Buddha’s Exact Teachings and the Paradox of Social Activism

The Buddha did not say much about political and social issues.

13 mins read

This marks the final installment of a series of articles by Ian James Kidd on Buddhism and social activism. We extend our gratitude to both the author and the editor of Daily Philosophy for granting us permission to reprint this series. – Editors

Engaged Buddhists understand the Dhamma to endorse kinds of social activism. Compassion and ‘overcoming suffering’ means an earnest collective effort to radically change the social and political conditions of human life. Justice, fairness, equality, and rights are all pursued by engaged Buddhists. ‘Climate action’ and rhetoric of ‘saving the planet’ fill Buddhist blogs and pamphlets. Thích Nhất Hạnh came to fame for his anti-war advocacy. My city has a ‘Buddhists for Extinction Rebellion’ group. All this is proof of a ‘sea-change’ in the global Buddhist tradition. For one distinguished scholar, ‘Buddhists have gotten up off their cushions, recognizing that collective sources of suffering in the world must be addressed by collective action’.

In the first and second parts of this series, I tried to cast doubt on the actual fidelity of engaged Buddhism to the teachings of the Buddha. My aim isn’t ‘to do’ down Buddhism, nor impugn the moral seriousness of many of those causes. I only want to provoke doubts about whether the ethos of engaged Buddhism is consistent with what the Buddha taught. We can find perfectly good reasons to want to address racism, economic inequality, and unsustainable abuse of the environment. But few, if any of these will be drawn from the teachings of the Buddha.

I focus in this final piece on a neglected aspect of the teachings: the condemnation of social activism and political engagement.

Society and the Sangha

The Buddha did not say much about political and social issues. A handful of suttas discuss issues like rulership and the origins of the state. Generally, though, the Buddha was reluctant to say very much. Most of what he did say about politics was in response to the requests of the rulers who would occasionally consult him. As a general rule, the Buddha’s advice is straightforward – reward the capable, punish criminals but not too harshly, tax people but not too much, and so on. One scholar calls the Buddha’s political views a sort of ‘limited citizenship’. Insofar as we live in extended social communities, someone needs to be in charge, and so they should have a good moral character and a limited range of duties.

The great Buddhist king, Asoka, is often presented as the ideal – a wise ruler who abandoned warfare, made provisions for care of ill and aged people, instituted protections for animals, and so on. As rulers go, Asoka was admirable but also rare. An engaged Buddhist may point to his example as an argument for political participation and engagement. Should we not work to create a fairer and more compassionate social system, one able to systematically serve the needs of the vulnerable and advance such goals as social and economic justice?

Not quite. For one thing, the Buddha distinguishes the concerns proper to rulers and those of ordinary people – ‘householders’ or ‘worldlings’. Moreover, the Buddha accepted the hereditary monarchies standard in India at the time. For another thing, the actions of a ruler should be directed to the promotion of the Dhamma. Social justice isn’t part of the picture.

The Cakkavatti-Sihanda Sutta is one of the few suttas to deal in detail with political issues. It is often cited as evidence that a good king should ‘tackle’ poverty and promote equality. If we look closer, though, we find something rather different. While a king should reduce poverty, the motivation is to maintain social stability. One can’t follow the Dhamma properly if poor, hungry people keep rising up and rioting. Moreover, the deep point of the sutta is that good social conditions are impermanent – doomed to pass. Spiritually serious people therefore do not wait for, work for, or need, favourable social or economic conditions. They should be ‘islands unto themselves’, devoting their energies to self-transformation. I waste my energies by working hard to change the state of society. I might fail, and, even if I actually succeed, the change will never last. Pinning one’s goes on impermanent conditions is ‘heedless’, says the Buddha.

The Buddha did endorse one kind of communal social life: this is the monastic life made possible in the Sangha. Monasticism is the best kind of life available in sasāra. (Even better than those heavens inhabited by the devas, whose technicolour pleasures are too intoxicating). Along with the Dhamma and the Buddha, the Sangha is one of the ‘Three Refuges’ in which faithful Buddhists place their confidence. It is not always appreciated by modern Buddhists that the Sangha is not a way of life – an option among others. It is the best way of life – the ‘noble quest’ – and described as a ‘jewel’.

