Category Archives: Engaged Buddhism

Walk to Feed the Hungry in Connecticut

By Shim Bo Sunim

A brief account of the Connecticut Walk to Feed the Hungry, hosted by White Lotus Haven Zen of Connecticut, which took place this past Saturday in Collinsville, Connecticut. This is the first time the Connecticut walk was held in this location.

 

The Connecticut Walk to Feed the Hungry, hosted by White Lotus Haven Zen of Connecticut, took place on Saturday, October 5, in Collinsville, Connecticut. The walk was attended by about 20 participants. The day was lovely, with clear blue skies and a morning autumn chill that energized our walk. Alison Zhou and her husband John set up registration in front of the historic Collins Axe Factory building and kindly provided donuts and coffee.

The walk began promptly at 10:00am with Shim Bo Sunim inviting the participants to walk slowly and contemplatively, reflecting on those for whom we were walking. The route, which was roughly one mile, contained an area of the scenic Farmington River Trail that includes an old train bridge. All the walkers kept in single file as hikers, bikers, and joggers passed by. At the midpoint of the walk we entered busy Route 179, and made our way around on to the municipal bridge and proceeded to Main Street, around the block and down the hill to our gathering place, Canton Historical Museum. We concluded the walk at 11:00am. A big thank you to those walkers who carried the walk banner the whole way!

On the second floor of the museum, we set up a seating area and luncheon for the walkers. Walkers were invited to sit and rest, at which time Shim Bo Sunim asked the participants to share reflections about the walk, which were very touching and insightful. At the end of the sharing, Shim Bo Sunim read Bhante’s letter to the group. Thank you, Bhante, for the informative letter and your words of thanks.

After this, the group enjoyed a delicious lunch of roasted vegetables, rice, salad, fruit, and water donated by the ShopRite grocery store of Canton, owned by the Joseph Family. We thank them, and also Mr. Don Scott, the Director of the Museum, for donating the meeting space. The morning ended with participants kindly helping in the clean up.

Many thanks to members of the White Lotus Haven Zen sangha who participated and helped prepare for the event. Board Secretary Ira Morrison prepared and distributed a press release for us and also set up the luncheon. We also thank photographer John Schwenk and videographer Noah Barrios for capturing the event in photos and video.

The walk raised $881. Our youngest contributor, 8-year-old Odin Sakon, donated $6 plus change that he had been saving—a really wonderful act of charity! We look forward to hosting the walk again next year.

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Walk to Feed the Hungry in Uganda

By BGR Staff

Bhante Buddharakkhita in front of the temple

On August 18th, the Uganda Buddhist Centre (UBC) in Entebbe, Uganda, held a solidarity “Walk to Feed the Hungry,” the third such walk organized by the center. The walk was led by Ven. Bhante Buddharakkhita, a Uganda monk who is the founder of the center and a long-time member of BGR’s advisory council.  The purpose of the walk was to raise awareness of hunger and malnutrition as a pressing issue both for Ugandans and for vulnerable communities around the world.

Sri Lankan community practices dana

Distinctive about the Uganda walk was the participation of hundreds of children from Entebbe and the surrounding communities. The walk was also joined by many local people who have been inspired by UBC’s strong involvement in social and economic development. The Sri Lankan community in Uganda, led by Kamal and Dhammika, offered food at the temple. Mr. Kamal also demonstrated in a televised interview how to prepare delicious jackfruit salads and banana flower curry—dishes generally unknown to Ugandans.

Hundreds of children joined the walk

The Uganda Buddhist Centre is the first and only Buddhist temple in Uganda. It was founded by Bhante Buddharakkhita in 2005 with the vision of promoting “peace for all” and with its mission “to preserve and disseminate the original teachings of the Buddha, to spread the Buddhist culture of peace within the context of African culture, and to serve as a center for Buddhist studies, meditation practice, and Buddhist research in Africa.” To realize its mission, UBC has organized various socio-economic, cultural, educational, and other humanitarian projects such as hunger relief, education, and youth and women’s economic empowerment. Currently, UBC is providing safe and clean water to over a thousand people in the surrounding communities and local schools.

Participation of the Peace School

UBC has also established a school for local children called the Peace School, the first of its kind in Uganda. The aim of the Peace School is to provide education in an ethical learning environment so that children can become conscientious citizens. The school aspires to offer a mindfulness-based education that will contribute to inner and outer peace and care for the natural environment. The school is grounded in a Buddhist perspective but also teaches traditional African ethics and values, such as the philosophy of Ubuntu, explained as “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity.”

The Peace School gives financial support to orphans and children in need whose parents or relatives cannot afford school fees and basic needs. The school recently received a grant from Buddhist Global Relief to assist with its development.

