Tag Archives: Bhikkhu Bodhi

From Tragedy Springs Hope: Reflections on the Killing of George Floyd

By Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

The police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, in Minneapolis, ignited protests and marches around the country under the banner of Black Lives Matter. To fulfill this aspiration will require extensive changes both in our institutions and in our ways of thought.

Photo: Samuel Wagner, Flickr

The police killing of George Floyd this past Memorial Day has set off a stream of protests in cities and towns across the U.S., and even around the world, united under the banner of “Black Lives Matter.” The murder, captured on video by a passing pedestrian, reveals the horror of racism in its terrible immediacy. Floyd’s dying words, “I can’t breathe,” followed by his silence, leave us shocked at witnessing such a naked display of cruelty taking place in broad daylight in a major American city, committed by an officer of the law.

Anyone who attends to the news knows that such killings are not rare. The names of the victims repeatedly flash across the media, each time setting off a wave of public revulsion. Where the murder of Mr. Floyd stood out was in the rawness of the visual imagery that revealed the slow agony of his death.

In the aftermath of the killing, black leaders and their allies are demanding stricter laws regulating police behavior. While any effective response to these tragedies must include major changes in policing practices, a movement based on the maxim that “Black Lives Matter” cannot stop there but must seek to stamp out all forms of violence, obvious and subtle, that debilitate the lives of Black Americans in this country. These are often veiled behind a curtain of code words and thus must be brought out into the open.

The murder of George Floyd is a stark reminder of our legacy of racist violence, a legacy that includes slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, and the prison-industrial complex. But racism also occurs in ways that are not blatantly violent but still leave black people stunned and gasping for air. These include poor quality in health care, education, jobs, and housing, all based on the premise that black lives are not really entitled to the same opportunities that white people enjoy. If we truly believe that our country stands for “liberty and justice for all,” we would reject that premise and provide neglected Black Americans and other groups in need with the critical building blocks of personal and communal well-being. These are human rights, and it is the job of the government, as expressing our collective will, to ensure they are made available.

We can’t fall back on the excuse that providing such benefits would bust the federal or state treasury. We spend close to a trillion dollars on the military, lavish battlefield equipment on police departments, and give whopping tax breaks to billionaires and giant corporations. If we got our priorities straight, we could easily provide everyone in this country with the basic requisites of a decent life. The real reason politicians and their constituents agonize about spending on such services is because in large measure they would benefit Black Americans and other people whose skin is a darker shade.

Among all economically advanced countries, the U.S. stands out in the paucity of the social services it offers its population, and a major factor behind these spending constraints is racism. In the name of social justice, this has to change. The social safety net, now badly frayed, must be repaired and widened, so that no one falls through the holes in times of illness, a job layoff, or old age. Those in need must be provided affordable housing, vocational training, and quality health care. The minimum wage should be boosted to the level of a real living wage, and the range of good-paying jobs expanded through the rapid adoption of a Green New Deal that simultaneously combats climate change and unemployment. We must guarantee all people access to clean drinking water and nutritious food, and make massive investments in public education at all levels, starting with pre-K.

Measures to establish social justice must be supplemented by efforts to restore political justice, especially by countering attempts by conservatives to undermine voting rights. These efforts have spread across districts with large black populations, especially in southern states, where devious tactics are used to diminish black turnout for elections. Instead of limiting the right to vote, we should make the process of voting as easy as possible. This will require people of conscience to stand up against the effort to distort elections through restrictive voting protocols.

While economic and social transformation is essential, to eliminate racism at its root we have to take the project deeper, bring it down to a more personal level. The racist policies and institutions that undergird almost every aspect of life in the U.S. stem from long entrenched prejudices that ascribe a diminished value to the lives of African Americans and other people of color. How else can we explain the vast gaps in income and wealth between whites and blacks, the hostility in Congress to food stamps and welfare, or the shorter life spans of black people compared to other racial groups? How else can we understand why COVID-19 fatalities among Black Americans are 2.5 times higher than among whites?

In the end, what is required to achieve a lasting resolution to racism in this country is a change in the perceptions and attitudes that allow these travesties to continue. White people in particular must make a deliberate effort to look beyond stereotypes and see every human being, regardless of skin color or ethnic origins, as worthy of care and respect. Just as we each cherish ourselves, so we must learn to see each and every human being as endowed with inherent value and thus as worth cherishing.

