Buddhism and Political Action


Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.

Henry Thoreau

Perhaps some Buddhists who read this can help me by critiquing my concern that I personally need to continue to act to improve the world, despite Daoism’s prescription that we should not, and cannot, act to change our world for the better. Comments are welcome.

Here is how I currently see things:

For the last decade and a half I have been a non-theist, a term that differs subtly from atheist, the main difference being that the former does not believe in God, while the latter actively believes that there is no God. Non-theism can incorporate certain philosophies like Daoism.

I gravitate toward Buddhism in my philosophy, practising (a little too casually) Tonglen meditation and Tai Chi 24.

See this post for my gradual metamorphosis from active Catholic ministries (music, liturgy and social activism) to a non-theistic approach to activism.

I have recently read Carol Deppe’s wonderful, simple interpretation of the Tao Te Ching and found one Daoist precept difficult to incorporate:

99. The world is a sacred vessel. You can’t improve it. Act on it to improve it and you ruin it. Try to control it and you come to ruin.

I have spent 51 years (since I was 20) trying to improve the world via foreign volunteer service, studying power politics, reading writers who are dedicated to social change, writing songs, attending demonstrations and in 2015 working extremely hard in the Canadian Federal Election.

So I have a real problem with verse 99.

I remember very well the shocking 1963 photo of the Mahayana Buddhist, Thich Quang Duc, burning himself to death to protest the attack of the Catholic President of Viet Nam, Ngo Dinh Diem, on Buddhism. This monk, and many others, seemed to think that it was worth acting to improve their world.

I believe that verse 99 has much wisdom in it (sentences 1 and 4, particularly) but the Tao Te Ching was really the product of a time, about 2500 years ago, when human activity did not threaten the very planet on which we and the “ten thousand” other animate beings depend for our very existence.

I understand that Buddhism considers humans to be pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of things (just one of the ten thousand), and I agree. I also agree that our individuality is illusory. And that, despite Genesis 1: 26, we certainly do not possess a God-given right to dominate and ruin the planet!

The Daoist view of nature has as a corollary a view of human beings as relatively unimportant, as simply a part of nature. We should therefore aspire to being simple and unadorned, with no illusions about our own significance in the cosmos.

I know that everything is interconnected and interdependent. And that, from a scientific point of view, DNA is the thread that binds all life together. Living things are one with each other and with our non-living environment.

Somehow, illusory and temporary as we are, my very essence cries out for a little more time for my grandchildren and for so many of the “ten thousand” other living things with which we share this oneness – and whom we so selfishly endanger. We can no longer say we didn’t know any better.

I quoted Thoreau to begin this post. His writings mention many Confucian sayings, and his overall philosophy was probably strongly influenced by Daoism. Nevertheless, Thoreau believed in acting to make the world a better place. He was prepared to go to jail for his activism – and did.

Studying Buddhism and practicing it more deeply, I hope, will help me to soften my stridency. I find it hard to understand why intelligent, caring people don’t even try to find out how serious and powerful corporations, via their servants, the law makers, are locking humanity onto a disastrous path.  We may already be past the environmental point of no return.

Of course, if all is illusion, I’ve just churned out a lot of irrelevant nonsense.




Author: mytiturk

Travelbug Minstrel: Strum for my supper, croon for my cuppa Search for a sign, write for my whine

12 thoughts on “Buddhism and Political Action”

    1. Thank you, Ho. You are the first person to comment. I still have my sanity but realize I have to relax a little. I am curious about the deeper question of whether one should care at all. If this world has any reality and too few care to take urgent action, many of the “ten thousand” with whom we interact will probably become extinct. If all in this world is illusion, then I do not have grandchildren with names I have given them. How much caring is too much? Did Thich Quang Duc violate the Way? I do not feel the need to do what he did, by the way… Do not “worry” about me 🙂

  1. I think any answer I can give wouldn’t stop your passion’s influence on your actions (I would leave that up to time). But the most helpful Taoist concept for you might be one of acceptance or else risk even more harm by being in conflict. One of the themes of Zhuangzi’s butterfly dream is that he doesn’t know his own nature but then accepts this rather than letting it get to him. I’m not sure if you know about Zhuangzi’s dream, but I’ll assume you do. In such the same way, Taoism teaches that we can follow men, participate in worldly things, but we alone should follow Tao in spirit. My view is what Zhuangzi says; that feelings can be had insofar as they do not disturb your emptiness of spirit. As for you having no grandchildren, it’s fine (and we should strive) to question philosophical Taoism in an effort to further it, since it is doubtlessly a philosophy.

    1. Thank you for your reply, Hui. A sense of butterfly humour is important. By the way, I have three grand children. I was questioning whether that, too, is an illusion… I have much to learn.

    2. It appears that Taoism does permit one to act (to “participate in worldly things” and to “follow men”, as you put it). I will attempt to keep my actions, which I choose to continue for the sake of all the beings on the earth, from affecting the purity? or “emptiness” of my spirit. I will not act in anger and will try to reduce anger’s negative effect on my spirit and on others. I am drawn to many aspects of Taoism, but not yet a complete disciple or a thorough student. I was “educated” in the Aristotelian tradition by Jesuits and influenced by the Catholic theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas. For the past 15 years I have seen this as human-centred, environmentally destructive and perverted.

      I will read more of Zhuangzi for pleasure and learning, but find it difficult to completely follow precepts that, perhaps oversimplified, seem to advise me that the wise approach is not to act against a powerful corporate world system that threatens vertebrates by attacking bees and pollinators and micro-organisms on land and plankton in the ocean. This tiny group sues governments and patents scraps of nature’s DNA just because it can – we have permitted corporations and oligarchs to do these things. And I do not think that those humans who survive, if any do, will be enlightened, unless they are stopped, and very soon.

      I am looking for a path that permits and accommodates my intention to work/act toward this goal with less harmful passion but with a focused resolve. For my grandkids and the “ten thousand.”

  2. This is very interesting. I don’t quite know what to make of it – not because it isn’t compelling, but probably because all of my passion has finally become condensed into one coherent, knowable focus: I am a revolutionary and that’s all I’m prepared to know any more. It’s all I can bear to know. I’m hoping that the faith of others will act on my behalf re. other realms.
    I was raised (just through childhood – to about age 11 or 12 – in the Catholic Worker tradition. I bet we have a lot of shared memories!

    1. In my heart of hearts I will continue to act for justice and against injustice. My passion eats away at my relationships because of righteous anger at corrupt power and frustration when people I love do not get it or feel it the way I do. I cannot watch the news without saying something dismissive out loud, out of desperation. This poisons my relationships with those dearest to me. So I use Twitter and blog. You are someone I look up to as seeing these things before I did because of your totally wholesome tradition, which continues to live in who you are and strengthens you. My parents were apolitical. Friends introduced my nuclear family to an active and beautiful Catholic social action group that awakened us.

      I am searching for a way to retain and improve the zeal, while eliminating the personal destruction that the anger wreaks on me and on key relationships. “Verse 99” will have to move over and accommodate the 21st century me.

      Right now I’m going to the local hospital to sing room to room in the palliative and complex care units. This is emotional oxygen for me.

      Sister, I learn much from you. More soon… Keep doing what you do so well.


      1. I know what you mean, brother. My heart grows hard, even as it breaks. People think it’s cute that I want to join the Zapatistas…they just don’t know.
        I want to figure out how to find emotional oxygen as you do. I’m looking, I promise!

      2. I have recently read a little about NM and the Zapatistas because of you. “cute” is not a good word for someone with your insight and passion. I get it.

        The GTA is geographically far removed from widespread suffering like that. Trinidad, W.I., where I taught in the sixties, had so little crime that I never locked my door. It was up and coming because of oil.

        Take good care of yourself, sister. I wish you well in the coming months. Let’s also hope that the Bern is building momentum. Signs are there…


      3. Thanks, MyTi. I just had time to skim it, as I’m falling asleep myself, but I’m certainly honored at the mention of …moi! And I had to chuckle at the BMW reference. I’ll be sure to check out your post in full when I wake up.

        P.S. Was thinking of what we used to chant, like “Oh Lord. make me the apple of your eye”.
        Now, isn’t that just a little fishy? (-:

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