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.