Order of Interbeing | Tiep Hien

A Preferential Option for the Poor and Oppressed in Buddhism?

In the Plum Village tradition, we all embrace the idea of engaged Buddhism as central to our practice. However, we have very diverse ideas about what constitutes skillful means in practicing engaged Buddhism. I have met people who think that simply by practicing loving-kindness meditation for all beings they are helping to make the world a better place. Others are involved in the helping professions, charitable work, efforts to promote dialogue and reconciliation, or social justice protest and other forms of activism. These various things are, of course, not mutually exclusive, but it is also certainly the case that we do not all see eye to eye on what we ought to be doing. And yet we relatively rarely seem to have conversations about which of these activities are really skillful means. I’m contributing this column as my part of my thoughts on this matter. I don’t imagine everyone will agree with it—and I think it is important that the sangha remain a place of refuge, where people with very different ideas about the most skillful means are all feel included.

In Roman Catholic liberation theology, there is a concept known as the “preferential option for the poor.” The core of this idea is that, in the social conflicts in our society, it is the duty of a virtuous Christian to support the movements of the poor in the struggle to create a society based on social and economic justice. So, a good Christian would support people fighting for democracy against a repressive military regime; slum dwellers fighting for basic services such as running water, electricity, trash pickup, and schools in their neighborhoods; or workers struggling to unionize—even in the face of active opposition from those in power, whether military leaders, business-owners, or the wealthy who don’t want to see resources go those in most desperate need of them. (I should also add that I am by no means an expert on liberation theology or Roman Catholicism more broadly—I’ve principally read up on this one aspect of liberation theology.)

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3 responses to “A Preferential Option for the Poor and Oppressed in Buddhism?”

  1. jim boles Avatar
    jim boles

    Some who study religious group like to classify them as interior focused (intragroup behaviors, seeking perfection or inward focus) or exterior focused (extragroup behaviors, evangelic or outward focus). The tension of these two motivational forces can cause splits/factions, and ongoing struggles of identity and mission.

    If the Sangha was perfected in both a practical sense (self-sufficient, self-sustaining, etc.) and perfected as a human community (Interbeing), then would it not be a model for reducing the suffering of all? Does a Sangha need to operate outside of itself when it itself has not been perfected?

    Have there not always been those who attempt to reduce suffering of others, which would increase their own positive karma, but would not add to the positive karma of others, only reduce the temporal suffering of others in some small manner (small relative to the suffering of all)?

    Would not a perfected Sangha accomplish both the reduction of temporal suffering of those who seek refuge in the Sangha, and accomplish the much more profound goal of providing a model to reduce the suffering of all (and not just temporal suffering)?

    Is not Interbeing within the Sangha the best best place to give witness to Buddhahood?

  2. Eve Avatar

    My experience tells me something else. This is only my story – but I needed suffering to enable me to see a way forward. Everything was there for me but I could not move myself forward – it was only by suffering myself that I was able to move beyond it. If I had been “ “ rescued” by well meaning others I would not have experienced the spiritual awareness accessed through suffering which led to my connection to Self/ God / I help people every day but I do it one to one where I am able. I continue to support those around me one to one. Blessings

  3. Matt Avatar

    Hi Eve. I don’t know the specifics of your story, so I don’t want to claim to have something to say about it. More generally, however, the idea behind a preferrential option for the oppressed is not that privileged should come in to paternalistically rescue the oppressed–though if poorly done that can certainly happen, often with unhappy results. It’s about those suffering from oppression empowering themselves and those with social privilege supporting them in those efforts, while letting the oppressed lead. It is a collective effort because society won’t change otherwise. But, even with our individual practice, Thay reminds us that a practitioner without a sangha–a supportive community–is like a tiger without a forest. It’s important not to try to control others for their own supposed good, but it is important that we support one another.

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