Who’s good/right and who’s bad/wrong? Discrimination through the lens of Buddhism

The gut-wrenching incident that led to the death of Mr. George Floyd in Minneapolis is rattling the country. Why is it that racism, and all kinds of discrimination, never disappear? It’s still everywhere on this planet. As each of us is asked to take it as a personal challenge to combat discrimination and systemic brutality. Here are my two cents: think about discrimination through the lens of Buddhism, through the lens of teaching called 悪人正機 (akunin shoki):


When we know that Buddha will embrace good people, bad people are sure to be saved.

In case if you are wondering, Buddhism is about who we/you are, so I think it’s relatable to everyone with his/her own belief.

Akunin shoki, the celebration of “bad people”

Wind back the clock to the 12th century in Japan, which was an age of devastating social unrest. The vast majority of people – poor peasants, socially disadvantaged and discriminated – were losing homes and loved ones due to never-ending civil wars and starvation, feeling abandoned and helpless. But Buddhism wasn’t available to heal them because, at that time, it was only a religion for the social elites and intellectuals. This conundrum caused anguish for some priests: Why couldn’t Buddhist society do anything to help people who were in dire need of Buddha’s mercy? It’s against our core creed, which is “each and every one is saved.”

Eventually, a few priests decided to give up their status in the mainstream of Buddhism for good, and founded new schools in order to help the suffering people. Among them were Honen (1133-1212) who founded the Jodo-shu school, and his disciple Shinran (1173-1263), who founded the Jodo Shin-shu school. They advocated akunin shoki, and addressed it directly to desperate people: “I know you have been belittled, bullied, and given no opportunities nor any access to things that could help improve your lives. Not only have you never learned how to pray, but you might have had to do bad things in order to survive. I feel your pain and sorrow, but I want you to know that you are already forgiven, embraced and celebrated by Buddha’s mercy, exactly because of your helplessness and ignorance. Embrace your insignificant self. All you have to do is to chant the prayer, and you are saved. Buddha is always with you.”

These are the “bad people (those who do not know how or did not want to become a better, good person to achieve religious goals) are saved” as part of akunin shoki. It was enthusiastically welcomed by the “bad” people – the illiterate, ignorant, poor and disadvantaged – who were never recognized nor approved of by society, let alone embraced and celebrated. They were overjoyed to discover that all they had to do was to chant nembutsu (“I take refuge in Buddha”) – which could be done even if you couldn’t read – and they were saved. Buddhism finally became a people’s religion, and Jodo Shin-shu remains the largest Buddhism school in Japan today.

Akunin shoki, warning for “good people”

Fast forward 1,000 years. Here we are in an American society that declares in the Constitution that “everyone is created equal”, but fails to fully embrace that message. It is so painful to be reminded that even in 21th century, people are still harmed and killed just to express someone’s hollow desire to feel superior. And it’s not just happening in the US; racism-related brutality has been everywhere. Being Japanese, I could be subject of a racial hate, but at the same time, I could also take part in hating other ethnic groups, as some Japanese still vehemently do. (There is a long story of discrimination between the Japanese and the neighboring regions.)

But since there have been many discussions on how to fight explicit racism and criminal justice reform, here I will focus on how each one of us can fight a covert desire to discriminate against others in order to feel better or superior. Let’s face it: we are all prone to the temptation to feel superior to others – that is just the human nature. For the most part, we cope with this desire by participating in fair competition with others. (Many competitions are not completely fair, but that’s another story.) But when it doesn’t work, which happens more often than not, is that we secretly or subconsciously resort to biased/imaginary advantages such as the color of skin, ethnicity, appearance or family status in order to satisfy our ego. Even though this doesn’t often take the extreme form of violence, in a perfect storm of events, these prejudices can develop into incidents of racism. They can also foster a complacency to leave institutional discrimination unaddressed. If we want a systemic and collective change, those feelings need to be addressed. But it’s not at all easy.

This is where the “even good people are embraced” part of akunin shoki can play a role. It can help combat our desire to unfairly disadvantage others in order to feel superior. Let’s review how it can work.

Who are “good people” anyway?

Most religions teach that we are born as “sinners.” So you start your life as a “bad” person, that is prone to lust and greed, forgets their responsibility and acts immorally. But as you start listening to God, you acknowledge your shortcomings and start making conscious, relentless efforts in order to become a better person, to a good person, to eventually be pardoned and salvaged. Salvation should be a reward for good people, who were able to overcome your shortcomings and became qualified. Through the process, you improve from a “bad” person to a “good” one.

Read the last sentence one more time. Did you notice that it assumes that a change from bad to good is an improvement? While it sound like a no-brainer, there is actually a pitfall. And Buddha was concerned about it.

Thousands of years ago after the death of Buddha, Buddhists self-imposed very strict, stoic religious training in order to live his teaching. They sacrificed a lot – abandoned their family and assets – to join groups that lived in remote monasteries, cutting ties from outside world. They believed that it was the only right way to improve their religious stage in order to live up to Buddha’s teaching. As a result, the group became increasingly selective, as most people couldn’t/wouldn’t choose such a radical way of living. At some point, some started raise a concern: Buddha taught that everyone is blessed and saved, yet we are setting an example that only those who tries very, very, very hard can be saved. Are we doing the right thing?

