A Preferential Option for the Poor and Oppressed in Buddhism?

I would like to explore how we might adapt this idea of a preferential option to engaged Buddhism, while also speaking to some of the qualms many Buddhists might have with such an approach to engaged Buddhism—that it shows a preference for some groups over others instead of universal compassion; and that it embraces social conflict instead of working for dialogue and reconciliation. I’m going to argue here for an approach that understands the preferential option is not about more compassion for one group over another, but about the skillful means that allows us to best understand how to help oppressed people, those who suffer the most—and, in the long run, will also allow us to help those in more privileged positions as well. And that such skillful means involves engaging with the reality of social conflict in a grossly unequal global society, not trying to avoid it. In short, the preferential option is not about who we cultivate compassion for, but about the sort of social action that is most skillful in transforming suffering in society.

In keeping with a more contemporary, multi-dimensional/ intersectional understanding of oppression, I am also reformulating the preferential option for the poor as a preferential option for the oppressed—not just the poor, but women, people of color, LGBTQ people, those with disabilities, immigrants, people living in developing countries, etc. Indeed, liberation theology has in recent years been moving in this direction, as its advocates have come to see the way poverty is not only as a matter of class inequality, but also racialized, gendered, etc. as well

I believe using the lens of a preferential option for the oppressed will help us better understand the skillful means we need to use to transform society for the better, to reduce or eliminate many of the social sources of suffering. I also believe the preferential option allows us multiple opportunities to deepen our mindfulness practice—it encourages us to be more mindful of the lives of those who are oppressed and their distinct needs and aspirations; for those of us who are privileged, it encourages us to be mindful of our privilege and how this can create blind spots in our social vision; and it encourages us to be more mindful of large-scale social systems, processes of historical change, and how societies like ours with large degrees of inequality foster oppression and conflict.

Catholic liberation theology originally developed in the context of Latin America’s social conflicts, with many Catholic priests and nuns who worked in poor communities coming to the conclusion that they should not just administer charity to the poor, but should join them in fighting the social conditions that caused poverty. Often these conditions included highly repressive governments or large rural land-owners who controlled paramilitary forces, neither of them having any qualms about creating blood baths to uphold the status quo of great inequalities in wealth and power that left the majority of the population destitute. Liberation theology is strongly shaped by the Abrahamic religions’ prophetic tradition, particularly the fact that many of the ancient Hebrew prophets spoke out against the misdeeds of the powerful. Liberation theology advocates also think it is significant that God chose to be incarnated as a human—Jesus of Nazareth—not in a wealthy or powerful family, but in a poor, working one; and point to Christ’s teachings embracing the poor and criticizing the wealthy. The development of liberation theology was also informed by Marxism’s critique of capitalism as being an innately exploitive and dehumanizing political-economic system, without embracing all aspects of Marxism, such as its historical materialist philosophical foundation. Later liberation theologians also engaged with other critical social theories such as feminism and green social thought. Although always resisted and rejected by some parts of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy, the influence of liberation theology worked its way upward and in 1979, a conference of Latin American bishops in Puebla, Mexico adopted many aspects of it. From there, liberation theology began to spread among Church members worldwide.

Traditional Catholic theology is, according to its critics among liberation theologians, largely intellectual, often divorced from people’s daily lives, their spiritual practice, and social justice activism. Liberation theology is arguably more akin to Buddhism in that the emphasis is on a theory—a set of teachings—built on people’s actual practices as they seek liberation. But where Buddhists have historically emphasized individual practice for spiritual liberation, with some attention to the sangha; liberation theology emphasizes the practice of social justice activists working together to make the world a better place as the source of its theory—liberation theology builds not only on practices seeking spiritual liberation, but also political liberation. Central to the practice of liberation theology is consciousness-raising, the practice of having members of an oppressed community come together to talk about the problems that face them. What advocates of consciousness-raising have found is that when members of oppressed communities gather to talk like this, they often can develop a good understanding of the oppression they face and why they face it on their own, out of their own daily experiences. We might think of such consciousness-raising groups as the political equivalent of dharma sharing groups.

