The Desert


Let us begin, once again, by retracing the path we have taken so far. To do so, let me paraphrase a quotation from the American political philosopher Michael Walzer which, in my view, sums up the spirit of what we are doing.

The context is a reflection on the significance of the exodus of the Jewish people. Walzer summarises his narrative structure as follows.

(1) The starting point is “Egypt”, which symbolises the enslavement of the Jewish people. (2) On the horizon, we have freedom, in the figure of the “promised land”: Israel. (3) Between the state of slavery and Israel (the promised land), what we have is a road. There is no alternative. If we want to get to Israel, we have to cross the desert, and for that we have to walk, we have to “join (others) and walk”.


“Egypt” is in Buddhism Dukkha, the truth of our ordinary condition: the all-pervasive suffering that characterises our lives. The first noble truth.

In the second noble truth we ask: Why dukkha? What is behind the suffering? Where does it come from?

In the metaphor of Egypt, the captivity of the Jewish people is linked to two things.

On the one hand, to the power of our oppressors. An enormous, overwhelming power. On the other hand, to our own ignorance, our clinging, our phobias, our fears.

Buddhists would say that oppressors are the manifestation of our karma, the “crystallised” result of our past history.

Today, for example, we are faced with war, poverty and exclusion, and environmental destruction. This is our karma. That is: it is the result of the history of this community of which we are a part, which includes humanity, and all living beings that inhabit the Earth.

On the other hand, we are faced with our ignorance, our negative emotions, our fear. Therefore, we need, in addition to clarity about our historically determined situation, about our situation of captivity, conscientization, as Paulo Freire would say.


Conscientization means discovering who we really are, and from this deep understanding of our being, imagining and building a possible future, a promised land for the community of which we are a part.

Conscientization implies, first, recognising our finite, dependent, vulnerable condition. But also awareness of the potential for freedom that lies at the heart of this finite and conditioned existence. This is the third noble truth: the truth of the cessation of dukkha.

Therefore, that awareness must be (1) of our relative condition, and (2) of our ultimate nature.

Now, we cannot focus exclusively on our ultimate, metaphysical nature. Simply because our ultimate nature only manifests itself in our relative condition. The Heart Sutra puts it quite simply: form is emptiness and emptiness is form. So the truth of suffering in the four noble truths is as true as the truth of the cessation of suffering. Relative truth is as true as the ultimate truth of what we are. Only in history, Christianity would say, does freedom manifest itself. Paradoxically, only in the humanity of Jesus is the love of the Father perfectly expressed.

One way to think about this point is to focus on what is at stake in relative truth. If we focus exclusively on our privileged status, we may ignore an important aspect of our spiritual quest: that our actual privilege is always, inescapably, grounded in the injustice of the institutional order we inhabit. We cannot think about our relative circumstances without thinking about the relative circumstances of those who today embody despised identities.

To be black, to be a woman, to be Indian, to be homosexual, etc., requires a prior work of self-acceptance and struggle for equality. This struggle for self-acceptance, which affects large masses of human beings on earth today, can only be achieved by reconfiguring the relative identity that emerges from our social and ecological relations in the present order.

Beyond “Socially Engaged” Buddhism

What is interesting, however, is that the struggle for equality does not only affect the black, the woman, the Indian, the homosexual, but questions and forces the reconfiguration of all identities within that order: the white is attacked in his privileges when the black demands equality; the man is similarly attacked when the woman demands not to be exploited, discriminated against or excluded, and to be treated as an equal; and the same happens with the Creole, when the Indian comes forward and raises his voice.

These kinds of struggles reshape society as a whole, because the moment “those who don’t count” begin to speak, and their voice begins to be heard, the whole community undergoes a metamorphosis, it ceases to be one kind of community, and becomes another.

Buddhism is undergoing this metamorphosis. However, there is a critical Buddhist ethic, a much more radical Buddhism than the mere liberal, “socially engaged Buddhism”, which acts within the existing order with a certain complacency.

This radical Buddhism is faithful to the teachings of the Buddha, and therefore challenges institutional Buddhism, denouncing that it has created its own victims, willingly or unwillingly, but always because of its uncritical conception of history.

Radical Buddhism puts the finger on these institutional exclusions. It is a critical Buddhism, just as there is a Christianity, a Judaism, an Islamism, a liberalism, a critical Marxism. In all these cases, the critique emphasises those who are left out, those who are not invited to the banquet of the community of the elect, the victims.

Freedom in History

Now, the insubstantiality (the merely historical and socially constituted character) of all relative identities is the signal that allows Buddhism to declare the inherent emptiness of all identity.

All identities are circumstantial, emerge interdependently (historically and within a given order of meaning), and are therefore ultimately empty of an essence that defines them once and for all. 

In other words: identities exist, and they are organised in our social order in hierarchies that reveal violence, inequalities and injustices. Our first task is to challenge the fetishisation of these identities, and the hierarchical orders of exploitation and moral contempt that they embody. Buddhism cannot accept as natural a moral order that legitimises contempt or social subordination and exploitation.

The other important notion is that of karma (action), which we relate to history. Our personal history, our community history, the history of our species among other species.

