Beyond the Bodhi Tree: Was the Buddha the Original Activist?

Written by Kyle Neo
6 mins read
Published on Mar 20, 2024

TLDR: Explore the intersection of Buddhism and activism, emphasizing compassion in action for the well-being of all sentient beings.

Is there an inner activist waiting to be discovered?

Like all religions, Buddhism has changed over time. One of the most important changes in recent decades has been the evolution of engaged Buddhism, a movement similar to Humanistic Buddhism where it focuses the well-being of others. 

Humanistic Buddhism is a practice that incorporates Buddhist principles into daily life, based on Sakyamuni Buddha’s achievement of enlightenment in human form. This approach is centered around six core concepts, which include humanism, altruism, daily spiritual practice, joyfulness, timeliness, and the universality of helping all beings.

The goal of humanistic Buddhism is to reconnect Buddhist teachings with the ordinary aspects of life, rather than solely focusing on achieving liberation from the material world.

By placing a greater emphasis on caring for the world around us, this practice encourages a deeper connection with the present moment and a more compassionate approach to life.

In contrast, Engaged Buddhism emerged in the 20th century as a series of independent movements responding directly to the crises in Asia. One of the most prominent figures representing Engaged Buddhism is Thich Nhat Hanh. During the Vietnam War in the 1950s, Thich Nhat Hanh led anti-war protests, rebuilt villages, resettled refugees, held peace talks internationally, and authored books.

Thich Nhat Hanh recognized the harsh realities of life and the need to take political stances and establish peace for the suffering people in Vietnam. He founded educational and religious organizations that aimed to bring love and peace to the world, train people to provide help and relief to victims of the war, and influence public policies and views. As a result, more Buddhists became involved in social development.

I can’t help but wonder, how does our practices interconnected with social action resound throughout the land we lived? At what ground does the practice become an activist approach? 

How much of the Buddhist ideology becomes an advocacy to act upon for the benefit of all sentient beings?

Asian culture in general or Buddhist tradition in particular is grounded on a consensual model of society, seeking to avoid conflicts and confrontation as much as possible. In these cultures, there is almost no adversarial tradition and the individual fits harmoniously into the larger whole.  

How interdependent is the world related to our practices?

Buddhism emphasises the interdependence of all beings (SN 12.61), Recognising this interconnectedness can lead to a sense of responsibility toward the well-being of others. We don’t see ourselves as separate from one another and our welfare is interdependent.

This can manifest in the form of advocating for social justice, environmental protection, or any other cause that promotes the welfare of all sentient beings.

One example of advocacy in Buddhism is engaged Buddhism, a movement that seeks to apply Buddhist principles to social and political issues. Engaged Buddhists recognize the suffering of individuals and communities affected by oppression and seek to alleviate that suffering through activism and other forms of social engagement.

Exploring the Relationship Between Practice and Activism

As a vegetarian, I stopped consuming meat for reasons not directly related to meat’s impact of climate change. 

My rationale is straightforward: I do not wish to partake in the slaughter of animals for my dietary needs. Some may attribute it to compassion or my strong empathy towards animals, but the truth is that I don’t envision myself as an activist advocating for climate change or animal rights.

Mahayana Buddhism is renowned for its emphasis on compassion towards every living being. This is demonstrated in Mahayana monks making their decision to have vegetarian diets. According to Mahayana scriptures, the Buddha affirmed that all sentient beings are equal since they all possess Buddha-nature and will eventually attain enlightenment.

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“Sabbe tasanti dandassa sabbe bhayanti maccuno attanam upamam katva na haneyya na ghataye”.

(All tremble at the rod, all fear death.

Treating others like oneself, neither kill nor incite to kill.).

 Dh.p. 129

Thus, it means people should not kill others’ lives to nourish our lives. 

While they strongly encourage their followers to adopt vegetarianism, they also understand that it may not be feasible for everyone in the long run. As an alternative, they suggest following a vegetarian diet on the 1st or 15th day of every lunar month.

This concept is similar to English Singer Paul McCartney’s Meat Free Monday movement, which is an initiative to encourage people to have a healthier diet, and save animals and the planet at least once a week.

When people speak of the social commitment of Buddhism, they often quote the 4 Bhramaviharas, namely Loving-Kindess, compassion, Empathetic Joy, and equanimity. Also known as Four Boundless Qualities, Four Immeasurables or four Buddhist virtues and the meditation practices made to cultivate them.

These virtues have a profound impact on the decisions we make and how we view social injustice. The undeniable truth is that our perception of social injustice is significantly affected by how we develop these virtues.

In what ways does our practice show compassion to the LGBTQ Buddhist community? 

As a queer individual who practices Buddhism, I have experienced discrimination from both myself and others. There was a time when I almost gave up Buddhism entirely because it seemed hypocritical for a philosophy that emphasises compassion to ignore the suffering of marginalised individuals. 

