Joshua Eaton

Independent Journalist

Category: Religion and Culture (page 1 of 2)

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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What’s Really Happening in Bahrain: An Interview with Ala’a Shehabi

ALA’A SHEHABI is not a woman to be trifled with. Born in the U.K., she earned a Ph.D. from Imperial College London and has worked for prestigious institutions like Rand Europe and the Bahrain Institute for Banking and Finance. At the same time, Shehabi has been active in Bahrain’s ongoing uprising.

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Terror, Torture, and Resistance

National Guard Lt. Garrett Robinson helps a woman secure a bouquet of flowers at the memorial that began to take form on Boylston Street the day after two bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. The memorial has since been relocated to Copley Square (photo credit: Elizabeth Frantz).

National Guard Lt. Garrett Robinson helps a woman secure a bouquet of flowers at the memorial that began to take form on Boylston Street the day after
two bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. The memorial has since been relocated to Copley Square (photo credit: Elizabeth Frantz).

WHEN I HEARD about the Boston Marathon bombings, I’d just finished reading Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel’s harrowing op-ed in the New York Times. Moqbel has been on hunger strike since February to protest his indefinite imprisonment, without trial, at the United States’ detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

According to the U.S. military, 99 other men are currently on hunger strike with him. Of those, 20, including Moqbel, are being force-fed daily—an act the U.N. Human Rights Commission considers a form of torture. Five are hospitalized.

Moqbel’s account of his imprisonment is enough to turn even the strongest stomach:

It was so painful that I begged them to stop feeding me. The nurse refused to stop feeding me. As they were finishing, some of the “food” spilled on my clothes. I asked them to change my clothes, but the guard refused to allow me to hold on to this last shred of my dignity.. . . I will agree to whatever it takes in order to be free. I am now 35. All I want is to see my family again and to start a family of my own.

Reading these words in the middle of a crowded coffee shop, I had to pause to keep from weeping.

My horror and outrage were quickly replaced by shock and terror as news of the bombings raced across my Twitter feed. Almost immediately, I started texting friends in the area to see if they were safe. One was a block away from the finish line when the bombs went off. Another was three blocks away. Two had left the area earlier in the day. Meanwhile, a flood of texts asked if I was safe, some relaying breathless—and thankfully false—rumors about bombs on the T.

I wanted to meet with friends, to write my feelings down, to pray. But my legs wouldn’t move. My pen fell silent, and the first words of a prayer caught in my throat like dust. The bombings were a hard blow to the jaw, and, like a fighter caught off-guard, the entire city was dazed and staggered by the punch.

Sitting here at the same table in the same coffee shop where I first learned about the bombings, I’m beginning to clear the concussion from my head. An event that was so close I almost couldn’t see it is finally distant enough to come into focus. News that was buried underneath the rubble on Boylston Street two weeks ago is being pulled into the light of day once more. And sitting in the same place I was three weeks ago, Moqbel’s op-ed and the Boston bombings call out to me demanding some words, some prayer, some action.

Gallons of ink have already been spilled trying to link the bombings with Islamic extremism, or U.S. foreign policy, or the unrest in Chechnya. The fact that Moqbel’s article came out mere hours before the bombings only highlights these connections. There is strong evidence that Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev were motivated by a violent and extreme interpretation of Islam and by the U.S. occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Still, their motives remain a tangled knot of political and religious ideology, dashed personal ambitions, social isolation and fraternal loyalty. These conflicting drives will sort themselves out in the weeks and months ahead. For me, however, the synchronicity between Moqbel’s op-ed and the Boston Marathon bombings raises a different question.

What makes both situations so horrifying is their banality. While media reports paint Tamerlan Tsarnaev as a deeply trouble personality, his younger brother comes across as a relatively normal college sophomore. Dzhokar’s dorm mates describe him as a quiet pothead who loved playing soccer. “He was completely normal,” his friend Jennifer Mendez told the Detroit Free Press. Other classmates talked to CNN about seeing him in class and at a soccer party in the days after the bombing.

Meanwhile, the men and women who strap Samir Moqbel to a chair and force a feeding tube down his throat twice a day are the same ones we clap for during Veterans Day parades. The president who keeps Moqbel locked up without trial is the same one whose White House Correspondents Dinner speech was shared across Facebook last weekend. The politicians who back that policy are people we see every day on the evening news. They’re completely normal.

