American Buddhism: Beyond the Search for Inner Peace

When I showed up, the room at Harvard Divinity School was already overflowing. World-renowned professors were packing the aisles along with undergrads, standing in the doorways, and squeezing in behind furniture. At the front of the room stood Bhikkhu Bodhi—a short, soft-spoken Buddhist monk with a marked Brooklyn accent—who held the audience rapt even as he explained dry, technical details of meditation.

Born Jeffrey Block, Bikkhu Bodhi has a PhD in philosophy and years of monastic training in Sri Lanka. He is best known for his translations of the Theravada Buddhist scriptures from the Pali language into English—a massive undertaking. It soon became apparent that he also has large portions of those scriptures memorized, on top of his easy familiarity with Chinese Mahayana Buddhist scriptures. However, it wasn’t his impressive abilities as a translator and scholar that brought me there that day.

Since returning to the States Ven. Bodhi has established himself on the forefront of Buddhist social justice movements. Here his list of accomplishments is almost as long as his list of publications.

Ven. Bodhi and his students founded Buddhist Global Relief, which partners with local organizations around the world to increase food security and build local food capacity. He has also been deeply involved with climate activism, most prominently co-authoring the Buddhist Climate Declaration. And he has been active in both Occupy Faith and the Rolling Jubilee campaign, which is raising money to buy and abolish defaulted medical debts.

After the talk I lingered for a while, talking with old professors and classmates until hardly anyone was left. I finally approached Ven. Bodhi to introduce myself—we’d been exchanging emails—and to thank him for his social justice work. He was leaving the next day but agreed to an interview.

Below is our conversation about Buddhist Global Relief, the future of politically engaged Buddhism in the United States, and his own shift from private spirituality to public witness.

 

When did you start becoming concerned about issues of inequality and social justice? What sparked your concern?

My concern for peace, equality, and social justice goes back to my years in college and my first year in graduate school. During my college years I leaned toward an idealistic version of socialism (though certainly not communism). I was also concerned about civil rights and participated in demonstrations against the war in Vietnam, which was the major moral challenge facing my generation.

After I encountered Buddhism, I decided that my primary task was to change myself rather than to change the world and thus my focus shifted to my spiritual development. I maintained this attitude toward social issues during my first stay in Sri Lanka (1972–77) and my first period as a monk in the U.S. (1977–82).

I returned to Sri Lanka in 1982 and for the first two years lived mostly in a secluded forest monastery where there was no access to news about current events. But from 1984 until his death in 1994, I lived with the great German elder Ven. Nyanaponika Thera at his hermitage near Kandy. Ven. Nyanaponika showed a keen interest in the relationship between the Dharma and social issues. His interest was not based on “intoxication with worldly matters” but on a deep compassion for humanity.

He subscribed to Time magazine, and each week we would discuss the important news articles we had read (during his last four years he was almost blind, so I had to read out loud to him). Through Ven. Nyanaponika I came to see that the imperative of compassion requires that we turn around to face the world again and use the light of the Dharma [Sanskrit shorthand for “teachings of the Buddha” —Eds.] to illuminate its problems and search for pathways to their resolution.

While in Sri Lanka I generally kept a low profile (being too outspoken about the situation in the country could have put my visa in jeopardy), but once I returned to the U.S. in 2002 I felt an obligation to speak out, especially as I saw our nation sliding swiftly in the direction of militarism, jingoism, and autocracy.

I also was troubled by the way many Buddhists, while speaking eloquently about compassion, viewed the Dharma essentially as a path to inner peace and treated engagement with social and political matters as tangential to their practice. I came to feel that under the conditions of our time, it was necessary to translate such values as loving-kindness and compassion into concrete action in order to reduce the socially-created suffering that so many people today, less fortunate than ourselves, must face as a daily ordeal.

My own way of contributing in this area has been as founder and chair of Buddhist Global Relief, which is dedicated to helping communities worldwide afflicted by chronic hunger and malnutrition. We came into existence in 2008, and in the four years of our life span we have launched over fifty projects in countries ranging from Vietnam and Cambodia, through India and Africa, to Haiti and the U.S.

In 2007 you wrote an article for Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly that sparked the idea for Buddhist Global Relief. You said, “I’ve been struck by how seldom the theme of global suffering—the palpable suffering of real human beings—is thematically explored in the Buddhist journals and teachings with which I am acquainted.” You also wrote that “engaged Buddhism still remains tangential to the hard core of Western interest in Buddhism, which is the dharma as a path to inner peace and self-realization.” Have you seen that change since 2007?

I have not made an extensive survey of the current American Buddhist scene, but I did attend the Conference on Engaged Buddhism, organized by the Zen Peacemakers in 2010. I learned much from this experience.

