Category Archives: Buddhist social ethics

Buddhists Roll On Together to the People’s Climate March

The scene at the U.S. Capitol building. People’s Climate March, 2017. Photo by Caroline Contillo.

Stepping off the Buddhist retreat bus in D.C. on Saturday, two things were apparent: the 2017 People’s Climate March was going to be huge, and it was going to be hot. The record-breaking 92-degree heat seemed to enhance the energy of the staggering crowds that had convened to march from the foot of the Capitol Building to surround the White House.

I’d chosen to march with the Buddhist contingent as part of the Faith Bloc, situated between the Science bloc and Fossil Fuel resistance groups that gathered to surge down Pennsylvania Avenue. It was Trump’s 100th day in office, and over 200 Buddhists from around the world had shown up to make their voices heard with another 200,000+ people. The common message was clear: we know the climate is changing, and we want to address this.

The 2014 People’s Climate March in New York had been a groundbreaking moment for inter-sangha cooperation. While it wasn’t out of the ordinary to see politically engaged teachers like Bhikkhu Bodhi and Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara at a demonstration, coordinated action was relatively new. Representatives of various sanghas and concerned practitioners stepped up. Bob Kolodny, who practices at New York Insight and coordinates the New York chapter of the Buddhist Climate Action Network (BCAN) would use many of the connections he’d developed at that time to contribute to Bhikkhu Bodhi and Regina Valdez’ vision of a whole new form of engagement for the 2017 version of the march. “We’re seeing people galvanize across the country to face a number of issues. I don’t think the Buddhist community is that different. People are concerned and want to respond,” Kolodny told me. He also credits Bhikkhu Bodhi and David Loy for helping people realize that taking action is consistent with Buddhist principles. “More and more people have been inspired to take action. It certainly seems like a threshold has been crossed,” he said.   What the Triple Gem retreat offered was a space to be in solidarity with other Buddhists from various traditions and take our practices out of the meditation center and into the world.

I found out about the “Triple Gem Rolling Retreat” through a BCAN email. There would be four buses, each led by a renowned Buddhist teacher who would offer teachings and give a sense of ceremony to our trip from New York. I felt motivated to attend the march because I believe it’s important to get out from behind my laptop and be in the presence of others who want to address the huge social and environmental issues of this era. I also try to treat each demonstration, each rally, and by extension each moment of my life as an opportunity to bear witness. The Zen Peacemakers’ three tenets are something I try to live by, where we empty our minds of preconceived notions, bear witness to suffering, and then transform that suffering through compassionate action.

What the Triple Gem retreat offered was a space to do all this in solidarity with other Buddhists from various traditions, so we could share our different interpretations of each principle, and help build a case for taking our practices out of the meditation center and into the world.

Members of Buddhist Global Relief at the Washington, D.C. People’s Climate March, 2017. Photo by Caroline Contillo.

The bus caravan to DC was organized by Regina Valdez, outreach coordinator for Bhikkhu Bodhi’s organization, Buddhist Global Relief. A practicing Buddhist of eight years, Valdez had become concerned with what she perceived as a need for Buddhists to engage their practice with social and environmental issues. The idea for a rolling retreat, with Buddhist teachers and monastics giving a sense of ceremony to a trip to the Climate March, stemmed from her group Compassion NYC, which she founded to implement the Buddhist Global Relief missions of economic and climate justice on a local level.

“I thought it would be wishful thinking, to have this rolling retreat to Washington, but it’s been a trip! A day and night mission,” she told me over the phone before the retreat, which she had been working on since January.

I gravitated to Buddhist practice to grapple with the despair I felt after learning about climate change. I had studied climate science, the history of its discovery, and its presentation in science journalism as an undergrad at Hunter College. I was left feeling that I’d need not just a meditation practice but an ethical framework to confront my fear about the future. Buddhism offered very practical and elegant tools for this endeavor. Through an understanding of my own suffering, I could connect to others and work to let go of my tendency to project stories of worry into the future. After changing my relationship to myself, I could relate to the world in a way that was less driven by the momentum of anxiety and even work to help alleviate the suffering caused by social and environmental justice.