To change our perceptions is no easy task. The human mind is governed by a deep tendency to objectify others and subsume them under categories that reflect our personal biases and fears, particularly the fear of difference. To objectify others is to blind ourselves to their own intrinsic reality as persons who, like ourselves, wish to avoid suffering and seek happiness, who want to live and not to die, who aspire to realize their innate potentials.

What is needed above all to eradicate racism is, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “an unconditional love” rooted in an understanding of our shared humanity, our shared fragility and vulnerability. Such love would give rise to genuine compassion for those who suffer and a desire to ameliorate their pain, but would also affirm our common capacity for leading lives of meaning and purpose. It would thereby unite us in a collaborative effort to create a society—and even a world—in which everyone can flourish.

Given our history of racism and current cultural norms, efforts to forge such strong bonds of solidarity will run up against both internal and external obstacles. Not only must we deal with our habitual biases and the pressures of our peers, but we will inevitably face opposition from those who benefit from division and want to preserve their privileged status, even though, in the end, such divisions diminish us all.

As a nation we presently stand at a crossroads where we can either go forward in creating a “beloved community” of mutual affirmation, or we can retreat backward into the bunkers of suspicion, resentment, and racial violence. We can come together to create a society that serves the needs of all, or we can struggle to prevail in a zero-sum game.

The unity among young people of all races and backgrounds marching along the streets of our major cities shows that the seeds of a society centered around human solidarity are blowing in the wind. The tragedy of George Floyd’s killing is starting to blossom in new flowers of hope. Our task now is to realize the potential of this moment and enhance its power until it becomes the dominant ethos of our time.

Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi is an American Buddhist monk and the founder and chair of Buddhist Global Relief.

 

Whose Lives Matter?

By Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

Embed from Getty Images

Even though Covid-19 has been taking a heavy toll on workers in the meat industry, late last month President Trump issued an executive order demanding that meat-processing plants must resume operations. The effect of this order is to confront workers with a horrendous choice: either risk losing their jobs or risk losing their lives. With meat-processing plants becoming hot spots for Covid-19, many workers are terrified about going back to work.

The Priority of Profit

The well-known saying of Jesus, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath,” might be reformulated with regard to the economy: “The economy should serve the needs of people; people should not be made to serve the economy.” Yet the logic of modern corporate capitalism often dictates just the opposite, that people be subordinated to the demands of the economy, an omnivorous giant that feeds off a steady stream of human sweat, blood, and tears.

With the profit motive as its driving vector, the mammoth corporation directs all the components of its complex operational system toward profit maximization. When profits stagnate or decline, the company may freely adopt whatever measures are needed to change course and push earnings back on an upward curve, often without regard for the physical well-being of its employees. While labor unions earlier formed a bulwark against corporate abuse, the decline of unions has given corporations license to get their way without fear of resistance.

A particularly egregious example of this inversion of ethical priorities came to light at the end of April when President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to compel meat-processing facilities to resume operations. In March and April, these plants had become hot spots for Covid-19. By the end of April, at least twenty workers had died from the disease and over 5,000 were infected. Since then even more workers have been infected and died, but a shortage of testing equipment prevents us from knowing the exact numbers.

As infections spread, state and local authorities used their power to order some of the most badly contaminated plants to close, a measure considered necessary to protect public health. In sum, during those two months, thirteen meatpacking and food-processing plants shut down, including some of the nation’s biggest. In response, the executives of the giant meat corporations mounted a campaign of opposition, claiming that the closing of the meat plants would endanger the national food supply. John Tyson, chairman of the board of Tyson Foods, the world’s second largest meat processor, published a full-page ad in major newspapers, including the New York Times, warning that “the food supply chain is breaking.”

Enter the Defense Protection Act

This message got through to the president, who invoked the Defense Protection Act to demand that the plants reopen. The DPA was originally adopted to grant the federal government the authority to order private industries to produce materials and equipment needed in times of war. But Trump used it, not for national defense against a hostile military power, but to protect the meat industry from declining profits.

