Is Buddhism passive?

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You say I am passive.  I am merely waiting for the time to act.  Photo by Jake Givens on Unsplash

It is a thought that will occur to a practitioner of Buddhist-style meditation at one time or another.  Isn’t the philosophy too passive?  It encourages patience, being slow to anger, being able to wait with compassion.  Isn’t that an invitation to be taken advantage of?

It’s a good question, and one that has probably taxed philosophers who have cared to weigh it up.

Here are a few ways to think about it.

CREATING THE GAP BETWEEN EXPERIENCE AND RESPONSE

The practice of meditation allows us to develop the skill of creating a gap between what happens to us, and how we respond to it.  Anger, impatience, and many other unhelpful behaviours, have at their root an inability to accept what is.  We jump too quickly to correct the world, without first examining how we might change ourselves in order to make the adaptation we want.

The practitioner of meditation can appear to be a passive victim.  But, in fact, they may simply be digesting the current situation, and weighing up what can be best done in response to it.  A delayed response is still a response, and may well be all the more effective for it.

SAVING EXTREME ACTION FOR EXTREME SITUATIONS

There is no rule in Buddhism against action.  But an ideal frequently offered, is that of a person being able to act in the interests of the widest possible range of beings.

We can think of the circle of interest as an expanding circle.  Immature beings can perhaps only think in the interests of a narrow range of beings, perhaps only themselves, or close friends and family.  As we grow, maybe we learn to see the bigger picture.  We are less inclined to waste energy fighting small battles, affecting only the interests of ourselves or a chosen few.  We become able to hold back, and save our energy for the bigger, long-term battles.

In this way, a person may seem to be doing very little in the moment to fight injustice.  But, viewed from a wider, longer-term perspective, it might be observed that they save their interventions for more judicious actions and moments.

MINIMAL AND JUDICIOUS USE OF ENERGY

Finally, it could be argued that the wiser we become, the more we can do with less expenditure of energy.  Just as boiling water can burn those who touch it, so a person boiling with the wrong energy can cause more harm than good.  And just as cool water is welcome for many uses, so a person cool with equanimity can cause more good than harm.

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BEING ACTIVE, BUT WISE

So, far from being passive, we may find that, as practitioners of meditation, we remain active, but our style of action changes in the following three ways:

  1. Instead of reacting hot-headedly, we delay our response, analyse the situation, and adapt wisely
  2. Instead of wasting energy fighting every single battle, we see the big picture, and wait for the right time to act
  3. Instead of burning the world with the fire of our extreme desires, we become gentle performers, excellent conservers of energy
Watch anyone who is extremely expert at any skill.  Generally, they do not have the manic activity of the new enthusiast.  More commonly, they can seem very normal and unassuming, acting with great adaptability, with a sense of timing, and with almost magical economy of movement.  In the same way, just because we follow a contemplative, compassionate way, it does not mean we are passive.  Far from it.
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