Joshua Eaton

Independent Journalist

Page 2 of 10

Bahrain Shows Two Sides of Ambitious Economic Development


An expensive, boutique restaurant stands next to a crumbling apartment complex in Manama's upscale Adliya district (photo: Joshua Eaton)

An expensive, boutique restaurant stands next to a crumbling apartment complex in Manama’s upscale Adliya district (photo: Joshua Eaton)

“THE NAME ‘BAHRAIN’ means ‘two seas,’” our tour guide explained as we walked away from the old Portuguese fort on the outskirts of Manama. “There’s the saltwater sea that surrounds Bahrain. Then there’s the fresh water that bubbles up in the middle of the sea to our north.”

The fort itself is breathtaking, set on a hill overlooking the city on one side and the ocean on the other. Next to it stands a brand new visitors’ center, replete with a gift shop and an upscale café. A few yards away stand new, middle-class houses. But next to them stand shanties, all crumbling cinderblock and chipping paint and rusted tin.

Still in the grips of a two-year uprising, Bahrain is a country filled with such extreme economic contradictions.

Continue reading at GlobalPost . . .

Keeping the Faith: Massachusetts Has Become a Center of the Climate Movement

March 11, 2013. Twenty-five people were arrested at the action in an act of intentional, nonviolent civil disobedience (photo credit: Lindsay Metivier).

The Funeral for Our Future action against the
Keystone XL Pipeline at TransCanada’s Westborough, Massachusetts office on
March 11, 2013. Twenty-five people were arrested at the action in an act of intentional, nonviolent civil disobedience (photo credit: Lindsay Metivier).

THE END OF MARCH and the beginning of April saw a toxic mix of unrefined oil and heavy industrial chemicals bleed over lakes, wetlands, residential streets, and front yards in four separate spills across the United States and Canada.

The first major spill occurred on March 26, when a train derailed near Parkers Prairie, Minnesota. The spill released an estimated 20- to 30,000 gallons of highly toxic tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada. A Canadian Pacific Railway spokesperson told Reuters only a single tanker car had ruptured. However, video posted to YouTube by activists showed fourteen tanker cars derailed, several of which appeared to be damaged and at least two of which were wrapped in plastic sheeting.

The most dramatic and well-publicized spill took place just three days later in suburban Mayflower, Arkansas. Exxon’s Pegasus Pipeline sustained a 22-foot gash that leaked 137,000 gallons of noxious dilbit—tar sands bitumen diluted with heavy industrial chemicals like naphtha—across suburban streets, over well-manicured lawns, and into nearby Lake Conway. There have been numerous reports of local police and private security harassing journalists who try to document the spill, and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported that a Federal Aviation Administration no-fly zone above the spill was under the control of an Exxon employee, not government officials. Over twenty homes had to be evacuated as a result of the spill.

On April 3, another pipeline leaked outside Houston, Texas. Sensors on the West Columbia Pipeline, owned by Royal Dutch Shell, indicated the release of 30,000 gallons of crude oil, but Shell initially denied the leak. Days later, Coast Guard Petty Officer Steven Lehman confirmed to Dow Jones that at least 2,100 gallons of crude oil had leaked into a nearby bayou. “That’s a very early estimate,” Lehman said. “Things can change.”

At the same time, a second train derailment—this one in White River, Ontario, Canada—spilled even more Canadian tar sands oil. Canadian Pacific Railway initially claimed only 168 gallons of oil spilled during the accident, but later revised that estimate up to 16,642 gallons. “The source of the now-discovered release of product from the second car was initially hidden as it was buried under snow,” a Canadian Pacific spokesperson explained to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. “The product then migrated a short distance under the snow.”

Micheal Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, summed up the fossil fuel industry’s nightmarish week in words fit for an Onion headline:

In Ontario, the company said it spilled four barrels when it had actually spilled 400. In Arkansas, Exxon learned about the spill from a homeowner but kept pumping tar sands crude into the neighborhood for 45 minutes, and is bullying reporters who want to tell the public what’s going on. In Texas, a major oil spill came to light that Shell had been denying for days.

Brune also explained what these spills mean for U.S. public policy. “Transporting toxic crude oil—and tar sands in particular—is inherently dangerous, more so because oil companies care about profit, not public safety. This is why Keystone XL, at nine times the size of the Arkansas Pegasus pipeline, must never be built.”

Indeed, as noxious crude spread out from ruptured pipelines and derailed trains across North America, a powerful and vibrant movement to resist the Keystone XL Pipeline and other forms of fossil fuel extraction spread out with it.

