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What does “justice” mean to us legally as Americans, in a country with a history rooted in white supremacy? What does it mean to us spiritually as Buddhists, in a country where the majority holds monotheistic beliefs? And how do we navigate our relationship to justice as Buddhist Americans, in the midst of the struggle against police killings of African American people?
As Buddhist Insight Meditation teachers, our sanghas have called on us to address these kinds of questions. As a former prosecutor and former criminal defense attorney, both women of color, one African American and one mixed race South Asian and white, we came together across our similarities and our differences, to explore how our dharma practices lead us to respond.
People often think of justice as impartial, fair, and equitable responses to harm, and as being done either in individual cases or being inherent in a system. Systemically, criminal justice in America is rooted in the English common law and in a social contract in which power is given to the government, with the expectation the government will fairly resolve culpability for harming acts against society. This social contract manifests as laws born out of a representative government of the people; law enforcement that has the requirement “to protect and serve” as its foundation; and a court system that is expected to give ordinary citizens the benefit of the doubt, legal representation, and the opportunity to be fairly judged by one’s own peers.
Built upon the principle of innocent until proven guilty, the system puts the responsibility of establishing criminal behavior on the government, rather than on the individual. The government must establish both criminal intent and criminal action. The standard for proving criminal behavior, beyond a reasonable doubt, is one of the highest, strictest standards in our entire legal system.
While these standards and laws define the idea of criminal justice in the United States, the administration of that system is another matter. The American writer and activist James Baldwin wrote: “If one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a country, one does not question the policemen, the lawyers, the judges, or the protected members of the middle class. One goes to the unprotected—those, precisely, who need the law’s protection most!—and listens to their testimony.” For African Americans in particular, not only is there no trusted social contract for criminal justice, but anyone wanting to understand racism need only look at the criminal justice system. It provides the clearest view for seeing the truth and anguish of racism. There is a felt contradiction in what constitutes “criminal” and “justice” in the United States, because, based on race, different Americans experience the “criminal justice” system so differently.
The framework of the American criminal justice system is often considered to be one of the best in the world. And for ordinary white Americans, the system often works fine, mostly because ordinary white Americans can rely on the presumption that they are innocent until proven guilty. For ordinary African Americans, the system, at its core, is rotten, with white supremacy undermining every aspect. As many viral videos demonstrate, racism allows criminal intent to be inferred in ordinary interactions. It is assumed that if an African American is present, criminal conduct will follow. It is assumed when African Americans enter any neighborhood, public park, store, or event where white people don’t think they should be, that they are a threat and should be surveilled. And most notably, it is assumed African Americans are carrying or doing something illegal when driving. This assumption entitles all white people to treat African Americans as dangerous unless they can, in a noticeably short amount of time, alleviate any fear.
White supremacy creates narratives about all non-white people. It is a cloak that shrouds the law’s protections of African Americans, denying them the benefit of the presumption of innocence, fairness, justice, and equality. But more importantly, racism denies African Americans permission to protect themselves from white people. They are trapped in a system where they can only obtain justice by putting their faith in the same system that has no faith in them.
As Buddhists, with faith in the buddhadharma, our practice involves cutting through delusion to open to the truth. There are at least three dharmic truths relevant to our natural human response to seek justice in response to harm or cruelty. One truth, the law of karma, points to the overarching moral universe in which all of our volitional actions have consequences. For Buddhist practitioners, this can be a refuge and source of equanimity in the midst of our witnessing police killings and an inequitable criminal justice system. We understand that the law of karma is beyond comparison to conventional ideas of justice, as the truth of dukkha, or unsatisfactoriness, means that any legal system within this samsaric realm will never be fully satisfactory. Another truth, the immeasurable benefits that spring from harmlessness and ethical conduct, can inspire action that diminishes cruelty, even when it is not easy to see how our actions are creating benefit.
Viewed through a dharmic lens, no court could reach a more astute assessment than the law of karma about a police officer’s responsibility for killing or abusing someone. Such officers must experience the karmic consequences of their volitional actions, whether their motivations were simple anger, an express intent to kill, a desire to guard their power and its material benefits, or an explicitly racist intent.
In the Ancinita Sutta, the Buddha said the precise workings of the law of karma are imponderable. It is not for us to know how any person’s karma will play out, and all perpetrators of violence also have the capacity to awaken. At the same time, the law of karma does not mean that the dharma leaves out all notions of justice. As Bhikkhu Bodhi has asserted, one of the many nuances of the word dharma itself means justice, in the sense of a belief that “all people possess intrinsic value, that all are endowed with inherent dignity and therefore should be helped to realize this dignity.”
Nor does the dharma point us towards non-action. The teachings on non-cruelty call on us first to develop our own hearts and minds. The second factor of the noble eightfold path, wise intention, directs us to cultivate the intention of harmlessness, which counters cruelty in our own minds. The more we cultivate harmlessness, the more our minds will incline toward non-cruelty. Considered together with another core truth, that the mind is the forerunner of all things, our thoughts of harmlessness will engender our beneficial, compassionate actions.
In a separate teaching, the Buddha made the striking statement that our non-harming conduct, particularly in following the five ethical training precepts of non-killing, non-stealing, abstaining from sexual misconduct, abstaining from false speech, and refraining from intoxicants, “gives to an immeasurable number of beings freedom from fear, enmity, and affliction” and that this is a “gift, primal, of long standing, traditional, ancient, and unadulterated.”
So, just as the workings of karma are imponderable, our actions grounded in harmlessness create the causes and conditions, in ways we cannot measure, for others to experience greater freedom from affliction. This means we can trust the power of goodness to have real, though perhaps wholly unseen, fruits. Trust in this kind of immeasurable benefit and in justice rooted in the dignity of all beings could be a potent force to dismantle white supremacy, as it supports persevering even when we do not immediately see shifts towards greater justice.
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