The Buddha as an Activist

The Buddha as an Activist

The Buddha as an Activist

By Gil Fronsdal

What has been taught by the Buddha

is to act for the welfare of many people,

for the happiness of many people,

for the benefit, welfare, and happiness of many people.[1]


The Buddha clearly and actively advocated for the welfare of the whole world, including encouraging his followers to work for “the benefit, welfare, and happiness of many people.” In this way, he was an “activist.” However, living in the Bronze Age in countries ruled by kings, the Buddha could not have been an activist in how the word is commonly used in modern times.  There were no laws to change as governing was at the whim of kings, no elections to influence because there were no elections, and no economic system to reform as there were none of the economic systems, policies, or institutions at play in our modern world. In the primarily agrarian world where he lived—with just the beginning of an urban society of craftspeople and merchants—the Buddha lived in a time and place where person-to-person contact and relationships were primary influences on people’s daily lives. 

Therefore, instead of legislative, political, or economic activism, the Buddha focused on changing how people treat each other. As such, his activism was focused on establishing ethical behavior as the foundation for how a society operates.  While he frequently and personally advocated for people to avoid harming others, he was an activist because he encouraged others to also advocate for this. Through his followers, he worked to spread his ethical activism out into the societies of his time.

The Buddha’s efforts to have others advocate against unethical behavior is seen in teaching on “the ten unwholesome actions.” Here, he first explains that these ten actions are harmful and then discusses what is worse. Second, he says that abstaining from these ten behaviors is beautiful and then discusses what is better than this beauty. The word “beautiful,” kalayana, has meanings that overlap with the English word “ethics,” as seen in the following abbreviated quote of the teaching:

I will teach you what is harmful and what is worse than harmful.  And I will teach you what is beautiful and what is better than beautiful.  

What is harmful?

Killing, taking what is not given, sexual misconduct, speaking falsely, speaking divisively, speaking harshly, speaking pointlessly, being avaricious, having hostility, and having wrong view. 

What is worse than harmful?

Killing and prompting others to kill, taking what is not given and prompting others to take what’s not given, … having wrong view and prompting others to have wrong view. 

What is beautiful?

Abstaining from killing, abstaining from taking what is not given, abstaining from sexual misconduct, abstaining from speaking falsely, abstaining from speaking divisively, abstaining from speaking harshly, abstaining from speaking pointlessly, abstaining from being avaricious, abstaining from having hostility, and abstaining from having wrong view. 

What is better than beautiful?

Abstaining from killing and prompting others to abstain from killing, abstaining from taking what is not given and prompting others to abstain from taking what is not given… abstaining from having wrong view and prompting others to abstain from wrong view.[2]

Clearly, the Buddha advocates for people to be active in encouraging others to abstain from unethical behavior. The instruction says nothing about opposing those who are unethical.  Instead, the call is to do something much more difficult, i.e., motivate people to avoid—on their own accord—being unethical.  Though difficult, if successful, this is more valuable than oppositional strategies that create opposing factions with winners and losers.  

            The Buddha’s reason to be non-oppositional is inferred from different teachings on the ten unwholesome actions. In elaborating on the fifth unwholesome action, divisive speech, he describes this as speech which “divides those who are united and stirs up those who are [already] divided,” spoken by a person “who loves factionalism, delights in factionalism, enjoys factionalism, speaks to create factions.”[3]  In another teaching, the Buddha explains that abstaining from divisive speech includes abstaining from creating or perpetuating such social disunity.  It also includes speaking in ways that “unite those who are divided, support those who are [already] united … and speak to create harmony.”[4]  This is a clear instruction to be active in healing social discord and divisiveness; one is not to avoid the challenging work of uniting the divided. It is a work that aims to create concord and reconciliation, not creating or fueling opposing factions.  Encouraging his monastic disciples to work for concord the Buddha said,

Engaged in three actions are monastics acting for the welfare of many people, for the happiness of many people, for the benefit, welfare, and happiness of many people. What three?  They prompt them in physical acts of concord, verbal acts of concord, and mental acts of concord.[5]

To influence kings to prevent social discord, the Buddha relied on the indirect message of myth. With such stories, the Buddha taught that rulers should provide property to the poor, i.e., bring them out of poverty. If rulers don’t and poverty becomes widespread, people will begin stealing. And if rulers use violence to punish thieves, violence will spread throughout the realm. In the myth, violence eventually tears society apart; living by ten skillful actions heals the tear.[6]

Perhaps one reason the Buddha used myth to make this point is that, in his times, directly telling a king to rule differently could lead to violent punishment. Another reason is that in pre-literate societies such oral stories traveled far and wide; perhaps as the closest equivalent to social media in modern times for change public opinion.

