Is it Buddhism? The unity of spiritual liberation and social justice

The short answer: Yes, the work of social justice, the deconstruction of systemic oppression based on race, caste and gender, is at the heart of Buddhism. The Buddha and all the great masters advise us to examine the functioning of our mind, our habits and our preconceptions.

The social systems we live in America – a story built on land stolen from indigenous peoples, founded on the enslavement of African women and men, captured and chained and transported here across the Atlantic, funded by exploitation from the most to the few – these systems can only exist because of the illusion that some people are less human than others, so their lives are disposable and their land and natural resources available.

We can look back 2,500 years and consider the words of Buddha Shakyamuni. In the Vasettha Sutta, which can be found both in the Majjhima Nikaya (98) and in the Sutta Nipata (3.9), two young Brahmins, Bharadvaja and Vasettha, were walking in the forest around Icchanangala, near where the Buddha lived. The two were discussing “how is one a brahmin? The word Brahmin means various things in ancient and contemporary India. It designates a person of the highest priestly caste. It also designates a person of good moral and spiritual character, whose actions are pure and beneficial:

Brahmin student Bharadvaja said: “When one is well born on both sides, of pure maternal and paternal descent seven generations back, unassailable and impeccable in birth, then one is a Brahmin.” Brahmin student Vasettha said: “When one is virtuous and performs the observances, then one is a Brahmin.”

Neither could convince the other, so they decided to visit the Buddha to see what he thought. After offering the usual expressions of respect, Bharadvaja and Vasettha presented their question to the Buddha. With his usual clear analysis, the Buddha responded by reflecting on different living species and their births, what aspects are distinct among and among them. Coming to the question of humanity, he said:

With humans no birth differences
Make it a distinctive mark.

Neither in the hair nor in the head
Neither in the ears nor in the eyes
Neither in the mouth nor in the nose
Neither in the lips nor in the eyebrows;

Neither in the shoulders nor in the neck
Neither in the stomach nor in the back
Neither in the buttocks nor in the chest
Neither in the anus or genitals;

Neither in the hands nor in the feet
Neither in the fingers nor the nails
Neither in the knees nor in the thighs
Neither in their color nor in their voice:
Here the birth does not make a distinctive sign
As with other types of birth.

In human bodies in themselves
Nothing distinctive can be found.
Distinction between human beings
Is a purely verbal designation.

Hozan Alan Senauke.  From berkeleyzencenter.org
Hozan Alan Senauke.
From berkeleyzencenter.org
The Buddhists' silent march for Black Lives Matter in Los Angeles in June 2020. From rafu.com
The Buddhists’ silent march for Black Lives Matter in Los Angeles in June 2020. From rafu.com

With biology as a basis, the Buddha might as well have said, “We take these truths for granted, that all men are created equal. What distinguishes us as noble or vile are our thoughts, words and deeds, not our profession, caste, race or gender. The “verbal designation” reflects the projections of our egocentric views on those around us. It is the habitual energy of our illusion emerging as an unhealthy action that divides one being from another, one group from another, obscuring the fundamental unity of being. The remaining part of the sutta discusses in detail the question of who is a brahmin. A condensed version of this teaching can be found in Dhammapada, Chapter 26:

I don’t call a Brahmin person just because of their birth,
Or if they were born to a noble mother.
Only so free from all attachments, from the grip of the world,
So I call them a brahmin.

The one who is not afraid to break his chains,
The one who escaped the bonds of attachment—
This person I call a brahmin.

Turning from religion to anthropology, consider this quote from Alexander Goldenweiser, the Columbia professor who taught Dr. BR Ambedkar, the father of the socially engaged contemporary Indian Buddhist movement:

. . . racial prejudice is a group phenomenon, a social phenomenon. It is based on traditional origins and is instilled in us unconsciously early in life, before we know what is going on. And we cannot get rid of it unless we become, to a large extent, individualists, independent thinkers, people who are able to cope intellectually and emotionally, who are detached and able to see things “above the sky.” battle”.

In his final speech, the Buddha asked his servant Ananda: “Be a lamp for yourself.”

