The question is not whether to be engaged or not, the question is how to engage without losing the contemplative life. ~ Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh
Engaged Buddhism is when Buddhists are engaged with the social and political process of their society, in order to benefit others.
Think about a situation where you are upset. Angry. Furious. Some politician, ruler, king, political group, people in your community, etc., is telling you what to do or what you cannot do, or what they want to happen.
Whatever this is, it is conflicting with your view of the ways things should be, your religion, your beliefs, your feelings, your morals. You may perhaps feel hopeless, that you ‘voted’ and it did not mean anything. Or you may feel engaged about a cause, and take to the streets in protest.
But what would the Buddha say to this? How can we draw on the wisdom of Buddhism to help us, as citizens (hopefully in a free democracy) to influence and change our government in order to affect the change we wish to see? Is it futile?
This type of situation has plagued citizens throughout time, and continues in our modern world. So for the upset citizen, what lessons from Buddhist teachers and leaders can they use to bring harmony and progress to our world?
Article Summary (“TL;DR”)
I know you may not have a lot of time to read a long article, so this summary can help. However it is best to read the entire article when you can!
- All things are impermanent and will eventually change.
- All things are dependent on causes and conditions.
- Be mindful with your thoughts and actions.
- Be peaceful and nonviolent while being engaged working for the change you wish to see.
- You may often be ignored, or your views minimized, by those in power or those opposed to your views. Stay mindful, engaged, peaceful, and compassionate.
- Understand why the “other side” feels they way they do, and seek common ground as we all live in the same community and are all interdependent on each other.
- Do not use harsh or divisive speech, and do not use violent or destructive actions.
Now that you have this summary, this article will provide you more information (hyperlinks on this page take you to other articles that I wrote which explain a topic further).
Two Important Things to Remember: It Won’t Last, And Everything Depends on Other Things
When this is, that is.
This arising, that arises.
When this is not, that is not.
This ceasing, that ceases. ~ Buddha
A fact of life is that, as humans, we want things to be exactly how we want them to be. Often, we neglect the needs, feelings, fears, and thoughts of anyone else with conflicting views. You can see this happen on a daily basis with religion and politics.
One of the Buddha’s most important teachings is that of impermanence. That means that things (laws, countries, governments, people, etc.) are not going to last (good or bad) exactly as they are now, and that everything is connected and dependent on other things. Whew, that was a long sentence. But here is what it means in the context of this article
- Impermanence: Everything ends. Everything. Laws, kingdoms, leaders, … everything. America is a great example that has a structured Democratic Republic government that is composed of executive, legislative, and judicial branches. There are votes to determine if the majority of them stay in office, and there are even term limits (for the President for example). Some, such as the Supreme Court justices, stay on for as long as they want…but even they cannot escape being human. So if there is not a law or decision or action you like being taken, that does not mean it will last forever. Everything changes. Even in the context of hundreds of years, things will eventually change. But for how long? In America, we can take for example the enslavement of African Americans which was eventually overturned by war and a constitutional amendment. And we can even take the example of a constitutional amendment for the prohibition on alcohol, which was eventually repealed. That leads us to dependent origination.
- Dependent Origination: Yes, everything changes…but things can last for a very long time if the causes and conditions are favorable to it. At the personal level, you and me exist due to everything from the food we eat, air we breathe, our father and mother, God (for those of faith who believe the Father breathed life into all of us), etc. We do not exist in a vacuum. Same thing happens with governments, politicians, laws, etc. As we have seen, the morally evil practice of slavery was eventually ended due to a bloody civil war in America and congressional action. Without such action, and also without the southern slave-owning states succeeding from the Union (America) which prompted the war, slavery may or may not still exist to this day in America. Later, through actions by clergy and activists, and legislative action, African Americans were able to have the same civil rights as any other American.
The takeaway? Yes, things are impermanent, but that does not mean you should sit back and binge watch your favorite show or play on your phone. Instead it requires you to be engaged in the political process (whatever that means for your country). For many in truly favorable countries, you are able to protest, contact your leaders, and more, without any repercussion. In other countries, there is absolute dangers (to include death) in doing so. Voting is not always guaranteed, but for those in countries where they can vote, this is the opportunity for the people to have a direct impact on the political and legislative process.
