Some Thoughts on Activism and Buddhism
by Amy Reed
I am by no means an expert on Buddhism, but one thing I have come to understand is that the Buddha was a revolutionary, both spiritually and politically. At a time when it was unthinkable, he welcomed the untouchable caste into his sangha. He ordained women as monks (but only after they shaved their heads and marched a hundred miles on bloody bare feet in protest, because those original bikkhunis were badass). His teachings were about questioning dogma and the establishment, yet his sangha did not isolate and tune out, did not close themselves off from the suffering of the world–they were in the streets; they were teaching the way of compassion to anyone who would listen; they were advising kings. They were involved.
Compassion is not only something I do when I’m meditating. I can cultivate wise intentions and wholesome thoughts while I sit, I can send metta to abstract strangers around the world, but that is only part of my practice. There is also right action. There is the action of compassion. What does it mean to act wisely in this world that is experiencing so much suffering? How do I show up for others, and also for myself?
I can start by looking deeply at myself. I can use the practices of mindfulness to investigate, with mercy and without judgment, how I may be contributing to the greed, hatred, and delusion of the world. I can investigate my prejudices and implicit bias, the programming I received from my family and culture, and I can work to heal and see clearly. I can practice gratitude and unattached appreciation for my privileges, and I can practice generosity to use those privileges to help others. I can know when to be humble and listen when people say they’re hurting. I can vote for people who will do the most good, or at the very least do the least amount of harm, even if the people I am given the choice to vote for are not perfect. Because not voting, not participating, is far from neutral; it grants power to those who are doing the most harm, and it makes me complicit.
Addicts and alcoholics have seen more than our fair share of suffering, and yet we persist, we still hope and believe in the power of transformation. We see it in meetings every day—the human capacity for change, the ability of even the most broken of us to turn our lives around and become someone new and whole, and to be of service to help others. Apathy is not an option for people in recovery, and hope is a requirement. I have seen countless people transformed amidst seemingly impossible conditions, including myself, so I have to believe institutions can transform too. And I know, like all the most meaningful transformations in my own life, all change requires hard work and persistence.
I often joke that I am co-dependent with America. In the last two years, I have felt an almost constant pulse of anxiety and fear, an inability to find peace, to settle, to feel safe. This country is not okay, so I cannot be okay. My wellbeing feels dependent on external circumstances I cannot control. So I worry. It is what I have always done. I have been worrying for as long as I can remember. When I worry, I feel like I’m being vigilant, that I am somehow controlling the situation. But of course, I am not controlling anything. I am just reacting. I am letting my fear take control.
I am beginning to realize that worrying is not compassion. Like resentment, though seemingly directed at other people, it only really affects myself. I do not help anyone by worrying about them. I do not help anyone by obsessively scrolling through Twitter and Facebook and getting more and more triggered and enraged by headline after click-bait headline. I am not helping anyone by believing I cannot be okay unless everyone else is okay. And this is where equanimity comes in. This is when I need to let go of what I cannot control. Right now, it’s like this. For me, this is a good time for the Serenity Prayer (perhaps replacing “God, grant me–” with a more Buddhist-friendly “May I have–”).
In all my passion to help, I sometimes forget one essential thing: do no harm. And that includes myself. So if I am getting compassion fatigue, if I am inching toward my tendency to feel co-dependent with the whole world, if I am obsessing about how much I hate people who disagree with me, I have to pause and ask myself: “What is off here? How can I be kind and gentle with myself and others? How can I practice equanimity?”
Equanimity tells me that all beings are the source of their own spiritual liberation, but compassion and right action tell me I cannot sit idly by while people’s rights and lives are in danger. I have incredible power to use my voice to help ease suffering in this world–in my community, in my family, in my sangha, and in the interactions I have with strangers throughout my day–but that power has a limit, and I must accept that limit if I am going to find any peace within myself.
Activism is an essential part of my Buddhist practice. For me, it is how compassion and right action intersect, with equanimity there to keep me humble and in a place of acceptance for what I cannot control. This is how I go against the stream. This is how I try to be a Buddha. Because in this world full of greed, hatred, and delusion, any act of kindness, compassion, and generosity is a revolutionary act.
If you want more info about Buddhism and activism, check out the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, and the book Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation, by Rev. angel Kyodo williams, Lama Rod Owens, and Jasmine Syedullah.