And Massachusetts is one of the centers of that movement. In fact, a network of student groups, nonprofits, and activists have turned Massachusetts’ climate change movement into one of the most vibrant in the country.

One hub in that network turns around 350 Mass, the state branch of Bill McKibben’s group The Massachusetts group is one of the largest in the country, alongside 350 Vermont. In fact, they sent almost 700 people to Washington, D.C. in February for’s Forward on Climate Rally—the largest climate change rally in U.S. history, with around 50,000 people in attendance.

Meanwhile, the fossil fuel divestment movement has taken hold on at least 19 college campuses across the state—including Harvard, UMass Boston, UMass Amherst, and all of the Five Colleges. The student climate group Students for a Just and Stable Future (SJSF) has been working to form a loose-knit network of SJSF chapters, student divestment groups, and individual campus activists focused around climate activism.

As Allie Welton, SJSF’s process leader and a senior at Harvard College, told Spare Change News, “We’re not as concerned about whose name is on what group as we are about building relationships and a strong network.” That is precisely what it takes to sustain any serious social movement.

Holding this all together is the Better Future Project—a small nonprofit based in Cambridge that provides staffing and support for 350 Mass. Craig Altemose, the Better Future Project’s executive director and one of its co-founders, also co-founded SJSF, and the two organizations maintain deep connections. The Better Future Project also has strong ties with local community organizations and faith communities.

I spoke with Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr. of the Hip Hop Caucus at last February’s Forward on Climate rally in Washington, D.C. He was adamant about the climate movement’s need to engage with faith communities in this way.

I think we need more ministers to, not just preach the Gospel, but to bring a piece to the movement that’s missing, which is a faith component, kind of a deep yearning wisdom that I think the movement needs,” Lennox said. “Sometimes I think the movement can get hit. Like, say the [Keystone XL] Pipeline goes forward. They can get discouraged. But if we have those kind of people in the movement, they can say, ‘Listen, don’t get discouraged. Keep your faith. Hold on. Don’t give up. Keep pushing on toward justice.’

The Better Future Project, 350 Mass, and SJSF aren’t the only activists in Boston who keep pushing for climate justice. For example, a group of about 20 activists who met at Occupy Boston, including myself, organized truckloads of supplies and volunteers from Boston to New York in support of Occupy Sandy. Boston-area street medic Austin Smith wrote about his experiences with this group for Spare Change News last December, and they have continued their support since, though the pace has slowed considerably.

In November of last year, founder and author Bill McKibben addressed a packed house at Boston’s Orpheum Theater alongside Canadian journalist and author Naomi Klein as part of’s Do the Math Tour. When I spoke with Klein afterwards, she was optimistic about the potential of movements like Occupy Sandy to challenge the larger economic and political forces behind climate change:

The experience of shock, the experience of trauma, is the experience of helplessness,” Klein explained. “The best way to recover from an experience of helplessness is to be empowered, is to be able to help. So, the very way that Occupy Sandy is functioning—the spirit of mutual aid, of empowering people in their own relief—is the basis, the foundation, of that kind of empowerment later on to fight off disaster capitalism, and, if we’re really optimistic, to envision a kind of people’s reconstruction, a way of building back that is even better than it was before.

Massachusetts has also become a center for the kinds of actions against climate change that empower communities to organize and resist.

Last January, eight young protesters chained and glued themselves together inside the Westborough, Massachusetts offices of TransCanada, the company behind the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline—a $7 billion project to bring oil sands from Canada to U.S. refineries that NASA climate scientist James Hansen has warned would be “game over” for the planet’s climate.

Two months later, 100 local students, activists, and supporters returned to TransCanada’s Westborough office for an event in which I was an active participant. Belting out a moving funeral dirge at the top of their lungs and carrying a fake coffin, they held a mock funeral for their futures—futures that are being killed by climate change. Twenty-five activists were arrested when they handcuffed themselves together and ignored an order to disperse.

And just last month, Rainforest Action Network held a rally at Bank of America’s downtown Boston office during which they delivered a letter signed by 50 investors, economists, faith leaders, academics, and activists asking Bank of America to phase out their investments in coal.

The massive oil spills across the country were a shocking reminder of how much work still needs to be done to pull our society back from the brink of climate crisis. But if the vibrancy and spirit of the climate movement in Massachusetts is any indication, there are still many reasons to keep the faith.

This article appeared in the 31 May 2013 issue of Spare Change News.

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.

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 . . .