Bhante Buddharakkhita, the founder of UBC, was born in Uganda and encountered Buddhism in the 1990s during his travels in Asia. He received ordination as a Buddhist monk under the late Ven. Sayadaw U Silananda in 2002 at Tathagata Meditation Center in San Jose, California. He subsequently spent eight years under the guidance of Bhante Henepola Gunaratana at the Bhavana Society in West Virginia.  He is an adjunct professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and the spiritual director of Radiance Retreat Center in Magnolia, Mississippi. He has been teaching mindfulness meditation in Africa, the U.S., and worldwide since 2005, and is a much-loved teacher in many countries.  His book, Planting Dhamma Seeds: The Emergence of Buddhism in Africa, tells the story of his religious and spiritual work in the continent of his birth.

The information on which this article is based was provided by Bhante Buddharakkhita and Andrew  Mukomazi. Photographs were sent by Dolores Watson.

Taking Food Out of Poor Kids’ Mouths

By Randy Rosenthal

The US Department of Agriculture has proposed restricting access to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (known as “food stamps”) on the ostensible grounds that it is necessary to close a loophole in the program. But the real reason, it appears, is an ideological commitment to lowering taxes on the rich and cutting government spending on the poor. 

Embed from Getty Images

Back in 1964, President Johnson initiated the War on Poverty, which aimed to eradicate the conditions of poverty by providing American citizens with access to food, education, and a secure retirement. Today, the Trump Administration is leading a War against the Poor, which aims to do the opposite. The most recent and blatant act in this war is the US Department of Agriculture’s proposal to restrict the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), otherwise known as food stamps.

On July 23, the USDA released a statement about the proposal, which aims to save $2.5 billion by taking 3 million people off of food stamps. The statement doesn’t mention it, but 500,000 of these people are children who will automatically lose access to free school lunches.

The ostensible rationale behind the proposal is that there is “a loophole” that needs to be closed: low income participants receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits are automatically eligible for food stamps. Because of this policy, which is designed to help transition families toward economic independence, the USDA claims that people are receiving assistance when they clearly don’t need it. To support this claim, they point to a Minnesota man who enrolled in the program, even though he was a millionaire.

In a statement explaining the proposal, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue (who has a net worth of somewhere between $11 million and $53 million) said, “we are changing the rules, preventing abuse of a critical safety net system, so those who need food assistance the most are the only ones who receive it.” After all, he said, “The American people expect the government to be fair, efficient, and have integrity.” How can someone argue with that? It sounds good. But it’s not. In fact, it’s the height of hypocrisy and deviousness.

First of all, if a family qualifies for TANF, they are by definition needy, and therefore need food stamps. Second, who is this Minnesota man? His name is Rob Undersander. On the application, he stated his income, which was low because he is retired, and did not state his assets, which is not required in the form. He then received SNAP benefits for 18 months, simply to show he could waste tax-payer money. Bravo. But how many other people would spend their time applying for a program they don’t need? Probably no one. More importantly, Undersander did not apply for or receive TANF benefits, and so the loophole that is supposedly being closed has nothing to do with his case. That is, the stated rationale behind the proposal is fallacious.

In truth, the recent proposal is part of a larger Republican war on the poor. For instance, back in May, the Administration proposed regulatory changes to redefine the formula for calculating poverty. If they could lower the official poverty line by adjusting how inflation is measured, then fewer people would officially qualify as poor, resulting in fewer people eligible for benefits such as food stamps and Medicaid.

Currently, a family of four with an income of $25,750 or less is considered poor and eligible for government programs. There are about 40 million Americans considered to be living in poverty, or about 12% of our population. That’s a huge number of people who are struggling, among them parents who cannot afford to provide food for their children. That’s why we have such programs as SNAP and offer free school lunches, because, obviously, if kids can’t eat a decent meal, they can’t learn. About 38 million Americans receive food stamps, and 56% of SNAP benefits go to households at or below half of the poverty line. Yet SNAP not only benefits people in poverty, it prevents it, keeping 8.4 million people out of poverty in 2015, including 3.8 million children.

But SNAP does more than provide food and help people get out of poverty. It actually greatly helps the economy. In fact, SNAP benefits are considered one of the fastest and most effective forms of economic stimulus. According to the USDA’s own Economic Research Service, $1 billion of SNAP benefits creates 8,900-17,900 full-time jobs, and every $5 of SNAP benefits generates $9 in total economic activity. Conversely, for every $1 billion in cuts to SNAP funding, 11,437 jobs would be destroyed. This means that the Trump Administration’s recent proposal would actually result in a loss of about 28,590 jobs. Finally, as a share of our GDP, SNAP spending has been steadily decreasing, according to the Congressional Budget Office, and is not contributing to long-term budgetary pressures.

So the question is: Why would we want to literally be taking food out of poor children’s mouths? Why take food off the tables of low-income families? Why are millionaires and billionaires fighting a war against the poor? Whether a family has an annual income of $20,000 or $40,000, life for them is hard. So why make things harder for people who are already having a hard time?

