Buddhism: in the Face of Race, and Caste…

Buddhism is an implicit, if not explicit, rejection of any and all systems of caste and social class. Because we are only united in our imperfections and suffering. If we were all perfect, then we would have no need of each other. Which is not to say that anyone should feel slight nor slighted by the lack of perfections. And many of the Zen masters in fact claim just that, that we are all perfect, but the Buddha never said that, or anything even close to that. In fact he was quite emphatic that, when it comes to any ego, soul, or permanent and lasting self, that “there is no there there,” to quote Gertrude Stein, in reference to Oakland, CA, USA.

And so we are all little Oaklands of the outfield, near the bleacher seats, roaming our turf with really no overriding rights to any of it. He even went so far as to refer to our skandhas, or ‘heaps,’ ‘aggregates,’ as if we were nothing more than some circumstantial piles of adjectival sand drifted up into corners, awaiting the next puff of wind to blow us a bit farther down the road, or indeed blow us right back to from where we came. In other words, all claims to divinity or even Trump’s ‘good genes’ are but the blatherings and BS of haughtiness and hubris. And so, it’s no wonder that the priestly class of India’s Brahmin caste found more work in the rites and rituals of what later came to be known as ‘Hinduism,’ though their wives were often Buddhists.

But they kept their hats in the ring, even though Buddhism allocated no special place to their race, at least not at first. But the trifecta of Brahmanistic add-ons, including karma, rebirth and past lives, would accomplish the same purpose now, wouldn’t it? Of course, it would. When the front door closes, the back door is often left ajar. And what that back door offered was the exact opposite of what some religions specialize in: magic and ritual. That would come later. For that back door offered something even more precious: certainty. And that is a slam dunk on the basketball court of belief systems, because belief systems first and foremost are all about belief. And nothing caters to belief more than the promise of certainty.

But it can’t be proven, that Brahmins shamelessly promoted reincarnation to assure their place in the Great Chain of Being. And it can’t be disproven, either. But it can be inferred. Because acceptance of the caste system was de rigueur for acceptance into the nascent Indian state of the 1st millennium BCE, Mahabharata and all that jazz, just like the gradual accumulation of the American nation a couple millennia later, one state at the time, and implying full cultural assimilation. So it was in India, with the leading edge of that assimilation right at the Buddha’s doorstep, such that we can’t be sure of the Buddha’s place in that hierarchy (Bronkhorst), though he is often considered a kshatriya, i.e. warrior class, in constant competition with the Brahmins for supremacy.

But Buddhism was not a warrior religion, just the opposite. Thus, to let the Brahmins in the back door by allowing Rebirth, Karma, and Past Lives side by side with the more fundamental Acceptance of Suffering, Meditation, and Internal Liberation was another use of the Buddha’s ‘skillful means’ to accomplish essential goals while avoiding confrontation. And the essential conundrum of ‘What gets reborn?’ can be left to another generation two-and-a-half millennia down the road. That’s us, in the crosshairs of history. And nothing really need be done. For the winner is not the one who speaks the loudest. The winner is the one who knows when to speak and when not to speak.