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 teachers counsel us to look at the workings of our mind, our habits, and our preconceptions.
The social systems we live out in the United States—history built on lands stolen from indigenous peoples, founded on the enslavement of African women and men, captured and chained and carried here across the Atlantic, financed by the exploitation of the many by the few—these systems can only exist by virtue of the delusion that some people are less human than others, therefore their lives are disposable and their lands and natural resources available.
We can look back 2,500 years and consider the words of Shakyamuni Buddha. In the Vasettha Sutta, which is 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 was staying. 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, one whose actions are pure and beneficial:
The 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 respect of birth, then one is a brahmin.” The brahmin student Vasettha said: “When one is virtuous and fulfills the observances, then one is a brahmin.”
Neither could convince the other, so instead they decided to visit the Buddha to see what he thought. After offering customary 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—on what aspects are distinct among and between them. Coming to the matter of humankind he said:
With humans no differences of birth
Make a distinctive mark in them.
Nor in the hairs nor in the head
Nor in the ears nor in the eyes
Nor in the mouth nor in the nose
Nor in the lips nor in the brows;
Nor in the shoulders or the neck
Nor in the belly or the back
Nor in the buttocks or the breast
Nor in the anus or genitals;
Nor in the hands nor in the feet
Nor in the fingers or the nails
Nor in the knees nor in the thighs
Nor in their color or in voice:
Here birth makes no distinctive mark
As with the other kinds of birth.
In human bodies in themselves
Nothing distinctive can be found.
Distinction among human beings
Is purely verbal designation.
With biology as his basis, the Buddha could just as well have said: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” What distinguishes us as noble or base are our thoughts, words, and deeds, not our occupation, caste, race, or gender. “Verbal designation” reflects the projections of our self-centered views on those around us. This is the habit energy of our delusion emerging as unwholesome action that divides one being from another, one group from another, obscuring the fundamental oneness of being. The remaining portion of the sutta addresses in detail the question of who actually is a brahmin. A condensed version of this teaching is found in Dhammapada, Chapter 26:
I do not call a person a brahmin merely by reason of birth,
Or if they were born of a noble mother.
Only if free of all attachments, from worldly grasping,
Then do I call them a brahmin. v14
Whoever is not afraid of breaking their chains,
Whoever has escaped from ties of attachment—
That person I call a brahmin. v15
Moving from religion to anthropology, consider this quotation from Alexander Goldenweiser, the Columbia professor who was teacher to Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the father of India’s contemporary socially engaged Buddhist movement:
“. . . racial prejudice is a group phenomenon, a social phenomenon. It is based on traditional backgrounds and is inculcated unconsciously into us early in life, before we know what is happening. And we cannot get rid of it unless we become, to a great extent, individualists, independent thinkers, persons who can stand on their own feet intellectually and emotionally, who are detached and capable of viewing things ‘above the battle.’”
In his final discourse, the Buddha instructed his attendant Ananda: “Be a lamp unto yourself.”
We have to think for ourselves—each of us as a buddha, each as a unique and interrelated expression of buddha-nature. When we respond to another on the basis of color, caste, or gender, then according to the Buddha’s teachings and lessons of biology and social science, we are acting from the delusion of unconscious bias “inculcated unconsciously into us early in life.” Usually, there is some element of fear and self-protection in these views. The point of Buddhism is to see the workings of our mind, transforming delusion and habit into enlightened activity for the benefit of all beings. That work proceeds from the inside out and from the outside in. That is, introspection and meditation transform our work in the world; and worldly endeavors affect our beliefs, thoughts, and self-awareness.
Berkeley Zen Center, where 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 as 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 national forms of civil society. In the last 30 years, the Soto school has apologized for its historical complicity in discrimination against outcaste burakumin communities* and for its willing support of war efforts in the face of atrocities in China, Korea, Mongolia, and elsewhere. In 1992, the Soto Zen headquarters wrote:
Since the Meiji period, our (Soto Zen) sect has cooperated in waging war. . . . We wish to deeply apologize and express our repentance to the peoples of Asia and the world . . . these actions are not merely the responsibility of those people who were directly involved in overseas missionary work. Needless to say, the responsibility of the entire sect must be questioned inasmuch as we applauded Japanese overseas aggression and attempted to justify it. — Soto Zen Statement of Repentance
Since 1990s, the Soto school has raised up three areas of social concern: human rights, peace, and the environment. More recently, the Soto school has promoted the United Nations’ 2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
. . . realizing 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 the figure of the Buddha itself. . . . There is also a bodhisattva practice of wishing and acting so that the suffering of people living with difficulties can be alleviated as much as possible.
These are actions for society as a whole and for the other person, and at the same time, they are important practices for growing oneself as a Buddha. The important question, “How should people live?” is realized as a practice of Zen way of life through efforts for SDGs. The efforts of the SDGs in the Soto sect are positioned not only as social contribution activities but also as Zen religious practices.
. . . We will continue to work on eradicating all types of discrimination, realizing a peaceful society . . . with a broad view of the world and the future.
* A former “untouchable” community at the bottom of the traditional Japanese social hierarchy.
In the lineage document I received from my teacher Sojun Roshi 35 years ago, there is a sentence of explanation that reads: “The perceptual vein of the Buddha is the one great causal condition of our lineage gate.”
This “perceptual vein” is morality, sila. Morality is at the heart of the Buddhadharma.
Sila (morality), samadhi (meditation), and prajna (wisdom) are inseparable. Precepts or morality is not a political matter, no matter what people on the “right” or “left” might argue. Often these days we see moral issues hijacked for political purposes and projected as political positions rather than basic compassion and humanity. What are these moral issues? Poverty and exploitation, hunger, race, caste, and gender discrimination, human rights, environmental degradation, healthcare, and other pressing concerns.
This is our practice. One of my treasured 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 speaks in opposition to racism, in opposition to exploitation or the oppression of women, this is not politics. It is Buddhism, being truly human, the heart of the matter.
Following are links to texts and statements that are relevant to the issue at hand:
MN 98 Vasettha Sutta: To Vasettha (Suttas.com)
Zen and the Art of Religious Prejudice Efforts to Reform a Tradition of Social Discrimination (Semantic Scholar)
Statement on Racism from Buddhist Teachers & Leaders in the United States (Jack)
Hozan Alan Senauke