What is our role as Buddhists in relieving suffering?

In the Metta Sutta, the Buddha tells us to wish all beings happiness and well-being. But what, exactly, does wishing actually do for others? What does wishing do for the 3.1 million children who die of hunger every year, or the 25 percent of the world’s children who are stunted due to malnutrition?

Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi, a Theravada monk, asserts, “In today’s world, it is not enough just to be content with developing love and compassion as inward qualities, we also have to be able to transform these inner states into practical actions that bring real relief to the suffering of other living beings.”

Below Regina Valdez, a member of New York Insight and Buddhist Global Relief, speaks with Bhikkhu Bodhi about the Engaged Buddhism movement and what we can do to embody the liberating teachings of the Buddha.  

Bhante, you’re a Buddhist scholar and translator. What drew you to the Engaged Buddhism movement?
Before becoming a monk, I was active in the anti-war movement during Vietnam and was an advocate for progressive social values and ideals. As a monk, I withdrew to focus on my personal spiritual development. But over time I came to feel that my vision of the spiritual life had become excessively narrow. I realized that a more integral moral and spiritual development must encompass both the cultivation of inner calm and a commitment to helping those afflicted by the suffering imposed by poverty, war, racism, and social injustice. I felt that as a Buddhist I had to put the values of lovingkindness and compassion into action in ways that would address the harsh and degrading forms of suffering that people are exposed to today. Over time, this lead to the creation of Buddhist Global Relief.

What can we learn from the Buddha about Engaged Buddhism?
As a fully enlightened one, the Buddha was necessarily a proponent of the dhamma in all its ramifications. The dhamma is not just a system of meditation and insight, but the universal law of goodness and truth that sustains human life and enables people to flourish and realize their full potentials. The Buddha himself laid down the contours of an ideal political order by sketching a new model of kingship, that of the “wheel-turning monarch.” This is the king who rules justly, who administers his realm—and even the whole world— for the welfare of all his subjects, including the birds and beasts. Our contemporary political systems must still emulate this ideal. And where politicians fail, we have a duty as citizens to ensure that they undergo course correction and bend back in the direction of economic, social, and political justice for all.

Why is it important to take our practice beyond the confines of a meditation hall?
This is the answer to a question I faced at a certain point in my life as a monk: “When I esteem most deeply the ideals of lovingkindness and compassion, how can I remain content merely to use them as themes of meditation or guides to personal conduct? Can I simply enjoy exalted meditative experiences of lovingkindness and compassion while hundreds of millions of people around the world are afflicted with life-destroying forms of suffering—suffering often rooted in policies, institutions, and programs promoted by my own country?” If I am truly dedicated to the ideal of compassion and alleviating suffering, I must find ways to provide relief to people who daily face the ravages of war, poverty, political persecution, social exclusion, and environmental devastation. I see this as a fusion of contemplative practice with social action, the result of which we might call a “sacred activism” that is inspired, motivated, and guided by our highest ethical and spiritual ideals.

What can we as individual practitioners do to help relieve such great suffering? Where would we even begin?
Each of us must find our own way to respond to the cries of suffering welling up from the world. I see four large areas in which transformation is needed today:

  1. Our country’s commitment to perennial warfare
  2. Economic inequality, both nationally and globally, and the persistence of degrading poverty for billions around the world
  3. Racism, and the multitude of ways that black and brown lives are devalued and treated as disposable
  4. Environmental devastation, of which the most alarming aspect today is climate change

Each of these areas provides opportunities for compassionate action.

Sometimes the pain of the world seems too much to bear. There is so much dukkha [suffering]—racism, sexism, greed, hatred that it is easy to seek an escape or to slip into delusion. How does one confront such overwhelming pain and maintain a sense of equanimity. Is that even possible?
When we look at each one of these problems—not to speak of all of them together—they seem so overwhelming that we can feel helpless. Reflection on them may even cause us to fall into the pit of despair. To counter such feelings, we should remember that when enough people of good will work together patiently and persistently, the impossible can become possible and the unimaginable can become real. There are many examples of this in recent history, from the Civil Rights Act to the rejection of the Keystone XL Pipeline, and we must sustain the hope that the changes we currently need can actually be brought to pass.

One of the ways you responded to suffering and injustice was the creation of Buddhist Global Relief. What is Buddhist Global Relief and what spurred its genesis?
In 2008, I discussed with a few of my students and dhamma friends the need I felt for us, as Buddhists, to find concrete ways to express compassion in action, and as a result we decided to establish a Buddhist relief organization on the model of the American Jewish World Service or Catholic Relief Services. We started with a broad mission of providing relief to people around the world who were affected by disaster, poverty, and social oppression. Before long, we realized this was too ambitious. Seeking a more specific mission, we decided to focus on the problem of chronic hunger and malnutrition, a fate that affects close to a billion people around the world. As more donations came in, the number and range of our projects increased, and by 2015 we were sponsoring over 20 projects around the world. We now not only provide direct food aid but also address the underlying roots of poverty by providing girls the chance to receive a full education and women the means to start right livelihood projects to support their families.

Buddhist Global Relief has an annual Walk to Feed the Hungry. Could you tell us more about this?
In 2010, we decided to hold a local walk in New Jersey as a means of generating donations. We published a report on the walk on our website and the idea of holding parallel walks in other locations spread. In 2011, friends of Buddhist Global Relief in Michigan and the Bay Area organized walks to support our work, and now every fall we have 10 walks, from coast to coast throughout the country. The walk is a joyful occasion for participants to join forces with friends who share their values and to make a small commitment to uplift those who face the terrible ordeal of chronic hunger and malnutrition.

The next Walk to Feed the Hungry will be held on Oct. 8 in Seattle. To participate in a walk in your area, visit buddhistglobalrelief.org.

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