Building a Dream in Haiti

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

Since 2010, BGR has been a regular partner and supporter of the What If? Foundation, a US-based organization working in Haiti. Our partnership began with BGR support for the Lamanjay free lunch program, funded by WIF. This program, which continues to this day, provides thousands of free meals to hungry children in the Ti Plas Kazo neighborhood of the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince—a substantial daily meal of vegetables, rice, and protein. For many of these children, the meal offered by Lamanjay is their only meal of the day.

Haiti-WIF-students

WIF scholarship recipients cracking their books.

Aware that education is the most effective ladder up from poverty, in 2012 WIF started a scholarship program to enable poor children to attend school. They thereby opened doors of opportunity that in the past were tightly shut against children from poor families, who must pay exorbitant fees to enroll their kids in school. Almost from its inception, BGR has partnered on this program, too, and we have supported it consistently over the past three years. Now WIF is in the process of constructing a building to serve as a permanent home for the food and education programs. The building will bring a desperately needed school into this desperate neighborhood.

Yesterday we received a message from Suzanne Alberga, WIF Executive Director, reporting on the progress of the project. Her message is just below. I hope this encourages you, our donors, and gives you some insight into how your donations to BGR, whether large or small, are having a positive and uplifting impact on the lives of these children. Remember that without such help, these curious, capable kids, so eager to learn, would not be able to attend school, and would thus face insurmountable obstacles to a life of dignity and decency. 

Dear “Building The Dream” Supporter,

I am writing to share exciting news about the great progress being made on our “Building The Dream” project. You, as one of the project’s donors, are an important part of making this long-held dream a reality. Thank you for your support and encouragement!

Children of Port-au-Prince watching the construction underway.

Building in Haiti has been a complex process, but after many months of careful planning with our partner Na Rive, architects, engineers, and construction companies, we are in the exciting stage of watching the new building take form. An experienced Port-au-Prince based crew is working hard in the summer heat and the new kitchen-cafeteria-school building is already more than one third complete!

The Na Rive staff and entire community are deeply grateful and excited about all this new building represents.  Not only will it offer a permanent home for the food and education programs we support, but it will also bring a desperately needed school into the neighborhood.

Bulldozers at work on construction site.

I recently visited the construction site and could feel hope and enthusiasm growing with every brick being laid.  So much love and devotion has gone into this project over the years and now it looks like we’re just a few months away from its completion.  To watch the building go up is very moving, very inspiring.  And it wouldn’t have been possible without you.

The project architect, Chuck Newman of Schools for Children of the World, together with the construction manager, estimate that the building will be complete by the end of the year!

And, to prepare for this, we are in the final stretch of raising the resources needed to fully fund this construction project. To date, we have raised more than 90% of the building’s construction costs (about $700,000).  And we have about $50,000 more to go.

To help close this gap, we are planning an Indiegogo on-line fundraising campaign that will take place this fall. We’ll send you a link to the campaign as we get closer so that you can forward it on to anyone you think might be interested in supporting such an important and exciting project.  And, as always, please contact me if you have any suggestions of individuals or organizations we might approach about supporting “Building the Dream”. (info@whatiffoundation.org or 510-528-1100)

On behalf of the What If? Foundation board and staff, our founder Margaret Trost, our partner Na Rive, and all the children of Ti Plas Kazo, Mesi Anpil (thank you so much) for being a part of “Building The Dream”!

With gratitude,

Suzanne Alberga
Executive Director
www.whatiffoundation.org

Food, Dignity, and the Commons: Frances Moore Lappé

Charles W. Elliott

Frances Moore LappeCommon Dreams has published an insightful interview with activist and author Frances Moore Lappé that illuminates the foundations of the struggle for a just global food economy: democracy and human dignity. Ms. Lappé is perhaps best known for her ground-breaking work on global hunger, recognizing that world hunger is not the result of insufficient food supplies but rather our industrial model of food production and the inability of the poor to access the available abundance of food or its means of production. In short, the problem of global hunger is the problem of poverty, the mal-distribution of political and economic power, and inequality. Acting upon this recognition, rather than a myth of scarcity, undermines multinational corporate attempts to more deeply entrench industrialized control over the global food supply.

