Untitled-1Mark Knickelbine’s positive appraisal of the recently-published book, Radical Dharma: Talking, Race, Love and Liberation, highlights the authors’ emotional honesty and integrity in navigating the relationship between Buddhism and radical activism in the context of pervasive systems of oppression which mark American society.  I had a similarly positive reaction to that aspect of the book, but I also think that we need to critically evaluate the radical theory which underpins Radical Dharma.

In my view, the authors of the book ­- Rev. angel Kyodo williams, Lama Rod Owens, and Jasmine Syedullah – mistakenly conceive social class as just one of many systems of oppression which have profoundly negative effects.  I believe, instead, that social class domination in a capitalist economy should be understood as playing a more central role in creating individual suffering and social harm than they recognize.  This difference in perspective is not just an academic dispute among radically-inclined Buddhists, but has important implications for the activities we, as Buddhists, choose to engage in and the goals of our sanghas.

Radicalism as the Recognition of Multiple Oppressions and Intersectionality

The basic premise of Radical Dharma is that a constellation of interacting and overlapping oppressive social systems, including white supremacy, patriarchy, classism, ableism, heteronormativity, etc., damage human beings and prevent us from fully flourishing. These systems not only promote social harming on the interpersonal and macro-social levels, but are the source of our internal suffering, via self-hatred and alienation from what the authors call our “basic goodness.”

To understand fully who we are in the context of these oppressions and then to respond appropriately, we need to recognize our intersectionality – i.e. the ways in which we are shaped by these various systems, whether we are the oppressor or the oppressed in any of these dimensions.

While all of the main oppressive systems are listed in the book, as the sub-title indicates, the focus is on race, sexual orientation, and gender expression. For example, Lama Rod Owens, a Tibetan Buddhist in the Kagyu lineage, provides a powerful, emotionally honest account of how his identity has been crucially shaped by being a person of color and gay. To be true to himself, to discover his basic goodness, Owens had to come to terms with these aspects of his identity.  By engaging in this difficult process of self-discovery, Owens has become better able to act from love and compassion, rather than greed, hatred, and delusion.

The authors argue that, unless all Buddhists undertake a thorough and honest self-analysis of their own intersectionality, oppressive social systems will continue to negatively affect individual Buddhists and sanghas of all lineages. Owens, Williams, and Syedullah provide acute analyses of the ways in which Buddhists refuse to acknowledge their own complicity and participation in oppressive social systems.

The comments and debate in response to Mark’s August 3rd review of Radical Dharma focused on one aspect of this issue: to what extent do white people carry with them and express – however subtly – white supremacist ideas.

U.S. Buddhists and Intersectionality

For the authors, clarity about our intersectionality is thus a pre-condition for Buddhists and sanghas to engage in social action which confronts the overlapping systems of oppression, particularly white supremacy and heteronormativity.  A radical dharma requires both an honest exploration of one’s intersectionality and social action which is directed at rooting out racism, sexism, heteronormativity, etc.

This notion of radicalism has become predominant among U.S. Buddhists who consider themselves to be radically, socially engaged.

The Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF) is the most prominent national network for socially engaged Buddhists who are focused on collective action and radical change. While BPF recognizes the importance of a broad range of issues, an important focus is support for Black Lives Matter and the fight against police brutality and other manifestations of white supremacy.  For white Buddhists to participate in this struggle from a position of love and real solidarity, it’s essential that they do a rigorous self-examination of their own racism.  In the latest issue of the BPF’s e-newsletter (Sept. 2, 2016), “Taking Refuge in Discomfort”, the key challenge is clear:

For Buddhists, for change-makers, for folks with privileges of different kinds, being uncomfortable is critical. Undoing oppressive patterns, whether directed against ourselves or others, is the hard work of every dharma practitioner, even while we  Vow Not To Burn Out, as Mushim Ikeda kindly and wisely reminds us.

This emphasis on recognizing intersectionality in the context of fighting systemic racism is pervasive among socially engaged Buddhists and their sanghas, including the East Bay Meditation Center, the Brooklyn Zen Center, and New York Insight.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Radical Dharma as Intersectionality

One positive value of intersectionality is the recognition that we are shaped by (and we, in turn, shape) multiple social systems. We are complex beings whose identity and interests cannot be reduced to just one dimension or factor. Consequently, radically transforming social systems requires us to recognize the ways in which these systems interact and affect us as individuals.

