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The Colonialist Lie of Personal Responsibilty

Get over it. Move on with your life. Stop wallowing in victimhood. These kind of blunt, snappy phrases sometimes get tossed around in Buddhist circles as dharma. Teachers desiring to jolt their students employ them, often with reminders about impermanence and the lack of a solid, fixed self. Others, regardless of status, hitch them to appeals to “be present in the now” and “let go of the past.” As far as phrases go, all of them might be skillful means in a particular situation. In general usage, however, these kind of pithy sayings ignore the complex causes and conditions of our lives, and can easily reinforce the very status quo stratifications that led to the suffering in question in the first place.

Consider the following, from an article responding to a white reporter’s criticism of indigenous commentaries on the impact of Canadian colonialism.

In a recent article published in The Province, columnist Naomi Lakritz wrote that aboriginal people need to drop “the victimization mantle” and take “individual responsibility.”

The essential idea, as Lakritz elaborated to me in an email exchange, was that aboriginal people should “move on” and stop “wallowing in the past.”

How can people “move on” from history, if history has not moved on from them? Aboriginal people point to their history so that we may learn our own. Our histories are intertwined, and have been so since the first European colonists arrived in this land.

The author goes on to catalogue abuses from Canadian history and also from recent policy decisions by the Harper Administration towards First Nations people, including the numerous “natural resource projects” that are, or will occur, on or near indigenous lands. Note that the author himself is a settler, part of the Millennial Generation contingent attempting to navigate the difficult waters of our colonial past and its devastating impact on the present.

In another response to the Lakritz column, Christina Coolidge, a member of the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation, reclaims and reframes the notion of personal responsibility:

I am not going to dwell on the opinion of this woman, an opinion that is all too common in Canadian society however, I do want to discuss in brief the effects of the residential school system and the difficulty in living in a society that demonizes Aboriginal people for their pain, rather than embrace the truth of genocide in Canada’s not too distant past.

Yes, each of us is responsible for our actions; however, each of us is shaped by our experiences. We can find miracles among us, each and every day, as many of us crawl out from under the weight of addiction. We take back our lives, our dignity and our faith in Creator. We seek education, we participate in ceremony and we raise happy children in a healthy environment. There are those of us who have done this despite what was done to us; despite the violence, the sexual abuse, the neglect, the alcoholism; despite childhood’s filled with trauma that left us wounded right into the deepest part of our spirits. There are those of us who have asked for help, received counseling, have taken parenting classes, have learned how to shop for groceries, pay bills, get a driver’s license. There are those of us who are miracles to have first of all, survived but even more amazingly, to now thrive. And this is occurring more and more. I see evidence of this among all of my fellow Indigenous students at SFU, from every nation and background. I see resurgence of healing and of accomplishment in this colonized society in which we live.

One of the reasons I was drawn to Buddhism in the first place was because of the blended focus on individual experience and social context. That what we call “responsibility” is always embedded in Indra’s Net, our actions and non-actions infinitely reflected in the lives of others. I tend to think that part of the reason that many white Buddhists struggle with, or reject outright, notions of karma across lifetimes and/or the teachings of rebirth is that to embrace them means taking radical responsibility for the myriad of crimes from our past. You can’t minimize, deny, or blame others for the suffering wrought by colonialism, for example, if you truly accept the Buddhist karmic teachings and practice with them in mind.

The cult of the present that pop spirituality teacher Eckhart Tolle’s work springs from represents one method of skirting these issues, and hyper-focusing on what amounts to right wing notions of responsibility. Another approach comes in the form of secularizing the dharma, appealing to rational thought and “pragmatism,” like prominent Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor does. Note that Batchelor’s writings and commentaries privilege the modern and Eurocentric mind above all else, all the while claiming to be focused on locating “the core truths” of the “original teachings.”

It is privileged members of these groups that are probably most prone to uttering pithy statements like “just let it go,” or “stop being the victim,” but the issue is certainly not limited to them. The problem isn’t with the statements alone, but in the reduction of Buddhist teachings to being solely about individuals and their individual actions. A stance that minimizes or denies the collective, systemic patterns built from our muddy, colonial past and which are embodied (in different ways) by us all.