I suspect there are two aspects of a preferential option for the poor and other oppressed groups that many engaged Buddhists will have some difficulty with—things that also trouble many Catholics. One is simply the idea of showing a preference for one social group—the oppressed—over another. Many Catholics have argued that a preferential option for the poor is at odds with Christ’s mission of universal love and redemption. Similarly, many Buddhists are likely to see such a preferential option as at odds with a message of universal compassion and the bodhisattva vows, in which we are called to work for the salvation of all sentient beings. Another sticking point for may Christians and Buddhists is likely to be the call to take sides in social conflicts. Again, many may see a call for this type of action as at odds with universal love, compassion, and reconciliation. In his article, “A Buddhist Critique of, and Learning from, Christian Liberation Theology” (Theological Studies, 2014, vol. 75, no. 3), John Makransky, a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner and a scholar of comparative theology, has warned that, while the preferential option is not innately at odds with the cultivation of universal love and compassion, it can easily fall into that trap. He points to some of the writings of Gustavo Gutierrez, one of the founders of liberation theology, as an example of this. On the other hand, Markransky also points to the work of more recent liberation theologians influenced by eco-feminism, who he argues have avoided this trap. If approached correctly, Markansky argues, the preferential option can be a means to liberate the oppressor as well as the oppressed by helping us to understand how to transform the oppressive social system that warps relationships between people and fosters suffering in all of us as a result.

Peter J. Henriot, a US Jesuit, stresses in his 1990 book Opting for the Poor: A Challenge for North Americans that the preferential option should be understood as “a preferential but not exclusive option for the poor” (and other oppressed groups). No one is suggesting that the wealthy, the powerful, and other oppressors are not worthy of our compassion and that we should not be working for their redemption.

Liberation theology founder Gustavo Gutierrez speaks to the concerns many will have about participating in social conflicts when he says, “To refer to social conflictiveness (‘a grave structural conflict’ […]) does not mean relishing or promoting it; that would be inhuman and unchristian” (The Density of the Present: Selected Writings, p. 87). But he argues that the alternative to engaging with this conflict is to accept a false, oppressive peace. Speaking of a conference of Latin American Catholic bishops in Medellin, Colombia that embraced many of the ideas of liberation theology, Gutierrez says, “We can say that the Medellin proposal for peace is a call to truth: a challenge to avoid the deception of a false peace that seeks to disguise the inhuman situation of the poor […]. That kind of peace does not work in any case, because […] social injustice is ‘the continuous and inevitable seed of rebellions and wars.’ Those whose storehouses, desire for power, or vanity are fed by the current situation do not want to hear talk of that reality. Nevertheless, true social peace cannot be attained without looking that reality in the face” (pp. 89-90).

In other words, Gutierrez asks us to be mindful of how society actually works and not cling to our illusions about how we might like it to work. In societies riven with the great social, economic, and political inequalities that our national and global societies have, conflicts for control over the power to make decisions, over resources, and over the values and beliefs people will hold are built into the system. Trying to stay above social conflicts usually translates in practice, however unintentionally, into a preferential option for the status quo.

A clear-eyed look at the wreckage of human history shows that, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said in his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” “History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as [Protestant theologian] Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups are more immoral than individuals.” Prior to the US Civil War, many abolitionists tried moral persuasion as a means to end slavery. While they won over a few individual slave-owners who freed their slaves, the response of the vast majority of slave owners was to double down and start defending slavery as a positive moral good. Most abolitionists, many of whom had been pacifists, at a loss for how else to end this evil, ended up backing the North in the Civil War. (Fortunately, today nonviolent techniques of social conflict are far more well developed.) In today’s global society, the production of many goods, from clothing to high tech electronics, is done through global production chains where the vast majority of goods are produced in sweatshops where workers are hyper-exploited. Although many companies have put in place corporate social responsibility programs, with a few honorable exceptions like Patagonia, these programs are ineffective. They allow such companies to represent themselves as if they are trying to address the problem, but they refuse to change the business practices that generate sweatshops in the first place. And when workers in those sweatshops try to unionize to improve their working conditions, they almost universally face repression, ranging from the firing and blacklisting of their leaders to, in some of the more violent countries, being gunned down by death squads.

Thus, there is no way to bring about the needed transformation without social conflict and struggle—and those who seek that transformation must necessarily take the side in the struggle that seeks change for the better. That struggle can and should take nonviolent forms, where we seek to ultimately bring about the redemption of the oppressor, while recognizing the bitter truth that most such people will not change their beliefs and actions until after the social world has changed around them and they no longer hold power.

