term, I’m an activist, and I’ve been one since long before I started practicing. Obviously this feeds into my practice, and my practice feeds into how I interact with the world; or, put another way, the shadow or the wheel always follows, on or off the zafu.

    However, I think that constructing a concept of “Buddhist activism” or “Buddhist activist” or “activist Buddhism” may create a potentially very difficult attachment, perhaps as difficult as the other extreme in the funny story about the Theravadin so focused on his own enlightenment that he considered helping a suicidal friend an annoying distraction.

    Why not just be a sitter when we sit, be a shitter when we shit, and be an activist when we’re active? At least for me, that’s one tall order in itself.

  3. Nella Lou,

    Your blog again touches on some new (for me) and pertinent issues. Yes – a wonderful range!

    In one sense being passive is also being active in that the passive allows the world to evolve without the potential influence of the activist. To do nothing is to accept.

    To meditate and look deep within the self maybe to generate a will and power to be more externally active and find compassion and love to share

    The stance one takes ie the specific definition of the activist (blog responder or terrorist) depends on the context or degree or lack of compassion of perhaps perceived justice which one is faced ‘in society’ and the likelihood of change. Buddhist must have a tendency to see the other view and with a ‘critical mass’ of Buddhist’s evolve a deeper consensus to empower communities to greater goals and ends which would rule out some forms of activism like Terrorism.

    This surely begs the question of how Buddhist’s should work to achieve the compassionate community, and is surely another way in which Buddhism and politics can be entwined.

    I can only think that the teachings of the Buddha (and I have not studied them in any detail)about striving for the elimination of desire and increasing understanding of interdependence in all realms (aided by science and policy analysis) lead to a compassionate leftist position. The split between monasticism and the laity (in the historical East) is purely contextual with the West providing different possibilities.

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