The debate eventually split Buddhists into two groups, and the Mahayana school, that argued that everyone is entitled to be saved, slowly spread from India to broader Eastern Asia, including Japan. Honen and Shinran were part of the Mayahana School. 

When good turns bad, and the reason why it’s still okay

While there is nothing wrong with setting high goals and making conscious efforts to achieve them – that’s what our lives are about – Mayahana Buddhism was conscious about the pitfalls of such a process; that it can inadvertently make people become over-confident of their ability to “overcome shortcomings” and become good: “I have accomplished this much. I am the one making the progress. I know better. I am closer to Buddha.” But then, how can you overcome all the shortcomings if you were born imperfect? Aren’t you called imperfect exactly because you cannot achieve perfection? Plus, the ultimate goal of Buddhism is to “extinguish the flame of desire” and completely dissolve into the vast universe of nothingness, where there is no sorrow nor pain, just eternal peace. But how can you become part of nothingness, when you are making “personal” efforts for which you wish to take credit? It’s like erasing your ego with another ego named “I am good at erasing my ego.” That’s where a presumably good person starts turning bad. That’s where your efforts for “improvement” actually start taking you farther away from truth.

But Buddha already knew that this would happen, so he maintained that everyone would be saved – those who try very hard to find religious truth, believing that they could achieve this on their own, and also those who did less and were “ignorant” of the truth. (If the ones who need help the most cannot be saved, what is Buddhism there for? Buddha’s mercy is boundless to embrace all.)

About a thousand years later, from the birth of the Mayahana school, Honen and Shinran renewed Buddha’s teaching about who should be saved, and advocated akunin shoki. Maybe it was because they still saw that society was split between those who could afford to – intellectually, morally and/or financially – devote themselves to religion, or the “good people,” and those who couldn’t afford it – the “bad people.” Good people were praised whereas bad people were forgotten.

So Honen and Shinran needed to remind everyone that Buddha actually appreciated “bad” people, because they were the ones who were brave enough to admit their ignorance and helplessness. If you thought that they advocated akunin shoki in order to help people who were sorry out of pity, the truth was actually the opposite. They just wanted to show that those who were willing to accept their shortcomings were much, much closer to Buddha’s truth than those who weren’t; therefore they would certainly be saved.

They also wanted to remind “good people” that we all start as ignorant, and as such, we will remain imperfect forever. We can try to be better, but we will never become perfectly good in everything we pursue. But as we become more educated and successful, it becomes more difficult to accept that. So they warned people not to forget where they came from, and keep their eyes open to their REAL selves, which are hidden beneath their newly acquired “good” coat.

It’s a great, beautiful thing to be bad

There are three simple parts in akunin shoki: 1) We were all born as a “bad” person. 2) While it’s a beautiful thing to make efforts to become a better, good person, we will fail to arrive at the truth if we forget where we came from. But we do that all the time. 3) That’s why the ability, or courage to accept your “bad” roots – your ignorant and insignificant self – can be much more important and valuable than trying to be better.

When we forget akunin shoki, discrimination starts, because at the end of the day, it is about refusing to accept your bad roots, and trying to aggrandize an imaginary/superficial superiority to satisfy your ego. Even when this does not take the explicit form of racism, you may be causing unnecessary offence just so that you don’t feel inferior. And that may be what’s happening when people push back “black lives matter” by saying “all lives matter.” The fear to be denied one’s ego is so big that they over react and misunderstand that they are being asked to accept that another group is more important than them. And by doing so, they completely miss the critical opportunity to learn the truth, which is that black lives have not mattered for long, long time, when other lives already mattered. This helps no one.

But then, if that is the case, you can’t simply criticize people who still say ALM to feel better about yourself. Remember, we are all imperfect and ignorant. This is hard to accept, even when you completely agree with BLM. I admit that I still have my own struggles in different areas. That’s how vulnerable we all are. Our desire to be better and be loved, approved, embraced, celebrated and eventually saved is so strong that it’s hard for anyone to embrace something that could possible harm – even remotely – those desires. It takes moxie.

So we need to remember akunin shoki. Buddha said it was okay to be weak. It was okay to feel the desperate need for approval. His mercy is so boundless that it will embrace our “bad-ness” altogether, unconditionally. And again, he does this not because he feels sorry for our ignorance. He does so because he knows that it is very difficult to accept and embrace your shortcomings. So he is celebrating your courage. Akunin shoki reminds you that our lives have never been about who is better or worse; it has always been about you versus you. It has been about how you can be authentically true to to yourself. That’s why we all need to look in the mirror, instead of finger pointing at someone who you feel is threatening your ego. It’s about you. It’s always been about you. When you become true to yourself, you can let your guard down, and open your eyes to truth. Then you can accept others as they are. It is that simple, but it is really hard to get there.

If your life matters, then black lives should matter. You are ignorant, because we are all ignorant. Let’s not be scared about it. Instead we can celebrate it.