As I have explored in depth in another column, the problem of not taking sides being effectively a preferential option for the status quo is true of even those approaches to engaged Buddhism that do seek to engage with conflicts and bring about change, but try to do so by promoting dialogue and reconciliation between the various sides. There is nothing wrong with these goals, but often they are putting the cart before the horse. An approach that seeks to completely eschew open conflict in favor of dialogue and reconciliation ignores the fact that in most such situations, one side has so much more power that they can simply ignore calls for dialogue and reconciliation or twist them to their own ends, thereby using dialogue as a means to reinforce an unjust status quo. It is worth remembering that, in his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr. argued that the only way to get white supremacist city leaders to engage in good faith dialogue about desegregating Birmingham was to engage in nonviolent direct action that brought the city to standstill, forcing city leaders to bargain in good faith instead of making promises they had no intention of keeping. The path to a society founded on principles of peace and reconciliation is through a process of social struggle against those social forces that undermine social justice and thereby undermine true peace and reconciliation.

Henriot argues that we need to understand the preferential “option” for the poor—taking the side of the poor in social struggles—as not really optional for being a good Christian. Rather, the term “option” refers to the choices individuals and religious institutions have to make about which side to take about in social conflicts. You can’t not choose sides—not choosing sides generally amounts to being complicit in the status quo, since not choosing sides often amounts to not trying to change anything or taking only ameliorative action, like charity, not transformative action like fighting for social justice. So, the option for the poor should be no more optional for a good Buddhist, one who cares not only about compassion and generosity, but also about skillful means.

In Cultivating the Mind of Love, Thay explores the teaching of the two truths from The Lotus Sutra. The two truths are the ultimate truth and the relative or historical truth. Thay also refers to them as different dimensions from within which we can make sense of the world around us and act. Despite the names, the ultimate truth is not more true than the historical truth—rather they are both equally true ways of looking at reality, ways that we need to bring together if we are to become fully awakened and act skillfully and compassionately in the world. The ultimate dimension is the the dimension in which we transcend distinctions of self and other, good and bad. In this dimension, we embrace all beings equally. But in the historical dimension we recognize that, while self and other are ultimately illusions, in practical terms, we need to use such concepts to interact with the world around us. In Cultivating the Mind of Love, Thay suggests that our goal should be to bring the two truths together in a way that allows us to act both wisely and compassionately in the historical dimension to relieve the suffering of sentient beings.

To do so, I argue we need to understand how social dynamics work in the historical dimension and use skillful means. I would argue that this involves recognizing that, while no one is beyond redemption, there are oppressor and oppressed and that this relationship causes suffering—suffering to both sides of the relationship, but a far deeper suffering to the oppressed. And skillful means involve taking sides in the conflict on the side of the oppressed in order to transform the social structures that create oppression. The comparative theologian Makransky argues this is one of the areas where engaged Buddhists can learn a great deal from liberation theology. Historically, Buddhist teachers have emphasized the importance of generosity and individual acts of generosity towards others. As a result, while one can find historical examples of Buddhist practitioners organizing charitable efforts to help others, it is rare to find them challenging the rulers who make such charity necessary. The Judeo-Christian tradition, on the other hand, is rich with prophets speaking out against such injustices. Liberation theology founder Gutierrez emphasized the importance of the Christian church engaging with processes of social change. This is what lead liberation theologians to engage with such secular theories as Marxism and feminism—they recognized that, despite the prophetic tradition, Christianity itself did not have the tools to engage in an in-depth social analysis, but that Christians could find those tools through dialogue with critical social theory. Buddhism, without a significant prophetic tradition, has even more need of such a dialogue. Taking sides in social struggles is skillful means in the historical dimension, not renouncing any hope of redemption and awakening for the oppressor in the ultimate dimension.

Taking a preferential option for the poor and oppressed also gives us an opportunity to expand our mindfulness practice. The preferential option asks us to go deeper than simply taking sides in a conflict. It asks us to imaginatively identify with the poor and oppressed—to develop an understanding of them and the way they experience the world. Thay, of course, encourages us to do something similar, not only with the poor, but all beings, in order to cultivate compassion for them. Henriot argues, however, while the cultivation of universal love is important, there is a pragmatic dimension to this. We should be asking what any social policy, whether implemented by government or business, looks like from the viewpoint of oppressed communities: What impact will it have on them? Will it harm them or improve their lives? Does it treat them with dignity or stigmatize them? Does it empower them or oppress them?

