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Ouch!!! : Suffering, Systemic Oppression, and the Four Noble Truths

zenju still breathing

artwork by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel


Ouch! – A Four Part Essay Series on the Suffering of Systemic Oppression and the Four Noble Truths

by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel


Introduction to the Series

When I entered the path of Dharma someone asked, “Did you come to Buddhism because of your suffering? I responded, “No.” He looked at me as if I were lying. Somewhere deep in my heart I felt he was saying that I had entered the Buddha Way for my own psychological disorders or for some idea of personal dysfunctions such as anxiety or depression. It didn’t mean that I hadn’t wrestled with these things at various times in my life. I responded in the negative because the gateway to Dharma was the suffering I felt to be historically based and thereby a collective experience of oppression and hatred. However, that would have been too much to say for me to a total stranger.

I had questioned during my years of practice whether or not Dharma was an answer to understanding the nature of suffering in relationship to systemic oppression, where one group of people dominates another based on notions of superiority and inferiority. In essence, my lived experience within a dark body had shaped my spiritual path upon entering Buddha’s Way. I wondered at the time: How would the path of Dharma shape my life in terms of liberation?

Once I heard a white-skinned teacher say, Buddha was not talking about systemic oppression or social justice. He was talking about personal dissatisfaction and discontentment. I had heard this view multiple times, but felt it to be too simple of an answer to the complexity of hatred I was experiencing.

An Asian practitioner of color said he experienced suffering as taking a sharp knife and cutting a thin line across his arm. For me, his experience more closely described my feeling of suffering. However, when he said such I visualized oppression, as a two-spirited black-skinned woman, more like a machete coming down on my neck.

So, even as people of color, because of our varied historical backgrounds of slavery, genocide, immigration, labor camps, sweatshops, and more, our experience of suffering differs in meaning. Or does it? When the fellow practitioner assumed I came to the path of Dharma because of “my” suffering, what exactly did that mean? Were we on two different pages, or the same page in regards to suffering?

What is the nature of suffering when you consider racism, sexism, homophobia, and on? Is oppression a different kind of suffering than other kinds of suffering? More specifically, does the Buddha’s teachings on The Four Noble Truths address the lived experience of those who suffer from lack of access to the necessary resources to live fully and live well?

Part One: Ignorance and Confusion

At the age of eight, I had to transfer from a school with primarily African-American children to one dominated by children of Jewish heritage. I speak of this time frequently because it was one of many experiences that marked the discovery that I was different. Many would say we are all different in one environment or another but in the case of my new school my difference was unacceptable. I was hated. Ouch! The depth at which I had to excavate my suffering to experience enchantment as a child was nearly impossible. Therefore, I walked with this weight for many years as many of our children do in war-torn countries or right in our urban cities. As reported in a recent East Bay Express newspaper essay by Rebecca Ruiz, the children of Oakland, California experience the same post traumatic stress syndrome of a soldier who fought in Afghanistan except these children never go home from the war. Some would see these children who live daily within violent communities as individually violent human beings. How often are young black men depicted as the perpetrators of violence without consideration of the traumatic conditions by which they live? So, when asked as an adult, Did I enter the Buddha Way because of my suffering, I could have said yes in view of the ache in my own heart from the trauma of life. Yet, there was suffering that I met in the ignorance and fundamental confusion by which we exist as human beings. In other words, it was both personal and collective.

The Buddha taught that there is a fundamental ignorance or confusion at the root of our lives. The Sanskrit word for this ignorance or confusion is avidya. This ignorance leads to ill being or suffering. The First Noble Truth, which is, there is suffering, was Buddha’s acknowledgment that by our very existence we suffer. There is ill being. There is ignorance about life, about existence. We work hard not to experience ill being but rather to experience well-being. Yet, when we go about our lives taking actions we often bring more suffering than we can imagine. This is the fundamental confusion we live with as individuals and as a society. At the same time the suffering in our lives can take so much energy that we’re too tired or worn down with suffering to be compassionate. Compassion takes energy, says Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh in one of his recent talks at Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, California.