Two days after the Boston Marathon bombings, I left for the International Buddhist-Christian Conference in New York City. One of the speakers—Ven. Pomnyun Sunim, a Buddhist monk from South Korea—described being tortured during the brutal dictatorship of Gen. Chun Doo-hwan, who ruled South Korea from 1979 to 1988. As Pomnyun sat doubled over in pain during a break in the torture sessions, he overheard one of the torturers talking with his colleagues about his daughter’s college entrance exams.

Hannah Arendt discusses this phenomenon in depth in her study of Adolf Eichmann’s war crimes trial, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. She sums up her observations in the epilogue:

The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.

This is what makes terror and torture so horrifying and incomprehensible. The people who carry them out are completely, terribly and terrifyingly, normal.

Lately, my work as a journalist and activist has made me ask how we continue to affirm life in the face of such banal evil. What does it mean to feel the sun on our skin at the beginning of spring, or have children, or eat a delicious dinner with close friends, or fall in love, in a world where such awful things are done so casually by such normal people?

Many friends in Boston helped me start to answer that question in the days after the bombings. Some organized a vigil on Boston Common where friends and strangers came together to cry, to hug, to pray, to sing, and to write out our hopes for a city resurrected. Others began to talk about organizing relief efforts if they were needed. Still others comforted their neighbors as chaplains or ministers. Most remarkably, they all refused to hate, to stereotype, to call for vengeance, and to fall back on naive patriotism or xenophobia.

In “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Albert Camus takes up the question of suicide. Writing during World War II, he felt keenly that the old meanings and values had collapsed into an unavoidable nihilism. The answer was neither suicide nor hope, however, but defiance—”to live and to create,” as Camus put, “in the very midst of the desert.”

We live in another time where old meanings and values are collapsing. In the figures of completely normal American college students turned terrorists and of torture done at the hands of American soldiers, we are forced to come face-to-face with our own capacity for destruction—a capacity that is playing itself out in our economy, in our foreign policy and in our very chances for a future on this planet.

My friends knew about all of this, and they knew their actions might come to naught. But they chose to resist anyway. They chose life in the midst of the desert. And, in doing so, they created an oasis.

This article appeared in the 3 May 2013 issue of Spare Change News; it also appeared at the Huffington Post on 6 May 2013.

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.

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 . . .

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.

The Dalai Lama Comes to Cambridge

The Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso

The Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso

IT WAS AN UNUSUAL SCENE, to say the least. Scientists and academics stood in line next to young Tibetan monks. Aging spiritual seekers mingled with ambitious young Cambridge undergraduates. And they all filed, one by one, through checkpoints watched by hawk-eyed Secret Service agents with crew cuts and discreet earpieces.

This unlikely group was gathered to see Nobel Peace Prize laureate and international human rights icon ,the fourteenth Dalai Lama, address a packed crowd at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium—all part of MIT’s Global Systems 2.0 conference, held on Monday, October 15. The event, which was sponsored by the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at MIT, featured His Holiness responding to presentations from environmental scientists, systems theorists, and management experts on the problems of “degraded environment, declining economies, and soaring consumerism.”

A mix-up with my press credentials kept me out of the morning session. After mainlining some caffeine, sending a few panicked emails, and getting two passes by a bomb-sniffing dog, the problems were cleared up and I was able to get into the session that afternoon.

The first presentation was by Jonathan Foley, a professor of ecology at the University of Minnesota who spoke on global food security and land use. Next was James Orbinski, a professor of public health at the University of Toronto and a former president of Doctors Without Borders, who gave a presentation on the human impact of climate change. MIT management professor Zeynep Ton then talked about the problem of bad jobs in the retail industry. Finally MIT systems theorist John Sterman discussed sustainable environmental and economic growth amid a rapidly increasing global population. The panel was moderated by M. Sanjayan, a conservation scientist at the University of Minnesota.

At times His Holiness’ ribald humor and infectious laughter were on display. For example, when asked how we can convince Western nations to change their eating habits so the planet can grow enough food for everyone, he guffawed and answered with a story about a driver who constantly snacked while chauffeuring His Holiness, despite the driver’s great size.

However, His Holiness also seemed uncharacteristically pensive. He spent most of the presentations listening attentively while looking down at the table in front of him, as if deeply affected. He rarely spoke, and he replied to direct questions only briefly, if at all. At one point he responded only by saying “I don’t know” and sighing deeply.

