Thich Nhat Hanh is an incredible translator of Buddhist teachings in a way that resonates with the struggle for social justice. Also known for other books, such as The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation to give a concise and accessible overview of Buddhism. It is relatively comprehensive but also easy and delightful to read. We think it’s essential for understanding the relationship between buddhism and social justice.
The first part of the book is organized around the “Four Noble truths.” The First Noble Truth is suffering. At first this sounds horrible, but something you learn from studying Buddhism is that suffering is not horrible, it just is. Learning to accept that all of existence is suffering leads to tranquility and peace. The Second Noble Truth is the arising of suffering. Yes, existence is suffering, but there are also attitudes and behaviors we engage in that cause more suffering than is necessary. The Third Noble Truth is that cessation of the creation of suffering. It’s pretty obvious to see how important will be this interpretation of Buddhism for social justice. It is wonderful to learn that it is possible to stop creating suffering! Healing is possible, as he writes. The Fourth Noble truth is the path to not causing suffering. This might sound a little confusing, but that’s why you need to read the book.
The Buddha called suffering a Holy Truth, because our suffering has the capacity of showing us the path to liberation. Embrace your suffering, and let it reveal to you the way to peace. – Thich Nhat Hanh
Of the teachings of the Buddha that I find most useful is the realization that a lot of suffering comes from craving. The Buddha taught that number one on the list of afflictions is our own craving. If we can reduce our human cravings, we reduce our suffering. But also, we must not try to avoid all suffering, for suffering is existence. We don’t want to eliminate suffering exactly, because that is impossible and it would mean not existing, but rather we want to extinguish our ideas and concepts (this is one of the Three Dharma Seals).
Then there is the Noble Eightfold Path. One of the first is “Right View.” The first aspect of this is a deep understanding of the Four Noble Truths. At the base of our viewpoint on the world, is perception. The question of Buddhism and social justice begins at this root of things. So the right view is all about making sure that our basic perceptions are the best they can be. This is grounded in skepticism: Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us to always ask ourselves “am I sure?” About everything. The next is Right Thinking. Thinking is what comes after perception, it’s “the speech of our mind.” After that comes Right Mindfulness. Right Mindfulness is in the center of Buddhist teachings. Right Mindfulness is basically the energy that returns us always to the present moment. Following this is “Right Speech”. This essentially just means speaking truthfully. You cannot say one thing to one person and something else to a different person. Right Speech is based primarily on Right Thinking. After this comes “Right Action,” which is the “practice of touching love and preventing harm the practice of nonviolence toward ourselves and others.” Then we have Right Diligence, or right effort, which is basically ensuring that we work hard on the right things. We do not practice Buddhism “hard”, we practice Right Diligence if we avoid working for the wrong reasons such as capitalist profit (craving) but instead worked diligently on the other steps of the Eightfold Path. The next step is Right Concentration, which means cultivating a mind that is one pointed, literally “maintaining evenness”. The next step is Right Livelihood, which means earning your living in a way that is consistent with your beliefs, love, and compassion for all living things. To live up to Buddhism and social justice, you have to find a job that expresses your truest self or it will cause suffering unnecessarily for you and for the people around you.
Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything — anger, anxiety, or possessions — we cannot be free. – Thich Nhat Hanh
Throughout this book, Thich Nhat Hanh makes a lot of brilliant comments that are critical capitalism. The book provides a lot of insight into how Buddhist teachings are essentially a form of anti-capitalist living to maximize social justice. But it’s not political: the purpose or goal is not necessarily to change the world, which is a kind of craving and will ruin the whole genius of Buddhism. The point is to live correctly, to order our mental and behavioral tendencies in a way that is right, simply because it is true and good to order our life in a way that is right. It is only as a consequence of this, that systemic social justice effects tend to be produced. Buddhism and social justice are not in a straightforward relationship, they require meditation and study to intuit their deep interconnection, from our current starting points as alienated Westerners. So Buddhism provides a very interesting and useful inroad to a life of radical political significance, but it does so through a somewhat paradoxical path of disengagement from politics in everyday sense. This might sound confusing or contradictory, but if it does, all we can say is that you should read the book because Thich Nhat Hanh conveys all of this with much more subtlety and effectiveness than we can!