The Buddhist View On Justice

The Buddhist View On Justice By Gabe Brummett

My friend Lynn asked recently if I’d be able to write something about the Buddhist view of justice. It struck me because though I’ve been practicing for a few years now, I couldn’t think of any teaching that contained the word “justice.” It led me to do some investigating, though I didn’t have to look too far. The dharma, aka the teachings of the Buddha, starts with the universal truth of suffering. The overall goal of Buddhist practice is to relieve this suffering. In the Buddha’s famous teaching on loving kindness (Metta Sutta) he says, “Just as a mother would protect her only child even at the risk of her own life, so let one cultivate a boundless heart towards all beings. Let one’s thoughts of boundless love pervade the whole world above, below, and across–without any obstruction, without any hatred, without any enmity.”

As Buddhists, our intent is to see and care for our world in this way. If we compare this view with our modern definition of punitive justice, we can see that the two don’t exactly line up. James Baldwin said, “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.” Baldwin wasn’t a Buddhist, but here he’s speaking the truth of the Buddha. Justice, from a Buddhist perspective, is a recognition of our shared humanity. It is an acknowledgment that regardless of race, gender, economic status, or geography, we all deal with suffering as part of this existence. It’s certainly not the same for everyone. Who we are individually and as a society are dependent on many causes and conditions. Our karma (our speech, thoughts, and actions) is also dependent on many causes and conditions. If we can recognize this individually, we then have the ability to recognize it outwardly. To quote Zen priest Reverend angel Kyodo Williams, “Love and Justice are not two. Without inner change, there can be no outer change. Without collective change, no change matters.”

Buddhist monk and translator Bhikku Bodhi puts it like this in his article “A Challenge to Buddhists”:

“The Buddha’s mission, the reason for his arising in the world, was to free beings from suffering by uprooting the evil roots of greed, hatred, and delusion. These sinister roots don’t exist only in our own minds. Today they have acquired a collective dimension and have spread out over whole countries and continents. To help free beings from suffering today therefore requires that we counter the systemic embodiments of greed, hatred, and delusion.”

The special challenge facing Buddhism in our age is to stand up as an advocate for justice in the world, a voice of conscience for those victims of social, economic, and political injustice who cannot stand up and speak for themselves. This, in my view, is a deeply moral challenge marking a watershed in the modern expression of Buddhism. I believe it also points in a direction that Buddhism should take if it is to share in the Buddha’s ongoing mission to humanity.