Carrying the BGR Banner at the People’s Climate March

I gravitated to Buddhist practice to grapple with the despair I felt after learning about climate change. I had studied climate science, the history of its discovery, and its presentation in science journalism as an undergrad at Hunter College. I was left feeling that I’d need not just a meditation practice but an ethical framework to confront my fear about the future. Buddhism offered very practical and elegant tools for this endeavor. Through an understanding of my own suffering, I could connect to others and work to let go of my tendency to project stories of worry into the future. After changing my relationship to myself, I could relate to the world in a way that was less driven by the momentum of anxiety and even work to help alleviate the suffering caused by social and environmental justice.

Climate change is on one hand framed as a problem we can overcome by finding the right solutions and by showing up at protests. On the other hand, the climate is the very thing we live within, and touches every aspect of our lives. It is an intricate network of feedback loops and interconnection. It points to the fact that no issue is actually isolated. In Buddhist practice we call this interdependence. In social theory, the term intersectionality has gained popularity, pointing to the way that no social issue or aspect of identity exists in isolation. What I’m sensing is that we are becoming more able to think in terms of systems, and understanding climate change can be a catalyst for that.

Reverend angel Kyodo williams, the second black woman to be ordained as a teacher in her lineage, led a retreat bus for people of color and accomplices, a word that references more active participation than the conventional idea of being an ally in the struggle for justice. This explicitly intersectional approach to the march and to Buddhist practice took the principle of interdependence and asked us to make it concrete by acknowledging that people of color and indigenous people are disproportionately impacted by climate change and environmental racism. The changing climate touches all of us — but some people are more vulnerable to the harm it causes.

The morning of the march we lined up at 6am along 34th Street in Manhattan, checking in with a well-organized team of head teachers, bus captains, and other volunteers. I was assigned to Roshi Enkyo O’Hara’s bus. Buddhist Global Relief provided us with breakfast bags and instructions for what to do once on the ground in DC. After a DVD introduction to the Rolling Retreat featuring Bhikkhu Bodhi’s impassioned plea for compassionate action, Enkyo spoke to the politically engaged nature of her tradition, Soto Zen. Teachings continued throughout the four-hour bus ride, including commentary from Reverend T.K. Nakagaki of the Buddhist Council of New York, Michele LaPorte of the Shambhala and Vajrayana Buddhist traditions, and Reverend Doyeon Park of Won Buddhism New York. It was a unique opportunity to hear a number of Buddhist perspectives on the necessity of engaging Buddhist practices to confront what Bhikkhu Bodhi explained as a challenge and crisis that faces the entire global community.

We had the opportunity to share with each other about our own practices and a little about the things that motivated us to participate in the march. Some common themes included a desire to ensure a hospitable climate for future generations and a commitment to being with others who have similar values. As my bus neighbor Marilyn Ivy, an anthropology professor at Columbia University, said, “being around other people makes confronting these challenges seem more doable.”

Many different Buddhist traditions were represented on my bus alone, including Pure Land, Chan, Won, Shambhala, Nyingma, and we were joined by a member of the Baha’i faith. Some wanted to be actively engaged in democracy, and there were monastics on the bus who said that as people of conscience, they wanted to make sure Trump knew that his actions were being witnessed. The common thread was feeling the need to respond to the climate emergency from a place of compassion.

Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi, with fellow marchers, protecting himself from the hot sun at the Washington, D.C. People’s Climate March, 2017. Photo by Caroline Contillo.

Heading towards the starting point from the bus parking lot, the sheer volume of the march was striking. The streets and the sidewalks around the National Mall were packed shoulder to shoulder before we began marching. The density of the crowd made it difficult to stay together as a consolidated group so, once the march started, I moved through the crowd, attempting to talk to different factions within the Buddhist contingent. Aside from the participants who’d come from New York, I was told there were over 200 other Buddhists who had come from as far as Japan and Taiwan for the march.

I had the opportunity to ask Bhikkhu Bodhi what he felt the Buddhist basis for participating in the climate march might be. Under the intensity of what felt like a summer sun in August, he spoke about what equanimity means. “Equanimity does not mean withdrawing from all the events taking place in the world and cultivating indifference,” he said. “True equanimity should co-exist with the wisdom of cause and effect. Through wisdom we understand the causes of suffering and out of compassion we are motivated to act in ways that will eliminate those causes at different levels.”

At 12:30, we began marching. Sometimes I’d find myself having fallen behind amongst the Quakers and Mennonites. When I’d try to catch up with the Buddhists I’d go too far and end up in the midst of the Science Bloc. This ended up being a beautiful pilgrimage in itself, a tour of different ways of relating to the crisis of climate change.

At 2 o’clock, we all sat down to perform a “collective heartbeat” by tapping on our chests. Or at least, that was the plan. Due to the size of the crowd and the swiftness of the collective action, I missed that part, but we all managed to get back in synch and let out an enormous roar. “This is a sense of solidarity we rarely experience,” a woman behind me said to her march companion.

A Thich Nhat Hanh-inspired sign at the People’s Climate March, 2017. Photo by Caroline Contillo.

The ride back to New York was more subdued, with chanting at sunset by Reverend Nakagaki, and a reading by Michele LaPorte of the Sadhana of Mahamudra. We talked to each other about action points and next steps, urged by Roshi O’Hara to consider the “bonds of spiritual friendship” forged on our pilgrimage.

In the hopes of stoking the energy of a growing Buddhist climate movement, Bob Kolodny encouraged us to act as point people for our home sanghas. If each of us volunteered to announce information about future actions related to the climate, we could take what Roshi called the good feelings cultivated on this march and integrate them with the necessity for resistance.

Debra Keehn, who practices at Zen Center for Contemplative Care in New York, mentioned the idea of bringing our Buddhist principles with us to other sorts of political action and civil society group meetings. Her feelings about the march captured what many of us felt: “very grounding, despite the heat!” As the motto for 2014’s climate march said, “to change everything, we need everyone.” If Buddhist practitioners and other meditators are willing to bring our practices to meet the crises of this era, I think we stand a chance of meeting this moment of extreme change with a unique set of tools and a grounded perspective.

This article originally appeared on the website Lion’s Roar here. It is posted here with permission of the publisher.

The author, Caroline Contillo,  completed the Dharma Immersion Program at the Interdependence Project in 2011. She has been interested in using the lenses of mindfulness, improv comedy, direct action, and science fiction to see how we might co-create a just and joyous world. She teaches meditation at MNDFL, a new studio in Lower Manhattan. She lives in Queens, and invites you to check out her personal site spacecrone.com or follow her on twitter, @spacecrone.

 

Worldviews Clash at Standing Rock

 Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

The standoff at Standing Rock offers a choice between two worldviews: one that can lead to a new economy of shared prosperity and one that will hasten the devastation of the planet.

 

The struggle to stop construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline marks not only a difference in economic policies but a contest between two radically different orientations to life. The struggle, which pits Native Americans and their allies against a company that constructs oil pipelines, has a profound significance that extends far beyond the plains of Standing Rock. The contest is both ethical and existential, and how it is resolved may well determine the future of human life, whether for harm or for good, on this beautiful but fragile planet. Continue reading

BGR Provides Emergency Aid to Haiti After Hurricane Matthew Hits Hard

BGR Staff

(Photo : NASA/Public Domain) Hurricane Matthew as captured by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite hours after the storm hit the southwestern region of Haiti.

BGR began its relationship with Haiti in 2010, when we launched a partnership with the US-based What If Foundation to provide meals to hungry children in the Tiplaz Kazo neighborhood of Port-au-Prince–children who were left mostly homeless by the powerful earthquake of 2010. Since then our relationship with the island-nation has grown ever closer, and we have formed partnerships with several other organizations working in the island, including Oxfam America, the Trees That Feed Foundation, and the Arts Creation Foundation in Jacmel. This past April, our vice-chair and treasurer, David Braughton, visited the country to attend the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new Father Jeri School established by the What If Foundation to provide free education to children who would otherwise never have had the chance to attend school.

Just last week, Haiti was slammed hard by Hurricane Matthew, which swept over the island, leaving in its trail widespread devastation, shortages of food and fresh water, power failures, and a death toll of over a thousand. BGR responded immediately to the disaster. Meeting by email, we decided to provide emergency aid to three organizations. We made a $5,000 donation to the What If Foundation for food assistance through its partner on the ground, Na Rive, in Port-au-Prince; a $5,000 donation to CARE for emergency relief to the Jeremie and Southwest regions of the island, which were hit especially hard; and a donation of $3,000 to BGR partner, Trees That Feed, to assist with its feeding program and general recovery.

