An Activist’s Tool Box for Popularising the Social Dharma


This is a further attempt to compile a resource for use in drafting street leaflets, press releases, media interviews and the like. I have attempted to isolate for convenience a number of “themes“– though they are, of course, all interconnected. This is intended as an ongoing project, in which we can strengthen my suggested themes and add some more. My hope is that this will give our drafters at least a start in preparing material on whatever issue might confront them.

We do need to express our Dharma in brief, attractive, and interesting ways which are readily comprehensible in terms of readers’ and listeners’ own common experience. This was the method originally used by the Buddha. So often in the suttas he begins by finding out his questioner’s background and adjusting his response accordingly. Subsequently a vast abstract and codified edifice was built out of his response. It is of little value for us to proclaim Buddhist principles like non-violence or compassion as if their value was self-evident to all. For the “outsider” this is no more than well-worn religious dogma or, at best, the kind of impractical and unrealistic idealism to be expected from the likes of us. On the other hand we also need to go beyond the hackneyed phraseology of the general run of left-wing, pacifist, or environmentalist leaflets. We need to strike a different chord.

Our problem as political popularisers is that both our diagnosis and remedy for the world’s ills are so breathtakingly radical that many who do sympathise with them may find them too unrealistic. And again and again we need both to give due prominence to social issues whilst at the same time going back to their profound delusive origins. In short, we have to have a distinctively Buddhist message whilst at the same time retaining popular credibility. The encouraging thing is that at least we are endeavouring to obtain for the very first time a public hearing for a Buddhism which does not stop short at personal problems, which embraces the whole of suffering, and for which the political is personal and the personal political.

But first I set out below some foundations from I have developed the subsequent themes. My Four Noble Truths format was to satisfy an American Buddhist magazine. Thus framed it is likely to be of interest only to our co-religionists. These ideas are of course developed much more fully in my New Social Face of Buddhism.

The Four Noble Political Truths: “Thus have I heard…”

First is the truth that individual suffering and delusion are socially supercharged. Collectively we commit immense follies which, if committed individually, would be pathological.

Secondly is the truth that the forces that drive history and politics are ultimately – but not the same – as those that characteristically drive the individual person. The latter experiences a profound sense of lack arising from the impermanence and insubstantiality of this flimsy self. Part of the social response to this has been to bond with other individuals to create a belongingness identity. It may be our race, our nation, our religion, our social class or whatever.

This collective identity is reinforced by emphasizing the difference of other comparable groupings – and, better still, our superiority -- and, better still, the threat that they pose to us. Ideologies add a gutsy righteousness to this black-and-white picture. Well researched hates enable us ethically to project all our rancour and frustration onto them. Hence the savage warfare, heartless economic exploitation and ravaged environment which occupy such a large part of human history. Hence the ease with which former neighbours and schoolmates have slaughtered one another in the Balkans and countless other killing fields. And this is also an easy way to win elections.

The above process I call antithetical bonding – the heart of social delusion and the Buddhist building block of history and society. These two long words are easy to understand; every citizen disgusted with conventional politics knows what they mean.

The third Political Truth is that there is a way out of social suffering. Reformers, radicals and revolutionaries have been telling us this for centuries. But the results have at best been mixed and at worst disastrous. We now have all the material resources to provide every citizen of our planet with a decent basic standard of living. But we are unable to do this. The latest ideology, free market free-for-all capitalism, is actually making the majority of the world’s people poorer. But it provides a rationale for the greedy consumerism of a minority which is wrecking the planet. In short there must be something else, something indispensable, to finding our way out of social suffering.

Fourthly, there is the truth that we need cut the roots of our social problem, the roots of aggressiveness, acquisitiveness and ignorance as to what we are really up to and why. We need to expose and wither those roots by creating a radical culture of awakening. This would be a culture in which the work of contemplative enquiry, alone and with others, is no less important than earning a living, raising a family, and keeping physically healthy. This would not heal our divisions overnight, but it would begin to dissolve the underlying bloody mindedness that makes them so intractable. It would nurture wisdom and compassion, and a host of skilful means. Without these resources we cannot build the socially just and ecologically sustainable global commonwealth which is the collective expression of enlightenment. And which, in turn, would provide for all a positive environment for spiritual growth.

A Tool Box of Themes for Drafters

1. Buddhism is about getting to the roots of the world’s problems, going much deeper than the politicians of all parties. Most ordinary people would probably agree that, at bottom, it is deep seated rancour, greed and ignorance that fire up the world’s follies (that is, “The Three Fires” of traditional Buddhist teaching).