Buddhist personal responsibility cannot be shaped by my, or your actions, alone. Even the very act of “taking responsibility” for something is done in a collective context.

We are always reflecting each other. Even in our differences. There’s no way to avoid the mirror. Our colonial past/present is right here with us, in us, whether we see it or not. As is everything that came before it.

Indigenous and settler relationships are being shaken up all over the world. Whether or not we heal the past, and come together in the future depends upon how all of us handle the now.

Settler colonialists, regardless of race or background, are being challenged to face it all head on. To embrace the ancient, twisted karma that built our societies, give up notions of knowing exactly what needs to be done, and move forward in a radically different direction.

It’s a tall order. I hope we can pull it off.





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Comments (28)

  • Bryan Wagner

    It appears from your writing that you have some internal attitude towards what you call “white” people.
    That is sad.
    There are only people.
    The same attitude in print towards any race or culture would label you as racist.
    I know you don’t appear to be aware of that.
    Perhaps you are comfortable.
    Just an observation.
    In Loving Kindness.

  • nathan

    This isn’t about individuals: it’s about cultural ideologies that have been shaped by the white majority responsible for colonialism in much of the world. Are their other groups who have done significant damage? Sure. We could also speak of Japanese imperialism, which again is about ideologies and cultures norms that oppress others. Not individual Japanese folks.

    It’s always interesting to me that calling out racialized norms created by white folks tends to bring white folks upset at such calling out. I am a white male by the way. This isn’t a self attack or an attack on you. It’s about waking up to the legacies that shape the world we live in.

  • Murray Reiss

    I’m not so sure about your take on karma. It too can be, and is, tossed around in Buddhist circles to personalize suffering in ways that serve only to blame the sufferer. In Cambodia, the popular understanding of karma has raised obstacles to work with disabled land mine victims in the form of the refrain, “Hey, it’s their karma.”

  • Dzung Vo

    Thanks for sharing this, I especially appreciated the discussion in Canadian context. I grew up as a Vietnamese American, and have been living in Vancouver BC for the last three years. It’s been interesting and challenging for me to learn about and engage the history and discourse around colonialism and race/racism in Canada. Often I hear, “Racism is an American thing. Here in Canada we are multicultural, we don’t have racism here.”

    I’ve also met and worked with some amazing Aboriginal youth in BC, who have inspired me with their resilience and wisdom, and also insight into the nature of intergenerational trauma. One young mother once told me, “I’m trying to learn how to be a better mother for my son, because my mother didn’t know how to be a mother to me, because her mother was taken away into residential schools as a child.”

    Most of the dharma teaching that I’ve studied teaches me to embrace my past suffering, including the suffering of my blood, spiritual, and land ancestors. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches this very beautifully. His teaching on Touching the Earth is a powerful example. Another is his book, “Reconciliation.”

  • nathan

    Murray, glad you brought up the issues with karma that can come up. To me, that kind of framing isn’t any better than the personal responsibility narratives I am speaking. I didn’t directly define karma in this post. I only spoke about how some practitioners want to eliminate the karmic teachings as antiquated or “not needed.”

    Trying to tackle the complexities of karma would take much more than a post this size, but I agree with you that karma is used against individuals by other Buddhists. In Asian countries and around the world really. Plenty of New Age folks make statements like the one you cited above. I hear such stuff occasionally from newer folks in my own sangha. Seems pretty commonplace unfortunately.

  • nathan

    Thank you for the comment Dzung. I have heard this “we’re multicultural” sentiment from Canadians before. Seems to be part of the mainstream, national mythology. I can imagine it’s painful to witness all the contradictions up there.

    I spent a few weeks in Vancouver in 2006. Beautiful! But it was also pretty clear how things wear divided up. How the First Nations/settler relationship was strained at best. I remember some of the issues around a museum on the University of BC campus for example.

    What kind of work are you doing with First Nations youth up there?

    TNH’s Touching the Earth is a wonderful teaching. No doubt.

  • nathan

    Also, the quote from the young mother. Wow. Painful but inspiring. And so clear about how the past is not gone, not “past.” This is exactly what folks who think all these issues are long over with need to hear. Need to learn.

