You may know the story of Angulimala, the bandit who had killed many people and wore a garland (mala) made of their fingers (anguli). After a dramatic encounter with the Buddha, he had such an extreme change of heart that he abandoned his violent ways, awakened a sense of compassion, and eventually gained total release.

The story is a popular one because most of us like to identify with Angulimala: if he could gain awakening, then there’s hope for us all. But in identifying with him, we forget that his was a case where justice was blatantly not served. Think of the feelings of those he had terrorized and of the relatives of those he had killed. In their eyes, he had gotten away with murder.

It’s easy to understand, then, as the story tells us, that when Angulimala went for alms after his awakening, people would throw stones at him, and he’d return from his alms round, “his head broken open and dripping with blood, his bowl broken, and his outer robe ripped to shreds.” As the Buddha reassured him, these wounds were nothing compared with the sufferings he would have undergone if he hadn’t reached awakening.

And if the outraged people had fully satisfied their thirst for justice, meting out the suffering they thought he deserved, he wouldn’t have lived to reach awakening at all.

So his was a case in which the end of suffering took precedence over justice in any ordinary sense of the word. And his story is not an aberration. When we look at the Pali canon, the earliest extant record of the Buddha’s teachings, we find that the Buddha never presented his teachings as a way to attain a just world. In fact, he never mentioned the word “justice” in his teachings at all. This was a deliberate move on his part. In the course of his awakening, he had learned two lessons in how the pursuit of justice as an ultimate end would have thwarted his primary aim in spreading the dhamma: to teach people how to stop creating suffering for themselves and others, and to attain total freedom.

The first lesson had to do with karma. As he explained in Anguttara Nikaya 3:101, if the workings of karma required strict, tit-for-tat justice—with your having to experience the consequences of each act just as you inflicted it on others—there’d be no way that anyone could reach the end of suffering. If, for example, having killed ten people, you’d have to be reborn as a human being and murdered ten times, your potential awakening would be delayed for at least ten rebirths, during which time you’d incur even more karmic debts, delaying your awakening indefinitely. The reason we can reach awakening is that even though actions of a certain type give a corresponding type of result, the intensity of how that result is felt is determined not only by the original action but also—and more importantly—by our state of mind when the results ripen. In other words, your past karma doesn’t shape everything you experience. Your present karma plays a crucial role as well.

An untrained mind is like a small cup of water; a well-trained mind, like the water in a large, clear river.

This is why we practice meditation: to master the skills we need so as not to suffer from whatever comes up in the present moment. If you’ve developed unlimited goodwill and equanimity, and have trained well in virtue, discernment, and the ability to be overcome by neither pleasure nor pain, then when the results of past bad actions ripen, you’ll hardly feel them at all. If you haven’t trained yourself in these ways, then even the results of a trifling bad act can consign you to hell.

The Buddha illustrates this principle with three similes. The first compares results of past bad actions to a large salt crystal. An untrained mind is like a small cup of water; a well-trained mind, like the water in a large, clear river. If you put the salt into the water of the cup, you can’t drink it because it’s too salty. But if you put the salt into the river, you can still drink the water because there’s so much more of it and it’s so clean. All in all, an attractive image, one that appeals to the Angulimala in all of us, in our desire not to be weighed down by any bad actions in our karmic past.

The other two similes, though, look at this principle from another angle, and show that it goes against some very basic ideas of fairness. In one simile, a bad action is like the theft of money; in the other, it is likened to the theft of a goat. In both similes, the untrained mind is like a poor person who, because he’s poor, gets heavily punished for either of these two crimes, whereas the well-trained mind is like a rich person who, because he’s rich, doesn’t get punished for either theft at all. Here it’s hard not to feel sympathy for the poor person, but these images drive home the hard but necessary point that for karma to work in a way that allows us to pursue a path to the end to suffering, it can’t work in such a way as to guarantee absolute justice. If we insisted on a system of karma that did guarantee justice, the path to freedom from suffering would be closed.

This set of values, which gives preference to a free happiness over justice when there’s a conflict between the two, doesn’t sit very well with many Western Buddhists. “Isn’t justice a larger and nobler goal than happiness?” we ask.

The short answer to this question relates to the Buddha’s compassion: seeing that we’ve all done wrong in the past, his compassion extended to wrongdoers as well as to those who’ve been wronged. For this reason, he taught the way to freedom from suffering regardless of whether that suffering was “deserved” or not.

For the long answer, though, we have to turn and look at ourselves.

Many of us educated in the West, even if we’ve rejected the monotheism that shaped our culture, tend to hold to the idea that there are objective standards of justice to which everyone should conform. When distressed over the unfair state of society, we often express our views for righting wrongs not as suggestions of wise courses of action but as objective standards as to how everyone is duty bound to act.

We tend to forget, though, that the very idea that those standards could be objective and universally binding makes sense only in the context of a monotheistic worldview: one in which the universe was created at a specific point in time—say, by Abraham’s God or by Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover—with a specific purpose. In other words, we maintain the idea of objective justice even though we’ve abandoned the worldview that underpins the idea and makes it valid.

