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Dharma World Buddhist magazine

Buddhism and Prejudice:

Ancient and Modern Responses to Hatred

by Christopher Queen


Over the past sixty years, Buddhists have begun to explore new approaches to overcoming prejudice. As part of a larger movement that has reverberated throughout Asia and the West, "socially engaged Buddhists" have sought to root out the many institutional forms of hatred, greed, ignorance, injustice, poverty, and environmental destruction that have magnified the scope of suffering in the world.

Buddhism is widely regarded as a religion of tolerance, love, and compassion. The first followers of the Buddha, like those of Jesus centuries later, came from all walks of life. The Buddha admitted persons of all castes and conditions to his order - Brahmins, princes, merchants, laborers, untouchables, women, even a serial killer - surprising his admirers and disturbing some of his critics. Likewise, Jesus seemed to go out of his way to serve the poor and powerless - lepers and the blind, madmen, women of ill repute, even Samaritans, the social outcasts of the day. One may find such tolerance and spiritual openness in the other great religions as well: the Muslim pilgrims who crowd into the holy city of Mecca each year for the ceremonies and devotions of the hajj represent nearly every ethnicity, nationality, language, and social class. They wear white garments to signify their equal value in the eyes of Allah.

Tolerance is perhaps too weak a term to describe the active embrace of marginalized and suffering individuals and groups by the great religious founders. Love and compassion - mettā and karuṇā in Pali, agape in Greek, bhakti in Sanskrit, mahabbah in Arabic - are active virtues that entail personal encounter and profound transformation in the lives of those touched by a teacher or by God. For Jesus, the encounter often involved sharing a meal or healing an illness through the laying on of hands. For the Buddha, the encounter often involved a challenging task and a spiritual breakthrough - like the discovery by the grieving young mother Kisagotami of other families who had suffered the death of a child, after the Buddha directed her to seek a mustard seed from any house that had not known tragedy. Or the shock of recognition that the serial killer experienced when the Buddha, after effortlessly eluding the rampaging murderer, met his eyes and calmly said, "Stop, Angulimala. I have stopped, now you stop too."

Prejudice is the opposite of tolerance, love, and compassion. With its corollaries - hatred and violence - prejudice is "a judgment or opinion formed before the facts are known" (Webster's New World Dictionary), "an antipathy based upon a faulty and inflexible generalization . . . directed toward a group or an individual of that group" (Gordon Allport), and a view of society that is typically passed down from generation to generation. We associate prejudice with religious and ethnic hatreds, racial bigotry, and the disrespect and discrimination directed to certain groups in history: the Roma, or "gypsy," people of Europe; the burakumin, or "village people," of Japan; and perhaps the most enduring of all, the 'Apiru, or Hebrew seminomadic people of the ancient Near East and their descendants, the Israelites, Judahites, and Jews, now dispersed throughout the world.

In recent times more and more groups, locked in mutual prejudice, have attracted international attention: Protestants and Catholics in Ireland; Sunni and Shiite Muslims in the Middle East; Serbs, Bosnians, and Croats in the Balkans; Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda; and countless others facing and committing oppression and violence. Each year brings new cases to light, such as the Rohingya, the hated Muslim minority in Buddhist Myanmar, who have become hated refugees in Bangladesh, Thailand, and Malaysia - more than a million souls that the UN calls "one of the most persecuted minorities on earth." The results of chronic prejudice are numbingly predictable: random violations of human rights, systematic terrorism, civil war, ethnic cleansing, and genocide.

Buddhist societies have not been immune to prejudice. The thousand-year war of Sinhalese Buddhists against the Hindu Tamil minority on the island of Ceylon and the bloody persecution of the Rohingyas by Burmese and Thai Buddhists are but two examples. At the same time, the Buddha Dharma offers extraordinary resources for combating prejudice. Aside from setting an example of universal tolerance and openheartedness in the founding of the bhikkhu and bhikkhuni sanghas - the world's first orders of monks and nuns - the Buddha offered a detailed model of the way in which mental formations arise and techniques by which hatred, greed, and delusion, the most dysfunctional of these formations, can be transformed into acceptance, generosity, and wisdom.

Constructing and Dismantling Prejudice

Before prejudice hardens into tribal vendettas and intramural wars, it arises in the minds of individuals. Epistemology is the study of knowledge and how it arises - something that the Buddha and his followers took very seriously. The mind, along with the body and the experience of personality, is a dynamic process made up of interactive functions. These flows of energy and information are evolutionary and emergent, never static and dead. At the same time, they are impermanent (anicca), lacking in fixed identities and essences (anattā), and disorienting and unsatisfactory (dukkha) to those who, out of ignorance, crave stability and permanence. In Buddhist psychology, these functions are referred to as physical sensations, feelings, perceptions, intentions, and consciousness. The interaction of these five aggregates (khandas) of energy and information - with each other and with the environment - produces the vivid experience of being a living self or person.

