United States border patrol agents have separated around 2,000 immigrant children from their parents in six weeks, the Department of Homeland Security revealed this week. Images released by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency show the children have been locked in cages, and audio obtained by the nonprofit ProPublica has captured their cries for their parents, the result of a “zero tolerance” policy enacted by Attorney General Jeff Session that prosecutes undocumented immigrants under criminal laws rather than civil ones.
As the Trump administration defends its decision—alternately blaming Democratic lawmakers, justifying the policy as a deterrent, and denying it is even happening—many activists and politicians have been calling for an end to this practice. And Buddhists are no exception.
This week more than 200 Western Buddhist leaders signed a petition condemning the new policy as “morally unconscionable.” It reads:
Whatever the legal status of those attempting to enter the US, separating children from their parents is a contravention of basic human rights. Parents seeking asylum make long, dangerous, and arduous journeys in an attempt to find safety and well-being for their precious children. Ripping these vulnerable children from their parents is cruel, inhumane, and against the principles of compassion and mercy espoused by all religious traditions.
The document goes on to point out how damaging early-childhood trauma can be and urges proponents of the rule to visit detention centers and see the suffering firsthand. “It is difficult to conceive that anyone having compassion for our world’s children and their families, and who witnesses such pain and anguish for themselves could continue to uphold such a practice,” it says.
Soto Zen Buddhist Association (SZBA) president Rev. Tenku Ruff—who co-wrote the document with Rev. Myozan Kodo Kilroy of the Irish Buddhist Union, Rev. Shugen Arnold of the Mountains and Rivers Order, and Pali translator and Buddhist Global Relief founder Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi—said that she was surprised to see how quickly it garnered signatures.
“The SZBA started the statement on Saturday, then things snowballed,” she said. “What I love about this petition is that it’s such a collaborative effort. People need to see that there are a lot of Buddhists in the West, and that there’s another way—compassion, justice, and wisdom.”
The SBZA has also released a public petition for practitioners, which has gathered more than 12,000 signatures so far.
Many in the Buddhist community have gone beyond signing the petition.
In Houston, Buddhists attended a town hall meeting on June 19 to protest the creation of a secretive new facility meant to house the children separated from their parents. The facility has not been approved by the city.
The Buddhists—including Abbot Gaelyn Godwin from Houston Zen Center and Ana Camacho, one of the Women’s March organizers and a member of the Dawn Mountain Tibetan temple— attended the meeting with Mayor Sylvestor Turner, the City Council, a broad group of Houston faith leaders, and representatives from charitable organizations.
“We stand united in the face of this moral outrage and will work together, here in Houston, to protect the children and families who are being so cruelly and unjustly mistreated,” Rev. Gaelyn Godwin told Tricycle. “Our Mayor spoke eloquently in opposition to the proposed facility, and the entire City Council unanimously opposes the policy of family separation.”
Houston Zen Center members plan to attend more demonstrations scheduled later this week, including an interfaith 24/7 vigil at the proposed detention facility, where participants will take 2-hour shifts to keep the protest going, and a #NoBabyJails march starting at 219 Emancipation Ave. on Friday, June 22.
Even those outside the US are applying pressure to try to end this policy. In Ireland, Rev. Myozan Kodo Kilroy and other Buddhists plan to attend a protest organized by Amnesty International Ireland outside the US Embassy in Dublin this Thursday, June 21.
President Donald Trump announced on Wednesday afternoon his intention to sign an executive order to end the family separation policy.
Update 6/22: President Donald Trump signed an executive order ending the family separation policy on the afternoon of Wednesday, June 20th. James Lynch, president of the Buddhist Council of New York and one of the first signers said, “President Trump has reversed himself and will no longer separate families at the border, so I truly believe that our actions helped in this instance. Going forward I believe that the Buddhist community must act on behalf of the world’s happiness and that we have a very special and precious role to play in helping to solve today’s seemingly intractable issues. While the world seems ablaze with uncertain change, it is extremely powerful to remember the Buddhist teaching that life is inherently transient and that no matter how insurmountable the seeming obstacle, it too must change. The only question is: How it will change? The answer to that question is the future lies in our hands, if and only if we have the compassion, wisdom, and courage to act together.”
Tricycle spoke with several of the Buddhist leaders who signed the petition to ask them why their understanding of the dharma urged them to speak against this policy and what practitioners can do to help.
Sharon Salzberg, Insight Meditation Society Cofounder:
Parents and children being separated at the border is a moral crisis, and perhaps a moral reckoning for this country. It’s hard to imagine not taking a stand on compassion in the face of this anguish.
