Buddhism and the Social Justice Problem

Something I’ve been struggling with personally as well as in my writing has been trying to tie Buddhism (particularly Theravada), which is at the core of my heritage as a Sinhalese American, to my general sense of practical secular ethics. A major hurdle in this process has been the apparent indifference of doctrinal Buddhism to the issues of contemporary social justice.

Sungtaek Cho at SUNY Stony Brook, in Selflessness: Toward a Buddhist Vision of Social Justice, discusses this notable lack from the historical perspective of cultural imperialism:

Almost all of the ancient philosophies and religions paid scant attention to issues of social justice in the modern sense. […]  it is only from the eighteenth century that social justice emerged as an important issue in political thought and social philosophy in the West. The last three centuries have thus seen the maturation of such key concepts as citizenship, political equality, and the fair distribution of economic resources.

However, the process of modernization that drove the development of social philosophy in the West paradoxically retarded it in the East. Belatedly experiencing modernization as Westernization  initiated by military and economic contact with Western colonial powers, Eastern intellectuals lost confidence in their native traditions, coming to see them as relics of the past without relevance to contemporary problems. As a result, indigenous philosophies and religions, such as Buddhism, were neglected in favor of the study of Western thought.

This stunted growth in sociopolitical awareness may not be as acute in majority-Buddhist regions of the world, particularly those in which serious moral and existential questions have been put to the test — say, through civil war. Sri Lanka obviously comes to mind, though I can’t say I am in the loop as to its religious discourse. However I do know that contemporary South Asians of Buddhist heritage but Westernized cultural attitudes (who, by and large, do not speak the academic language of their ancestral nations) run into a huge stumbling block in attempting to access any deeper call to social activism within Buddhist doctrine. Cho again:

The difficulty of developing a theoretical framework for Buddhism in engagement with contemporary social issues is rooted in the very nature of Buddhism as an ontological discourse aiming at individual salvation through inner transformation.

Among the core tenants of Buddhism is that this world of Samsara is illusory and permeated with evil (indeed, the First Noble Truth is that the material world is in fact defined as a state of dhukka, or suffering). In a nutshell, one’s objective is to escape the cycle of rebirth into this suffering by learning to practice nonattachment from the sensual cravings that bind us to this prison of bodily existence — thus liberating the mind and opening the door to achieving Nibbana.

If one accepts this view, then to any socio-politically minded person it begs the questions: Why work to repair a broken world that is to be accepted prima facie, metaphysically and existentially, as broken?  Why try to save a world that is only an illusion from which we are trying to escape? Why take an active role in political, civil, or social advocacy if such matters are seen as petty distractions from the real task at hand?

Francis Story* states the problem this way:

The Buddha did not essay to lay down laws for the conduct of human affairs in any but a strictly personal sense. He gave advice to rulers, as He did to ordinary householders, but did not attempt to formulate principles of state policy, as some religious teachers, with varying success, have attempted to do. His Teaching was for those who wish to liberate themselves from Samsara, not those who desire to improve its conditions.

Story seems to perceive that contemporary western readers will find this lacking, and attempts to follow with an indirect argument:

Nivana may be an individual, not a collective goal, but the Path to it, followed by the individual for his own highest good, has beneficial repercussions on the whole of society. Every man or woman who observes the Five Precepts and conscientiously tries to follow the Noble Eightfold Path, makes it easier for someone else to do the same. One who works for his own highest good confers blessings on all mankind.

This pithy redirection strikes me as hollow at best and dangerously libertarian at worst. I don’t buy it, particularly since this seems to be at odds with the idea of selflessness (or the illusion of a Self that is separate from everything else). Cho, on the other hand, seems to be on a more innovative tack, one that tries to make a doctrinal argument for social action based on the logical consequence of taking the extended view of selfhood in Buddhism to its existential ends.

The Buddhist theory of selflessness, when considered in terms of the individual and his/her place in the community, really becomes something of great social power: an extended interpretation of selfhood. […] namely, the idea that I am everybody in the community.

To put it another way: […] the doctrine of selflessness requires that Buddhists view themselves as being in fact everyone in society. The social implications of this viewpoint are of course powerful: her poverty becomes my poverty; his tragedy, my tragedy. And when combined with the model of active engagement offered by the bodhisattva ideal, in which personal health is achieved by helping others, we suddenly find ourselves with a solid rationale for social action.

A contemporary interpretation of Buddhism based on this principle being the central tenant (rather than the nature of the world sic as suffering) is much more palatable to me, though it would be quite a bit of work indeed to go back through the innumerable pages of the Theravada Canon and produce insightful, clear, and relevant commentary to this effect.

The Copernican revolution, of course, would be that the Four Noble Truths would need to be de-throned from their central “Buddhism 101” position and relegated to a side note, interpreted in light of the new central tenant of Selflessness (or universally-encompassing selfhood). This move might seem like doctrinal heresy. But I would argue that the importance of the Four Noble Truths, at least from what I have read, is mostly found in commentary on Buddhism… not the scriptures themselves. I have read the whole Dhammapada and am about halfway through the Digha Nikaya, and so far I cannot recall any specific mention of the Four Noble Truths. If I am mistaken and indeed there is a doctrinal basis in Buddhist scripture for their centrality from the words of Siddhartha Guatama, then please, as it were, enlighten me.

As radically different from the prevailing discourse as this idea is, I think it is a start, and I think it is foundational to any attempt to articulate a cohesive vision for have Sinhalese American identity is and/or could be. As part of a novel I am working on that explores issues of Sri Lankan American identity in the contemporary United States, I have begun doing some background reading on Buddhism, including a new translation of the Digha Nikaya. The Lakkhana Sutta in particular (The 32 Marks of a Great Man) seems to have some good fodder for thinking about social justice. More later when I finish reading it and digesting.

In the meanwhile, thoughts and comments welcome.


* Story, Francis. (1985). Buddhist Lay Ethics. In: Dimensions of Buddhist Thought, Vol III. Buddhist Publication Society, Sri Lanka.

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