The superiority of the monastic life

Why is a monastic life superior? Well, the disciplined, purified routines and ambience of monastic life makes it morally superior to being out among ‘worldlings’. The mainstream world consists of pressures and temptations that fuel attachments and desires – money, sexual gratification, power, pleasure. It is a realm driven by ‘craving’ and sustained by ‘delusions’. The Buddha denounces it as ‘burning’, ‘poisonous’ – ‘swirling streams’ of corrupt desires, its miserable inhabitants all ‘held fast by fetter and by bond’, and ‘afflicted with thick ignorance’.

A monastic community is different and better. A Sangha, for a start, is an ‘intentional community’ – one people elect to join for specific reasons. Spiritually-serious people take a decision to devote themselves to a way of life that offers superior conditions for meditative and moral action. Next, the Sangha lacks various features that in the outside world feed failings like anger, greed, lustfulness, and selfishness. Bhikkus and bhikkunis have uniform dress and appearance – shaven heads, standard-issue robes – and own only a few personal possessions (a robe, an eating bowl). Moreover, a strict code of celibacy is observed. The absence of these will not remove our problematic dispositions – to complete and seek pleasure – but they do weaken them. A further feature of the Sangha is that is is governed by a complicated set of rules and regulations, laid out in the Vinaya Pitaka. These are comprehensive – governing diet, daily routines, and so on. Such rules are enforced: violation of them can require a confession, forfeiture, or even expulsion.

Monastic communities can be more or less strict about these rules and regulations. Moreover, they are shaped by regional and cultural norms. Some monastics are happy to eat fish, others not, some are more relaxed about contacts with the world of ‘householders’. The point, though, is that the Buddha had good reasons for affirming the superiority of monastic life. It is a ‘refuge’ – a place of safety away from the corrupting forces of the social world, and a hospitable environment for earnest practice of the Dhamma. This is why the Buddha celebrates ‘withdrawal’ (viveka) from the world. Calming or ‘purging’ the appetites, desires, impulses and preoccupations that feed attachment and anxiety is a demanding task. ‘Giving up’ our obsessions requires huge moral self-discipline – like trying to balance a bowl of oil on one’s head. All this becomes a thousand times harder if one is also buffeted by the pressures and demands of social life. Eliminating our attachments and desires requires strict distancing from the world. A wise person is like ‘a deer in the wilds’ and – in a term that irritated Nietzsche – a ‘world-renouncer’.

The serene withdrawal of the monk in the face of the pulsing moral dangers of the world is nicely illustrated in the story of the tortoise and the jackal:

Once upon a time, monks, a hard-shelled tortoise was foraging for food in the evening along the shore of a lake. And a jackal was also foraging for food in the evening along the shore of the lake.

The tortoise saw the jackal from afar, foraging for food, and so — withdrawing its four legs, with its neck as a fifth, into its own shell — it remained perfectly quiet and still. But the jackal also saw the tortoise from afar, foraging for food, and so it went to the tortoise and, on arrival, hovered around it.

“As soon as the tortoise stretches out one or another of its four limbs — or its neck as a fifth — I’ll seize it right there, tear it off, and eat it.”

But when the tortoise didn’t stretch out any of its four limbs — or its neck as a fifth — the jackal, not having gotten any opportunity, lost interest and left.

Monks should be like the tortoise: ever-watchful for the prowling dangers of the world, able to quickly withdraw and protect themselves, utterly impervious to temptation, and utterly composed and self-controlled. Of course, this makes sense give the Buddha’s grim vision of the human world as ‘cloaked in the mass of darkness’, but it also will make it hard to reconcile monasticism with social activism. In fact, doubly hard, because the Buddha also condemned social and political engagement. It’s time to see why.


The very idea of condemning social activism is liable to seem astonishing to many modern minds. Activism has now become built into many people’s ideas about what it means to be a morally-engaged person. ‘Saving the world’ and calls for ‘change’ and ‘action’ are entrenched in our moral vocabulary. Big issues – sexism, climate change, the evils of capitalism – dominate the moral agenda. Political and religious leaders speak the language of radicalism. Of course, not everyone endorses this activist ethos. Certain voices still speak of different styles of moral action, even if they are very much in the minority.

The Buddha’s moral ethos was quietist. It eschewed the radical, socially-engaged, world-changing kinds of activity. The focus was upon individual self-cultivation and on such quieter virtues as equanimity, humility, self-restraint, and modesty. I already discussed compassion and suffering in the first part of this series. At this point, though, we should explore how the Buddha’s quietism meant opposition to social activism.

