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Practicing Equanimity in the Face of Injustice: Social Activism and the Middle Path

Illustration by Amrita Marino. From lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu

In the face of injustice, remaining calm and sympathetic toward those doing harm to others is rarely people’s first instinct. In Buddhism, the practice of maintaining an even mind is a fundamental concept known as equanimity. It refers to a state of mental calmness, stability, and impartiality, particularly in the face of highly emotional situations. Equanimity is one of the brahmaviharas, also known as the divine abodes, states that are considered conducive to spiritual growth and are cultivated through meditation and mindfulness practices. In a highly imperfect world full of stark injustices, practicing equanimity can feel almost impossible. It is only natural to become outraged in the face of discrimination and oppression. While anger can be a powerful and effective indicator that action is necessary, acting out of anger does not align with the practice of equanimity.

While there is no “correct” way to be an activist, it seems helpful to have a well-rounded understanding of social engagement inspired by the Dharma. This Buddhist interpretation, and its differences from Western peoples’ common interpretations of activism, can be instrumental in helping activists develop perspective and coping mechanisms during exhausting and stressful times.

To understand what one might call “Buddhist activism,” an understanding of equanimity is essential. The practice is commonly referred to as following the middle path, which involves seeing things as they truly are without being swayed by biases or attachments. This insight allows practitioners to respond to stimuli with clear and even minds.

Cultivating equanimity means recognizing the law of impermanence and accepting the changing nature of everything in life. In turn, we do not cling to ideas of how things are or how we believe they are meant to be. Once we let go of expectations and the desire for control, we may begin to let things unfold naturally. Thus, we can cultivate mindfulness or nonjudgemental awareness of the present moment. By developing mindfulness, we observe our thoughts, emotions, and sensations without becoming caught up in them, which fosters a sense of mental and emotional stability.

Alms rounds at Thai Plum Village. From plumvillage.org

Due to distinct cultural differences, perspectives on activism and social engagement can vary significantly between Western societies and Buddhist communities in Asia. In many Asian societies, activism and social engagement may be influenced by Buddhist teachings such as equanimity and interdependence. Buddhist activism often emphasizes the alleviation of suffering and the pursuit of harmony through non-violent means. Social engagement driven by Buddhist thought may primarily be based on charity work. This approach to social change often prioritizes inner transformation and nonviolent action over confrontation. The Dhammapada, an ancient Buddhist text, articulates the linchpin of Buddhist strategy as one of inner transformation first: “Although one may conquer a thousand times a thousand men in battle, yet he indeed is the noblest victor who conquers himself.”

For example, A. T. Ariyaratne, a prominent figure in Sri Lanka, was known for his significant contributions to social and community development. He founded the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement in 1958, which remains one of the largest and most influential community development organizations in Sri Lanka today. The Sarvodaya Movement is rooted in Buddhist principles and aims to uplift rural communities through self-help and cooperative efforts. It focuses on various aspects of community development, including education, healthcare, and economic empowerment.

Under Ariyaratne’s leadership, Sarvodaya has implemented numerous projects across Sri Lanka, ranging from village-level initiatives to national-scale programs. These projects often involve mobilizing community volunteers to address local needs and challenges.

Ariyaratne emphasized the importance of compassion in the pursuit of social change. His work has profoundly impacted countless individuals and communities, fostering empowerment and sustainable development. Ariyaratne’s approach to community involvement and enacting change has resulted in an inspirational legacy of service for future generations.

A. T. Ariyaratne. From adaderana.lk

Rather than focusing solely on external conditions, activists such as Ariyaratne have emphasized the importance of cultivating mindfulness and ethical behavior as the foundation for creating a more harmonious society. Engaging in acts of kindness, promoting dialogue, and practicing meditation are seen as integral to social transformation. Nonetheless, equanimity does not mean being indifferent or apathetic, but rather having a balanced and non-reactive mind. It involves accepting the present moment with openness, regardless of whether it brings pleasure or pain. From there, one can act with the intention of alleviating the suffering of all beings to create a just world.

Similarly, Buddhist peace activism in Japan and South Korea have deep historical roots. Some might refer to Buddhist peace activism as “engaged Buddhism,” a concept popularized by figures such as Thich Nhat Hanh. This approach emphasizes the application of Buddhist principles to address social, political, and environmental issues. Japanese Buddhist leaders and organizations have been involved in various social justice causes. This is why Asian Buddhist organizations broadly engage in humanitarian activities such as providing aid to marginalized communities, supporting refugees and migrants, and offering disaster relief assistance. These efforts reflect the Buddhist principle of compassion and the commitment to alleviating societal suffering.

Buddhist monks and nuns have also historically played significant roles as advocates for human rights and social justice, such as during South Korea’s struggle for democracy in the mid to late 20th century. Monastics participated in protests, provided sanctuary for activists, and supported movements calling for democratic reforms.

Meanwhile, Western activism more often employs confrontational tactics such as protests, demonstrations, and lobbying to create change. Activists may challenge existing power structures and advocate for systemic reforms to address social inequalities. This is because Western activism often emerges from the heritage of the French Revolution, which framed societal change through political ideologies, human rights movements, or social justice frameworks rooted in concepts of individual rights and equality.

When considering examples of activism in the West, one might be drawn to evaluate the civil rights movement in mid-20th-century America. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Panthers were both prominent figures in the civil rights movement, but they employed vastly different philosophies in their activism.

Martin Luther King Jr. From brittanica.com

Martin Luther King Jr., although not a Buddhist, defined his activism through practices that parallel those of engaged Buddhism. For example, he was a staunch advocate of nonviolent resistance, inspired by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. He believed that more passive forms of resistance were the most effective means of confronting injustice while maintaining the moral high ground; these included nonviolent protests, civil disobedience, and community-building. He framed the civil rights struggle as an ethical and spiritual issue rooted in principles of justice and love.

