An overview of the history of progressive politics and Buddhism written by Andrej Cvercko and edited by Kris Notaro.
Buddhism is one of the largest and oldest religions in the world, having been
founded in approximately 500 BCE and currently possessing the third largest number of adherents of any
world belief system. Over time, the fields of quantum mechanics, existentialism,
phenomenology, and physics have all found parallels between their own theories and the
theories of Buddhist thinkers throughout history. In addition, many concepts in the field
of therapy such as a focus on the present moment and the belief that much of the turmoil
human beings face originates not from external stimuli but from our own anxieties and
psychological baggage were written about again and again by both Siddhartha Gautama, the
historical founder of Buddhism, and those who followed in his footsteps.
In addition to finding common grounds with transhumanists, scientists, philosophers, and
therapists, Buddhism has long been engaged in the world of social activism. Many of those
engaged in activities pertaining to environmentalism, human rights, antiwar activism, and
similar activities consider themselves Buddhist or ally themselves with its philosophy.
Many organizations, such as the Zen Peacemakers, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, and
Buddhist Global Relief are founded as both sanghas (Buddhist congregations) and politically
and socially active groups . But this was not always the case. In fact, at various points
in its history, Buddhism was not only unconcerned with improving the world, but actively
discouraged working to improve living conditions on this planet. However as James Hughes
points out in an interview by Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, future technology, in this
case that of pills to help one understand and feel what it is like to be enlightened will
radically change the frontier of Buddhist meditation. James Hughes believes in improving
the world and our minds with state of the art technology. “I sometimes describe the
Buddhist Transhumanist project as a “Pure Land effort.” We want to build an environment
that maximizes our capacity for spiritual growth and understanding, or, to use a more
secular term, for more flourishing. Our effort would have a purpose different from simple
Buddhism was founded in ancient India by Siddhartha Gautama, a young prince who
traditionally left his family at the age of 28 to live the life of a traveling ascetic.
After years of studying Hinduism, the story goes, he meditated under a tree and achieved
enlightenment. As it would take several pages to even begin to define the term
enlightenment, and as its definition is not the purpose of this paper, it is enough at this
juncture to say that enlightenment in this context involves and certain understanding in to
the way the universe works, and humanity’s ultimate place in it. At first Siddhartha
feared that no one would understand what he had just become aware of, and decided not to
teach it at all. However, he ultimately came to the conclusion that others were bound to
comprehend what he had learned, and that even if only a few understood it, he still had an
obligation to teach. As we will see, both the feeling that other human beings will not
understand and are therefore not worth the time, and that if there is a possibility for
others to be helped by Buddhism that it is necessary for those following it to at least
make an attempt to help, permeate Buddhist thought throughout history.
Early Buddhism was revolutionary due to the equality it believed that all human beings
possessed. We will see this same way of thinking about equality amongst the posthuman as
well. The Hinduism that Buddhism derived from believed in a caste system, in which a
person is born in to a social stratum and that this stratum is their lot in life. There
was no hope of raising one’s position in society, as one’s class was decided by how they
had acted in previous lifetimes, and was ultimately ordained by the gods. If a person
wanted to move upwards in Hindu society, their best chance was to obey those of the castes
above theirs in the hierarchy, and especially to obey the dictates of the Brahmins, the
Hindu priest caste. Buddhism held that every human being was equally capable of achieving
the enlightenment that Siddhartha had, and that they did not require the Hindu caste of
priests, or even the Hindu pantheon of deities, as intermediaries, to the point that his
last words were “Be lamps unto yourselves. Work out your own salvation with diligence.”
Siddhartha’s philosophy was concerned on relieving suffering for humans and other forms
of life, with metaphysics and beliefs in the spiritual being considered unimportant.