The notion of intersectionality also usefully points us to the need to understand how we, as complex individuals, both reproduce and transform various systems of oppression. Social problems are not just a matter of “outside” structures causing harm; they exist because they are sustained, in part, by individuals. In this sense, intersectionality dovetails well with Buddhism’s emphasis on understanding, through meditation and reflection, the various ways that we cause suffering to ourselves and others.

At the same time, while intersectionality presupposes multiple, interacting systems of oppression, how and why these systems interact is not well theorized. Instead, the various systems of oppression tend to be noted as a long list which is strung together – patriarchy, racism, classism, ableism, etc. – but there is no sense of how these dimensions hang together. Are they all of equal weight in causing individual and social harm? From the point of view of effecting radical change, is it more fruitful to focus our efforts on one or several systems of oppression? These and other questions are rarely addressed.

Further, because intersectionality highlights the need to be self-aware and authentic in terms of expressing our various identities, the focus tends to be individualistic, rather than developing a broader, more universal solidarity among human beings. williams argues in Radical Dharma that the American stress on individualism – combined with the reality of diversity and “border crossing” in American culture – actually can promote the kind of radical self-authenticity required to make radical change on individual and social levels.

Paradoxically, the individualist ethos handed down from America’s terrible founding, as distinct from more collectivized/social-cultural organization (of the East, for example), provides an opportunity to transmute the destructive force of aggression and narcissism to approach collective liberation from entirely new ways. (p. 201)

I’m skeptical about williams’ argument. While diversity and the multiplicity of individual expressions has been, in some ways, a source of strength for social change efforts in the U.S., these factors have also made it more difficult to create broader solidarities. For example, employers have often used differences within the working class to “divide and conquer”, weakening workers’ ability to unite for fair treatment and a voice on the job.

And we should not forget that contemporary capitalism is incredibly successful at using diversity and individual expressiveness to market its products and services to reinforce a consumerist mentality which is centered around the satisfaction of individual wants, not social needs.

Bringing Social Class Back into the Heart of Radical Dharma

While recognizing the value of intersectionality for Buddhists committed to radical, social activism, I don’t think that it provides a fully adequate social theory of the “causes and conditions” of human suffering nor does it, on its own, offer an effective strategy which can lead to radical change.

Rather than including oppression based on social class (i.e. “classism”) as just one of a long list of oppressive social systems, I believe that the domination of one social class over another in the context of capitalist exploitation plays a more central role in both individual and social suffering than advocates of intersectionality recognize.

Even if one does not agree with Marx that the structures and processes for producing our material existence (i.e. the economy) are the basis or foundation for other aspects of society, it is clear that the economic system profoundly impacts our social interactions and individual attitudes. We live under a form of neo-liberal capitalism whose primary purpose is not the satisfaction of human needs, but the generation of profit to beat the competition in the market.  Most employers view their employees as a factor of production whose costs must be reduced as much as possible for them to be competitive, thus leading to bad working conditions and inadequate wages and benefits for most workers.  Given that acquisitive greed and exploiting others are integral to the functioning of such a system, it is not surprising that greed, hatred, delusion appear, to us, as “natural” ways for human beings to relate to each other.  Because of the kind of society we live in, these unwholesome qualities are as deeply etched into social processes and structures as they are into our individual, neuro-chemical pathways.

However, the common experience of class exploitation and oppression not only causes suffering, but can also lead working people to come together in associations and labor unions to defend and advance their interests in the face of powerful employers.  Radicals in the Marxist and anarchist traditions have contended that the consequent conflict between working people united in collective organizations and their employers can lay the basis for working people to develop a more critical (less delusory) understanding of society and promote an increasingly broader sense of connection or solidarity which, in the end, encompasses working people of all nationalities, races, ethnicities. This more, expansive vision of social solidarity is similar to the way in which Buddhists recognize the interconnectedness and shared suffering of all human beings.

These transformative effects of social class struggle are thus an essential (but not the only) way in which we can confront a major cause of suffering and develop the capacities to create a society in which the primary goal is to promote human flourishing.  In this respect, social class is not just one identity among many, but a crucial strategic lever for social transformation.

Implications for Practitioners, Sanghas

In asserting the centrality of social class domination, I’m not arguing that white supremacy, patriarchy, heteronormativity, and other systems of oppression are less important nor am I claiming that efforts by sanghas to promote diversity and honestly confront the internal and external manifestations of these oppressions are misplaced. I fully support these efforts, including the need for sangha members to examine the subtle ways in which we are complicit in sustaining these oppressions even if that is not our conscious intention.

