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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.

 

Using Less To Get More: Crop Intensification in Ethiopia

Ethiopia 1

The Central Rift Valley is Ethiopia’s predominant vegetable production belt. In this region, there are over 20,000 smallholder farmers engaged in producing over 200,000 tons of vegetables per year on about 10,000 hectares of irrigated land. Despite access to irrigation, agricultural practices have remained traditional, irregular, and unsustainable in terms of their economic, social, environmental, and ecological impacts. The agronomic practice and input application patterns are not only haphazard but also cause significant damage to the soil, water, ecology, and human health.

During our fiscal years 2015 and 2016, BGR partnered with Oxfam America in a two-year project to increase the productivity of vegetable crops (tomato and onion) by teaching farmers the System of Crop Intensification (SCI). This is a report about two Ethiopian farmers who learned this system and became qualified to teach it to other farmers in their region. The report was provided to us by our partner, Oxfam America. Continue reading

There is more aid in the world, but far less for fighting poverty

Farida Bena

More and more foreign aid seems to be doing less and less of what it’s supposed to.

DB-POP Today

Shanties in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Photo: David Braughton

Every year the OECD, an inter-governmental organization made up of the world’s richest countries, releases figures on how much aid, or overseas development assistance, goes to developing countries. On the surface, the latest released data from 2015 suggests a reason to celebrate: once you take out inflation and exchange rate changes, the overall net amount of aid keeps rising, totaling $131.6 billion after an already record-high couple of years. That’s quite an achievement, particularly for those European donors who last year had to face major unexpected challenges, such as the arrival of migrants and refugees at their doorstep.

Look deeper into those figures and the picture changes quite a lot. Welcoming those refugees in donor countries was actually paid for by money that was meant to be used for other, equally important purposes, like fighting poverty and disease in the global South. These costs nearly doubled last year, meaning that a sizeable portion of ‘international’ aid – up to 34 percent of individual donors’ pots – never crossed Northern borders in reality. Continue reading

Projects for Fiscal Year 2016–17—Part 2 (of 6)

BGR Staff

4. Cambodia: Food Scholarships for Girls to Stay in School

Girls in Classroom

Lotus Outreach, a trusted BGR partner since 2009, is dedicated to ensuring the education, health, and safety of at-risk and exploited women and children in the developing world, especially in Cambodia. The long-standing BGR-Lotus Outreach partnership provides rice support to primary, secondary, and tertiary students receiving scholarships via the GATE and GATEways programs. The GATE programs provides educational scholarships to girls pursuing primary and secondary education. The GATEways program builds on this by supporting girls who graduated from high school through GATE and are pursuing higher education at universities and technical schools across Cambodia.

Rice support is a critical feature of the GATE and GATEways programs. It not only ensures the girls will go to class with nourished minds and bodies, but relieves families of the pressures that often compel them to force their girls to drop out of school and join the work force. In 2015, 76 percent of GATE scholarship recipients successfully passed their examinations and advanced to the next grade level. Students enrolled in the GATE program are more likely to attend and stay in school, lowering their likelihood of turning to exploitative labor.

In the next phase of our partnership, BGR will provide Lotus Outreach with funding to offer 50 kilograms of rice each month during the next school year to the families of 70 girls who rank among the poorest of GATE scholarship recipients in Siem Reap, and an additional 5 families in Phnom Penh. Likewise, all of the 37 scholars enrolled in the GATEways program will receive a monthly provision of 15 kg of rice support to ensure they have enough to eat during their studies and will not be under constant pressure to drop out of college to find work.

 
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Projects for Fiscal Year 2016–17—Part 1 (of 6)

BGR Staff

2016 Group Photo-2

Group photo outside the library

On Saturday, April 23, BGR team members held their annual general meeting, followed the next day by a board meeting to select projects for our next fiscal year, which runs from July 1, 2016 through June 30, 2017. Both meetings took place in the Woo Ju Memorial Library at Chuang Yen Monastery in Carmel, New York. Team members came from across the U.S., including California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Washington State.

This year, at the Saturday meeting, we were honored by the presence of Ayya Yeshe, the Australian nun who founded and directs the Bodhicitta Foundation in India, a long-term BGR partner. Ayya Yeshe, who arrived from India just a few days before the meeting, gave a deeply moving presentation on her activities in Maharashtra, where she works with girls and women of the Dalit community, the former “untouchables” or “outcasts,” leading them in their endeavors to emerge from poverty and social exclusion and rediscover their innate dignity and potentials for high achievement. She poignantly reminded us that the statistics that testify to the success of BGR’s work are not mere numbers but represent real human lives, people who have been touched and transformed by our support for her projects and those of our other partners.

At the board meeting on April 24, the BGR board approved 26 projects for partnership grants in the next fiscal year, at a total outlay of about $580,000, a big jump over last year’s $375,000. Several projects are renewals of  annual projects, while others are new projects with established partners and new partnerships, including one in Nicaragua, our first in Latin America.