Were this all, however, we would not have to worry about prejudice or other afflictive states. The ever-changing self would accurately and neutrally mirror its surroundings and its own internal process; persons that we encounter as "different" would simply be different, not threateningly different or hatefully different. But the Buddha's larger purpose was to explain the universality of suffering, dukkha, its grounding in craving and ignorance, and its healing by ethical and spiritual practices. He used powerful metaphors and wordplay to describe the distortion of the knowing process by hatred, greed, and delusion. He referred to the omnipresent feeling of disorientation and dissatisfaction as "thirst" (taṇhā) and likened it to a raging fire (aggi) that consumes everything it touches. He spoke of four types of "food" (āhāra) that support appetitive thoughts and behaviors - actual food, sensations, intentions, and consciousness itself; in other words, real food plus three of the aggregates that make up the psychophysical personality. All of these are governed by a fundamental hunger for "more," based on a sense of lack, incompleteness, and impermanence.

Summing up this philosophy of mind in a recent study of the earliest Pali records, Richard Gombrich writes, "The basic drive of the Buddha's teaching was to ethicize the world and see the whole of life and experience in ethical terms, as good or bad" (What the Buddha Thought [London: Equinox, 2009], 123). Here we see the setting both for the rise of prejudice and for its dismantling in Buddhist psychology. For if other persons and groups are perceived as threatening the material and social resources ("foods") of life, as in the case of territorial enemies and marketplace competitors, or as the means to increased wealth and power, as in the case of economic vassals, slaves, employees, and consumers, then prejudice is already at work. And more profoundly, if differences of the others' appearance, culture, and behavior further challenge our craving for permanence, security, familiarity, and kinship, then prejudice springs up like an invasive species.

While these reactions result in the suffering of both subject and object of prejudice, the Buddha taught that they may also be the occasion for spiritual practice. The Four Noble Truths hold that the raging fires of suffering may be extinguished in a state of psychological peace and freedom, literally "coolness" (nirodha or nirvāṇa, Pali nibbāna, "blown out"). The sufferer need only embark on a systematic program of mental and moral rehabilitation called the Eightfold Path: efficacious views, aspiration, conduct, speech, vocation, exertion, mindfulness, and concentration. These teachings are supplemented in the earliest texts by the Five Precepts of lay morality, enjoining from hurtful behavior, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct, and intoxication; the Boundless States (brahma-vihāras) of loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity; and the Perfections (pāramis) of generosity, morality, tolerance, energy, contemplation, and wisdom - programs that promise to guide the practitioner in overcoming prejudice, hatred, and greed. The dhamma of the early scriptures is not primarily a religion of "faith" but one of practice, effort, and "works."

Like a physician, the Buddha prescribed a powerful antidote to the fever of prejudice. In the loving-kindness meditation (mettā bhāvanā), the practi­tioner begins by directing loving attention to his or her own state of being, repeating this formula in Pali or in one's own language:

Aham avero homi
May I be free from enmity
Abbyapajjho homi
May I be free from ill will
Anigho homi
May I be free from distress
Sukhi attanam pariharami
May I keep myself happy

In a fashion similar to Christians' endeavor to love others as oneself, the meditator then extends these wishes step-by-step to others - to a beloved parent or teacher, to a dear friend, to a neutral or unknown person, and finally, to a person perceived as hateful, threatening, or inferior. "May that person be free from enmity, ill will, and distress; may that person be happy." In this way is the suffering of prejudice extinguished.

Engaged Buddhists Confront Caste Prejudice

Over the past sixty years, Buddhists have begun to explore new approaches to overcoming prejudice. As part of a larger movement that has reverberated throughout Asia and the West, "socially engaged Buddhists" have sought to root out the many institutional forms of hatred, greed, ignorance, injustice, poverty, and environmental destruction that have magnified the scope of suffering in the world. The Vietnamese Thien master Thich Nhat Hanh coined the term engaged Buddhism in the 1960s to describe the activism and sacrifice of fellow monks in the antiwar movement in his country, while Nobel Peace laureates Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet, and Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar continue to lead struggles for democratic self-determination in their countries today. In 1958 Dr. A. T. Ariyaratne founded the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement to alleviate village poverty in Sri Lanka, and Buddhadasa Bhikkhu and Sulak Sivaraksa of Thailand have redefined the ethical precepts of Buddhism to encompass social as well as psychological suffering and its alleviation. In Taiwan, practitioners of the "Humanistic Buddhism" (renjian fojiao) have redefined the Pure Land (Skt., sukhāvati) to mean a society marked by love and tolerance, helping assistance in the face of natural disasters, and outreach to the poor and neglected. And in Japan, the Nichiren-inspired organizations Rissho Kosei-kai, Nipponzan Myohoji, and Soka Gakkai have devoted more than five decades to peace activism and cultural exchange around the world.

