During the short aeons of swords,
They meditate on love,
Introducing to nonviolence
Hundreds of millions of living beings.
In the middle of great battles
They remain impartial to both sides;
For bodhisattvas of great strength
Delight in reconciliation of conflict.
In order to help the living beings,
They voluntarily descend into
The hells which are attached
To all the inconceivable buddha-fields.
—The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti
Buddhism is a path of spiritual transformation and liberation. The work of socially engaged Buddhists and the Buddhist Peace Fellowship runs right down the middle of this path, with the Bodhisattva vow to save all beings. The special task we’ve taken on is to free beings by ending structural suffering: racism, sexism, militarism, species chauvinism, economic oppression, caste and class, and the many other ways that society creates a collective “me and mine,” the sickness of grasping for which dharma is the cure. This sickness pervades our society, sold to us everywhere we look. So our dharma work is political, active and direct.
The cramped BPF office I inhabit comprises three hundred square feet with four people at four desks, four computers, phones, fax machine, books, magazines and papers on every surface, all dedicated to an awareness of the great sufferings around us. We emulate Avalokitesvara, Bodhisattva of Compassion, hearing the cries of the world, trying to understand our own true involvement in that suffering. Sometimes we can offer help; sometimes we can share information and resources so that others might help; sometimes we just listen.
A real history of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship has not yet been collected or written. But this sketch reminds me how rich and valuable this history is, how stubbornly it informs our present work.
BPF was born at the Maui Zendo, cofounded by Nelson Foster, Robert and Anne Aitken and several Zen friends, soon joined by Gary Snyder, Joanna Macy, Jack Kornfield, Al Bloom and others. Its ecumenical approach to the dharma was a matter of principle, a real strength in the face of Buddhism’s sectarian history. At the start there was a circle of friends, predominantly Euro-American Zen practitioners, most clustered in Hawaii and the Bay Area, with the rest scattered across the states. After a year there were only about fifty members, but it was a real network nonetheless, linked by friendship and common purpose. BPF’s mandate (in its revised, present version) was:
• To make clear public witness to Buddhist practice and interdependence as a way of peace and protection for all beings;
• To raise peace, environmental, feminist and social justice concerns among North American Buddhists;
• To bring a Buddhist perspective of nonduality to contemporary social action and environmental movements;
• To encourage the practice of nonviolence based on the rich resources of traditional Buddhist and Western spiritual teachings;
• To offer avenues for dialogue and exchange among the diverse North American and world sanghas.
Christianity and Judaism have long nurtured forms of spiritually-based activism and social transformation. BPF itself emerged as one of the many Fellowships of Reconciliation, a church-based umbrella for nonviolent change. In those first years the ties between BPF and FOR were close and very encouraging for lonely Buddhist activists. From this branch of the peace movement, with its links to Christ, Gandhi, Thomas Merton and Martin Luther King, we began to find ways consonant with and parallel to the dharma to explore structural suffering and social change.
From the start, BPF was working for human rights in such places as the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh and became actively engaged with issues of war, disarmament and nuclear weapons in Vietnam and Cambodia. Today we are still working on all these same issues as exemplified in our letter writing campaign in support of recently imprisoned monks Thich Quang Do and Thich Huyen Quang, leaders of Vietnam’s Unified Buddhist Church. But seventeen years later none of the problems we have confronted have been resolved.
Within three years the network had grown to several hundred members, moved its office to Berkeley, hired a part-time coordinator, formed the first chapters, and organized several conferences and meetings that brought members and teachers face to face at last. The newsletter, edited by Fred Eppsteiner, then Arnie Kotler, became more professional in appearance. It documented a growing movement within the Western sanghas.
Too many people distinguish between the inner world of our mind and the world outside, but these worlds are not separate. They belong to the same reality.
—Thich Nhat Hanh, Interbeing
We can’t consider the history of BPF without bowing deeply to the continuing influence of Thich Nhat Hanh. Our first contacts came through peace activists and friends at Fellowship of Reconciliation, dating back to Thây’s first visits to the United States in the late ’60s, his exile from Vietnam, and his role as head of the Buddhist delegation at the Paris peace talks. Since 1983, BPF has cosponsored Thây in tours and retreats for Western Buddhists.
What Is BPF?
In Buddhism we speak of kalyana mitta, good friends. We must understand and help each other. If we want social justice, one village must be linked with other villages. One country has to be linked with other countries. The Third World has to be linked with the First World. Poor fishermen must help working women, and working women must help industrial workers. We must all start relating to each other.