During a temple tour I once led, a member of a Buddhist group told me to “man up” in how I conducted the tour. Although there is no fault in the knowledge I delivered, I was told for not being “man enough” in my demeanour. 

I was caught off guard and upset, as I wasn’t aware that there was a particular manly behaviour expected of me as a guide.

The LGBTQ community has always been vulnerable and most of them have to hide their identity to join Buddhist activities, for fear of discrimination and being judged in the wrong way.

Do we have to stay silent about their or my existence? How can we as Buddhists talk about compassion without seeing the suffering of others? 

Thankfully, I came to realize that the teachings themselves are not flawed; rather, it is the people who misinterpret them that are the issue. It is disheartening that some individuals who identify as “Buddhist” are ignorant and culturally biased, believing that loving someone of the same gender is wrong.

That comes to the question: Are we biased in our practice based on what we believe in? For the Non-LGBTQ Buddhists, is there a need to be vocal and be more supportive? If so, does that make me an advocate? Not to mention, what are my Buddhist rights? If that’s even a question to ask!

Are we Buddhists merely a follower or do we have a voice? 

We can make a difference in society without necessarily being labelled as an advocate. Some may argue that non-violent protests are the most effective way to bring about change, while others believe that petitions and the right livelihood can be just as powerful.

It’s important to note that there is nothing wrong with expressing your convictions through protests. However, it can be challenging to make your voice heard without being forceful. This is why, as Buddhists, we must be resourceful and use skilful means to convey our message non-violently.

After his enlightenment, the Buddha did not stay under the Bodhi Tree. Rather, he returned to teach both monastics and laypeople because he believed everyone has the Buddha’s nature to gain what he had attained. 

From there he pursued a path that took him to a point where if he were to share his wisdom with others he would be going against the cultural and political norms of his time. 

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As Walpola Rahula, a renowned Buddhist Scholar monk, said in 1978, “Buddhism arose in India as a spiritual force against social injustices, against degrading superstitious rites, ceremonies and sacrifices; it denounced the tyranny of the caste system and advocated the equality of all men; it emancipated woman and gave her complete spiritual freedom.”

Was Buddha an activist?

Buddha could’ve very well been one of the first human rights activists of his time. But unlike modern-day activists, he did not resort to protests or force his beliefs onto others. 

Instead, he simply showed people that there is a certain equality and equanimity in kindness, and encouraged the practice of dharma as a means of liberation for oneself and others.

How can we be sure the views are right according to the Dhamma?

In the Kalama Sutta, which is famous for the encouragement of free inquiry; the spirit of the sutta signifies a teaching that is exempt from fanaticism, bigotry, dogmatism, and intolerance.

The last line of the sutta 

“But, whatever, after thorough investigation and reflection, you find to agree with reason and experience, as conducive to the good and benefit of one and all and of the world at large, accept only that as true, and live up to it”

Anguttara Nikaya Vol. 1, 188-193 P.T.S. Ed.

It is important to acknowledge that one cannot expect everyone to agree with their beliefs or actions, especially if they have caused harm or injury through body or speech.

However, it is equally important to recognize that everyone has the right to their opinions and feelings. It’s crucial to approach situations with empathy and understanding, even if we disagree with someone’s actions or beliefs. 

By practising mindfulness and compassion for others, we can truly embody the principles of the historical Buddha. I think the Buddha would agree with Gandhi that the best way to bring about social change is to “be the change you want to see in the world.” 

Whether you consider yourself an advocate or an activist, the world could be a more peaceful place if we approached it without prejudice. 

By being open to different situations and responding to them as they occur, we are more likely to work collaboratively with others to find solutions without causing harm.

Being mindful and skilled with your words, and speaking up can be a catalyst for positive social change. Use your voice wisely to bring about more prevalent and noticeable changes in society. Who knows, what you do will benefit others tremendously that you will never imagine.

If our Buddhist practices do not benefit anyone and ourselves, what’s the true intention of our practices then? 

Wise Steps:

  1. Question the True Intentions of Practices: Reflect on personal motivations for Buddhist practices and their impact on oneself and society
  2. Practice Compassionate Advocacy: Cultivate compassion for all living beings, aligning actions with the belief that no sentient being should be harmed
  3. Encourage Open Dialogue: Provide a platform for individuals to express their beliefs and opinions, fostering empathy and understanding.

Author: Kyle Neo

Kyle Neo is an avid traveler, freelance designer, and life seeker who aims to find deeper meaning in life through his adversary. He denotes enlightenment is born out of suffering. He "loves" suffering so he won't have to "suffer" at all. His daily source of Vit "C" is compassion. To impart joy is to be compassionate. For oneself and for others. Kyle is Editor-in-Chief @

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