Should Buddhists Be Social Activists?

The Buddha offers means of resolving disputes within and among monastic and lay communities and offers advice on how to debate and manage anger.

9 mins read
Woman and her small son burning incense sticks in the famous "Temple of the Tooth" buddhist temple., in Kandy. Burning incenses are believed to have purifying properties. [Photo credit: istockphoto]

In the first part of this series, I challenged the idea that the Buddha’s teachings on compassion and the overcoming of suffering provide support for social activism. ‘Changing the world’, challenging patriarchy, revolution, and the whole ethos of radical reformism is nothing like what the Buddha taught. Karuna – ‘compassion’ – really means smaller, modest acts of caring responsiveness. It doesn’t involve structural changes or collective actions. Dukkha – ‘suffering’ or ‘dis-ease’ – is a cosmic fact to be accepted, not a removable aspect of our world we could ever ‘tackle’ through collective action. I ended that piece by noting questions a critic might ask. Can the Buddha not endorse our concerns with injustice? Wouldn’t he largely share in our sense of what is wrong with our world? Isn’t large-scale activism a natural extension of the Buddha’s teachings?

In this piece and the next one, I suggest the answer to all these questions is ‘No’.

Condemnations and endorsements

A student of mine once remarked that Buddhism seemed to her a ‘suspiciously good fit’ for modern progressive moral outlooks. An Iron Age Indian spiritual teacher born into a richly religious culture turns out to share almost the same values and concerns as late modern advocates of ‘liberal morality’. Like us, the Buddha condemns injustice and social discrimination. Like us, the Buddha takes moral practice to be continuous with radical political goals. Like us, the Buddha is anti-sexist and a champion of equality and climate action. ‘How remarkable!’, said my student. Their suspicions were well-founded. A careful look at the suttas reveals a rather more complicated picture.

It is tempting to assume that historical moral figures should share our own values and outlooks. Sometimes, of course, they do – Jesus condemned greediness, Confucius praises honesty, and Native American traditions urged appreciative attention to the lives of non-human animals. Care should be taken, though, not to allow our expectations take the place of evidence. Pleasing agreements are often accompanied by uncomfortable differences. Confronted with moral visions from different times and cultures, we should not assume they are basically identical to us.

We should not presuppose – or invidiously pretend – that the Buddha did or would share our particular moral concerns. Nor should we assume he used or would recognise or endorse our moral concepts – ‘human rights’, ‘equality’, ‘climate crisis’, and so on. This sense for likely differences was at the root of my students’ sense that the fit between the Buddha’s teachings and modern liberal tastes was too good to be true.

Consider some of the Buddha’s condemnations. Many of the suttas condemn various attitudes, behaviours, and kinds of life. In many cases, the Buddha condemns the same things that the modern liberals do – cruel mistreatment of animals, say, or the enthusiasm of leaders for warfare. Sometimes, though, the Buddha condemns things for different reasons. He did criticise the caste system, which earned him the approval of the eminent twentieth-century anti-caste activists, B.R. Ambekdar and E.V. Periyar. The reasons are quite different, though. Caste, for the Buddha, is objectionable because it reflects a confusion about karma. Good karma is determined by the moral quality of our intentions (cetana), not which artificial social group one is born into. If one’s intentions are hateful, one’s actions accrue bad karma, even if one is a brahmin. For the Buddha, caste is irrelevant to karma. The caste system is therefore irrational and to be condemned for that reason. Its wrongs have nothing to do, for him, with injustice. When the Buddha lists types of ‘outcast’, the decisive feature is bad moral motivations – greed, needless violence, ingratitude, lack of self-control. Never injustice. More to the point, the Buddha never, to my knowledge, actually called for the abolition of the caste system.

The Buddha also condemns quite different things to many of his modern liberal and progressive admirers. The Fifth Precept discourses use of alcohol, drugs, and intoxicants. Sex, too, feeds powerful sensual desires and worldly attachments. Meditators are often advised to focus on leprous limbs, rotting bodies, and even corpses. In practice, the Buddha was only strict about monastic celibacy. But the clear message is that bodily pleasures should be disciplined, not indulged, tolerated and certainly not celebrated. The Buddha was also very happy to judge and rank different ways of life. The modern liberal rhetoric of tolerance for people’s ‘choices’ of lifestyles is not a feature of his vision.

