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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