Minority Religions Absent at Obama’s Inaugural Prayer Service

Left to Right: President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden, and Vice President Joe Biden with gathered dignitaries at the 2012 Inaugural Prayer Service (photo credit: Washington Post)

Left to Right: President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden, and Vice President Joe Biden with gathered dignitaries at the 2012 Inaugural Prayer Service (photo credit: Washington Post)

THE PRESIDENTIAL INAUGURAL COMMITTEE billed the National Prayer as a celebration of “the values and diversity that make us strong.” But if it was meant to celebrate diversity then it was difficult to see how.

The service was held on Tuesday, January 22, the day after President Obama’s second inauguration, at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. President Barack Obama, Vice President Joseph Biden, and their families attended alongside invited dignitaries.

Alongside invited participants from major Protestant denominations, the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches, and various Jewish groups, the service also featured one Sikh and two Muslim participants. According to a press release posted on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints’ website, two of its representatives attended the service; however, they were not on a list of participants released by the National Cathedral and appear not to have actively participated in the service.

Meanwhile Buddhists, Hindus, Secular Humanists, and followers of Native American religions were absent altogether. And this is hardly new: President Obama’s first National Prayer Service, in 2009, also excluded Mormons, Buddhists, Secular Humanists and followers of Native American religions. (There was one Hindu representative, but no Sikh.)

When asked why no one from these groups was invited to participate in the National Prayer Service, a spokesman for the National Cathedral said that the Presidential Inaugural Committee and the White House choose the participants. Neither returned multiple phone calls and emails asking for their comments.

Whatever the reasons, the choice to exclude these groups from the service is a baffling one given the increasingly diverse religious makeup of the country—and especially the electorate. Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox Christians still make up about 76 percent of the country, but their numbers are either holding steady or declining as other groups gain ground quickly.

Mitt Romney didn’t become America’s first Mormon president, but Mormonism is still one of the fastest-growing religions in the country. In fact, there are about as many Mormons in the United States right now as there are practicing Jews. A spokesman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints declined to comment for this article.

Buddhism has also risen meteorically through both immigration and conversion. Buddhists make up only about 0.6 percent of the U.S. population—roughly the same as Orthodox Christians, and just slightly more than Muslims. But their numbers also rose by 170 between 1990 and 2000. And some scholars believe that trend is still continuing.

“On the one hand, there have been some really great developments by the Obama Administration: The White House hosted the first-ever Dharmic Religious and Faith Institutional Leaders Conference last April, and in the middle of last summer Ven. Miao Hong became the first Buddhist appointee to the Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.” explained Rev. Danny Fisher, a professor and Coordinator of the Buddhist Chaplaincy Department at University of the West in Rosemead, California. “On the other hand, there are also these big misses: From the beginning of his first term, President Obama said, ‘Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and nonbelievers,’ excluding Buddhists and not inviting [Buddhist] representatives to things like the National Prayer Service.”

Anju Bhargava, founder of Hindu American Seva Communities, echoed this sentiment.

“America’s religious diversity and pluralism is reflected in every corner of our country. The White House has made efforts to work with the Dharmic community,” she said, “And we, the eastern traditions, have had some representation. One day we hope there will be fuller representation of the eastern traditions in all aspects including the national prayer.”

The number of secular humanists, atheists, agnostics, and others who don’t identify as members of a particular religion is growing faster than even the fastest-growing religious group—something the Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life has labeled the “rise of the nones.” Around sixteen percent of Americans do not identify with any religious group, making them America’s second-largest “religion” next to Christianity.

Chris Stedman, an interfaith activist and the assistant Humanist chaplain at Harvard University, shared many of Fisher and Bhargava’s concerns. However, he was also concerned with the overall tone of the Inauguration.

“As the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans continues to grow, it’s important to lift up the nonreligious as a part of the religious diversity that defines America,” Stedman explained. “The inaugural festivities were littered with references to god . . . . But what’s worse is that nonbelievers weren’t acknowledged at all. This was disappointing, as Obama was the first president to reference nonbelievers in an inaugural address, in 2008. In the future I hope to see nonreligious voices included in interfaith contexts like this with greater regularity.”

Overall, leaders of minority religious groups are pleased with the strides they have made under the Obama Administration. Still, many see room for growth and improvement.

“It’s hard not to appreciate all that has been done in the last four years,” said Fisher, “but the work isn’t complete yet. If we’re serious about honoring religious pluralism as a country, then there definitely needs to be a much more diverse presence at events like the National Prayer Service.”

This article appeared at the Huffington Post on 29 January 2013; it also appeared in the 7 February 2013 issue of Spare Change News

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:

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