Bringing social class into the heart of radical dharma does not contradict or detract from other struggles; it does require us to broaden our current approach. What does that mean in practice?

First, if we understand fully the crucial role of social class domination in a capitalist economy in causing individual and social suffering, then we need to use a more exacting standard in assessing the wholesomeness of our livelihood. In the Noble Eightfold Path, “right livelihood” is defined as occupations which don’t cause direct harm, such as arms trading and drug dealing.  In contemporary capitalist society, there are a whole range of occupations and businesses which don’t fall into this category, but do contribute to reinforcing hierarchical class relations. For example, a hedge fund manager whose investments in a company increase her clients’ assets but which also cause workers to be laid off is not, in my view, involved in a right livelihood.  Similarly, the owner of a recycling business who blocks his employees’ efforts to have a voice on the job by forming a union is not engaging in right livelihood, even though the company’s service is beneficial.

Second, we need to be more concerned with making our sanghas more welcoming and hospitable to working class people, of whatever ethnicity, race, gender, or sexual orientation. Sanghas in the U.S. tend to be composed of middle and upper-middle class people. We need to assess whether our sanghas are placing obstacles in the way of more working class people participating. Are the costs of workshops and retreats too high for those with limited resources?  Do we take into account the limited time off from work that many working people have? Do we consider having childcare available for those who can’t afford it?  Is the “culture” of the sangha off-putting to those who are not firmly ensconced in the middle class?

Third, some socially engaged Buddhists have made it a priority to support efforts of low-wage workers to gain a decent wage and fair treatment from their employers. The Fight for $15 movement and the campaign for paid sick leave for all workers are both important examples of working class struggle in which socially engaged Buddhists should actively participate. These efforts not only challenge class exploitation, but the systems of patriarchy and white supremacy which have placed a disproportionate percentage of women and people of color at the bottom rungs of the labor market.

Finally, Buddhists committed to a radical dharma need to heed the injunction of Katie Loncke from Buddhist Peace Fellowship and “get friendly with organized labor,” in particular, with progressive labor unions, rank and file groups, worker centers, etc. These activist trends within the labor movement are not just seeking better wages and benefits for their members, but are contributing to social justice and democracy.  Just as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. understood the integral connection between labor rights, civil rights, and our deepest spiritual values, socially engaged Buddhists should see progressive labor struggles an important arena in which individual and social transformation can be furthered.

In sum, if we are truly interested in making American Buddhism more diverse and more relevant to the struggles against systemic forms of oppression, as the authors of Radical Dharma most certainly do, we need to understand clearly the central role which social class plays in causing human suffering and in creating transformative movements.


Mushim Ikeda, “I Vow Not to Burn Out,” in Lions Roarhttp://www.lionsroar.com/i-vow-not-to-burn-out/?blm_aid=21925  (September 1, 2016)

Katie Loncke, “Ten Principles of Our Radical Rebirth,” Buddhist Peace Fellowship/Turning Wheel Media – http://www.buddhistpeacefellowship.org/10-principles-of-our-radical-rebirth/ (October 29, 2013)

Karl Marx, Preface from the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economyhttps://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/preface.htm#005 (1859)


No Comments

  1. Mark Knickelbine on September 9, 2016 at 7:29 am

    I do not question your assertion that an economic system based on oppression and exploitation of labor causes more widespread harm, nor that it contributes to many of the other flavors of oppression based on difference. However, it is important to recognize that as long as large segments of the population are divided among racial lines, it will be very difficult for working people to understand economic class as a predominant factor in their suffering. As I have said elsewhere, race exists precisely as an instrument of exploitation. It functions by creating a social psychological infrastructure that makes certain kinds of people less valuable and therefore more exploitable, and it engenders fear and hatred as its principal motivations. The success of race bating as a means of dividing the working class is Exhibit A as to why we will make little progress on class consciousness until we purge ourselves of racism. And for brown people, whose skin can become a death sentence, there is little option but to focus on eradicating racism. Until we can love one another across lines of difference, we have little chance of achieving any durable solidarity. Finally, I believe the kind of dharma practice called for in Radical Dharma would not limit itself to racial difference, but would encompass all of the ways we have come to hate ourselves and others and would seek a love that embraces everyone, and that the kinds of worker-welcoming practices you suggest would be fully consistent with that ethos.

    • Michael Slott on September 11, 2016 at 8:04 am

      Thanks, Mark, for your comments. They were very useful.

