Was the Buddha a Social Activist?

Via on Jun 29, 2010

While the author of a recent post on Digital Tibetan Buddhist Altar argues that “Twist it and wring it and pound it any way you like. Buddha did not engage in engaged Buddhism,” Ramesh Bjonnes argues in an article in the Elephant Journal that “Buddha was an animal and human rights activist long before the popularity of PETA , Amnesty International, vegan and vegetarian activism.”

From Digital Tibetan Buddhist Altar:

If you are rushing from one disaster to another, saving whales, trees, dogs, birds, starving orphans, victims of this, and victims of that, sooner or later you will become exhausted. Sooner or later, you will come to realize that, despite all of your effort, the whales, trees, dogs, birds, orphans, and victims are no fewer in number than when you began your crusades.

Later, rather than sooner, you might even come to realize that all your rushing around is just another excuse for not realizing emptiness: for not realizing impermanence.

Another excuse for not practicing dharma according to dharma.

Welcome to samsara, and the topic for today’s sermon, which is “Does Samsara Really Need Janitors?” I want to test the thesis that one can run around placing labels on phenomena, tidying up samsara with a mop and bucket, or one can realize the nature of one’s own mind…

When Buddha achieved or relaxed into whatever it is we believe he achieved or relaxed into while sitting beneath the Bodhi Tree, a large red cross did not suddenly begin glowing on his chest. He did not jump up and rush out to save the poor. He did not latch on to a cause and use it as the locus of a fundraising mechanism. He did not begin building institutions.

Twist it and wring it and pound it any way you like. Buddha did not engage in engaged Buddhism.

Dalai Lama and Bernie Glassman
Engaged Buddhists: His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Zen Master Bernie Glassman

From the Elephant Journal:

“Immense sacrificial ceremonies, such as the sacrifice of the horse (ashvameda), through which the Brahmans imposed their power, ruined the states financially,” writes Alain Danileou in his book While the Gods Play…

“[Both Buddha and Mahavira, the founder of Jainism] were in open revolt against the karmakanda [prehistoric ritualistic portions] of the Vedas, but they were not so opposed to the the jinanakanda [more recent philosophical portions, including certain Upanishads and Vedanta], because these were quite popular with spiritual aspirants.”

“Both Buddha and Mahavira vehemently opposed the ritualistic sacrifices, especially of animals, and both of them protested against the hostile attitude of the so-called dharma towards morality.” Quoted from Namami Shiva Shantaya by Shrii Shrii Anandamurti

In other words, Buddha was an animal and human rights activist long before the popularity of PETA , Amnesty International, vegan and vegetarian activism. About 2500 years before PETA, in fact.

As a Socially Engaged Buddhist, I of course believe that the Buddha was an activist and that especially in modern times, we must realize our spirituality in a way that is integrated with our entire life and that takes responsibility for our ability to impact the lives of others.

What do you think? Check out comments on the Bearing Witness blog, where this inquiry originally appeared, or please comment here.

Photo by Clemens M. Breitschaft

About Ari Setsudo Pliskin

Ari Setsudo Pliskin is Zen Yogi who works to actualize the interconnectedness of life online and on the streets. While once addicted to school, Ari has balanced his geekiness with spiritual practice and time spent on society’s margins. As a staff member of the Zen Peacemakers, Ari assisted Zen Master Bernie Glassman in his teaching around the world. Ari studies Zen at the Green River Zen Center in Greenfield, MA and is an Iyengar-style yoga teacher. Ari loves comic books as well. Ari currently serves as the Executive Director of the Stone Soup Café . Connect with Ari on Facebook or Twitter: @AriPliskin.

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23 Responses to “Was the Buddha a Social Activist?”

  1. Padma Kadag says:

    I suppose all of this is dependent upon what you think a buddhist is. If you call yourself a buddhist then you are. So many different schools of buddhism and thought. There is a school of buddhism where one is only concerned about one's own enlightenment with no regard for any other. Yet it is a buddhist school. There is also a school that says enlightenment is only possible if you place all beings before yourself in order to attain enlightenment. It was from the latter school that the highest realizations by male and female masters, many of which were and currently are "hidden yogis", were attained confirmed by various signs. I suppose we could refer to the saying, "doctor heal thyself". So long as we reify samsara and all of it's subject/object whether it is judged good or bad…we will never attain the level of Buddha. If doing "good deeds" gives you pleasure and you also call yourself a buddhist then why not? It harms nothing.

  2. John Morrison says:

    That's a tough one to answer. It's very easy to talk yourself out of actually practicing. Your argument (to yourself) is even better when you are busy doing good things. ie. "I'm so busy being Engaged that I don't have time to meditate." Someone who has realized the true nature of phenomena can be of much more help to others than a regular old practitioner like me.

    But then again, the Paramitas are important – we shouldn't just neglect them and selfishly spend our days meditating in a cave when we could be helping others by our efforts.

    So, I'm inclined to go with the Buddha and choose the Middle Way – we can be active and engaged – but still mind our practice without becoming attached to this notion of ourselves as "people who do good things" or becoming attached to the "good things" we are doing.

