AT THE TIME of my first Buddhist retreat, in the early eighties, I was quite active in the antinuclear movement. I wrote articles on disarmament, worked with nuclear-freeze groups, and worried, deeply, that my friends, family, and familiar world would disappear in one hot blast.
On retreat, the threat of nuclear war seemed far beyond the sunny farmhouse kitchen in which I drank my tea. Indeed, I “forgot” about nuclear war until the last day, when I looked out over the frozen pastures and wondered if anyone had dropped The Bomb in my absence. I wondered, too, if I could escape the pain of the politics of war by meditating, devoutly, for a very long time.
I was not alone in this delusion. In the late seventies and early eighties, few American Buddhists were making the link between personal practice and political action. The nineteenth-century founders of American Buddhism had been more interested in otherworldly experiences than worldly questions of social justice. And many of the young practitioners of the sixties and seventies had turned to meditation seeking a sense of meaning and identity they could not find in mainstream culture.
Since then, much has changed. In part this is due to the consistent efforts of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. This nondenominational group pioneered the efforts to bring social responsibility to Buddhism and a Buddhist perspective to the peace movement. Today, BPF’s efforts have changed the face of American Buddhism. Some even say that BPF will someday become an American Buddhist tradition in its own right.
It was Robert Aitken Roshi and several other members of the Diamond Sangha in Hawaii who in 1976 thought of creating an organization to combine peace work with Buddhist philosophy. For decades, Aitken’s Zen activities had proceeded on parallel tracks with political activities that included demonstrating against nuclear testing in the fifties and in support of unilateral disarmament in the sixties, as well as counselling draftees during the Vietnam War.
As leader of the Diamond Sangha, however, Aitken was (and still is) careful not to impose his political concerns on his sangha. The Buddhist Peace Fellowship has succeeded in providing Aitken with a formal channel for synthesizing his own considered views on the interrelationship between Buddhism and social action.
“There was the peace movement and there was the sangha—and those were two distinct things,” he recalled in a July, 1992 interview with BPF members. “I thought it was time to move out from under the bodhi tree, that our habitat and our life were in danger from nuclear weapons. The Buddhists were keeping silent and were even cooperating.”
The best structure for a Buddhist peace group, thought Aitken Roshi, would be a Maui chapter of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), an inter-denominational, international, peace-oriented organization formed during World War 1. In August 1978, with an initial membership that included Gary Snyder, Joanna Macy, Richard Baker, and Jack Kornfield, the chapter officially joined FOR as the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. And with the first edition of the BPF newsletter—two pages mimeographed, stapled together, and sent out in 1979—the BPF, as the editors wrote, “slipped quietly into public life.”
Early efforts were somewhat scattered: projects focused on the Chittagong Hill Tract in Bangladesh (aid to Buddhists persecuted there), prison outreach, and Star Wars protests. And not everyone agreed that “peace” included economic, social, and environmental concerns, recalls Joanna Macy, an early board member. But despite certain ambiguities of purpose and intent, the BPF had obviously hit a nerve in the sangha-at-large.
The 1983, 1985, and 1987 visits of Thich Nhat Hanh were crucial to BPF’s growth. This Vietnamese Zen master, who pled for the predicament of the Vietnamese people while emphasizing the importance of “being peace” in daily life, deeply affected Americans still immersed in an introspective, enlightenment-oriented practice.
“I had been frustrated by the subtle but pervasive airline-ticket view of Buddhism, that you stand in line and then you’re out of here via personal enlightenment,” recalls Christopher Reed, a vipassana teacher in Los Angeles and the L.A. chapter head. “With Thich Nhat Hanh, I got the sense that sympathy and compassion were the prime movers. That really inspired me.”
Coordinators for Nhat Hanh’s U.S. tours were also very active in the BPF. The two efforts quickly merged, and membership grew rapidly. By 1986, six hundred people had joined. By 1988, that membership had doubled.
Currently BPF has twenty-two-hundred members in twenty-six chapters in the U.S., with affiliates in several other countries. The organization’s purpose, according to its literature, is “to promote communication and cooperation among sanghas in the work of nourishing all beings and resisting the forces of exploitation and war.”
