Articles October 15, 2006

Interview: Activism + Buddhism = Transforming Ourselves, Transforming the World

Donald Rothberg

SR: How did you get involved in socially engaged Buddhism and what do you see as your central focus?

Donald: I had two very powerful, formative experiences relatively early in my life. One of them was opening up to the suffering of the world—the injustice of the world, the problems of the world—starting when I was a teenager, and the other was going more deeply into the nature of experience—the nature of the mind, the heart, the body. It was natural for me to look for a way to make a connection between those early, powerful formative experiences.

This connection really found form in the late 1980s, when I started to meet people in the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF). I met Thich Nhat Hanh and Joanna Macy, and got involved with the BPF here in Berkeley. I also started going to Asia where I met people with the International Network of Engaged Buddhists. I remember feeling a sense of coming home and increasingly having venues where all the parts of me could show up. I didn’t have to leave parts of myself at the door, which had in the past often been the case for me. I had often experienced that the people I knew who were socially involved were not interested in spirituality and the people that I knew who were interested in meditation were not making a clear connection to being active in the world. I was driven or pulled by an intuitive sense of wanting to bring those together.

Since the early 1990s, I have been helping to develop training programs for people who want to make that connection between inner and outer transformation. I have been involved with workshops and summer institutes with the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF), the BASE program for BPF, the Socially Engaged Spirituality Program at Saybrook Graduate School, and the Path of Engagement Program at Spirit Rock—programs in which everyone is making that integration or bridge between the social and the spiritual.

David: I grew up in the 1960s, when the Vietnam War became a huge issue for many of us. Before I became involved with Buddhism, I was an anti-war activist. As the war began to wind up I began to feel the need to work on myself, because it wasn't simply that something was wrong with our political system; there was also something wrong with me—the way my mind worked. And in some vague way I sensed that social transformation and personal transformation were intertwined, that they needed each other. This led me to begin Zen practice around 1971 in Honolulu, where Yamada Koun Roshi was visiting from Japan, and I joined his full 7-day sesshin. It was a real baptism of fire! But it got me hooked. After that I continued to practice in Hawaii with Robert Aitken of the Diamond Sangha, and Koun Roshi continued to visit to lead sesshin once or twice a year.

The more I practiced Zen meditation and studied Buddhist philosophy, the more clearly I could see the resonances between the personal transformation that Buddhism traditionally emphasizes and the social justice issues that the Western tradition commonly emphasizes. The Buddha said that all he had to teach was dukkha (suffering) and how to end it, but in order to survive and thrive, Buddhism in Asia had to be careful about not challenging often-oppressive rulers, so it focused on individual dukkha, caused by our own individual karma. Today, in the modern world, we have much more opportunity to address the structural and institutional sources of dukkha—due to exploitative economic and political systems, for example.

My main contribution to socially engaged Buddhism is perhaps seeing how our individual sense of lack is connected with social, economic, political, and ecological problems. This sense of lack, anxiety, and dis-ease that we all feel comes from the sense of a separate self, which is a construct and therefore inherently insecure. But we usually don't understand the root of the problem and instead project it outside ourselves. For example, in the US we learn quite early that what I lack is enough money. This is not only an individual problem, however; it's also a place where our individualistic society is stuck, as it motivates us to compete with each other in ways that damage or destroy community.

SR: In your book Money, Sex, War, Karma, you describe the three poisons as being institutionalized. What are these institutionalized vices and what’s their cure?

David: The Buddha didn't have much to say about evil generally, but he said a lot about the three roots of evil or three poisons: greed, aggression, and delusion. Today we need to recognize that they have become more institutionalized. Our economic system institutionalizes greed or "never enough" behavior: consumers never consume enough, corporations are never profitable enough, GNP is never big enough and so on. Our military-industrial complex institutionalizes aggression: to justify all that money and power, it needs an enemy—thank goodness for the war on terror! And, the media institutionalize delusion: their primary concern is not to inform us, but to make money from advertising, which means they promote a certain worldview that accepts and perpetuates present social and economic structures.

In response to this, we don't need a separate Buddhist social movement. But, Buddhism can play an important role in the social justice and sustainability movements that are already springing up, by emphasizing the important relationship between personal transformation and social transformation. Those who work for social justice are often wary of religion because religious institutions have so often been complicit in supporting and rationalizing injustice. Buddhism, however, offers a different example of what it means to be religious or spiritual. It's not a matter of deferring to God, or to the institutions that claim to speak in his name. Rather, the Buddhist path is about transforming ourselves, and in the process realizing that I can't pursue my own well-being indifferent to the well-being of others, because we're not separate from each other.

