Buddhist Tips for Citizens Who Want Change

Photo by Geraint Rowland on Flickr (CC License)

The question is not whether to be engaged or not, the question is how to engage without losing the contemplative life.  ~ Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh

You are upset.  Angry.  Furious.  Some politician, ruler, king, … whatever…, is telling you what to do or what you cannot do.  Whatever this is, it is conflicting with your view of the ways things should be, your religion, your beliefs, your feelings, your morals.  You may perhaps feel hopeless, that you ‘voted’ and it did not mean anything.  Or you may feel engaged, and take to the streets in protest.

But what would the Buddha say to this?  How can we draw on the wisdom of Buddhism to help us, as citizens (hopefully in a free democracy) to influence and change our government?  Is it futile?

This type of situation has plagued citizens throughout time, and continues in our modern world.  So for the upset citizen, what lessons from Buddhist teachers and leaders can they use to bring harmony and progress to our world?

This article includes a photograph of Ven. Thích Quảng Đức performing self-immolation during the Vietnam war and is #NSFW and may be disturbing to some readers.
Are you a leader in the Government?  I have an article especially for you: http://www.alanpeto.com/buddhism/buddhist-government-leaders/

Article Summary

I know you may not have a lot of time to read a long article, so this summary can help.  However it is best to read the entire article when you can!

  • All things are impermanent and will eventually change.
  • All things are dependent on causes and conditions.
  • Be peaceful and nonviolent while being engaged working for the change you wish to see.
  • You may often be ignored or your views minimized by those in power, but stay engaged and compassionate.
  • Understand why the “other side” feels they way they do, and seek common ground as we all live in the same community and are all interdependent on each other.
  • Do not use harsh or divisive speech, and do not use violent or destructive actions.

Now that you have this summary, this article will provide you more information (hyperlinks on this page take you to other articles that I wrote which explain a topic further).

Two Important Things to Remember:  It Won’t Last, And Everything Depends on Other Things

When this is, that is.
This arising, that arises.
When this is not, that is not.
This ceasing, that ceases.  ~ Buddha

A fact of life is that, as humans, we want things to be exactly how we want them to be.  Often, we neglect the needs, feelings, fears, and thoughts of anyone else with conflicting views.  You can see this happen on a daily basis with religion and politics.

One of the Buddha’s most important teachings is that of impermanence.  That means that things (laws, countries, governments, people, etc.) are not going to last (good or bad), and that everything is connected and dependent on other things.  Whew, that was a long sentence.  But here is what it means in the context of this article

  • Impermanence:  Everything ends.  Everything.  Laws, kingdoms, leaders, … everything.  America is a great example that has a structured Democratic Republic government that is composed of executive, legislative, and judicial branches.  There are votes to determine if the majority of them stay in office, and there are even term limits (for the President for example).  Some, such as the Supreme Court justices, stay on for as long as they want…but even they cannot escape being human.  So if there is not a law or decision or action you like being taken, that does not mean it will last forever.  Everything changes.  Even in the context of hundreds of years, things will eventually change.  But for how long?  In America, we can take for example the enslavement of African Americans which was eventually overturned by war and a constitutional amendment.  And we can even take the example of a constitutional amendment for the prohibition on alcohol, which was eventually repealed.  That leads us to dependent origination.
  • Dependent Origination:  Yes, everything changes…but things can last for a very long time if the causes and conditions are favorable to it.  At the personal level, you and me exist due to everything from the food we eat, air we breathe, our father and mother, God (for those of faith who believe the Father breathed life into all of us), etc.  We do not exist in a vacuum.  Same thing happens with governments, politicians, laws, etc.  As we have seen, the morally evil practice of slavery was eventually ended due to a bloody civil war in America and congressional action.  Without such action, and also without the southern slave-owning states succeeding from the Union (America) which prompted the war, slavery may or may not still exist to this day in America.  I would like to think we would have risen above it regardless, but ingrained institutions have a way of staying no matter the cost to our humanity.  For the prohibition of alcohol, this was actually championed by Christians and became a Constitutional amendment.  While their goals were for morals and health, it resulted in increased criminal activity and murders throughout the country, and it was eventually eliminated by a Constitutional amendment.  Of interest is the repeal of Prohibition, which was championed by Conservatives, Christians (but not all), and mainly those in rural (but not urban) areas, changed their minds.  Why?  Among many things, it turned out to be mainly about money.  For example, rural farmers who largely championed for prohibition very quickly changed their mind when they faced the economic effects on their agricultural business.  It is an illustration of how things are “impermanent”, but alsohas to do with “dependent origination”.

