Four lessons from the Sutta Nipata on racism and classism

Thai forest monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu is a prolific translator of the Pali canon, the first complete set of the teachings of the Buddha. Than Geoff, as his students and friends call him, recently printed his translation of the Sutta Nipata (“The Discourse Group”). Composed of 72 suttas in total, the Sutta Nipata contains some of the best-known canonical poems (you may have heard, for example, the Metta Sutta) and presents the Buddha’s thoughts on topics such as racism and classism. Despite the age of the text, it is particularly relevant for today’s socio-political climate.

Below, the monk answers four quick questions about the Sutta Nipata.

What are the suttas in the Sutta Nipata who are not famous, but who are worth knowing?
Perhaps the most important section of the Sutta Nipata is the Atthaka Vagga, a collection of 16 poems on the theme of non-attachment. But there are also some hidden gems in the rest of the collection. The Arrow (3.8) is a very strong statement about the need to overcome grief, and The Kissed Staff (4.15) begins with the vision of the world which led the young buddha in the making to seek enlightenment. As he says, he saw people wading like fish competing with each other in small puddles, and there was nothing in the world that was not claimed. Every time I read this passage I think of the time I saw salmon come to their spawning grounds in a stream barely an inch deep, struggling to pounce on other already dead salmon, while bears were hovering around, ready to strike. All this fighting, when in the end they were all going to die.

Related: Waking up to Racism

You describe the common thread between the suttas of the Sutta Nipata in response to the culture of ancient India, where Brahmanic doctrine was the main religious tradition. How would you describe the Buddha’s relationship with the Brahmins and their belief system, and how does this collection illustrate this?
We know from other texts that the Brahmins of the time of the Buddha were obsessed with defining the real me, whether the real me survived death and, if so, how to ensure that it had enough food. And we know from other parts of the canon that the Buddha considered all of these questions to be wrong because they made it impossible to answer what he considered to be a much more important question: how to end suffering and arrive at a dimension. where there is no need to feed. The Sutta Nipata, however, discusses these topics only briefly. Instead, the Brahmins presented here seem to be united only in their belief that they are better than everyone else, and the Buddha explains in detail why people cannot be judged on their birth and social status, and should be judged by their actions. instead of.

This seems particularly relevant to the issues of racism and classism that we still deal with today. How to apply the positions of the Buddha from ancient India to contemporary times?
Two of the Buddha’s teachings on racism and classism are particularly applicable today. The first is the point I just mentioned: there is nothing in birth or social status that makes a person good or bad. People are good or bad only based on their actions, so that is how they should be judged, not based on the color of their skin. There is a nice passage in the Vasetha Sutta (3.9) where the Buddha notes that with common animals you know the animal by its coloring and markings, while the same standard does not apply to human beings: There is no physical mark that you indicates whether a person is trustworthy or not. If you judge people good or bad by their appearance, you reduce human beings – yourself and others – to animals.

The other lesson is a little less intuitive but just as important. There is a sutta on the subject of bodily contemplation, the title of which, quite interesting, is Victory (1.11). He draws up a long catalog of the disgusting details of the human body, then ends by saying: “Whoever would think, starting from a body like this, of exalting or denigrating another: what is that if not? blindness? If you think white skin is somehow special, imagine what a stack of white skin would look like on its own. That should be enough to bring racial pride under control.

Related: Racism is Heart Disease

In your introduction to the collection, you stress the importance of understanding the historical context when reading ancient texts, especially because many of the Buddha’s verses can seem contradictory or ambiguous if one relies on only the superficial sense. . What does it mean to us average Joes when we read the canon?
In a Buddhist text, the full meaning is always related to how it answers this question: to what extent can these teachings help to overcome suffering? Faced with different interpretations of a text, the same question arises: does this interpretation help or prevent an end to suffering? Scholars can help point out possible interpretations based on historical context or how a text fits into other texts, but just because a person is a scholar does not mean that he or she is in a better position. than a non-scholar to answer. of these two questions. It should be remembered that texts like the Pali canon were not intended to be discussed on their own. Ideally, you approached them in the context of a community of teachers, the monastic sangha, who had applied the texts in their own practice and thus could help give you a practical idea of ​​what they meant and how you could apply them to your practice, too. But even then, you wouldn’t know the full meaning of a text until you found something that worked to end your own suffering. And it requires more than the tools of learning. It requires qualities such as honesty and ingenuity and very high standards to judge “what works”.

The Sutta Nipata is the fifth text of Khuddaka Nikaya (“Short collection”), which is itself the fifth collection of the Sutta Pitaka, one of the three main “baskets” of the Pali cannon. You can read the Sutta Nipata, and all translations of Thanissaro Bhikkhu, free on dhammatalks.org.

[This story was first published in 2016]

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