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The Causes and Conditions of Economic Injustice

Hamed Parham, "Forgotten Hands" (via flickr)

The first of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths pointed to us the truth of suffering. Suffering needs to be recognized as such and faced head-on if we wish to truly alleviate it. Our efforts to deny it or indulge in sensory indulgences to distract ourselves from it will inevitably lead to more suffering.

In the Second Noble Truth, the Buddha dives deeper to untangle the cause of this state of dukkha, this unsatisfactoriness that is the mark of samsara. He points to two root causes for suffering: craving (tanja) and ignorance (avijja). These, in turn, are related to the three poisons: hatred, ignorance, and greed.

“Bringing this all back home” has been the theme of my exploration of the Four Noble Truths. In my first article, I shared some of the statistics and stories from my home state of New Mexico, where economic injustice is all-encompassing. In this state of such stunning natural beauty and rich cultural heritage, there is immense poverty.

On a day-to-day basis, people are doing without—doing with less access to healthcare, less access to food and nutrition. These are things that affect you in profound ways. There are communities in New Mexico that the school buses won’t go into—you can’t get emergency vehicles into—because the roads are in such terrible shape. They have to borrow a truck to go out to a source of water, and pay to stick somebody’s hose into a tank on the back of their truck—just to have water to bathe and to drink. We’re talking very basic amenities. We’re talking about a level of poverty, in the colonias, that we often see in third world nations. In New Mexico, 130,000 people live in colonias.

~Kim Posich, executive director of the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty

New Mexico is remarkable for the huge gap in income between the rich and the poor. In fact, our state leads the nation in income inequality. The incomes of the top fifth of New Mexican households were nearly 10 times that of the bottom fifth. The average annual income for the bottom 20 percent in the state was $16,300, while the richest 5 percent earned $273,500 on average.

Just as the Buddha did, we can ask: How did things get this way? What are the root causes of economic injustice, and how do they relate to craving and ignorance?

As a culture, we have a tendency to focus on individualism and solo wellbeing rather than collective wellbeing. Individuals are often blamed for the challenging conditions of their lives rather than looking at the systems of which we are all part. Claiming that someone just needs to ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’ is easier than looking at where our own unearned privilege has gotten us.

We so often ignore the most basic teaching of the Buddha, that interconnection is the truth of things as they are. We forget that when Shakyamuni Buddha had his own awakening, from the get-go he put it in this collective context: “I and all sentient beings on earth, together, attain enlightenment at the same time.”

Interconnection. via Sage Mahosadha

Interconnection. via Sage Mahosadha

Economic injustice, as it manifests here in New Mexico, is a prime example of interdependence. As I noted in the first article in this series, I’ve found David Loy’s model of the three poisons – greed, hatred, and delusion – as sites of collective suffering particularly helpful when viewing an issue through a dharmic lens. As we look at the causes and impacts of poverty, we begin to see some of the ways that the three poisons manifest on a social level:


Nationwide, a disproportionate share of the poor are African-American and Latino. More than 25% of Blacks and Latinos live below the poverty line (about $11,000 per year for an individual, $23,000 for a family of four), compared with 12 percent of Asian-Americans and less than 10 percent of whites. According to the Pew Research Center, the median wealth of white households is 18 times that of Hispanic households and 20 times that of Black households.

Here in New Mexico, institutionalized racism is linked to conditions that make it impossible for low-income and working class folks to make ends meet, particularly those who are immigrants from Mexico. Governor Susana Martinez, supported by right-wing Republicans, is pushing hard to repeal a state law that allows undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses. Wage theft – when an employer withholds part of an employee’s salary or when an employee is not paid the full salary — is a significant problem in the state, with about 25% of documented immigrants and 30% of undocumented immigrants having experienced it.

Classism and Economic Privilege

While there is a strong Latino/a presence in our state government – including the governor – and other positions of leadership, there is also a great deal of privilege that is consolidated among those in power. And they have made laws that reinforce their economic privilege.

