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Climate Change is a Moral Issue

A Buddhist Reflection on the Pope’s Climate Encyclical, Laudato si’

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

On June 18, Pope Francis issued an encyclical letter, Laudato si’ (Praised Be), “On Care for our Common Home,” pointing to climate change as the overriding moral issue of our time. The encyclical boldly proclaims that humanity’s capacity to alter the climate charges us with the gravest moral responsibility we have ever had to bear. Climate change affects everyone. The disruptions to the biosphere occurring today bind all peoples everywhere into a single human family, our fates inseparably intertwined. No one can escape the impact, no matter how remotely they may live from the bustling centers of industry and commerce. The responsibility for preserving the planet falls on everyone.

The future of human life on earth hangs in a delicate balance, and the window for effective action is rapidly closing. Tipping points and feedback loops threaten us as ominously as nuclear warheads. What heightens the danger is our proclivity to apathy and denial. For this reason, we must begin tackling the crisis with an act of truth, by acknowledging that climate change is real and stems from human activity. On this, the science is clear, the consensus among climate scientists almost universal. The time for denial, skepticism, and delay is over.

Our carbon-based economies generate not only mountains of commodities but also heat waves and floods, rising seas and creeping deserts. The climate mirrors the state of our minds, reflecting back to us the choices we make at regional, national, and global levels. These choices, both collective and personal, are inescapably ethical. They are strung out between what is convenient and what is right. They determine who will live and who will die, which communities will flourish and which will perish. Ultimately they determine nothing less than whether human civilization itself will survive or collapse.

Since religions command the loyalty of billions, they must lead the way in the endeavor to combat climate change, using their ethical insights to mobilize their followers. As a nontheistic religion, Buddhism sees our moral commitments as stemming not from the decree of a Creator God but from our obligation to promote the true well-being of ourselves and others. The Buddha traces all immoral conduct to three mental factors, which he calls the three unwholesome roots: greed, hatred, and delusion. Greed propels economies to voraciously consume fossil fuels in order to maximize profits, ravaging the finite resources of the earth and filling its sinks with toxic waste. Hatred underlies not only war and bigotry but also the callous indifference that allows us to consign billions of people to hunger, drought, and devastating floods without batting an eye. Delusion—self-deception and the deliberate deceiving of others—is reinforced by the falsehoods churned out by fossil-fuel interests to block remedial action.

We thus need to curb the influence of greed, hatred, and delusion on the operation of social systems. Policy formation must be motivated not by narrow self-interest but by a magnanimous spirit of generosity, compassion, and wisdom. An economy premised on infinite expansion, geared toward endless production and consumption, has to be replaced by a steady-state economy governed by the principle of sufficiency, which gives priority to contentment, service to others, and inner fulfillment as the measure of the good life.

The moral tide of our age pushes us in two directions. One is to uplift the living standards of the billions mired in poverty, struggling each day to survive. The other is to preserve the integrity and sustaining capacity of the planet. A rapid transition to an economy powered by clean and renewable sources of energy, with transfers of the technology to developing countries, would enable us to accomplish both, to combine social justice with ecological sustainability.

At the very outset, we must start the transition by making highly specific national and global commitments to curb carbon emissions, and we must do so fast. The Conference of the Parties meeting in Paris this December has to show the way. The meeting must culminate in a climate accord that imposes truly rigorous, binding, and enforceable targets for emissions reductions. Pledges and promises alone won’t suffice: enforcement mechanisms are critical. And beyond a strong accord, we’ll need an international endeavor, undertaken with a compelling sense of urgency, to shift the global economy away from fossil fuels to clean sources of energy.

Pope Francis reminds us that climate change poses not only a policy challenge but also a call to the moral conscience. If we continue to burn fossil fuels to empower unbridled economic growth, the biosphere will be destabilized, resulting in unimaginable devastation, the deaths of many millions, failed states, and social chaos. Shifting to clean and renewable energy can reverse this trend, opening pathways to a steady-state economy that uplifts living standards for all. One way leads deeper into a culture of death; the other leads to a new culture of life. As climate change accelerates, the choice before us is becoming starker, and the need to choose wisely grows ever more urgent.

The above essay was originally written for OurVoices, an interfaith initiative bringing faith to the climate talks. It may be viewed in its original site here.

Buddhists at the White House

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

WH Buddhist Conf 5-14-15 _  110Last week, on May 14th, I was privileged to be part of a group of Buddhist monastics, teachers, and leaders who converged on Washington DC for a conference on the role of Buddhism in the public square. The idea to convene such a conference originated with Bill Aiken, Public Affairs Officer for Soka Gakkai International–USA, who began to lay plans for the gathering as far back as December 2014. He established a steering committee, which eventually came to consist of Danny Hall (also of SGI), Professor Duncan Williams, Professor Sallie King, Matt Regan, Rev. T.K. Nakagaki, and myself. The list of invitees, originally set at 80, increased incrementally until it amounted to approximately 125, the maximum that could comfortably fit into the facilities provided. Representatives included monks, nuns, ministers, academics, yogis, lay Dharma teachers, and Buddhist activists from all traditions, with a balanced blend of Asian immigrant Buddhists and convert American Buddhists.

