Are there examples of institutionalized suffering?

I recently read part of this article that discusses how Buddhism in the US is predominantly white. This is evident within the fourfold Sangha (although from my understanding it is improving), but is particularly noticeable within the monastic community.

Part of this diversity gap, I believe, stems from the migration of Buddhism to the US during a period of great social upheaval. Indeed, many of the founders/conveyers of the vipassana movement in the US are white and thus created communities that reflected the ideals represented within their own racial and economic comfort zones.

I am not suggesting that Buddhism in the US is racist, but that cultural privilege plays as much a role in determining religious foundations as the teachings themselves. When we take into account the first noble truth we see suffering conveyed in terms of one’s own craving – but it does not necessarily take into account the suffering that is brought on by others.

This is, from my understanding, because we create our own suffering. But if we view the decades of oppression and marginalization of people of color in the United States we see that their suffering isn’t only caused by their own dealings; that a great portion of their suffering is institutionalized and forced upon them by people in positions of great power.

In essence, I would like to know how (or if) the Buddha deals with structures of suffering in the Dhamma? Does he recognize that suffering is not only contingent on one’s own creating of it – and if so, examples?


I can’t think of a case about “institutionalized suffering”, but there is a sutta explaining seven other reasons (or origins) that suffering can come from, other than one’s own kamma (meaning one’s intentions, past and present). See the “Sivaka” sutta.

I remember my teacher, Ajahn Sona explaining that there is no such thing as “group kamma”. So you can’t speak of the “kamma of Canada” (lumping all Canadians into a group). Each Canadian has his or her own kamma, and each person’s case must be looked at separately. The Buddha taught kamma as it related to each individual.

Having said that, there are suttas mentioning what kind of kamma will lead to resultants such as an individual being being born rich/poor, or smart/dull, or having many friends/no friends (a large retinue, or no retinue), etc. But again, these are explained in the context of individuals (making the kamma), not as demographic groups who have a sort of kammic lasso around them all together, binding them together, whereby they all suffer together (as a resultant of past unwholesome kamma).

That’s how I understand it anyway. I’ll be interested to see what other examples get found here.


a similar topic was a subject of discussion here earlier

in my view the results of individual kamma are realized through the environment and living conditions among other things

so although there’s no such thing as collective kamma, beings with similar type of kamma get born at certain locations or within certain societies where conditions for their kamma full expression are already in place

the idea that so many africans and then african-americans must have been evil and corrupt in their past lives is kind of difficult to stomach since it echoes racial profiling but i guess the correlation between their skin color and their suffering is to be viewed as nothing but a mechanism of the kamma

In the Sivaka sutta I quoted, one of the 7 causes (other than one’s own kamma) of “painful feelings” is “assault”. You could say that demographic groups such as the African-Americans who are now demographically disadvantaged were “assaulted”, by having been brought over from Africa in the first place. You don’t need to conclude that it was their “kamma” (their intention) to be brought to America, or that their past kamma was the reason they were brought to America, where they now have painful experiences.

The Sivaka sutta lets you explain it by way of other reasons and causes (than kamma), such as “assault”.

I would concisely answer your original question by saying this: the Sivaka Sutta could explain what you might call “institutionalized suffering” by saying, “yes, there is such a thing as assault, and it can have nothing to do with kamma on the part of the person being assaulted”.

Then from there, I think it logically and trivially follows that:
-assaults can originate from some sort of institution
-a whole group of people be assaulted
-an assaulted group can all have some demographic commonality

but it doesn’t explain why their descendants too have been enslaved, systematically oppressed, disenfranchised, discriminated against following the same pattern ever since that time

the fact that beings are born into that group is the result of their past kamma, isn’t it? since the form of birth is surely governed by kamma, their birth into an oppressed group isn’t an accident or result of some external influence

It might be the case that it was due to past kamma, but the Sivaka Sutta makes the point that it is not necessarily the case that it was due to their kamma. The decendants suffering further “assaults” can also have nothing to do with their kamma (but it is not necessarily the case).

In other words, I don’t see why we can’t apply the Sivaka Sutta to both the parents, and the descendants, in an assaulted group sharing the same demographic.