The takeaway?  Yes, things are impermanent, but that does not mean you should sit back and binge watch your favorite show or play on your phone.  Instead it requires you to be engaged in the political process (whatever that means for your country).  For many in truly favorable countries, you are able to protest, contact your leaders, and more, without any repercussion.  In other countries, there is absolute dangers (to include death) in doing so.  Yet what I find most fascinating, and sad, is that those in countries who are willing to face death do so.  Yet in America, people can barely be bothered to get out an vote (the bare bones minimum) despite plenty of opportunities to do so.

You need to be engaged in your country and the politics it plays.  This does not mean you need to “love it”, but this is your community.  It also means everyone is important in it, and that takes true understanding and compassion.  How you engage is as important as what you are engaging about.

Eightfold Path for Citizens

OK, you know things are impermanent and that things are dependent on causes and conditions.  So if you, and others, can be engaged to change things you can make dependent origination work for you (and your cause) so that thing you don’t like becomes impermanent a lot quicker.  But it is not that simple.  First, you should be asking yourself “WHY does the other side feel this is important, and do we have common ground?”.

I am sure there are a few of you rolling your eyes and shaking your heads going “they don’t care!” or “they will believe anything other than the truth!” or “is this article all fake news?!”.  If you do not understand where and why the other side is coming from, divisions will stay forever.  Even if “the other side” is not receptive to your efforts to “meet in the middle”, it should not dissuade you.  Views change, largely by the seeds planted in them.  Humans are smart, even if we don’t act like it most of the time!

Practicing Buddhists worldwide aim to follow the “Eightfold Path“, which provides the guidelines to lead a moral life.  Here are some ways the Eightfold Path can be applied to those who would like to see change:

  • Right View:  Look at any issue or situation as it truly is.  Free your view of hatred, greed, and delusion.  Are you acting for the best interest of the community, or your own ego?  Right View is the first step in any of the Eightfold Path.
  • Right Intention:  Be resolved to rid both yourself, and what you want to see changed, of anything wrong and immoral.  For example, do you want to hold politicians accountable for corruption?  Resolve to get a law passed or an oversight agency created.
  • Right Speech:  Make the best use of your words ensuring you do not create false speech, abusive speech, or speech that creates division.  Bring people together, not apart.  It is too easy to be hateful.  Does your letter to a politician push them away from you due to its tone?  Does your protest sign create division rather than thought?
  • Right Action:  Ensure your conduct is morally correct.  Although this encompasses your life as a citizen, it is especially important should you be involved in a protest.  Take inspiration of the Freedom Riders and other Civil Rights era protesters who waged non-violent and peaceful actions.  Strive to abstain from taking life, stealing, and destruction of property.  There is no greater way for your message to be forgotten in this way.  Imagine if during the Civil Rights era protesters were engaged in violent actions?  The cause would have suffered greatly.  Instead, we saw the establishment viciously attack and kill the peaceful protesters causing great outrage.  Yet, the protesters remained non-violent.
  • Right Livelihood:  The traditional description for right livelihood is specific to not trading in weapons, save trading, killing, or anything that causes suffering or disillusionment.   How you life is important in what you want to see changed.  For example, if you are a violent criminal asking for a reduction in mandatory sentencing, you are probably not going to get anywhere.  If you are a law-abiding citizen asking for the same thing, you are sure to get more attention.
  • Right Effort:  Make sure you don’t use wrong or harmful thoughts, words, and deeds, and strive for good.  If you are creating conflict, you are only hurting your cause.  While it may seem that there are only “two sides”, a good balance of people (even those on the “two sides”) are quite favorable to listening to a good argument.  Give them what they need to make an informed decision.
  • Right Mindfulness:  Too often, our “monkey mind” takes over and we fail to pay attention to what we are saying or doing, or even as important…what is going on around us.  As an engaged citizen, how you communicate with politicians, other citizens, the media, etc., leads us to ramble and fall into talking about stereotypes, hard, and divisive language.   Make sure you do not act or speak with any inattention or forgetfulness.
  • Right Concentration:  Mediate.  No, really.  You are going to be dealing with a lot of people who do not like what you say, and they can be hateful and merciless in their response to you (even if you don’t know them).  Maintaining concentration…so you can support compassion…is difficult indeed. Meditating has been shown to have many health benefits, but more importantly it can help you center yourself after a town hall meeting, protest, or discussion, and will allow you to build up your mental calmness.