First, though, a qualification. The Buddha was perfectly aware that the majority of people won’t be able to abandon the values and demands of the mainstream world. No matter how eloquent his discourses, most will default to their cravings and attachments. No matter how earnestly they affirm the value of humility, most will instantly return to their ambitious projects and goals. Only a few people are actually capable of following the Dhamma. This is why the Buddha constantly distinguishes his teachings into ones for monastics and ones for householders, where the latter tend to be simpler, watered-down versions. Monks, for instance, are told about the dreadfulness of rebirth in one of the hell-realms, whereas householders are told that bad actions will get one reborn ugly or poor. In practice, social activism and political participation are mainly condemned for monastics – those on the ‘Noble Quest’. ‘Worldlings’ will cling to their ‘causes’ just as much as to their ‘cravings’.

The quietist character of the Buddha’s teachings when it comes to the socio-political world is clear in many suttas. A group of Licchavis, a northern Indian people, came to ask the Buddha for advice on ‘non-decline’. What must they do to avoid the deterioration of their society? The Buddha’s advice was to obey their laws, pay their taxes, and honour their traditions and elders. Respectful conformity, and not reformist radicalism. Looking more widely, quietism runs through the specifications of the Eightfold Path, the set of guidelines for proper mental, physical, and social conduct. Consider the explanation of ‘Right Speech’ (samma vacca). ‘Abstaining from lying from divisive speech, from abusive speech’ all sounds very good, especially to those alarmed by slurs and ‘causing offence’.

Look further, though, and Right Speech also extends to political talk. The lists of the ‘lowly’, ‘unwholesome’ topics of conversation includes political, economic, and everyday social issues:

[S]ome brahmans … are addicted to talking about lowly topics such as these — talking about kings, robbers, ministers of state; armies, alarms, and battles; food and drink; clothing, furniture, garlands, and scents; relatives; vehicles; villages, towns, cities, the countryside; women and heroes; the gossip of the street and the well; tales of the dead.

A friend of mine, reading this, glumly concluded that in effect ‘wrong speech’ was identical with all of everyday human discourse. He was right – most of what people discuss isn’t ‘wholesome’. The Buddha’s instruction was that one’s speech should be ‘factual, true, beneficial, and endearing & agreeable to others’. Nothing false, harsh, or likely to cause dissension and hostility. The ‘wholesome topics’ concern morality and liberation – modesty, contentment, seclusion, non-entanglement, virtue, concentration, and the nature and possibility of ‘right vision’ and moka (release). All this is very far from activist and political discourse: there is nothing of Right Speech in angry denunciations, partisan polemics, divisive ‘us vs. them’ polarisations, scorn for opponents, and other depressingly familiar phenomena. Indeed, the desire to talk politics is a failure of Right Speech.

Distraction and entrapment

We could pile up examples of the Buddha’s quietism, but what would be more useful is a systematic account of his arguments against social activism. Unfortunately, he rarely offered one.

The Mugapakka Jataka tells the story of Temiya, an earlier rebirth of the Buddha, whose memories of hell motivate him to resist worldly powers and pleasures. Temiya’s desperate parents, the king and queen, resort to all sorts of temptations and torments to get Temiya to embrace his royal destiny. At every point, Temiya refuses, explaining that political life is corrupting and fixated on uncertain future conditions, all subject to decay and change. The rewards of the holy life are vastly superior to the alleged rewards of political life.

I think we can order the Buddha’s arguments against social activism under three headings. First, concern for social and political issues is a distraction from spiritual life. Anything which does not ‘conduce to Nibbana’ (extinguishment; literally, the blowing out of a candle) is a distraction that saps our limited concentration, energy, and focus. ‘Being political’ imposes a burdensome set of concerns and worries and things to keep up to date with – none of it concerned with moka (release).

Second, activism and political participation entrap us within the social world and, therefore, within sasāra. Adopting activist identities and goals intensifies our attachments and desires – the very things we are meant to be weakening and eliminating. The problem is not just the fact of attachments and goals, though; it’s that most activists valorise very strong attachments. Being ‘passionate’, energetic in pursuit of grand goals, always animated by discontent or frustration – this is the inner emotional profile of some doomed to remain entrapped. (If activists to respond that their emotions reflect good motivations, like justice, the Buddha would reply that those reflect ‘false views’).

