Thursday, April 26, 2012

Theravada's great Engaged Buddhist

Rev. Danny Fischer (, 2010); Wisdom Quarterly edit
Bhikkhu Bodhi (

Engaged Buddhism: Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi
Though many know him well as the Pali scholar responsible for prodigious English translations of huge pieces of the Tripitaka [Three Collections of the Dharma], Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi has emerged in the last few years as one of the globe’s most important and industrious Engaged Buddhist leaders.

Born Jeffrey Block in Brooklyn in 1944, he was ordained in the Theravada Buddhist tradition of Sri Lanka at age 28. In 1984, he succeeded the great Ven. Nyanaponika Thera as editor of the Buddhist Publication Society. By 1988, he was named president of the organization. He would hold these positions until 2002, when he returned to the United States.

He now lives at Chuang Yen Monastery ( in Carmel, New York, and teaches there and at Bodhi Monastery in Lafayette, New Jersey. He also serves as chairman of the Yin Shun Foundation, an organization devoted to translating the works of the late Chinese Mahayana Buddhist Master Yin Shun into English. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s published works include:

Since his return to the United States, he has been actively involved in global relief and environmental efforts. He played a primary role in founding Buddhist Global Relief, a visionary humanitarian organization based in the United States.

In addition, he co-authored (with David Loy and John Stanley) the Buddhist Climate Declaration -- a pan-Buddhist declaration on climate change that an international collection of Buddhist clergy [including Rev. Danny Fischer] signed. He was also one of the many diverse religious leaders who converged on Copenhagen during the recent United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

I asked Bhikkhu Bodhi if he would be willing to answer a few questions via email about what he has been up to lately, and he graciously agreed.

QUESTION: For those unfamiliar with Buddhist Global Relief, would you please acquaint us with it?

BGR is an organization of Buddhists who share the vision of a Buddhism actively committed to the work of alleviating the suffering caused by social and economic injustice. 

The organization includes people from different Buddhist affiliations who aspire to give concrete expression to the Buddha’s great compassion in a way appropriate to the crises of the contemporary world. Our advisers include Rev. Heng Sure, Joan Hoeberichts, David Loy, Jan Willis, and Andrew Harvey.

BGR was born from the “commentary” that I wrote for Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly in 2007. When I wrote that essay, I had no intention of founding an organization. 

My purpose was simply to call attention to what seemed to me a lacuna in American Buddhism, namely, a sufficiently active concern with addressing the suffering brought about by present-day unjust social and economic structures. When the essay was published, I didn’t show it to anyone, but several of my students discovered it on their own and began to speak among themselves about taking up the challenge I had laid down. 

We held several preliminary discussions, and then decided to establish an organization dedicated to alleviating global suffering.

In quest of a more specific mission, we drew upon the Buddha’s statements that “hunger is the worst illness” and “the gift of food is the gift of life,” and decided to focus on providing food aid to people in the developing world afflicted by chronic hunger and lack of food security. This is a problem that over a billion of our fellow humans confront everyday.

Ten million people, over half of them children, die of hunger and hunger-related disease each year. This tears at my heart, and so it is with the friends with whom I established BGR. Thus we chose hunger relief and improved food security as our guiding aim.

We officially came into being in June 2008. We’re an all-volunteer organization, but we have an excellent executive director, Kim Behan, who works almost full time on a voluntary basis. Our Board includes a former project director of CARE and the CEO of a Florida crisis center. At our present stage of development, we aren’t able to send people overseas to work on projects. Rather, we raise funds for food relief and related projects, mainly from individual donors, and partner with relief organizations operating in the countries we serve.

We provide food relief to victims of natural disaster, violent conflict, and drought. In countries stricken by chronic poverty, we support projects aimed at developing better long-term methods of food production and distribution. We’re also moving in the direction of support for the education of poor children, particularly girls. This, we have realized, may be one of the best long-term strategies for combating chronic poverty.

QUESTION: As you note, the roots of BGR are in an essay you wrote for Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly in 2007. In that piece, you make two observations about the modern Engaged Buddhist movement in the West. First, that many Engaged Buddhists “seek fresh perspectives from the Dharma…to use while simultaneously espousing sociopolitical causes not much different from those on the mainstream Left.” Second, Engaged Buddhism “remains tangential to the hard core of Western interest in Buddhism, which is the Dharma as a path to inner peace and self realization.” Would you say a bit about how BGR as an organization responds to these issues?

I don’t want to criticize my fellow Engaged Buddhists for espousing socio-political causes shared by those of the mainstream Left, since my leanings too are towards the progressive Left, and I espouse many of those same causes: ending the wars in the Middle East, transforming our consumerist economy into a more benign one, regulating carbon emissions, and developing green technologies, promoting a more just and equitable society here in the U.S. 

But what seemed to me to be lacking in the American Engaged Buddhist movement were programs actively aimed at tackling the suffering caused by social and economic injustice.

To give an example: When the South Asian tsunami struck at the end of 2004, Bodhi Monastery, where I was living at the time, raised a sizable sum of money to provide relief. I looked on Google at the lists of organizations doing relief work in Sri Lanka and Indonesia.

Amidst many secular, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim organizations, I could find only two Buddhist organizations, and these had roots in Asian Buddhist countries. This struck me as disturbing. I had to ask myself, “We Buddhists always speak about loving-kindness and compassion. Do we regard these as merely beautiful states of mind, or can they also issue in action?” It was this experience, simmering in the back of my mind, that led me to write my essay for Buddhadharma, and the fruit was the birth of BGR.

I lived in Sri Lanka for about twenty-three years. There I observed that the Buddhist temple is the social and cultural hub of the community, and the resident monks are the ones who take the initiative in looking after the well-being of the people, regardless of religion and ethnicity. But as Buddhism is rooting itself in the U.S., I see a danger that it might become an elitist methodology for discovering inner peace, or for living happily in the here and now, at the cost of its capacity for transforming broader systemic causes of suffering.

It seems to me that both the ultimate liberative goal of the Buddha’s teaching and the active compassionate application of the Dharma to the alleviation of socially caused suffering are at risk of being pushed to the sidelines in favor of a “feel good about yourself” version of Buddhism, or a Buddhism that functions as a mere existential psychotherapy.

This risk is especially serious as Buddhism becomes integrated into mainstream American culture. BGR aims to provoke a sense of what I call “conscientious compassion,” the attempt to give active expression to compassion through concrete measures aimed at alleviating real human suffering even of the most demeaning kind. More

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