Famously, Siddhartha once said that someone who would not follow Buddhism until they were
told what happens after death, whether deities exist, etc. was similar to “a man shot with
an arrow who refuses to have the arrow removed until he is told who shot the arrow, what
caste the archer came from, whether they were tall or short, old or young… Such a man
would surely die before the arrow was removed.” Because of its derivation from Hinduism,
early Buddhism took for granted the existence of reincarnation and the Hindu pantheon,
though neither is ever supported by the oldest records of what Siddhartha actually
Though everyone was equally capable of enlightenment, women were not given equal footing
time with men. Though the way they were treated by early Buddhism was superior to their
treatment in Hinduism, they were still second class members of the religion.
Traditionally, Siddhartha would not even allow women to ordain and become monks until
convinced by one of his students.
After Siddhartha died, Buddhism evolved in to a set of schools that were later given the
pejorative term “Hinayana” or “Lesser Vehicle” by their opponents, the “Mahayana” or
“Greater Vehicle” schools. The only one that still exists is Theravada, or “The Teaching of
the Elders”, Buddhism. The aforementioned Buddhist Global Relief, which is primarily
concerned with helping victims of natural disasters, and the Mind Body Awareness Project, a
California group which attempts to use Buddhist meditation techniques and modern therapy to
help recovering drug addicts, are affiliated with Theravada, and as a school it is
predominantly present in Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Malaysia.
The early, pre-Mahayana, schools kept Siddhartha’s focus on the here and now, without
worrying about metaphysics. They also followed a philosophy of compassion for all living
things and strict sense of pacifism (Buddhism has a much shorter history of religious
crusades than most every other organized religion as violence was (and is) never considered
justified, even to “spread” or “defend” the faith; an idea which will surely be present
with onset of human cognitive enhancement.)
Additionally, the early schools were very concerned with renunciation of the world and
of its ways. The world as it appears was considered transitory and illusory, and the
primary concern was to achieve enlightenment or a good situation in an adherent’s next
life. This created a general view being concerned with social injustice or improving the
condition of living on Earth was considered at best a waste of time and at worst a
distraction from tasks that actually mattered.
Though the early schools kept the focus away from metaphysical theorizing, they moved
from the individualism and equality of “be lamps unto yourselves” to a sense that only
ordained monks could attain enlightenment, and that the laity’s role was to support them
and in doing this be reborn in their next life as someone with the type of mindset to be
ordained. Monks went through the streets every day begging, and in return ran schools and
gave lectures on Buddhism. In many southeastern Asian nations, Buddhist monks are still
the primary teachers of young children.
The early schools of Buddhism, while engaged in social services such as education and in
generally peaceful and progressive beliefs, was in general too renunciatory to on any large
scale engage in social activism on the part of the monks, and relegated the laity to the
position of simply praying and giving monks donations, as these were viewed as the
practices most beneficial to a layperson. Some Buddhists recognized this and, taking
matters in to their own hands, created the foundations of the Mahayana schools.
The Mahayana schools of Buddhism appeared sometime around the first century BCE. They
include every form of Buddhism that is not Theravada (such as Zen, Nichiren, Pure Land,
Shin, and Tantric Buddhism to give a small set of examples) and are currently
predominantly present in central Asia. The Mahayana schools began when new scriptures
purporting to be the words of Siddhartha began circulating. These works are today
recognized as not being spoken by Siddhartha, but by later Buddhists. Despite this,
Mahayana Buddhists around the world hold that since what these scriptures, or Sutras, say
rings true, it does not matter who originally wrote or said them and continue to study,
recite and follow what they contain.
The major difference between the Sutras and the earlier Suttas, is the concept of the
Bodhisattva. The Sutras hold that, out of compassion, some who are on the verge of
enlightenment hold off on becoming full-fledged Buddhas because the rest of the life on
Earth is still suffering. These people, who are known as Bodhisattvas, vow to not become
enlightened until every sentient being can become enlightened with them. The Bodhisattvas
are treated as spiritually powerful entities, who constantly reincarnate and guide their
fellow humans towards enlightenment. The Sutras also describe Buddhas other than
Siddhartha. These other Buddhas are enlightened men and women from the Earth’s past, or
from other planes of existence or other planets. These new Buddhas, and Siddhartha
himself, are also elevated to a god-like status and held up as beings to pray to and
The addition of Bodhisattvas to Buddhist thought gave power back to the laity. Though
many Bodhisattvas were monks in their previous lives, others reached their state while
still being “house-holders”, men and women who lived normal lives and had families.
