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Most social change happens slowly.

I was reminded of this recently when an old friend from my community activist days asked me for some information about an article she was writing. The piece was on the history of a state commission for which I had been one of the executive directors when I was in my 20’s.

One of the questions she had included to guide the thinking of the past EDs was what we thought were some of the present issues facing the commission. And in her own closing comments, she said she knew that, despite the recent passing of the first executive director, we all persevere in our work.


When I began my own journey in the civil rights/human rights field way back in high school, I was optimistic enough to believe that social justice – however that was defined – could, and would, happen within my lifetime. Whether it was establishing Asian American Studies in college, helping immigrants navigate the legal system as a young Legal Aid attorney or improving the conditions of Chinese garment workers in the US, I truly felt change could happen.

As the years went by, though, I found myself tempering the optimism: maybe the change could happen but probably not in my lifetime.

Gradual Erosion

After more than 50 years, I have accepted that change indeed is slow to happen. The model is more like the gradual erosion of granite by a river, not the eruption of a volcano.

The slow pace of change is understandable when we truly look at how many interrelated factors are involved in any particular issue. It’s not simple to change society. This reminds me of an analogy that my Zen teacher has often used to illustrate this concept: growing carrots.

When you plant a carrot seed, there’s no guarantee that you’ll have carrots in three months. Success also relies on many other factors, such as the right amount of soil, rain, sun, food. All of these conditions must work together to produce a carrot.

No Single Cause

Same with social conditions. There is no single cause. And, to make social change even more complex, we have to realize that our own presence is one of the causes.

Yes – even for that very issue you are trying to change, you must acknowledge that you have had a role – albeit most likely an indirect one – in causing it.

True and lasting societal change cannot happen until there is internal change in the individual. And internal change is very hard because it requires the individual giving up his/her ego. And our ego resists change.

Peace on the Inside

Most people working for social change don’t do it for the money. Though some may do it for the glory, most slog on because they are passionate about the issue, because they’re fighting for what they believe is a just cause. Maybe it’s world peace, workplace diversity, pay equity, equal opportunity or the end to world hunger or to climate change. Etc., etc., etc.

In Zen & Budo, Zen master Omori Sogen (trans. by Tenshin Tanouye), said that activists often cry out for ‘Peace’ in what he described as a “hollow and sickly way.” Their efforts may not yield the results they want – not because they are insincere, but because for there to be peace on the outside, there must be peace on the inside.   

Mutual Benefit

The internal change requires a deep experience. This deep experience requires a commitment of time and energy. This commitment distinguishes the merely “good” from the “wise.”

Judo founder Dr. Jigoro Kano, who was on the 1909 International Olympic Committee, talked about a basic Buddhist principle: “Jita kyoei, or ‘mutual benefit for oneself and others.”

Referring to Dr. Kano, Zen scholar and martial artist Trevor Leggett said, “We in the West do not think much in this way; we think just of a good man. The good man sacrifices his own interests for others. But in the East, they contrast the merely good man with the wise man, who is able to benefit himself as well as others. And the view of Dr. Kano is that you cannot in fact do much good to other people, unless you have cultivated yourself.”

Changing Yourself

In other words, if you’re truly committed to social justice, social change, you must begin with changing yourself.

On one hand that may seem obvious. On the other hand, though, how many folks who are involved in this work feel they have the time to actually do this hard work – especially when they may feel overwhelmed by what they see as the next challenge before them that must be tackled right now?

How to prioritize?

If you’re seeking true and lasting social change, must you address the issue of changing from the inside? Alas, if you want to be honest with yourself, the answer is yes. The issue must be addressed – the sooner the better.

​                                                                                                                                    Wong Roshi


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