I was inspired to write this while listening to the radio a couple of weeks ago. The essence of what was said was that while generosity was a positive action and quality, it was not enough, and that justice was more important. The reason given for this was that generosity made the giver feel good and often did not provide a lasting solution. Justice on the other hand causes us to be a little bit uncomfortable and to examine ourselves. Seeking justice demands that we push more to our “edge” that we speak out and risk more than generosity. Justice also provides systemic solutions to problems and can benefit the recipient more than generosity long term.
I felt these were important points since, as Buddhists (or those who follow the path the Buddha laid out for us) we are encouraged to be generous. Generosity is the first of the ten paramis of Theravadan Buddhism and is also mentioned as a wholesome quality and action in most other Buddhist paths. Justice, on the other hand, has not been talked about as much until recently, and generally is not discussed together with generosity in the same conversation, possibly due to the association of justice with the legal system. Dictionary definitions of justice include, “…the quality of being just, impartial, or fair…”, “…the principle or ideal of just dealing, or right action…”, “…conformity to truth, fact, or reason.”. The Pali word for justice is “dhammena” which can also mean righteousness or impartiality. Notice how close this word is to dhamma. We can also see that a few of the paramis are apparent within the definitions above (truth, morality, wisdom, and equanimity).
This does not mean that the Buddha and the sangha at the time thought that justice was not important. There are many examples where the Buddha practiced justice and risked much by doing so. He regularly admonished those in power to provide for the poor, not to wage war, not to torture or kill, and not to over indulge in sensual pleasures. He told them that their birth had nothing to do with their position and claim to power, but that their acts would determine their success. The Buddha would also reconsider his own position or point of view. One of the best known examples is the admission of women into the order of “noble disciples” after several women who were every bit as adept as their male counterparts beseeched the Buddha for admission on the basis of justice.
Justice and generosity complement each other. Generosity is more personal, and tends to make the giver feel good, however the receiver may not feel good. Sometimes giving can lead to shame, or dependency, or a hierarchy of sorts that can do more harm than good. Therefore it is always necessary to examine one’s motivation for generosity, and to consider the possible effects giving may have on the receiver and others.
Justice on the other hand is harder for us. Justice asks us to consider the other being first, and then to clearly and honestly see if there is injustice or unfairness being done. In doing this, one must question one’s own contribution, or blindness to any injustice. This is uncomfortable and takes us to the “edge” of our practice. Can we truly and honestly see things as they are, and correct what is unwholesome, even when it feels unpleasant or is difficult to do so? Are we brave enough to speak out or act when the opportunity arises without anger but with metta in our hearts? Generosity and justice go hand in hand and these qualities can support each other and support us in our individual practice and in the actions we take to reduce the dukkha of other beings. May all beings (even the non-human ones) find cessation of dukkha.
By Mark Wiesman