Think Sangha Journal #4
Rethinking Karma:
The Dharma of Social Justice

Published as a double issue of the World Fellowship of Buddhists Review
October 2004 Vol. XLI No. 4- March 2005 Vol. XLII No. 1

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In February 2003 at the Third International Think Sangha meeting in Thailand, a group of grassroots Buddhist activists focused on the issues of karma and social justice. In response to extreme experiences of social suffering in many parts of Southeast Asia, especially the conflict areas of Sri Lanka and Burma, questions about forgiveness, acceptance and justice were discussed at length. What is a Buddhist response to political oppression? To economic exploitation? Does Buddhism encourage passivity and victimization? Can violent perpetrators be brought to justice without anger and retributive punishment? What does Buddhism say
- or imply - about collective karma, and social justice?

A common Buddhist reaction is that retributive justice is not necessary since the law of karma exacts a precise form of justice in the suffering that violent people bring upon themselves. Such a typical explanation suggests a whole host of issues and problems raised by the ways that traditional Buddhist societies have confronted (or not confronted) injustice. The subtle manner in which the Buddha distinguished his teaching of karma from the Brahmanical and Jain understandings has become blurred in Buddhist societies, giving way to:

a rigid karmic determinism that produces an attitude of fatalism towards injustice; that is, those who experience suffering deserve it based on bad actions in a previous lifetime

an accompanied ritualization of karmic action that views the overcoming of personal suffering not as a confrontation with social injustice but as making traditional offerings to the monastic order in order to gain karmic merit for future rebirth in more favorable circumstances

This lack of engagement with social injustice has created a "moral myopia" within traditional Buddhist societies towards the fundamental forms of structural and cultural violence underpinning the more visible acts of violence and oppression. The common understanding of karma often serves to perpetuate structural and cultural violence, such as:

SEXISM: the devaluation of the spiritual potential of women
Birth in female form is often seen as a result of bad karma. This also devalues women in general. Gender and domestic violence are seen as the consequences of a woman
's inferior karma which they must endure with patience or equanimity (upekkha).

CLASSISM: the legitimization of economic inequality and oppression
Those who are poor and wealthy are seen as receiving the just results of previous karma, regardless of their present moral character or behavior. The practice of generosity (dana) is distorted into a ritualistic system of giving material goods to monks. This system enables the rich to be
"better Buddhists" through their ability to make larger and more conspicuous offerings.

POLITICAL OPPRESSION: the legitimization of oppressive political systems
This understanding of karma supports socially passivity in the face of oppression. To resist oppressive power is seen to involve anger and conflict, thereby engendering bad karma. The doctrine of non-violence is distorted into a rationalization of non-action.

In addition to these social issues, which contemporary Buddhism must address, some teachings within the Buddhist tradition need to be critically re-examined in light of the Buddha's fundamental practice of non-violence (ahimsa):

What is the true meaning of karma (literally "action") in the Buddhist tradition? Is it ritualistic action to gain merit, the just deserts or results (vipaka) of an unforgiving cosmic force, or the quality of intention (cetana) behind present actions?

What is the true meaning of the ideal of equanimity (upekkha)? Is it resignation and passivity in the face of violence, or a sense of detachment towards efforts to make our lives and the lives of others better?

What is the true meaning of the ideals of generosity (dana) and doing good (punna)? Are these confined to calculated acts of giving by lay followers to the monastic order by which to gain favorable rebirth, or is there a much broader realm of intentional moral action in which Buddhist should engage?

Today such a critical re-evaluation of the Buddhist tradition is especially important for the countries of Southern Theravada Buddhism (Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, and parts of India, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam).

In the proposed volume, the authors are for the most part not academics but thinker-activists who have been deeply involved in these issues at the grassroots level and who speak from their own experience in trying to solve them. From their perspectives these issues have come to light as seminal ones for deeper contemplation and greater sharing, not only within the Buddhist community at large but among all those who seek to bridge the gaps between our idealization of human harmony, our tendencies toward violent confrontation, and the need for greater social justice.


PART 1 - Creative Karma
David Loy and Linda Goodhew
- The Karma of the Rings: A Myth for Modern Buddhism?
[Loy is Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Bunkyo University in Japan. He is the author of numerous essays and books on Buddhism and social issues. Goodhew is an associate professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at Gakushuin University in Tokyo]

Nalin Swaris - Karma: The Creative Life-Force Of Human Beings
[Nalin Swaris was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and was baptised into the Roman Catholic faith. He was ordained a Redemptorist Priest in 1962. After resigning from the ministry in 1969, he taught Social Philosophy and Methodology of Community Development for seventeen years at the Senior College for Social Work in De Horst, Dreibergen in the Netherlands. Back now in Sri Lanka, he works as a freelance journalist and lecturer.]

PART 2 - Karma and The Ritualization of Monastic-Lay Relations
Jonathan Watts - Karma for Everyone: Social Justice and the Problem of Re-ethicizing Karma in Theravada Buddhist Societies
[Watts is a former staff and executive board member of the International Network of Engaged Buddhist (INEB) and is presently the coordinator for Think Sangha, a socially engaged Buddhist "think tank" affiliated with INEB and the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF), USA].

Santikaro & Phra Phaisan Visalo - Goodness and Generosity Perverted:The Karma of Capitalist Buddhism in Thailand
[Both are Executive Committee Members of Phra Sekhiyadhamma, a nationwide network of Thai socially engaged monks. Phaisan is a leading intellectual, activist and dhamma teacher in Thailand. Santikaro is a leading disciple of the late Buddhadasa Bhikkhu who now resides in the Chicago area of the U.S.]

Mangesh Dahiwale - An Awakened Vision: Dr. B.R. Ambedkar's Struggle to Re-Ethicize Indian Society
Mangesh is a member of the Trailokya Bauddha Mahashangha Sahayak Gana (TBMSG) founded by Ven. Sangharakshita to promote the advancement of ex-Untouchable Buddhists in India according to the vision of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. He coordinates the International Ambedkar Forum which organizes meetings to educate especially young Buddhists in several schools and universities in Bombay and New Delhi.]

Jonathan Watts - The "Positive Disintegration" of Buddhism: Reformation and Deformation in the Sri Lankan Sangha

Part 3 - Karmic Fatalism and Social Injustice
Min Zin - Burmese Buddhism's Impact on Social Change:The Fatalism of Samsara and Monastic Resistance
[Min Zin founded a nation-wide high school student union in Burma and has worked closely with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. After going into exile in 1997, he became an assistant editor of the Irrawaddy Magazine. He was a visiting scholar at U.C. Berkeley's School of Journalism in 2001-2002.]

Khuensai Jaiyen - Liberation as Struggle:Overcoming Karmic Fatalism in Shan State
[Jaiyen is an elder in the Shan ethnic community in Burma and is director of the Shan Herald News Agency]

BOX: Buddhism and Domestic Violence: Creative Responses to Karmic Fatalism
          Special - not available in print version
Ouyporn Khuankaew - Buddhism and Domestic Violence

Upaseka Yaso - Buddhist Precepts as a Political Action Framework
[Upaseka Yaso is the Buddhist name of Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan. Yeshua is the Regional Representative of Nonviolence International in Southeast Asia and teaches Peace and Conflict at Mahidol University in Bangkok.]

Book Review:
Exploring Karma and Rebirth by Nagapriya
Reviewed by Ken Jones of the Network of Engaged Buddhists, UK

Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, Giving Dana that Doesn't Cost Any Money and Leads to Nibbana