The original goal of the event, as Bill Aiken conceived it, was to “to utilize the convening power of the White House to bring together a wide range of Buddhist community leaders to affirm our shared commitment to preventing climate change, sharing community best practices, and hearing from Obama administration representatives on issues of concern to us.” As preparations unfolded, two main points of focus emerged. One was climate change, which poses an ever-escalating threat to the security of human life on earth. The other, highlighted by the recent spate of police killings of unarmed people of color, has been the need for this country to finally implement full racial justice in all spheres of our communal life.

The conference was divided into two segments. In the forenoon, we met in a spacious hall in George Washington University to hear presentations on climate change, racism in America, and efforts to express Buddhist values in the public sphere. After a video message from  Mary Evelyn Tucker on faith as a catalyst for action to protect the planet, I gave a presentation on climate change. In the 20 minutes allotted to me, I used the four noble truths as a template to uncover the causes behind climate change and to highlight the need to make the transition to a new, environmentally benign economic system powered by clean sources of energy. Angel Kyodo Williams spoke next, giving an incisive talk on the interconnection between racism and the despoliation of the natural environment. She pointed out that the way we degrade the planet is symptomatic of the same mental frame that permits us to degrade people; thus, she said, to dig up the roots of climate devastation requires us also to cut the roots of racial discrimination and violence. Professor Duncan Williams spoke about the experience of Japanese Buddhists in America, emphasizing how deep biases simultaneously devalued their religious commitments and subjected them to constant suspicion as an alien menace, particularly during the Second World War. This was followed by a series of talks about Buddhist groups working for social upliftment. During this period BGR’s fundraising chair, Sylvie Sun, gave a presentation on the work of Buddhist Global Relief.

In the afternoon we all convened in the Executive Offices Building of the White House for presentations by Administration officials on the issues at the center of the morning’s gathering. After an initial welcome from the White House Office of Public Engagement, Rev. T.K. Nakagaki led a group of monastics and Dharma leaders in a short Vesak ceremony, certainly the first ever held in the White House. This was followed by presentations, including question and answer sessions, from representatives of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, the Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs, the Council on Environmental Quality, and the U.S. Institute for Peace. During the proceedings we submitted two statements to government officials, signed by all attendees, one calling for action to stem climate change, the other calling for a need to address racism.

The day’s events concluded with a short talk by Jack Kornfield, who gave voice to the shared recognition that this day marked a significant step forward for Buddhism on American soil. Jack pointed out that in coming together to articulate our common concerns to see Buddhist values taken as guideposts for public policy, Buddhists were not breaking new ground but were continuing a tradition that goes back to the Buddha himself, who traveled through northeast India advising kings, princes, governors, and citizens how to establish a rule that conforms to the Dharma, the timeless law of goodness, truth, and justice. As Buddhists we do not seek to impose our religious beliefs on government, a violation of the separation of church and state, but to see that government policies conform to the standards of compassion, social equity, peace, and environmental responsibility at the heart of Buddhism and all the world’s great faith traditions.

All who attended felt that this year’s gathering marked only the first of what is likely to become an annual event–a major first step, but only a beginning. Bill Aiken suggested that next year’s conference might culminate in a visit with our legislators on Capitol Hill. My personal feeling is that a one-day conference is insufficient to exhaust the potentials of such an encounter. While meeting on the single day gave us the opportunity to make new contacts and articulate our shared concerns, for such a gathering to bear effective fruit, the conference would have to be extended over at least two days. The extra time would allow for additional full-length sessions devoted entirely to group discussions on the issues at the center of concern. In such additional sessions we would be able to assess the points made in the presentations and draw up plans for lines of action to exert pressure on public policy decisions.

I also believe that, given the small number of Buddhists in the US relative to the general population, it would be delusional for us to imagine that on our own we can exercise a significant influence. Rather, our best prospects for giving Buddhist values a role in public affairs would be to join hands with other faith-based organizations that share our values and to present a collective front, rooted in our respective faiths, advocating for greater social justice, ecological responsibility, an end to militarism, and efforts to establish global peace. Such a convergence of faiths has already emerged in the environmental movement through such organizations as Green Faith, Interfaith Moral Action on Climate, and Our Voices. Through networking, a wider collective voice might emerge that could well set in motion the forces needed to articulate and embody a new paradigm rooted in perceptions of human unity, the intrinsic dignity of the person, and the interdependence of all life forms with each other and the natural world. Such collaboration could serve to promote values and a new way of life that offers a sane alternative to free-market corporate capitalism with its blind imperatives of exploitation, extraction, consumerism, and endless economic growth.

