John Peacock’s article “The Elephant in the Dharma Hall” (Spring 2024) drew numerous responses. As the author intended, the article initiated what he felt was a much-needed discussion among Western dharma students. Below are just two of the many letters we received:

Thank you, John Peacock, for raising this topic [politics and Buddhist practice]. I agree that practitioners should not run away from sensitive political or social issues, but practitioners should not become led or taken by such questions either. Your article seems to indicate that it is an either/or choice, but it is not. Small acts locally can generate big effects. We have examples for inspiration, notably in the Dalai Lama, Mahatma Gandhi, and Thich Nhat Hanh. Thich Nhat Hanh fled a war, began the Engaged Buddhist movement, and convinced Martin Luther King, Jr. to speak out against US military actions. [Such action] takes courage and compassion directed by wisdom. The delicate point is that action directed by the habitual mind will never bring peace. Remaining utterly open while not overtaken by hope or fear—that is everything.

Eric Wallenbrock

John Peacock responds:

I am certainly not suggesting that we should engage with political issues to the exclusion of bringing clarity and stability to the mind. In fact, these are essential qualities that we have to develop in order to address some of the big issues that we face in our world. Equally, we should not engage in contemplative practice to the exclusion of the urgent concerns and demands of the sociopolitical world, as to do so would be to enter the quietist zone that Buddhism is often accused of. So it is not a case of either/or but rather of both/and. We bring the fruits of a stable and hopefully clearer mind to bear on what should concern us and what we have an ethical responsibility for. I often used to ask the question when teaching: “What is mindful awareness for?” My answer to this was, “So that we can engage with the world with a clearer and more engaged ethical conscience.” If contemplative practice does not have that result, then from my perspective it is of limited value.

John Peacock’s article addresses what he describes as the “unquestioned social, political, and ethical dimensions [of the structures] that we all inhabit.” He claims that Western Buddhism and mindfulness are apolitical and often focused on the individual rather than the broader sociopolitical structures. Here I am going to add colonial, white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist culture that reflects the three poisons [greed, hatred, and delusion]. While I don’t entirely disagree with Peacock’s perspective, his analysis bypasses the reality that many Western convert Buddhist sanghas lack diversity, racial and otherwise. It also disregards teachers who do not separate buddhadharma from the sociopolitical.

Thich Nhat Hanh is the father of Engaged Buddhism, and teachers in the Plum Village lineage continue to bring this forward. As a Zen practitioner and a Black cisgender woman of mixed heritage, I have gravitated toward the work of contemporary racialized dharma teachers such as Lama Rod Owens, Reverend Liên Shutt, Reverend angel Kyodo williams, Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, and Larry Yang, to name just a few. They bring their intersectional, embodied selves [race, class, gender, sexuality] to their teachings, thus not separating social justice from buddhadharma. In my home city, I am grateful to be part of a sangha that values Engaged Buddhism and is making efforts in the area of diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion.

Those of us whose embodied existence is not centered in the dominant culture do not have the luxury of not questioning “the structures that give rise to … inequality, prejudice, and injustice….” So there are many elephants in the dharma hall.

Angela Kayira

John Peacock responds:

Thank you for the feedback. It is gratifying to see that this article has generated an enthusiastic response.

This letter appears to me to avoid all the major points of my argument by limiting its focus to racial, colonial, and patriarchal hegemonies. Kayira does, however, connect with what I have written when she mentions the capitalist/imperialist underpinnings of many of these hegemonies. While I wouldn’t dismiss racial diversity as an extremely important issue—and the lack of diversity within European Western sanghas is something that deeply concerns me—this is not the point of my article.

That there are dharma teachers, both in the US and in Europe, who do not separate buddhadharma from the sociopolitical is to be applauded. What I would question, however, is the narrowness of focus. What we term the sociopolitical covers a vast spectrum of different and varying issues and cannot be reduced to one or two favored yet important topics; it encompasses, but is not wholly limited to, the issues mentioned in Kayira’s letter. These issues are of obvious significance and importance to the social groups affected by all the forms that racial oppression, for example, takes within our societies. But the point I am trying to make in the article, which could have been argued at greater length, is that we need to considerably broaden our understanding of the political in order to address what underpins the current status quo and the different forms of oppression and exploitation, including exploitation of the planet.

I would contend that to think in this way is to engage in an intense conversation with how we position ourselves in regard to society and the environment. I would argue that we have to eschew the narrowly focused in order to move to a more panoramic or “meta” view of our problems—problems that affect us all, regardless of race, gender, nationality, or religion. This is an issue that contemporary dharma needs to address. It is not partisan or party-political but is political in the sense of being an extension of the questioning of our ways of ethical being in the world. The philosopher Aristotle similarly sees that questions about both politics and ethics are conjoined. We live in a political world, and any attempt to evade the political will directly affect our ethical lives. So we should question not just specific issues but the thinking that underpins the status quo.

letters to the editor summer 2024 2
Has anyone found the exit yet?” | AI image generated by Frederick M. Ranallo-Higgins using DALL·E

On “The Lost Robe” by Michael O’Keefe, Spring 2024:

Ireally appreciated Michael O’Keefe’s piece and Tricycle’s willingness to publish it. That kind of honesty is rare and will make some people uncomfortable. O’Keefe’s practice life seems, weirdly, to have echoed his earlier life, but maybe that’s true for most of us.

The moment of being disappointed by/disillusioned with your teacher is an important one in every student’s life, though most of us don’t lose $50,000 in the process. It doesn’t mean everything is over; it’s just another marker along the road. (And O’Keefe doesn’t say he’s through with practice, just that he no longer wants to be a priest. He’s still looking for that rakusu.)

He met the Buddha on the road and killed him. Now what?

– David Guy

On “Putting Spirituality First” by Frederick M. Ranallo-Higgins, Spring 2024:


 rederick M. Ranallo-Higgins’s article gave me great insight into the roots of my Shin Buddhist practice. I am full of gratitude for the bravery and sacrifice that reformers like Kiyozawa Manshi showed in order to encourage practitioners to put life experience at the forefront of their practice. The story of Kiyozawa’s life has many striking similarities to the life of Shinran Shonin, and reading stories like this fills me with a deep feeling of closeness to their lives and struggles, even though they lived so many years ago. I am grateful for Reverend Ken Yamada’s participation in this excellent interview by Mr. Ranallo-Higgins.

Alex Vincer

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