“Buddhists are nice.” “It’s a philosophy, not a religion.” “Buddhists don’t try to convert you or tell you what to do.” All of these statements, which I have heard from students and friends alike, highlight the stereotype of the quiet, nonthreatening Buddhist who wants nothing more than to sit and meditate and be left alone to cultivate their inner self. Despite this image of Buddhists as quiet and humble, inward-looking rather than outward-focused, there is a long tradition of American Buddhists threatening the status quo by seeking to create social change.
The Buddhist Peace Fellowship is the most prominent example of Buddhist activism in the United States. Founded in 1978 in the wake of the Vietnam War, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF) is an arm of the larger Fellowship of Reconciliation, a nonprofit organization working for peace and social justice. BPF seeks to spread a message of “the interconnectedness of all things” and to “help beings liberate themselves from the suffering that manifests in individuals, relationships, institutions, and social systems.” Activists involved in BPF are rooted in traditions of contentious politics, of “speaking truth to power”—direct action that requires strong conviction, confidence in the rightness of one’s views, and a willingness to take risks on behalf of those views. Notably, in the United States at least, this approach has primarily drawn Buddhists from white, US-born convert backgrounds rather than immigrant ones—people with the privilege to protect themselves from the consequences of this risk-taking.
In recent years, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship has made conscious efforts to diversify its focus, leadership, and membership. Where it historically focused on issues of militarism and war, today it emphasizes issues ranging from racial injustice to climate change. Likewise, though most of its leaders have been white, today’s board of directors includes people of color, as well. Still, much of its membership remains white, and many of its activities remain rooted in direct action. For instance, in 2014 a group of Buddhists created a “meditation blockade” in front of a hotel in Oakland to protest the militarization of police and accompanying violence against people of color. Activists sat in front of the hotel’s entrance in variations of the lotus pose, silently meditating or holding signs such as “Demilitarize Police to Make Peace” as onlookers walked past.
We need conviction in public life: People willing to make sacrifices—such as risking arrest—in order to make their communities and their nation better. But too much conviction and too little humility just results in a shouting match, in an inability to hear and see the other side. On the other hand, calls for “civility” and “humility” in public life are sometimes stand-ins for tone policing—an effort by privileged people to silence the voices of marginalized people who have something to say, but may say it in a way that privileged people find threatening. For middle-class white Americans, seeing fellow middle-class white Americans blocking the entrance to a hotel might solicit an eye roll, but it will not likely engender fear. In contrast, watching immigrants and people of color engage in similarly confident actions can create a feeling of being threatened, and can result in calls for greater “humility.”
During the early to mid-2010s, a blogger calling himself the “Angry Asian Buddhist” sought to push back on this double standard, both within American Buddhist circles and in broader American culture. Reacting to the marginalization of Asian Buddhists in American Buddhist publications and leadership positions, the anonymous blogger (now known to be Aaron Lee) explained his choice of the word “angry”: “There is a stereotype, not just of Buddhists, but of Asians, that we are passive and we don’t really act up, and we sit on fluffy meditation cushions and gaze on our navels, and smile, and do something focused and we’re not angry. So just having this ‘Angry Asian Buddhist’ in the title challenges you to think about what it means to be Asian and Buddhist.”
The concepts of conviction and humility are often treated as two sides of an emotional coin; conviction requires emotion, like anger, while humility necessitates quieting emotional responses in order to listen. But perhaps some of that emotion is necessary for humble dialogue, since otherwise we are hiding too much of ourselves and the experiences that have shaped us—particularly for members of marginalized groups—to have genuine exchanges with each other. The teachings and practices of Buddhism provide a rich reservoir from which practitioners can sketch an image of what it might look like to simultaneously have conviction and humility. The meditation blockade in Oakland was both a show of strength of conviction—bodies in front of buildings, signs boldly calling for an end to police violence—and a silent willingness to listen to the alternative messages of passersby and hecklers with different views from their own.
This balance between speaking and silence, between anger and empathy, is not unique to Buddhism. However, neither is it universally present among different religious groups, some of which create more space for silence and listening, or train followers to speak out based on conviction more than others. When religious groups encourage members to cultivate habits that balance speaking and silence, anger and empathy, they make it easier for members to exercise public conviction when necessary, and also to listen when one’s understanding of a situation or an issue is incomplete. In this sense, religions of all sorts—including Buddhism—can be good for democratic life. Religious groups can both embolden members to create change and prepare them to participate in genuine dialogue—not because they are “nice,” secularized, or nonthreatening, but because they encourage the cultivation of habits necessary for balancing conviction and humility in the midst of working for social change.