Lappé argues that a solution to this inequality-driven hunger is the expansion of “living democracy”, exercised individually and collectively by each person’s daily choices of how we live, thus “infusing the power of citizens’ voices and values throughout our public lives.”  Continue reading

Conscientious Compassion—Bhikkhu Bodhi on Climate Change, Social Justice, and Saving the World

Raymond Lam, from Buddhistdoor Global | 2015-08-14

The Buddhist website Buddhistdoor Global recently conducted an interview with me via email. Based on the interview, the editor Raymond Lam wrote an article highlighting my work both on climate change and the mission of Buddhist Global Relief. Here is the article.–BB

VBB at Universalist Church

At the Fourth Universalist Society in the City of New York. onlytheblogknowsbrooklyn.com

American scholar and Theravada monk Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi might not receive the same high-profile press coverage as the Roman Catholic Church’s charismatic standard-bearer Pope Francis, but it is becoming evident to Buddhism watchers and commentators that his message is every bit as bold, eloquent, and sophisticated as the Pope’s. The recent focus on Bhikkhu Bodhi and other courageous Buddhist leaders who are highlighting imminent threats such as climate change or global hunger might well be influenced by a popular resonance with the urgency with which Pope Francis speaks about ecological catastrophe and poverty. Whatever the reasons, Bhikkhu Bodhi’s actions speak loudly for themselves. As the founder and chair of humanitarian organization Buddhist Global Relief (BGR), his activist work centers specifically on the issues of climate change (he is a spiritual ambassador for the interfaith climate change movement Our Voices) and hunger relief.

“When we started BGR, we initially set our mission to help those afflicted with poverty, disaster, and societal neglect. But after a short time we realized that this was too vague and not practical. Even large, well-established humanitarian organizations like CARE and Oxfam have more precisely defined missions. As a tiny Buddhist organization, we could not tackle the whole range of human challenges on this planet without dissipating our energies,” he says.

“I thus drew on my own experience in Sri Lanka and India, where I knew many people were suffering from malnutrition—though this problem is not as acute in Sri Lanka as it is in other countries. I also had read about the extent of global hunger, and it boggled my mind to realize that close to a billion people were suffering from food insecurity and that some six million a year died from hunger and hunger-related illnesses. I learned that it would take only about US$40 billion a year to eliminate global hunger. Yet worldwide, governments pour perhaps a few trillion dollars annually into military budgets, while millions die of hunger. This struck me as a tragedy and pulled at my heart. The Buddha, in the Dhammapada, had said: ‘There is no illness like hunger,’ and he often stressed the merits of providing food to the hungry. Thereby I saw a close fit between traditional Buddhist values and a more precise mission for BGR.”

Bhikkhu Bodhi’s visibility in American public discourse over the past several years, especially as a representative of a “minority” religion in the US, is already impressive. In May this year, he was at George Washington University and the White House to discuss Buddhist civic engagement and the types of policies that Buddhists would like to see implemented. From a long-term perspective, however, Bhikkhu Bodhi doesn’t believe that the small number of Buddhists in the US as a discrete movement can have a significant impact on civic life.

“We are just a few ripples on the surface of the lake. Rather, in my view, our best prospects for giving Buddhist values a role in public affairs would be to join hands with other faith-based organizations that share these values. Rooted in our respective faiths we can present a collective front, advocating for greater social justice, ecological responsibility, a more peaceful foreign policy, and an end to racism and police violence against people of color,” he suggests. “This is especially necessary in the US since fundamentalist Christians have grabbed the moral high ground, advocating an agenda that seems driven more by bigotry and religious dogmatism than by true benevolence and care for the less fortunate.”

Bhikkhu Bodhi. From youtube.com

Class on Majjhima Nikaya. Photo from youtube.com

Many Buddhist leaders as well as voices from other faiths recognize that divided, the religions cannot form a united front on mitigating and transforming many of the selfish and destructive interests that are threatening to exhaust the planet’s resources. “I do not think that we Buddhists on our own can contribute to the fulfillment of a global ethic,” Bhikkhu Bodhi says. “Our best prospects are to join with those of other faiths, and with people of goodwill who have no particular faith commitment but share our humanistic values.”

He continues: “The major threat I see today lies in the ascent of a purely utilitarian worldview driven by a ruthless economic system that rates everything in terms of its monetary value and sees everything as nothing more than a source of financial profit. Thus, under this mode of thinking, the environment turns into a pool of ‘natural resources’ to be extracted and turned into profit-generating goods, and people are exploited for their labor and then disposed of when they are no longer of use,” he warns, echoing many similarly dire warnings from other religious public figures.

