Can Buddhism & Activism Ever Co-exist? 

The wave does not need to die to become water. She is already water.

On my 29th birthday, some gifts to myself: saltwater, deep presence and a connection to the world around me.

I was finishing reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s (Thay, as he is referred to endearingly) You Are Here as this day came and it couldn’t have been perfect timing. As one gets older, certain things become clearer. In an age when social media and the connection it provides is prevalent comes a time when one feels even more distracted, frustrated and worse, isolated.

These things have prompted me to challenge and question not just how we consume social media but ultimately, how we spend our days. After all, writer Annie Dillard said it best: how we spend our days is how we spend our lives.

This is where the beauty of Thay’s book lies. In it are the teachings of the Buddha on just about everything that matters in life whether you are a practicing Buddhist, Catholic, Muslim or even atheist. His words are just as calming as his teachings that he even takes the fear out of topics like death.

First, a primer on breathing that calls for immediate practice:

Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.

Breathing is key. In order to be fully present, one can start by paying attention to our breathing. This is a good practice in ensuring that our minds are where our bodies are at any given moment. I’ve learned how to pay attention to my breathing through meditation practices and by participating in sanghas, and these words are a welcome addition to that practice.

In situations when emotions run high, these words can become calming. Along with the pace of our breathing we remain in the present instead of digressing to the past or worrying about the future, both of which could be triggering. Together, we are able to focus on how to rise from any situation with clarity.

This is no new age BS. As a queer woman of color from the Third World, my operating emotion has always been fear and/or anger. I have used these emotions to fuel my activism. Anger and fear, wrought from the pain of living my identities, has transformed my view of the world with the intent of changing it for the better.

I guess this is all where a lot of contradictions rise to the surface. I’ve always believed that “the woman’s place is in the struggle” which is counter to the Buddhist teaching of being fully present at the moment, that where we are right now is where we’re supposed to be. How can I reconcile both realities?

The miracle of mindfulness is, first of all, that you are here. Being truly here is very important — being here for yourself, and for the one you love. How can you love if you are not here? A fundamental condition for love is your own presence. In order to love, you must be here. That is certain.

A lot of activism is also rooted in historical context and the past has been an indicator of what justice should like in the future. That with the hard work of organizing, a better future awaits. At the same time, Thay explores the dualities present in our lives and prods us to not live by them — birth and death, past and future — that these concepts are the cause of our pain and suffering.

Just like that, even my own concept of dialectical materialism was obliterated.

There is something about Buddhism and its teachings that have always calmed me, as well as the teachings that have always appealed to my sense of spirituality. Often I connect to these teachings on a personal and more intimate level, much closer to the heart than the mind.

As I get deeper into my own being, it doesn’t get easier. It is taxing emotionally, mentally and spiritually, but it is greatly needed. After all, if without a full self to bring, how can I bring about change with my community?

There is a lot that needs to be done in society — work against war, social injustice, and so on. But first we have to come back to our own territory and make sure that peace and harmony are reigning there. Until we do that, we cannot do anything for society.

As I looked out at the great Pacific that day, I knew that there wouldn’t be easy answers. I had to live with these uncertainties, maybe stumble upon what I am looking for someday. It was enough for me to be there, with all those waves, with all that water.


8 thoughts on “Can Buddhism & Activism Ever Co-exist? 

  1. Thich Nhat Hahn was quite an activist.
    His last book poetically reveals some of his early efforts at peace amidst war;
    Inside the Now: meditations on time 🙂


    1. Ah, I didn’t know that! In the book he writes about struggling as a place for growth, and I took it more as something personal as opposed to societal. I have to look into his other books. Thank you for your comment!


  2. Thank you for your beautiful article! It was clear and engaging and wise, and relevant! This portion jumped out to me particularly,

    “I guess this is all where a lot of contradictions rise to the surface. I’ve always believed that “the woman’s place is in te struggle” which is counter to the Buddhist teaching of being fully present at the moment, that where we are right now is where we’re supposed to be. How can I reconcile both realities?”

    Today, right now, in my present reality, I believe that it is possible to be both ‘in the struggle’ and still peaceful. It takes a lot of practice, don’t get me wrong, but it’s still achievable.

    Anger and fear are both very strong emotions. They easily get themselves all twisted around us and weave their ways into our very egos. They are sneaky and cunning like that and try to convince us that they are us. We often fall prey to their attacks and begin to identify with them, as if they had always been us. Both anger and fear come from the same root, though. They manifest from the same place. They arise from our tendency toward grasping.

    I think this article I found on Lion’s Roar ( is a good resource:.

    “Dukkha is produced not by things themselves or by their insubstantial nature. Rather, our mind has been conditioned by ignorance into thinking that eternal happiness can be obtained through things that are ephemeral and transient.

    There is no easy way out
    From “The Middle Way of Stress” by Judy Lief

    The simple teaching of the first noble truth, the truth of suffering, may be the most difficult to understand and accept. We keep thinking that if we just fix this or fix that, tweak here or there, we can avoid it. We think that if we were smarter, prettier, wealthier, more powerful, living somewhere else, younger, older, male, female, with different parents—you name it—things would be different. But things are not different; they are as bad as they seem! Since it is unrealistic to hope for a stress-free life, and that would not be all that good in any case, it makes more sense to learn how to deal with the stresses that inevitably arise.

    Suffering is a signal
    From “Fear the Right Thing” by Robert Thurman

    The truth of suffering is not a doomsday prediction. It is not expressing an inevitable destiny. On the contrary, it alerts us to the fact that we are not being aware of what we really are.

    There is something behind our suffering
    From “The Answer to Anger & Aggression is Patience” by Pema Chödrön

    Whenever there is pain of any kind—the pain of aggression, grieving, loss, irritation, resentment, jealousy, indigestion, physical pain—if you really look into that, you can find out for yourself that behind the pain there is always something we are attached to. There is always something we’re holding on to.

    I say that with such confidence, but you have to find out for yourself whether this is really true. You can read about it: the first thing the Buddha ever taught was the truth that suffering comes from attachment. That’s in the books. But when you discover it yourself, it goes a little deeper right away.”

    If you check up in your own mind you will find that the majority of our lives are spent up in grasping. We are either grasping for the things we want because we believe they will make us happy. Or we are grasping onto the things we have, trying to hang on to them forever because we believe separating from them will take away our happiness. Or, we may also find ourselves caught up in the mind of aversion, forcibly resisting what we believe is ugly, or painful and will bring us suffering. But, this is just another form of grasping, just kinda inside out. It’s grasping at perceived happiness by actively pushing things away. And it’s in this grasping nonsense that lies our problem.

    You see, I believe that anger and fear can be very destructive emotions because they are incredibly powerful ones. They are super strong! And if they arise in a mind that is untrained, they quickly assume control and cloud our higher judgment and lead us to create all sorts of unnecessary negative karma. But, baby, power is power, whether it’s focused on good or on bad. Its strength still remains! The reason anger and fear are so destructive is because we attach ourselves to them and allow them to obscure our mindfulness. When we are advanced enough in our practice that we can experience our anger or our fear, but not attach to them…not identify with them and become them…we will find we can harness their energies and focus them on positivity and the things that will ultimately bring about change.

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with trying to make our world a better place to live in. In fact, this is quite a Buddhist thing to do. Compassion leads us to want to fix things and relieve as much suffering for as many beings as we can. There is nothing wrong with (for lack of a better term) “fighting” against oppression from the establishment. But, to do so effectively, we mustn’t allow ourselves to be overcome by the very strong emotions that are fueling our desire for change. We must build up our powers or mindfulness through consistent practice and use it when these emotions arise.

    Just as, while meditating on the breath, we acknowledge when our mind has wandered, without judgment, and gently bring it back to the breath, again. So, too, when destructive emotions arise, we should simply acknowledge that they are just forms of grasping and clinging to things which are inherently impermanent anyway. And, they are destined to become separated from us at some point in the future. When we acknowledge the emotion and remind ourselves that it arises from our grasping (which is delusion) we reassert our power over the situation and over our minds and remain in control. And while seeing our anger and our fear in this way, without becoming attached to them, i believe, in this way, they can propel us to act to make the world a better place because we are acting from a space of wisdom and clarity and creativity and compassion.

    What do you think?

    Indulgent Blessings and maeJoy B. withU always!

    Sister Dharma Gettin’

    Liked by 1 person

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