SR: In light of the national discussion on the climate emergency, how is socially engaged Buddhism contributing to this discussion?

David: I'm continually surprised that American Buddhists aren't more organized around this issue, which is such a serious threat to the well-being of all sentient life on this planet. I've been working with John Stanley, webmaster of the excellent website We co-edited the book A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency, which includes contributions by the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Bhikkhu Bodhi, Jack Kornfield, and many others. We've also been doing a monthly Huffington Post blog on Buddhism and ecology. The most popular lecture I offer focuses on the parallels between our own individual predicament, according to Buddhism, and our collective predicament today in relation to the rest of the biosphere.

SR: And, how about the Occupy movement? How is socially engaged Buddhism contributing to this national discussion?

David: I'm not sure where that movement is right now. It's going to be interesting to see how it revives this spring and summer. From the beginning, Buddhists have been playing a role, especially on the East and West Coasts. There has often been a group of meditators continuing to sit as a part of the Occupations. The Buddhist emphasis on nonviolence may become more important as Occupiers continue to reflect on the best way forward from here. There's a blog on Buddhism and the Occupy movement on the “online”' page of my website:

SR: You teach Wise Speech. What is it and why is it important to the activist?

Donald: Wise Speech, as outlined by the Buddha, focuses on being truthful, being helpful, coming out of a warm heart, and having a certain appropriateness of speech (which has to do with timing and having clear intentions for the speech). I use “Wise Speech” as a way of talking about what usually is called “Right Speech,” part of the Eightfold Path.

The challenge for activists is that speech and communication are often the main ways that they relate to the world. We could think of demonstrations or writing press releases as a form of communication. There is a lot of overlap between socially engaged Buddhism and what we find in recent nonviolent movements like coming out of Gandhi and King. Thich Nhat Hanh talked about nonviolence as a form of acting out of love or acting to address issues with love. Cornel West spoke once about justice being the public face of love. It’s a real question: Does one as an activist speak in a way that polarizes, that holds that only I have the truth, that you are wrong, that you are my opponent? Do we demonize our opponents or “enemies”? What is really the vision of activism? When we look to speech, we can see that the vision of Wise Speech is actually to point in the direction of developing a community of friends, which is very much the vision of nonviolence. The aim of nonviolence isn’t to defeat the enemy but to make a friend of the so-called enemy, to reconcile with the enemy while also responding in a very strong way to issues and concerns.

One can have great ideals in terms of social action and if you don’t have clear ways of bringing your spiritual values into communication—into community, into connection, into ways of dealing with conflict—it can make it much harder to realize these ideals.

SR: You talk about removing the reactivity from our speech, opinions, and actions. As activists, by removing this reactivity, do we also remove our passion for our work?

Donald: The motivation of a lot of traditional activism is what we might call reactive anger, self-righteousness, polarization with the opponent, trying to defeat the opponent, and so forth. There can be a lot of energy there. It can be quite destructive for the people who are involved with that energy (as well as for their opponents), although such energy can lead to certain “victories” at times. Advocates of nonviolence (like the Buddha) say that violence leads to further violence. There are the lines of the Dhammapada that say hatred (and violence) only ends by non-hatred or love.

We could say that reactivity is really a synonym for suffering. It is some sort of compulsive reaction. It is not so much that we get rid of anger or demonize anger, but more look at how we work skillfully with anger, how we can transform and ultimately use that energy. If you listen to someone like Martin Luther King Jr., you can hear a lot of transformed anger. He once said that the skillful transformation of anger is at the heart of the Civil Rights Movement.

So, it is really a question of when reactivity takes the form of anger, being judgmental, being attached to certain views, or being caught in fear. In Buddhist terms, we call that “compulsive aversion” or “grasping” and question the efficacy of that energy for our action. When that energy gets transformed, there becomes more of a long-term sustainable energy, which is the energy of compassion, the energy of love and of caring. Ideally, socially engaged Buddhists are motivated more by compassion and care than by reactive anger. There remains a lot of energy, but it is a different energy.

SR: On your upcoming retreat with David, “Awakening in Service and Action: A Study Retreat on Socially Engaged Buddhism," what do you hope your participants will come away with?

Donald: I hope they come away with energy, inspiration, deeper understanding, and a number of specific tools and practices that they can take home with them and really use. Two-thirds of the retreat will be in silence. During discussion times, we will explore different themes—ecological issues, economic issues, issues of conflict, war, and peace—as we make the connection between traditional teachings and socially engaged Buddhist ways of seeing the world and practicing. And I hope they will also come out of the retreat with a bunch of new friends, a wider sense of community, and hopefully a sense for where they, in their own creative ways, can make the connection between inner and outer transformation.