Category Archives: Social justice

Thanksgiving Reflections

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

This past Sunday I attended an interfaith Thanksgiving service at the St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Peekskill, New York. I spoke extemporaneously. This is a polished version of my talk.

Thanksgiving is a time when we all gather to give thanks for the blessings we have received over the past year. Here, in the US, we have much to be thankful for, but as I reflect on the blessings that I have experienced, I also realize that almost every one of them represents a privilege that I enjoy but which too few people in the world share.

First, I realize that I live in a country that has not been subjected to devastating military assaults, and thus I enjoy relative security in my physical person. When I recognize this, I think of the millions upon millions of people around the world, especially in the Middle East, who do not have this sense of security. I think of the civilian populations in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan who have seen their own countries shattered by war, their homes demolished, their livelihoods destroyed; whose loved ones have been killed right before their eyes; who have had to flee their native lands for distant shores, often at great peril, or who stay behind, where they live in the shadow of fear and danger. I realize that I should not take my own security for granted, knowing that it is part of a global system that entails devastation and despair for many millions.

Next, I reflect on the fact that I am a white male. When I consider that this accident of birth guarantees me some degree of social and economic security, I think of the many African Americans and other people of color who are deprived of this privilege merely because of their skin color or place of origin. I think of the many young black men—and women as well—who have to worry what will happen to them whenever they step out on to the street or ride the subway train. I think of the shocking accounts of young men, women, and even children who have had their lives snuffed out merely because their dress or demeanor or gestures provoked an over-volatile police officer. I think of those who live in degrading poverty, unemployed or under-employed, herded into soul-less housing projects, their humanity slighted, their potential blocked.

I think too of the subtle war against the poor: the low wages, the reduction in social services, the cutbacks in food stamps, and maybe most appalling, the evisceration of the Voting Rights Act by a Supreme Court decision, reversing decades of inspired struggle. And I wonder why, as the wealthiest nation on earth, we can’t recognize the inherent dignity of every human being and give everyone the resources they need to unfold their potential.

Then I reflect that although I am a monk, and thus have renounced material possessions, I live in a beautiful monastery, I have sufficient clothes to keep me warm, and I never have to worry about where my next meal will come from. Each day, the gong will ring twice, and I need only walk to the dining hall to find food awaiting me. I don’t even have to cook for myself.

This leads me to think of the 900 million people around the world who are plagued by chronic hunger and malnutrition, and also of the billion more who subsist on sub-standard diets. I think of the six million people, over half of them children, who die each year from persistent hunger and related illnesses. While I give thanks that I do not share their fate, I wonder what kind of world we have created that allows a few to live in exorbitant luxury while billions must stumble at the edge of survival.

Next I consider that I’m a male, and thus don’t have to face the challenges that women face all around the world. In this country, I think particularly of the recent attempt to undermine Planned Parenthood, which provides essential health services to women. While on ethical grounds I personally don’t approve of abortion except under extenuating circumstances, I believe that women should have the right to make their own choices in such matters, and I recognize how crucial access to these services is especially for poor women.

Yet now I see access to critical health services being blocked off by the meddling hands of politicians, backed by religious zealots. In so far as I can determine, the purpose of these legal maneuvers is not to protect the right to life—if it were, one would expect the advocates to show equal enthusiasm for abolishing the death penalty. The purpose rather, in my opinion, is to punish and humiliate women and ensure that they remain under the thumbs of a patriarchal social order.

Finally, as a Buddhist monk, I realize that I have found a spiritual path that gives my life a deep meaning and purpose, a teaching that aligns my life with a transcendent ground of truth and value and leads to wisdom, contentment, and inner peace. As I give thanks for this, there comes to mind the affluent oligarchs, especially here in the US, who lack any vision of a higher purpose in life than the accumulation of wealth and power. In my mind’s eye I also see the wider population blindly revolving in the merry-go-round of consumerism. I think with sorrow of those whose entire happiness depends on getting and spending, who see no deeper source of meaning in life than the acquisition of material goods and the enjoyment of fleeting pleasures. And, I wonder, perhaps it is for them that I should feel the strongest compassion.

At Thanksgiving I am not at all inclined to revel in the blessings I have enjoyed this past year and in years further back. Instead, I believe the way I can best demonstrate thanks is by creating opportunities for others to enjoy blessings. This means bringing the light of wisdom into regions shrouded too densely in darkness, contributing to the emergence of a more peaceful world, a more just and respectful society, and a more equitable economy based on life values rather than naked market values.

We Are La Via Campesina

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

We are La Via Campesina,” a short 15-minute video about the international peasants organization, offers a range of insights from the movement’s representatives as they speak about their struggles for food sovereignty and for social, economic, and climate justice.

A movement of small farmers around the world is probably far from the everyday concerns of Western Buddhists, whose interests are usually focused on meditation, Buddhist doctrine, and the application of mindfulness to their daily lives. But if the Buddhist principle that all things are connected is indeed correct, then our own fate and the destiny of the world may be intimately bound up with the fate of peasants working the land in Subsaharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America. The Buddha says that all beings subsist by nutriment, and for a billion people, the system of food production we adopt determines whether they will eat or go hungry. Even more critical, our choice may determine whether we manage to put a lid on climate change or push the earth’s biosphere beyond its viable limits.

The weight of the world, it might be said, rests upon agriculture, and here is where we face the need to decide our future, to choose between industrial models of food production and humbler, more environmentally benign approaches. The industrial model of agriculture was supposed to solve the problem of global hunger, yet despite an impressive beginning, its results have been a mixed bag. While it has led to increased productivity, over the long term it has had harmful consequences for both people and the planet. For the planet, it has been a prolific source of carbon emissions; some estimates are that it contributes up to 32% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. For small-scale farmers and peasants toiling on their small plots of land, it has brought waves of landgrabs, massive debts, and the uprooting of their traditional cultures.

But the peasants are fighting back, and the umbrella under which they have gathered is the international movement called La Via Campesina. La Via Campesina is an autonomous, pluralist and multicultural alliance, independent of any political, economic, or other type of affiliation. It comprises about 164 local and national organizations in 73 countries from Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas, representing about 200 million farmers, landless people, women farmers, indigenous people, migrants and agricultural workers from around the world.
Continue reading

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.


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. 

Continue reading

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.

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.
Continue reading

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.
Continue reading

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,
Lotus Outreach International
Continue reading