For those of us from more privileged social locations—the well-to-do, whites, men, heterosexuals, cisgender people, those without disabilities, those with legal citizenship, people living in developed countries, etc.—part of taking the preferential option for the oppressed needs to be thinking about how we can change the social system to truly empower them—and what those of us who are more privileged need to give up in the process. This requires being mindful not only of the needs of others, but of where our own privileges might result in us having blindspots. Too often we only think about social policies from the perspective of how it will affect us and people we know, which are usually mostly people like us. It is important to be able to view social policies from the perspective of a wide range of groups in society and not fool ourselves into thinking that just because something is beneficial to us, it will be broadly beneficial to other groups. And it is easy to fool ourselves in this regard—it takes some degree of mindfulness both of our own self-interests and a real willingness to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes not to do this.

An obvious historic example is the arguments of many slave owners in the US pre-Civil War South that slavery was more beneficial to blacks than whites, that whites were taking on the burden of morally uplifting blacks from savagery to civilization by enslaving them. Nowadays this seems clearly absurd to us, but in its time, many found it plausible. We should thus look carefully at contemporary arguments that justify social inequality to mindfully consider whether they might not be similar rationalizations for a powerful social group protecting their narrowly understood self-interests. Business leaders and their political allies often push for deregulation of business, arguing that giving them more freedom to operate their businesses as they see fit will cause economic growth and allow them to create jobs. In fact, a survey of the last few decades of economic policy in the US shows that when such deregulation happens, conditions deteriorate for workers. Indeed, businesses often can boost profits through mass layoffs and outsourcing work overseas or replacing people with technology. But too often well-to-do progressives satisfy themselves with reforms that, while they ease the economic burden of poverty, don’t change the balance of power in society. The welfare state US liberals have historically supported does not empower poor people by giving them more control over the policies that affect them. Proposals by New Left activists in the 1960s to allow welfare recipients to help administer the programs that benefits them were not well received by the liberal establishment.

Zen practice and teachings often privileges personal experience as a source of knowledge. The preferential option for the oppressed asks us, especially more privileged, to be mindful of lives of people with very different experiences than us because in very different positions in social system. This is consistent with the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings of the Order of Interbeing, which challenge us to step outside our own perspective and be “open to others’ experiences and insights in order to benefit from the collective wisdom” (The Second Mindfulness Training) and to be present with others’ suffering, so we may deepen our understanding of the roots of suffering (to paraphrase the Fourth Training).

The preferential option also asks to step beyond personal experience, whether our own and others, to take a more big picture view—to be aware not only of the web of interconnections between us, but how exactly that web is organized, looking at how social and ecological systems work at the collective level. This is where liberation theology borrows most heavily from Marxism, feminism, and similar schools of thought, which look at how social systems are set up in ways that create inequalities in power, which in turn leave the door open for oppression, exploitation, discrimination, and marginalization. Although Marx would frequently attack capitalists for their exploitation of workers in his writings, he was ultimately quite clear that the problem was capitalism as a system, not capitalists as individuals. It doesn’t matter who is running the businesses—capitalism is set up in such a way that it creates innate conflicts of interest between capitalists and workers over control of resources and power, with the inequalities in power between the two group giving capitalists the upper hand and resulting in large-scale, systemic exploitation. Marx himself and other socialists in the classical sense of this term sought to solve this problem by transforming society radically so that no one would have significantly more power than others and resources were equitably distributed, eliminating the main source of conflict. Social democrats, on the other hands, look to the Nordic states (Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden) as models, where the conflicts between capitalists and workers are mediated by a democratic government that protect labor unions and has a strong welfare system, allowing capitalism’s dynamism to be harnessed while keeping levels of inequality and exploitation low. Both of these approaches take real account of the fact that conflict and exploitation are built into capitalism.

I would argue in the long run, our main hope of relieving the suffering of not only the oppressed but the oppressor involves taking the side of the oppressed in order to transform such social structures that foster oppression and suffering. Makransky argues that it is critical to make this idea central to our practice as engaged Buddhists (or Christian followers of liberation theology) if we want to avoid the trap of cultivating more compassion for some people than others. It is, of course, difficult to cultivate compassion for those we are engaged in a struggle against. But it is always harder to cultivate compassion for some people than others. Instructions for loving-kindness meditation typically advise us to slowly work our way from cultivating loving-kindness for ourselves, then to those we love, then to those we are indifferent to, and finally to our enemies, precisely because people the latter categories are so challenging to truly embrace with our compassion. On the other hand, Buddhist practices like loving-kindness meditation gives us powerful tools to help us avoid slipping into hate and maintain a certain level of openness to those we are locked in even the most bitter struggle with. Indeed, practitioners of Catholic liberation theology (and its Protestant equivalent, the social gospel) may find such practices useful to them in working towards Christian ideals of universal love.