—Sulak Sivaraksa, Seeds of Peace
The seat I occupy at BPF’s national office is a journeyman weaver’s place, trying to grasp the pattern and weave together the jewels of Indra’s net with the thread of friendship. Spiritual friendship binds all our work. We began as a circle of friends with common concerns. Eighteen years later, the network is much wider, the organizational forms—BPF members, chapters, affiliates—more various, but guiding principles are the same. The trick is to keep finding ways that people can work effectively with each other, to change the suffering world, and to see our growing, shifting network clearly enough to put people in touch with each other.
Socially engaged Buddhism includes millions of people and great movements in Thailand, Cambodia, India, Sri Lanka, Japan, Tibet, Burma, Vietnam, Korea, and on across Asia. Through our sister organization in Thailand, the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB), we’ve had opportunities to work with many of these movements.
Our Asian friends challenge us to examine our relationship to privilege. In the West or North it is virtually impossible to step outside of privilege, even with the best intention. We drive cars, fly in planes, write with computers, turn on electric lights. With these seemingly ordinary acts we implicate ourselves in a global system of exploitation. In this context, renunciation is not a matter of shaving our heads and wearing robes. If I truly support the work of liberation for people and planet, then I need to relinquish many of the privileges and consumer comforts I enjoy in the United States.
Last October, the Nigerian poet and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged by his government for trying to reclaim his own Ogoni tribal home from the environmental ravages of the oil industry, led by Shell and other western corporations. While human rights organizations campaigned vigorously for his release, and western governments piously protested his execution, the oil companies doing business in Nigeria sat in the courtroom and did not lift a hand in his defense. Western governments allowed no sanctions that would impede the flow of oil. So far, I can’t see that his death has had any effect on the price of gas at the corner station. Lately I think of him each time I get in my car. The web of right action and the web of privilege are not two separate things. I think this is the hardest lesson we can learn from engaged Buddhists and from other activists throughout the so-called developing world.
The Buddha’s singular discovery of dependent origination means “because of this, there is that.” Because there is a bright penthouse, there is a squatter’s dark flat. BPF works to narrow the widening gap between rich and poor, but we also recognize that differences of wealth, resources and understanding exist, and that suffering infuses every station of life.
BPF’s base has generally been among Euro-American Buddhists like myself. Why that is the case and how we can open ourselves to ethnic Buddhists and people of color who take up Buddhism is an ongoing discussion. For me the critical matter is to recognize the priceless gift we have been given by Asian traditions and teachers, and to set aside any arrogance. Our relationship with INEB and others enlightens us about the needs and the gifts of different cultures. We tend to learn about our own insensitivity the hard way. Respectfully we extend ourselves and make connections with the different Asian sanghas. The full effect of our friendship and our work—completely apart from particular successes and failures—cannot be calculated. So we just keep on weaving.
The Present Programs
BPF’s best known and most effective “program” is our quarterly journal Turning Wheel. With Susan Moon as editor these last six years, Turning Wheel has a fresh style and plain speaking quality that clearly reflect and express the grassroots activism of BPF. Recent themes in Turning Wheel have centered on fundamentalism, suffering, hope, family practice, consumerism and sexual misconduct in our sanghas and in society.
The Buddhist Alliance for Social Engagement (BASE) is probably the most ambitious program BPF has attempted. It offers a kind of retreat in the midst of the world. Coordinated by Diana Winston, eight participants in the first Bay Area BASE group created a new kind of intentional community, committing themselves to six months of dharma practice and volunteer social action. We see BASE as a form of social action practice that can adapt itself to local conditions. A second six-month program has just begun in the Bay Area, and another has been up and running for several months in Arcata, California. We hope that small groups will come together elsewhere in the U.S., and we are here to offer advice, financial support and material resources for people who want to take this on.
Our international work has focused on Asia. Last year, with a $5,000 grant from the Kaiser Foundation, we sponsored mobile medical teams for displaced Burmese on both sides of the Thai/Burma border; a second grant has just come through for this year. Many BPF members worked for and rejoiced in Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from six years of house arrest, just the first step towards democracy in Burma. Our Tibetan revolving loan program has distributed $40,000 in low interest loans to right livelihood projects in Tibetan exile communities in Nepal and India. BPF’s East Bay Chapter has a longstanding program that provides thousand of meals to Tibetan children in the settlements. We celebrated Sulak Sivaraksa’s successful defense against charges of lèse majesté, defamation of the king and former leaders of Thailand’s military junta. Keeping in mind our vow to save all sentient beings, board members and friends attended the Beijing NGO Conference for women, and continue to work with “women in Black” to promote peace and reconciliation in what was once Yugoslavia.
