Racism and the Dharma

There is an article in today’s Washington Post about a bizarre incident that took place at Lehigh University last year. A student from China was the roommate of a black man from the U.S. During their senior semester, there were a series of disturbing incidents involving their room being vandalized, racist notes being left, and a series of illnesses for the black man.

It turns out that the Chinese student was the culprit. The black student is puzzled as to why this suddenly happened. They had known each other for a number of years, and he thought they got along just fine.

This is a grim reminder that racism, sexism, and prejudice exist everywhere. I was in Silver City, New Mexico last spring, and a woman at the hotel where I was staying told me about racially charged remarks made by an Indian from Jemez Pueblo about the Navajo.

It is so easy to divide the world up in arbitrary ways, into the good guys and the bad guys. I heard a Dharma teacher recently mention multiple times the “patriarchal history of Buddhism.” I think that is quite an overstatement. If you read enough of the Pāli Canon you get a very even-handed view of gender and social status. In the Buddha’s time, then as now, India was a very status driven society. I think that most people know about the caste system in India. It was not quite as deeply divided during the Buddha’s time as it is now, but all of the modern-day divisions were in place.

But the Buddha’s own teaching is free from those divisions. Such is the case with the monk Venerable Upāli. Upāli was a barber, which was one of the lowest level professions in the Buddha’s home country of Sakya. But Upāli not only became a monk, he was one of the ten chief disciples of the Buddha. At the First Buddhist Council, Upāli recited the monastic code, being “foremost in the Vinaya.”

And at a time when women were treated as little more than servants, the Buddha famously ordained women as monastics. This story often gets mistold. The key fact that is often mistold is that when the Buddha’s step-mother, Pajapati, asked to ordain, we are told that the Buddha refused. However, when I read the actual account in the Pāli Canon, I noticed a subtle difference. It is a difference that I later discovered that Buddhist scholars and monks have also noticed. That difference is that the Buddha did not refuse to ordain Pajapati. He asked her to “carefully consider what she was asking.”

In a sexist society such as India, the reality of a woman samaṇa was highly problematical. Samaṇa depend on alms food. It was not clear that people would even give alms food to a woman. A woman who traveled in India at the time who was not under the protection of her father, a brother, or her husband had no legal protection under the law. They were fair game. So the Buddha was simply asking his step-mother to make sure that she understood the implications of what she was asking.

But back to the issue of prejudice. The Buddha’s teaching is a level playing field. It is based on the quality and skill of your actions: your thoughts, words, and deeds. Further, the Buddha taught that through infinite time, we have all been every kind of person that you can imagine. We have all been men and women, every race and sexual preference. We have all been in every kind of relationship that you can imagine. We have been each other’s mothers and daughters, brothers and sisters, fathers and sons. We have hated each other and been best of friends. This is the endless churning of the world of saṃsāra:

At Sāvatthı̄. “Bhikkhus, this saṃsāra is without discoverable beginning…. It is not easy, bhikkhus, to find a being who in this long course has not previously been your mother … your father … your brother … your sister … … your son … your daughter. For what reason? Because, bhikkhus, this saṃsāra is without discoverable beginning…. It is enough to be liberated from them.” – [SN 15.14-19]

The Abhidhamma goes even further. It breaks human experience into specific mind states, 52 of them to be precise. These mind states are experienced by everyone. It is the mind broken down into atomic units. This is the entire realm of human experience.

It has become a convention to look at racism as the domain of white people. There is, of course, a lot of history behind that. But to view racism as a white phenomenon is simple-minded and foolish. This is true for gender bias, as well. The issue is more fundamental than that. We are all capable of all of these feelings.

This is why I am puzzled by so-called Buddhist institutions that have made white racism part of their calling card. It is to deny the existence of all the other forms of racism in the world. It does an end run around a basic tenet of the Dharma that only one thing matters, and that is the quality of a person’s character. No one is denied the opportunity to be loving, compassionate, kind, and generous. And no one automatically gets the moral high ground because they are male or female, white, black or whatever, transgender, gay, or straight:

Whoever does no wrong

in body,



is restrained in these three ways:

he’s what I call

a brahman. – [Dhp 391]

In this lifetime we have manifested in a particular way. But in the next lifetime, who knows how we will be? “Walk a mile in my shoes,” – in everyones’ shoes – because in the next life, those shoes may be yours.

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3 Responses to Racism and the Dharma

  1. Charles Van Wert says:

    Good post, though (and you can edit this suggestion from my comment) you’ll want to amend the adjective in the first sentence to “bizarre”. I’m equally pained by the continual posturing on race and gender by so many of our Buddhist “thought leaders” (e.g., any random issue of Lion’s Roar). I recently came across this chart: https://businesstech.co.za/news/lifestyle/116644/the-most-racist-countries-in-the-world/. It’s a little dated and hardly dispositive, but it does back up your point that racism is, sadly, quite well distributed. And, for whatever this list may be worth, it’s interesting who did and who didn’t make it into the top 25.

    • EricKVanHorn says:

      Thanks, Charles, not just for your comment but the spelling correction. I seem to be constantly fighting the battle against automated spell checkers!

    • EricKVanHorn says:

      About that article you posted, India is a very interesting “top” choice. When I visited India I was told that as far back as anyone can remember, light skinned Indians have looked down on dark skinned Indians. I actually use form of racism that in some of my illustrations for the Jātaka tales. I sometimes use darker/lighter skin tones for various characters to represent just that type of racism.

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