You need to be engaged in your country and the political structure it has. This does not mean you need to “love” how politics works, but this is your community. It also means everyone is important in it, and that takes true understanding and compassion. How you engage is as important as what you are engaging about.
The Eightfold Path for Being Engaged
OK, you know things are impermanent and that things are dependent on causes and conditions. So if you, and others, can be engaged to change things you can make dependent origination work for you (and your cause) so that thing you don’t like becomes impermanent a lot quicker. But it is not that simple. First, you should be asking yourself “WHY does the other side feel this is important, and do we have common ground?”.
I am sure there are a few of you rolling your eyes and shaking your heads going “they don’t care!” or “they will believe anything other than the truth!” or “is this article all fake news?!”. If you do not understand where and why the other side is coming from, divisions will stay forever. Even if “the other side” is not receptive to your efforts to “meet in the middle”, it should not dissuade you. Views change, largely by the seeds planted in them. Humans are smart, even if we don’t act like it most of the time!
Practicing Buddhists worldwide aim to follow the “Eightfold Path“, which provides the guidelines to lead a moral life. Here are some ways the Eightfold Path can be applied to those who would like to see change:
- Right View: Look at any issue or situation as it truly is. Free your view of hatred, greed, and delusion. Are you acting for the best interest of the community, or your own ego? Right View is the first step in any of the Eightfold Path.
- Right Intention: Be resolved to rid both yourself, and what you want to see changed, of anything wrong and immoral. For example, do you want to hold politicians accountable for corruption? Resolve to get a law passed or an oversight agency created.
- Right Speech: Make the best use of your words ensuring you do not create false speech, abusive speech, or speech that creates division. Bring people together, not apart. It is too easy to be hateful. Does your letter to a politician push them away from you due to its tone? Does your protest sign create division rather than thought?
- Right Action: Ensure your conduct is morally correct. Although this encompasses your life as a citizen, it is especially important should you be involved in a protest. Take inspiration of the Freedom Riders and other Civil Rights era protesters who waged non-violent and peaceful actions. Strive to abstain from taking life, stealing, and destruction of property. There is no greater way for your message to be forgotten in this way. Imagine if during the Civil Rights era protesters were engaged in violent actions? The cause would have suffered greatly. Instead, we saw the establishment viciously attack and kill the peaceful protesters causing great outrage. Yet, the protesters remained non-violent.
- Right Livelihood: The traditional description for right livelihood is specific to not trading in weapons, save trading, killing, or anything that causes suffering or disillusionment. How you life is important in what you want to see changed. For example, if you are a violent criminal asking for a reduction in mandatory sentencing, you are probably not going to get anywhere. If you are a law-abiding citizen asking for the same thing, you are sure to get more attention.
- Right Effort: Make sure you don’t use wrong or harmful thoughts, words, and deeds, and strive for good. If you are creating conflict, you are only hurting your cause. While it may seem that there are only “two sides”, a good balance of people (even those on the “two sides”) are quite favorable to listening to a good argument. Give them what they need to make an informed decision.
- Right Mindfulness: Too often, our “monkey mind” takes over and we fail to pay attention to what we are saying or doing, or even as important…what is going on around us. As an engaged citizen, how you communicate with politicians, other citizens, the media, etc., leads us to ramble and fall into talking about stereotypes, hard, and divisive language. Make sure you do not act or speak with any inattention or forgetfulness.
- Right Concentration: Mediate. No, really. You are going to be dealing with a lot of people who do not like what you say, and they can be hateful and merciless in their response to you (even if you don’t know them). Maintaining concentration…so you can support compassion…is difficult indeed. Meditating has been shown to have many health benefits, but more importantly it can help you center yourself after a town hall meeting, protest, or discussion, and will allow you to build up your mental calmness.
When You Are [Really] Upset
As humans, we are very emotional and passionate beings. And when it comes to something we feel passionate about, we can get angry, feel hatred, and even resort to violence.
The Buddha never advocated violence or anger. As Buddhists, we should follow his example and teachings when it comes to social change.
