The Dharma of Social Transformation

Charles Johnson argues that in cutting the root of our own suffering, we can't help but confront the suffering of society.

Charles Johnson

Perhaps a more concrete way of expressing this in terms of social action is to say we come to the Buddha-dharma precisely because the suffering we have experienced in the world of relativity forces us to relentlessly question "conventional" truth and the status quo, as Ashoka discovered after his slaughter of the Kalingas brought him no happiness, or as the Buddhist monk Claude AnShin Thomas realized after killing civilians during the Vietnam War. Or we can consider the case of a black American born in the late 1940s, as I was, a person who knows firsthand the reality of racial segregation in the South and North fifty years ago, and the subtler forms of discrimination in the post-Civil Rights period, which I call Jim Crow-lite. He (or she) discovers that many Eurocentric whites project fictitious racial "substance" (or meaning) onto people of color, never seeing the mutable individual before them—just as unenlightened men do with women. They dualistically carve the world up in terms of the illusory constructs of "whiteness" and "blackness" and, on the basis of this mental projection, create social structures—as Tillich declared—that fuel attachment, clinging, prejudice, and what the dharma describes as the "three poisons" of ignorance, hatred, and greed. A black poet expressed powerfully his pain at this reality when he wrote, "Must I shoot the white man dead/ To kill the nigger in his head?"

Fortunately, a black American who has been exposed to the Buddha-dharma sees that these racial illusions, so much a part of conventional reality—just as the caste system was in the time of the Buddha—are products of the relative, conditioned mind. He realizes that while he is not blind to what his own valuable yet adventitious racial, gender, or class differences reveal to him, neither is he bound by them; and those very phenomenal conditions may, in fact, spark his dedication to social transformations intended to help all sentient beings achieve liberation. The Buddha employed upaya kaushalya (skillful means) when he taught the truth of anatta, and said he would teach a doctrine of self if his followers became attached to the idea of no-self. Always, his teachings bring to the foreground the importance of a radical freedom.

As the first line of the Dhammapada says, "All that we are is the result of what we have thought." Thus, the transformation of sociological and psychological structures must take place initially in our own minds—and those of others—if we truly hope to address the root cause of social suffering. The Four Noble Truths, the five precepts observed by laity and monks alike, the Eightfold Path, and the ten paramitas (perfections) make up a time-honored blueprint for revolutionary change, first in the individual, then in the community of which he or she is a part.

We must, I believe, agree with Tillich when he proclaims that Buddhism is one of the "most competitive religions proper." Without reliance on a higher power, it is competitive exactly to the degree that it is noncompetitive and nondualistic, an orientation toward life that avoids the divisions and divisiveness that are the primary causes of our social problems. This rare quality, together with an answer for how relative individuality can be reconciled with our nirvanic "original face," is beautifully present in a biographical detail from the life of Hui-neng, the sixth patriarch of Zen. When he presented himself to the abbot of Tung-shan monastery in the Huang-mei district of Ch'i-chou in hopes of study, Hui-neng portrayed himself as a poor "commoner from Hsin-chou of Kwangtung."

The abbot rebuked him: "You are a native of Kwangtung, a barbarian? How can you expect to be a Buddha?"

"Although there are northern men and southern men, north and south make no difference to their Buddha-nature," replied Hui-neng. "A barbarian is different from Your Holiness physically, but there is no difference in our Buddha-nature."

Charles Johnson is a professor of English at the University of Washington in Seattle and is the author of many books, including Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing.

Image 1: Monks in Saigon in 1963 demanding the ouster of Republic of Viet Nam President Ngo Dinh Diem ©Bettman/Corbis

Image 2: A Buddhist Nun confronting riot police outside Nationalist Party headquarters in Taipei in 2000 ©Reuters/Corbis

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