Joshua Eaton

Independent Journalist

Category: Buddhism (page 1 of 6)

Gentrifying the Dharma: How the One Percent is Hijacking Mindfulness

The protesters looked anxious as they rode down the escalator in San Francisco’s Marriott Marquis. A yoga bag slung over one of their shoulders hid a banner reading “Eviction Free San Francisco.” Another had a bullhorn tucked into her backpack. Two reached out to touch an inflatable, neon-blue lotus as they walked toward the conference hall.

Read the rest of this article at Salon . . .

Yes, the Navy Yard Shooter Was a Buddhist

When I heard that Aaron Alexis, the man who killed twelve people and wounded fourteen others in a mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard on Monday, was a Buddhist, I did not worry that someone would blame my religion for his terrible crime. That was ensured by Buddhism’s popular image as a peaceful, non-dogmatic science of the mind—an image bolstered by internationally known figures like the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hahn. Instead, I had the opposite concern: that people would say Alexis was not really a Buddhist.

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Tibetan Self-Immolations Spark China Tension

A widely circulated poem and note in Tibetan script on the hand of Sangay Dolma, who self-immolated on November 25, 2012, proclaim "Tibet is an independent nation."

A widely circulated poem and note in Tibetan script on the hand of Sangay Dolma, who self-immolated on November 25, 2012, proclaim “Tibet is an independent nation.”

ON MARCH 10, Tibetans around the world mark Tibetan Uprising Day, the anniversary of the 1959 revolt against Chinese rule in Lhasa, the Tibet Autonomous Region’s capital.

In March 2011, a new wave of protests began in the area ethnically/culturally identified as Tibet, which is one-quarter the size of China.

To protest against Chinese government policies, at least 105 Tibetans in historic Tibet have set themselves on fire in the last two years—the vast majority of whom have died.

Continue reading and view the interactive map at Al Jazeera . . .

Beyond the Search for Inner Peace: An Interview with Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi on Buddhism as a Force for Social Justice

Bhikkhu Bodhi at the first meeting of the Center for Interfaith Action's Global Initiative for Faith, Health and Development in Washington, D.C. (photo: Shambhala Sun)

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi at the first meeting of the Center for Interfaith Action’s Global Initiative for Faith, Health, and Development in Washington, D.C. (photo: Shambhala Sun)

WHEN I SHOWED UP, the room at Harvard Divinity School was already overflowing. World-renowned professors and undergrads alike were packing the aisles, 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.

This article appeared at Religion Dispatches on 19 February 2013.

Have 100 Tibetans Really Self-Immolated?

Lobsang Namgyal

Lobsang Namgyal, the latest Tibetan to self-immolate inside Tibet.

YESTERDAY we learned that 37-year-old Lobsang Namgyal self-immolated in Ngaba City on 3 February. The Central Tibetan Administration, the International Campaign for Tibet, and Free Tibet all referred to it as the 100th self-immolation in Tibet. Several media outlets followed their lead, including Radio Free Asia and the New York Times.

But have 100 Tibetans really self-immolated? It depends on how you count.

I spent the morning going through the various lists of self-immolations compiled by the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), and Free Tibet. I’ve also included some information from a detailed count (though not a complete list) by the famous Tibetan journalist, blogger, and poet Tsering Woeser, who’s based in Beijing. Here’s the fruit of my labors:

A Comparison of Lists of Self-Immolators in Tibet (February 2009 to Present)

There are five main differences among the lists and counts:

  • Woeser includes an unconfirmed dual self-immolation—that of Thubten Nyandak and his niece, Atse—in her count. ICT lists this self-immolation, but they do not include it in their final count. Both CTA and Free Tibet ignore it altogether. There are conflicting reports about whether this was an intentional self-immolation or an accidental house fire. However, Woeser has argued forcefully for including it on lists of self-immolations and in the final count.
  • CTA, ICT, and Free Tibet all list Passang Lhamo, who self-immolated in Beijing on 13 September 2012. However, Free Tibet does not include her in their final count, whereas CTA and ICT do. There’s a very simple reason for that: Free Tibet does not believe that Tibet is or should be a part of China, whereas both CTA and ICT do. It’s a question of whether or not a self-immolation in Beijing should be grouped in with the self-immolations in Tibet (since they’re both a part of China) or with the self-immolations in exile communities in India and Nepal (since they’re all outside of occupied Tibet).
  • Free Tibet includes two Sangay Tashis. According to Free Tibet, they were the same age, self-immolated in the same place, shouted the same slogans while self-immolating, and are both deceased. However, one self-immolated on 26 October and the other 29 November. This is probably a duplicate entry. What likely happend is that they got an initial report about the incident, posted it to their list, but then failed to delete it when they confirmed the initial report and re-posted the updated information a month later. In any case, no one else lists this self-immolation.
  • Free Tibet doesn’t list Wangchen Norbu, whereas both CTA and ICT do. I have no idea why, but there is not good reason not to include this self-immolation. I believe it’s probably just a simple oversight.
  • Free Tibet includes Jigji Kyab in their list, whereas CTA and ICT do not. (I’m still waiting to hear back from Tsering Woeser about whether or not she included him in her final count.) Kyab died from intentionally consuming fox poison as he was attempting to self-immolate. We know he was trying to self-immolate because his body was found near a busy intersection, covered in gasoline and with a lighter in each hand. He also left a note next to his bed that said he was self-immolating and explained why.

