There are a couple of thoughtful posts on the Buddhist blogosphere about how Buddhism might address political and social activism. In one, via Nathan at Dangerous Harvests, Kloncke writes about practicing the paramitas in a prison cell after being arrested at a protest. In another, Zen teacher Dosho Port writes,
With our calm minds and clarity, dharma people had better start speaking up.
You might grumble like some have in comments that I get from time-to-time when I warn about the post-peak oil collapse, etc., that you'd prefer I stuck to dharma comments in this old blog.
Imho, injustice is a dharma issue.
And if the dharma has nothing to offer to the current political discourse, then that is one lame dharma.
I would argue that in Buddhism, compassion is a verb -- not a sentiment, but activity.
That said, what should we be doing? What is it that Buddhism can bring to activism?
I have some personal experience going back several years with activism and protesting, and I have observed that much of what activists do is counterproductive. For example, displaying anger is never helpful. Anger just grows more anger, and it also causes the people you want to persuade to close their ears and run away from you.
I once went to an anti-war demonstration in which participants were supposed to just quietly hand out informational fliers to people strolling around Rockefeller Center on a Saturday afternoon. When I got there, I found the event already had been hijacked by a couple of angry loudmouths, one with a megaphone, who spewed rage about war and politicians and complacent voters nonstop at everyone in the vicinity.
People walking around the area -- mostly groups of tourists and families on vacation -- were visibly uncomfortable with the angry guys and were going out of their way to avoid getting close to the demonstration. That means they also didn't get the fliers, which were quite well done. The angry guys were so angry even other demonstrators, like me, were afraid to tell them to cool it.
And there may be a time and place for making people uncomfortable, but most of the time uncomfortable people just want to retreat to a place that feels familiar and safe.
Which brings me to questions that I don't think many activists ever ask themselves on a deep level -- why are you doing this? In the case of demonstrations, is the point to give participants a chance to vent, or is it to help shape public opinion? And if you want to shape public opinion, lose the anger and vulgarity. Buddhism has quite a lot to teach about letting go of anger.
There's a difference between "self-expression" and "teaching." To teach people effectively, it's important to listen to them to understand how they see the world before you can effectively communicate. That can be very frustrating when peoples' worldview is distorted by ignorance and fear, but if you want to reach them you have to meet them where they are, not where you are. I don't have much patience for this myself, I'm afraid.
Buddhism also has a lot to teach about equanimity, not allowing oneself to be pulled into a one-sided view, not dividing populations into "us" and "them." And Buddhism teaches us to not attach our egos and self-identities to causes, which is the door to fanaticism.
I also have observed that there is activism that treats symptoms, and activism that treats the disease, and both kinds are very important. If the "symptom" is that people are sick or homeless or in danger, providing relief is an imperative. But there is also the slower work of finding root causes and changing societal structures in ways that prevent so many people from being distressed and helpless. Buddhism has a lot to say about root causes, you know.
Like Dosho, I hear the argument that political activism and social justice are not "dharma" issues, and I don't buy it. Yes, there is a time to retreat from the world and focus inward, but there is also a time to manifest the activity of compassion in the world, and that activity doesn't have to be confined to hospices and soup kitchens. Suffering is where it is, and that's where the bodhisattva goes.