On February 3, 2018, over 150 Buddhist activists gathered at New York’s Union Theological Seminary to begin creating a coalition dedicated to the struggle for greater social justice, environmental care, and human unity. In the face of today’s many challenges, including war, income inequality, persistent poverty, systemic racism, and ecological degradation, the organizers called on New York Buddhists to strive for a vision of peace “that centers on racial, social, gender, and economic justice, the protection of the vulnerable, and the preservation of a viable natural environment.” The condensed remarks that follow were given by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi at the close of the day’s deliberations.
There is a widespread attitude among Buddhists, especially Western Buddhists, that politics is an arena to be avoided as if it were a toxic pit. It’s seen as a detour from our spiritual quest, a distraction and an entanglement, a falling away from our aspirations for purity, enlightenment, awakening, and liberation. But in the face of today’s multiple crises, we can’t turn away. Yes, politics is often corrupt, dirty, and divisive. Elections and contests over policies are often driven by the craving for power or by the desire of egocentric personalities to shine in the spotlight. But politics is also the field where the great moral issues of our time are being debated and decided. The shame of systemic racism, the treatment of immigrants, climate disruption, healthcare, war and militarism—all these crises come together in their deep, compelling, moral dimensions on the stage of national politics.
For this reason, if we are to fulfill our ethical responsibilities, it’s not enough simply to adopt the Buddhist precepts as guides to personal conduct, live a life of moral integrity, and cultivate thoughts of lovingkindness and compassion in the comfort of our meditation halls. It’s crucial for us to enter the sphere of action. This does not necessarily mean that we should endorse candidates, follow them on the campaign trail, or join political parties. But moved by the principles of lovingkindness and compassion, by our commitment to justice and equity, we must come forward and oppose oppressive institutions and systems and challenge harmful laws and policies. In their place, we must strive to create a social order rooted in a moral vision, an order that embodies love and compassion and provides opportunities for everyone to flourish.
After the election of Donald Trump, the Buddhist chaplain at Duke University, Sumi Loundon Kim, asked whether I thought it was time for Buddhists to form a progressive coalition to advocate on public affairs from a Buddhist point of view. I told her that such a coalition was now a crying need. Around the same time, Reverend William Barber, the co-director of the Poor People’s Campaign, gathered signatures from 2,500 clergy for a letter petitioning Congress about Trump’s cabinet appointees. There were plenty of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim signatories, but I could find only one Buddhist on the list. It seemed that in such a critical situation, Buddhists were “missing in action.”
Soon thereafter, Sumi and I spoke to a few other Buddhist activists and held several discussions about forming a national Buddhist public affairs alliance, but we found it wasn’t easy to mobilize people on the national level. Therefore, we decided that the best way to start a Buddhist social action network was to operate on the local level first. We hoped that if we could create a few local groups around the country, they would eventually connect to form a national coalition. Today’s meeting at Union Theological Seminary marks the starting point for an effort that we hope will bear fruit in the future.
I think it’s crucial that as Buddhists we look at public affairs from the perspective of a Buddhist conscience. I use the word “conscience” to mean the use of one’s moral ideals, one’s commanding moral commitments, as a lens through which to examine the daunting political, social, and economic problems that we face as a society and a nation. We begin with a critical assessment of our challenges, examining their underlying webs of causation, and then formulate an alternative vision of the way things should be, of how systems and policies should be transformed to correspond to our deepest, most heartfelt moral convictions. With such a vision in mind, we can act to translate our convictions into realities.
It’s in the political field that this transformation must take place. It is here that decisions are made about who will get health care and who will be dropped, who will receive basic social services and who will be left to fend for themselves, about who will live and who will die. It’s here that budgets are drawn up that either direct funds to schools or invest more in new weapon systems. It’s here that we determine whether to make the transition to clean energy or continue burning fossil fuels. These issues mark a critical intersection of the moral and the political, and to push them aside is, in my view, to renege on our moral responsibilities as followers of the Buddha’s path of limitless compassion.
The word that I see as best defining our present need is solidarity. Solidarity means a deep identification with those who face persecution, oppression, and marginalization, who daily struggle against the diminishment or denial of their humanity. We see such tendencies here in the United States in the criminal justice system with its police violence, frantic shootings, and mass incarceration of black people; in the rounding up and deportation of immigrants, to the detriment of their families; in heartless laws that force people into homelessness and hunger; in tax policies that may well result in some 13 million people losing their access even to minimal health care.
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This marginalization and dehumanization of people is occurring not only on our own soil but also all around the world. Even though we focus on local and national issues, we also have to understand the global ramifications of U.S. policy. Runaway militarism goes back decades to previous administrations representing both major political parties. Our policies, though packaged in the wrappings of good intentions, though stamped with praise to freedom and justice for all, have too often brought death and misery to hundreds of thousands of people around the world.
To give an example, a few days ago I read an article in the online news publication The Intercept about a US drone attack on a group of Afghan farmers who had gone to the nearby town to purchase groceries. They were on their way back to their home in a hired van. The attack killed 14 people. Just one little girl, 4 years old, survived. In the attack she lost her parents and younger brother and other relatives, and now has to face the rest of her life without her immediate family. Imagine how we would feel if something like that happened to us or to our own families. But because it happened somewhere far away from us, to nameless brown people on the other side of the world, we hardly hear of it in our newspapers or the mainstream media.
However, events of this sort should stir our conscience and move us to act together to change our policies locally, nationally, and globally. We must strive to create a world based on the realization that every human being has inherent dignity. We must pursue a policy agenda that recognizes that all people have the right to live safely, to meet their basic physical needs, to fulfill their potential, and to pursue the goals that give their lives value.
Today’s meeting might be considered the starting point for the emergence of a collective Buddhist voice of conscience—a conscientious compassion by which our innermost conscience responds to the vast suffering of the world. In the weeks and months ahead we must continue the work that started here today. As Buddhists we have much to offer. We must contribute our clear insights, special contemplative tools, and compelling moral convictions in the task of transforming and uplifting our society and the world. We must join hearts and minds— with each other, with those of other faiths, and with those of a secular orientation—to bring forth the kind of world that corresponds to our deepest moral aspirations.
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