As always with these talks, I am offering my thoughts in order to prompt reflection and discussion. Today’s theme, race, caste and class – is a huge and complex topic and I can only on touch on a few aspects. I will try to highlight what I see as a Buddhist perspective on these matters. In some ways, this talk follows on from the previous one on ‘Truth and how to recognise it’ – particularly the point that was made about the Buddha questioning any claim to truth that was grounded in greed, anger or delusion.’
In the Buddha’s time society was organised in a very hierarchical caste system. There was much emphasis in religious circles on achieving ‘purity’ and at the pinnacle of the caste system were the Brahmins – a group of people who were considered to be particularly good and virtuous. There is some disagreement among scholars as to whether Brahmins constituted a hereditary caste or not – they were, however, considered to be the highest ‘class’ of person and often held the role of guru, teacher or priest. The Buddha had many encounters with the Brahmins and he repeatedly argued against their special, ‘pure’ status. In the Atthakavagga, one of the earliest Buddhist texts, known in English as the Book of Eights, the Buddha argues against the pursuit of purity and suggests that to be a true Brahmin one should go beyond boundaries, including many of the social and cultural taboos that governed Brahminical life as it was practised in his time. The implication is that one should let go of attachment to concepts of social, cultural and, we might add, racial superiority, as these kinds of attachments are divisive, delusional and likely to increase, rather than lessen, suffering.
According to Bhikkhu Bodhi, while there is no evidence that the Buddha agitated for the abolition of the Indian class system, all caste distinctions were to be abandoned by anyone entering his Sangha (the community of disciples or students who gathered around him). The Buddha argued that religious insight and wisdom was a product of conduct, not of birth, and therefore anyone could become enlightened – regardless of caste, racial identity or, for that matter, gender. The Buddha argued that the word, ‘brahmin’, if it is to be used at all, should be interpreted in its original form as a ‘holy person.’ In an article in Tricycle, Emma Varvaloucas, adds that in the Vasettha Sutra the Buddha says that while we might identify an animal by its appearance, we can’t tell anything about the ethics of a human being, from any of their physical characteristics – it is only by their actions and by what they say or write that we can evaluate their ethical qualities.
If we turn to the issue of racism, we find that racism is grounded in two principal beliefs; one, that there is a clearly defined category named ‘race’; and two, that some races, or one race in particular, is somehow superior to others. It is important to contest these claims from a scientific/Buddhist perspective. If we look at many recent studies of our genetic inheritance, we find that we all share a common ancestry. We are one species – Homo sapiens – within which there is enormous diversity of customs, sizes, languages, shapes, cultural modes, skin colour and behaviour – this diversity is something to be acknowledged and treasured, for it is what gives our species its dynamic, creative and highly adaptable nature.
Even the category of ‘Homo sapiens’ is not as clearly defined as it might at first appear. In 2010 a team at the Max Plank Institute in Leipzig, discovered that many of us carry the genetic legacy of our Neanderthal cousins – evidence that there was interbreeding between Homo sapiens and their Neanderthal neighbours. Later in 2010 researchers identified the genetic identity of a previously unknown species of hominins which they named Denisovans, after the Denisova cave in Siberia where their remains had been found. The researchers found that Denisovan DNA lives on in the genes of people living today in Papua New Guinea, Fiji and nearby islands. (Yong 2011) One conclusion we can draw from this and other evidence, is that the notion of any kind of racial or genetic ‘purity’ is a myth – a dangerous myth, when it is used to claim inherent difference and superiority. Our species, Homo sapiens, is itself a hybrid and we share common ancestry with at least two other species.
In his book, How to Argue with a Racist, Adam Rutherford writes: ‘For humans, there are no purebloods, only mongrels enriched by the blood of multitudes.’ (Kumar 2020) All of us, including white supremacists and the most rabid racist, have African, Indian, Chinese, Native American, Middle Eastern and Indigenous Australian ancestors. Rutherford also makes the point that there is no correlation between academic, intellectual, musical or sporting performance and genetic make-up. The categories of ‘race’ are social constructions that have no basis in genetics or other scientific studies. Yet, race and racism are very real, but they are grounded in misunderstanding, ignorance, fear and anger – not scientific evidence. As mentioned in a previous talk, the Buddha would probably consider any claim of racial superiority to be false, both because there was no evidence to support it, and also because it was rooted in anger and delusion.
Let us now briefly consider another topic, often aligned with race and racism: that is, the question of identity. For each of us, our identity is made up of many fluid and inter-related attributes, including: gender, state of health, physical appearance, and our hopes, fears, skills, educational attainments, roles, talents, strengths and weaknesses. All of these qualities and more, make up the interwoven strands of our identity. Endlessly changing, growing and being added to, they constitute who we are. But we are not defined by any single item on this list. No one is defined, or bound, by any particular characteristic of their being. We are constituted out of all of these attributes – and much more. This is true for all beings. And our complex interwoven identities are always shifting and changing – responding to the shifting patterns of relationship we have with the wider world.