It’s not simply to save $2.5 billion. If the Trump Administration really cared about saving tax-payer dollars, they wouldn’t have increased military spending by $164 billion since 2016, proposing to spend an irresponsible $750 billion on defense in 2020. And they would not have recently passed tax-cuts that will cost the federal government $17 billion. These tax cuts mostly benefit millionaires, and so in essence, what the Trump Administration is saying with these proposals is this: Let’s take from the poor and give to the rich. It’s a reverse Robin Hood.

No, the reason behind this proposal is not practical but ideological. It is not because the administration wants to be fair, efficient, and have integrity, but because conservatives are blindly devoted to lowering taxes and cutting programs designed to help the poor. And due to this obsessive commitment to an abstract idea, millions of actual human beings will suffer.

Randy Rosenthal teaches writing at Harvard University, where he recently earned a Masters of Theological Studies, with a Buddhist Studies focus. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and many other publications. He edits at bestbookediting.com.

A Buddhist Perspective on Women’s Liberation

By Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

Kisa Gotami asks the Buddha to heal her dead son.

This winter, BGR chair Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi spent two months in India. During this time he was invited to give the keynote address at a conference on “Buddhism and Women’s Liberation,” held in Bodhgaya on January 30 and 31, 2019, under the auspices of the Maha Bodhi Society of India. Here is a lightly edited version of his address.

Obstacles to Women’s Freedom

When we speak of “women’s liberation,” we first have to determine what women are to be liberated from. What are the obstacles to their freedom? Perhaps the most pervasive—and the most subtly disempowering—is the limitation placed on the opportunities available to women for personal expression and achievement. In traditional cultures, and even in the West today, these limitations are considered almost intrinsic to the social order. An unspoken consensus prevails that casts women into stereotyped roles that severely hamper their freedom to realize their creative potentials.

Women are seen assigned by nature to be wives and mothers. They are caretakers of the family whose role in life is exhausted by the tasks of finding a good husband, bearing children, and maintaining the household. If women do get the chance to take up a career, the general view holds that they should serve in the caring professions—as nurses, teachers, or social workers—but beyond these, when it comes to the more demanding professions and positions of social leadership, the gates are largely closed against them. Continue reading

The Politics of Happiness: An Essay on the Global Happiness Conference

By Randy Rosenthal

A recent UN report ranks nations by way of their quota of happiness, utilizing a complex set of metrics. But can happiness actually be quantified? Several glitches in the ratings suggest any such effort, while revealing in some respects, will always be far from perfect.

The top 20 happiest countries (World Happiness Report 2019)

On Wednesday, March 20, 2019, the United Nations released the World Happiness Report. This includes an annual ranking of the happiest countries in the world, along with several essays about the relationship between government policy and individual happiness. A few weeks later, on April 13, the editor of the report, John F. Helliwell, participated in a panel at the Global Happiness Conference, held at Harvard Divinity School, and which I attended. Continue reading

Building Bridges for Poor Widows in the Punjab

By BGR Staff

Building Bridges India represents a bridge from the past to the future, from a patriarchal society to an egalitarian one in which women have role options, rights and responsibilities; a passage from despair to hope.

For over thirty years now, parts of Punjab have been stricken by a tragedy barely reported in the mainstream media: the suicides of small-scale farmers. A fatal combination of factors, including successive seasons of bad weather, the soaring cost of seeds and fertilizer, a falling water table, and the usurious rates imposed by moneylenders, have combined to make it impossible for them to sustain themselves on their ancestral lands. Seeing no way out, thousands have taken their own lives. Their deaths are tragedy enough. But for the widows and children they leave behind, life becomes a desperate struggle simply to survive.

Untrained, often illiterate and malnourished, burdened with their husbands’ debts yet without any way of earning an income, the women left behind–sometimes older, sometimes quite young–are responsible for housing and feeding themselves, their children and sometimes elderly relatives as well. Continue reading

Hot Meals and Mentoring for Poor Kids in Mongolia

By BGR Staff

One-third of Mongolia’s population experiences extreme poverty and is unable to afford basic food and shelter. The Tibetan monk, Ven. Panchen Ötrul Rinpoche, was determined to do something about this.

Born in Eastern Tibet in 1939 to nomadic parents, Ven. Rinpoche received full monastic ordination in 1961 under His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He completed his formal studies in India and was awarded the highest degree of Geshe Lharampa, equivalent to a Doctorate in Tibetan Buddhist Philosophy. In 1995, the Dalai Lama asked Rinpoche to go to Mongolia to teach Buddhism to the Mongolian people. After his arrival in Mongolia, he set about finding ways to overcome the high levels of poverty he encountered there. He established Asral NGO in 2001 with the objective of keeping families together and preventing children from going onto the streets. Asral is the Mongolian word for “care.”
Continue reading