These days, social justice is big topic amongst people who consider themselves to be spiritual, conscientious or just plain responsible citizens. One doesn’t have to look far to see examples of unfair treatment, inequality, violence toward minorities and silenced voices to know that our “land of the free” isn’t quite living up to its name. Responses to this glaring incongruity range from grief to outrage and from determination to despair. For a while, I have been considering what is the most appropriate response in light of the spiritual teachings I have been exposed to.
In the Christian tradition, Jesus explicitly told his followers to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and shelter the poor. He also was quick to point out the hypocrisy of the pharisees, the religious elite who found it easy to justify their oppression of those less privileged. Similarly, the Buddha clearly wasn’t in favor of the caste system, admitting even the “untouchables” into his order of monks. He was also critical of the ruling religious authorities (Brahmans) who had no qualms about maintaining their high position at the expense of others. And yet, the Buddha saw further into the roots of the problem.
Commenting on passages related to conflict and injustice in the Pali Canon, Bhikkhu Bodhi says, “We can see from these texts that the Buddha does not clamor for changes merely in the outer structures of society. He demonstrates that these dark phenomena are external projections of the unwholesome proclivities of the human mind and thus points to the need for inner change as a parallel condition for establishing peace and social justice.” I’ve taken this quote from a text published in 2005. In the recent edition of Buddhadarma, Bhikkhu Bodhi calls for a “bolder agenda, a program of collective resistance inspired by a radically different vision of human interconnection, one that affirms our duty to respect and care for one another and to maintain a habitable planet for generations yet unborn.”
The key work is parallel; these two approaches can happen simultaneously. We need to be able discern both internal and systemic causes of distress rather than addressing symptoms alone. To use Dr. David Loy’s analogy, Christianity encourages us to pull the drowning man out of the water, but doesn’t always ask how he got pushed into the river in the first place. Worse yet, some Buddhists will see the man drowning in the water as his karma and, at most, wish him a more fortunate rebirth. Of course, both traditions could be understood in a much deeper and more inclusive way.
We need to recognize that the roots of injustice are deeply embedded in the human psyche and so is the capacity to bring forth what is beneficial and beautiful. The outcomes we see will depend on which conditions we support. When we realize how interconnected we are, we will know that helping ourself and helping others is no different. All beings - not only human - depend on healthy food, clean water and supportive relationships. May we not lose sight of our shared humanity by pursuing individual goals at the expense of the whole.
Bodhi, In the Buddha's Words, 2005
Bodhi, "Let's Stand Up Together", Buddhadarma, Spring 2017
Loy, David R. A New Buddhist Path
Ayya Dhammadhira is a Buddhist monastic trained in the Thai Forest Tradition in lineage of Ajahn Chah. She spent eleven years at Amaravati and Chithurst Buddhist Monasteries in England from 2001-2012. In 2012, she took the higher ordination as a bhikkhuni in Los Angeles, CA. As an alms mendicant bhikkhuni living outside the support structure of a monastery, Ayya Dhammadhira relies on the ongoing support of individuals like you to continue her practice and service in community.