In Christianity, there is a tradition of liberation theology, an approach that emphasizes liberation from oppression as a support to ultimate salvation, i.e. socio-political liberation increasing access to ultimate liberation. In Buddhism, there is a long history of socio-political liberation. The Buddha denounced the caste system and welcomed “outcasts” into every level of the sangha from the beginning of its formation. Although the history is a bit less clear, the Buddha also welcomed women eventually as practitioners and monastics, but this was a bit slower and conditional. Some argue that he could only challenge the existing social order constructively to a limited degree.
How do socio-political liberation and ultimate liberation work together?
We all have internalized patterns of oppression and privilege. When I get intimidated and cower, I am not fully present. When I get aggressive, I am also not fully present. As I work with mindfulness and awareness of my own heart, body, and mind, I have the opportunity to let go of these patterns. They are not inherent to my being. They are just patterns. As I deepen in my self-awareness, I am liberating myself, layer by layer.
When we have internalized patterns of oppression and privilege, we are necessarily unconscious of them to some degree. We cannot see the forest for the trees, at least partially. Often when I am in a disagreement with one of my loved ones, I cannot tell what is true and what is projection. Are they being aggressive or do I just feel intimidated because of my own stuff? Or maybe I am being aggressive? Sometimes I have to contemplate and discuss a single moment for a much longer period of time before I reach any clarity. If the other person is not willing or able to articulate their point of view, I may never realize some hidden aspect of my aggression. The point is: we don’t notice when we are behaving in an oppressive manner. This means that we may be unconsciously supporting systemic oppression in some way.
Contemplation: what do do?
Most people interested in Buddhism are also, at least intellectually, in favor of social justice. We pledge not to do harm, but may not have done our own internal work to root out our habitual patterns of privilege and oppression.
Begin by making a list of your privileges: financial, familial, educational, physical.
Contemplate each of your personal privileges. For example, I have always had access to food. Of course, in the short term, I have experienced hunger, but I never suffered from poverty to the degree that I was regularly hungry. If I silently repeat this thought, “I have always had access to food,” there is a feeling of relaxation and safety in my heart and belly. That feeling is quickly followed by the thought: “Other people don’t have this privilege.” In the wake of that, I feel a sense of panic and confusion. I have to do something!! I don’t know what to do! How can I learn?
Over time, I can come to rest with some kind of weird balance between relaxation and an intention to do what I can to overcome all kinds of social injustice—from the most minute micro-aggression to protecting all life. Social injustice spans every dimension of difference—from gender and sexual preference, to race and nationality. Right now, we are recognizing how the Covid pandemic and climate change affect all of our marginalized communities more drastically. The good news is that many of us are becoming increasingly conscious of our ignorance around social injustice and increasingly aware of action that we can take to support social change in our immediate worlds.
If you are active in a congregation or sangha, a group that comes together to practice spiritual liberation in some way, you might examine the demographics of the group. Is it representative of the minorities in your locality? Are minorities participating in leadership roles to a degree that reflects their numbers in your locality? If not, is there anything you can do to kindly support change?
May we all practice internal awareness.
May we all find skillful ways of effecting compassionate change.
May all beings coexist equitably with respect and kindness.