Buddhist leaders gather in the White House on May 14 for a meeting with government officials. Photograph by Philip Rosenberg

Last Thursday 125 prominent Buddhist figures from a range of traditions gathered in Washington, DC, for the first meeting between White House and State Department officials and Buddhist faith groups. Teachers from the Sinhalese, Cambodian, Burmese, Bangladeshi, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Tibetan, Vietnamese, and Thai Buddhist lineages attended, as well as scholars, activists, and leaders of convert groups who do not affiliate with any one particular Asian school. 

It was an impressive display of American Buddhist diversity. It was also a reminder that this diversity has perhaps been a barrier to unified American Buddhist social action.

“Are we about to enter the era of the political Buddhist?” Michelle Boorstein asks in the Washington Post. She goes on to note that  “…until recent years [US Buddhists] haven’t considered or focused specifically on how their Buddhism translates into public action. 

This isn’t strictly true. The Bay area–based Buddhist Peace Fellowship has been engaging in nonviolent peace and justice efforts since 1978; the US branch of the Taiwanese Tzu Chi Foundation, which focuses on global medicine and educational issues, was established in 1984. And these are just two examples. Even in the early 1900s, Japanese-American Buddhists were petitioning the US government for equal rights as well as striking for fair pay and better working conditions.

This is not to say, however, that Boorstein doesn’t have a point, although perhaps one that is slightly different from the one she intended. The American Buddhist landscape is full of people who use their Buddhist values and understanding as both a grounding foundation and an inspiring springboard for public action. (Consider our work in chaplaincy, hospice care, the prison industrial complex, minority rights, labor organizing, and many other fields.) But rarely does American Buddhism present a unified front on a particular issue. And I cannot think of a time when we have galvanized our full strength in numbers to effect change under a shared vision.  

Why is this the case? It’s certainly not for a lack of agreement among us on what pressing issues deserve our time and attention. If Thursday’s conference was any evidence, American Buddhists are responding most urgently to climate change and racial justice (although other matters, including the Buddhist-led persecution of Rohingya Muslims, were addressed both by the Buddhist attendees and White House representatives).

I’ve read and heard many say that it’s simply a maturation process American Buddhism must undergo before it reaches the stage where its adherents can organize as effectively as other faith traditions in the US have. I don’t think this is unfair to say, although Buddhism has been flourishing in the US since the late 1800s. 

The biggest reason I think we’re so behind is rooted in a complex history, but it is simple in principle: we’ve done a poor job of reaching out across our communities, especially across the immigrant/convert community divide that only recently has begun to dissolve. We’ve also failed to reach out beyond our communities to join in common cause with other faith traditions, in order to accomplish change that might be beyond our own means as an American minority faith. Pointing this out, I should say, is not to lay blame upon anyone. Rather, it is an invitation for American Buddhists to work together on the issues that our society faces, and in doing so, create our own unapologetically powerful and persuasive voice. 

Thursday’s meeting was billed as “historic”—and it was. But it would have been even if the White House hadn’t been involved. It was the best attempt I’ve seen to bring together the full range of the Buddhist groups in the US, and to accurately represent American Buddhism as a whole. 

Jack Kornfield spoke in his closing address about the idea, perhaps internalized by some of us, that Buddhists are passive. But he also reminded us that social action has been the work of Buddhism since the time of the Buddha, who in his life counseled kings on matters of the day. (That would be like Obama inviting the Buddha to the Oval Office, he said, and actually drafting policy based on their discussion.) These days we do see religion affecting policy decisions, often in damaging ways. But that’s not an argument not to be involved; it’s an argument for it. Otherwise we are merely pawns directed by the influence of others. 

So, we’ve had one conference. The question now is: where do we go from here? 

And most importantly, can we do it together?

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