Taking a second look at Radical Dharma through the lens of social class

May 9, 2017

Mark 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)

This article originally appeared on the website of the Secular Buddhist Association on September 9, 2016 - http://secularbuddhism.org/2016/09/09/taking-a-second-look-at-radical-dharma-through-the-lens-of-social-class/



Before submitting a comment, please review the SBN guidelines for contributors and readers’ comments.

One Reply to “Taking a second look at Radical Dharma through the lens of social class”

Rhonda Magee

It’s important to recognize that in the U.S. and other systems in which White Supremacy has been central, race and class are not severable. And they are not additive, but are mutually (co-)constitutive: in profound and important ways, they co-create each other. In other words, in a real sense, in the U.S., notions of “social class” do not (cannot) exist separately from the notions of race and racism. May our efforts to understand class in the U.S. be deepened by deepening our grasp on the often nuanced ways that race-and-class-together are and since the founding have been central here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *