Activism and Religion

So, I wrote an article in the currently released edition of the Justice on Buddhism and activism (specifically tied to the peace movement).*  My goal in writing this letter to the editor was to correct a misinterpretation of Buddhism as “passive withdrawal from the world”.  In devoting so much time to thinking about engaged Buddhism, I had a few revelations.

1) I realized exactly how much the teachings and philosophy of Buddhism promote being active in the world we live in, in many varying ways.

2) On a deeper level, I realized that my contact with Buddhism and how I live my life through a Buddhist lens has made any activist issue (that promotes the genuine happiness and well-being of all sentient beings) is a deeply personal and spiritual issue for me.

3) I want to read more books.

So, in discovering just to what extent my Buddhist practice goes hand in hand with my drive for progressive activism and being the Religious Studies UDR that I am… I am wondering if other people have similar experiences where their religious/spiritual affiliations or views affect their personal experiences with and perspectives on activism.

So take a little time… while you’re walking to class, when you’re mind is racing before you go to bed, when you’re in the shower… and think about where your activist drive comes from and what reinforces it.  Be it religious or not, I really am truly curious!  So please, please, please post your thoughts!  Or you can stalk me and we can have lunch and talk about it 🙂

*The Justice had to do some light editing for issues of space, so you can read my letter in its full, unadulterated form after the jump

My name is Jessica Stearns, and I am currently a member of both Student Peace Alliance and the Soka Gakkai Buddhist Club. I am writing in response to some misinformation about the Buddhist practice that was published in Matt Lawrence’s recent article “Origami swans are no match for cold, harsh reality”.

Lawrence states that, “Buddhism advocates withdrawal from this world to attain the highest state of being. Similarly, the Student Peace Alliance seems to advocate abandoning reality to solve the problems of this world. The event flyers talk about ending conflict, which calls to mind some nirvana or the oblivion of the human condition.”

Buddhists have quite an extensive track record of protest and involvement in their communities. I am pretty sure the vast numbers of monks and nuns who have protested, and are currently protesting, in Myanmar (Burma) do not see the Buddha’s teachings as advocating withdrawal from the world.

And if we search into the lives and teachings of renowned Buddhist leaders such as the Dalai Lama and the venerable Thich Nhat Hanh we find teachings that are rooted in the betterment of the world in which we live. Cherish the present moment. Find true happiness through compassion and service to others. Use engagement in your community to enhance your practice. (For more information on these teachings, start by taking a look at these two books: The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama, and/or Interbeing: 14 Precepts of Engaged Buddhism by Thich Nhat Hanh)

This assumption that Buddhism promotes removal of oneself from society is especially untrue in the sect of Nichiren Buddhism that our organization here at Brandeis focuses on.

I feel that the Soka Gakkai International website states their purpose much more eloquently than I could: “This Buddhist practice leads to empowerment and inner transformation or ‘human revolution’ which enables individuals to take responsibility over their lives and contribute to building a world where people of diverse cultures and faiths can live in peace.”

Nirvana and the oblivion of the human condition are not what strengthen the bond between Buddhists and the peace movement. This connection is made with the concept of dependant origination, or interbeing. This concept deserves an article all to itself, but in an elementary sense it teaches how our own well being, in fact our own existence, is intricately tied to those who surround us. So for there to be an event promoting more peaceful ways of solving conflicts, strategies that realize the humanity of others and that we are all inextricably linked, makes a lot of sense in a Buddhist perspective.

The only commonality that Lawrence brings up between peace and Buddhism is that they apparently both “seem to get a disproportionate amount of support or interest from well-meaning liberals for no good reason.”

Buddhism helps me incorporate peace practice in my everyday life. It helps me take the daunting, ethereal concept and apply it to my interactions with others, promoting the peace culture that is also a goal of the Student Peace Alliance. I wouldn’t call the relationship I have with these two groups “support” or merely “interest”, it is more integrated into who I am as a person than that. For myself and other “well-meaning liberals” I think the ability to pull peace out of the sky and put it in your life, where it belongs, is a pretty good reason to be involved in Buddhist peace work.

Anyone who would like any information on Buddhism for future articles, or just out of personal interest, is more than welcome to contact myself, Kathleen Fischman, or Miriam Von Guggenberg. We are pretty well equipped to answer any questions you might have regarding SGI or Buddhism in a broader sense.

The SGI Buddhist Club meets every Thursday at 7pm in the Peace Room in Usdan. All are welcome! Please come be INVOLVED in your world!


3 thoughts on “Activism and Religion”

  1. “But, rather than being liberal/having an activist tendency due to my religion, I’m the opposite: if ever I were to be religious, it would be due to my liberal tendency.”

    Since I started applying Buddhism to my life in 8th grade, this is a very “chicken or the egg?” issue for me. I don’t know if I liked Buddhism because it meshed well with my more liberal proactive views, or if my Buddhism prompted this more liberal thinking.

    “Still, I think when Christians DO actually ACT Christianly, they are inherently enactors of social justice. I deeply admire Christians who do actually practice their God’s philosophy.”

    BIG amen to that one.

  2. I’m not an activist; I’m more of a liberal in the “academic” way. But I find this question interesting, beyond the scope of “Brandeis is very activist, Brandeis is very Jewish, Jewish ethics has Tikkun Olam, etc” perspective. But, rather than being liberal/having an activist tendency due to my religion, I’m the opposite: if ever I were to be religious, it would be due to my liberal tendency.

    I’m not religious beyond believing in a vague natural pantheon, and my religious upbringing consists of being baptized Catholic but little more. But any time I’ve ever considered looking into Christianity again, it’s because of being drawn to Christ’s selfless philosophy, about tolerance, helping your neighbor, supporting the poor and the ill, etc. The elements of his preaching that made the homosexual, atheist, Marxist Pasolini to make a film about Him.

    Christ’s vague socialism isn’t justification to believe He’s the Messiah* (at least for me), so I’ve never moved beyond my a-religiousness. Still, I think when Christians DO actually ACT Christianly, they are inherently enactors of social justice. I deeply admire Christians who do actually practice their God’s philosophy, from St Vincent de Paul to Mother Theresa.

    *He’s actually just a very naughty boy.

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