Enlightenment was once again open to everyone. Furthermore, the ideal of holding off full
enlightenment until the rest of life was ready to enter that state with you invigorated
practitioners into a sense of compassion that the earlier schools only wrote of as a nice
thing to try to do. The pre-Mahayana schools were given their “lesser” status and some of
the Sutras had Siddhartha disparaging the Hinayana schools as being for the “weak minded”
and the “selfish”.
Mahayana brought a good deal of changes to Buddhism, some good and some less so. The
new, god-like Bodhisattvas and Buddhas caused many to decide that this world was not worth
worrying about at all since if they prayed hard enough, they would be reborn in paradises.
In particular, Pure Land Buddhism, historically and currently one of the most popular
Buddhist sects throughout Asia, focused on the Buddha Amitabha, a Buddha from the Larger
Sutra of Immeasurable Life who created a heavenly dimension known as the Pure Land which a
practitioner is guaranteed entry in to in their next lifetime, so long as they have faith
in Amitabha. This had the two effects: it allowed members of society who previously could
not be Buddhists in good standing, such as soldiers, prostitutes, and butchers a sect which
they could belong to, and at the same time caused many to decide that it didn’t matter how
they acted when they were alive since Amitabha was going to save them regardless (famously,
a group of Pure Land Buddhists became assassins in medieval China, setting out to prove the
greatness of Amitabha by making their livings as killers and still hoping to enter the Pure
This focus on the supernatural moved Buddhism away from its roots and, over time, lay
people once again began for the most part to simply pray and to give donations to wandering
monks. Some sects, such as Zen Buddhism, tried to move back to a more phenomenological
Zen was founded around 520 CE by Bodhidharma, a monk who traveled from India to China to
teach a stripped down version of Buddhism. To Bodhidharma, praying to Bodhisattvas and
giving donations to monks did not result in enlightenment. Meditating and living a good
life were the paths he preached. Helping the poor was not something to be done so that
one would be reborn in a rich family, it was something one should do because then the poor
were helped and this made the world a little better.
Hui-Neng, the sixth patriarch of Zen (638-713 CE), came from a less-than-ideal
background. He was ethnically Lao, a minority in ancient China that was considered
intellectually inferior to the predominant Han ethnicity. In addition, his father had been
banished from the Imperial court, and Hui-Neng was raised in a rural mountain town, cutting
firewood for a living and never learning how to read or write. In the one document based on
his teachings (and the one Sutra that was never claimed to have been spoken by Siddhartha),
Hui-Neng tells an audience this, and how despite being an illiterate from an ethnicity that
most Chinese citizens looked down on, he achieved enlightenment because “Men know North and
South, but the Dharma (teachings) does not.” He also explains that, if people want, this
world can be the Pure Land and, if it was, would be a more reachable one than that promised
by Amitabha (“Ordinary, ignorant people, not realizing their own essential nature, do not
recognize the Pure Land in their own bodies.”). Despite all this, Zen was primarily
practiced by monastics historically, and was once again more concerned with renouncing the
world rather than attempting to improve it.
It is not until the beginning of the 20th century that sects of Buddhism become chiefly
concerned with social activism. An early step in this direction was the work of a Zen monk
in China named Taixu or “Great Emptiness” (birth name: L? Pèilín ) Taixu wrote about what
he called “Humanistic Buddhism”, which he contrasted with Buddhism that was primarily
concerned with ghosts, reincarnation, and the supernatural. One of his students, Hsing Yun
(“Nebula”) has written many pamphlets on Humanistic Buddhism and still teaches about it to
As Buddhism moved in to the 20th century, it adapted fairly well to the advances that
history brought. Though Japanese Buddhists supported the Axis powers in World War II, they
have since apologized publicly whenever the issue is brought up and have made few attempts
to hide what happened. Buddhist leaders such as the Dalai Lama and Gudo Nishijima (the
head of the largest Zen monastery in Japan) fully support advances in physics and biology,
admitting when these sciences contradict their scriptures that the scientists are in all
likelihood right, and writing extensively on the connections between science and Buddhism.