Recently I shared with friends that in the year 2013, I suffered greatly: physically, emotionally, spiritually and financially. The difference though between 2013 and all the other years previous is that I enjoyed my life during all the suffering. Everyone laughed. Yes, I laughed too. It felt disorienting to suffer and not have the suffering overtake my life. I came to the conclusion that I somehow, in this particular stint of suffering, came to a deep understanding of suffering. I had to. I was rendered immobile. With the awareness that suffering can bring, I could see how I suffered. I understood suffering as not fully engaging others because my thoughts of them interfered with a direct experience of them. Suffering was my mind fixing itself on some kind of knowing of happiness or sorrow and who was giving such or taking it away. Without considering the interrelationship of others’ lives upon my own, I felt in control of my future. The mind fixed upon the mind led to not seeing others and being ignorant of relationship as fact of existence. In essence, there was always a separation from living beings, which is a primary condition for the breeding of systemic oppression.

The nature of suffering within systemic oppression is that we are conditioned to not see each other. To act on our lives as individual beings rather than collective. This conditioning leads to not knowing who we are with each other and the confusion and ignorance is not understanding this interrelationship, which leads directly to comparison, notions of superior and inferiority, and ultimately acts of hatred. I was afraid that the practitioner who pointed out that I may have entered the path because of “my” suffering, would not see himself as related to what I suffered. I didn’t feel he would understand that because of our existence there is suffering–our suffering. The way he worded his question, your suffering, warned me that he was separate from what was going on in the life called Earthlyn at the time. And yet I felt him to be every part of the racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.

What is the nature of suffering when you consider racism, sexism, homophobia, and on? The nature of such suffering is that it is everyone’s suffering and not just those who express the pain of it.

Is oppression a different kind of suffering than other kinds of suffering? It is part of the landscape of all suffering including physical pain or lack of joy in one’s life. However, oppression is especially the kind of suffering that comes from conditioning.

Does the Buddha’s teachings on The Four Noble Truths address the lived experience of those who suffer from lack of access to the necessary resources to live fully and live well? This can be explored intellectually, but we can only know through our own lives, our own bones.

We will continue to explore these questions in this four part series. I would appreciate hearing your inquiry of this thing called life.

zenju-slide1Zenju Earthlyn Manuel is a Soto Zen Buddhist priest and guiding teacher of Still Breathing Meditation Center in Oakland, CA.

Zenju is the author of Tell Me Something About Buddhism, with a foreword by Thich Nhat Hanh. She is the contributing author to Dharma, Color, and Culture: an anthology of essays by western Buddhist teachers and practitioners of color (Parallax); and The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-five Centuries of Awakened Women (Wisdom Publications).

You can visit her website at

Robert Aitken Roshi, carrying his signature sign at a protest

About BPF’s The System Stinks

Buddhist social justice curriculum

To help promote collective liberation and subvert the highly individualistic bent of much mainstream dharma these days, Buddhist Peace Fellowship presents our second year of The System Stinks — a collection of Buddhist social justice media named for the favorite protest sign of one of our founders, Robert Aitken, Roshi.

This year, we’ve asked some of our favorite dharma teachers, practitioners, and activists to reflect on the Four Noble Truths — suffering; the causes of suffering; cessation of suffering; and a path to cessation — from a systemic, social justice perspective.

[Updated to add: Other Buddhist groups from around the world have also used the Four Noble Truths as a lens for social movements: for good examples, the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, and the Sarvodaya movement in Sri Lanka. In a U.S.-based context (not predominantly Buddhist), where mindfulness is increasingly separated from ethics, we are eager to uphold this social justice tradition.]

If you like what you see, please comment and share to show the world another side of Buddhism!

We are deeply grateful to the teachers and practitioners who lend their voices to this cause. In alignment with our media justice values, all contributors to the 2014 series have been offered humble compensation for their work.

You can support engaged Buddhist media makers by donating to BPF.

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Comments (3)

  • bezi

    sadhu Venerable Sister Zenju!

    well I don’t think this will surprise anyone who comes here regularly but… I can relate to much of what you revealed so articulately and boldly.

    Before unexpectedly snapping out of samsara for an indescribable moment on Vipassana 11 years ago I would have most definitely said (as a young Roxbury b-boy) that “Black Suffering” was a separate, far more intense dukkha than anything else this existence could offer. That is, if I had such a word in the first place. After Vipassana, I wasn’t so sure.

