Roots of Socially Engaged Buddhism: David Loy, Sallie King, Bikkhu Bodhi and Chris Queen by Clemens M. Breitschaft

Sallie King offered a Buddhist critique of popular conceptions of justice based on her experience at an international, interfaith peace council, where leaders of world religions gathered to address conflict. Listening to people struggling in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict left the Buddhist contingent squirming.  From the Buddhist perspective, they heard same story from both Israelis and Palestinians. Dhammananda, one Buddhist nun,  said “I can’t understand what they are saying!  They seem to nourish their suffering, while I’ve been taught to let it go.”

At Holocaust Memorial Day in Israel at Hebrew College, Buddhists heard stories of suffering and heroism.  Geshe Sulpan, a Tibetan monk, explained that the Tibetans were invaded by the Chinese because of their collective karma.  In past lives, he explained, the Tibetans harmed the Chinese. The monk challenged the Israelis to imagine having been a Nazi soldier in a previous life.  The main thing is to have compassion for mistakes made from egocentric or ignorant viewpoint.  The Chinese are now creating terrible karma for themselves and it is important to feel compassion and find peaceful solution for all.  King argued against four common forms of politics that perpetuate conflict instead of ending it:

  1. Identity politics: The sense of victimhood nourishes suffering and keeps it going generation to generation.
  2. Righteous Indignation.  The angry sense that we are justified and the others wrong.
  3. Justice: The insistence on finding justice before there can be peace.  King reported that while the Buddhists at the summit find ‘human rights’ to be a useful concept, they think justice is not so useful.
  4. Revenge: In particular the concept of justice based on retribution perpetuates conflict.

During the question and answer time, Fleet Maull said that he doesn’t think that Buddhists should stick their heads in the sand all together regarding the idea of justice.  While he prefers a model called integral transformative justice, he says that even retributive justice, is a desire to return to wholeness, albeit a misguided one. If we don’t engage in these feelings and thoughts, Fleet argued, we risk irrelevance.

King challenged us to engaged in a thought experiment, in which we ask ourselves whether there is anything we could achieve with the concept of justice that we cannot achieve without it, referring instead to less problematic concepts.  She believes there is not.

photos by Clemens M. Breitschaft

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