One can hardly blame him. These panelists are among the top experts in the world on the largest challenges currently facing humanity, and they were baffled: We know what to do, we have very little time to do it in, and unless we do it, the planet will become unlivable. “How can we build enough moral urgency to convince people and politicians to act?” they asked.

His Holiness did speak up forcefully after Zeynep Ton explained that a full-time retail employee in the United States still doesn’t earn enough to feed her family. “In a free country there are independent labor unions,” he said. “Why are they not working?”

When Ton replied that she was offering another solution to the problem of bad jobs that could be implemented by companies rather than by the workers themselves, he interrupted again. “Now I’ve learned something about America’s drawbacks. I thought this was a democratic country with rule of law, free press, free information, an independent judiciary, and independent labor unions.”

This comment cut through the event’s apolitical tone, but it also raised an important question. Why were some of the greatest minds, studying some of the greatest problems facing humanity today, looking to the Dalai Lama for moral and political authority in the first place?

His Holiness was born 77 years ago in a medieval, agrarian society and educated in theocratic monastic institutions. His leadership through the Chinese occupation and the Tibetan diaspora has been remarkable, to be sure. And he’s embraced science and modernity wholeheartedly, showing an extraordinary ability to transcend his upbringing. But expecting him to hold the keys for convincing greedy corporations, corrupt governments, and apathetic citizens to face up to the most pressing problems of our times seems naive.

Meanwhile, not a single local activist, organizer, clergy member, or community leader was invited to participate. Neither were any Western scholars of religion, philosophy, or ethics. One wonders why the panelists weren’t put into conversation with people working on the ground in affected communities, or at least with their colleagues in ethics and religion.

The truth is that many of the participants in Global System 2.0 divide their time between appointments at elite universities, well-paid positions at global NGOs, and lucrative consulting contracts for the very corporations and international institutions that have profited so handsomely from creating the very crises these scientists predict. Even the more earthbound among them rarely have occasion to speak about their work with religious leaders or ethicists, much less community organizers or anti-globalization activists.

In the end, Global System 2.0 was just another conference in a world of conferences—the World Economic Forum, the G8, the Aspen Ideas Conference, the TED talks (though not TEDx), the Clinton Global Initiative meetings—where the world’s intellectual, political, and business elites talk to one another endlessly while problems like income inequality, corruption, and climate change only get worse. They aren’t helping anyone but those who attend, and they probably never will. Despite all of his remarkable qualities, not even the Dalai Lama can change that.

This article appeared in the 30 November 2012 issue of Spare Change News.

Awakening Wednesday: The Buddha Taught that Gender is Relative

Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO)

Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO)

BETWEEN transvaginal ultrasounds, Rush Limbaugh, and Rep. Todd Akin’s recent comments about rape, women have been catching an awful lot of hatred and legal oppression lately.

Over the past several months I’ve also been thinking about my own blind spots around feminism, and on a couple of occasions female friends have kindly pointed out instances where I’ve fallen short of my ideals (or where my ideals themselves were flawed).

So, this week I decided to share a passage from a Tibetan text called the Origin of the Tara Tantra by Jonang Taranatha (1575-1634). In it, a princess is meditating and making offerings to a buddha when one of that buddha’s attendants—a monk—tells her she should use her vast stores of good karma to transform from a woman into a man so that she can attain awakening. (Some Buddhist schools believe that only a man can become a buddha.) Here’s her response:

In this life there is no such distinction as “male” and “female,” neither of “self-identity,” a “person” nor any perception (of such), and therefore attachment to ideas of “male” and “female” is quite worthless. Weak-minded worldlings are always deluded by this.

The princess then vows to serve beings in a female body until samsara is completely empty and every single being has achieved buddhahood:

There are many who wish to gain enlightenment in a man’s form, and there are but few who wish to work for the welfare of sentient beings in a female form. Therefore may I, in a female body, work for the welfare of beings right until Samsara has been emptied.

And that’s how the Tibetan Buddhist goddess Tara—the bodhisattva of fearlessness and compassionate action—came to be. She’s my favorite, for reasons that should be obvious. I hope she’s one of your favorites now, too. And, most importantly, I hope you’ll take her words to heart, as I’m trying to, if falteringly.

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