Zen Buddhist protesters. Photo by Sponselli on Flickr (CC License)

Engaged Buddhism

Love and understanding are not only concepts and words.  They must be real things, realized, in oneself and in society.  ~ Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh

The term “Engaged Buddhism” largely came about during the Vietnam War with Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh, however it was a concept and practice already existing with monastics such as Ven. Master Hsing Yun (a Chinese Buddhist monastic, who calls it “Humanistic Buddhism”).  In our modern world, Engaged Buddhism is everything from protesting, writing to politicians, etc.  In-fact, there is not much different than what you would expect from anyone else voicing their opinions.  The one takeaway is that Engaged Buddhism does not engage in violence, hatred, or anger, of which would be against Buddhist teachings.

The following are two historical examples of Engaged Buddhism during the Vietnam war.

The Self-Immolation of Ven. Thích Quảng Đức

On June 11th, 1963, Buddhist monastic Ven. Thích Quảng Đức got out of his car, was drenched in gasoline, and set himself on fire.  This was not an act of suicide, but of protest against President Diệm’s South Vietnamese government which was persecuting Buddhists (the majority of the country).  Why did he go to these extremes?  After all, if you live in a Western country this seems beyond reality and extreme.  However, if we look at the context, the world was increasing rapidly into a TV and photograph based world.  If you did not have the attention of the media (there was no YouTube back then), and thus the people around the world seeing it, you were as unnoticeable as an ant on the beach.  This act rapidly made the persecution of Buddhists known throughout the world, and ultimately resulted in the replacement of Diệm through a coup.

Photography by Malcolm Browne. Ven. Thích Quảng Đức. Colorized photo by Neil Mohr on Flickr (CC License)

President John F. Kennedy said in reference to this picture: “No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.”

What is not as widely known is what Ven. Thích Quảng Đức did before this.  He spent weeks writing beautiful and loving letters to everyone, to include the government.  He did not write hateful or divisive letters.  Instead, in one of the last letters he wrote, was to President Diệm:

Before closing my eyes and moving towards the vision of the Buddha, I respectfully plead to President Ngô Đình Diệm to take a mind of compassion towards the people of the nation and implement religious equality to maintain the strength of the homeland eternally. I call the venerables, reverends, members of the sangha and the lay Buddhists to organize in solidarity to make sacrifices to protect Buddhism

Ven. Thích Quảng Đức did this out of love, not violence or hate, which is a difficult concept for many to understand.  U.S. Senator Frank Church (D-ID), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, claimed that “such grisly scenes have not been witnessed since the Christian martyrs marched hand in hand into the Roman arenas.”

The need for self immolation like what we saw cannot be seen as needed in a time of worldwide instant communication.  The Egyptian Revolution in 2011 used Twitter widely to get communication out, for example, which was easily picked up by the worldwide media.  Yet in an increasing world where everyone has instant access, we see that less is actually being seen unless it becomes ‘viral’.  Would self-immolation have the same affect today as it did in the 1960’s?  I would say no since we have been so desensitized to such actions either through movies, TV, or real time streaming of war zones.  This was a type of Engaged Buddhism, yet it is obviously NOT an action I would ever recommend anyone do.  In our modern world, we have many creative ways to get our message out, and to call for action, without resorting to the loss of a life in order for injustice to be seen.