Though BGR is not an emergency aid organization but sponsors long-term development projects, we will closely monitor recovery efforts in the country after the hurricane to see how we can help most effectively in ways that correspond to our mission of combating hunger and malnutrition.

BGR Provides Emergency Donations to Help Syrian Refugees

BGR Staff 

ALEPPO, SYRIA - FEBRUARY 11: A Syrian 2 year old baby Zehra and Eye Halip, who fled bombing in Aleppo, are seen with their mother Belkiz Halip at a tent city close to the Bab al-Salam border crossing on Turkish-Syrian border near Azaz town of Aleppo, Syria on February 11, 2016. Russian airstrikes have recently forced some 40,000 people to flee their homes in Syrias northern city of Aleppo. (Photo by Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

A Syrian 2 year old baby Zehra and Eye Halip, who fled bombing in Aleppo, are seen with their mother Belkiz Halip at a tent city close to the Bab al-Salam border crossing on Turkish-Syrian border near Azaz town of Aleppo, Syria on February 11, 2016. Russian airstrikes have recently forced some 40,000 people to flee their homes in Syrias northern city of Aleppo. (Photo by Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

In late August, Buddhist Global Relief made emergency donations of $5,000 each to two respected aid organizations assisting refugees fleeing from the fighting in Syria. One is Oxfam America; the other is CARE. Driven from their homes, many families daily risk their lives in a dangerous flight for safety. Millions of refugees from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries– many of them children – travel long distances to other lands where they hope to find a place of safety and refuge. Hundreds of thousands of displaced people, both within Syria and outside, are in critical need of adequate food, shelter, healthcare, and warm clothes.

BGR’s donations to CARE and Oxfam will:

  • Deliver food baskets, baby items, and other emergency essentials to families cut off from supplies.
  • Provide access to clean water, including water purification tablets for individual families.
  • Increase access to health care for pregnant women and communities affected by conflict.

Readers who wish to help Syrian refugees should contribute directly to these two organizations, or to other organizations with a similar mission, rather than to Buddhist Global Relief.

Giving Girls in Nicaragua the Gift of Education

BGR Staff

2016-09-chicas-colegio-la-esperanza

A partnership between Buddhist Global Relief and the North Country Mission of Hope is enabling ninety-four girls in Nicaragua to attend school. The Nicaraguan government mandates that children must wear black enclosed shoes and a uniform with their school insignia in order to attend public school. Considering that rural poverty is a staggering 67%, many poor children in the country are unable to attend school. A family will spend its precious financial resources securing food rather than putting shoes on the feet of their children. Purchasing a school uniform for their children, particularly a girl, is not a priority for survival. Over a third of adults cannot read or write, so they will have little interest in providing their children with the opportunity to obtain an education.

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Sadly, over 50% of babies in the country are born to teenage girls. Young mothers become completely dependent on the males in their community. The penal system in Nicaragua lacks laws protecting the rights of women and children, and therefore domestic violence is rampant. Without the opportunity to attend school and receive an education, this cycle will never end for the young women in Nicaragua.

The North Country Mission of Hope and Buddhist Global Relief have recently joined hands to help break this cycle. The North Country Mission of Hope sponsors nineteen rural schools in the barrios surrounding Chiquilistagua, providing a daily school meal, renovating and repairing the facilities as needed, and providing equipment such as school desks, blackboards, chairs, and tables. Through funding provided by BGR, ninety-four girls received sponsorship paying for their school shoes, uniforms, insignia, school supplies, backpack, and bi-annual parasite medicine.

The global partnership between BGR and the North Country Mission of Hope is a demonstration of what can be done when the power of compassion joins hearts in a common cause. The partnership offers these girls a safe haven to go to every day where they receive the gift of an education, necessary nourishment, and the chance to socialize with other children their own age. This generation of females will graduate and secure employment, which will give them financial freedom and a chance to make an impact upon their communities, society, and nation. In the faces of these girls one can see our future leaders—young women who will help make the world a better place for everyone.

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This article is based on a report from North Country Mission of Hope.