“To resist these trends, I believe, we as Buddhists can be most effective by networking with others who regard human dignity and the integrity of the natural world as more precious than monetary wealth. By joining together, a collective voice might emerge that could well set in motion the forces needed to articulate and embody a new paradigm rooted in the intrinsic dignity of the person and the interdependence of all life on Earth. Such collaboration could serve to promote the alternative values that offer sane alternatives to our free-market imperatives of corporatism, exploitation, extraction, consumerism, and toxic economic growth.”

This will be no mean feat, and might be the greatest moral challenge posed to Buddhism and humanity as a whole in our time. To muster the energy to even begin building this united interfaith front, Bhikkhu Bodhi believes that Buddhists in the East and West alike need to nurture stronger humanitarian concern in their hearts. “Western Buddhists—and I think this is probably largely true among educated Buddhists in Asia—take to the Dharma primarily as a path of inward development that bids us look away from the conditions of our societies. If this trend continues, Buddhism will serve as a comfortable home for the intellectual and cultural elite, but risks turning the quest for enlightenment into a private journey that offers only a resigned quietism in the face of the immense suffering which daily afflicts countless human lives.”

He believes there are two primary moral principles involved in this effort. “One is love, which arises from empathy, the ability to feel the happiness and suffering of others as one’s own. When love is directed toward those afflicted with suffering, it manifests as compassion, the sharing of their suffering, coupled with a determination to remove their suffering,” he says. “The other principle that goes along with love is justice. Some of my Buddhist friends have objected to this, saying that justice is a concept foreign to Buddhism. I don’t agree. I think the word Dhamma, in one of its many nuances, can be understood to signify justice, as when the ‘wheel-turning monarch’ is described as dhammiko dhammaraja, which I would render ‘a righteous king of righteousness,’ or ‘a just king of justice.’ In my understanding, justice arises when we recognize that all people possess intrinsic value, that all are endowed with inherent dignity, and therefore should be helped to realize this dignity.”

Bhikkhu Bodhi finally joins the two concepts to form a distinct ethical ideal. “When compassion and justice are unified, we arrive at what I call conscientious compassion. This is compassion, not merely as a beautiful inward feeling of empathy with those suffering, but a compassion that gives birth to a fierce determination to uplift others, to tackle the causes of their suffering, and to establish the social, economic, and political conditions that will enable everyone to flourish and live in harmony.”

He invokes the idea of dependent origination to explain the need to see the interdependence between states of mind (particularly those governed by greed and delusion) and an economic system built on the premise of unlimited growth on a finite planet. If humanity is to avoid a horrific fate, Bhikkhu Bodhi concludes that a double transformation is necessary. First, we must undergo an “inner conversion” away from the quest to satisfy proliferating desires and the constant stimulation of greed or craving. But change is also needed in our institutions and social systems. Bhikkhu Bodhi suggests that people turn away from an economic order based on incessant production and consumption and move toward a steady-state economy managed by people themselves for the benefit of their communities, rather than by corporate executives bent on market dominance and expanding profits.

“At its most radical level, the Dharma teaches that the highest happiness is to be realized through the complete renunciation of craving. But few are capable of such a degree of detachment. To make the message more palatable, we have to stress such values as contentment, simplicity, the appreciation of natural beauty, and fulfillment through meaningful relationships, and the effort to control and master the mind.”

Helping Rural Orphans Attend School in Qinghai Province, China

BGR Staff

Shambala Foundation is an independent, non-governmental, non-religiously affiliated humanitarian organization alleviating poverty in Asia (unrelated to the network of Shambhala meditation centers in the US). The organization is registered in Hong Kong and focuses primarily on China. Shambala’s projects and programs promote education for disadvantaged communities, which makes it an excellent partner with BGR.

Shambala Foundation’s main project is called Orphanage Without Walls, which it took over in 2012 and officially registered in 2013. Shambala supports 650 orphans and their foster families by providing educational opportunities, social support, and basic needs.

In the spring of 2014, BGR entered into a partnership with the Shambala Foundation to provide books, clothes, shoes, and school supplies for rural orphans in Qinghai Province, China. Most of the children are of Tibetan ethnicity. Through this collaboration, Shambala Foundation has been able to provide important materials to students in Qinghai Province to support their education and motivate them to continue schooling.

Shambala worked closely with each child and their guardian or relative to discuss solutions to keep them in school. The project had a strong impact in fulfilling basic needs for winter clothing and shoes, materials to support the children’s studies, and books beyond their school textbooks to promote literacy at home. In total, Shambala provided 100 students with these materials while also giving advice, support, and training in basic literacy skills.