The president’s executive order states that the closure of meat-processing plants by state and local authorities has been “undermining critical infrastructure during the national emergency,” and he called on the Secretary of Agriculture to “take all appropriate action… to ensure that meat and poultry processors continue operations consistent with the guidance for their operations jointly issued by the CDC and OSHA,” that is, by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Trump’s decree puts in jeopardy not only the workers themselves, but their families and communities. Meat-processing workers often live in multi-generational households with scant opportunity for quarantine or social distancing. In such tightly cramped quarters, if a younger worker becomes infected with the virus, even if they remain asymptomatic, they might easily infect other members of the household; for older relatives infection may prove fatal. But for the president, such concerns are subordinate to those about the meat supply. In the words of Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union: “We only wish that this administration cared as much about the lives of working people as it does about meat, pork and poultry products.”

Despite the rhetoric of “critical infrastructure” and a “national emergency,” a continuous supply of meat is in no way essential to meeting our country’s nutritional needs. Our obsession with meat may actually be harmful to our health. While reduced availability of meat might agonize those who crave the taste of beef, pork, and chicken, it’s not going to undermine their health. The demand to reopen the meatpacking plants is driven primarily by the wish to guarantee that profits from the sale of meat continue to flow into the coffers of the food corporations, sustaining the salaries of executives and the dividends of shareholders. The costs will be borne by those forced to return to work, who will be sacrificing their health and even their lives on the altar of the plant. To step into a processing plant at a time when many workers are carrying the virus, untested and undetected, is to place at risk one’s health and even one’s life.

Adding to the tension between management and the workforce, between capital and labor, is an underlying racial and ethnic dynamic. A large number of workers in the meat-processing industry are Latinos, Asians, and African Americans; many are immigrants or members of immigrant families. Thus the demand that the plants be reopened, and that workers return to their jobs, suggests that an unspoken premise behind the injunction is a judgment that black and brown lives—the lives of the workers—are of less value than the lives of the owners and managers and thus may be sacrificed to ensure the plants remain operative.

In the words of Frank Sharry, executive director of the immigrant organization America’s Voice: “Trump sees business owners as his people and he sees a diverse group of workers as expendable…. For ‘essential workers’ it’s ‘get back to work’ and ‘voluntary’ guidelines at pandemic hot spots. For a CEO class that’s white and wealthy it’s profits and legal liability protections.”

A Terrifying Choice

What the workers want and need is access to the federal stockpile of masks and other protective gear, daily testing, enforced physical distancing, and full paid sick leave during periods of illness. When protective equipment at the plants is in short supply, it’s hardly surprising that workers fear losing the most precious possession they have, their own life. As one local organizer in Iowa told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!:

I have family working across the board, across the state and into some other states, in the industry. So, you know, it’s very scary for my family, my immediate family, my extended family. I have cousins who now have tested positive because of these plants. My sister and her husband have tested positive here just recently because of these plants. And again, [we’re] just incredibly scared.

The president’s executive order does nothing to allay these fears. It does not make the protective guidelines mandatory, but instead shields the meat companies from legal liability in cases of workplace exposure to the virus. Any company legally challenged can claim that, in reopening during the pandemic, it was merely following a decree issued by the highest authority in the land.

The demand for the continued operation of the plants forces the workers to choose between their jobs and their lives—a terrifying choice that no one should ever have to face. If, from fear of contracting the virus, workers stay back from work, they may well lose their jobs and the income they need to support themselves and their families. If, to maintain their household, they report to work, they risk contracting the virus and losing their lives.

A Crisis of American Democracy

The perilous choice faced by workers in the meat industry represents, in microcosm, the crisis in American democracy, pointing to the big question too often hidden behind discussions of everyday social issues: Who does the government represent—ordinary people or the moneyed interests that contribute to campaigns and flood Congress with lobbyists?

The answer, which is obvious, underscores the need for a radical overhaul of the economic paradigm that currently reigns, that of corporate capitalism grounded upon an ideology of free-market fundamentalism. In the ultimate analysis, to preserve our political democracy, we must institute economic democracy, transitioning to a system that gives workers fuller control over their terms of employment. But such changes are long-term goals. In the short term, with a pandemic raging that has already taken more American lives than the Vietnam war, what is needed is a slate of workplace regulations, rigorously enforced, that ensures workers remain safe at their jobs.