  • Dzung Vo

    I am an adolescent medicine specialist (pediatrician) in Vancouver. Among other things, I spend part of my time working in a place-based collaborative project called RICHER or “Social Pediatrics,” serving marginalized youth and families in Vancouver’s inner city. The population is largely Aboriginal (which is the most commonly used general term here; other terms such as “First Nations,” Metis” etc have more specific meanings), and/or immigrant/refugee. I’ve observed many similarities between Aboriginal traditional wisdom, and dharma. Which does not surprise me.

  • Jeff

    The issue of personal responsibility is a thorny one. Blaming the victim is always kinda ugly, “Stop complaining you’re out of work, no health insurance, kid just got arrested. Take some responsibility.” Of course, if the oppressed took full responsibility and remade society to serve commoners of all colors instead of just the wealthy, that would be totally “irresponsible.” Responsibility in this context means, “Shut up and apply for a job at McDonald’s.”

    On the other end of the spectrum, what does responsibility entail for privileged whites? Perhaps not so much carrying around a load of guilt, but at the very least it calls for getting over the delusion of rugged individualism and finding a sense of connectedness with others; at best, moving on to the remaking society part. Hard to imagine in this cultural morass of self-absorption and racism, but worse to imagine what’s to come without that effort.

    Personally, I don’t think Buddhists need to believe in karma or rebirth to acknowledge interdependence. I have an open mind about these ethereal concepts, but for now I am confident that a collective movement for global justice is eminently rational, assuredly multicultural, certainly compassionate, and probably even good-karma-accumulating.

  • Bryan Wagner

    Interesting that you might conclude that I would feel attacked.
    I don’t.
    Or that I would be defensive.
    I’m not.
    Or that I would be reactive to comments because I am classified by others as a “white male.” I’m not by the way any more than you are really. None of us are a color.
    I just think that painting selectively with a broad brush isn’t very helpful in bring us together.
    I guess I see all this in terms of greed and power. Not race or culture.
    In Loving Kindness

  • Bryan Wagner

    “Racialized norms developed by white people?”
    Have you been to Africa or the Middle East or China?
    Using stereotyped and harmonic language only goes so far, in reality
    “racial norms” have been created all over the world by greed and power.
    In Loving Kindness.

  • nathan

    You can’t separate race and our racial history from systemic greed and the rest. It’s all intertwined.

  • nathan

    Actually, the word “you” doesn’t feel right. You can do what you want. I don’t want to create a culture of “shoulds” or demands in these conversations.

    But if you want to get at the roots of all of this, facing race, racism and the legacy behind it all is essential.

  • Bryan Wagner

    I see. There was no demand being made. An interrogative concerning informational baselines, a query into what data base or history you are using to make statements. No offense or lead to direction meant.
    I do not mean to give offense. Just trying to clarify and perhaps understand the dichotomy. And perhaps give respect to all.
    If we are going to face greed and power, then perhaps we can quit using color as a baseline. We don’t say the Yellow guys are polluting our planet. Or the black guys are killing each other in Rawanda.
    The so called “white” power structure disappeared 30 years ago. Multi National co ops are not white.
    Greed, power, cruelty, and hatred do not belong to a race or color.
    My point is that white narrows the focus to a field that is impotent.
    The “you” in your second sentence is the same as the you in the first. I am confused.
    In Loving Kindness.

  • Breeze Harper

    Thank you for sharing this Nathan. I often wonder how much [racial] neoliberalism has colonized the minds of us here in the USA (where I read this and was born and raised).

    I find that that racial neoliberalism is the filter in which a majority of white identified people, Buddhist or not, filter and interpret the world; understand their relationships to what is ethical and how to remedy suffering, as well as how to interact with and perceive those of us who were not socialized and racialized into whiteness. I don’t speak from a random point or from pure subjectivity, as I was so curious about this phenomenon of how racialization and socialization into whiteness effect consciousness, ethics, morality, that I go my PhD in it at UC Davis…

    To discuss the content you have written about has been incredibly challenging for me, as I find that most want to teach me that race, racialization, and whiteness have nothing to do with how I experience that world (as someone who was racialized-sexualized as ‘Black’ and ‘female’), and if that I were a ‘true’ Buddhist, I would take responsibility and not let these ‘things of ego’ (i.e. race, racial identity) prohibit me from alleviating suffering.