From what I could observe at the conference, a large number of Buddhists are attempting to draw upon principles intrinsic to the Dharma to deal with challenges we face in present-day society. Some, with scientific backgrounds, have been applying mindfulness and meditation practices to alleviate stress and psychological disturbances; others are using the Dharma to aid conflict resolution and still others are helping prisoners and soldiers gain access to Buddhist teachings; some are using Buddhist ethical principles as guideposts to wholesome business practices; others are working with troubled youth; and some are providing compassionate health care and guidance to the dying.

It was evident to me, too, that these extended applications of the Dharma did not begin in 2007, provoked by my essay, but had already been around for a decade or more. So the statement that I made in my Buddhadharma essay may have been shortsighted in some respects.

But I could not help noticing that the side of Buddhism that was being emphasized, even by those seeking to give the Dharma wider relevance, is its cache of techniques for inducing inner calm, equanimity, and acceptance rather than its potential for developing a radical critique of contemporary society.

At the Conference on Engaged Buddhism the participants could be seen to fall roughly into two camps: a majority camp, made up of those who accepted the present structures of society and sought to use Buddhist teachings to enable people to function more effectively and peacefully within its contours; and a minority camp, made up of those who sought to draw from the Dharma a radical critique of the dominant social ethos and its institutions.

I would put myself in the latter camp. But I could see that, absent a sharp social critique, Buddhist practices could easily be used to justify and stabilize the status quo, becoming a reinforcement of consumer capitalism.

Aside from your work with Buddhist Global Relief you were also an active supporter of Occupy Wall Street and its Occupy Faith offshoot. Can you tell us some about how you got involved with OWS and what it means to you?

Interestingly, back in March or April 2010 a group based in Washington D.C. announced plans to launch a major movement modeled after Egypt’s Tahrir Square uprising. The movement was scheduled to begin in October with an occupation of Freedom Plaza in central Washington. The organizers included Margaret Flowers, a pediatrician who has led the campaign for single-payer health care, and Kevin Zeese, a social activist. I had signed on to this and went to D.C. for the launch events in early October, along with another American Buddhist monk, Ajahn Gunavuddho, and his mother, Ayya Santussika, a Buddhist nun.

We had already heard that an occupy movement had started in New York, but from what we read, it sounded frenzied and unruly. The following week, however, I received an invitation from the ministers at Judson Memorial Church [Rev. Michael Ellison] to attend a meeting of clergy that would lay the foundation for a movement of faith leaders in harmony with the aims of Occupy Wall Street (which by then had assumed this name). I attended together with Ayya Santussika—her son had returned to California a few days earlier—and we both felt this a project worth participating in.

Because I live in upstate New York, my involvement with Occupy Faith has been irregular. During its most active period, the coordinators were calling meetings almost weekly and it was hard for me to travel up and down each time. But I made it a point to participate in the major gatherings and I served on the committee charged with drafting a vision statement. The tasks that Occupy Faith has set itself are:

  • to ally with unions and others to promote fair wages for all, especially low-wage workers 
  • to work for fair tax policy 
  • to join coalitions supporting constitutional change to get money out of politics and limit the power of corporations 
  • to participate in events and initiatives organized to promote justice and fairness 
  • to take nonviolent, direct action to the streets and halls of corporate and government power to advocate immediate action on climate change
  • to replace our fossil fuel addiction with renewable energy that restores creation.

I have felt a natural resonance with this movement because I see the task of the Dharma to be the alleviation of suffering.

Interestingly, I have witnessed among Christian, Jewish, and Muslim clergy a passionate commitment to deliver people from the suffering imposed by unjust, corrupt, and oppressive social structures—a task often neglected by Buddhists. This does not shake my Buddhist faith, but it does make me feel that the Dharma has to take on this broader mission if it is to unleash its full potential as a real antidote to suffering.

You have said that there is support for social engagement in “Buddhist doctrine, ethical ideals, archetypes, legends, and historical precedents.” Which of those do you find most inspiring for your own social justice work?

In terms of doctrine, I would start with the Buddha’s tenet that suffering originates from the three unwholesome roots: greed, hatred, and delusion. Classical Buddhism regards these “defilements” as embedded in individual minds and thus primarily deals with the problem of personal suffering: the suffering that arises when one acts in their grip.

But in the modern world, social systems and institutions molded by greed, hatred, and delusion have become so pervasive in their reach that they deeply impact the destinies of whole populations, both nationally and globally. Greed, hatred, and delusion thus generate suffering not merely as factors in individual minds but also in their systemic and institutional embodiments.

