The Buddhist Action Coalition began, in 2018, with a question. The Theravada monk and scholar Ven. Bhikku Bodhi had read a public letter protesting Donald Trump’s latest act of racial injustice. Clergy from varied religious traditions had endorsed it, but where were the Buddhists?
A month or so later, Bodhi and nearly 300 other Buddhists gathered at Union Theological Seminary in New York to see about changing that. On Tuesday, the group born from those discussions—the Buddhist Action Coalition—marked its third anniversary with a live Zoom session.
The online-only celebration began on a somber note, as the organizers paid respects to Asian American victims of racist violence, including six Asian women murdered in the Atlanta area on March 16.
During his keynote address, Bodhi, the group’s spiritual leader, proposed three principles to support Buddhist social consciences: solidarity, particularly with the marginalized; a commitment to social justice; and wise discernment.
Each has roots in the Buddhist tradition, he said.
“It is sometimes said by more conservative Buddhist traditionalists that social engagement is a deviation from authentic Buddhist practice. That it is a kind of hybrid of Eastern and Western religion,” Bodhi continued. “I have to say that I disagree with this. I see engaged Buddhism as a natural outgrowth of the heart of the dharma.”
Bodhi then urged the 100 people in the meeting to focus their attention on one key issue: voting rights. Conservatives in state legislatures have proposed dozens of new laws intended to make it more difficult for people of color to vote.
“All of our hopes hang on that one slender thread,” he said.
Following Bodhi, Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara of the Village Zendo in New York issued a friendly warning. “We must be careful not to get caught in our theories of social justice,” she said, “or we may miss our chance to build real change for tomorrow.”
That change might look like the work of Sit.Walk.Listen., created by three students of Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh who were looking for ways to channel their mindfulness practice into compassion action.
“My sangha is going to be what I make it,” said Minh-Chau Le, one of the group’s organizers, adding that she was disappointed her home community had been reluctant to embrace political advocacy. “I don’t have to wait for the elders of my community to make change.”
From the original 300 who convened in 2018, ten core, active BAC members remain, said organizer Donna Nicolino, a student in the Mountain and Rivers Order of Zen Buddhism. And they have been busy. They participated in March for Our Lives, joined protests for the Poor People’s Campaign, and drew 100 Buddhists from around New York for the Youth Climate Strike. In recent months, BAC chapters have popped up in the Hudson Valley and Santa Cruz, California.
“Among BAC members, whatever our particular Buddhist practice may be, we are united in our belief in Bhikku Bodhi’s original vision: that Buddhism has something important and unique to offer our country and our world,” Nicolino said.