Buddhism and Social Discrimination

By Rev. Ken Yamada

Buddhism often is viewed as a solitary path focused on one’s own spiritual enlightenment, rather than as a means for social change. That’s wrong.

Buddhism always has encouraged people to help others, starting with the Buddha, who famously helped the sick and offered food to the hungry. Jodo Shinshu has a unique history in its relationship with people suffering from leprosy, a debilitating skin disease that results in the loss of limbs and body parts.

So-called lepers suffered not only physically, but also socially, as they were confined against their will, isolated and discriminated against. The modern term for this skin condition is Hansen’s disease.

This topic was addressed at a colloquium sponsored by the Buddhist Studies department at the University of California, Berkeley, and organized by Professor Mark Blum. (Presenters chose to use the older terms “leprosy” and “leper” to reflect the period of time they addressed.)

Hank Glassman, associate professor at Haverford College, Pennsylvania, explained how certain groups of people in Japan were seen as “polluted” in Japan hundreds of years ago.  Funeral workers, who cared for corpses, wore head wrappings covering their faces, and wore persimmon colored robes, and they carried short staffs. They consisted of people from a social group known as “untouchables” or “hinin”(in Japanese, literally “non-person”).  A Japanese word often used to describe them was “kegarawashii” (dirty).

Professor Glassman showed a clip from “Departures,” a 2008 film about a funeral worker based on a memoir written by Shinmon Aoki called “Coffinman: The Journal of a Buddhist Mortician.”  When the worker’s wife discovered what her husband does for work, she calls him “kegarawashii,” an example how such thinking has continued into modern times.

Jessica Main, associate professor at the University of British Columbia, described how a 1943 handbook from Shinshu Otani-ha (Higashi Honganji denomination) promoted public health and the eradication of leprosy.  Higashi Honganji priest Takeuchi Ryo’on (1891-1968) worked vigorously to support leprosy treatment clinics and shelters, during a time when Japan’s government was focused on a military buildup.

Artwork presented at the event from the 16th Century showed Buddhist priests helping and feeding lepers, suggesting they were part of a minority who had contact with this socially isolated group.

However priests also may be seen as “polluted” if they spent too much time in a leper colony so they usually would not stay overnight, according to one presentation.

Jessica Starling, associate professor from Lewis & Clark College, Portland, Oregon, described her visit to a former leprosarium, or leper colony, in Okayama, Japan, called Nagashima Aiseien, which was established in 1930. The facility still housed some elderly people with Hansen’s disease.

Professor Starling was advised that rather than thinking how outsiders can “help” residents, just their presence alone was enough. When a visitor drank beer from a cup served to a resident, the resident watched in amazement. In earlier times, that cup would have been thrown away with the thought it was “polluted” and not fit for a normal person.

Thus residents were happy just to be treated like anyone else. Given their history of discrimination and isolation, they really appreciated normal social interaction.  Professor Starling talked about how visitors ended up learning from the patients, rather than vice versa.

I just saw a 2008 Japanese film on Netflix called “Sweet Bean,” about an elderly woman with barely noticeable Hansen’s disease who works at a Japanese pastry shop. Her knowledge and skill produces a suddenly delicious and popular treat until rumors start to fly and sales suddenly drop off. The film suggests that despite gains in treatment and understanding about the disease, in today’s world discrimination has yet to disappear.

Rev. Yamada is editor of Shinshu Center of America

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