Socially engaged Buddhists—and any others who are not wholly pleased with the monopoly on politico-religious discourse enjoyed by Christian fundamentalists in recent decades—were given a morale boost last July, when the Jewish renewal magazine Tikkun sponsored its first Spiritual Activism Conference, in Berkeley, California. The brainchild ofTikkun editor Rabbi Michael Lerner, the four-day event featured dozens of presenters from various spiritual traditions and attracted more than 1,300 participants—two to three times as many as organizers had originally expected. Participants attended long, thought-provoking plenary lectures and afterward broke into smaller “work groups” to focus on specific issues such as diversity, the environment, and workplace issues. A high-spirited, hopeful gathering of the left-of-center tribes, the conference marked the launch of Lerner’s campaign to create a “Network of Spiritual Progressives” (NSP) and challenged the idea that the Christian right is not the only segment of religious America with a concerted interest in “moral values” as they apply to society’s character and trajectory.

Rabbi Michael Lerner
Rabbi Michael Lerner

In his keynote address on the conference’s opening evening, Lerner offered a trenchant analysis of how and why the right had insinuated itself into a commanding position on the hotly contested turf of moral values. In great numbers, he said, average Americans are experiencing “spiritual crisis” stemming from the practical imperative faced by virtually everyone in the modern workplace: to put profit and power above all else. This leaves love, compassion, and a sense of meaning—for which humans naturally yearn—a very distant second, causing people to suffer. Their spiritual pain, Lerner said, has been largely ignored by the left but has been recognized and addressed by the right for a good twenty-five years. The religious right assuaged that pain with talk of “moral values” offering hope for a meaningful life, and welcomed the spiritually dispossessed with open, caring arms. And what’s more, he added, the right then fingered “despised others”—people of color, immigrants, gays, Jews, Muslims—as the source of said pain. Relieved to have their deep-seated pain acknowledged, and concerned for the moral ground upon which they were raising their families, such dispossessed folks gravitated to the message and to the extremist political agenda, of the religious right—even though that agenda (as it turned out) conflicted with the middle class’s own economic self-interest, not to mention fundamental ethical precepts of the great religious traditions such as tending the afflicted, healing the sick, sheltering the homeless, and celebrating the interconnectedness of all life.

“How did they get away with it?” Lerner asked, referring to the right’s political success. “They got away with it because there is no other voice in town. The left doesn’t get it, doesn’t see there is a spiritual crisis.” Indeed, he added, because of the right’s blaming of “despised others,” the left has come to understand the phrase spiritual crisis as “code words for racism and sexism.” Thus the conference was intended as much to address the “religio-phobia and hostility to spiritual concerns in some sectors of liberal and progressive culture” as it was to counteract “the misuse of God and religion by the religious right” and argue for “a new bottom line in American society,” one that stresses “love and caring, generosity and kindness” rather than maximization of profit and efficient utilization of resources for economic gain. It’s a sweeping, hopeful vision, and Lerner and his colleagues were quite compelling in articulating it, never more so than when Lerner declared, “Our goal is not to defeat the right; our goal is to build a better world.”

Of course, espousing a vision and birthing a practical corollary of it are two different things, and the conference, for all the excitement it generated, will prove to be just another transient blip on the country’s political radar screen if nothing substantive ensues from it. To that end, Lerner’s plans for NSP include a follow-up conference in Washington in early 2006; a political platform, to be created by local NSP groups and issued in 2007; and the creation of NSP “caucuses” within the Democratic and Green parties. If these efforts succeed, they will only be restoring a historical trend: “Every single major progressive movement in our history was driven by religious values—abolition, women’s suffrage, child labor, civil rights,” Lerner noted. “The biggest mistake progressives have made in decades is conceding the entire territory of moral values to the religious right. We must never make that mistake again.”

Spiritual progressives being human, mistakes were nonetheless made in putting the conference together. There was a noticeable shortfall among the plenary speakers of women, people of color, and (in the mind of some participants, at least) representatives of spiritual traditions other than Judaism or Christianity. Several Buddhist teachers at the conference felt the dharma was relegated to small-group sessions and not allowed enough of a presence in the conference’s major events; but the same could be said for Hinduism and Islam. Organizers acknowledged they had hoped to present a more acutely diverse array of speakers; and it’s probably not fair to fault them for not having put together a “perfect” itinerary. But the attendees—mostly white baby boomers (although there certainly were a notable number of under-30s in evidence)—surely represented a more heterogeneous collection of spiritual practices than the conference lineup seemed to indicate.

As for Buddhists, this four-day colloquium on spiritual activism provided a unique opportunity for the American sangha and other “spiritual progressives” to consider how they might complement each other in terms of applying the essential teachings of their respective traditions to tikkun, Hebrew for “healing the world.” Donald Rothberg, a Vipassana teacher and member of the Spirit Rock Teachers Council, sees a tidy complementarity here. “There’s a long tradition in Judaism and Christianity of theological reflection on society that’s just beginning in Buddhism,” he said. “Buddhism doesn’t have the equivalent of ‘liberation theology,’ for instance. But Buddhism has more of a contemplative tradition, which has been in the Judeo-Christian tradition but has not been its primary focus.” Buddhism’s contemplative emphasis, Rothberg adds, means that it can contribute something to this nascent movement that Western faith traditions cannot: “clarifying what the process of working together looks like, and why spirituality makes any difference.” At the conference, Rothberg led a workshop called “Training for Spiritual Activists” at which he asked attendees, “Okay, you’re a spiritual activist; what do you need to overcome to become a better, more mature activist?” The answer, according to participants: conflict, anger, and the tendency to demonize opponents. “That’s something Buddhists are particularly good at responding to,” he points out. “And if one doesn’t pay attention to those issues, how far is the movement going to go?”

Taigen Dan Leighton, a dharma teacher in the Shunryu Suzuki Roshi lineage who leads sanghas in the San Francisco and Chicago areas (and who, like Lerner, was active in the Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s), agrees that Buddhism can help activists “see how to transform anger, not to become victimized by our own outrage,” but also notes that the current of “social gospel” in the Judeo-Christian tradition offers Buddhist practitioners a pragmatic viewpoint that could yield a healthy fusion of the spiritual with the societal. “There’s the potential now for a mature, activist spirituality,” he says. “Any critical situation is a tremendous opportunity.” And Leighton minces no words about our present situation being critical: “Basically, the American people are under attack by the government. I feel I must respond to that from the bodhisattva precepts, as a dharma holder.”

Lest anyone think it’s not a dharma teacher’s role to voice political outrage, Leighton comments, “There is some segment of American Buddhists who think they need to be polite and never criticize anybody. But that’s horribly damaging to Buddhism. All Buddhism is ‘engaged’ Buddhism.” Still, he adds, “What’s happening now is critical and horrible, and yet we need to find our own sense of slowing down, so we can respond from clarity and inner dignity and calm, rather than frustration. It’s like Gary Snyder says: What’s happening now is totally urgent, so we have to act as if our hair’s on fire—and yet we also need to act as if we have all the time in the world.”

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