Socially conscious Buddhism, or “Engaged Buddhism” is a byproduct of this modernism and the
Humanistic Buddhism of Taixu.
Engaged Buddhism, also known as Socially Engaged Buddhism, works to apply the pacifism,
equity, compassion, and focus on community that Buddhism is clasically associated with on a
global scale. Some argue that it is Buddhism mixed with the Protestant Christian work
ethic, though others feel that it is simply the natural evolution of what Siddhartha
Gautama taught 2,500 years ago.
Thich Nhat Hanh (“Being in Touch With Here and Now”), a Zen Monk from Viet Nam, has
spent most of his life working towards teaching pacifism throughout the world, and was
nominated by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967. He founded a
separate sect of Buddhism, the Order of Interbeing, in the 1960s which is devoted to social
equity, environmental protection, and helping the victims of war. He even rewrote the
Buddhist Precepts, the closest Buddhists have to a “Ten Commandments”, to be more in touch
with the issues we are presented with in the modern world.
Noah Levine is another modern Buddhist who has worked in the general school of Engaged
Buddhism. He is a former crack addict and juvenile delinquent who now is the primary
spiritual teacher of the “Dharma Punx” sangha. Levine, through his books Dharma Punx and
Against the Stream: A Buddhist Manual for Spiritual Revolutionaries and through his work
traveling to prisons, juvenile halls, and Buddhist temples, has tried to introduce a form
of Buddhism that he hopes can reach at-risk youth, a position that someday should play a
part in technoprogressivist philosophy. His friend, and another recovering addict, Vinnie
Ferarro, heads the Mind Body Awareness Project which the two founded together.
Many other Buddhist teachers, such as Bernie Glassman, Bhikkhu Bodhi, Jack Kornfield,
Sheng Yen, and James Ford work in the purview of Engaged Buddhism. In many ways, it is
similar to the Bodhisattva ideal of the early Mahayana sutras, men and women working to
bring the world closer to enlightenment with each passing day. The idea of “transcending”
what it is to be human is at the forefront transhumanist philosophy. As George Dvorsky
also points out:
[Buddhism] is an epistemological philosophy and an intrapersonal approach to perception,
self-awareness and self-regulation. It’s an aesthetic. It’s a non-anthropocentric ethical
viewpoint that places an emphasis on meaningful, compassionate and genuine relationships.
It’s a type of Humanism. It encourages meditation and a mindful approach to living. It’s a
worldview and methodology that promotes skepticism, rationality, empiricism and even
non-conformity. It is the practical acknowledgment of the unavoidable perceptual
subjectivity that is part of the human condition. It is the recognition that the mind
matters and that conscious awareness can and should be optimized.
Since its inception Buddhism has changed a great deal. However, throughout its
history, it has always been concerned with improving the lives of those it encounters.
Much of the time, it did not even require one to convert to Buddhism for Buddhists to
attempt to help, and its strong lack of dogmatism has helped it adapt to the needs of
modern society. Whether the coming years will see Buddhists work more towards establishing
a Pure Land here and now, or whether they will see a retreat once again to monasteries and
to attempting to avoid the world’s problems, it is clear that the history of social
activism in Buddhism is a long and checkered one, and a history which will have new
chapters added to it, for example its impact on transhumanism as the “religion” continues to
influence sentient beings whether they are human or cyborg.
Kris Notaro, a former IEET intern, served as the IEET's Managing Director from 2012 through 2015. He is currently an IEET Program Director. He earned his BS in Philosophy from Charter Oak State College in Connecticut. He is currently the Bertrand Russell Society’s Vice-President for Website Technology. He has worked with the Bertrand Russell A/V Project at Central Connecticut State University, producing multimedia materials related to philosophy and ethics for classroom use. His major passions are in the technological advances in the areas of neuroscience, consciousness, brain, and mind.
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