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr and Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh

During both the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, it was inevitable that the two non-violent activists of the time, Rev. Martin L. King, Jr. and Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh, were to meet, and became good friends.  Both of these men showed one thing: that engaged, peaceful, and determined action towards peace and justice is as effective…or more so…than violent action. True Bodhisattva’s in our age.  I would like to stress this part:  they were nonviolent (peaceful), yet still very much engaged, and both accomplished their goals:  and end to (legal) discrimination in America, and the end of the Vietnam war.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967 and said of him:

“I know Thich Nhat Hanh, and am privileged to call him my friend… [He is] an apostle of peace and non-violence… He has traveled the world, counseling statesmen, religious leaders, scholars and writers, and enlisting their support. His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity.”

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh

The Order of Interbeing

Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh did not stop with just press conferences and meeting with politicians.  He created The Order of Interbeing in Saigon on Feburary 5th, 1966.  This was truly the first (and perhaps most well known) Engaged Buddhism group.

The fourteen mindfulness trainings are a key part of the Order of Interbeing.  It helps those as part of the order develop the concentration and insight to break free of the notion of a separate self.  Because our constant notion of a separate self leads to so much suffering, these practices help us “inter-be” with our larger community which in turn brings compassion and peace.  The following list of the fourteen mindfulness trainings are from the Order’s website.  These are, essentially, the precepts of the Order for which those within it follow.  You do not have to be a member of the Order to following these precepts, and you can easily see that you can incorporate them into your daily life and practice of bringing about change.