The statewide minimum wage is $7.50 an hour, with higher rates in Albuquerque and Santa Fe because of local organizing efforts. In 2013, a bill passed in the legislature would have raised the state minimum wage to $8.50 but was vetoed by Governor Martinez who claimed that the very modest increase “…would be unsustainable and kill New Mexico jobs.”

Corporate Control of Natural Resources

New Mexico is a resource-rich state and for many years those resources were stewarded by local people (and fortunately still are in a number of places). The acequia water system is an especially beautiful model of a cooperative and collective way to share a natural resource – I’ll share more about this in one of my next articles. Crops like garlic, chile peppers, blue corn, pinto and Anasazi beans, pecans, and pinion nuts are deeply woven into the fabric of life of the people here.

But corporate interests are making inroads into local farming and turning it from a livelihood into an industry. Waters of the Rio Grande have been dammed off and diverted to serve the interests of a few. Communities become impoverished when corporations take over resources that have been locally shared and turn them into a profit-making vehicle.

Other factors in New Mexico that contribute to economic injustice include huge subsidies for fossil fuel industries, the impact of uranium mining on tribal peoples, and the vast amount of money that the U.S. government invests in military operations and nuclear energy rather than human resources.

All of these factors link together to create a vicious cycle that reinforces poverty. Lack of funding for childhood education impacts the ability of kids to prepare for jobs (and life), which in turn impacts their physical and emotional health, which in turn leads to high dropout rates from school.

In January, I participated in “Witness for the People,” an action at the state capitol organized by Interfaith Worker Justice’s New Mexico chapter. One of the speakers, Rev. Brandon Johnson of the United Church of Christ reminded us that the state budget is actually a “moral document,” one that is tied to the realities of:

·  A single mother dreaming of a living wage

·  An immigrant seeking safety and security

·  A child that yearns for a fair chance at education

When we are ready to confront the ignorance and craving that are at the core of economic injustice, we’ll have a fighting chance to alleviate suffering for that single mother, that immigrant, and that child.

Coming next: The Third Noble Truth – Freedom from suffering is possible.

top photo: “Forgotten Hands” by Hamed Parham, via flickr.

Maia Zenyu Duerr is an anthropologist, writer, and student of liberation.

She practices in the Soto Zen lineage of Suzuki Roshi, with Victoria Shosan Austin as her teacher and guide. In 2012, she received ordination as a lay Buddhist chaplain from Roshi Joan Halifax.

From 2004-2008, Maia worked at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship where she served as executive director and editor of Turning Wheel magazine. For the past six years, she has been the director of the Upaya Zen Center Buddhist Chaplaincy Training Program. She also serves on the faculty of the Buddhist Education for Social Transformation project, based at the International Women’s Partnership for Peace and Justice center in northern Thailand.

Maia’s writing can be found on her website, The Liberated Life Project. She is also the curator of a blog on socially engaged Buddhism called The Jizo Chronicles.

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 (12)

  • Geoffrey Wood

    Nice piece, thank you. One question – are you saying that racism, classism, economic privilege, and corporate control of natural resources are the root causes of economic injustice? Or are we going to get to the root causes later? Maybe they are the stems from the roots of greed, anger and delusion? And then the specific flowers from those weeds as you describe?

    I had a few Navajo friends when I lived in Durango. One in particular, Claire, told stories of poverty from the rez and the schools there that were stunning, if that’s a right word. Glad you’re there standing up for greater equality.

  • Maia Duerr/Liberated Life Project

    Hi Geoffrey,

    Thank you for reading, and for your comment and questions. From a Buddhist perspective (or at least this particular buddhist practitioner’s perspective!), racism, classism, and corporate domination are ways that the three poisons manifest. And those three poisons are at the root of all dukkha. The way to end suffering is… well, I am getting ahead of myself… that comes in the next installment on the Third Noble Truth!!!

