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The Buddha as a Revolutionary

In the past few weeks we have become accustomed to the image of revolutionaries in “far away” countries, protesting injustice/suffering and calling for change. We do not associate the image of the Buddha, peaceful, joyful, all-embracing with what we normally think of as a revolutionary.
But the Buddha was a revolutionary, no less than Che Gevara, Karl Marx, or George Washington. The Buddha saw suffering and offered medicine, a way for change. The Buddha disregarded the caste system, the convention at the time in India, and opened his Sangha to untouchables. The Buddha’s students included many high-powered royals and businessmen, but also included buffalo boys and even transformed mass murderers, and at some point the Buddha took the revolutionary step of allowing nuns to join the order. The Buddha sees through to the heart of beings, the heart of understanding and love, not mere conventional designations, whether self- or socially-enforced.
Shakyamuni Buddha is an unspoken forefather of fraternity, equality, and liberty as well as the pursuit of happiness. Thich Nhat Hanh, speaking in Vietnam, said that the true communists are the Buddhists who live simply, sharing material resources, and pursuing the Bodhisattva path of helping all beings to the shore of liberation.
But Shakyamuni’s true revolution is far deeper than comparisons with political change. The Buddha’s revolution is of a deeper nature, a more significant kind. It is the revolution that is from the inside, that transforms our psyche, that looks squarely at suffering and does not try to make my suffering less than, or equal to, yours, but rather really looks at how I can undo my own suffering.
The Buddha was a revolutionary because he defied all cultural expectations and abandoned a palace in order to pursue true understanding. When looking at suffering, the Buddha understood that we need to cut off what feeds our suffering, we need to change our view totally if we want to be free. The Buddha’s revolution is not about giving everyone a high definition TV or even food. The Buddha’s revolution is understanding that our addiction to our life styles, our mental habit energies, are what creates our suffering and that in order to liberate ourselves from our suffering we have to let go of our acculturated ideas of happiness.
Being the first in the lineage, the Buddha opted for a way of life that might seem extreme to us, the monastic way. Of course, after having been an ascetic for 6 years, the monastic way was considered the “middle way.” For most of us, we do not have an affinity with that path, and we opt to live life as lay people.
Lay life offers many more challenges to our practice as we have less of a structure to support our practice, less encouragement from our surroundings, and many obstacles and temptations, literally on every corner.
The Buddha taught that ignorance, hatred/anger, and desire/attachment are poisons which create our suffering. We, as lay people, need to look deeply and figure out where our blind spots are, what attachments we have, and what aversions we are unable to let go of. To be true Buddhist revolutionaries, meaning to transform our suffering and develop a spacious mind, we need to look individually and collectively at our expectations, our desires, and figure out ways to create a better environment for all to practice.
Thich Nhat Hanh has suggested lay residential communities as modeled after the monastic model. This idea did not take root, perhaps because it felt too extreme to most people. As spring approaches and we contemplate new beginnings, and with Lent offering us a time of reflection on what we would like to let go of, I would like to suggest that as a Sangha we spend time looking at these questions, and find individual and collective ways to support our practice
(for South Church Sangha, March 1, 2011)