It would certainly be desirable, too, if meat were to be knocked from its place as the centerpiece of the standard American diet in favor of plant-based sources of protein. Apart from its cruel treatment of billions of helpless animals and the merciless death it inflicts at the slaughterhouses, livestock cultivation is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and a leading cause of deforestation, water and air pollution, and biodiversity loss. Raising animals for food requires vast amounts of land, water, and grain, a deplorable waste of food in a world where chronic hunger afflicts close to a billion people. Further, high intake of red meat and processed meats is linked to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and premature death. Thus a nation-wide shift from a meat-based diet to a plant-based diet would bring manifold benefits. To forestall unemployment, under a federal program workers in the meat industry could be retrained to take up more benign types of livelihood.

Nevertheless, such a pivotal change in the American diet is unlikely to be realized anytime in the near future, and we must therefore focus on protecting the welfare of workers in their present occupation. This requires both ethical commitments and regulatory enforcement. A company must fulfill its moral responsibility to the well-being of its workforce, ensuring that its employees do not jeopardize their health and well-being at the workplace. A company that treats its workers as disposable, as mere instruments of production whose lives can be imperiled to serve the company’s interest, has transgressed against a basic principle of workplace ethics.

Yes, Regulation Is Necessary

In face of the moral recklessness of modern corporate capitalism, the need for regulatory protection is particularly acute. Almost invariably, companies will seek to cut corners whenever they can get away with it. It thus becomes the obligation of the government to step into the fray and come to the defense of the workers, which means that the government must enact laws that safeguard workers and impose regulations that prevent industries from operating in ways that endanger their workforce.

A government that does not protect workers from the ruthless demands of industry has forfeited its responsibility to the people it purportedly represents. Despite their professed good intentions, industries can’t be fully trusted to regulate themselves. Regulation is the job of the government, a job that must be rigorously pursued to protect the well-being of the workers. It is only in this way that we can move, gradually, toward becoming a nation that gives everyone the chance to flourish.

Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi is an American Buddhist monk and translator of Pali Buddhist texts. He is also the founding chair of Buddhist Global Relief


This essay was originally published on the website of OneEarthSangha.

 

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

Poverty Is Both a Political and a Moral Choice

By Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

The UN Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty reports that “the American Dream is rapidly becoming the American Illusion.” Isn’t it time to wake up, discard both dreams and illusions, and act on the basis of the truth?

AThe U.S. views itself as the exceptional nation, the beacon of freedom and justice for the world. In the popular imagination, it is the land of plenty where everyone can thrive, the land of opportunity where anybody who works hard enough can realize the dreams of their heart. But is this really so or just a comforting illusion?

For two weeks this past autumn, Professor Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, sought to find out, traveling over the U.S. to assess the state of extreme poverty in this country and its impact on human rights. His travels brought him to California, Alabama, Georgia, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C., as well as Puerto Rico. His report, published in mid-December by the Office of the UN’s High Commissioner of Human Rights, pulls the curtains on the illusions this country cherishes about itself and reveals the startling truth about where we stand and where we are headed. Although the extent of poverty and income inequality in the U.S. has been documented several times in the past, it is still telling that the UN Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty would undertake such an investigation in America, of all places, and expose the U.S. as an outlier among the economically advanced countries.
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Moral Vision as the Foundation for Global Well-Being

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

All the classical spiritual traditions of humankind are confronted by the simple but undeniable fact that we are living at a critical time when the future of human life on earth is in serious jeopardy. Dark clouds have gathered on the horizon, and we can see them in every direction. One dark cloud is the ever-widening inequality in wealth between the rich and the poor—the inequality that is driven by a neoliberal economic system that funnels more and more of the world’s wealth into the hands of a small powerful elite, who manipulate governments and international law for their own advantage. Another dark cloud is the volatile financial system, which treats the world’s vital resources such as food, water, and land as objects of financial speculation, leaving millions of people around the world hungry, landless, and homeless, burdened with oppressive debt. Still another is the persistence of wars: regional wars that are seemingly interminable and generate new terrorist groups almost as soon as the older ones bite the dust; the specter of all-out nuclear war just the press of a button away. And still another cloud takes the form of the all-seeing surveillance state, which uses the new electronic technologies to snoop into every aspect of our private lives.