The best way of life is that of a Buddhist monk or nun – the bhikkhus and bhikkhunis who make up the Sangha. Theirs is the ‘noble quest’, set apart from the grubby everyday world. Second-best are lay Buddhists: people who follow at least some of precepts, some of the time. This is a prudent sort of respect: the Sangha depends economically on ‘householders’ for alms, food, shelter, members, security, and political support. A wise king – a cakkavartin – supports the Sangha, but it does not hurt to ‘attract the hearts’ of the people on whom one depends for support and protection.

In distant third are the lives of all the non-Buddhists: the ‘orthodox’ schools which recognise the spiritual authority of the Vedas, materialists, atheists, and all people led by ‘wrong views’. Christians, Muslims, scientific naturalists and other later rival communities would all fall into this group, too. The Buddha is explicit about the privileged status of Buddhists: monastics, on the ‘noble quest’, are heedful and resolute, and compared to animals, like swans, symbolic of purity and freedom, as in these verses from the Dhammapada:

Blinded this world —
how few here see clearly!
Just as birds who’ve escaped
from a net are
few, few
are the people
who make it to heaven.

The ‘few’ are monastics and a later verse underscores the sort of judgments the Buddha makes of ‘uninstructed worldlings:

Don’t associate with lowly qualities.
Don’t consort with heedlessness.
Don’t associate with wrong views.
Don’t busy yourself with the world.

Many suttas repeat these celebrations of the superiority of the monastic life and condemn the lives of ‘worldlings’. Their world is ‘burning’ with hatred and delusion, a ‘cesspit’, a ‘dusty path’.

The Buddha also endorses different attitudes, behaviours and kinds of life. Sometimes, he endorses similar things but for very different reasons. Many suttas explores the conditions that help create ‘social harmony’. The Buddha offers means of resolving disputes within and among monastic and lay communities and offers advice on how to debate and manage anger. Much of this might seem close to modern values – respect for diversity, say, or protecting vulnerable groups. But none of these are among the Buddha’s motivations for seeking social harmony. For him, it matters because it conduces to the spiritual needs of monastic Buddhists. Social harmony best serves the needs of the Sangha.

Searching other suttas, other differences come into view, like the very different attitudes and behaviours admired and upheld by the Buddha. A clear case is the explicit praise of people who enter the Sangha. ‘Going forth into homelessness’ is a standard term for joining the Sangha – a term these days extended to include non-monastic Buddhists, too. Many monks take the name Anagārika – ‘homeless one’ – which is often taken to mean giving up worldly possessions. In reality, it is far more radical: monastics abandon their prior lives, relationships and roles. A man must abandon his wife and children, sever all contact with them, and excise them from his concerns.

Consider a monk, Saṅgāmaji, visited by his former wife and young child. Three times she begs him to pause his meditation and attend to them, and three times he refuses:

Ven. Saṅgāmaji neither looked at the child nor spoke to him. His wife, after going not far away, was looking back and saw Ven. Saṅgāmaji neither looking at the child nor speaking to him.

On seeing this, the thought occurred to her, “The contemplative doesn’t even care about his son.” Returning from there and taking the child, she left.

To modern minds, Saṅgāmaji’s behaviour will seem heartless, cold, even cruel. The Buddha, though, criticises the wife’s own misbehaviour – haranguing a monk – and praises Saṅgāmaji for successfully resisting her emotional appeals:

At her coming,
he didn’t delight;
at her leaving,
he didn’t grieve.
A victor in battle, freed from the tie:
He’s what I call
a brahman [spiritually excellent person].

