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

 

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