Awakening to Social Justice



By Bishop Noriaki Ito

Amid pandemic worries, we now are faced with another major challenge—social justice. The death of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis sparked protests that quickly spread throughout the country and the world. It’s just the latest incident in which African Americans have been unduly and at times viciously treated by law enforcement.

Somehow, we are more divided than ever. We’re already worried about another surge in coronavirus infections due to the reopening of states, and now protests and demonstrations with crowds of people close together add to the risks. Although the protest movement began earlier in African American communities, today’s demonstrators represent a broad diversity of people, including Whites, Latinos, and Asians, as well as people from various backgrounds, income levels, and age groups.

As a religious leader, I’d normally shy away from commenting on an issue deemed “political.” But I’ve come to realize this is an issue of social justice; this is a human rights issue; this is an issue that concerns all of us who are trying to co-exist peacefully in this world.

In Buddhism, we constantly try to understand and appreciate the inter-dependence of the world, how we cannot exist alone, how we are dependent on others, how each of us are tied together in a vast web of karmic relationships, how spiritually, we all are brothers and sisters. If we truly understand these truths, we would treasure and appreciate one another.

Buddhism also teaches us that unfortunately, we tend not to understand or appreciate these truths because of our innate selfishness. Consequently, we tend to see the world in terms of our own desires, our likes and dislikes, through eyes of greed and anger, and ultimately through our ignorance. Fortunately, we have the Buddhist teachings to guide and remind us of the great universal and eternal truth that in the end, we are part of a greater Whole, that in the end, we are not separate but One.

In this pandemic, the phrase “AloneTogether” says we should shelter-in-place, but also to remember we’re all in this together. Now the question is: How do we relate to each other? With fear and suspicion? Or as friends and part of a larger community.

It’s natural to think only about our selves and the welfare of our family and friends. It’s difficult to think about everyone that way, especially strangers. I am heartened to see that complete strangers are shedding their differences, coming together to protest injustice, to effect change, and to work towards creating a safer, more equitable world.

Recently in a Los Angeles Times commentary, basketball legend Kareen Abdul Jabbar wrote: “Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands. But we have to stay vigilant, because it’s always still in the air.”

It’s difficult to see truth, unless it’s illuminated by the light of wisdom. This is vitally important. In Buddhism, wisdom is symbolized by the lotus flower. Lotus plants grow in muddy water. This mud symbolizes difficulties and suffering. The mud nourishes the lotus, which grows and blossoms above the water.  Likewise, difficulties help us grow and see the flower of wisdom.

Without wisdom, we’ll continue to live self-centered lives thinking only about ourselves, about our own point of view, and not of others. The death of George Floyd, and others like him, was unjust. Some people have known it long before. Finally, many more of us now know it, are speaking up, and taking action. As Buddhists would say, this is the working of wisdom—the light—awakening us from our ignorance.

Rev. Ito is bishop of the Higashi Honganji North America District and rinban (head minister) of the Higashi Honganji temple in Los Angeles.