  3. Alexandra says:

    I believe that intensiv practice will develope more compassion, my eyes will open up more and more about the state of the beings around me. If I see suffering I should follow the natural reaction and try to help. With a clear mind there should be no question about this.

    The Buddha has taught many different ways to different people. For some people Dharma is not enough, they need also active help with their worldly life to be able to see the Dharma. I find it really sad that sometimes Buddha's teachnings are used as an excuse to sit back and do nothing in the face of injustice and suffering. I used to think like this: I should only practice and not ingage in anything that is happening around me (I practiced like this for maybe 9 years). But I came to believe that this is not the way because it makes you cut of your natural instincts. If I'm hungry I should eat and if someone falls down infront of me I should pick him up.

    • Padma Kadag says:

      I am not sure you were saying "For some people Dharma is not enough," was something the Buddha taught? In any case I personally think that many people, dare I say most?, fall in love with the idea of buddhism and will readily say that they are buddhists. I will never say whether or not "he or she is a buddhist " But from what I do know is that if we reify samsara and believe in our subject/object concepts then actual compassion is not given the space to arise and our goal of becoming Buddha is missed. If this is not what we are practicing then we are not Buddhists. Then all that we have is a label we have placed on ourselves as buddhist and are nothing more than ordinary beings with no way out of samsara. The Buddha never taught buddhism in the way that "engaged buddhism" is promoted. If we have no realization then our action has no beneficial result whether it is action of mantra or a charity. If we have some realization then it is due to a view which leaves no beings out. That would be an ultimate form of activity. Liberating both samsara and nirvana. Having said that who amongst us would not lend a hand to the infirmed or the elderly?

  4. I feel that Buddha was a Human being that picked up the Universal Truths much like so many people in the past and present…he not only picked them up but went that hard step further and tried to present them to the World…kowing how much misunderstanding goes with it…in a time when communication was hard to say the least….
    all people such as Buddha…Jesus…Mohamed..countless others….
    have had the twists and legendizing that goes with time…the thing that seems to have survived nearly intact throughout so many religions and groups of people is the Golden Rule…all these people were Golden Rulers…they applied it like it should be applied…to all things…the message by any kind..loving…compassionate person is the same…no matter what time they were at this Carnival…..
    and from that sameness has arisen a worship of the messenger…and killing in the name of a God…when it was always the message that was worthy of worship….it is not what they did that matters…it is what you do…
    No Human can be special by what they are…..
    But can be magnificent by what they do….
    Be a Golden Ruler…..

  5. Andy Laties says:

    Isn't it the case that Hinduism regards Buddhism rather disdainfully as merely a heterodox offshoot?

    The Buddha's teaching that enlightenment can be attained by anyone, regardless of caste, in this very lifetime, defied Hindu theology. The Buddha himself was not a member of the Brahmin caste. That is: according to Hindu doctrine he wasn't eligible to achieve enlightenment. So, The Buddha was leading a Reformation movement against Hinduism.

    To suggest that The Buddha was not engaged in social activism ignores this historical context. The Hindu Brahmanic caste held a great deal of power. Buddhist ideas challenged that power, and stated that everyone, no matter their caste, could become fully enlightened, avoiding multiple (often miserable) rebirths. Really this was much more than "activism" — it was Revolution.

  6. Huidao says:

    The Buddha opposed the caste system, in his many discussions especially with Brahmins. He admitted women to the sangha. He was often consulted by reigning kings and politicians.
    "a large red cross did not suddenly begin glowing on his chest. He did not jump up and rush out to save the poor. He did not latch on to a cause and use it as the locus of a fundraising mechanism. He did not begin building institutions." you say?
    But he spent a lifetime teaching both monks and laypeople. He did found a large sangha.
    There is no way to say he was not a social activist.

  7. Carlos says:

    Personally I'd say I don't know if the Buddha was a social activist, as for saying this I think we'd need to reach an agreement about what "social activism" is, and also an agreement about good methods in history to know if the Buddha was a social activist. Also, although I sympathize with much of Ari's possible intentions with this article, I don't think it's a question of "belief", believing the Buddha was or was not a social activist.

    More than a sympathy for Ari's question, I think it's important as an inspiration: can we keep our authentic practices — Buddhists or non-Buddhists — and together share our wisdom and engage in social activism? Am I inspired to it, without mentioning Buddhism or the Buddha to justify my involvement or my non-involvement?

    I don't think that making use of history or beliefs is truly necessary for this decision.

  8. tamonmark says:

    In all honesty, I think the Buddha was just the Buddha. Everything else is extra stuff added on. That brings to mind a teaching of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi: "Right effort is to get rid of anything extra…."

  9. Joshua Eaton says:

    The Pali cannon relates that the Buddha personally intervened on at least one occasion to stop a war between the Sakyas and Kalingas over the waters of the Rohani River. What's more, in his previous lives as recounted in both the Pali Jatakas of the Therevada tradition and the Sanskrit Jatakamala of the Mahayana tradition, the Buddha-to-be upbraided kings for their unrighteousness and told the how to rule righteously on many occasions. The later commentarial traditions produced a rich literature on how Buddhist rulers ought to govern, including works by Nagarjuna and Mipham Rinpoche, among others.