I think the key here is to carefully pick between using the words “can” and “must”, when it comes to drawing conclusions about the relationships between kamma (on the part of the one(s) being assaulted), and why assaults occur.

Sure, it may be the case that some, or possibly even many of the “assaulted ones” in a demographic group deserved to get those painful resultants (say, from unwholesome things they did in past lives). But after reading the Sivaka Sutta, one can’t conclude that the Buddha taught that all members of an assaulted group deserved it, due to past kammic intentions.

if a being is born into a systematically oppressed group s/he is virtually certain to experience the adverse results of the oppression, which means s/he is predestined for this type of suffering

even before a child is born to a slave woman one can predict with remarkable precision that it will too be a slave, this aspect of its future is not a matter of probability, it’s sealed

it’s difficult not to discern here consistency rather than mere coincidence which nevertheless repeats itself through generations

and that’s in fact true for any social group, not just the disadvantaged, certain general features of one’s destiny can be deduced just on the basis of knowledge into which social group one is born

that is to say that while in other cases suffering from oppression might not be caused by past kamma, in the case of victimized social groups in my opinion the likelihood that with them it’s the past kamma which is the cause is very high

If you use the more Hindu way of defining kamma, meaning “one’s destiny, one’s lot in life” (“predestined”, as you say), then what you said makes perfect sense.

But if we use a Buddhist definition of “kamma” as “intention”, then we should be careful before concluding that when one is born into an afflicted demographic, one must have deserved that, due to past kamma.

The Sivaka Sutta specifically makes the point that not everything unpleasant that happens to one (let alone the demographic group one is born into) is because of kamma (defined here as “intention”).

I think that only someone with serious psychic powers could look into such a person’s past and verify that yes, they did intend or do something (a kammic cause) to specifically deserve it. And the psychic would also have to look into the past lives of every single member of an afflicted demographic, to make similar verifications. Then if each and every member had a past kammic cause for all of their afflictions, (and we would also have to do similar “audits” of all existing afflicted demographic groups to make sure it universally held true there as well), then I would agree we can throw away the Sivaka Sutta, and you’re correct.

Thank for you both for this discussion, it is most interesting. I was just about to post something, Bhante, but you’ve said almost exactly what I was going to say! :wink:

I just want to briefly comment that it is far too easy to attribute suffering on a grand scheme (for large groups of people, minorities, etc.) to their kamma. Doing so promotes indifference and encourages a world in which outcome, and indeed suffering, are fixed. It is far more beneficial to recognize the social forces at work at to strive towards equality and kindness.

“Now when those ascetics and brahmins hold such a doctrine and view as this, ‘Whatever a person experiences, whether it be pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant, all that is caused by what was done in the past,’ they overshoot what one knows by oneself and they overshoot what is considered to be true in the world.” (Sivaka)

i think it’s obvious that the Buddha taught kamma not as a tool of profiling and a framework of relating to other beings, but as a doctrine of viability of personal moral evolution

As a side note, the Buddha did have psychic powers to know how kamma would affect a person’s future birth, but I don’t remember him saying which kinds of particular actions would lead to rebirth into specific “castes” (perhaps somewhat analogous here to “demographic groups”).

Maybe someone else can remember a case like this (maybe involving the “Chandalas”, or another “disadvantaged” caste at the Buddha’s time?)

“Bhikkhus, to whatever extent I wish, with the divine eye, which is purified and surpasses the human, I see beings passing away and being reborn, inferior and superior, beautiful and ugly, fortunate and unfortunate, and I understand how beings fare on according to their kamma thus: ‘These beings who engaged in misconduct of body, speech, and mind, who reviled the noble ones, held wrong view, and undertook actions based on wrong view, with the breakup of the body, after death, have been reborn in a state of misery, in a bad destination, in the nether world, in hell; but these beings who engaged in good conduct of body, speech, and mind, who did not revile the noble ones, who held right view, and undertook action based on right view,
with the breakup of the body, after death, have been reborn in a good destination, in a heavenly world.’ Thus with the divine eye, which is purified and surpasses the human, I see beings passing away and being reborn, inferior and superior, beautiful and ugly, fortunate and
unfortunate, and I understand how beings fare on according to their kamma.