So, how many Tibetans have self-immolated? Woeser says 102. Everyone else says 100, but they get to that number in two different ways. CTA and ICT both get to 100 by including Passang Lhamo and Wangchen Norbu but leaving off Jigji Kyab. Meanwhile, Free Tibet gets to 100 by leaving off Passang Lhano (probably intentionally) and Wangchen Norbu (probably unintentionally) but including both Jigji Kyab and a second (probably unintentional) Sangay Tashi.

With the exception of the dual case of Thubten Nyandak and Atse, everyone seems to agree on what self-immolations have happened. They just disagree on who to included on what lists and in what counts.

It should be obvious by now that Free Tibet’s list is generally the least reliable.* CTA’s is reliable but restrictive. That means ICT’s is probably the best for English speakers who don’t want to brave Woeser’s website via Google Translate and cross-reference it with other lists, as I did. ICT’s is also the most well-formated and easy to use.

Woeser’s count is, by far, the most inclusive and meticulous. And she’s told me that she is working on a full list that will include the names and details of all the Tibetans who have self-immolated so far. It will probably be the most meticulous and accurate list available. However, it will also be in Mandarin Chinese. Hopefully someone will translate it into English shortly after it’s published.

* Update (20 February 2013): After posting this I spoke with someone at Free Tibet. They independently source all their own information, which led to the duplicate Sangay Tashi entry and the unintentional exclusion of Wangchen Norbu from their list during the rush of self-immolations in November 2012. They’ve since removed the duplicate entry and independently confirmed Wangchen Norbu’s self-immolation. Both mistakes were completely understandable given the circumstances, and both have been corrected. I’m really impressed with the speed and professionalism with which they acted. I still prefer the format of ICT’s list, but I’ll definitely use Free Tibet’s information in the future without reservations. It is always, always best to use information cross-referenced from multiple sources.

China Pushing Tibet into Total Isolation as Self-Immolations Near 100

Jigji Kyab, in an undated photo.

Jigji Kyab, in an undated photo.

THE FRIGID AIR smelled strongly of gasoline when they discovered the lifeless body of seventeen-year-old Jigji Kyab near a busy intersection in Luchu, Tibet on January 19. He was soaked in it, a lighter in each hand. Kyab had gone to the intersection to burn himself alive, swallowing fox poison before leaving so he wouldn’t survive to be locked away in a Chinese military hospital.

He succumbed to the poison before he could complete his final act. Later his parents found a note beside his bed, written in neat Tibetan print on school paper, that explained why he had chosen to sacrifice his life and conveyed his love one last time.

Continue reading at Global Post . . .

Joshua on the Matthew Filipowicz Show Talking about Tibet

Matthew Filipowicz

Matthew Filipowicz

THIS PAST TUESDAY I poke with my good friend Matthew Filipowicz about the wave of self-immolations that's swept over Tibet. You can listen to the radio show here.

Joshua on the Brian Lehrer Show Talking about Tibet

Brian Lehrer

Brian Lehrer

I WAS RECENTLY ON WNYC talking about the ongoing political crisis in Tibet with Brian Lehrer. You can listen to the segment, "Tibet Today," here or at WNYC's website:

Self-Immolators and the Dalai Lama: What They Don’t Have in Common

The Dalai Lama at The Lowry Hotel on June 15, 2012, in Manchester, England. Photo copyright Christopher Furlong and Getty Images.

The Dalai Lama at The Lowry Hotel on June 15, 2012, in Manchester, England. Photo copyright Christopher Furlong and Getty Images.