  1. The First Mindfulness Training: Openness
    Aware of the suffering created by fanaticism and intolerance, we are determined not to be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. We are committed to seeing the Buddhist teachings as guiding means that help us develop our understanding and compassion. They are not doctrines to fight, kill, or die for. We understand that fanaticism in its many forms is the result of perceiving things in a dualistic and discriminative manner. We will train ourselves to look at everything with openness and the insight of interbeing in order to transform dogmatism and violence in ourselves and in the world.
  2. The Second Mindfulness Training:Non-attachment to Views
    Aware of the suffering created by attachment to views and wrong perceptions, we are determined to avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views. We are committed to learning and practicing non-attachment to views and being open to others’ experiences and insights in order to benefit from the collective wisdom. We are aware that the knowledge we presently possess is not changeless, absolute truth. Insight is revealed through the practice of compassionate listening, deep looking, and letting go of notions rather than through the accumulation of intellectual knowledge. Truth is found in life, and we will observe life within and around us in every moment, ready to learn throughout our lives.
  3. The Third Mindfulness Training: Freedom of Thought
    Aware of the suffering brought about when we impose our views on others, we are determined not to force others, even our children, by any means whatsoever – such as authority, threat, money, propaganda, or indoctrination – to adopt our views. We are committed to respecting the right of others to be different, to choose what to believe and how to decide. We will, however, learn to help others let go of and transform fanaticism and narrowness through loving speech and compassionate dialogue.
  4. The Fourth Mindfulness Training: Awareness of Suffering
    Aware that looking deeply at the nature of suffering can help us develop understanding and compassion, we are determined to come home to ourselves, to recognize, accept, embrace and listen to suffering with the energy of mindfulness. We will do our best not to run away from our suffering or cover it up through consumption, but practice conscious breathing and walking to look deeply into the roots of our suffering. We know we can realize the path leading to the transformation of suffering only when we understand deeply the roots of suffering. Once we have understood our own suffering, we will be able to understand the suffering of others. We are committed to finding ways, including personal contact and using telephone, electronic, audiovisual, and other means, to be with those who suffer, so we can help them transform their suffering into compassion, peace, and joy.
  5. The Fifth Mindfulness Training: COMPASSIONATE, Healthy Living
    Aware that true happiness is rooted in peace, solidity, freedom, and compassion, we are determined not to accumulate wealth while millions are hungry and dying nor to take as the aim of our life fame, power, wealth, or sensual pleasure, which can bring much suffering and despair. We will practice looking deeply into how we nourish our body and mind with edible foods, sense impressions, volition, and consciousness. We are committed not to gamble or to use alcohol, drugs or any other products which bring toxins into our own and the collective body and consciousness such as certain websites, electronic games, music, TV programs, films, magazines, books and conversations. We will consume in a way that preserves compassion, wellbeing, and joy in our bodies and consciousness and in the collective body and consciousness of our families, our society, and the earth.
  6. The Sixth Mindfulness Training: TAKING CARE OF Anger
    Aware that anger blocks communication and creates suffering, we are committed to taking care of the energy of anger when it arises, and to recognizing and transforming the seeds of anger that lie deep in our consciousness. When anger manifests, we are determined not to do or say anything, but to practice mindful breathing or mindful walking to acknowledge, embrace, and look deeply into our anger. We know that the roots of anger are not outside of ourselves but can be found in our wrong perceptions and lack of understanding of the suffering in ourselves and others. By contemplating impermanence, we will be able to look with the eyes of compassion at ourselves and at those we think are the cause of our anger, and to recognize the preciousness of our relationships. We will practice Right Diligence in order to nourish our capacity of understanding, love, joy and inclusiveness, gradually transforming our anger, violence and fear, and helping others do the same.
  7. The Seventh Mindfulness Training: Dwelling Happily in the Present Moment
    Aware that life is available only in the present moment, we are committed to training ourselves to live deeply each moment of daily life. We will try not to lose ourselves in dispersion or be carried away by regrets about the past, worries about the future, or craving, anger, or jealousy in the present. We will practice mindful breathing to be aware of what is happening in the here and the now. We are determined to learn the art of mindful living by touching the wondrous, refreshing, and healing elements that are inside and around us, in all situations. In this way, we will be able to cultivate seeds of joy, peace, love, and understanding in ourselves, thus facilitating the work of transformation and healing in our consciousness. We are aware that real happiness depends primarily on our mental attitude and not on external conditions, and that we can live happily in the present moment simply by remembering that we already have more than enough conditions to be happy.
  8. The Eighth Mindfulness Training: TRUE Community and Communication
    Aware that lack of communication always brings separation and suffering, we are committed to training ourselves in the practice of compassionate listening and loving speech. Knowing that true community is rooted in inclusiveness and in the concrete practice of the harmony of views, thinking and speech, we will practice to share our understanding and experiences with members in our community in order to arrive at a collective insight.  We are determined to learn to listen deeply without judging or reacting and refrain from uttering words that can create discord or cause the community to break. Whenever difficulties arise, we will remain in our Sangha and practice looking deeply into ourselves and others to recognize all the causes and conditions, including our own habit energies, that have brought about the difficulties. We will take responsibility for the ways we may have contributed to the conflict and keep communication open. We will not behave as a victim but be active in finding ways to reconcile and resolve all conflicts however small.
  9. The Ninth Mindfulness Training: Truthful and Loving Speech