      As you point out, the system of white supremacy has been very damaging not only to people of color but to the labor movement. Racist attitudes among white workers have been one of the most important obstacles to creating a broader class consciousness and working class unity. Some labor historians have even argued that it has been the main obstacle, such as Michael Goldfield in his book, The Color of Politics.

      So, I agree with you and the authors of Radical Dharma that confronting white racism is a priority.

      However, I think that most socially engaged Buddhists haven’t fully recognized that, in the struggle for respect, decent working conditions, a voice on the job, and adequate pay, workers from all backgrounds and groups can develop a deep sense of solidarity and begin to see each other as human beings who share the same aspirations and basic needs. The transformative effects of workers’ struggle is thus another important way in which racism can be overcome, in addition to “purging racism” through an examination of one’s intersectionality, as the authors of Radical Dharma advocate.

      Another point: You say that “…. the kind of dharma practice called for in Radical Dharma would not limit itself to racial difference…..and that the kinds of worker-welcoming practices you suggest would be fully consistent with that ethos.” That’s right, but if you examine the key projects of socially engaged Buddhists, you don’t see much emphasis on workers. Instead, the main areas of activity are climate change (see the One Earth Sangha website), diversity initiatives (people of color, LGBTQ community), the fight against police brutality, hospice services, and work with prisoners. That’s revealing to me. It’s not that socially-engaged Buddhists are opposed to workers’ struggles and initiatives to make sanghas more worker-friendly. It’s just not as high a priority as the other projects. My blog post urges us to make worker issues a priority.

  2. Michael Finley on September 9, 2016 at 10:35 pm

    I think it is very important to recognize the ways in which racism is bound up with class politics, the way in which it has been used not only to divide the working class, but even to recruit (mostly white) people to support parties & policies against there own interest. However, the stategy of divide and rule can only work if racism persists. There is a feed-back loop here — a political process that feeds on racism, and helps to perpetuate it.

    But if anyone can break out of the pattern, it is people who are able to dispassionately examine racism, recognize its vacuity — people who are in fact, and in the proper sense of the word, mindful. And I am willing to make the wager that engaged practioners can use clarity about the senselessness of racism to help the wider community confront it.

    Anything that erodes racism undermines its utility as a means sustaining the political and economic status quo. While I do not at all suggest that the role race in class politics should be ignored, I do think that examining racism in itself, or better, in myself, in my own unexamined views or thought-patterms, is a useful exercise. Again, racism is an instrument of oppession only to the extent that racists views continue to be believed.

  3. mufi on September 11, 2016 at 8:38 am

    Is it possible for, say, a labor union leader or member to think and act like a bigot? Even without concrete examples handy (this being a thought experiment), I think the answer is clearly: yes, it is possible, which raises doubt about an “economistic” approach to politics: that is, an approach that reduces social problems to economic ones…in this case, those which characterize a “capitalist economy.”

    Better, I think, to take an “all of the above” approach and to focus on pragmatic political solutions to these social problems, even if they fail to meet this or that faction’s criteria for radicalism.

    After all, if the Buddha is our guide in this matter, then our emphasis should be neither on capitalism nor socialism (nor any other idealized economy, for the matter), but rather on cultivating certain personal virtues, like the brahmavihāras. One’s policy goals will naturally follow from those and the results won’t necessarily satisfy everyone all of the time…not even self-identifying radicals, Marxists, leftists, etc., however much more they may have in common with self-identifying Buddhists than right-wing conservatives.

  4. Jennifer Hawkins on September 14, 2016 at 8:18 am


    Technically this video is about the terms “cracker,” “white trash,” and “red neck,” but it definitely touches on the issues of class brought up here.

    Anyways, great writing. As I told Mark… that’s all I can really say… nothing world shattering to add. It is a little distressing to see the other article linked the way it is and the response to my response to (basically) bias comments. Still… talking is important.

    • Michael Slott on September 16, 2016 at 9:21 am

      Jennifer – I checked out the video on youtube and was pleasantly surprised that a 5 minute video from MTV (I thought they just did music videos) actually had a lot of insightful comments and important facts about the connection between racism and social class exploitation in U.S. history. I’ve seen many long articles that labored (not so well) to make the same points. Thanks for posting the link.