    These questions you pose are of very serious import, whether or not we want to realize or acknowledge it! Just the fact that someone would ask if “you” entered Buddhism because of “your” suffering – as if ANYONE becomes Buddhist (or anything) completely free, functional and selflessly committed to others – says a great deal to me, and echoes what I’ve encountered all too many times seeking sangha and being held at arm’s length.

    Um – don’t people adopt beliefs and pursue paths to help them navigate slings and arrows of outrageous fortune?

    I read the Eastbay Express article and felt a deep pain. I recalled my experiences as a youth in an all-white school: segregation, thinly veiled disdain, ugly historical distortions, name calling, blatantly lowered expectations, watching authorities who liked me turn against me after getting busted in intimacies with white females, all while watching Roxbury collapse in crack-fueled mayhem, um… yeah. I got it.

    Racism cuts VERY deep. And it seems to me that, like the unconscious shadow, it’s much easier to turn away from, just deny it endures and impacts either internally or externally. But it’s our actual lived experience. Its nonexistence is an illusion. An expensive one.

    HOWEVER ~ sexism cuts very deep! As does age-ism, able-ism, size-ism, homophobia, religious hatred, etc. We gotta keep it really real.

    I just watched a documentary about the Amish. What do the Amish have to do with anything? Not everybody can adhere to the austere precepts of the religion, and when people question too much or misbehave, they get excommunicated, shunned, kicked out. Looking at their faces, hearing their stories, families breaking up, ‘infidels’ striking out on their own, feeling rootless, wracked with guilt, shame – I don’t know. Looks pretty rough…

    So yeah… is one brand of suffering more profound, more objectively real, more righteous (!) than another? Or could it be that suffering equals suffering, period? Which is right perception, which is closer to upaya or skillful means? How much specialized suffering is detrimental to spiritual health? How much equalization of suffering is refusing to confront things as they REALLY are?

    My very partial, constantly adapting answer is that I feel I see mounds of documented, objective evidence of a very specific and virulent strain of suffering due to enduring racial misconstruction – 500 years-plus the complete antithesis of “civilized.” But I’m not at all blinded or insensitive to the authentic suffering of others; Buddhism helps me immensely in remaining responsive to new data, empathetic toward the real angst of others, willing to continuously interrogate the narratives that construct my social reality.

    I mean, I’m not sure anything I ever post here is more than preaching to the converted, or having any effect at all. Each conversation I get into here eventually leads back around to the consequences of McMindfulness and the Upper Middle Way. And to paraphrase the Good Reverend: we’re forming “committees of clergy and laymen concerned” while increasingly breathless oceans overtake increasingly desiccated coastlines…

    now I’m watching Bettany Hughes (whose travelogues I generally like), talking about the Seven Wonders of the Buddhist World. I’d rather watch this with a feeling of commonality. But listening to her chipper, posh London accent, noticing her self-assured smile (which looks a bit smug at times), watching her and other obviously class-comfortable whites explain in highbrow tones things I already intimately understand… I have my doubts.

    Bleah. End of rant.

  • Belinda G

    Thanks to both of you. Great wisdom here. And power.

  • Eli J Grobel


    Thank you for this wonderful article and the comments. This is a conversation that I believe is of great value to have and that these contributions are a gift.

    I’m new to reading, conversing and learning about the connection between oppression and its relationship to the teachings on suffering. I am a white man that is attempting to be active in educating myself and others about oppression, mostly racism, and the other, often forgotten, invisible side of racism, white privilege (as well as white supremacy, white normativity, etc.). I have felt that my experience of suffering as an able-bodied, straight, cisgender, white man is not comparable to that of those who face the violence of oppression in its varied forms. I have experienced suffering, but I have not faced a systematic, systemic and cultural form of oppression that denies me access to resources, that consistently shows me I’m inferior, that invades my mind and tells me that I am other, how I naturally am is wrong, and so many other atrocious things.

    Who am I to say that all of that is conditional and must be recognized as something fleeting and not to be dwelled upon? Who am I to say that our suffering is of equal value? Who am I to say that anger is not a useful tool and that oppressed groups must work towards compassion and forgiveness for those who actively oppress them or simply are part of a group that represents that oppression?

    I do not expect a list of answers. I do not expect that you, as People of Color, teach the ignorant white man. I have just had these questions for a while and hope to gain new insights if people are willing to share them.

    Thank you

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