Healing Oppression

By Kaspa Thompson

A photograph of a mural showing a group of monks listening to one monk who is sitting on a bench.
A mural of the first council. Monks listen to Upali. Upali was a barber that the Buddha ordained before a group of princes, thus undermining the caste system. Photo by Photo Dharma from Penang, Malaysia

We recently changed the name of an XR Buddhists Telegram group from ‘Anti-oppression’ to ‘Healing Oppression’. I like the new wording. It says that we are not just standing against something, but working to change something and that work is the work of healing.

What might a Buddhist approach to healing oppression look like?

First, a little context. Although there are some ways in which I have experienced oppression, as a white middle-class man in the global north much of my life has benefited from this system of oppressed and oppressor.  

What is the cause of suffering? In the twelve link chain of dependant arising that the Buddha described, the ultimate cause of suffering is ignorance.

What is the ignorance that leads to suffering? It is our lack of awareness of selflessness, emptiness and interconnectedness.

What are selflessness and emptiness? Selflessness is what remains when we let go of greed and ill-will. We discover that there is a basic human goodness underneath everything else. We discover that there is a place of love and compassion deep within us. Emptiness is knowing that this is true for all beings: knowing that there is an underlying reality to life which is kind and loving and wise and connects us to all other living things. The experience of this teaches us that we are loved, and that we are capable of loving all beings.

Much of the time we are separate from this truth. We burst into a world of suffering and impermanence, feel the pain of separation, act with greed and ill-will from that place of pain, and then those actions and impulses become habitual.

Buddhist practice and teaching encourages us to trust that this pain and separation is not the only truth: that despite the very real and painful suffering we experience (and that some people experience more than others) the reality of love and connection is more fundamental. Occasionally we are gifted a deep embodied experience of this.

What is oppression? Oppression is the playing out of greed and ill-will and ignorance from those with more power to those with less power. It happens in interpersonal relationships, and across whole groups of people. From very obvious harmful words and actions, to more subtle behaviour that favour some groups over others, to the creation of structures that reinforce that favour and division.

Oppressing others is one strategy for trying to overcome the pain of separation: the belief that if someone can get more power, more status, and more wealth over others then they will feel better. Or that if they can hurt others and treat them as worthless then maybe they will feel worth something themselves. 

I guess that strategy must work a bit, or at least people believe that it will, because we keep seeing it over and over again.

As well as creating profound suffering for whole groups of people, this oppression also has a direct impact on the climate crisis. The greed of the powerful and wealthy leads to more and more extraction of fossil fuels from the Earth. This extraction feeds the greed of the wealthy; it increases the carbon in the atmosphere and harms the lives and communities of the people on the land where the extraction is taking place.

There is fundamental goodness, there is greed, ill-will and ignorance and there is the deep wounding of being oppressed. We all contain some mix of all of these, and some people are more oppressive and some are more oppressed.

There are four important ways to work to heal oppression.

The first is to turn inwards: to maintain the practices that keep bringing us back into the deep truth of connection and love, to investigate the ways in which we are still acting from greed, ill-will and ignorance, and to ask if/how we have benefited from oppression, and how we are perpetuating it. The practice of staying connected to love allows us to have the courage to ask ourselves these difficult questions.

The second is the work of developing and keeping loving kindness to others. Sometimes this comes easily and naturally, and sometimes this feels like more conscious work. As a Pure Land Buddhist emptiness and selflessness come to me in the form of Amida Buddha. Emptiness and selflessness are not just abstract ideas, but something relational with a life of their own. I trust that the love of the Buddha is flowing towards me. That it is flowing towards each of us. The more deeply I trust in this (supported by the occasional experience of really feeling loved) the more that love for others naturally appears. Other Buddhists might call that acting from emptiness.

The third is to be willing to deeply listen to the stories and experiences of oppressed people, and to support the processes of grieving in those communities when that is appropriate. It is important to have spaces where experiences of oppression can be heard, understood and held with loving kindness. All of us experience oppression and woundedness to some degree or another. Having the space to be heard in this way is important for all of us. Healing our wounds comes from having those wounds witnessed and understood and met with love. 

The fourth is paying attention to and working to dismantle the systems that work to keep oppression alive. From how roads were built in the U.S. to separate off black neighbourhoods, to the defunding of legal-aid in the UK, to anti-trans legislation, to criminalised homosexuality, to…

As we begin to become aware of these systems, we can work together with those groups of people that have been oppressed to dismantle them, and to create systems that are built on the fundamental truth of connection and the fundamental attitude of love for all beings.

There already exist resources to help us do the work outlined in each of these areas, both within our Buddhist traditions and in the social justice movement. I hope that by keeping all four of these areas in mind we can walk the path of healing oppression.

Kaspa Thompson is a Buddhist Teacher at Bright Earth Buddhist Temple, a psychotherapist and member of XR Buddhists. He is also facilitating Buddhist Action Month for the Network of Buddhist Organisations.

Posts and articles are the views of their authors and not necessarily of the XR Buddhists group.

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