We have to think for ourselves, each of us as a Buddha, each as a unique and interrelated expression of the Buddha nature. When we respond to another on the basis of color, caste or sex, then according to the teachings of the Buddha and the lessons of biology and social science, we are acting from the illusion of unconscious “unconsciously instilled” prejudices. in us at the beginning of life ”. Usually there is an element of fear and self-protection in these views. The goal of Buddhism is to see the workings of our minds, transforming illusion and habit into enlightened activity for the benefit of all beings. This work proceeds from within and from the outside to the inside. That is, introspection and meditation transform our work in the world; and worldly endeavors affect our beliefs, thoughts, and self-awareness.


From seekheartwood.com

The Berkeley Zen Center, of which I am the abbot, is affiliated with the Soto Zen school, the largest Buddhist denomination in Japan. While many may think of Zen and Buddhism itself to be apolitical, in fact almost all schools of Buddhism have a complex social history and close involvement with members of their local congregations and with local, regional and local forms. national organizations of civil society. Over the past 30 years, the Soto school has apologized for its historic complicity in discriminating against the excluded burakumin communities * and for its voluntary support for war efforts in the face of atrocities in China, Korea, Mongolia and elsewhere. In 1992, Soto Zen’s head office wrote:

Since the Meiji era, our sect (Soto Zen) has cooperated to wage war. . . . We wish to sincerely apologize and express our repentance to the people of Asia and the world. . . these actions are not only the responsibility of those who have been directly involved in missionary work abroad. Needless to say, the responsibility of the entire sect must be questioned as we have applauded the Japanese aggression abroad and tried to justify it. – Soto Zen repentance statement

Since the 1990s, the Soto School has raised three areas of social concern: human rights, peace and the environment. More recently, the Soto school promoted the 2015 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

. . . achieve a society where no one is left behind. . . the teachings of the Soto sect are not limited to the practice of zazen, but include the practice of respecting food and water as a figure of the Buddha himself. . . . There is also a bodhisattva practice of wishing and acting so that the suffering of those in difficulty can be alleviated as much as possible.

These are actions for the society as a whole and for the other person, and at the same time, they are important practices for developing as a Buddha. The important question “How should people live?” Is realized as a practice of the Zen lifestyle through efforts for the SDGs. The SDG efforts in the Soto sect are positioned not only as activities of social contribution but also as Zen religious practices.

. . . We will continue to work to eradicate all types of discrimination, achieving a peaceful society. . . with a broad vision of the world and of the future.

* A former “untouchable” community at the bottom of the traditional Japanese social hierarchy.


From clearviewproject.org
From clearviewproject.org

In the lineage document that I received from my teacher Sojun Roshi 35 years ago, there is an explanatory sentence which reads: “The perceptual vein of the Buddha is the only great causal condition of our. lineage gate. “

This “perceptual vein” is morality, if the. Morality is at the heart of Buddhadharma.

If the (morality), samadhi (meditation), and prajna (wisdom) are inseparable. Precepts or morality are not a political issue, no matter what people on the “right” or “left” might argue. These days, we often see moral issues diverted for political ends and projected as political positions rather than basic compassion and humanity. What are these moral issues? Poverty and exploitation, hunger, racial, caste and gender discrimination, human rights, environmental degradation, health care and other pressing concerns.

It is our practice. One of my precious teachers said, “The purpose of Zen is to help the world. Morality is the meeting place of wisdom and compassion. If a teacher or sangha member opposes racism, exploitation or oppression of women, that is not politics. Buddhism, being truly human, is the crux of the matter.


Below are links to texts and statements relevant to the issue in question:

MN 98 Vasettha Sutta: In Vasettha (Suttas.com)
Zen and the art of religious prejudices Efforts to reform a tradition of social discrimination (semantic researcher)
曹洞宗 と ODD (Sotozen.net)
Statement on Racism of Buddhist Teachers and Leaders in the United States (Jack)

Hozan Alan Senauke
Berkeley, California
May 2021

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Berkeley Zen Center
Clear project view
International network of committed Buddhists