Activism Powered by Love

Like many Buddhist teachers, I’ve been busy for the past 6 months searching for a path of social activism that leads to both opposition and reconciliation.  Sweeping across the world’s democracies is a polarization of liberal and conservative ideologies, facing off against each other with anger and hatred. 

In many First World countries, elections have put totalitarian-leaning regimes into power, shocking and enraging liberals, much the way Obama’s election fueled the rise of the Tea Party.  Those who follow the Eightfold Path are seeking ways to engage politically without further ratcheting up the fury.

In the swirl of disgust and mistrust that the two sides of American society feel for each other, anyone who proposes acting with love might be thought ridiculous.   I recently suggested love as a motivating force for political activism, and was told that sounded like yielding meekly to the forces of evil. To be clear, I am not advocating passivity. We can take effective action with concern for the well-being of all.

A key teaching of the Buddha is that we are, essentially, all in this together.  What we each do impacts the rest of us, and the intent behind our actions rebounds on us.  Acting out of hate or anger will lead to our own suffering because that’s what will be left in our hearts – and it’s a corrosive state of mind. 

My Good Earth tea bag quotes Ben Franklin saying, “I destroy my enemy when I make him my friend.”  That seems to make sense, except that seeking to destroy the enemy implies a hateful intent, and in the Dhammapada, the Buddha said, “Hatred can’t be ended by hatred, but only by love.”  Only love can protect all those whom hate would harm. 

Love is not a weak force.  It enables petite mothers to lift cars off their children.  With it, we can be as forceful as a tigress protecting her young. When we act with love for all beings, we can bring about sea changes in the world, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi. 

Ironically, both sides of America’s ideological divide are initially inspired by notions of love.  Most people also seem to feel that if someone is acting in a way that harms others, they should be stopped.  But we have sharply different beliefs about what love or harm is, and how to act accordingly.  Both sides on the abortion issue believe they’re protecting someone who’s being harmed, but they see different victims.

Our public discourse has shrunk dangerously to slogans that just say “us versus them.”  When we merely shout them at each other, rather than listening to the other people’s feelings, we lose any chance to explain, persuade, understand or compromise.  It’s not good for anyone, and it’s bad for society and for democracy.

When we recognize that all beings are connected, and care about all others along with ourselves, it gives our motivation more power than just opposing the Other Side.  That spirit of love will carry through all the ways we choose to “stand up” for the vulnerable in society.  And, to paraphrase Ben Franklin, then everyone’s enemies can disappear.

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