Should Buddhists Be Social Activists?

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Buddhism is widely admired in the West for its commitments to progressive social activism. Saffron-clad monks march to promote peace or condemn repressive governments. The Dalai Lama lauds human rights and assures packed audiences that ‘the Buddha would be green’. When the Vietnamese Zen monk, Thích Nhất Hạnh, died this January, he was mourned by high-profile political activists as well as members of the Buddhist monastic community. Buddhists are common sights at marches, protests, sit-ins, and occupations. Magazines like Tricycle and The Lion’s Roar regularly feature articles on capitalism and social injustice as well as mindfulness and meditation. In my local bookstore, the Buddhism section has many books with titles like The Dharma of Social Justice.

The perception of alliances between the teachings of the Buddha and modern social and environmental activism is one of the main reasons for the positive perception of Buddhism in many Western countries. The Buddha’s teachings on suffering and compassion turn out to be allied to the concerns of many feminist and environmental movements. Equality, tolerance, and social justice get confidently related to the discourses that the Buddha preached one and a half thousand years ago. From his criticisms of the caste system to the emphasis on liberating beings from suffering, the Buddha – a man born a prince only to abandon his inherited wealth and power – thus emerges as an acceptable and attractive spiritual teacher.

‘Engaged Buddhism’

Is this image of the Buddha as a social activist ahead of his time accurate? It wasn’t always the case that perceptions were so favourable. Late-nineteenth century American, French and English writers saw Buddhism as a pessimistic doctrine encouraging passivity and retreat from life. Life, love, and hope – it was thought – are absent from the life of the monk. For one poetic critic, Buddhists are ‘living under a sky from which no sunlight ever streams’, their world all ‘sadness and hopelessness’. Many of the critics were Christians contrasting the good works, hope, and energy of their own faith with what an early scholar called the ’deep and miserable melancholy’ of Buddhism. Not all, though. Nietzsche was a harsh critic of Christianity but also condemned Buddhism as a ‘life-denying’ creed. There were also admirers of Buddhism – like the Indophile English Theosophists or the enthusiastic readers of Edwin Arnold’s epic poem The Light of Asia (which sold a million copies and was later made into a Broadway play).

Is this image of the Buddha as a social activist ahead of his time accurate? It wasn’t always the case that perceptions were so favourable. 

What changed to change the image of Buddhism from one passivity and pessimism to one of energetic social activism? It is a long story. Historians and Buddhist scholars all emphasise that ‘Buddhism’ is many things, not a single tradition, and that politics, culture, trade, colonialism all played their parts. I will not …

Originally appeared on Daily Philosophy Read More

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