Drawing on both such loving-kindness practices and the structural analyses of critical social theories like Marxism and feminism, we can see that, in some ways, the oppressor is more trapped in the system of oppression than the oppressed. While it is the oppressed who suffer the most, it is the oppressors who have the most trouble practicing a mindfulness that looks closely at uncomfortable social issues. The kind of structural analysis summarized above frequently discomforts those in privileged positions because it calls into question their place in the social systems that support such inequalities. The liberation theologian and Brazilian archbishop Helder Camara once noted, “When I give food to the poor, people call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a Communist.”

Martin Luther King also spoke to this in his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” where he was responding to white clergy who claimed to be sympathetic to the cause of black freedom from segregation, but urged the civil rights movement to take a slower, less confrontation approach. King said, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct-action movement that was ‘well timed’ according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘wait.’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This ‘wait’ has almost always meant ‘never.’ It has been a tranquilizing thalidomide, relieving the emotional stress for a moment, only to give birth to an ill-formed infant of frustration. We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’”

Being in a position of power over someone else blunts your capacity for real understanding of those beneath you and therefore real compassion for them—and thereby hinders the ability of the powerful to engage in true spiritual practice. In theory, bureaucracies, whether business, governmental or non-profit, are supposed to allow those at the top to have access to a wide range of information, so they can make well informed decisions. In practice, this is rarely the case. Because of what psychologists call the confirmation bias, people in positions of power may ignore information that doesn’t fit with what they already believe—and because they are in a position of power, no one else is able to hold them accountable and force them to confront information or ideas that unsettle them. Often, such information never makes it to them, because people will not pass on information or ideas they believe will upset those more powerful them. Thus, those in positions of power usually act from a position of social ignorance. A business owner, for instance, usually has relatively little idea of the impact their decisions have on low-level workers—especially when those low-level workers are working in sweatshops on the other side of the world and technically work for another company, to which the lead business has outsourced less profitable stages of production. And, when activists confront leaders with such information, those in power often deny the facts because they threaten their own self-image of themselves as good people. While there are certainly honorable exceptions, people in positions of power and privilege who see relatively clearly and support social reform, most people in positions of power believe that the system that benefits them is fundamentally just because they can’t conceive of themselves as participating in something unjust. Only when social justice activists engage in disruptive activism, bringing to light the ugly realities of the suffering of the oppressed, are those in power likely to begin to see how the social system really works—and they are only likely to embrace change once it has been forced on them by the social system transforming underneath their feet.

Henriot makes an interesting argument that by embracing the preferential option for the poor, Catholics are allowing the poor to evangelize the church. What he means by this is that by looking at the lives of the poor and the question of what we are doing to help them, we can keep ourselves a religious community honest and faithful to our ideals. Are we genuinely putting compassion and generosity into practice? Or are we complacent with our own power and privilege, like the corrupt Catholic Church of the Renaissance or that sided with brutally repressive regimes in Latin America? Historically, Buddhist monastic orders have accommodated themselves to prevailing social hierarchies, supporting militaristic monarchs as “wheel-turning kings;” arguing that people born into poverty and oppression had earned it through bad karma from previous lives; and, in many parts of the Buddhist world, letting the nuns’ order go extinct, so women have no opportunities to pursue a religious vocation. More recently, many Japanese Buddhist teachers supported Japan’s brutal imperialism before and during World War 2 and the Buddhist monastic hierarchies in both Sri Lanka and Burma are supporting ethnic cleansing of non-Buddhist minorities. In the West, many Buddhists are interested in promoting a secularized, bastardized mindfulness practice that facilitates corporate profitability, helping people to be more productive workers, divorcing mindfulness from ethical conduct—instead of asking how mindfulness might be used to make the world a more compassionate place and how it might help social justice movements.

Embracing a preferential option for the oppressed as part of engaged Buddhism will help us deepen our practice as Buddhists, seeing more clearly what skillful means will relieve social suffering and expand our mindfulness to new areas that traditional Buddhist practice has not been equipped to address.

Matt Williams
Truly Holding Peace
Lakeside Buddha Sangha
Chicago IL


  1. 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. 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. 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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