Issues of Social Justice

Human rights All sentient beings are capable of reaching nirvana or Buddhahood so deserve respect and compassion, but human life is precious as the best placed for spiritual progress. Thus all human beings should be treated well. Tibetan Buddhists often point out that in the endless round of rebirths, all beings have at one time been your mother, so should be viewed as such.

Equality In one sense all beings are equal, and should be viewed with evenmindedness. However, as some have progressed further on the path towards nirvana or Buddhahood, in another sense they are not. A Buddha is superior to the average human who is superior to a slug. The historical Buddha accepted people from all classes and castes into his sangha as spiritually equal, but ‘Hindu’ renouncers also renounce class and caste as spiritually irrelevant, and that is not the same as campaigning for the abolition of class and caste distinctions in worldly life. Thus Buddhists can accept both socially conservative and progressive or socialist societies, advising obedience to superiors, and protesting against unfairness.

Gender It is anachronistic to expect ancient texts and traditions not to be sexist by contemporary standards. A survey of Buddhist texts and history reveals much that is patriarchal and oppressive. The historical Buddha was reluctant to ordain women, and only agreed after adding extra rules (some commentators have blamed later monastic editors for this); in most Buddhist societies nuns either have lower status than monks or do not exist; texts tend to stereotype women as weak and temptresses; rebirth as a female is considered less fortunate (it usually was); there are no female Buddhas; and women have suffered inequality in practice in Buddhist societies. On the other hand, there is material for Buddhist feminists to build on, such as the fact that women were ordained and many did gain enlightenment, there are female bodhisattvas, and a few important women can be discovered in both history and texts. Recent developments have included the (controversial) re-establishment of ordination for women in Theravada, and the formation of Sakyadita, the International Association of Buddhist Women. Gender is not an essential part of spiritual identity, as all beings have been/may be both male and female or other in previous and future rebirths, however this downplaying of the current physical body can lead to ignoring the particular experience of women in the here-and-now and thus to sexist attitudes and behaviour.

In ancient Buddhist texts, four genders are recognised, not just male and female. It is not quite clear how to translate the terms used, but one may be intersex, and the other possibly refers to a form of male prostitute or someone like the contemporary hijra. These two groups were not allowed to join the monastic sangha. Attitudes to anyone other than heterosexual cis-gendered male have been varied in both theory and practice in Buddhist history, often negative but with some more positive and thus important to the contemporary LGBTQI+ community (see issues of sexual conduct above). Kwan Yin bodhisattva, who transitioned from male to female in the course of Buddhist history, is an important figure not only for women in general but also for transgender people, but s/he (they?) can also symbolise more generally the fluidity and spiritual irrelevance of either gender or sex.

Racism

The Buddha accepted people of all backgrounds into the sangha, and teachings of no-self, emptiness and rebirth mean that ‘race’ is a human construct that does not define one spiritually. As a tradition that started in India and spread mostly eastwards, one would not expect to find the need to consider anti-Asian racism in Buddhism. However, Western constructions of ‘Buddh-ism’ may contain elements of colonial and racist attitudes, and there are sometimes indigenous prejudices about skin colour, or particular minority ethnic groups in Buddhist-majority countries. There are increasing numbers of Buddhists of African descent, mostly in Western countries, some of whom point out that ‘no-self’, and the downplaying of the physical body in Buddhist teaching, can lead to ‘colourblind’ attitudes that ignore the different actual experience that being black means, especially in Buddhist groups in the West dominated by wealthy, white practitioners, where ‘race’ is compounded intersectionally with class, leading to unconscious or institutional racism and classism.

Wealth and poverty

Generosity is a fundamental Buddhist virtue, and the Buddha set an example of helping the poor and hungry, and advised rulers to enable everyone to earn a fair living to avoid both poverty and crime. He had wealthy and royal friends and did not criticise wealth per se, but can be interpreted as implying that a more equal distribution would be better.

Work

Advice for laypeople includes the importance of working hard and obeying employers, but also responsibilities from employers for treating employees fairly. ‘Right livelihood’ is one of the factors in the eightfold path, so it is important to choose a job that helps rather than harms. Paid employment is not the only option if you are spending time in a worthwhile way, notably monastics do not usually earn money (and monastic rules technically do not allow even handling it) but rely on the lay community to support them.

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