Engaged Buddhists have affirmed their place in the ancient practice vehicles, or yānas - the Theravada or Hinayana traditions of South Asia; the Zen, Pure Land, and Nichiren practices of the East Asian Mahayana schools; and the Vajrayana traditions of the Tibetan plateau. At the same time, they have expanded the traditional Buddhist analy­sis of suffering to include the myriad sufferings caused by conditions external to the sufferer - social injustice, political and economic oppression, cultural and educational degradation, and environmental destruction. While faithfully observing the first precept of nonviolence, practitioners of the New Vehicle (Navayana) have stressed the importance of collective action to address collective sufferings. These actions - in essence new ways of practicing the Dharma - include peace walks and sit-ins; boycotts of harmful products and exploitive corporations; political protest; the "ordaining" of trees to slow the destruction of rain forests; and the deployment of rescue teams in the wake of natural catastrophes such as earthquakes, tsunamis, famines, and freak weather.

Perhaps the most notable mass movement to combat institutionalized prejudice in the past half century is the engaged Buddhism of millions of formerly untouchable, or Dalit, Buddhists in India. According to Human Rights Watch, more than one-sixth of India's population, some 160 million people, are still treated as "untouchables," or dalits (broken people), and denied access to economic and educational opportunities. In a report on caste violence against untouchables, the humanitarian organ­ization found that

Dalits are discriminated against, denied access to land, forced to work in degrading conditions, and routinely abused or killed at the hands of the police and higher-caste groups that enjoy the state's protection. Dalit women are frequent victims of sexual assault. In what has been called India's "hidden apartheid," entire villages in many Indian states remain completely segregated by caste. National legislation and constitutional protections serve only to mask the social realities of discrimination and violence faced by those living below the "pollution line." (Human Rights Watch, Broken People: Caste Violence Against India's "Untouchables" (1999), http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/country,,HRW,,IND,4562d8cf2,3ae6a83f0,0.html)

During the last century, the anti-Brahmin movement initiated by low-caste activists during colonial times and a resurgent interest in Buddhism by Indian intellectuals and social reformers came together in the person of Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956), the fourteenth child of untouchable parents in central India. Ambedkar earned doctoral and law degrees in New York and London, launched a civil rights movement for untouchables in the 1920s, was appointed first law minister and principal draftsman of India's constitution after independence in 1947, and converted to Buddhism in the last weeks of his life.

Ambedkar launched nonviolent civil disobedience protests in Gandhian fashion to obtain access to drinking water and entry into Hindu temples for untouchables. Yet many of these battles ended in defeat or stalemate, and Ambedkar concluded that caste prejudice blinded the Brahmins and other upper-caste Hindus to the sufferings of the Dalits and that the ancient dogmas of karma and rebirth provided religious justification for social discrimination.

In 1936 Ambedkar announced that, while he was born a Hindu, he would now seek a religion that taught liberty, equality, and fraternity. In his speeches and writings over the next twenty-two years, he began to draw on his extensive library of Buddhist scriptures and commentaries to demonstrate the role of caste in promoting prejudice and social dysfunction. In his final work, The Buddha and His Dhamma (first published in 1957), Ambedkar noted that the Buddha's teachings are consistently rational, socially beneficial, and definitive. How then did the teachings of karma and rebirth, which have the effect of blaming the victims of social injustice, have such powerful currency in the Buddha's time and today? "The only purpose one can think of is to enable the state or society to escape responsibility for the condition of the poor and lowly. . . . It is impossible to imagine that the Buddha, who was known as the Maha Karunika [Great Compassionate One], could have supported such a doctrine" (242-48). Ambedkar concluded that later editors had inserted the doctrines of karma and rebirth into the record.

On October 14, 1956, Dr. Ambedkar led nearly five hundred thousand of his Dalit followers in a refuge-taking ceremony that launched the largest single mass conversion to Buddhism in history.

In the following decades, tens of millions of former untouchables converted to Buddhism and declared the end of hatred, greed, and delusion. The Navayana, or Ambedkar, Buddhists of India have fought nonviolently but implacably for human rights and manuski, a sense of dignity and equality before the law and their fellow citizens. For them, the words of the Buddha serve as the greatest bulwark against prejudice and hatred:

Who is tolerant to the intolerant, peaceful to the violent, free from greed with the greedy - him I call a Brahmin.

He from whom lust and hate, and pride and insincerity falls down like a mustard seed from the point of a needle - him I call a Brahmin.

He who speaks words that are peaceful and useful and true, words that offend no one - him I call a Brahmin.

He who is powerful, noble, who lives a life of inner heroism, the all-seer, the all-conqueror, the ever-pure, who has reached the end of the journey, who like Buddha is awake - him I call a Brahmin.

(J. Mascaro, trans., The Dhammapada [Penguin, 1973], 90-93. Cited in B. R. Ambedkar, The Buddha and His Dhamma, critical edition [Oxford University Press, 2011], passim.)

Christopher Queen, PhD, teaches Buddhism and Social Change and World Religions at Harvard University. He has served as board president of the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies and as cochair of the Symposium for Western Socially Engaged Buddhism. He is cofounder of the Dharma Chakra Mission, serving low-income communities in the Bodh Gaya area of Bihar, India. Queen is currently working on two books: The Fourth Yana: The Rise of Socially Engaged Buddhism and Ambedkar: How the Untouchables Came to Buddhism.

This article was originally published in the October-December 2012 issue of Dharma World.
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