Distraction and entrapment are two of the problems of social activism identified by the Buddha. Our urgent task should be the soteriological one of achieving our own ‘release’. It’s already hard for people to grasp this. Few people have savega – an acute sense of ‘spiritual urgency’ that sustains clarity, focus, and resolve. But the Buddha offers a third argument against social activism, too. It is corrupting – it feeds personal vices or failings. Recall that the Buddhist project is self-transformation. I should strive to live according to ‘the discipline and the Dhamma’. Cultivating virtues, following the Precepts, and following monastic regulations is one part; but the other is destroying our many ‘cankers’, ‘taints’, and ‘defilements’. These are deep failings which cause bad moral conduct and erode our spiritual abilities. Greed, delusion, selfishness, callousness, lack of self-control, dogmatism … all these and many others are detailed in the suttas.

The Buddha’s listings of our vices is almost certainly the most complex attempted in the history of world philosophy and religion. Social and political engagement fuels these vices. Conceitedness, dogmatism, dishonesty and manipulativeness, egotism, grandiosity, hubris, self-righteousness … all are sustained by the goals and methods of many political activists. Encouraging scorn for political rivals is a species of hatred. Feeding grand ambitions in an impermanent world is hubristic. Urging people to think they can collectively impose their will on the world and achieve lasting change is arrogance. None of this is consistent with the project of individual moral self-transformation central to the Buddha’s teachings.

A deeper sort of corruption can also be discerned. One of the most potent sources of dukkha is what the Buddha called ‘the conceit “I-am”, the distorted sense that we’re stable, potent agents. The ‘self’ the Buddha attacks isn’t a bad metaphysical model of personal identity, so much as it is a set of stubborn conceits. These conceits are fed by worldly ambition, desires for power, a determination to ’make my mark in the world’, and much else. Insofar as social activism energises these conceits, it sustains delusions, desires, and ‘false views’ that entrap and corrupt us.

‘May all beings be free!’

In this series, I’ve tried to challenge the modern image of Buddhism as a spiritual dispensation that encourages social activism. Contrary to ‘engaged Buddhist’ claims, very little in the suttas endorses radical social, political action. Closer attention to ‘key terms’, like ‘compassion’ and ‘suffering’, points to specific meanings that are too often effaced by strategic vagary. Careful examination of the Buddha’s condemnations and endorsements shows a moral outlook quite different from the predilections of many of his modern admirers. Finally, the Buddha was a moral quietist – the best life is one of refuge, restraint, and disciplined devotion to self-transformation. I think the Buddha had cogent, systematic reasons to discourage social activism, at least among those committed to ‘the path of peace’ leading to moka. He understood the strong pull political concerns have for people, but saw it as symptomatic of the very attachments, desires, and cravings that fuel dukkha and prolong our subjection to samsara. For that reason, that ‘pull’ should be resisted, not indulged.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the Karaniya Metta Sutta, the Discourse on Loving-Kindness. It’s contains a line often quoted by engaged Buddhist activists – ‘May all beings be free!’ But those who quote that line as their slogan never quote the rest of the verse. It explains ideal character and dispositions of a person devoted to ‘the path of peace’:

Let them be able and upright,
Straightforward and gentle in speech,
Humble and not conceited,
Contented and easily satisfied,
Unburdened with duties
and frugal in their ways.
Peaceful and calm and wise and skilful,
Not proud or demanding in nature.

This is not the profile of a social activist – someone typically severe in speech, ambitious, discontented, dissatisfied with anything less than radical outcomes, who willingly burdens themselves with grand duties, like saving the world or overthrowing patriarchy. Berating billionaires, screaming ‘How dare you!’ at political leaders, agitating for dramatic revolution, and other kinds of world-changing activism are not the acts of a person ‘skilled in the path of peace’. A Buddhist’s goal is release from the world, not reform of it, as we see in the last lines of the Metta Sutta:

The pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision,
Being freed from all sense desires,
Is not born again into this world.

Acknowledgments: My thanks to David E. Cooper for helpful comments on this piece.

Ian James Kidd

Ian James Kidd is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Nottingham. He previously worked at the universities of Durham and Leeds, teaching philosophy of religion, philosophy of science, and Indian philosophy. His current research interests include misanthropy, the ideal of moral quietism, and themes in south and east Asian philosophy. His website is www.ianjameskidd.weebly.com.

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