    There is something to be said about hearing this type of ‘post-racial’ rhetoric in mostly white and class privileged sanghas. However it is unheard of, and also a type of blasphemy, in sanghas that are incredibly diverse such as the East Bay Meditation Center, here in Oakland. I can only speak of the ‘colonialist lie of personal responsibility’ within the context of the USA and how it upholds the violence of normative whiteness and racial neoliberalism. I can’t speak for other regions of the world.

    When I tried to write about similar content to the blog you posted above, I received posts from white identified Buddhists who let me know that I was not practicing ‘true’ Buddhism and that I am a ‘racist’. (see:

    Thank you for your time.

  • Muhamed

    I have been wondering if my own perceptions of America were off-centre. During my studies here I was so taken with the marvelous universities, hospitals, technology and general glamour but began to see that underneath it all are appalling rates of poverty, incarceration, homelessness, and health disparities that overwhelmingly impact the darker races. None of the white people I meet are prejudiced yet most of them are quite certain that coloreds have plenty of opportunities to succeed if they simply applied themselves sufficiently. The fact that a few have done so completes the proof that it is entirely possible for all. Those who advocate recognition and transformation are “reverse racists.” A thorny issue, indeed!

  • nathan


    Thank you for stopping by. I read and shared several of your articles last summer/fall, and witnessed some of the personalized attacks and other forms of abuse thrown at you.

    In addition to the post you shared, I also would recommend to Turning Wheel readers the post you wrote last August about San Francisco Zen Center that started your series on race and sanghas.

    To me it spoke volumes on how fractured the majority of U.S. convert sanghas are underneath the “peaceful” veneer. Issues of race and class in particular get brushed under the rug again and again.

    I think of how much of a lie appeals to peace and kindness are when some of the very same Buddhists making those appeals are the first ones to attack and demonize folks who call out issues like institutional racism.

    It’s very telling to me that after several years of blogging, and fairly often raising issues of race and racism in American Buddhist sanghas, that only a handful of times has anyone questioned my practice, or called me racist. The pass or benefit of the doubt I’m given is clearly racialized and probably genderized as well.

    I get kickback no doubt, but it’s flavor and intensity is very different from the kinds of comments I saw on your articles, and others by practitioners of color trying to articulate what’s happening in their sanghas.

    Glad to have your voice and blog posts added to this discussion.


  • Jose Ma Montelibano

    In an advocacy i am deeply committed to, the raising out of poverty the poorest 5 million families among my people, I am constantly challenged to find the most effective pathway to take, and to influence others by. For our poor who were ushered into their historical poverty status by western colonization (incidentally, by white people), “moving on” is a prescribed option of mainstream development mindset that has proven impossible to do. Nothing would please me more that to see my deeply affected, or afflicted, people move on. It is for that direction that I have dedicated almost 30 years of my life for.

    Early on, I and fellow workers have dropped and set aside the books from where mainstream development for the marginalized spring from. It is not from a resentment, it is from need – if our dream of being able to trigger an empowering process for our poor will not be wasted. The good thing about continuous work on the ground is that development principles have abundant chances for applied experimentation. And when the pain of the past persists in the present, because the present does not dismantle the enduring multi-faceted corruption of the past, we have instant feedback of the efficacy of any intervention model.

    Truly, a healing of a massive and deeply embedded trauma has to occur. Clearly, modern proposals of fast-tracking evolution cannot work without revisiting, then transcending, the horror of a past and its continuing impact on the present. There are no formulae, it seems, from the books, and the convulsions that intermittently rock even developed societies and the rest of a world unable to extricate itself from poverty are proof enough that each concerned group must discover its own vision, go its own pace, yet all must lace its efforts with kindness, understanding and courage.

  • Bryan Wagner

    Note “this isn’t about individuals”
    Stephen Bachelor and Eckart Tolle might disagree.
    This is sad.
    Attacking individuals who can’t defend themselves.
    Attacking history and groups defined by color and of course placing the in the box of ignorance so no matter how individuals respond you can simply say they are ignorant.
    Obfuscating your ideology by not addressing queries that my have a reflection than is painful.
    Intellectually vague and impotent.
    In all power structures there is a need for adversity to build a castle.
    I can see that here.
    How sad.
    All in the name of Buddhism.

