2.4
June 29, 2010

Was the Buddha a Social Activist?

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.

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

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