This year our capacity was bolstered by an extremely generous offer from the Chao Foundation to provide BGR with grants of $100,000 per year over a three-year period to support several multi-year projects. The three projects we agreed to sponsor are: (1) a partnership with the Helen Keller Foundation to improve health services and access to nutritious food and supplements for mothers and young children in Kenya; (2) a partnership with Moanoghar to construct a permanent residential facility for boy students at their school in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh (the girl students already have a secure residential facility); and (3) a partnership with the What If Foundation to fully equip a new school for extremely poor children in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. These projects will be described more fully in this series of posts. We are deeply grateful to the Chao Foundation for this grant, an extraordinary expression of compassion and trust in the mission of BGR.

This is the first of a six-part series of posts giving brief summaries of the BGR projects approved at the meeting. Projects are arranged alphabetically by country. International projects precede the U.S. projects, which will be described in the final post. Thanks are due to Kim Behan, BGR Executive Director; Patti Price, Chair of the Projects Committee; and Jessie Benjamin, Carla Prater, and Jennifer Russ, who helped prepare the material used in this series of posts. Continue reading

Food for Thought for Young Haitian Scholars

by Jennifer Russ

“You need an education to succeed,” says seventeen-year-old Vanessa Petit-Homme, a tenth grade student in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Polard Marie Guenthine, another tenth grader, agrees. “I don’t know what I’d do without my education,” she says. “It is so important to me.”

If it weren’t for a partnership between Buddhist Global Relief and the What If? Foundation, these two promising young scholars would not be able to attend school. Vanessa and Polard live in an unstable political situation in an impoverished country still reeling from an earthquake more than six year ago. Both girls’ parents are poor, so they and their siblings rely on full scholarships from the What If? Foundation to continue attending school. In 2015, Buddhist Global Relief funded the educations of fifty students like Vanessa and Polard.

Since 2009, BGR has supported the What If? Foundation’s hot lunch program, Lamanjay, which provides more than 1,200 meals daily to hungry children in the Ti Plas Kazo community. The What If? Foundation reports that 2015 was a particularly challenging year. The presidential election led to protests and demonstrations from August 2015 to January 2016, which were sometimes so heated they kept children at home from the lunch program. When the demonstrations cleared, children showed up extra hungry.

Thanks to the adaptive and innovative cooking team, however, the children who attended the lunch program were still well-fed. One eight-year-old boy, who said he was called “Estimable Emmanuel,” told his interviewers that “this year was very good. I found food every day that I came to the program.”

“Life is very hard for me without this food program,” Emmanuel said. “I don’t know what my family would do.”

The children of Haiti need support now more than ever. Even as protests have quieted, the World Food Program recently announced that due to a three-year- drought, Haiti is entering its worst food crisis in 15 years.

Delia, a seventeen-year-old student who has relied on the What If? Foundation’s scholarship program for five years, is confident that the foundation and its donors will continue to support the country’s children. “It is the best foundation I know,” she says. “They have never given up on the country or the people. We are so lucky that the donors keep donating money and giving us their attention so we can go to school.”

These scholarship students are not only dedicated and thankful, they are also determined to give back to their country. Vanessa Petit-Homme says she’d like to be a psychologist so she can help children in Haiti. “Life is not easy and children have so much stress. I would like to be there the way the What If? Foundation has been there for me.”

Delia says she wants to be an engineer. “I would love…to make my country more beautiful and construct strong buildings. That way I can help my country in its development.”

The What If? Foundation is also constructing strong buildings. In January 2016, the foundation completed construction on their new school and cafeteria, which they hope will inspire optimism in the Ti Plas Kazo community and help its children “become part of the next generation of leaders.”

The children are as optimistic and dedicated as the organizations that support them. Delia says that to achieve her goals, she must “study hard and pray. If there was no What If? Foundation, I would not be able to continue with my studies.” To her donors, and to BGR, she says, “I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

Jennifer Russ is a staff writer for BGR.

We Are La Via Campesina

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

We are La Via Campesina,” a short 15-minute video about the international peasants organization, offers a range of insights from the movement’s representatives as they speak about their struggles for food sovereignty and for social, economic, and climate justice.

A movement of small farmers around the world is probably far from the everyday concerns of Western Buddhists, whose interests are usually focused on meditation, Buddhist doctrine, and the application of mindfulness to their daily lives. But if the Buddhist principle that all things are connected is indeed correct, then our own fate and the destiny of the world may be intimately bound up with the fate of peasants working the land in Subsaharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America. The Buddha says that all beings subsist by nutriment, and for a billion people, the system of food production we adopt determines whether they will eat or go hungry. Even more critical, our choice may determine whether we manage to put a lid on climate change or push the earth’s biosphere beyond its viable limits.
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