BPF’s domestic work (which, of course, includes BASE) centers on issues of weapons control and nonviolence. We helped create the program of spiritual leaders and nuclear survivors commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, presented last August at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site. Local BPF members were key organizers of a week-long East Bay Peace Walk, from Richmond to Livermore, California, underscoring the links between handgun violence in the neighborhoods and nuclear arms on the geopolitical stage. Our summer 1995 Institute, with Nelson Foster, Joanna Macy, David Grant, Fran Peavey and Tova Green, focused on ways of transforming violence. We are also working for a ban on land mines—something we have learned about through the teachings of Maha Ghosananda and our friends in Cambodia.
As an ecumenical Buddhist organization, BPF is creating a Buddhist Ethics Project to provide resources and offer training in matters of ethics and misconduct for Buddhist centers and for individuals facing these issues within their communities.
This patchwork of programs has great strengths and weaknesses. The main strength is our ability to act quickly and flexibly. Our principal weakness is lack of strategy. How do we choose the work we do? What approach do we take? Are we about service or social transformation? Is there a clear distinction? Do all the pieces of our program support each other; do they flow from a guiding vision?
Prospects, Challenges and Questions
A Zen story about the thousand hands and eyes of Avalokitesvara begins this way:
“A monk asked Master Tao Wu, ‘What does Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion, use so many hands and eyes for?’ Tao Wu responded, ‘It’s like reaching around for a pillow in the middle of the night.’”
Avalokitesvara has an instinct for saving suffering beings. With all her skills and awareness, she acts completely as the need arises. In our sleep, we reach around for a pillow at night to make ourselves comfortable. Avalokitesvara makes herself comfortable by saving sentient beings. I like to think we can become more like her.
The prospects for socially engaged Buddhism and for BPF are good. Many dharma centers and local practice groups feed the homeless, do hospice work, tutor inner city children, campaign against nuclear weapons and nuclear waste. All of this is reaching around for your pillow in the middle of the night. In America the soil of social action has already been well tilled by various religious traditions.
The challenges for BPF, for all of us, are still numerous. We keep working for peace regardless of success or failure. We continue to extend BPF to make it a truly national organization, offering face to face activity beyond the bounds of Northern California.
Some challenges cut deeper: How can the dharma transform our societies and save our planet? Our efforts are always moving from individual practice, to sangha practice, to a linking of communities with common values even across religious lines. His Holiness The Dalai Lama recently urged Western Buddhists to translate Buddhist ethics, values and practice into forms accessible to non-Buddhists—what Sulak calls “Buddhism with a small b.”
BPF members, friends and chapters have been very good at social service and at a limited kind of political action. We work in hospice programs and homeless shelters, we sit on the tracks to block the shipment of arms. But this kind of work does not necessarily bring structural transformation. What does? I leave this as an open question.
Without an Engaged Buddhist analysis, an understanding of how things work now, we remain in the dark about how to get from here to a dharmic society. This isn’t just a Buddhist problem. It’s a failing that has always plagued progressive movements in the United States. Engaged Buddhist teachers Sulak Sivaraksa, Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, Thich Nhat Hanh, Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne’s Sarvodaya have offered useful visions. We need a critical understanding of interbeing as detailed and various as the map of individual consciousness we use in our spiritual practices. Some of us here and in Asia have been groping towards such an analysis. There are years of work ahead.
Avalokitesvara has eleven heads, a thousand eyes, and a different tool in each of a thousand hands. Our own abilities and our wisdom are more circumscribed. If we act in concert, we have a thousand hands and eyes. Does our understanding unfold as deep, collective wisdom or as “common denominator” wisdom—individual delusion multiplied by thousands? Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “Transformation is possible only when you are in touch.” Can we help transform our society and our world? Bowing to all Buddhas and ancestors for the gift of faith in a troubled time, I believe we can.
Faith is natural, but exacting. It allows no stopping place. Changing ourselves and our world calls for mindful action and deep inquiry, unattached to particular outcomes. We live in the “short aeons of swords,” and the world is marked with unfathomable, seemingly unnecessary, suffering. With the help of good friends, kalyana mitta, let us “voluntarily descend into the hells which are attached to all the inconceivable buddha-fields.” And as we work, we can dedicate the merit of all that we do to the benefit of all life. May all beings be free from suffering.
Much of what is written here grows out of conversations with and essays by Robert Aitken, Nelson Foster, Ken Kraft, Donald Rothberg, Margaret Howe, Santikaro Bhikkhu and other friends in and around BPF. Nine bows to these friends and teachers. — A.S.