  • nathan


    I’m not sure if you’re responding solely to my comments and writing. Did you read Breeze Harper’s blog posts, or the other comments on here?

    When I brought up Batchelor and Tolle, I did not attack them personally. I disagreed and challenged how they are framing the teachings they offer. Just as you seem to be challenging my framing, and the framing of others here at BPF. Both of these men have large followings as well, so in considering their work, I am also pointing at the way entire groups are viewing the dharma and spiritual practice in the U.S. and other “Global North” nations.

    “Attacking history.” How can anyone “attack” history? Certainly, we can debate history, present alternative narratives, provide missing information, etc, but history isn’t a thing with a solid, fixed self. It’s fluid and moving. Composed of numerous, often competing story lines.

    When I read your comments about race, what I see is the absolute truth of the situation. That “race” is a construct, an artificial overlay that doesn’t reflect who we are as humans.

    However, there’s also the relative world, on the ground, daily experiences of race. Where people are categorized, classed, critiqued, and oppressed or elevated solely, or in part, because of the color of their skin and/or ethnic background. There will be no collective peace without facing the relative conditions head on, and transforming them. 500 years of genocide and oppression towards indigenous communities, for example, doesn’t disappear because a few people of color get elected to Congress or the Presidency, or become CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies. (Note the numbers when it comes to Fortune 500 CEO’s 400 years of slavery, Jim Crow, and “Separate but Equal” are not erased by things like the election of Barack Obama. The legacy of the 1880s Chinese Exclusion Acts, subsequent immigration policies aimed at Asians, the Japanese internment camps, the over 2 millions tons of bombing material dropped on Laos by the U.S. military and the numerous families that landed here in the U.S. still live on as well. I could go on, but I won’t.

    We can through our individual practice come to a peace with all of this in a certain sense. In the touching of – and tapping into – the absolute, our buddhanature. This is a worthy aim in my view.

    However, as far as I’m concerned, the bodhisattva vow also requires that we keep coming back to the relative world. The world of everyday issues and concerns. And do whatever we can to help bring liberation to the world.

    Much of my writing concerns this “coming back.” Because I feel it’s needed.

    That’s my view. Perhaps you disagree.


  • nathan

    Welcome to the conversation Jose. I really appreciate your comment about “dropping the books” because that seems to be a major trouble spot for a lot of folks in the Global North. The anguished attempts to create some universal solution or teaching that will “solve” all our collective problems. The longer I’m involved in activist work, the more and more I see how radical the Zen teachers have been when emphasizing things like “don’t know mind.” Studying only gets us so far, and a fair amount of the time ends up being another hindrance. Sounds like you have experienced this.

    I took a look at your blog. Saw that you’re from the Philippines. For other readers, here is some background on U.S. imperialism in the Philippines and other Asian-Pacific nations.

    “Truly, a healing of a massive and deeply embedded trauma has to occur. Clearly, modern proposals of fast-tracking evolution cannot work without revisiting, then transcending, the horror of a past and its continuing impact on the present.”

    This is so true. And a reminder that no matter what we do, we have to keep letting go of our desire for “quick results.” A hard pill to swallow, but necessary.

  • nathan

    Oh, and if you’d like to share some more about the advocacy work you are doing, Jose, I would be interested in hearing about it. And I bet other readers would be as well.

  • nathan

    Hi Muhamed. “Those who advocate recognition and transformation are “reverse racists.” A thorny issue, indeed!” I spent several years as an English teacher for recent adult immigrants, and university students from other nations. Your experience of shifting perceptions of America seems pretty common. I remember one student from Burma telling me that her friends had told her that the streets were paved in gold in the U.S. She thought everyone was rich here, and then was shocked at how many struggle just to feed themselves and their families.

    And yes, the Horatio Alger myth and stories like it still dominate mainstream American culture. And are definitely tied to the “personal responsibility” narratives we are discussing here.

    “Thorny” is definitely a good word for it all.

  • Bryan Wagner

    I have not seen much progress in race relationships over the past 30 years. I think there has been a “language of acceptance” that is shallow and insincere. In reality there has not been much progress.

    I applaud and support any efforts to grow better relationships with kindness and respect.