I agree that the Buddha usually only talks about different states of existence but perhaps in MN135 (The Shorter Exposition of Action) he does go into a little more detail about variation in humans:

@Brenna, Thank you for the interesting topic. I agree with:

And I’m not sure why kamma has had such a prominent part of this discussion, considering the Sivika and other suttas, and how you introduced the topic. Your first post observes:

Systematic oppression of various groups (such as the indigenous people of my country, Australia, and North America) have effects that echo on for generations, as has been observed already.

I took the original question to be:
"How should we approach suffering that is largely due to external circumstances?"
And that is worth thinking about. However, without wanting to make light of problems, we all face the “external” oppression of ageing and death, so is it completely accurate to say that “we create our own suffering”?

Indeed, I think this was definitely my intention – not necessarily to discuss kamma (though it is relevant), but rather the ways in which suffering is imposed upon humans and the ways such suffering is canonically interpreted.

Perhaps not, but this is (at least in part) what the second noble truth tells us; that it is through our own craving that suffering becomes manifest. Within my understanding this idea becomes problematic when viewed in association with ‘external’ suffering, i.e. does the suffering brought about by others hold in accordance with the second noble truth? Is it compassionate to argue that it is their clinging to social oppression that brings about suffering?

if you speak of the oppressed, i’d say rather clinging to their notions of human rights, human dignity, entitlement to them, pride, one expression of which is comparison with the more fortunate, is what brings about that suffering, its moral aspect

if you speak of the oppressors, it’s clinging to their egos, just like it actually is with all other people, which produces results inflicting suffering upon others

In SN 56.11 the Buddha says:

So as long as your craving leads you to another birth, you are going to suffer, no matter whether you are the oppressed or the oppressor.

I think that from a doctrinal and indeed textual perspective this is true – but I’m arguing that holding this perspective is too simplistic, that it condenses the oppressed into a worldview where their suffering is always their own fault.

I am not in any way trying to negate the Four Noble Truths; what you are saying is true but it doesn’t present a scenario in which suffering is accountable on multiple fronts.

Perhaps the question then becomes, can the idea of ‘other’ forms of suffering as presented in the Sivaka Sutta, particularly assault, be held within the same understanding as the second noble truth; i.e. do they arrive at the same conclusion? Perhaps, this is also a matter of translation, as the sutta states, “[some] feelings, Sīvaka, arise here originating from…” Thus, in this context does ‘feeling’ mean suffering, or just a feeling that leads to suffering via one’s own clinging? Perhaps, Bhante @sujato would know something about this.

i think it can, the explanation is embedded in the 1st Noble Truth about what IS suffering

association with the unbeloved is stressful, separation from the loved is stressful, not getting what is wanted is stressful

safety, peace, respect, rights is what is loved, which a person craves, without that craving separation from safety, peace, respect, rights and meeting with danger, violence, disrespect, discrimination doesn’t produce suffering

Raivo gave another reason why at the end of the day suffering is self-inflicted, that being craving for existence, which makes a being keep being born into the samsara where they get subjected to painful experiences

@Brenna, some of the suffering we experience is due to our own intentions (kamma), and some of the suffering we experience is imposed upon us by outside forces that we have little or no control over (and our intentions/kamma had nothing to do with it).

I think we would do well to take 100% responsibility over the portion of the suffering that we have a high degree of control over (namely, our own intentions/kamma), even though we can’t have 100% control over everything in our respective, personally experienced “worlds” (the “world” here being defined in the Buddhist way as “this very body, one fathom in length”).

The “institutional”, external suffering that is externally applied onto us (which I think could perhaps be filed under “assault”, as explained in the Sivaka sutta) is something we have little or no control over, in comparison to the amount of control we have over our own intentions/kamma.

I think the Buddha would far rather see us invest the lion’s share of our progressive efforts in wielding and shaping our own intentions/kamma, since that is where we have a far higher degree of control, rather than investing the lion’s share of our progressive efforts in trying to fix the institutionalized suffering in the world, where we have a far smaller degree of control.

Am I suggesting that we don’t do anything to try to fix the institutionalized suffering in the world? Absolutely not. I’m just pointing out which priority makes more sense (as being the highest one), considering the degree of control which is within our immediate reach, and the liklihood of the most positive “net change” resulting.

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