For example, retributive justice—the justice that seeks to right old wrongs by punishing the first wrongdoer and/or those who responded excessively to the first wrong—demands a background story beginning at a specific point in time so that we can determine who threw the first stone and tally up the score of who did what after that first provocation. Because it’s so easy to disagree on when stories like this begin, even in a monotheistic universe, efforts to impose this sort of justice often incite more conflict than they resolve.

Restorative justice—the justice that seeks to return situations to their proper state before the first stone was thrown—requires not only a specific beginning point but also that the beginning point be a good place to return to. Here we run into the problem that even monotheists get into conflicts over what that good place would be.

Distributive justice—the justice that seeks to determine who should have what, and how resources and opportunities should be redistributed from those who have them to those who should have them—requires a common source, above and beyond individuals, from which all things flow and that establishes the purposes those things should serve. And here, again, it’s impossible to get everyone to agree on what that source would be, and what purposes it has in mind.

We’ve all been oppressors and oppressed, over and over again.

Only when their respective conditions are met can these forms of justice be objective and binding on all. Even in a non-Buddhist worldview, these forms of justice lead to inevitable conflicts. In the Buddha’s worldview, though, it’s impossible that their conditions could ever be met.

This relates to the second set of lessons about justice that the Buddha gained from his awakening, lessons about time and rebirth. In the first knowledge he gained on the night of his awakening, he saw his own past lives, back through countless eons, repeatedly rising and falling through many levels of being and through the evolution and collapse of many universes. As he later said, the beginning point of the process—called samsara, this bad habit we have of “wandering on”—was inconceivable. Not just unknowable. Inconceivable. This means that there can be no clear point from which we can begin the tally of wrongs and rights that retributive justice demands.

In the second knowledge, he saw that the process of death and rebirth applied to all beings in the universe, and that—because it had gone on so long—it would be hard to find a person who had never been your mother, father, brother, sister, son, or daughter in the course of that long, long time. We’ve all been oppressors and oppressed, over and over again.

He also saw that the universe was shaped by the conflicting intentions of all its many beings, and that it serves the designs of no one in particular. As one dhamma summary has it, “There is no one in charge” (Majjhima Nikaya 82). This means that the universe has no purpose, there’s no ideal state to return to, and there’s no source to determine how the goods of the universe should be distributed. So there’s no way that ideas of restorative or distributive justice could be universally binding.

What’s more, the universe has the potential to continue without end. Unlike a monotheistic universe, with its creator passing final judgment, samsara offers no prospect of a fair or just closure—or even, apart from nibbana, any closure at all.

This point has two consequences. The first is that there can be no valid theory of ends justifying the means, because samsara involves nothing but means. This is why the Buddha answered the question of how to attain long-term happiness within the universe not with a demand for a fair society but with a recommendation for meritorious actions—i.e., actions that, in creating happiness and freedom, harm no one.

These actions come down to three: generosity, virtue, and the development of universal goodwill. To provide for your own long-term happiness, you adopt these actions yourself. To provide for the long-term happiness of others, you persuade them to adopt them. Unlike theories of justice, which require stories to justify the punishments they often call for, meritorious actions require no justifications at all. They obviously come from a good heart, and because they spread their goodness all around, they’re genuine means for fostering harmony and peace.

For a just society to be possible, it’s essential that people first train their hearts and minds.

The second consequence of the fact that, aside from nibbana, there is no closure to samsara is that even if you could create a just society, it wouldn’t last. That’s because, unless the human heart is trained, justice wouldn’t satisfy it. As the Buddha commented to Mara—the only being who ever invited him to rule justly over others (Samyutta Nikaya 4:20)—even two mountains the size of the Himalayas made of solid gold wouldn’t be enough to satisfy the wants of any one person. No matter how fairly wealth and opportunities were distributed under your rule, there would always be those dissatisfied with their portions. As a result, there would always be people you’d have to fight in order to maintain your power.

This shows the weakness of the idea that we need a just society before we can enjoy the “luxury” of meditation. Actually, the priorities go the other way around: For a just society to be possible, it’s essential that people first train their hearts and minds.

So the fact that the universe, as the Buddha saw it, serves no one’s design and is aimed at no overarching purpose militates against the pursuit of justice as an overriding goal. That’s its downside. Its upside is that 1) because you don’t have to serve anyone else’s overarching purpose, and 2) because your experience of pleasure and pain isn’t totally determined by your past karma, you’re free to pursue the end of suffering if you choose to do so.

Even if you don’t accept the Buddhist worldview in its entirety, it’s undeniable that for a path to freedom from suffering to be possible, these two conditions have to be met.

It was because the Buddha saw that a just society wouldn’t satisfy the untrained human heart that he focused his energies not on working for justice but on teaching people how to train their own hearts. That way, as long as they continue engaging in samsara, they can minimize the suffering they cause to themselves and others, and they can use their generosity, virtue, and limitless goodwill to mitigate suffering wherever they can. When they finally kick the samsara habit, they can reach the freedom of an unconditioned happiness that causes no one to suffer at all.

So if we follow the principles of the Buddha’s teachings, instead of falling into the trap of inflicting our notions of justice on one another, we can foster the conditions that allow for even the Angulimalas of the world to put down their weapons and gain freedom, whether they deserve it or not.

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