Sending a Message with Our Feet

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

Yesterday, on July 24, 10,000 people came together in Philadelphia to join the March for a Clean Energy Revolution, held on the eve of the Democratic Party’s National Convention. In Philadelphia, the temperature broke the 100 mark, but marchers remained undeterred. Their  purpose in coming together was to urge our political leaders to act quickly and effectively to ban fracking, keep fossil fuels in the ground, stop dirty energy, transition to 100% renewable energy, and ensure environmental justice for all.

Food & Water Watch_Media Mobilizing Project

Scene in the courtyard of Philadelphia’s city hall (Photo: Food & Water Watch_Media Mobilizing Project)

Members of the BGR team and other Buddhists were among those on the march. BGR participants included Sylvie Sun, Charles Elliott, Marcie Barth, and Regina Valdez. Also joining were Rev. T.K. Nakagaki of the Buddhist Council of New York, Ven. Ru Fa of the Chinese Buddhist community, Bob and Sarah Kolodny of Buddhist Climate Action Network NY, and East Coast members of the Plum Village Sangha.

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L to R: Rev. T.K. Nakagaki, Sylvie Sun, Ven. Rufa. (Photo: Regina Valdez)

The heat wave hanging heavy over North America this past week is just one of thousands of manifestations of climate change. We see other signs in blistering droughts, more violent hurricanes, destructive wildfires, and rising sea levels. Some 25% of the world’s animal species face extinction. Climate change threatens the world’s food supply, turning fertile land into dust bowls and deserts, triggering deluges, and reducing the yields of staple grains. If we don’t act quickly, millions of more people will be subjected to terrible food shortages, malnutrition, and even starvation. Continue reading

Defending the Forests in Cambodia

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

Cambodian Monks and Trees

Photograph: Chantal Elkin (Flickr) for Alliance of Religions and Conservation

Forests are the lungs of the world. Their trees suck up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and breathe out oxygen, thereby controlling carbon emissions and helping to maintain a viable planet. They serve as homes to countless varieties of animals, birds, insects, and plants, many with rare medicinal properties. In tropical countries the forests provide a blanket of coolness that protects against the heat of the day. And for centuries the forests have given shelter to Buddhist monks, who resort to them to pursue their quest for peace of mind, wisdom, and the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice, nibbāna.

Yet all around the world the forests are in danger. With the growth of global population and the need to expand agricultural production, the world’s forest cover has shrunk drastically. In almost every continent, trees are being cut down at alarming rates by loggers, land developers, and large agricultural firms in order to make room for mono-culture plantations and industrial-scale farms.

Deforestation has been occurring especially rapidly in Cambodia. According to the human rights organization Licadho, between 2000 and 2013 14.4 percent of Cambodia’s jungle disappeared. Over 12 percent of the trees were cut in protected areas. The loss of forest cover portends danger for people, animals, and the climate. As in so many poor countries, profit takes precedence even over survival, as people pursuing short-term aims recklessly undermine the prerequisites for our long-term future.

But the forests have a determined corps of guardians who have risen to their defense: Buddhist monks. The German news agency DW recently posted an article about an organization of Cambodian monks—the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice—that is battling to save the country’s forests. The organization’s leader, Venerable But Buntenh, explained: “No one has told me that I should go out there to protect the forest, but for me it was a logical thing to do. I am doing all I can to save it. I plant new trees, I help the people who live from the forest, I am reminding the government of the promises they’ve made.” A younger monk named Horn Sophanny, who was inspired by Buntenh to join the movement, states: “It is our job to lead society to a better place. We are the symbol of compassion. The pagodas are the roots of our knowledge.”

The monks hold workshops at which they teach local people how to use social media to protect themselves and the jungles near their homes. They receive staunch support from the villagers who live near the forests but have faced strong opposition from the authorities. They have been spied on, threatened, and sued; their workshops are interrupted by village chieftains; their temples have been raided by the police. Even the supreme patriarch of the Buddhist order has criticized them, saying that monks shouldn’t be involved in protests.

But the monks remain undeterred in their determination to protect the forests. Buntenh says: “I don’t think I’m a good monk, because I am mean to the police and to the military. But I’m ready to give everything for my people and the forest. If I have to give my life for it today or tomorrow, then I’m willing to make that sacrifice.”