Some scriptural examples we can draw from:
- Dhammapada 3: “He abused me, he ill-treated me, he got the better of me, he stole my belongings,” … “the enmity of those harboring such thoughts cannot be appeased.”
- Dhammapada 5: “Hatred is, indeed, never appeased by hatred in this world. It is appeased only by loving-kindness. This is an ancient law.”
- MN21: “Even if bandits were to carve you up savagely, limb by limb, with a two-handled saw, he among you who let his heart get angered even at that would not be doing my bidding.”
A consistent theme of the Buddha’s teachings is that only we are in control of our mind, thoughts, actions, speech, and livelihood. As humans, this can be very challenging for us, especially when our feelings and beliefs reinforce us doing something we will then say or do. A part of Buddhist practice is actually living in the real world (not some cave up in a mountain). This is where ‘suffering’ exists, and challenges, which allow us to practice the opposite of hatred and anger.
The 14th Dalai Lama said:
The true hero is one who conquers his own anger and hatred.
Let me explain more about what the Dalai Lama is talking about:
Hatred/aversion (Dvesha in Sanskrit) is one of the “Three Poisons” in Buddhism (delusion/ignorance, hate/anger, and greed) which contribute to Duḥkha (Dukkha in Pali) in our lives. Duḥkha is often loosely translated as ‘suffering’ but refers to a general dissatisfaction or ‘something not quite right’ with our life. Duḥkha is the primary concern that the Buddha expounded on right after his enlightenment in his “Four Noble Truths”. In it, he gave not only the cause of this ‘suffering’ in our lives, but also the cure (which is the Noble Eightfold Path).
Because hatred is a negative thought, it contributes to our unwholesome thoughts, actions, speech, etc., which further contribute to the Duḥkha of ourselves, and others.
To counter hatred, we practice Adveṣa (non-hatred) or Mettā (loving-kindness). When practiced with the other wholesome qualities, we are on the path to freedom/liberation (Nirvana/Nibanna):
- Amoha (non-delusion) or Prajna (wisdom)
- Alobha (non-attachment) or Dāna (generosity)
- Adveṣa (non-hatred) or Mettā (loving-kindness)
These qualities can and should be practiced all the time, not just when things are challenging in your life and that of others.
Engaged Buddhism: The Mindful Way For Change
Love and understanding are not only concepts and words. They must be real things, realized, in oneself and in society. ~ Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh
The term “Engaged Buddhism” largely came about during the Vietnam War with Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh. However it was a concept and practice already existing with monastics before him (such as Taixu), and after him (such as with Ven. Master Hsing Yun, a Chinese Buddhist monastic, who calls it “Humanistic Buddhism”). In our modern world, Engaged Buddhism is everything from protesting in the streets, to writing to politicians. In-fact, there is not much different than what you would expect from anyone else voicing their opinions. The one takeaway is that Engaged Buddhism does not engage in unmindful actions such violence, hatred, or anger, of which would be against Buddhist teachings.
Instead Engaged Buddhism focuses on mindful actions of understanding, compassion, and peaceful actions. For those who are truly “worked up”, this may sound completely “out of touch” with what is going on. Is your “side” one that is “right” and “just”? The problem with perceptions is that everyone’s perceptions is interpreted by themselves as right! When one is mindful, and can with true understanding listen to the objections of the “other side”, it can become clearer if your position is “right” and “just”. Or if some of your perceptions are correct, but some are just way out of line or need to be adjusted. Now if just everyone would do this we would be in a much more peaceful world!
After all this, what if the “other side” is not understanding, not compassionate, and violent? Yes, that happens, and in-fact history shows that those who are opposite of that with their actions succeed in the long run.
- Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: Led a peaceful and nonviolent Civil Rights movement which ultimately succeeded in the Civil Rights Act. However during the campaign, many were murdered, attacked, beat up, and imprisoned. Yet, the peaceful and nonviolent actions were a stark contrast to the violent actions of those trying to stop them and led to public outrage over those opposing them, and support of Dr. King’s movement. Selma is a great (and recent) movie related to this. On April 14th, 1967, Dr. King explained why nonviolence is critical (click here for video – this portion is 23:00 minutes into the speech):
I’m still convinced that nonviolence is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom and justice. I feel that violence will only create more social problems than they will solve.
- Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh: Banned from his native Vietnam (by the South and then the reunified Vietnam) for advocating peace, he met with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the United States Secretary of Defense, and many others in order to bring an end to the war. He became a high profile icon of ending the war in Vietnam, and along with peaceful and nonviolent activists, the war ultimately ended. Relations between both countries were as cold as could be after that. However in a true example of impermanence and dependent origination, America and Vietnam are both allies and even have U.S. Navy ships dock in Vietnam ports and participate in training and exercises.
- Ghandhi: Wishing for independence from colonial control by the British Empire, Ghandhi waged a nonviolent and peaceful movement which frustrated even his supporters. The British utilized others to beat them and take other actions, yet the movement largely kept to its peaceful actions. Ghandhi even went as far to say to the British that eventually they would leave (he sure understood impermanence!), and to his inner circle he said we must see the British off as friends (meaning he also understood how things are interdependent). This was important because he knew that the British were not inherently “evil”, and you should always have friends. And in the end, that proved true. The movie Ghandhi, starring the amazing actor Sir Ben Kingsley, is a must see. The following is from the movie, which features Ghandhi’s non-violence speech:
Two Amazing Leaders: Rev. Martin Luther King Jr and Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh
During both the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, it was inevitable that the two non-violent activists of the time, Rev. Martin L. King, Jr. and Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh, were to meet, and became good friends. Both of these men showed one thing: that engaged, peaceful, and determined action towards peace and justice is as effective…or more so…than violent action. True Bodhisattva’s in our age. I would like to stress this part: they were nonviolent (peaceful), yet still very much engaged, and both accomplished their goals: and end to (legal) discrimination in America, and the end of the Vietnam war.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967 and said of him:
“I know Thich Nhat Hanh, and am privileged to call him my friend… [He is] an apostle of peace and non-violence… He has traveled the world, counseling statesmen, religious leaders, scholars and writers, and enlisting their support. His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity.”
The Fourteen Precepts of Engaged Buddhism
Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh did not stop with just press conferences and meeting with politicians. He created The Order of Interbeing in Saigon on Feburary 5th, 1966. This was truly the first (and perhaps most well known) Engaged Buddhism group. You can learn more about the Order and their fourteen mindfulness trainings are from the Order’s website.
For Buddhists, and anyone else for that matter, who are practicing Engaged Buddhism, his Fourteen Precepts for Engaged Buddhism (from his book “Interbeing“) are perhaps the most important things you, and others who are joining you, should ALWAYS follow. By following all of these precepts (yes, even when it is really hard) you achieve some important things: you will always be mindful, lawful, respectful, compassionate, understanding, and present. While that sounds like you are achieving nothing (especially when the news appears to always show violence and anger), you are actually achieving a lot. “Regular people” see what you are doing, and will be more willing to understand your message. If your message is right, then they will see it as such. If you have violent or uncompassionate actions, your message becomes irrelevant to them.
During a demonstration, protest, etc., if you see anyone violating any of these precepts, such as causing violence or destroying life and property, report them to the authorities without a second thought. If you are on the side of good, then do good. Anyone who is not being mindful, peaceful, and non-violent is not on your side, and thus is not on the side of what is right and just.
- Do not be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist systems of thought are guiding means; they are not absolute truth.
- Do not think the knowledge you presently possess is changeless, absolute truth. Avoid being narrow minded and bound to present views. Learn and practice nonattachment from views in order to be open to receive others’ viewpoints. Truth is found in life and not merely in conceptual knowledge. Be ready to learn throughout your entire life and to observe reality in yourself and in the world at all times.
- Do not force others, including children, by any means whatsoever, to adopt your views, whether by authority, threat, money, propaganda, or even education. However, through compassionate dialogue, help others renounce fanaticism and narrow-mindedness.
- Do not avoid suffering or close your eyes before suffering. Do not lose awareness of the existence of suffering in the life of the world. Find ways to be with those who are suffering, including personal contact, visits, images and sounds. By such means, awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world.
