I’m gonna do a few Sutra Study posts here and here. This one’s on the Assalayana Sutta.
In it, a few Brahmins approach the Buddha with questions about class. The caste system is an ancient Indian tradition that’s still—informally—alive today. Much like medieval Europe—and today—, you were pretty much stuck in whatever class your parents were in.
The Brahmins were at the top of the food chain. They were the priestly class, performing rituals and guarding Vedic secrets.
It’s doubtful that the discourse in this Sutta ever took place, since the young Brahmin Assalayana already recognized Siddhartha’s understanding of the truth (Dhamma). This made him hesitate to approach Siddhartha with his other Brahmin friends’ disputes.
If he already respected Siddhartha and believed him to be an Awakened One, why would he have remained a Brahmin instead of renouncing his class to become a monk? But, even though the events in this Sutta probably never took place as-written, it’s still a great representation of early Buddhist views on the subject.
This Sutta doesn’t mention race, specifically, but we can easily apply it to that since class and race are tangled up with each other, even in the modern West.
Let’s take the basic argument in the Sutta and adapt it to modern times. Instead of being a Brahmin, Assalayana is an upper-class, Caucasian-American who approaches the Buddha with this: “My friends say that whites are superior to other races, and that the rich are superior to the poor. Do you think that this is the case?”
“What do you think: are whites and the wealthy born of a womb just like other clases, races, and ethnic groups?”
“Are whites and the wealthy subject to sickness, old age, and death? Do they bleed when they’re cut? Do they experience hunger and thirst when they’ve gone without food and water? Do they suffer when they lose what’s enjoyable and are forced to endure what isn’t?”
“Do non-whites and the poor suffer from those same Eventualities?”
“So, how are people essentially unequal in terms of race, wealth, and ethnicity?”
“They aren’t, but that won’t be enough to convince my friends.”
“What do you think: if someone belonging to an ethnic minority or someone impoverished is decent, kind, generous, and harms no one, are they considered a noble person?”
“If someone belonging to an ethnic majority or someone wealthy is indecent, unkind, stingy, and causes harm, are they considered an ignoble person?”
“So, if someone belonging to an ethnic minority or if someone impoverished can be considered noble due to their actions, and someone belonging to an ethnic majority or someone wealthy can be considered ignoble due to their actions, then nobility and superiority have nothing to do with race, wealth, or ethnicity.”
“They do not, but that still won’t be enough to convince my friends.”
“What do you think: If someone has one white parent and one non-white parent, is that child white or not white?”
“Were both of your parents white?”
“Were your four grandparents white?”
“Were your eight great-grandparents white?”
“Were your sixteen great-great-grandparents white?”
“I think so yes.”
“Were your 32 great-great-great-grandparents white?”
“I… I don’t know.”
“Were your 64 great-great-great-great-grandparents white?”
“How about your 128 great-great-great-great-great grandparents?”
“I don’t know!”
“So, if someone who has one non-white parent isn’t white, but you aren’t sure if some of your ancestors were white, then you can’t even be sure that you’re white, can you?”
“You’ve allowed greed and hatred to distort your view of the world, and on what basis? Your feelings of superiority have always been resting on an identity that you aren’t even sure of. With this knowledge, see that the poor are not inferior to the wealthy, and that non-whites are not inferior to whites. If you do this, you will create much happiness for yourself and others.”
“Thank you, World Honored One.”