Will Buddhist Meditation Create Social Justice?

Introduction to Social Justice & Buddhist Meditation

The Pali term for effort or zeal is “viriya” and it is an essential element of successful Buddhist practice. In fact, the Buddha taught us that Buddhism simply is not possible without “viriya”. Additionally, when discussing Vipassana meditation the Buddha used a much more potent term – “padhana“. The Buddha considered viriya to be only ordinary effort while padhana is strong or strenuous effort.

Anyone who has made a serious attempt at meditation knows that it takes sincere effort. Additionally, anyone who assumes that attending a Buddhist meditation retreat will be like a relaxing visit to a spa will in for a big surprise! So it begs the question – will all that intense effort that goes into Buddhist meditation create social justice?

I am afraid that the answer is a resounding – no. Unfortunately, in this crazy world idealism is ineffective unless it is combined with healthy dose of mundane realism. A pertinent contemporary example of this would be the efforts of Tibetan Buddhists to escape the oppression of Chinese sovereignty. Even the most pious acts of self sacrifice have not created the liberation that Tibetans are seeking. Furthermore, the attention that celebrities such as Richard Gere bring may even be exacerbating an already difficult situation.

How can Buddha Statues Create Social Change?

Admittedly, this is a commercial website and I am trying to sell Buddha statues here. Although you may find it amusing that I still do not have a payment gateway installed on the website! However, rest assured I am working on this with intense earthly zeal and I hope to have the problem resolved soon. Therefore, those of you hoping to purchase one of our Buddha statues may soon have your opportunity if all goes well with my recent bank interview in Singapore.

In addition to opening a bank account, I have also been making intense online marketing efforts. As a result of these efforts I recently came in contact with the Insight Meditation Center in Barre, Massachusetts.

However, my request for a link from their resources page was refused due to the commercial nature of my website. I tried to explain that selling Buddha statues on my website will create social benefits for the local artisans. This is especially true in Kathmandu, Nepal. The city has recently endured earthquakes that caused severe hardship to the inhabitants. My contact at the center (Dawn) was very friendly, although there would still be no link from their resources page! However, she acknowledged that social justice is hard to come by without earthly zeal. 

The Insights of a Meditation Master

There is an abundance of free literature available at local meditation centers. Even in SE Asia where I live it is easy to find free English translations of the most valuable instruction on Buddhist practice.  Most recently, I opened a book that has been patiently waiting for me on my bookshelf. The title is “A State of Mind Called Beautiful” by Sayadaw U Panditabhivamsa. Ironically, this book was based on Dharma talks that were given at the very same Insight Meditation Center in 2006!

As I read through the editor’s preface I was even more astounded to discover that the venerable Sayadaw U Pandita had commented on a similar topic. On page XXIX of the preface he says:

“Compassion says what needs to be said, wisdom does not fear the consequences.”

However, this is not the end of it. The meditation master elaborates further and clarifies by saying:

The internal action of meditation must be completed with verbal and physical actions. Otherwise, it is not strong enough.

Perhaps it is wishful thinking to presume that he was explicitly stating that Buddhist meditation does not result in social justice without the foundation of “verbal and physical actions.” Nonetheless, it is clear that acts of compassion can certainly make a positive impact on your own life and the lives of others. Therefore, making contributions to effective community development programs will certainly help create social justice.

I am no stranger to this. In fact, in 2014 I gave away 30% of my net worth to development programs in Cambodia, Laos and Honduras. As a result, thousands of children now have access to basic necessities that people from developed countries have always taken for granted. The social changes that were implemented will positively change the social landscape of their communities for many years to come. Needless to say, the money that funded these projects did not come from meditation.

Confessions of a Lay Buddhist

To be honest, when I made these contributions it was not because of direct Buddhist teachings. Actually, at that time I was mostly unfamiliar with the teachings of the Buddha. Nonetheless, I had been heavily influenced by what I saw after traveling through SE Asia. Unfortunately, the intense poverty that is still well entrenched there is a direct result of the US actions during the Vietnam War. Furthermore, by giving a significant amount of my investment gains to tax deductible organizations such as these, I limited my exposure to US tax liability. This will mean much less of my hard earned money will go to fund senseless foreign wars and unbridled consumerism. 

In my opinion, it would be extremely difficult to effect social justice unless you personally create it by earthly means. As previously mentioned, it is impossible to accomplish anything significant without “verbal and physical actions”. Furthermore, even though my efforts at social change may have been fueled by defilements such as aversion and greed, they were effective nonetheless. Even more so because giving away my own money is much more effective and sincere than telling someone else to give away theirs!   

Of course, another way to indirectly fight poverty is to buy a Buddha statue made by the local artisans. Helping people to help themselves is even more effective and dignified then direct contributions to “charity”. Last but not least, you will benefit by acquiring a Buddha statue from world class sculptors who have been in the business for a thousand years.

Additional sources:
A State of Mind Called Beautiful by Sayadaw U Panditabhivamsa
Talks on Meditation Given in the Blue Mountains by Venerable Chanmayay Sayadaw