Our nature consists of many interwoven strands, and we in turn are woven into the infinite strands of nature. To relate to ourselves, or someone else, only in terms of one of these traits and qualities, is to break our relationship with the wholeness and unity of ourselves and others. In this way we lose touch with reality and turn one strand of identity into an abstraction – a stereotype or generalisation that is harmful to us and to those around us. We, and they, become objects rather than beings, labels rather than living presences. This objectification – our focusing on, and attachment to, one strand of identity – causes pain and suffering, not only to others but to ourselves. It puts up a shield against understanding and a barrier against relationship and kindness. Difference and diversity are characteristics to be recognised, embraced and celebrated, not to feel threatened by or fearful of.
As we have seen the Buddha argues against attachment to false perceptions and beliefs – including that there are inherent differences of class, caste, or race. He teaches that we have no fixed or essential self or identity – that we are complex, porous, ever-changing beings, dependent upon each other and our environment. It is our diverse and unlimited storehouse of attributes that gives each of us our unique and many-stranded identity.
Another issue that often accompanies any consideration of class, race and identity is that of anger, fear and prejudice. Feelings of race and class superiority are often emotionally rooted in our fear of, anger towards and prejudice against, others – and our attachment to invalid claims that there are essential, fixed and clearly-defined differences of race and identity. This is the ‘them and us syndrome’ – the attachment we have to feelings of separation from others, misguided feelings of division and disconnection.
Racism is only one form of prejudice – there are many others, often woven into racial prejudice – these include prejudice against perceived differences of culture, behaviour, language and social values. They are all driven by a sense of disconnection, difference, alienation and superiority – often accompanied by anger and fear. Many prejudices have little or no ‘evidence’ to support them – they are often the product of a misguided view of other individuals and communities. In this sense prejudices are often grounded in what the Buddha would call ‘delusion.’
Thich Nhat Hanh writes about anger in this way: ‘Anger is rooted in our lack of understanding of ourselves and of the causes, deep-seated as well as immediate, that brought about this unpleasant state of affairs. Anger is also rooted in desire, pride, agitation, and suspicion…’ – and, we might add, prejudice. Through non-judgmental, mindful awareness – quiet scrutiny of what thoughts, feelings and sensations are arising, and the context in which they arise – we can see more clearly what is going on in and around us. We can observe, in a balanced and dispassionate way, the conditions that give rise to our thoughts and feelings and come to a keener understanding of ourselves, and of others.
Moments of anger, fear, prejudice and pain are opportunities in which to develop understanding and compassion. Our prejudices are sometimes very evident, plain to see, but often they are concealed by layers of habit and blindness. And we have a tendency to withdraw from the world when we are angry or fearful. It is as if we shrink into ourselves and see the objects of our prejudice, anger and fear, as strange beings, unrelated to us and divided from us. Restoring our relatedness, re-connecting with our fellow beings, is an important step in understanding our prejudices and working through them to lessen their harmful and painful consequences. An initial step in this process is to recognise and accept that we do have prejudices and to acknowledge, and take responsibility for, the anger and fear that often accompany them.
Racism is a form of violence towards individuals and groups of fellow humans. It is violent in its expression and in the harmful effects it has on its victims – and on its perpetrators. It causes unnecessary suffering and can persist for generation after generation. Grounded as it is in anger, fear and delusion, it is something we need to acknowledge in ourselves and others, and to work to understand and let go of.
It is important that we examine our beliefs and actions very carefully – to be mindful of when we are motivated by anger, greed or delusion. We need to recognise when we are angry or fearful because of perceived differences of appearance, behaviour or language, and also when we are angry at those who profess racial superiority. While practising mindful meditation it is important to always be open to the insights we get into our own thoughts, feelings and actions – including recognising and taking responsibility for our own class or racial prejudices, whether implicit, explicit, occasional or habitual. It is only by acknowledging these within ourselves that we can begin to free ourselves from their control. It is also important to be compassionate towards ourselves and others – to come to an understanding that is grounded in care as well as enquiry. One aspect of this compassionate approach is to develop empathy with the feelings of estrangement, difference and isolation that may well be felt by a person of colour in a predominantly white society and Buddhist sangha.
If we strive to be mindful of our emotional state – trying in a balanced and dispassionate way to understand where anger or fear comes from and what drives it – hopefully, we can lessen the pain that it causes. In this way we can begin to let go of our attachment to anger, fear and prejudice – enabling us to re-connect with ourselves and those around us. Mindful meditation is one method the Buddha advocated for this life-long process of learning and healing. As the Buddha advised, let us learn to let go of all distinctions of caste and identity that are divisive and hurtful, and to extend the hand of welcome and kinship to all.
Bhikku Bodhi, ed. 2005. In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon. Masachusetts: Wisdom Publications.
Fronsdal, Gil. 2016. The Buddha before Buddhism: Wisdom from the Early Teachings. Boulder, Colorado: Shambhala.
Kumar, Manjit. 2020. Every white supremacist has African and Chinese ancestors… Article in The Guardian Saturday Review 1 February 2020, p.15
Thich Nhat Hanh. 1991. Peace is every step: The path of mindfulness in everyday life. London: Rider.
Varvaloucas, Emma. What the Buddha Taught Us About Race. Accessed 31 December 2020. https://tricycle.org/trikedaily/buddhism-race/
Yong, Ed. 2011. Our hybrid origins. In New Scientist, 30 July 2011. p.35