Perhaps the darkest cloud of all is climate change, which has been transforming the natural environment in ways that imperil the future of human civilization. The accelerating changes to the planet’s climate, and the rapid depletion of our natural resources such as water, soil, and food, call not only for pragmatic remedies but also for a robust moral response. Our moral responsibility now extends beyond the narrow confines of our national borders to people throughout the world. In every continent people are already being bludgeoned by the impact of a warmer, stranger, more violent planet. Indeed, those who face the harshest consequences of climate change are the people least responsible for it: the simple farmers and villagers of of southern Asia, Latin America, and sub-Saharan Africa. The impacts of climate disruption occurring now extend down the line to future generations, who will have to inherit the legacy of planetary devastation that we leave behind. Our responsibility also extends to non-human beings, to the countless other species that face the loss of their natural habitats and the threat of imminent extinction.
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BGR Meets World Food Program USA

By Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

Twice over the past several months, BGR made emergency donations of $10,000 to the World Food Programme to help address the humanitarian crises in four countries—South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria, and Yemen—all of which are suffering from severe food shortages bordering on famine. Stephen O’Brien, the UN under secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, has called this “the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the United Nations.” More than 20 million people across the above four countries face starvation and famine.

The World Food Programme, a United Nations agency, is the world’s largest body tackling hunger around the globe. Last year WFP assisted 76.7 million people in 81 countries with nutritional aid and related forms of assistance. They have been consistently effective in delivering aid to the four countries tottering on the brink of famine.  

World Food Program USA builds support and resources for the UN’s World Food Programme. Shortly after we submitted our donations, Zeenia Irani, Major Gifts Officer of WFP-USA, wrote to thank us and asked if we would be available for an in-person meeting in New York City. We replied positively and fixed the meeting for June 27th. On Tuesday afternoon BGR Board member Sylvie Sun and I met Erin Cochran, WFP-USA’s Vice President of Communications, and Zeenia for tea at the Roosevelt Hotel in mid-town Manhattan.
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A Decision Cruel and Callous

by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

Embed from Getty Images

Much has been written over the last several days about the political and economic repercussions of Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out from the Paris Climate Agreement. It’s been pointed out that the decision will diminish our standing in the world and cast us in the role of a rogue state, a pariah among nations. Our economy will languish, overtaken by other countries that make the leap to full reliance on clean energy. The mantle of global leadership will pass to Europe and China, and we’ll find ourselves increasingly isolated on the international stage. To be an American abroad will become a mark of shame.

The decision to leave the Paris Accord, however, should be seen not only as an act of foolishness, arrogance, and delusional thinking, but also as an appalling expression of cruelty. The decision is cruel because it reveals a glaring deficit of compassion—a callous lack of concern for the billions of people around the world who are endangered by a more hostile climate. Sadly, it is those nations and peoples with the lightest carbon footprint that are being hit the hardest. Even before freak weather events began to multiply and inflict horrendous harm, smallholder farmers and day laborers in the developing world faced an uphill struggle just to put food on the table and get enough clean water to meet their daily needs. Now, assailed by ever more frequent and destructive climate disruptions, these same people find their very lives suspended over an abyss. Continue reading

Buddhists Roll On Together to the People’s Climate March

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.
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BGR Provides Emergency Relief to Countries Facing Food Crisis

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

Embed from Getty Images

The UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, Stephen O’Brien, announced that the world is facing the most serious humanitarian crisis since the beginning of the United Nations. More than 20 million people in four countries—Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, and Nigeria—are suffering from extreme food shortages, with millions at risk of starvation, a large percentage of them children. Speaking to the UN Security Council last Friday (March 10), O’Brien warned that “without collective and coordinated global efforts, people will simply starve to death” and “many more will suffer and die from disease.”

Photo: World Food Program

The gravest  crisis is in Yemen, where  17 million people are facing dangerous levels of food insecurity and will fall prey to famine without urgent humanitarian assistance. Seven million people are deemed to be in a state of emergency – one step away from famine. In South Sudan more than a million children are acutely malnourished, including 270,000 who will die if aid does not reach them in time. In Somalia close to 3 million people are struggling with severe food shortages and need immediate help to survive. Close to a million children under five in Somalia are expected to suffer from acute malnourishment this year. In northeast Nigeria, a seven-year uprising by the armed group Boko Haram has killed more than 20,000 people and driven 2.6 million from their homes. Malnutrition in this region is so severe that some adults are too weak to walk and some communities have lost all their toddlers.
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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