    I don't know that any of this makes the Buddha a social activist, but it certainly makes him socially active. This seems more a matter of fact than of opinion. It's also not anything that I've manufactured myself–it's right there, in black and white.

    • Linda says:

      Yes, thank you for reminding folks about this fact that Buddha actually stopped a war. Thrangu R. talks about this in a series called A History of Buddhism in India published by Namo Buddha. This together with his saying anyone, not just Brahmins, could be enlighted, was socially earthshaking. In Keith Dowman's Buddha Lions there is a chart in the back that shows the occupations of the 84 mahasiddhas. The Brahmins are only a small percent.

  10. [...] Journal featured columnist by Ari Pliskin on June 29th, 2010 No Comments Check it out here! Share E-mail/Save Categories: [...]

  11. rachel says:

    It was always my understanding, and this was an understanding I got from the amazing Religious Studies Dept at CU, that Buddhism was a reform movement in Hinduism. The first excerpt really made me sad. It's good to embrace impermanence which for the record I suck at, and activists can get burned out if one is not careful, but really really? So I guess what I'm saying is, yes, I have always thought of the Buddha was a reformer and activist or it least his legacy gives me that impression, and yes I see the point of the first article, but it's very cynical, and also seems to question the entire idea of a bodhisattva.

  12. Andy Laties says:

    I think when I first read the post from Digital Tibetan Buddhist Altar, something obvious was bothering me about it, but I didn’t know what — and today I realized that it is this: The Dalai Lama is one of the leading activists in the world today. He has won the Nobel Peace Prize, and has relentlessly championed nonviolence (which is a very engaged form of social activism). I heard him speak a few years ago and I would certainly characterize him as highly engaged.

    So — here is the world spokesman for Tibetan Buddhism, essentially being charged by a Tibetan Buddhist website for behaving in a non-Buddhist manner?

    A second point. Buddhism spread due to the salvific activity of missionaries. That’s why it’s all over the world. The very concept of the missionary is activist. Tibet was evangelized by Buddhist missionaries from India about twelve hundred years ago. For Tibetan Buddhists to say that activism is non-Buddhist ignores the origins of their own Buddhist practice!

    This sort of debate is highly legitimate inside of Buddhism, of course. Buddhism welcomes feisty debate–it’s a huge part of the tradition.

  13. Hanky-Panky O.D.O. says:

    Bubkus…

  14. [...] Symposium For Western Socially Engaged Buddhism is whether Buddhism has always been engaged.  I explored this topic in the past and Symposium presenters are providing new insight. On Monday, David Loy [...]

  15. [...] the Symposium For Western Socially Engaged Buddhism is whether Buddhism has always been engaged. I explored this topic in the past and Symposium presenters are providing new insight. On Monday, David Loy [...]

  16. Susmita Barua says:

    This is a wonderful article on the way of Buddha, his embodiment of dhamma
    Going Against the Stream – Personal and Social Radicalism of the Buddha by Richard REOCH http://www.facebook.com/topic.php?uid=15323599961

    Peace

  17. Assaf Koss says:

    I was searching the web for information when I ran into this article. I have my own question, which I can't quite answer yet.

    Regardless of whether the Buddha was an activist or not, and regardless whether being an activist in the modern sense is sensible; what actions should one take in order to achieve good balance in and for modern society? What balance of meditation and speaking to others and crowds, and even representatives should be kept? How do you all see the Buddha's acclaimed balance in this?

    I am trying to figure this out for myself and for whomever may be interested. This is said as an independent activist, dhamma student, and a curious person.

    Assaf Koss,
    Professional Author & Blogger.

  18. Carlos says:

    I'm with you, Ari, in relation to how social activism is in accordance with my understanding of core Buddhist teachings and practices. I see social activism as one powerful contemporary alternative if one engages with a broader view of the world that goes beyond the cocoons of passion, aggression, ignorance — if one meets suffering and is willing to work with that. Of course this has to do with the Bodhisattva vows, the 3 poisons, but personally what is most important to me is the willingness to connect with these experiences directly, without credentials, or not knowing.

    Learning from history is obviously important. But I think that making of history a credential may be tricky, if this prevents us from relating in a straightforward way to our basic experience and suffering, and in my opinion many "historical" debates on "what the Buddha said" or even what our teacher said has this characteristic. We criticize bubbles but are often creating new ones.

  19. Padma Kadag says:

    The Buddha, to me, was the ultimate in skillfull means. Which to me, is to say, everything that is engaged is enlightened activity. Which is not the same as the Golden Rule or just being a plain old good samaritan or as you may say "engaged activism". This is unenlightened activity by ordinary beings. Yes, there is some benefit but it will not last as it is subject to karma. I see this "movement" as one of these bubbles you are talking about. We are not Buddhas…unless your view is pure. But we must be honest with ourselves. Unless we can act within the view of Buddhahood we are only perpetuating samsara no matter our undertaking. If we are to look for examples of the Buddha and his "social activism" we must remember that these are the actions of a fully awakened Buddha…not a human calling oneself a buddhist.

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