I have long been passionate about people exercising their right to vote. In my mind voting closely echoes the Buddha’s teaching on our innate dignity, as well as the interconnected nature of reality. I’ve met many meditators who don’t vote—either they are apathetic or feel the system is too warped to engage in. Not voting when we are able to is tantamount to abandoning many to suffering—children and people whose voices have been taken away. Even if you cannot find the candidate that you can fully align with, remember that real people are strongly affected by policies that might not seem to touch your own life. Voting is something any citizen can do—beginning with making sure you are registered—if you want to change policy and express conviction that our lives are intertwined and that everybody matters.
Rev. Tenku Ruff, Soto Zen Buddhist Association President:
Not long after the 2016 election, I received an email from a friend asking, “Where are all the Buddhists?” The image I have held in my mind during these times is of the 2007 Saffron Revolution in Myanmar—monks chanting the Metta Sutta in the face of armed soldiers. I’d like for American Buddhists to come together in such a way—grounded in Buddhist practice, nonviolent, visible, and recognizable as Buddhists—with robes and shaved heads, matching T-shirts, malas, banners, or whatever works. People need to know that we’re here and that there is a way through this that doesn’t necessitate making people into enemies.
Whether we actively protest at the border or address the sadness and helplessness with our temple members through practices such as metta or tonglen, Buddhists leaders can help. Last night, the sound of children in detention centers crying made it to the radio just as I was driving to teach a class on compassion. Many class members also heard the inconsolable sobbing. We spent the evening offering tonglen for the children, the parents, the guards, and the policymakers. In doing so, we did what we could at that moment to ease suffering—for everyone, including ourselves. These practices are portable, require no funding, and make a discernible difference. They cannot help, though, if we don’t actively and earnestly do them.
Rev. Grace Schireson, Central Valley Zen Founder and Zen teacher Stanford University:
This issue is beyond politics for me. I am a clinical psychologist, as well as a Zen priest; I have firsthand experience in treating children suffering from this kind of loss. This is a lasting trauma. I believe we must do everything possible to shorten the time these children are separated, and we need to sponsor uniting the families (a plan for which the government has not yet implemented).
Buddhists need to communicate with one another in order to encourage phone calls to Congress, advocate donations, and plan protests. Even though Buddhism advocates non-violence, non-harming, acceptance, and compassion, this does not mean we should be a welcome mat for cruelty and tyranny.
Rev. Gaelyn Godwin, Houston Zen Center Abbot:
Often, here in Texas, I give the benefit of the doubt to folks of varying political persuasions and I make a strong effort to interpret situations from an array of political perspectives, with respect for historically different interpretations. In this instance, however, a line has been crossed that requires our greatest efforts, in order not to magnify the harm with our own careless inattention.
We Buddhists are experts at attention—we have a great deal to offer the broad array of activists who are engaged in this situation with us. I heard many appreciative comments at the [Houston] City Council gathering from folks who deeply value our participation and our particular skills.
Separating families for no reason other than having the power to do so crosses a line that no civilized group of people should cross: willful harm to the innocent who deserve our protection.
Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara, Village Zendo Abbot:
The first of the Buddhist precepts is “Do Not Harm!” What we now know about childhood trauma and its legacy in the minds of children should activate us all to do what we can to stop the damage being inflicted on these immigrant children. As a Buddhist, I understand my role in life is to serve to stop suffering, to find ways to offer what’s needed to stop the causes of suffering, and to work to heal the scars of suffering. At this time, here in this country, that means to protest, to speak up, to offer funds, sanctuary, and support for those affected by the punitive bullying brought on by the forces of greed, anger, and ignorance.
Rev. Joan Jiko Halifax, Upaya Zen Center Abbot:
I believe that we are facing a moral crisis—our democracy is being deconstructed and there is an increasing deficit of compassion and integrity in our society. I believe that tolerating the human rights violations we are seeing on our southern border will cause near-term profound suffering for the victims and long-term moral suffering for our country. I believe that we cannot be apathetic to these rights’ violations, and we have to send our voice, bear witness, show up, sign petitions, educate ourselves, get the vote out, and not turn away from the first noble truth of suffering. We have to manifest integrity and moral nerve as we deal with the current authoritarianism. That is why I joined many other Buddhist teachers in signing the document.
Dr. Jack Kornfield, Insight Meditation Society and Spirit Rock Cofounder:
Forcibly separating already traumatized children from their parents for political purposes is cruel and horrific—reminiscent of Nazi era practices. We are better than this as a people.
Rev. Myozan Kodo Kilroy, Irish Buddhist Union President and Founder and Guiding Teacher of Zen Buddhism Ireland:
Whatever one’s view of immigration, separating children from their parents is a human rights issue. As people walking the bodhisattva’s path in the world, we are those children, and they are us. No other state pursues such a savage policy targeting children. This is nothing short of state-sanctioned child abuse. This is not OK—not only for any Buddhist anywhere but also for any human being whose empathy remains intact.
