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Don't just sit there, do something : a theological interpretation of Buddha as political activist and peacemaker

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Master of Divinity in Buddhist Chaplaincy


Iwamura, Jane N.
Slessarev-Jamir, Helene
Fisher, Daniel


Many U.S. Buddhist practices have become so focused on the individual that they over-emphasize self-salvation and healing. To a large degree, this has occurred to the detriment of U.S. Buddhists becoming engaged in political action and peacemaking. While individual salvation is an important aspect of U.S. Buddhism, in reexamining the Buddha’s life theologically I have come to the inescapable conclusion that it need not be the only aspect. The Buddha was an intentional peacemaker and was purposefully politically engaged in his north Indian society. I have found motivations in his life that suggest the Buddha understood the relationship between social and individual suffering and the role of peace in allaying both. By deliberately teaching and converting, and thus transforming the wealthy and powerful elite of his day, the Buddha purposely changed the power dynamics of his world so that they shifted, becoming aligned with peace, reconciliation, and compassion. It is therefore my declaration that if we today follow this example of the Buddha and become engaged as the Buddha did, we will offer something quite revolutionary to the current fields of peacemaking and political engagement. Consequently, U.S. Buddhists wishing to engage the world in these ways need only follow in the footsteps of the Buddha to do so; and, when joining with existent social change, justice, and peacekeeping movements, we U.S. Buddhists can expand U.S. Buddhism’s role beyond its currently individually-focused practices. The Buddha’s teachings, when engaged and applied to the world deliberately and peacefully, can assist current political movements in bringing about further social change and a more stabilized global peace.

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University of the West



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