Saṅgāmaji was not an anomalously callous monk. He is presented as an exemplar, a model for monks to admire and emulate. The Buddha is clear that a spiritually serious person must ‘go forth into homelessness’. Former relationships, concerns, and duties must be cut loose. Why? Because they are causes of suffering, hatred, and attachment. The world of ‘householders’ is a way of life defined by delusions, conceits, ‘wrong views’, appetites, and aversions that corrupt conduct and distort our vision of the world. Such is the world as it is experienced by ‘uninstructed worldlings’.

Different visions

The Buddha’s moral vision is very different from that of the majority of his modern admirers. Put in modern language, this vision is hierocratic and hierarchical – there is a moral elite, the highest level occupied by monastics. The spiritual class are best and deserve the most respect. There is pragmatic acceptance of other religious ways of life, who should not be oppressed, but a clear sense they are ‘wrong views’. There is no accommodating religious ‘pluralism’, and the suttas that describe the Buddha’s interactions with other religious and moral teachers follow the same plot: he easily trounces them in debate and they either convert to Buddhism or run away. Even devas – the gods – seek the Buddha’s teachings and pay him homage.

Suppose I’m right about these significant differences. What’s the best explanation for the fact so many of the Buddha’s moral admirers fail to recognise them? How can those admirers at the same time present him as a progressive social activist who, like them, opposed injustice, fought for equality, and worked to try and ‘change the world’?

Several possibilities suggest themselves. Some simply ignore the offending condemnations and endorsements or studiously avoid the relevant suttas. Some might include those suttas, but fail to note their difference from their own views. Others might even interfere with the suttas, altering their content to suit their own purposes. A recent collection, The Buddha’s Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony, offers a well-organised set of discourses on social harmony, anger, disputes, and other topics germane to social life. The foreword, introduction, and epilogue – authored by the Dalai Lama and an engaged Buddhist, Hozan Alan Senauke – speak of equality and rights and lead the reader to expect a radical political manifesto. Yet their collected suttas say almost nothing about those issues – no activist agitation, no embrace of anger at the world and its corrupt leaders. There’s a remarkable disconnect between the presentation of those texts and their content.

I already mentioned Ambedkar, the Indian political leader, social reformer, and a minister in the first cabinet of Jawaharlal Nehru. He was a key figure in the Dalit Buddhist movement and still revered today, after converting in 1956, after founding the Bharatiya Bauddha Mahasabha, the Buddhist Society of India. In the posthumously published The Buddha and his Dhamma, Ambedkar tries to present the Buddha as an ally to his reformist aims. Like many later engaged Buddhists, he uses the Buddha’s decision to allow the ordination of women – unusual for Indian religious culture of the time – as a sign of his social egalitarianism.

While it is true the Buddha allowed women to become nuns (bhikkunis), that fact needs qualification. The Buddha initially refused to admit women and only did so after Ananda – a highly respected monk – appealed to him three times. After grudgingly agreeing, the Buddha on one telling warned that doing so would shorten the effective life of the Sangha by five hundred years (some regard this as a spurious later addition). The bhikkunis were also subjected to more numerous and more onerous rules than their male peers. Ambedkar omits these details and also adds to the suttas remarks not in the original – like a reference to shudras, the manual or labouring classes, and a claim by the Buddha that he was ‘not opposed to sex equality’.

It can be hard to spot these reactions. A direct acquaintance with the suttas helps, as does an awareness of the complexities of interpreting them. If one learns about Buddhism second-hand, though, one might never spot them. Writers keen to tell us ‘what the Buddha taught’ may not be giving us an accurate account. Of course, this is not unique to Buddhism: we see it with Christianity, too, many of whose American practitioners somehow take the good preached by the Gospels to be extreme material wealth (the so-called ‘prosperity gospel’).

We can guard against such misperceptions in different ways. One is carefully studying the suttas, but that can only get us so far. After all, the Buddha’s instruction was not to take his words on authority: examination and understanding is vital, too.

Why does the Buddha reject social activism? What are the Buddha’s reasons for promoting monastic life as the best way of life? Can we criticise his views, as I’ve presented them, as intolerant and dogmatic? Exploring these questions will give us a better sense of the moral ethos of the Buddha’s teachings.

To be Continued

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

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