Providing these materials had other impact on parents, relatives, guardians, and neighbors in showing that the child has value, and that education should be taken seriously and supported both materially and emotionally by the family and community.

The following photos show some of the beneficiaries of the project.

Sham-2014-01

Dekar Drolma, best student in her class, receiving clothing and school supplies.

Sham-2014-03

Sangjyi Drolma, local project manager, explaining how important reading at home is for doing well in school.

Sham-2014-06

Sangyi Drolma bringing supplies to OWW kids at Sangwa Boarding School after visiting their guardians for training.

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Rinchen Lhamo with her stepmother. Her school is very difficult to reach from where she lives because the roads are unpaved and dangerous.

Sham-2014-08

Rinchen Lhamo’s mother ran away and her father became a monk. She enjoys studying at a boarding school with her classmates.

Sham-2014-09

Tsering Lhamo’s father died in 2012. She is very talkative and active when Shambala staff visit her.

Sham-2014-10

Deqin Yangzam is finishing her last year in middle school.

Sham-2014-11

Kamo Yag and grandmother after receiving clothes and school supplies.

Sham-2014-12

Yangzen Drolma and Tsezen Drolma, pictured with their grandfather. They were really happy to see Sangyi Drolma and receive all of the supplies.

All of us at Shambala Foundation and our students
truly thank everyone at Buddhist Global Relief
for your kind support and important work!

Asia’s Quiet Land Transfers

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

January 2015: Indian farmers protest against displacement. Photo: National Alliance of Peoples Movements

The April 2015 issue of Against the Grain, the online bulletin of GRAIN, an international organization that supports small farmers in their struggle for social justice, features a report titled “Reform in Reverse: Laws taking Land Out of Small Farmers’ Hands.” The report details the changes in laws and land policies that in recent years have been gaining momentum in Asia, to the detriment of small-scale agriculture. Traditionally, Asia’s agricultural base has consisted of small farmers, who are among the most efficient and productive in the world, able to produce 44 % of the world’s cereals. This agricultural system, however, is being undermined from within by an agenda that puts the profit of large agribusiness corporations above the well-being of millions of small farmers and the populations they feed.

The changes in land policy discussed in the report testify to the tendency toward concentration in control over the global food system and its transference from the farmers who work the land to business conglomerates that seek profits rather than food security. According to the report, governments across the continent often collaborate in the schemes of dispossession, introducing changes to land laws that are displacing millions of peasants and undermine local food systems. Long-standing government promises to redistribute land more fairly have been broken. The article calls this “reform in reverse.” With scant regard for the people dependent on the land for their livelihoods, governments and corporations have been expropriating farmland for large-scale agribusiness projects as well as for dams, tourism, and mining. Highway construction and real estate developments also contribute to the process of dispossession.

The report contends that governments across Asia are approving legislative changes to remove the few protections that small farmers have traditionally enjoyed, exposing them to the takeover of their lands. The changes differ from country to country, but they are all designed to make it easier for companies to acquire large tracts currently possessed and worked by small farmers. The effect will be to displace millions of peasant families, undermine local food systems, and increase violent conflicts over land.

These legislative changes have already led to the transfer of at least 43.5 million hectares of farmland in Asia from small farmers to agribusiness concerns. The growing adoption of industrial farming systems and increasing corporate control of distribution of food —changes supported by the new land laws— have led to a reliance on expensive inputs, the degradation of land and biodiversity, and volatile price changes for produce. The impact on peasant farmers has been catastrophic, in some places triggering a wave of suicides among indebted farmers forced to give up their land.

The free trade agreements which Asian governments have signedhave accelerated this process, locking countries into policies that favor foreign investors and large-scale agribusiness over small-scale producers. Legislative provisions that prevent foreign and national companies from acquiring large areas of farmland are quietly being removed, to the dismay and destitution of local farmers. We see here still another example of the creeping concentration of power and wealth. In this case, corporate agendas pursued in high-rise office buildings, often on the other side of the world, trump the vital needs and often the very lives of ordinary people on the ground, who find themselves unexpectedly pitted against those driven by relentless greed and ambitions, and equipped with pernicious strategies.

The article distinguishes two types of changes that enable land to be transferred to corporate interests. One involves the enactment of laws or policies that permit governments to carve up large tracts of land into concessions and lease or sell them to companies—the trend in Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea and Thailand. The other involves the creation of new schemes, through law or fiat, that consolidate small farms and transfer the lands to companies engaged in corporate farming. Since small farmers often do not possess deeds to the lands that they have worked for generations, it is relatively easy for those backed by political and economic power to challenge their tenancy and deprive them of their farms.