- Do not accumulate wealth while millions are hungry. Do not take as the aim of your life fame, profit, wealth, or sensual pleasure. Live simply and share time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need.
- Do not maintain anger or hatred. Learn to penetrate and transform them when they are still seeds in your consciousness. As soon as they arise, turn your attention to your breath in order to see and understand the nature of your hatred.
- Do not lose yourself in dispersion and in your surroundings. Practice mindful breathing to come back to what is happening in the present moment. Be in touch with what is wondrous, refreshing, and healing both inside and around you. Plant seeds of joy, peace, and understanding in yourself in order to facilitate the work of transformation in the depths of your consciousness.
- Do not utter words that can create discord and cause the community to break. Make every effort to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.
- Do not say untruthful things for the sake of personal interest or to impress people. Do not utter words that cause division and hatred. Do not spread news that you do not know to be certain. Do not criticize or condemn things of which you are not sure. Always speak truthfully and constructively. Have the courage to speak out about situations of injustice, even when doing so may threaten your own safety.
- Do not use the Buddhist community for personal gain or profit, or transform your community into a political party. A religious community, however, should take a clear stand against oppression and injustice and should strive to change the situation without engaging in partisan conflicts.
- Do not live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature. Do not invest in companies that deprive others of their chance to live. Select a vocation that helps realize your ideal of compassion.
- Do not kill. Do not let others kill. Find whatever means possible to protect life and prevent war.
- Possess nothing that should belong to others. Respect the property of others, but prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other species on Earth.
- Do not mistreat your body. Learn to handle it with respect. Do not look on your body as only an instrument. Preserve vital energies (sexual, breath, spirit) for the realization of the Way. For brothers and sisters who are not monks and nuns: Sexual expression should not take place without love and commitment. In sexual relations, be aware of future suffering that may be caused. To preserve the happiness of others, respect the rights and commitments of others. Be fully aware of the responsibility of bringing new lives into the world. Meditate on the world into which you are bringing new beings.
The Buddha: An Effective “Activist”?
When we think of the Buddha, we often believe he was successful all the time. That everyone saw how enlightened he was, his words pure and full of wisdom, and they agreed with what he said. That was not always the case.
- The Buddha failed to teach the very first person he met
- The Buddha failed to stop wars and violence, to include violence that killed many of his clan
- The Buddha had monks get into intense disagreements and conflicts within his community
- The Buddha encountered kingdoms and people that had turmoil, famine, violence, oppression, and disharmony he could not resolve
Wow. If that was our experience, we might cower away in a cloud of humiliation and sorrow of such incredible ‘failures’. The Buddha did not. He was still a human being, and despite his enlightenment, not everyone was receptive or recognized it.
We can draw from the Buddha’s story as a way to understand that we will not always be ‘successful’ either. That the most important thing is we need to understand is that we are the only ones in control of our own actions (karma). That alone has great power, and responsibility. The Buddha never waivered in his actions and livelihood. Even when things were at their worst, he knew that he could only control himself (and more specifically, his mind). He still taught for decades out of compassion for all sentient beings. He intervened to help stop wars. He helped many of his monks become enlightened so they also could find freedom. He broke cultural norms by accepting people from all walks of life and treated them as equals. He also was the first to ordain woman, an unheard of thing for his time and culture.
Yet, despite everything that occurred, he was never violent. As Buddhists, we strive to become Buddha’s ourselves and see the Buddha’s actions and life as not only inspirational, but as a path.
Why is this important? Because he faced the same challenges and situations we all face (and even some truly devastating events), but he had great insight which helped him over his decades of teachings. And that life helped spawn one of the world’s largest religion practiced by hundreds of millions of people worldwide.
- The Ascetic: After Prince Siddhartha achieved awakening under the Bodhi tree and become the Buddha, he first encountered a wandering ascetic who questioned who was his guru. The Buddha replied no one was his guru, and he was self-enlightened. The ascetic acknowledged this may have been the case, and wandered off not even realizing he was talking to a Buddha. The Buddha failed to connect with the very first person he met after his enlightenment, and was unable to reveal the truth he discovered. This may also be our situation where that person you are trying to ‘convince’ doesn’t understand (or unwilling to accept) your speech. Like the Buddha, you need only understand the situation occurred, that your speech was not effective, and vow to continue wholesome actions, speech, thoughts, and livelihood.