The Black Panthers, originally known as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, on the other hand, employed more aggressive and direct tactics in combating racism and oppression. They believed in armed self-defense as a means of protecting African American communities from police brutality and racial violence. They often used tactics such as engaging in armed confrontations with law enforcement and government authorities to defend their communities and protect their rights.

In addition to their self-defense tactics, the Black Panthers worked tirelessly to uplift community members. The Black Panthers established numerous programs to address African Americans’ social and economic needs, including free breakfast programs, health clinics, and educational initiatives.

While both Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Panthers were vital figures in the civil rights movement, they differed significantly in their tactics and philosophies. Martin Luther King Jr. advocated for nonviolent resistance through moral leadership and coalition building, while the Black Panthers embraced armed self-defense, community empowerment, and Black nationalism. Despite these differences, both movements played crucial roles in challenging racial injustice and advancing the cause of civil rights in America.

While there is undoubtedly significant overlap between Western activism and Buddhist-inspired approaches to community engagement in Asia, many of the main differences are tied to intention. Asian and Western cultures broadly have differing views of self and society, and these differences in perspective often shape people’s actions.

Western ideas of well-being usually emphasize individual autonomy and the pursuit of individual rights. Activism may be driven by a sense of personal identity and the desire to assert one’s rights. On the other hand, Buddhist teachings emphasize the interconnectedness of all beings and the idea of non-self, which suggests that the “self” is in a constant state of change. Activism inspired by such thinking may be motivated by a sense of collective responsibility and compassion for all beings, viewing social engagement as a means to alleviate suffering and promote well-being for all.

Orphans play football by the Buddhist stupa at Amitofo Care Centre in Lesotho. Photo by Raymond Lam

Overall, while there may be differences in the ways Western activists and Asian Buddhists approach activism and social engagement, both perspectives share a common goal of promoting justice, compassion, and well-being in society, albeit through different frameworks and strategies. One is not inherently better than the other. Nonetheless, a well-rounded understanding of both approaches may help people evaluate situations as they arise and mindfully choose how they want to take action for the betterment of society.

In the spirit of taking the middle path, some people might choose to find a balance between the two types of activism, while others are more dedicated to a specific form that resonates with them. Those who are unsure might ask how we are to balance our activism with the practice of equanimity. This is not easy, as following the middle path in Buddhism requires an immensely mindful and careful approach.

A continuous mindfulness practice is essential in creating a constant self-awareness of one’s own thoughts and actions as they engage in activism. With practice, this may allow them to respond to situations skillfully without being carried away by reactivity or attachment to outcomes. Additionally, recognizing the impermanent and interconnected nature of all phenomena, including social issues and activism efforts, will lead to skillful action. Practicing non-attachment is also beneficial in reminding us that we are contributing to the greater good regardless of immediate results. In doing so, we are less likely to become overwhelmed with despair or frustration, and we can maintain our capacity to engage in effective activism over the long term.

One of the most challenging aspects of equanimous activism can be remaining grounded in compassion and loving-kindness for all beings, including those with whom we may disagree. Nonetheless, the Buddhist perspective emphasizes the importance of recognizing the potentiality of buddhahood in others, even if we have strong opinions about those we oppose. In fact, Buddhism stresses the demolition of dualities and oppositions altogether, to the point the highest form of activism should not even see the other as an adversary.

Bhikkhu Bodhi. From buddho.org

Ultimately, following the middle path by avoiding extremes and finding balance in our activism efforts can have immense potential. We can recognize that there may be times when it’s appropriate to take a stand and speak out forcefully against injustice, but we also know when to step back and reflect in order to ensure that skillful and effective long-term activism takes place. By integrating the middle path into our activism efforts, we can effectively advocate for positive change in our communities while staying grounded in Buddhist principles.

American Theravada monk Bhikkhu Bodhi is a renowned scholar and activist known for his deep commitment to various social and environmental causes. His life and work exemplify the principles of compassionate activism through his advocacy and writings. Bhikkhu Bodhi can be described as an advocate, as he always speaks up for the rights and well-being of the environment and marginalized communities locally and globally. He has spoken out against numerous forms of social injustice, highlighting the interconnectedness of suffering and the importance of compassion in addressing systemic issues.

Through philanthropic work, Bhikkhu Bodhi has been actively involved in humanitarian efforts to alleviate suffering and provide assistance to those in need. He has supported initiatives such as disaster relief, humanitarian aid, and healthcare projects, embodying the Buddhist principle of compassion in action. While Bhikkhu Bodhi’s skillful and nonviolent advocacy methods are peaceful, they have never been passive. Engaged Buddhism is about acting morally and following the Noble Eightfold Path, which consists of a collection of moral practices that lead one toward enlightenment. In doing this, practitioners must always strive for the betterment of society, even when it might be easier to ignore the injustices in our world.

While it is important to acknowledge that there is no “right” way to be an activist, advocacy through the lens of equanimity can be a powerful tool that is often overlooked in Western societies. It is not about being indifferent to the suffering of others but rather maintaining a balanced and compassionate response to it. By cultivating compassion for all beings, we can develop a sense of equanimity that is inclusive and empathetic. Knowing that we can advocate for the betterment of our world and its systems by navigating life and its challenges with calmness and clarity is a powerful tool.

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Anti-War Performance, Part One
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Book Review: The Buddhist and the Ethicist: Conversations on Effective Altruism, Engaged Buddhism, and How to Build a Better World
A Buddhist Understanding of the Dharma and Human Rights

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