2. The origins of the greed and aggressiveness in the world can be traced back, in the final analysis, to insecurity and fear, in both individuals and in whole cultures and societies, which may feel threatened and exploited, and lash out in rage and frustration. It could be an individual playground bully, or it could be a whole culture of desperate terrorism. Instead of just labelling individuals or societies or religions as “evil” it is more helpful to search for the origins of that so-called “evil” and do something to remedy them. In fact, you don’t need to be a Buddhist to understand this. This is what historian Richard Overy had to say, in the Guardian of 20 March:-

It is a profound irony that Blair has helped to defuse the Ulster crisis by the very means he has abandoned in his crusading zeal against the world enemy. Terrorists do not blow people up just because they are nihilistic thugs. Terrorism is born of fear, resentment and powerlessness in the face of the massive power and cultural expansion oif the west; it is about real issues for those who perpetrate its acts of violence. Palestinians dies because they want to free Palestine. Understanding those issues on their own terms and adjusting our politics in order to do so does not mean that we endorse violence.

We can never win a “war” against international terrorism. What we can do is to gradually eliminate its breeding grounds, reducing its irreconcilable core to a policing and civil justice problem.

3. We need to expose the destructive futility of simplistic black-and-white views of world problems. It might be the Bush’s “Evil Empire” versus the “Axis of Evil” of Osama bin Laden, or Tory or Labour spokesperson being absolutely right about everything and claiming the other side to be comprehensively wrong. No wonder so many voters are disillusioned with party politicians’ childish opportunism and deceitful spinning of the truth. The deeply corrupting effects of “spin” offer an excellent illustration of why we should uphold the precept on truthfulness. And any issue of any of the popular tabloids vividly illustrates how readily bloodyminded prejudice can be whipped up (as against asylum seekers, for example). Mr Murdoch’s minions are adepts at stoking the Three Fires, and provide an apt Buddhist object lesson. However, it is of course important also not to give credence to the common view “that one is as bad as the other – they’re all tarred with the same brush”. The foregoing is not to imply that we should not choose to lend support to one party in a conflict (whatever its flaws) and not just sit on the fence. The Israel/Palestine conflict is an obvious example.

4. The black versus white, us versus them mentality leads all too readily to violence. It is not effective simply to preach non-violence as a self-evident truth. Many decent people may be opposed to violence but may feel that there is no alternative. We need to explain that not only does violence kill a lot of people. It is also stupid. After years of tit-for-tat terrorism and wars of attrition adversaries usually have to sit down and negotiate how they can best live together. Northern Ireland is a well known case in point. And almost everyone is agreed that the Palestine/Israel conflict will eventually have to be resolved by negotiating a settlement which establishes a viable Palestinian State with guarantees for Israel’s security. Finally, in my view preaching absolute pacifism will certainly reduce our credibility (as will any such ideoligcal stance).Thus, in NEB’s Iraq War press release I wrote that “We need policies and resources to support and enable people of the growing number of collapsed and anarchic states – mediation, empowerment, aid, and the judicious and protective use of force if needs be.”

5. In place of the “us against them” mentality we need a bridge-building mentality. The majority of the world’s peoples are crying out for social justice. We need to turn round existing free-for-all economics, in which those that already have are given even more, and the poor grow poorer.

6. Above all have to raise the question which no conventional politician dare touch. First, the whole of the world’s population cannot enjoy the living standards of the richest countries, because planetary resources simply cannot sustain such a scenario. Secondly, seemingly endless economic growth in a finite planet is a nonsense. Time is running out. How do we dismantle consumerism and the growth economics that sustains it ? This is the political agenda which we need to set. Not only is it the fundamental social question, but it also engages deeply with questions of craving, suffering, and lack, and what our lives should be about.

7. Fundamental to our message is the argument that our social problems are ultimately human ones, requiring a regime of inner work, of meditative exploration and resolution. But at the same time – and not least to retain credibility – we need to argue also that radical structural and institutional changes are no less essential to secure world peace, social justice and planetary sustainability. However, in our work with fellow activists it is the “inner work” argument that must be won, to which the above Third Noble Political Truth refers. We can open up many different kinds of discussion pointing in that direction. We can explore with fellow activists the inner difficulties they experience in terms of frustration, alienation and burn-out. We can explain why Buddhist activists meditate. And so on…

8. Finally, just as traditional individual practice has been inspired by the ideal of enlightenment, so also do we need to offer a comparable social perspective – a Bodhisattva road map to the future. In my New Social Face of Buddhism I have proposed the development of a radical culture of awakening, as an essential underpinning to the global green commonwealth to which so many now aspire. I do not think it is difficult to engage people’s imagination with this – the idea, for example, of a daily inner-work work-out comparable to the yoga or other keep-fit session, as a means of keeping socially “fit” for the ethically-motivated work of building a better world.