- Angulimala: Perhaps the most famous of the Buddha’s followers was the Arhat Angulimala. He became extremely well known to expectant mothers after historically comforting a mother during a difficult childbirth. But it wasn’t always such a rosy picture. He was once an extremely violent mass murderer that was feared by everyone. One day when he snuck up behind the Buddha, he thought that he had an easy prey. Instead, the Buddha in his calm and fearless demeanor, challenged Angulimala not with self defense (even though the Buddha, when he was a prince, was well versed), but with words of insight. This shocked Angulimala and he begged the Buddha to become his disciple afterwards. The Buddha confronted Angulimala with insight and compassion, not violence or aggression. He could have easily had a closed mind and lumped Angulimala into a group of “bad people”, but he didn’t. And instead, became one of the Buddha’s most well known monks and revealed important truths about karma. What can we learn from this? Perceptions are self-created. Genuine conversation and understanding have historically been the best path towards peace and progress. You know “for a fact” about something, someone, or a group of people? That may be the exact time you need to be open to having a genuine conversation, an open mind, and vow to understand. ‘Enlightenment’ comes in many ways.
- The Flower Sermon: In my artwork for this article, you see the Buddha holding a sign with only a hand (it is the Buddha’s) holding a lotus flower. This is a reference to the Flower Sermon where the Buddha held a silent sermon where he only held up a lotus flower (highly symbolic in Buddhism). None of the monks understood what the Buddha was trying to express – except for one, Mahākāśyapa, who smiled. Mahākāśyapa received wisdom (prajñā) from the the Buddha by this simple teaching that contained absolutely no words. So what does this mean for us in the engaged Buddhism aspect? You don’t need to be the ‘loudest’ person to be heard – actions, livelihood, demeanor, etc., can express your cause sometimes better than any other thing you do. The Buddha did not need to do any other type of action or speech beyond just holding up the lotus flower (the symbol). For the one that the message was meant to connect with, it did. Even when people may “not understand” what you are trying to explain, there can be one person who does. And that one person can be the right person you needed to connect with! And what happened to Mahākāśyapa? He assumed the leadership role after the Buddha passed away, and was the patriarch of many of the early Buddhist schools.
Yes, the Buddha did live in a much different time than we do now, but his teachings have survived the test of time in different countries, cultures, situations, and eras. If we are truly to become ‘engaged Buddhists’, we need to drop preconceived notions, strive to communicate and understand others, find common ground, practice nonviolence, be lawful in our actions, and show concern for all sentient beings.
As human beings, we are passionate and emotional creatures. We want what is best based on your thoughts, opinions, beliefs, and feelings. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. By applying some Buddhist concepts, you can gain perspective and a steady mind that can help you bridge the gap and create compromise and peace among all parties for a community (and nation and world) we all live in. The end goal is always to make a better life for those around you (whether you know them or not), and you can make it happen!
- Are you a leader in a government? Click here for an article related to Buddhist tips for Government leaders.
- Recommended Books: Interbeing by Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh, Listening to the Heart: A Contemplative Journey to Engaged Buddhism by Kittisaro, and The Bodhisattva’s Embrace: Dispatches from Engaged’s Buddhism’s Front Lines by Alan Senauke. Note that I may earn a small commission on referral links.
- For Further Reading: Engaged Buddhism on Wikipedia, In Engaged Buddhism, Peace Begins with You by John Malkin on Lions Roar, and Thich Nhat Hanh by Barbara O’Brien.
- Recommended Movies: Ghandhi, and Selma.
- This article was updated in 2020 with a new section ‘from when you are really upset’ featured image created by Alan, and addition of quote/image from the Dalai Lama and explanation, and scripture references from Venerable Sanathavihari Los Angeles. Also added a section about the Buddha’s life and situations (‘the Buddha an effective activist?’).
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