We are children of our history, undoubtedly. But we are not necessarily doomed to repeat the same history. When we live consciously in the present, and become aware that we are captive to a destructive narrative and are able to imagine an alternative goal (our promised land), we set out into the wilderness in search of a new world.


One of the terrible things we are witnessing these days is that history seems to have hijacked the will of humanity. History, we said, is equivalent to karma in Buddhism. Karma is related to the notion of action, and action is related to the ideas of will and intentionality, which in turn are closely linked to the notion of freedom.

Now, the notion of karma seems to have two sides. On the one hand, it refers to the very actions that agents perform. On the other hand, it refers to the fact that those actions, once acted upon, roll off into the world independently of their agents. That which we set in motion in the world becomes independent of the agents, acquires a life of its own, crystallises in history.

Let’s think, for example, about what is happening in Ukraine. Eight years ago, in 2014, US and European international relations experts warned that the NATO expansion policies being pursued by the United States would trigger a war, the consequences of which were impossible to foresee. Over the years, this policy has continued to be promoted.

Until a few days ago, the actors involved in the conflict still had in their hands the possibility of reaching some kind of agreement to avoid conflict. But the agreement did not happen, and war broke out in the heart of Europe. As with the pandemic, the war we are witnessing is a catastrophe long foretold.

We all knew that sooner or later a pandemic would break out. We knew it because every epidemiologist in the world was warning about it. We could have done many things to prevent the pandemic, or to minimise its effects, but we did not.

Now, once individual and collective action crystallises in history, it is no longer in the hands of subjects to change the course of things, because it is no longer something that happens in the sphere of our consciousness or our subjectivity, but it becomes a reality in the world, an objectivity in the world that confronts us.

Something similar has happened with war. Once all bridges were blown up in the negotiation between Russia and the West, the military conflict began. At that point, war becomes the agent, and we become mere puppets. War becomes the subject of history, and we, all of us, become its victims. Karma is fully manifested.

One of my Buddhist teachers used to say that, as far as this life is concerned, our karma has already manifested. In a sense, this life is already lost, there is no way to change the effect of acts that have already been actualised. There are things we can no longer change, because they are the effects or consequences of what we have done in the past. Once history realises its potential, there is no turning back. However, we can change the future by acting on the present, by creating the right causes, and by neutralising the harmful actions already done, but not yet done, that will become tomorrow’s suffering.

Obviously, when we act in this way, as Walter Benjamin taught us, history is re-signified and the victims redeemed.

The Golden Calf

In the metaphor of the exodus, Egypt, as we said, is slavery, Israel is the promised land, and the desert is the road we must travel to reach liberation.

But freedom from slavery is not just about escaping from Egypt, escaping from the karma we have fabricated, escaping from our captors. We must also free ourselves from a certain notion we have of ourselves.

By going into the desert, the slave leaves slavery in his mind and in his heart. On the way the slave realises his freedom. Obviously, the individual or the people can return to their slave condition on the road if they fetishise the promise, if they turn God into a golden calf, if they forget that freedom is always a road and not a concrete place somewhere on earth where we build a wall and invent our enemies.

The road serves, among other things, that purpose. By walking it, we shed the false understandings we have of ourselves. We cease to be slaves.

The Promised Land and the Nativity

What then is the promised land? It is not a banal illusion, the fruit of a fanciful imagination. The promised land is the expression of our original condition. For Buddhism, the promised land is our inherent condition of freedom, the fundamental purity that underlies the everyday ignorance in which we are held captive and from which we must awaken.

No matter the circumstances in which we are presently imprisoned. What characterises human beings, especially, is that our present is always open to alternative futures. History challenges us, giving us the opportunity not to repeat in the present that which produced our present suffering in the past.

As Keiji Nishitani, the famous Zen priest and philosopher, a disciple in Germany of Martin Heidegger, pointed out, we are not, as the master from Freiburg claimed, exclusively beings-for-death, we are also, and more fundamentally, always a promise that manifests itself in the fact of being born. Nishitani quoted Heidegger’s disciple, Hannah Arendt, in this sense, who contrasted her master’s being-for-death with nativity.

Hope and Freedom

I think this point is very important to understand the third noble truth. We are beings that are born. As born beings, always bringing newness into the world, hope is constitutive of the human experience, even in dark times like the ones we live in.

Obviously, that new life can be a repetition of the life that preceded it, it can be an experience based on ignorance in the cycle of meaningless rebirths and deaths, but it can also be the occasion of radical newness, it can be the awakening to a radically new life.

Now, we must be careful when we speak of freedom. In these times in which the word freedom, like other much-touted solemn words such as love and truth, is used to make whimsical claims to what we please at any cost, it is worth remembering the French philosopher Simone Weil. For her, freedom was expressed more deeply, more fundamentally in our obligations, in our duties, than in our rights.

Genuine freedom, in this sense, is expressed in taking responsibility for our actions, when we commit ourselves to others through them. In this sense, Weil told us, our duties, our obligations towards others, are more fundamental than our rights, and he argued that the main right of a human being is to be able to be of use to other beings, to be able to serve them.

It is the right to be responsible, the right to feel obligated to oneself in one’s life, to go on living, to promote life, to fulfill it; the right to be responsible for others, so that their lives continue to reproduce, develop and fulfill themselves, now and forever, forever and ever. Amen.