Primary menu

A Buddhist perspective on Social Action

Amaranatho's picture

Tags Associated with article


A Buddhist perspective


Before leaving the world as a householder and opting for a monastic lifestyle, I contemplated what I was really doing, what I could really offer. At that time I read an article by Thomas Merton which resonated with me very strongly.[1] Included in it was the idea that a monastic life can be seen as a deep sign of love for one's fellow humans, by not believing in the myths and fictions which social life generally binds us to. Buddhist mendicant renunciants (a person that begs and moderates their behaviour), and probably all types of monasticism can be seen as a special type of art form that reflects or mirrors whatever we may think about ourselves and society.


Sometimes when we go out of the monastery, usually on alms round, on all sides people come up to us and say that we should get a life, get married, get a job, get real... Other people come and question us about why we are doing this; other people put their hands together with respect and gratitude.


So what social good do Buddhist monastics offer?

For me a list could include generosity, moderation, virtuous living, ethical skills, tools to understand who we truly are and the way things are.


When we misunderstand the way things are, then we have to discuss in terms of doing good or doing bad - social action or no social action: a dualistic way of thinking. From a Buddhist point of view, this ignores our interdependence:  that we have an effect regardless of whether we are ‘doing' or ‘not-doing' something; our presence makes a difference - full stop.


Making change happen

When we start to realise the Buddha's teaching and live it in our daily lives, we can respond to situations more spontaneously rather than according to rules and regulations. We can meet people where they're at, we can reflect and question. These sorts of qualities, which take time to develop, are exactly what make space for social change. When people come together with these types of qualities, change can happen quickly, without much effort, and for the welfare and consideration of many.  I live in a community where the basis of this approach is encouraged, giving me relevant experience of this.  I've found, of course, that this is a nice ideal, and on a practical basis most people are still working towards it.


So, on a practical level, we do what we can, when we can, with what we have, and this takes a lot of patience, endurance and hard-nosed compassion. Here is a practical example of this. The community that I live in refused my request to go and support the homeless at Christmas, saying that Theravadin Buddhist monks are not social workers. This is all very reasonable; we are a small community and have just about enough people to support our own community and the lay people that come to the monastery, and our primary focus is the practice of meditation in this community. This is not a Buddhist or Theravadin view, it's a practical one. Of course I was upset; I found it rather selfish, a few days are okay to see my family, but not to support some homeless people; so be it.


In most Buddhist countries before there were schools, children were taught in monasteries; before there were health workers, villagers would visit the local monastic who knew herbal remedies because the monastics themselves lived within nature. There are many socially engaged Buddhist monastics and lay people who do good work.  Much could also be learned from our Christian brothers and sisters.

I would like to see more done, and in the western world we can take this very personally. So we want to control everything. In the Buddhist Asian mindset, things can get planned, but the outcome is not taken personally. Asian Buddhists have a deep cultural understanding of Kamma (action), the understanding that many conditions are at work and outcomes cannot be guaranteed. Of course, Kamma followed blindly becomes fatalism, but in perspective and used wisely it allows one to flow with life.


An example of this is the tsunami that struck south-east Asia a few years ago. Sri Lankan Buddhists donated huge amounts of clothing, money, etc to the Sri Lankan Vihara in London, the local exporter arranged containers, and it all happened very spontaneously. In our community we dedicated the chanting, made a shrine to the victims, and kept them in our hearts. Now the western mind, well at least my mind can go, one is better than another. Which is more powerful? Am I helping? Can chanting really help? It seems that time and again our chanting has helped. Don't ask me for the scientific study of this, it just seems to work.[2]


Developing awareness

So what helps here is developing an attitude that embraces life, spirit-in-form and form-in-spirit.[3] When you see the deep connection between everything you respond in an appropriate and timely way. Other times it may be better to do nothing, and to keep one's mouth shut. Ultimately it is the development of awareness bound by the Buddhist precepts that leads to discernment - this knowing. This is better than doing social actions where it is merely an acting-out of infantile and arrested personal development, for egoistic motives. This is without due care for what is actually being done or the people being ‘helped'. In psychological terms this is shadow work.[4] Social action goes hand-in-hand with personal and spiritual growth. If you do not have this, then you have a do-gooder that is not doing any good. So being clear with your intention is very important, even if at times slightly deluded.


So the question is: what do you intend to do or not do with your life energy that supports yourself and can support others?

[1] Thomas Merton Disputed Question: ‘Notes for a philosophy of Solitude'.

[2] Robert Sheldrake's ( experiments seem to explain some of what is going on here.

[3] http;//


Post new comment

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Glossary terms will be automatically marked with links to their descriptions. If there are certain phrases or sections of text that should be excluded from glossary marking and linking, use the special markup, [no-glossary] ... [/no-glossary]. Additionally, these HTML elements will not be scanned: a, abbr, acronym, code, pre.
  • Insert Flickr images: [flickr-photo:id=230452326,size=s] or [flickr-photoset:id=72157594262419167,size=m].

More information about formatting options