Here are a few photos from the gathering (all photos by Phillip Rosenberg):

Bill Aiken opens the conference

A section of the attendees

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Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi talks on climate

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rev. angel Kyodo williams

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Sylvie Sun speaks on BGR

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Vesak ceremony in White House

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Vesak ceremony in White House

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Talk by Administration official

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Jack Kornfield gives concluding talk

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Group photo

 

Girls in India as Agents of Change

by BGR Staff

BGR is presently sponsoring a project by the Bodhicitta Foundation in Nagpur, India, that has created a girls hostel to prepare girls for a better future. The hostel is accommodating thirty girls from extremely poor families, training them as social workers who will eventually return to their villages and become agents of change. At the end of January we received a half-year report from the Foundation. Below are highlights.

Adolescent girls in India make up a large percent of an invisible and vulnerable population. Prevailing cultural customs in India’s patriarchal society leave them powerless to decide their own future and disregard their potential as autonomous agents. Families traditionally favor male children, who are better fed and given preferential educational opportunities. Girl children are subject to gender-based discrimination. They are often denied an education but are instead forced into early marriage and child-bearing even before they outgrow their teen years. Investing in education for girls can be one of the most potent weapons in the fight for greater social justice. Educating girls can help alleviate poverty and the ignorance that leads to oppression of poor girls and women.

The focus of this Bodhicitta project is to enhance the education of adolescent girls. The project provides 30 girls with scholarships and hostel accommodations for three years. It trains them as health care and social workers or in other related fields of interest. These girls will become agents of change who will eventually return to their own villages, ready to empower other disadvantaged people and enable them to become self-sufficient.
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Thank You from Haiti

A Thank You Message from Lavarice Gaudin
Program Manager, Na Rive

Since 2010, Buddhist Global Relief has been a partner of the US-based What If? Foundation, which over the past fifteen years has been providing free meals for hungry children in the Ti Plas Kazo neighborhood of the capital, Port-au-Prince. During the first three years of our partnership, the focus of our projects was on the free meals program, which had become especially critical after the earthquake that struck the capital on January 12, 2010.

Over the past two years our partnership has expanded to include an education component, as WIF initiated a scholarship program to enable children to attend school. In Haiti school tuition is extremely expensive in relation to the country’s overall economy, and thus the assistance that BGR provides has been a great asset to children who would otherwise be unable to attend school. 

Below is a letter of thanks from Lavarice Gaudin, Program Manager of Na Rive, What If? Foundation’s on-the-ground partner in Haiti. His letter is introduced by WIF founder Margaret Trost and executive director Suzanne Alberga.

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Helping Orphans in Western China Attend School

by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

Shambala BGR 6Last May, at its annual projects meeting, the Board of Buddhist Global Relief approved a grant of $7,000 to a new partner, the Shambala Foundation, a Hong Kong-based organization working in rural China (unrelated to the American Buddhist network of Shambhala meditation centers). The purpose of the grant was to cover the costs of books, clothes, shoes, and school supplies for orphans and poor children between the ages of 10 and 16 from Qinghai Province in western China.

These children are already participating in the Shambala Foundation’s flagship program, Orphanage Without Walls (OWW), a long-term partnership with 650 rural children and their families. The overall goal is for each child to lift themselves and their families out of poverty. Shambala Foundation works with each child so they can attend school for as long as possible and eventually find their first paid jobs.
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Rockin’ and Rollin’ in the Climate Movement

Ven. Santussika Bhikkhuni

Last week the People’s Climate Train rolled across the country carrying 170 people to the People’s Climate March and about 200 Buddhist practitioners gathered to “Prepare the Heart to March” at New York Insight Meditation Center the day before the largest environmental action in human history. Both these events offer a glimpse into the diversity, determination and rapid growth of the climate movement.

Passengers on the People's Climate Train rolled through spectacular landscapes from coast to coast and participated in 50 workshops on climate

Passengers on the People’s Climate Train rolled through spectacular landscapes from coast to coast and participated in 50 workshops on climate


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Giving Everyone a Place at the Table

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

This past Friday, Bill Moyers hosted a conversation of the type we need to hear more often on the problem of hunger in America. The program featured a long interview with Kristi Jacobson and Mariana Chilton that revolved around their new documentary, A Place at the Table, which Jacobson directed and produced and in which Chilton plays a prominent role. Though I have not yet seen the film myself, Moyers calls it “one of the best documentaries that I’ve seen in years.” Continue reading