Members have offered material and physical support to Buddhists persecuted all over Asia, have blocked arms shipments, protested nuclear weapons, boycotted corporations, visited the former Soviet Union, Libya, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, and South Africa, done AIDS hospice work, provided sanctuary for Central American, Vietnamese, and Tibetan refugees, visited and tutored inner-city children in West Oakland and Vietnamese children in Washington D.C., contributed to letterwriting campaigns, and attended a whole range of peace vigils. The national office also has organized several “town meetings” in which individuals discuss current social problems. And two Institutes for Social Change—four-day-long workshops on socially engaged Buddhism—have attracted Buddhist elders and practitioners from all over the world.
Now the BPF newsletter is a full-fledged journal called “The Turning Wheel,” which regularly offers not only political analyses of situations in various Asian countries, but in-depth articles on environmental problems, child abuse, racial diversity, homelessness, gender equality, and gays and lesbians in the American sangha.
YET LIKE OTHER COMMUNITIES, BPF has had its share of problems. In the late eighties, a struggle erupted over the leadership and direction of the organization. At the time, the primary liaisons for Nhat Hanh’s U.S. tours were the BPF national director and newsletter editor. Many new members joined because of their interest in Nhat Hanh, and many of the newsletters featured articles by and about him. By 1988, several board and chapter members were claiming that the ideologies, intentions, and finances of BPF and Nhat Hanh’s interests were becoming too entwined. This confusion, combined with a quickly increasing membership and deep personality conflicts, resulted in two months of painful arguing on the board. Accusations of everything from “addictive personalities” to guru/student relationships and misallocations of funds swept back and forth.
Eventually, the Thich Nhat Hanh liaisons developed their own organization. And although some members still cannot talk to each other (and all interviewed cringe at the memories), most have reconciled. “I think it’s natural that this happened in a non-denominational organization,” says Alan Senauke, currently national coordinator. “There really was no model to follow.” Today, he says, BPF and the Nhat Hanh organizers have a “very friendly relationship.”
Another criticism of BPF is that, like the broader American sangha, it caters to a predominantly white membership. Few Asian-Americans have served on the organization’s board; white board members stress that contacts have been initiated with Asian Buddhists in this country through councils, local communities, and refugee programs. But ethnic Buddhists say the lack of racial diversity has been a problem all along, and will remain one for a very long time.
“Asian and American Buddhists are very different in reason and practice,” says Ryo Imamura, a Japanese American Jodo Shinshu priest and professor at Evergreen College in Olympia, Washington, who served as board president in the mid-eighties. “When I was president, some Asians signed on for a year or two, because of the personal connection. When I left, most of those people left too, because the new members didn’t understand the etiquette that Asians require.”
BPF is still struggling for direction. Aitken Roshi and other early founders, including Gary Snyder, wanted a decentralized structure. But the combination of somewhat anarchist beginnings and varied traditions has rendered the path ahead unclear. “I have the sense that many chapters are groping for appropriate activities,” says Donald Rothberg, an associate professor of philosophy at Saybrook Institute. “That’s partly due to the decentralized nature of the organization, the idea that people know what to do in their local situations. But I also think we need a more centralized approach, to provide some more leadership.”
Despite these various problems, however, it is clear that BPF has initiated new areas of concern for dharma practitioners. “Before BPF,” says Andy Cooper, a writer, editor, and former BPF board member, “political work was seen as a distraction from dharma, essentially associated with confusion and bitterness. Now the issue of social and political involvement is central to the whole way we talk about Buddhism today.”
Several members are also interested in creating a strong theoretical base for BPF. While some elders, including Aitken Roshi and Joanna Macy, have done detailed work on the application of Buddhist ideas and ethics to modern life, few have approached the daunting intellectual task of combining Buddhist teachings and contemporary social theory. “The challenge is to take the Western social justice tradition, as embodied in the Declaration of Independence, anarchist traditions, Marxist philosophy, and other social critiques, and combine it with the profound understanding of personal liberation offered by Buddhism,” says Eric Ingersoll, a former member who helped set up the Institutes.
This could affect Asian Buddhism as well. Material aid, political support, and a steadily increasing stream of visitors to Asia have brought hope and help to Buddhists suffering there—so, too, has the nascent movement toward establishing stable theoretical foundations. “BPF is a contributor to the revitalization of Buddhism in the Asian countries,” says Ingersoll. “Our ideas on social change also are being transferred back to Asia from the West.”
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.