ON 7 NOVEMBER 2012 THE DALAI LAMA SENT PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA A NOTE of congratulations on his reelection. It was, in most respects, an unremarkable form letter. For careful observers of Tibetan politics, however, the last paragraph jumped out:

As you know, it is over a year since I handed over all my political authority to the elected Tibetan leadership … I am very appreciative of your support for our Middle Way Approach, which I continue to believe is the best way for us to ensure a solution that is beneficial for both Tibetans and Chinese.

The Middle Way Approach has dominated international dialog over Tibet since 1979, when it was adopted by Central Tibetan Administration (CTA)—Tibet’s government-in-exile, of which the Dalai Lama was then head of state. Now His Holiness’ letter to Obama reaffirmed the Middle Way Approach amid growing frustration with it from Tibetans in and outside of Tibet.

The Middle Way Approach seeks greater autonomy for Tibet within the People’s Republic of China rather than political independence. This is similar to the “one country, two systems” policy under which Hong Kong and Macau enjoy economic and political self-rule while still remaining part of China. In 1988 a referendum of exile Tibetans officially adopted the Middle Way Approach, and the CTA’s parliament approved it again in 1997.

While young, politically active Tibetans in exile overwhelmingly support and respect the Dalai Lama, many are also increasingly disillusioned with the Middle Way Approach and with the CTA in general. There are signs that disillusionment is also shared inside Tibet.

Continue reading at Global Post . . .

Let’s Talk: It’s Time to Open Our Doors

The winter 2012 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner's Quarterly

The winter 2012 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly

I SPENT THE YEAR AFTER COLLEGE in an AmeriCorps program that placed me in the Task Force for the Homeless in downtown Atlanta, Georgia. During my time there I served at several different transitional homes, emergency shelters, and soup kitchens. It was the end of a string of social-service work for me, which started several years earlier with volunteering at a Latino community center next to my college campus. I spent the summer before my senior year living in an intentional community that provides homeless services in Boston. Then I went to St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, on my last spring break to prepare meals for victims of Hurricane Katrina.

During this time I was struck by the fact that all of the social-service groups I served with were dependent on organized religion for support. Many of the soup kitchens were housed in church basements, and almost all of the emergency shelters relied on various church groups to come in and cook a meal once or twice a month. A Hindu group took over two whole shifts a month at the soup kitchen where I lived and served in Boston.

I was also struck by how absent my own religious communities seemed to be. I’ve never visited a Buddhist center that hosts outside community groups or one whose members regularly volunteer together outside their center. An
acquaintance who spent a year serving in New Orleans after Katrina once asked me, “Why is it that Buddhists are always talking about compassion but they’re the only group I’ve never seen volunteer down here?”

More important than volunteers, religious institutions provide public spaces. When Occupy
camps were evicted from public parks and squares this past winter, it was churches that opened their doors to homeless occupiers and general assemblies. Churches and synagogues have long provided space for scout troops, AA groups, and community meetings, as well as offices for small nonprofits and housing for disaster-relief volunteers. They’re also polling places. And many even provide free space to other religious groups that can’t afford to meet elsewhere. The public spaces religious institutions provide are an invaluable part of America’s civic life.

It probably won’t surprise anyone to hear that these institutions are declining in membership. Every indicator of traditional religious identity is going down, while “unaffiliated” is the fastest-growing religious identity in the country. As more and more churches are converted into upscale lofts, where does that leave the nonprofits and Scout troops and popular movements that depend on them? The other traditional alternative is public schools and universities, but budget cuts have left them decimated. Those that haven’t already closed are less and less willing to provide their space free of charge.

What if Buddhist centers and meditation groups opened their doors and let civil society in? Buddhist thinkers have long thought that public spaces are a necessary part of a just society. For example, the Indian poet Asvaghosa (80–150 AD) goes into elaborate detail when describing the many beautiful public spaces the Buddha’s
father—the model of a righteous king—built after his son’s birth. The Indian philosopher Nagarjuna (150–250 AD) and the famous Indian emperor Ashoka (304–232 BC) also tell kings to build public spaces, mentioning them in the same breath as monasteries and temples. The tradition is clear: Good kings build and maintain
public spaces for their citizens. In a democracy that duty falls to us.

With traditional religious institutions shutting their doors it’s time we opened ours. Buddhist centers and meditation groups cannot possibly hope to fill the gap that churches and synagogues are leaving in America’s civic life, but we can still make a difference in our communities. Remember my acquaintance in New Orleans who asked why Buddhists were always talking about compassion but weren’t doing anything? It’s up to us to prove him wrong.

This article appeared in the winter 2012 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly.

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