    Your right the past cannot be erased.
    Now what?
    Since recorded history there have been massive injustices in the world.
    So I am wondering and have been wondering, where and what is the plan?
    I wonder where the healing is going to take place?
    My thought is in between individuals in the here and now.
    To do this requires immense effort to know the self first.
    After reading what you wrote concerning “it just doesn’t disappear” in relationship to past injustice what is it exactly you want “it” to do? I am really trying to understand what your heart desires in the realm of healing this.
    There is great heart on this site.
    And a willingness.
    But to Do what about the past?
    A plan. A paradigm? If not then the cycles will just continue. Pointing at them and talking about them hasn’t done much in the last several thousand years.
    It is unfortunate that power structures always form a geometric pyramid. Greed and power reside at the top. Tip it over and you get another pyramid.
    So how does one develop a “horizontal’ society?

  • nathan


    Any universal plan “I” could offer would just be another story, another partial attempt that ultimately won’t hold up on the ground. It might inspire some positive movement, and part of me would like to have some bigger, maybe more comprehensive vision to offer.

    But at the end of the day, I don’t believe there is a single plan I or anyone can construct and offer. And because we can’t even collectively face the damage done from recent past (colonialism is definitely “recent”), the wounds and suffering lingers, and makes it hard to even take small steps in a new direction.

    While you have repeatedly called my posts vague in multiple threads, I have pointed to numerous small (or large) steps that could be taken. And are being taken by some folks already. Everything from Buddhists choosing to not ignore or hide from social issues, to supporting indigenous efforts to stop oil pipelines and other environmental destruction, to maintaining the earth-based teachings in Buddhism that might not be “rational” or immediately instrumental, but which help up stay grounded in our earthiness, or interconnected nature.

    If you read the comments and posts of others here on BPF, you’ll find other pointers towards direct actions that could be taken. I particularly was inspired by the way in which rideshares that developed during the Oakland BART strike are transforming into something much larger.

    It seems like you want a whole put together theory with actions steps, whereas I tend to think that it all unfolds in cycles. Our wheel turnings. That we recognizing something is wrong. Take some steps. Build some larger philosophy to help shift things more, and then more steps. More unearthing what’s wrong. More revising of the narrative structures …

    Part of the challenge as I see it is that we are at a point where the colonialist/capitalist narrative is mostly falling apart for all but the most privileged. And so many of us are looking for something new, and desire it NOW, forgetting the time, energy, and steps it took to build the current paradigm.

    The full narrative doesn’t seem to come until after humans have moved on to something else. And even those stories are partial. We can’t capture it all.

  • Don Macleay

    I did a lot of my growing up in Canada as an English speaking minority assimilated into French speaking schools and this rings a couple of bells for me.

    When I was in Vancouver looking for work I had an employer throw my certificate onto the shop floor, tell me that he had no fucking time for this and turn his back on me and walk away, interview over. My certificate was in French from where I had gone to school in Montreal.

    My own separatist, nationalist friends had no time for the blocked bridge at Oka Quebec, west of the island of Montreal. When I expressed concerns, I found that my friends thought of Mohawks as “English supporting” native peoples.

    These are but two quick examples of life in Canada which I never found pro-multi-cultural. We were many different cultures, but not at all in harmony.

    This article talks about what Canada has in common with many Anglo-Saxon hyper capitalist states, among other places, and that is the cult/myth/evasion of the super individual and the avoidance of our community health and our collective responsibility when that health is lacking.


  • Ben

    While I agree with everything as you have stated it, I also found the title of your post to be potentially counterproductive. The phrase “colonialist lie” seems to imply a deliberate attempt at deception, on the part of people who in my experience are not typically mindful enough of the limits of their worldview to consciously deceive anyone with them. In order for the personal responsibility meme to be a lie, the people who perpetrate it would have to know it was false and intentionally use it anyway. As far as I can tell, they honestly believe that it’s the truth, and don’t see that its function is to absolve *them* of any personal responsibility for the plight of any other human being.

  • david

    ” the reason that many white Buddhists struggle with, or reject outright, notions of karma across lifetimes and/or the teachings of rebirth is that to embrace them means taking radical responsibility for the myriad of crimes from our past.”
    What crimes?
    What about the crimes of non white Buddhist?

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