    Aware that words can create happiness or suffering, we are committed to learning to speak truthfully, lovingly and constructively. We will use only words that inspire joy, confidence and hope as well as promote reconciliation and peace in ourselves and among other people. We will speak and listen in a way that can help ourselves and others to transform suffering and see the way out of difficult situations. We are determined not to say untruthful things for the sake of personal interest or to impress people, nor to utter words that might cause division or hatred. We will protect the happiness and harmony of our Sangha by refraining from speaking about the faults of other persons in their absence and always ask ourselves whether our perceptions are correct. We will speak only with the intention to understand and help transform the situation. We will not spread rumors nor criticize or condemn things of which we are not sure. We will do our best to speak out about situations of injustice, even when doing so may make difficulties for us or threaten our safety.
  10. The Tenth Mindfulness Training: Protecting AND NOURISHING the Sangha
    Aware that the essence and aim of a Sangha is the realization of understanding and compassion, we are determined not to use the Buddhist community for personal power or profit, or transform our community into a political instrument. As members of a spiritual community, we should nonetheless take a clear stand against oppression and injustice. We should strive to change the situation, without taking sides in a conflict. We are committed to learning to look with the eyes of interbeing and to see ourselves and others as cells in one Sangha body. As a true cell in the Sangha body, generating mindfulness, concentration and insight to nourish ourselves and the whole community, each of us is at the same time a cell in the Buddha body. We will actively build brotherhood and sisterhood, flow as a river, and practice to develop the three real powers – understanding, love and cutting through afflictions – to realize collective awakening.
  11. The Eleventh Mindfulness Training: Right Livelihood
    Aware that great violence and injustice have been done to our environment and society, we are committed not to live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature. We will do our best to select a livelihood that contributes to the wellbeing of all species on earth and helps realize our ideal of understanding and compassion. Aware of economic, political, and social realities around the world, as well as our interrelationship with the ecosystem, we are determined to behave responsibly as consumers and as citizens. We will not invest in or purchase from companies that contribute to the depletion of natural resources, harm the earth, or deprive others of their chance to live.
  12. The Twelfth Mindfulness Training: Reverence for Life
    Aware that much suffering is caused by war and conflict, we are determined to cultivate nonviolence, compassion, and the insight of interbeing in our daily lives and promote peace education, mindful mediation, and reconciliation within families, communities, ethnic and religious groups, nations, and in the world. We are committed not to kill and not to let others kill. We will not support any act of killing in the world, in our thinking, or in our way of life. We will diligently practice deep looking with our Sangha to discover better ways to protect life, prevent war, and build peace.
  13. The Thirteenth Mindfulness Training: Generosity
    Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, we are committed to cultivating generosity in our way of thinking, speaking, and acting. We will practice loving kindness by working for the happiness of people, animals, plants, and minerals, and sharing our time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need. We are determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others. We will respect the property of others, but will try to prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other beings.
  14. The Fourteenth Mindfulness Training: TRUE LOVE
    [For lay members]: Aware that sexual desire is not love and that sexual relations motivated by craving cannot dissipate the feeling of loneliness but will create more suffering, frustration, and isolation, we are determined not to engage in sexual relations without mutual understanding, love, and a deep long-term commitment made known to our family and friends. Seeing that body and mind are one, we are committed to learning appropriate ways to take care of our sexual energy and to cultivating loving kindness, compassion, joy and inclusiveness for our own happiness and the happiness of others. We must be aware of future suffering that may be caused by sexual relations. We know that to preserve the happiness of ourselves and others, we must respect the rights and commitments of ourselves and others. We will do everything in our power to protect children from sexual abuse and to protect couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct. We will treat our bodies with compassion and respect. We are determined to look deeply into the Four Nutriments and learn ways to preserve and channel our vital energies (sexual, breath, spirit) for the realization of our bodhisattva ideal. We will be fully aware of the responsibility of bringing new lives into the world, and will regularly meditate upon their future environment.
    [For monastic members]: Aware that the deep aspiration of a monk or a nun can only be realized when he or she wholly leaves behind the bonds of sensual love, we are committed to practicing chastity and to helping others protect themselves. We are aware that loneliness and suffering cannot be alleviated through a sexual relationship, but through practicing loving kindness, compassion, joy and inclusiveness. We know that a sexual relationship will destroy our monastic life, will prevent us from realizing our ideal of serving living beings, and will harm others. We will learn appropriate ways to take care of our sexual energy. We are determined not to suppress or mistreat our body, or look upon our body as only an instrument, but will learn to handle our body with compassion and respect. We will look deeply into the Four Nutriments in order to preserve and channel our vital energies (sexual, breath, spirit) for the realization of our bodhisattva ideal.


As human beings, we are passionate and emotional creatures.  We want what is best based on your thoughts, opinions, beliefs, and feelings.  There is nothing inherently wrong with this.  By applying some Buddhist concepts, you can gain perspective and a steady mind that can help you bridge the gap and create compromise and peace among all parties for a community (and nation and world) we all live in.  The end goal is always to make a better life for those around you (whether you know them or not), and you can make it happen.


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This article was originally published on 22 Jan 2017, and last updated on 01 Jun 2017.

Copyright © 2017 by Alan Peto, all rights reserved.