The Buddha offers more than a dozen convincing arguments against racism in a conversation with the brahmins of his day who saw themselves as superior to others. These arguments focus on the lack of any real biological or psychological distinction between people of different castes, and point to social convention as the more obvious source of prejudice. You can read about this in the Assalayana Sutta (Middle Length Discourse 93), but most people these days hardly need convincing of something so evident.
We do face the more challenging problem of how first to uncover the socially constructed prejudices we all harbor and then to transform them, not at this level of intellectual argument but at the deeper level of changing emotional and behavioral responses. It is not about changing views (the aggregate of perception), but of reconstructing patterns of habitual reaction (the aggregate of formations). Fortunately, the Buddha bequeathed to us a powerful tool for doing this: mindfulness.
Psychology has demonstrated clearly that some of what we do is conscious and some is unconscious. That is to say, we are consciously aware of a narrow band of our experience as it unfolds, but most of what happens is formulated out of view and emerges apparently on its own from the mysterious depths of the psyche to surge into behavior unhindered by awareness. Our views and reactions are formed as they appear, based on patterns laid down in the past, and consciousness is more a matter of observing what is already unfolding than of deciding what will take place.
Mindfulness practice involves training the ability to observe what is happening within us in the present moment with an attitude of patience, kindness, and equanimity. As different bodily sensations or feeling tones or thoughts arise into conscious awareness, we “watch along with” (anupassati) them, or “gaze evenly upon” (upekkhati) them, or are simply “aware of” (pajanati) and “fully experience” (patisamvedati) them. If we get angry at what we see, or if any sort of response rooted in attraction or aversion occurs, then we are thrust out of mindful awareness and get carried away by an unhealthy emotional response. Eventually we may notice that this is happening and return the attention gently back to observing without judgment.
This is familiar territory to meditators. Now let’s see how this might scale from the realm of internal personal experience to a collective—even global—practice of mindfulness. When something is caught on video and then digitally shared with a universal audience, this can be seen as bringing to conscious awareness what might otherwise remain unknown and unknowable to all but the immediate participants. The Web is our collective mind, and the media sites that allow millions to see what one person has recorded can be regarded as supporting an emerging form of global meditation.
Witnessing an atrocity, observing injustice in action, or otherwise directly encountering the things that have historically been invisible is a way of shining the light of awareness into the dark corners of our world—much as meditation shines a light into the unexamined shadows of our mind. But the collective challenge is as daunting as the individual one: how do we bring patience, kindness, and equanimity to what we see instead of having it trigger and release the reservoirs of anger and hatred lurking within that are so ready and eager to erupt?
It is natural for fury to arise in the face of injustice, natural because our psyches are inhabited by primitive instincts adapted to survival at almost any cost. Anger is empowering, and conventional wisdom tells us that righteous anger is justified in such circumstances and is even necessary to move the mountains of discrimination, exploitation, and disrespect that perpetuate injustice. This may be true, but is it therefore the healthiest way to proceed? The Buddha was pointing us in a different direction. He encouraged us to acknowledge such feelings, but to then let go of them and respond instead with compassion and wisdom. Yes, laws and attitudes need to be changed, but how do we do that without harming ourselves in the process?
The challenge and promise of mindfulness practice is not simply to become aware of things, but to do so with a particular attitude or emotional tone—one that is confident, benevolent, mindful, ethical, tranquil, equanimous. It does no good and some harm to blame yourself for your attention wandering off the breath, or to get annoyed at the person behind you for coughing, or to resent the fact that a pain is arising in your knee. In just the same way, it is not helpful and can make things worse to erupt in hatred toward the mob that stones an innocent woman, the officer that shoots an unarmed black man, or the fanatic who executes a helpless captive. The object of awareness may be reprehensible, but the attitude with which we are aware of it is a different matter and shapes who we are and what will happen next. All the great reformers of our time (Gandhi, Mandela, King) knew the importance of this distinction and made it a cornerstone of their life’s work.
One can know with wisdom that these acts are deeply wrong, feel unbounded compassion for the victims of the atrocity, conjure up the energy needed to see that the perpetrators are brought to justice, and work withdetermination and even joy to change the conditions enabling such transgressions to occur. These are healthy emotions and can be just as effective as their unhealthy counterparts. Taking these steps on as a practice, either when examining our own inner prejudices or when exposing the injustices of the world, marks the difference between being swept along on the flood and working against the stream.
As the Buddha put it in several verses from the Samyutta Nikaya (11.4):
It is always a big mistake,
to return anger for anger.
Not giving anger for anger,
one wins a double victory.
One behaves for the good of both:
oneself and the other person.
Knowing well the other’s anger, one
is mindful and remains calm.
In this way one is healing both:
oneself and the other person.
The people who think “What a fool!”
just don’t understand the dhamma.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.