Compassion. Compassion. Compassion. These are the three treasures of Buddhism. If we listen, what does this teaching demand of us, right at this moment?
Rev. Kosen Gregory Snyder, Brooklyn Zen Center Senior Teacher and Buddhist Action Coalition Cofounding Organizer:
My reasons for signing this letter are fairly straightforward—it’s immoral to split up families, to abandon children to cages, to wreak havoc and chaos in the lives of people seeking sanctuary. It’s madness. There are proponents of a very cynical political environment that attempt to position issues like splitting up immigrant families, addressing poverty, and so on as political in nature, as if there is some manipulative malice behind insisting on compassion and love for all beings. This has to come to an end if we are to live any semblance of a sane life together.
The effects of such actions far exceed our limited perception of them. To act in this way as a nation will take decades to heal. We know this because these actions today are the fruits of centuries of similar violence that we still have not addressed.
There is nothing radical about this letter. We are simply insisting on compassion and love.
Mushim Patricia Ikeda, East Bay Meditation Center Core Teacher:
The first precept of non-harm is applicable in this situation; however, what most inspired my decision to sign the petition was two factors. First, as a freelance diversity and inclusion consultant, I have a colleague who has been talking about the unconscionable actions of ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] for years. He personally knows of cases in which small children born in the US have seen their parents arrested in early morning ICE raids, and the children have hidden under the bed with a cell phone and somehow called their elementary school office out of desperation. US immigration laws and policies have been separating families before the Trump administration. Second, as a third generation Japanese American, I am always aware that had I been born in a previous era, that even though I am a US citizen born in this country, I would have been placed in a concentration camp during World War II. The separation of immigrant families at the US borders and the mass detentions and forced deportations of people looking for a way to survive are repugnant.
This is not a situation that will be over soon, where then we can go back to “life as usual.” That time, if it ever existed for some of us, has passed. It is only through a clear and shared vision and a strategic, long-term set of actions that we will be able to remedy the deep injustice, lack of equity, and wanton cruelty that those who lack power have always been subject to, and which is now revealed more starkly in the news.
Rev. Gesshin Greenwood, Blue Cliff Zen Sangha:
I did not sign this statement because I am a Buddhist. I signed this because it was the right thing to do. I do not believe Buddhism uniquely makes us more peaceful or more compassionate. History has shown that religions are powerful tools that can be used for good or selfish purposes. We shouldn’t need Buddhism or Christianity to tell us that traumatizing children is wrong.
And yet, Christianity is being used to justify these terrible things. I think this was an impetus for this statement—to show that as faith leaders we are opposed to this. I was actually conflicted about signing it because I think it is Republican and Christian groups that need to be making these kinds of statements. But despite my misgivings, not doing anything is clearly the wrong response.
I said that Buddhism does not inform my politics in this instance, but Buddhism is informing how I engage. The abbess of the monastery where I trained said that our relationships to the precepts should be like a water wheel—just enough in the water so that the wheel turns, but not bogged down in the water either. This is how I relate to political engagement. We need to touch the water—the suffering of humanity—and let this inspire our action. But we can’t drown in that water either; we need to have the wisdom to maintain our sanity in the process. This week I am trying to be like that waterwheel—to speak about the horrors and tragedy of this while also offering hope, to keep moving and turning.
James Lynch, president of the Buddhist Council of New York:
I signed the letter not only in my capacity as the current president of the Buddhist Council of New York, to represent the wishes of all of our sister member organizations, but also from my own faith, which is deeply rooted in the Rissho Kosei-kai lay tradition. Our practice is based on the Lotus Sutra and Shakyamuni’s teaching of “Ekayana,” or One Vehicle. We view all physical or mental phenomena as a precious or sacred encounter, and we believe when we diminish anyone, unauthorized immigrants for example, we devalue the sacred whole, the Great Life. If we are to act as mindful Buddhists we have no choice but to act to protect those who are suffering and voiceless. At the same time, we must not act in a ‘dehumanizing’ manner that seeks to simply demonize those with whom we may have fundamental disagreements.
Rev. Linda Ruth Cutts, San Francisco Zen Center Central Abbess:
The cruel separation of families is reprehensible, especially the act of forcibly taking children—of all ages—from their parents. The total lack of compassion and understanding of the suffering of these people, and the consequences of these actions, are truly astounding. The Metta Sutra says our practice is to cherish all living things “just as a mother at the risk of her life watches over and protects her only child.” This callous policy creates harmful conditions for untold people and is rightly viewed by the world as ignorant and shameful.
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