According to the report, the transfer of land in Asia represents a fundamental shift away from traditional agriculture and local food systems to a corporate food chain supplied by industrial agriculture. If these changes continue, they will have major impacts on everything from food safety to the environment, from local cultures to people’s livelihoods. In a struggle over the future of land and food, elected governments that should be defending the interests of their populations are yielding to the pressures exerted on them by large and powerful business interests.

Rural farmers have not been passively submitting to their fate, but have been launching David versus Goliath struggles to preserve their livelihoods. In unison with civil society organizations across the region, they are building coalitions to defend their interests against sinister trade agreements and national policies that facilitate the privatization and commodification of farmland. People across Asia are making it clear that they want farmland to remain with their farmers. They are demanding that their governments stop facilitating a corporate take-over of agriculture.

The report cites a number of cases that illustrate how such land transfers are taking place. The Government of Burma, in 2012, enacted the the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Lands Management Law – called “the land-grabbing law” by farmers – which aims to make lands the government considers “vacant” or “un-cultivated” available as concessions of up to 20,000 ha for companies.

In Cambodia, only 23% of the country’s 1.5 million small farmers have land. In 2001, the government passed a law that enables private companies to own concessions of 10,000 ha of land for up to 99 years. The law has allowed the transfer of 70% of the country arable land, equal to 2.1 million ha, to industrial agriculture firms and forced hundreds of thousands of farmers off their lands.

Under popular pressure, India adopted a law in 2013 that protected the interests of small agriculturists by requiring a social impact assessment and the consent of 80% of the people affected before land could be acquired for development projects. In December 2014, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a new ordinance that eliminates these requirements and eases land acquisition, including for development of mega-food projects that aim to integrate the entire food chain from farm to plate in the hands of single companies. Mass protests have since broken out, led by farmers and farm workers calling for what they describe as a pro-industry and anti-farmer act to be withdrawn.

Making an Impact in Cambodia

BGR Staff

The following is a letter from Ed Malley, the treasurer of Lotus Outreach International, our partner for educational projects in Cambodia. The letter, addressed to BGR’s ED Kim Behan, was a response to the grant we offered Lotus Outreach for their projects in the coming year (mid-2105 to mid-2016):

Dear Kim and all of Buddhist Global Relief,

Thank you so very much for your generous donation to provide education for the women and girls so in need in Cambodia. It is so wonderful that your funding covers the gamut of our educational initiatives from the Non-Formal Education program where sex workers learn the basics, to GATE where girls can progress through lower and upper grades, to GATEways where a college education becomes a reality for so many who likely never even dreamed of the possibility. Your gift, along with your previous support, will have a dramatic impact on both the lives of each student, but also on her family, her neighbors, her community, and all of Cambodia.

Also, though I suspect you already are well aware, the young women and girls are so heartfelt appreciative. The joy of learning and the determination to help themselves and others through our programs is abundant. And the smiles will melt your heart!

I would also like to mention that your support brings other benefits as well. When I told Glenn Fawcett, our Executive Director of Field Operations, of your continued support this year his excitement was palpable. For Glenn, working for so many years to reach and provide life changing skills through education to the at-risk women in Cambodia, a reaffirmation of his life’s work by organizations such as yours cannot be underestimated.

With warmest wishes,

Ed Malley,
Treasurer
Lotus Outreach International

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Four girls at desks
Two Girls over Book

Glenn with students

A Buddhist Diagnosis of the Climate Crisis

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

Here is a video of my presentation at the Buddhist leaders gathering in Washington (on May 14th), “A Buddhist Diagnosis of the Climate Crisis.” I use the four noble truths as a template for understanding the crisis, proceeding from manifestations to causes and then seek a remedy to the crisis modeled on the factors of the noble eightfold path.

For those who would like the Power Point, here is a link:
Presentation-BDCC

And here is a PDF of the same outline:
Long Handout_BDCC_2015-05-09

And this is an hour-long version of my talk, given last August at the Eco-Dharma Conference in Wonderwell, New Hampshire:
http://tinyurl.com/qzcaqw2

To follow this in detail, one also needs to refer to the “Domains of Value” chart:
https://www.dropbox.com/home/Public/Eco-Dharma%20Conference?preview=2014-August-Domains+of+Value-Simple.pdf