  • Noelle Imparato

    Doesn’t it all boils down to a culture that values profit above all else, including life?

  • Geoffrey Wood

    Thanks. After a couple more readings, I am still a little unclear. These are topics i have meditated on, contemplated for years, so i appreciate the chance to explore a bit.

    So, dharmically, the two root causes are avidya and tanha. The way i look at it, it’s really just the avidya, which itself leads to tanha. Then we have the three poisons which spring up intimately from the root causes. With ya so far.

    Then you ask what are the root causes of economic injustice, and to me the only possible answer is avidya and tanha. If we are talking about root causes. I like exploring racism, classism and corporatism (rcc) in the context of the three poisons. I consider many social ills from that perspective. I’m not sure though (a) if you are calling rcc “root causes” and (b) if you are associating each aspect of rcc with a particular poison.

    And in your reply, you call the three poisons the roots of all dukkha. So are avidya and tanha the roots? Are the three poisons the roots? Are the manifestations of layers of poisons the roots? I admit a fuzziness on this point myself; knowing that avidya is the true source, i nonetheless refer to the poisons as roots to sometimes. I don’t see how racism, classism and corporatism can be considered roots, as they are far more complex and require many more layers of ego and thinking.

    Not just semantics, or arguing, but a clearer understanding of the root causes of the ills we wish to address is likely to lead to a more effective means of addressing them. Can we immediately end racism by going around telling everyone about nonself and impermanence? I don’t think so. So i understand there is a need for intermediate platforms – skillful means – to address the immediate suffering even if we’re not helping people actually address basic dukha.

    Two things on the poverty stats as well – you didn’t include how horrible it is for Native Americans, a little higher than for Blacks and Latinos. And, while the percentages of people in poverty may be disproportionate based on race, overall, 41% of the nation’s poverty-stricken are white, 28% Hispanic, and 25% African-American. That’s millions more white folks. I’m not saying make them the focus of trying to reduce gross suffering, but let’s not alienate, ignore, or make it worse for them in the process. They might even be great allies.

  • Richard Modiano

    It seems to me that there’s a dialectical relationship between the three poisons and the institutional arrangements that foster them. We live under capitalism, and capitalism is based on the proposition that each, following his/her own interests will promote the general good and growth. Adam Smith famously put it, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” In other words, greed drives the system and human needs are satisfied as a mere by-product. Capitalism is unique among social systems in its active, extreme cultivation of individual self-interest or “possessive individualism.”

    The attitudes and mores needed for the smooth functioning of such a system, as well as for individuals to thrive in such an acquisitive society–greed, individualism, competitiveness, exploitation of others, and consumerism–are constantly inculcated into people by schools, the media, and the workplace. The notion of responsibility to others and to community erodes under such a system (“the system stinks”.)

    In the wake of widespread public outrage, with financial capital walking off with big bonuses derived from government bailouts, capitalists have turned to preaching self-interest as the bedrock of society from the very pulpits. Goldman-Sachs International adviser Brian Griffiths declared before the congregation of St.Paul’s Cathedral in London, “The injunction of Jesus to love others as ourselves is a recognition of self-interest.”

    Wealthy people have come to believe that they deserve their wealth because of hard work, either theirs or their forebears. The ways in which their wealth and prosperity arose out of the social labor of innumerable other people are denied. They see the poor (and the poor, taught to be self-denigrating, frequently agree) as having something wrong with them, such as laziness or not getting a sufficient education. The structural obstacles that prevent most people from significantly bettering their conditions are ignored or downplayed. This view of each individual as a separate economic entity concerned primarily with his/her own well-being (extending at most to one’s immediate family), obscures our common humanity and needs. Wisdom teaches us that human beings are both solitary and social. To emphasize the former at the expense of the latter is to invite destruction.

  • Geoffrey Wood


  • Geoffrey Wood

    ok, that was *bows* to Richard. I think Jesus’ admonition to love others as ourselves was based in self interest, but in the sense of as we do to the least of these, so do we do to ourselves. Literally. So it is self-interested but only in conjunction with recognition of interconnectedness if not yet nonself.

  • Damon

    So Richard has outlined a picture of the situation. The same that many others have offered. How might Buddhism address this situation in a meaningful way is the question. How might Buddhism actively and actually mobilise a move to a more sustainable equable world. Thus far we have a collection of nice thoughts. No actual real mechanisms at work – ones that might then be leveraged for effecting change – have been identified. Even a recognition that these mechanisms don’t exist would be a step forward. Or, at least offer, a tangible sense of the enormity/impossibility of the task. Or… something.

    So vapour-ware, then?

  • Maia Duerr/Liberated Life Project

    Hello good readers, and thank you for your engagement on this article while I was ‘away.’ Sorry to not have responded earlier but was traveling and working on a project that needed lots of my attention. I am grateful to Richard for his sharp analysis. I’m not sure I could have said it better.

    Damon, this is a four-part series… this was the second article in that series. Yes, how might Buddhism address this situation, or perhaps rather how might a Buddhist perspective and practice inform how all of us engage with economic injustice… that is what we are moving toward in the Third and Fourth Noble Truths. Coming soon. And please feel free to offer your own thoughts on this.

  • Damon

    Hi Maia,

    ‘How might a Buddhist perspective and practice inform how all of us engage with economic justice’ Sure. And how might a Buddhist perspective influence those who have no particular interest or desire to engage with this perspective is another question.

    Or, short answer to Richard’s take – so what now? How is an awareness of interconnectedness and its blow-back cultivated in others who feel no need to cultivate this awareness. Just as the self-interest of neo-liberalism disavows the work of others and the fortunes of one’s own context, so too, does contemporary western buddhist thought imagine that the good rightness of buddhist insights are right there to be seen by all. Not so, unfortunately. We are all formed and supported by out circumstances. Each has it’s own fortune. If it is accepted, however, that we all share a fundamental reality then the key question might well be how to access that fundamental reality despite our different ‘fortunes’. What techniques, what practices does Buddhism offer me to influence the reality of others?

    Despite my doubts, I look forward to what you have to say. I’ll be looking out for those mechanisms: how direct insights within practice as to how the world is put together – and may be sundered with skilful means, might be employed for structures in the world at large. To my mind, anything other than this seems like wishing away realities because it makes us feel better. Of course, you may yet convince me otherwise!

  • Maia Duerr/Liberated Life Project

    Damon — “What techniques, what practices does Buddhism offer me to influence the reality of others?”

    Well… I am not so sure that it is possible to ‘influence the reality of others’ through Buddhism, or indeed through anything else. People hang onto their reality tenaciously, until reality itself gives them a reason not to. What I’ve discovered, for myself, is that it’s rather presumptuous on my part to think I can alter that.

    I think I understand what you might be getting at…. when I hear people with privilege who absolutely refuse to look at the unfair structures and economic ‘rules’ that brought them their privilege, I go kind of bonkers. And when they are card-carrying Buddhists and they insist on not mixing up politics with practice, I too want to bang my head against the wall to get them to see that their blindness is contributing to the suffering.

    I also don’t think there is a ‘fundamental reality.’ There is the reality that each of us perceives, which can be quite different. But what I do know for sure is that everything is impermanent. And that those who enjoy privilege now and have the luxury of turning away from the truth of suffering will, at some point, be face to face with suffering themselves in ways that will most likely change their reality. And when that happens, I believe our own work is to be deeply in our own practice so that we can be present to them with some degree of compassion and equanimity. And in the meantime, we can keep pushing against the injustices that are part of the system and organize ourselves and our communities in such a way that shifts will happen. Again, more on that in the next two installments.

© 2017 Buddhist Peace Fellowship

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