      • Jennifer Hawkins on September 16, 2016 at 5:53 pm

        I remember MTV being about music videos when I was younger, then MTV being made fun of for not doing anything related to music anymore. In all honesty, I don’t think they’ve really been about music for about a decade now. (I never really watched, so I never kept track of it). But yeah… Decoded does a pretty good job of explaining many of these kinds of things (e.g. “watermelon” vs “pumpkin spice latte” in racial contexts). If you enjoyed that, I’d highly recommend PBS Idea Channel and VSauce (all on Youtube) for more such content.

  5. Michael Finley on September 14, 2016 at 12:11 pm

    Re Race, class, and being white trash

    In the late 1950s, when I was 8 or 9, my family moved to Memphis, Tennessee. My father’s mental health problems had put him out of work. We were not during well. In my new school, it hurt when I overheard my teacher classify me as “poor white trash,” and I soon discovered that this meant I was given less attention and respect than higher caste students. (I admit it didn’t help, I guess, that they gave us some sort of personalty profile test. Since I was reading Mark Twain at the time, I answered every question as if I was Huck Finn). I was lucky enough to find friends from the local Jewish neighborhood, which had its own problems with the Memphis status quo. They were largely free of traditional southern racist and classist attitudes. Not so my first “girl friend,” who never spoke to me again when I told her that my family would certainly continue to send me to school if “they let black people (not the word she used) come to our school.” Her daddy told her she wouldn’t have to go to school anymore if that happened. I wasn’t sure whether this pleased her just because of the racism she’d learned at home, or because she would get to skip school. Her family was at least as poor as mine, and she no doubt felt the “poor white trash” barb. But of course, she was compensated by the reassurance that she was part of the superior race. I’m afraid that like her daddy before her she probably grew up to vote for white politicians who exploited her racism to keep her as firmly in her place as the black folks she feared. But I’m not sure because a few years later we moved to my mother’s home in Prince Edward Island, Canada – a place with its own social problems, but thankfully free of the toxic mix of class, caste, and race that beset the South.

    (I might add that reading about Huck and Jim’s raft journey down the Mississippi to freedom for Jim was, despite some of the words used, a great antidote for a boy living in the South to the pervasive cult of Confederate history).

    • Jennifer Hawkins on September 16, 2016 at 6:00 pm

      ::hug:; I’m so sorry that you had to endure bullying from so many quarters. I’m glad you were able to find connections and that things got better.

      I do have kind a weird story of my own. I assume you know the show “The Jeffersons.” Well, most of the people I grew up with all saw it as re-runs all the time and I definitely was not the only one who had this question:

      Is “honkey” a real word?

      I got from the show that it was supposed to be mean to “White” people, but I literally never heard anyone actually use it in real life (except when talking about The Jeffersons) and most of the people that I’ve ever met had the same vague idea that it was something they made up for the show. It wasn’t until about 5 years ago that I finally met someone who could confirm that “honkey” was a real word used to actually be racist to “White” people before The Jeffersons… apparently it was only used in the North (like Harlem). I was familiar with all of the other terms used in the video (like “cracker”) and had even heard people actually use them to be mean and racist…. just, “honkey” was never a real word to me. I wonder where that one even came from?

  6. Michael Finley on September 18, 2016 at 9:31 pm

    Jennifer, this may confuse rather than clarify: I heard “honkey” used occationally in the South by some people when I was a kid, but not as a racial identifier per se. Rather, if I understood what I was hearing, it was a term for country music, used disparagingly (as in “that’s just honkey music” by people whose tastes ran to jazz & blues. I suppose it was also be used to disparage those who liked “honkey” music. Thus, the term marked a contrast between southern taditional “white” and black-influenced music. My father had worked for a time as an M.C. for jazz bands, and I guess I assumed he got it from musicians. Perhaps there was a hidden meaning I was too young to appreciate, and perhaps in the black community it had a broader meaning than its musical meaning — but now I’m speculating. Anyway, I think I only heard it as a staight-forward racial identifier much later — maybe even from the Jeffersons!

    cf Dollie Parton “Honkey-tonk woman.” ?

  7. Michael Finley on September 18, 2016 at 9:36 pm

    Addendum: My lost post makes real sense only if it reads (as I intended it too) “I heard “honkey” used occationally in the South by some WHITE people . . . “.

    • Jennifer Hawkins on September 19, 2016 at 8:54 am

      Wow. Thanks for your reply. I never connected “honkey tonk” with “honkey” from the Jeffersons. That may be. Even then, that changes my whole world. I never saw anything negative in “honkey tonk” (ref. “Honkey Tonk Badonkadonk”). I’ve got some thinking to do.

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