Freedom, Equality, & Justice

A commenter on my YouTube channel asked if I’d do a video about the Buddhist views on contemporary ethical values such as freedom, equality, and justice. 

When I thought about doing a video on these topics, I thought it could easily turn into a political discussion. It might even turn into a big argument. And I really want to avoid those! So I decided to write a blog instead.

The problem is that we contemporary people — especially Americans — get very excited about freedom, equality, and justice. But Buddhism faces us with some hard questions about those concepts.

For example, you can find a lot of references in Buddhist literature to freedom. But when you see the word “freedom” used in Buddhist writings it does not mean personal liberty. It’s not the kind of “freedom” Mel Gibson shouts about in Braveheart.

Here are a few lines I found in Shobogenzo when I searched for the word “free.” “This sutra can free all living beings from pain and suffering” (quoted from the Lotus Sutra). “The god Indra asks the National Master, ‘How can we be free from becoming?’ The National Master says, ‘Celestial One! You can be free from becoming by practicing the truth’.” “When we spring free from delusion and realization, the Flower of Dharma turns the Flower of Dharma.” “The master who gets free of body and mind is ourself already.” “Whatever comes into this great world sanctified by the buddhas—whether it is the buddhas, living beings, the earth, or space—will get free of fetters and attachments, and will return to the original state which is the wonderful Dharma of the buddhas.”

When Dogen talks about being free, he means being free from delusions and attachments. He does not mean the freedom to do whatever one wants to do. In fact, that sort idea about freedom would be one of the delusions that practice helps us get free from.

The very idea that there is any such thing as personal liberty is called into question. Are we really free to do what we want? Or is what we want usually just a conditioned response? When freedom is defined as “personal liberty” it’s about being free to pursue our desires. But Buddhism is about seeing through our desires, not pursuing them. No matter how lofty our desires seem to be, they are still desires. The Buddhist teachings ask us to avoid being carried away by what we want.

The matter of equality in Buddhism might be a little easier for us contemporary people to deal with. Dogen wrote passionately that women are equal to men in terms of intelligence and in terms of their ability to practice Buddhism. Historically, the Buddha is remembered as being a champion of equality between the castes (races) in India. Within the Buddhist order, monks and nuns were taught not to care about racial or class differences. 

On the other hand, life at a Buddhist monastery is often rigidly hierarchical. The monks and nuns may be equals in terms of race, class, sex, and ability to comprehend the dharma, but they are not equals in terms of rank within the monastery. There are big distinctions between senior monks and junior monks in terms of how they are expected to behave toward each other. Americans who enter Japanese Zen monasteries often have a very hard time with that aspect and sometimes walk out shouting about how “militaristic” Zen is.

When it comes to justice, this word does not even appear in Shobogenzo. There is, however, a lot about cause and effect. And when Buddhists talk about cause and effect, they mean karma. There’s a strong belief among Buddhists that karma is unavoidable. Whether justice in the form of judgments handed down by law occur or not, the karma a person sets into motion will always return to that person.

Furthermore, when “karmic justice” — if that’s even the proper term for it — happens it might not be as visible and obvious as legal justice. Maybe someone who does wrong doesn’t go to jail or lose his wealth but suffers in other ways that might not be as clearly noticeable.

Dogen comments about the inevitability of karma in an essay called Karma in the Three Times (Sanji no Go). Here he takes on the argument that sometimes people who do bad things seem to prosper. Dogen says that even if their karma doesn’t catch up with them in this lifetime, it will catch up with them in the next one.

A lot of us these days have trouble believing that. The idea of rebirth in Buddhism is very difficult. Entire schools of Buddhism have split up due to differences in interpretation of what rebirth is. Personally, I tend to believe that something like rebirth happens, but I don’t think it’s as simple as saying that there is some immutable person who returns lifetime after lifetime. Rather it’s more that the person I am now is the summation of lots and lots of causes, and some of those causes may continue after I’m gone, manifesting as another person in the future. It’s a tricky subject!

Again, I’m not presenting these ideas because I want to argue about them. I just think it’s useful to understand the different ways Buddhism tends to look at these sorts of things.

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