Well, not quite. But in the Assalayana Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya, 93), he does have a detailed conversation with a Brahmin supremacist, and many of his arguments — mutatis mutandis — apply to the comparable imbecilities of today’s white supremacy movement. While today’s Aryan cult is a distinctive and complex mix of vestigial anger from Civil War defeat, identification with German Nazis, despair and rage from economic failures, educational neglect, fundamentalist religion, 19th century collectivism, and nihilist philosophy — among many other things — the Buddha’s conversation with the proud young Brahmin Assalayana offers some ways to begin addressing obdurate belief in superiority of caste, race, or any other birth group. A Brahmin supremacist is after all one type of white supremacist, and his belief in supremacy rests on many of the same forms of thought.
Assalayana has been sent to dispute the Buddha’s claim that the Dhamma is for everybody.
“Master Gotama, the brahmins say, ‘Brahmins are the superior caste; any other caste is inferior. Only brahmins are the fair caste; any other caste is dark. Only brahmins are pure, not non-brahmins. Only brahmins are the sons and offspring of Brahma: born of his mouth, born of Brahma, created by Brahma, heirs of Brahma.’ What does Master Gotama have to say with regard to that?”
The Buddha responds first with an observation that we all enter the world through the same anatomical channels:
But, Assalayana, the brahmins’ brahmin-women are plainly seen having their periods, becoming pregnant, giving birth, and nursing [their children]. And yet the brahmins, being born through the birth canal, say, ‘Brahmins are the superior caste…
This starting point grounds the discussion in earthy realities that can be perceived unequivocally with the senses. In this way no one can be crazy enough to argue that people are fundamentally different. Besides, how delightful it is that a creature who emerges into life from the nether end of its mother can entertain fantasies about its own transcendent superiority!
The Buddha then proceeds Socratically, with questions that he knows Assalayana — being intelligent — will answer in only one way. His next line of attack is based on ethical excellence:
“What do you think, Assalayana? Is it only a noble warrior who — taking life, stealing, engaging in sexual misconduct, telling lies, speaking divisively, speaking harshly, engaging in idle chatter, greedy, bearing thoughts of ill will, and holding wrong views — on the break-up of the body, after death, reappears in the plane of deprivation, the bad destination, the lower realms, in hell, and not a brahmin? Is it only a merchant…? Is it only a worker who — taking life, stealing, engaging in sexual misconduct, telling lies, speaking divisively, speaking harshly, engaging in idle chatter, greedy, bearing thoughts of ill will, and holding wrong views — on the break-up of the body, after death, reappears in the plane of deprivation, the bad destination, the lower realms, in hell, and not a brahmin?”
“No, Master Gotama. Even a noble warrior… Even a brahmin… Even a merchant… Even a worker… (Members of) all four castes — if they take life, steal, engage in sexual misconduct, tell lies, speak divisively, speak harshly, engage in idle chatter, are greedy, bear thoughts of ill will, and hold wrong views — on the break-up of the body, after death, reappear in the plane of deprivation, the bad destination, the lower realms, in hell.”
The reverse applies to Brahmins, warriors, merchants, workers who do good things. Good people are good people, and bad people are bad people, no matter what they come from, and all can be expected to suffer the appropriate consequences. Even a Brahmin supremacist has to admit to knowing some Brahmins who are terrible people and some farm laborers who are wise and noble.
Next the Buddha asks whether Brahmins, warriors,merchants, and workers have the same relationship to their bodies and to the physical world:
“What do you think, Assalayana? Is it only a brahmin who is capable of taking a loofah and bath powder, going to a river, and scrubbing off dust and dirt, and not a noble warrior, not a merchant, not a worker?”
“What do you think, Assalayana? There is the case where a consecrated noble warrior king might call together one hundred men of different births (and say to them), ‘Come, masters. Those of you there born from a noble warrior clan, from a brahmin clan, or from a royal clan: taking an upper fire-stick of saala wood, salala wood, sandalwood, or padumaka wood, produce fire and make heat appear. And come, masters. Those of you there born from an outcast clan, a trapper clan, a wicker workers’ clan, a cartwrights’ clan, or a scavengers’ clan: taking an upper fire-stick from a dog’s drinking trough, from a pig’s trough, from a dustbin, or of castor-oil wood, produce fire and make heat appear.’ What do you think, Assalayana? Would the fire made by those born from a noble warrior clan, a brahmin clan, or a royal clan — who had produced fire and made heat appear by taking an upper fire-stick of saala wood, salala wood, sandalwood, or padumaka wood — be the only one with flame, color, and radiance, able to do whatever a fire might be needed to do? And would the fire made by those born those born from an outcast clan, a trapper clan, a wicker workers’ clan, a cartwrights’ clan, or a scavengers’ clan — who had produced fire and made heat appear by taking an upper fire-stick from a dog’s drinking trough, from a pig’s trough, from a dustbin, or of castor-oil wood — be without flame, color, and radiance, unable to do what a fire might be needed to do?”
Using the same materials and techniques, every human being will produce the same fire; thus notions of caste superiority have no basis whatsoever in the physical nature of the world.
At this point, in case Assalayana doesn’t believe that the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology have any bearing on the issue of ethical supremacy, the Buddha swerves back to the question of merit within the same caste:
“What do you think, Assalayana? There is the case where there might be two brahmin-student brothers, born of the same mother: one learned and initiated, the other not learned and uninitiated. Which of the two would the brahmans serve first at a funeral feast, a milk-rice offering, a sacrifice, or a feast for guests?”
That is, when we’re dealing only with Brahmins, it is clear that merit has nothing to do with birth; at least, we behave as if the more virtuous brother has deserved more respect.
The brahman student Assalayana sat silent, abashed, his shoulders drooping, his head down, brooding, at a loss for words. He is too intelligent not to see that the supremacist posture is an embarrassment to the intelligence. The Buddha then delivers the coup de grâce by retelling the legend of Devala the Dark’s challenge to seven arrogant Brahmins:
“‘But do you know, masters, if the mother who bore you went only with a brahmin, and not with a non-brahmin?’
“‘And do you know if the mothers of the mother who bore you — back seven generations of mothers — went only with brahmins, and not with non-brahmins?’
“‘And do you know if the father who sired you went only with a brahmin woman, and not with a non-brahmin woman?’
“‘And do you know if the fathers of the father who bore you — back seven generations of fathers — went only with brahmin women, and not with non-brahmin women?’
We know next to nothing about the sexual behavior of our parents, let alone our remote forebears; about some things there is just no knowing. This is analogous to challenging a contemporary white supremacist to take a DNA test — which many will refuse to do or, out of bravado, agree to tremblingly, because in their heart of hearts they know that they do not know where they come from.
“‘That being the case, do you know who you are?’
“‘That being the case, master, we don’t know who we are.'”
The Socratic conversation thus leads to a satisfyingly Socratic conclusion. How then do we find out who we are?
The Assalayana Sutta (tr.Thanissaro) can be read here: