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Buddhism and Activism: How Would Sid Produce Social Change?

Many people look to Siddhartha Gautama as an example of someone who attained nirvana, a buddha. Each week in this column we look at what it might be like if Siddhartha was on his spiritual journey today. How would he combine Buddhism and dating? How would he handle stress in the workplace? What would Sid do? is devoted to taking an honest look at what we as meditators face in the modern world.

Each week I'll take on a new question and give some advice based on what I think Sid, a fictional Siddartha, would do. Like us, Sid is not yet a buddha, he's just someone struggling to maintain an open heart on a spiritual path while facing numerous distractions along the way. Because let's face it, you and I are Sid.

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Sometimes working toward better democracy through mainstream routes like lobbying and, uh, voting seems not only possible but exciting and empowering to me. Other times, though, I can see the appeal of splitting off from society, hopping trains, healing my friends with flower essences, and reading anti-government graphic novels late into the night with my headlamp. I exaggerate, but I am wondering- how would Sid make social change? - Sarah
In some sense the historical Buddha was the greatest social activist of his time. He broke away from a normative lifestyle and pursued a path that took him to a point where if he were to share his wisdom with others he would be going against the cultural and political norms of the time. It's said that when he finally took sustenance after a long period of self-induced starvation he threw his bowl into the river and, instead of going downstream, it skipped against the current. This has often been used as an analogy for how the Buddha's teachings have been counter-culture from day one.
As Walpola Rahula said in 1978, "Buddhism arose in India as a spiritual force against social injustices, against degrading superstitious rites, ceremonies and sacrifices; it denounced the tyranny of the caste system and advocated the equality of all men; it emancipated woman and gave her complete spiritual freedom." Buddhism itself has, at times, served as a catalyst for social transformation.
Granted, the historical Siddhartha could have had a pretty profound effect on the local level without becoming a Buddha. Had he stayed at the palace he would have inherited his father's fiefdom and ruled with the wisdom he developed over time. However, that didn't appeal to him.
He instead realized that he had to work with his own mind before he could help others in a real way. If we want to produce social change we too have to follow his lead and curb our prejudices, our aggression, and our desire to promote our ego before we can be confident that what we are doing will produce positive results in the world around us. So I think our fictional friend Sid would consider step one in taking social action as working with our own mind through the practice of meditation.
Through meditation practice we slowly see how we create confusion and are less likely to cause harm. If we rush out into the world promoting how "I" think things ought to be done then we're likely to run into a bunch of other capital I egos who have contradictory opinions and clash with them. If we walk into the world without prejudice and are willing to be with situations as they arise we are more likely to work with others without causing harm.
There are a number of Buddhist organizations devoted to social change, for example the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. There are also resources focused on promoting your livelihood as an opportunity to produce social change. One of those is Dharma Doctors, a collection of resources for medical professionals.
I realize some may say it's a cop out to downplay the role that non-violent protest has in social action in lieu of promoting petitions and Right Livelihood. I think there is nothing wrong with making your voice heard about matters you believe in. However, it's very hard to be heard in protest settings without being aggressive.
As a beginning practitioner I thought Buddhism and protests went hand-in-hand. In the midst of a large take-the-streets-and-storm-the-senator's-office sort of protest I saw a man resist arrest. This sixty year old man was pushed to the ground, kicked, and pepper sprayed. I don't remember much about that day but I remember pushing through police lines to try and help. I remember it in slow motion and the sheer anger and fear on the police officer's face as he unleashed a can of pepper spray in mine. I was subsequently arrested. It became a very large ordeal.
What I learned though was that what I thought was helping was actually creating more confusion. I was angry at the actions happening abroad. The police were scared and angry that a protest was out of their control. Neither of us were heroes that day; we were just perpetuating aggression. So I tend to steer clear of potentially violent protests myself.
In order to produce social change I'm sure Sid would encourage us to have compassion and understanding for those we find ourselves at odds with. They want to be happy, just like us. We don't need to go on a hunger strike to make them see a new point of view; we just have to talk to them in an open and kind way.
While it is fine to get involved in the political process or to engage in non-violent protests I think Sid would also say that anything to do with other people can be considered social action. Once he was enlightened the Buddha used his influence to share teachings on compassion with others. He returned to kingdoms not to rule but to share his knowledge. He influenced many political rulers in positive ways, leading them to rule successfully. We may not have access to kings (yet) but we can share our heart with our family, our friends, and our co-workers. Even a kind gesture can go a long way.
When we keep our heart open and available, practice mindfulness with the aspiration to create no harm, and hold compassion for others we are truly living like the historical Buddha. I am sure Sid would agree with Gandhi that the best social change comes when you are "the change you want to see in the world."
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