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Ouch! Systemic Suffering and the Second Noble Truth

[Editor’s Note: If you, like us, are thirsting for more socially grounded perspectives on Dharma, you can help Zenju get her beautiful, boldly peaceful meditation center, Still Breathing, up and running in East Oakland, California.]

Zenju at the opening ceremony for Still Breathing Meditation CenterZenju at the opening ceremony of Still Breathing Meditation Center. Watch their video and support this brand-new sangha space here!

zenju still breathingartwork by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel

Ouch! Systemic Suffering and the Second Noble Truth

by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel

When I entered the path of Dharma, I came with a collective sense of suffering. I had been raised in a black church in which the members were gathered not only for religious purposes but to heal from the suffering of systemic oppression. They were there because they needed to be together in the suffering and pain of being black in a society that looked down upon them. I sat listening to the minister with my straightened hair pulled tight into ponytails. My hands sometimes gloved and folded upon my starched dress. I listened to the grown-ups crying and I knew it was about how much they struggled every day to bring a meal to the table.

So, when I entered the sanctuary of Buddha, my path of spirit had been shaped by the quest to thrive and heal despite the hatred that existed among us as human beings. In other words, spiritual awakening required attention to social injustices.

Upon entering the way of Buddha and studying the Four Noble Truths of Suffering, I grappled with what I heard to be the cause of suffering, described in the second Noble Truth. There are many interpretations of this particular teaching but one I have heard is that the cause of suffering emerges when we forget that we are interrelated as living beings to everyone and everything. We feel and act separate.

So, when the challenges of race, sexuality, gender, physical ability and the other many ways we are differently embodied is brought forth on our spiritual paths, it is often dealt with as if there is a lack of understanding such interrelatedness. In essence, when one speaks of race, gender, class, and on, it is pointed out that there is an illusion of separation in such thinking. While this interpretation of the cause of suffering is truth, at the same time, the suffering experienced in systemic oppression based on unacceptable, socially maligned differences still requires that we attend to various ways in which there is relative separation.

If we were to simply walk past the fires of racism, sexism and on because illusions of separation exist within them, then we might be walking past one of the widest gateways of enlightenment.

In other words, there is a misinterpretation that the fires of our existence will not lead us to experiencing the waters of peace. Facing the challenges of socio-political oppression is felt to be counter, by some, to awakening. However, if all things are interrelated in life then separation is also part of our oneness and our ultimate liberation. Perhaps, these very challenges in our multicultural world are the path of awakening.

There is no superiority or inferiority between separation and oneness. Oneness is not better than separation. They both exist in their own right. If everything is included in life then separation and oneness are interrelated. Everything is included in life.

All that occurs in life is life.

Therefore, it is not enough to say, “drop the labels and you will be free from suffering” or “you are delusional; there is no self.” These flat, simplified excerpts of vast teachings espoused by some do not consider the multi-dimensional complexity that we are one and of each other. It does not consider the suffering within a society that determines acceptable and non-acceptable differences. It does not consider the suffering when dealing with our multiple differences when sameness is often presented as the goal and intention. In oneness there is separation and in separation there is oneness. If one person is raced, sexualized and gendered then everyone is. The teaching of “no self” means we are of each other. We cannot be one thing without the other. We cannot be black without white, masculine without feminine, up without down. All is duality and non-duality. All is raced or sexed and is not. So, to speak of our embodied differences, acceptable and unacceptable ones, is to speak of the distinctions that are inherent within oneness.

To view oneness as devoid of addressing challenges of race, sexuality, and gender, and on is a delusion. In fact guidance that steers toward an “idea” of harmony without attending to differences among people can further pain and disregard. Promoting non-duality as a solution or tool to end the suffering of systemic oppression can further harmful exclusion among us. We would be prone to decide those who have dualistic thoughts, action, or speech are unenlightened and those who have non-dualistic thoughts, action, or speech are wise.

It’s not that simple.

We are to recognize both separation and oneness, not close off one and welcome the other. This is difficult to do. However, in acknowledging separation within oneness we then experience present awareness in everything and everyone.

We do not have to go far to find ourselves in the midst of the human struggle between sameness and differences. This struggle is an intimate tension inherent to life and yet it is often considered tangential to the path of Buddha’s teachings. Within many Buddhist sanghas or spiritual communities the discussion of differences gravitates to sameness without addressing the suffering that has occurred among human beings. Or, the suffering may be explored in these communities — but as personal issues rather than collective injury.

In other words, the person bringing forth issues of racism, sexism, etc is considered the one who owns the challenge and the solutions tend toward trying to relieve the individual of that challenge. That is one approach. If the cause of suffering is the illusion of being separate from one another then the challenges of race, gender, etc. is not a separate dialogue on the path of Dharma or any other spiritual path. It is a collective one.

Many Dharma communities have made great efforts at diversity training and assessments of institutionalized racism, heterosexism, etc within their environments. Yet, often these trainings and assessments are not considered part of the teachings within dharma. They are separated from the lessons of awakening. I often find myself grinding my teeth when spiritual communities leave the foundational teachings of the community, as if the teachings are not addressing the same issues. Interrelationship of spiritual awakening and the daily challenges of our political lives are left in the dust. Granted, there are some great facilitators/teachers in our midst that are able to integrate the social with the spiritual… but it is rare.

What would it look like to attend to concrete issues that have hurt us as living beings?

Do we truly trust that what we are learning in our spiritual communities will support our relationships with each other?

What would it look like to bring our collective struggles before our personal ones to the path of spiritual awakening?

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.

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 (5)

  • Todd Townsend

    Thank you. This is a wonderful teaching that came to me right when I needed it.

  • Richard Modiano

    The more race and class get woven seamlessly together, then the faster the fuse for revolution burns.

  • Marlo Pedroso

    Thank you for these wise words, Zenju. You point to the need for greater integration and honoring of the Absolute and Relative; recognition that they are not separate, but different manifestations of the same essence. Finding ways to integrate Sangha and social justice work, spiritual and material, oneness and difference is the ongoing practice, and must be the heart of the path for the spiritual seekers.

    In response to some of your questions, I take a lot of inspiration from some of the historic movements that you’ve referenced. The Civil Rights movement in this country and it’s foundation in the more radical aspects of Christianity. Liberation Theology and Catholic Workers. Of course, the Satyagraha movement led by Gandhi. All of these offer glimpses of what a deeper integration of these realms might look like.

    The key, I think, is not to become so idealistic that we expect ourselves to do this perfectly. We must honor that the process will be challenging, difficult, and may fail numerous times, but that nonetheless it must be taken up as a practice if we are to move towards a truer, deeper form of liberation.

  • Zenju Earthlyn Manuel

    I love what you say, Mario…”The key, I think, is not to become so idealistic that we expect ourselves to do this perfectly. We must honor that the process will be challenging, difficult, and may fail numerous times, but that nonetheless it must be taken up as a practice if we are to move towards a truer, deeper form of liberation.”

    And I have learned that the action is not always a result. We cannot look for a particular kind of liberation. Liberation already exists. We are just not able to experience it because we think it looks and feels like something different than what it is. Liberation is vast as the ocean and today unless we are standing at the ocean right now we don’t know what it looks like. And unless we are in the ocean we don’t know for sure what it feels like.

  • Tiska Blankenship

    Thank you for saying these things at all. Thank you for teaching this perspective. Thank you for your wisdom!

© 2017 Buddhist Peace Fellowship

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