For this reason, a solution to the problem of suffering requires that its roots be extricated at multiple levels, including those collective levels touched only distantly by classical Buddhism. This would entail developing a keen diagnosis of how these defilements produce collective suffering, and how we can adopt alternative ways of living that would mitigate their harmful impact.

On top of this, I would add the Buddha’s emphasis on generosity and helpfulness to others as a source of happiness; the value he ascribes to the four “immeasurables”—loving-kindness, compassion, altruistic joy, and impartiality; the five precepts [to refrain from (1) killing, (2) lying, (3) stealing, (4) sexual misconduct, and (5) intoxication] with their foundation in avoiding harm to others; and the guidelines he laid down for the monastic Sangha.

Among these last I would highlight the “six principles of harmony and respect”: (1-3) loving-kindness in deed, word, and thought; (4) sharing righteous gains; (5) observing precepts in harmony; and (6) holding views in harmony. Not all these principles can be observed by a whole society in the way they are prescribed for the monastic order, but their underlying intent is sufficient.

In the search for an ethically based politics the figure of the “wheel-turning king” can serve as a model—the king who rules righteously for the good of all in his realm, including the birds and beasts. This last point is critical, for the way we treat our “fellow passengers” is morally atrocious. Historically, King Asoka, as revealed in his edicts, comes closest to exemplifying the ideal of the wheel-turning king. And of course there is the figure of the bodhisattva, who vows to liberate countless beings from suffering. If this meant only teaching them to train their minds, without also transforming oppressive social systems, that would strike me as a big omission.

Some people balk at the idea of Buddhist leaders and organizations speaking out on issues like climate change or wealth inequality. Do see a difference between taking a stand on such issues and politicizing the Dharma? Where is that line, if there is one?

In my opinion such issues as climate change, social injustice, and glaring economic inequality are moral issues as much as political ones. These issues certainly have political ramifications, which means that politics becomes a domain in which contending moral visions are played out and where collective problems have to be tackled in their moral dimensions.

I would hold that Buddhist leaders and organizations who avoid speaking about such issues from fear that they would be “tainting the Dharma,” or “mixing up spirituality with worldly affairs,” would be reneging on their obligation, which is to illuminate these momentous problems from a Buddhist moral perspective.

At the same time, I believe that it degrades the dignity of the Dharma for Buddhist leaders, in their role as Buddhist leaders, to become embroiled in partisan politics, that is, to align themselves and their organizations with a particular political party or campaign for a specific candidate.

Of course, lay Buddhist leaders are entitled to engage in such activities in a private capacity; but as representing Buddhism, they should observe restraint. For monks and nuns, who represent the Dharma in everything they do, partisan political affiliations would be unseemly. But this does not mean that monastics should not speak out about political issues. It means rather that they should treat these issues in terms of their moral implications. 

I’ve been puzzled, actually, to learn how seldom Buddhist teachers speak about these global and ethnic conflict, social justice, or environmental sustainability. Just recently I spent three weeks in California, where I gave lectures both in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area. In these lectures I spoke about our responsibility, as Buddhists, to respond to the towering ethical challenges posed by U.S. militarism, economic injustice, and global warming. Several times, after my lectures, people in the audience came up to me and told me how refreshing it was to hear a Buddhist teacher speak on these topics. This, they said, was something they rarely if ever heard from their own teachers, and they appreciated getting some moral clarity on these matters from a Buddhist monk.

This kind of response seemed to confirm my intuitive sense that Buddhism in the U.S. is being taught mainly as a personal path of inner spiritual growth only tangentially relevant to our lives as national and global citizens.

Finally, I’m curious: you’ve talked in interviews about your online news reading. What news sources do you regularly read? 

I normally look at several alternative news sources and commentaries. I follow Democracy Now! almost daily—though I don’t watch all segments every day. I also read Common Dreams, Truthout, AlterNet, TomDispatch, and Climate Progress. The commentators that I most appreciate are Amy Goodman, Glenn Greenwald on justice issues, Chris Hedges as a social and political analyst, Tom Engelhardt on militarism, Henry Giroux as a social analyst and educator, Vandana Shiva and the GRAIN website on food issues, and Joe Romm and Bill McKibben on climate change.

jeaton@post.harvard.edu'

Joshua Eaton is a journalist covering religion and politics, international human rights, and social movements. Currently interim editor-in-chief of Spare Change News, he is the former co-editor-in-chief of Cult/ure: The Graduate Journal of Harvard Divinity School, where he earned an MDiv. His work has appeared at Al Jazeera America, Al Jazeera English, Huffington Post, Global PostBuddhadharma, Tricycle, Tikkun and other publications.