Appendix 1

Iraq Press Release

from the UK Network of Engaged Buddhists

1 March 2003

Hang on ! What are we really up to ? – say the Buddhists

Buddhists call on world leaders to free themselves from the narrow and destructive thinking that has got us into this dead-end crisis. Buddhism is about getting to the roots of our problems. It is about seeing the big picture and taking the long view. Fear, and the aggression, greed and ignorance that are driven by it, have terrorised our world for too long. Fear and insecurity have driven Bush and his supporters into a totally delusive “war against evil”. In his failure to squash global terrorism he has lashed out at the handiest of the “rogue states” – the one that has a lot of oil – but which lies in a politically volatile region. For the American Dream runs on petroleum. And what next, after Iraq? The Empire of Evil and the Axis of Evil (as each sees the other) will continue to slog it out, each increasingly the mirror image of the other – the Armageddon syndrome.

We must break free from this madness. There is another way – of down-to-earth wisdom and compassionate concern:

*Make friends, not enemies. The majority of the world’s peoples are crying out for social justice. Many have become enraged and desperate. We need to turn round existing global policies with regard to the so-called “free” market, aid, debt and the arms trade.

*The Muslim community needs reassurance, not victimisation and discrimination. A start must be made by securing social justice for the Palestinians and guaranteed security for Israel.

*All aggressive dictators need to be boxed in and their people given support in getting rid of them.

*We need policies and resources to support and enable the people of the growing number of collapsed and anarchic states – mediation, empowerment, aid, and the judicious and protective use of force if needs be.

*The above can eliminate the breeding grounds of terrorism, reducing its irreconcilable core to a policing and civil justice problem.

There are no quick fixes; the world will remain for long a scary and uncertain place. But let us begin to shift the balance, with courage, wisdom and compassion, away from fear, greed and aggression. As the Buddha said: “Hatred is never ended by hatred; only love can end hatred; that is truly how it is.”

Appendix 2

The Temptation of Righteousness

The Lenten sermon of Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, (Independent, 8/3/03) comes as a useful reminder to Buddhists also. “Lent is a period of temptation and trial when we have to learn a new honesty about ourselves – and about what really motivates our views on Iraq… a crisis in which we find out in unwelcome ways who we really are.”

Let’s skip his questioning of the underlying motives of the hawks and look at what he has to say to the likes of us, “who have some self-questioning to do as well”. “Are we afraid of the risks, even the guilt, involved in the use of force ? … Are we projecting evil and selfishness onto the convenient scapegoat of the United States and our government – caricaturing their motives because hanging on to our own sense of superiority is just another way of staying on top of the heap ?”

The archbishop is referring here to the temptation of righteousness, the number one hazard of any socially engaged spirituality. It is not to be confused with being in the right, however. But just being right is not usually enough for our fragile sense of self. This has its own agenda, to fill its profound sense of lack with some gutsy, reassuring black-and-white righteousness.

One of the telltale signs of righteousness is a reassuring simplification of the situation at issue, and a blanking out of any disturbing uncertainty, equivocation, or intractability. For example, in the Iraq crisis Hans Blix has reported that the accelerated compliance of the Iraqi authorities “may well be due to strong outside pressure” – in other words, the massive build up of a threat of force. How likely would it be that compliance would be sustained if the threat of force were withdrawn ? And for how long could that Anglo-American build up be maintained, poised to strike ? And beyond the Iraq crisis is the wider question of how to box up or disarm tyrants who threaten their neighbours with imminent destruction and cruelly oppress their own peoples ? These are difficult and scary questions, with no easy answers, surely ?

In our legitimate concern to organise our protests and demonstrations we can easily forget that Buddhism is about creatively disconcerting the self. Socially engaged, it is about creatively disconcerting ourselves, “our side”. This is difficult work which is easily misunderstood as actually disempowering ourselves and our friends. Isn’t “spirituality” somehow about powering up our ideals? It may not be easy to convince others that such ruthless honesty is ultimately empowering and in fact makes for greater effectiveness not less. For our “Noble Lies” (however well researched) eventually wear thin and end in burn out. It has been remarked that it is the contemplatively orientated action groups that are least likely to fall prey to discouragement and are able to keep going on the long haul. Moreover, to the extent that we can see situations undistorted by the collective self-need of our own movement or campaign, to that extent are we freed to act in a realistic and flexible way.

This is a large, difficult – and fundamental – question which I have only touched on briefly here, and which merits much more discussion.

Postscript: “Personal thanks for a really searching and helpful reflection: you read my concerns very accurately, and turn them just where I’d hope they can be turned”. (Rowan Williams, letter, 26 March 2003).