For the Buddha, Dharma activists would not sacrifice their own ethical or wholesome behavior in working to end the unethical behavior of others. This can be seen in some of his instructions on living by the ten wholesome actions, i.e., engaging in the opposite of the ten unwholesome ones.[7] This includes not being hostile, even privately, in one’s thoughts. Instead, one would, as taught by the Buddha, wish for others to be free from animosity, oppression, anxiety, and to live at ease. It also involves knowing the right time to speak up and doing so with words that are treasured, reasoned, defined, and beneficial. 

As challenging as it is, the Buddha’s activism is rooted in the main aim of the spiritual practice he taught, namely, to become free from greed, hatred, and delusion. If one is not free of these, the Buddha instructed his disciples to work to “constantly remove” them.[8]  One would thereby also be free of acts of body, speech, or mind that are born from greed, hatred, and delusion. Such activism would have no hostility, deceit, and no use of brute power to defeat others.  Instead, it involves searching for ways to change the hearts of others so they would want to be ethical, perhaps following the high standards the Buddha taught.

How does all this apply to modern Buddhists living in societies organized with vastly different economic, political, and cultural systems than ancient India? It may well include advocating to change systems and institutions engaged in any of the ten unwholesome actions. It may include dissuading politicians who engage in some, perhaps all, of these unwholesome actions to stop.  Such advocacy would aim to create bridges between opposing parties. It would focus on bringing people together to work for the common good, free of factionalism. It might also involve telling stories and modern myths of concord and peaceful conflict resolution that evoke a vision of our potential for social harmony.

Modern Buddhist activism based on these early Buddhist principles would not be hostile confrontations or disparagements of anyone. It would follow the Buddha’s teaching on non-conflict where he clearly advocates the avoidance of any disparagement of people. Instead he instructs his followers to make clear statements about which actions lead to suffering and which don’t.[9] He also made is clear that in reproving others for their behavior, it should be done with a mind established in goodwill, free of malice.[10]

Instead of speaking up against injustice by opposing those who are unjust, Buddhist activism would thus speak up against unjust actions in such a way that goodwill is possible between those on different sides of issues. 

Public demonstrations could be for “demonstrating” alternatives to what is unjust or harmful.   The aim of such demonstrations would be to inspire participation rather than polarization, dialogue instead of quarreling, respect rather than demonizing, compassion in place of hate, and clear, compelling affirmations of ethical truths. When injustice is being done, a Buddhist activist would focus on vigorously protecting justice and those threatened by injustice in efforts to avoid escalating conflict. When this is not enough, one might next engage in strategic non-cooperation and non-violent resistance guided by the ten wholesome actions.

Doing such Buddhist activism is neither easy nor fast. It requires strong confidence in the value of ethical behavior. It also requires a strong determination to avoid any activism influenced by greed, hatred, and delusion. It is activism that aims to change the psychological foundation from which unethical behavior arises. Regardless of how idealistic this may seem, it is working to replace fear with generosity, love, and wisdom as the foundation of society.  

Among types of beneficent conduct, among the best is prompting, settling, and establishing an unethical person in ethical behavior.[11]


[1] Numerical Discourses 1.149

[2] Connected Discourses of the Buddha 4.207 (AN II 222-3)

[3] Middle Length Discourses 41.9 (MN I 286)

[4] Middle Length Discourses 41.13 (MN I 288)

[5] Numerical Discourse 3.11 (I 106)

[6] The Long Discourses 26.10-15 III 65-69)

[7] Middle Length Discourses 41.13 (MN I 288)

[8] Numerical Discourses 4.193.

[9] “The Discourse on Non-Conflict” in Middle Length Discourses 139.  

[10] Vinaya 2.248-9

[11] Numerical Discourses 9.5