Buddhists Visit the White House and Make History
Last week, a melting pot of various Buddhist lineages and nationalties assembled in Washington, DC to visit the White House and discuss climate change. The event, called “Voices in the Square — Action in the World,” is widely being hailed as historic.
This isn’t the first time that religious groups have come together to discuss social issues. And individual American Buddhist organizations have engaged in efforts to promote peace, disarmament, health, education, equal pay, and better working conditions in the past. But Buddhists, on a whole, don’t have a history of engaging under a shared vision in the United States.
There are different theories as to why the country’s population of over 3.5 million Buddhists, which outnumber the more active Muslims and Hindus, don’t have a strong political presence. According to Bill Aiken, Director of Public Affairs for Soka Gakkai International-USA, the most diverse Buddhist community in the United States, American Buddhism doesn’t emphasize engagement.
“Buddhists have engaged in their societies for a millenia,” he said. “The Buddha was engaged with society and intervened when tribes were going to war and did public works projects. But the view of Buddhism in the West focuses on detachment from the comings and goings of daily life. Western Buddhism became an antidote for the higher-stress American lifestyle.”
Emma Varvaloucas, has a different theory to explain the lack of civic engagement among American Buddhists. In her article in Tricycle, she writes that it comes from a failure among Buddhists to connect with each other:
“The biggest reason I think we’re so behind is rooted in a complex history, but it is simple in principle: we’ve done a poor job of reaching out across our communities, especially across the immigrant/convert community divide that only recently has begun to dissolve. We’ve also failed to reach out beyond our communities to join in common cause with other faith traditions, in order to accomplish change that might be beyond our own means as an American minority faith. Pointing this out, I should say, is not to lay blame upon anyone. Rather, it is an invitation for American Buddhists to work together on the issues that our society faces, and in doing so, create our own unapologetically powerful and persuasive voice.”
Whether or not American Buddhists have failed to leave their meditation mats or community divides in the past, the event last week is proof that American Buddhists are willing to engage as a united front in the future. And, interestingly, according to Aiken, event attendees unanimously indicated that climate change was one of their top concerns.
“I think it’s because Buddhists have a sense of a holistic nature of one’s existence here,” he explained. “There’s a very fundamental principle of dependent origination — no living being is in independent existence, even living being comes into a co-dependent or interdependent existence. And if you take off one piece of that web, you take your life in the process.”
To address event attendees’ concerns, the conference featured presentations by Mary Evelyn Tucker from the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology and Bhikkhu Bodhi, an American Theravada Buddhist monk, on the Four Noble Truths of Climate Change. Rev. angel Kyodo williams of the Center for Transformative Change made a connection between climate justice and racial justice, saying “We have in our hearts the willingness to degrade the planet because we are willing to degrade human beings.”
Half a dozen Buddhist communities and organizations also gave brief accounts of their social work. For example, One Earth Sangha, an organization that expresses a Buddhist response to climate change and threats to our planet, shared their advocacy work with attendees.
But the day wasn’t just about Buddhists coming together and sharing information. It was also about growing a greater political presence.
Attendees met with White House staff on two Buddhist declarations — one on climate change and another on racial justice — for two and a half hours. They had a chance to ask staffers pointed questions. Together, Buddhist practitioners and White House staff, chanted the four Bodhisattva vows, beginning with: “Beings are numberless; I vow to save them.”
Although the event was more of an awakening than a day of action for the attendees, it represented a turning point for American Buddhists. It was a chance for a diverse group of Buddhists to connect and share ideas. It was an opportunity for attendees to express their collective concern for issues that threaten all sentient beings. And it opened the door for future action on important issues like climate change, which couldn’t have happened at a more critical time.
As glacier melt speeds up, weather patterns change, and more sentient creatures around the world are put at risk, the voice of Buddhists, and all religious people, is vital to inspiring action. Religion has the power to look beyond the politics and economics of environmentalism, to the moral duty to love nature.
“I believe that climate change and environmental care is a moral issue — the dry science of it isn’t going to get us there,” said Aiken. “Religions have a really important role to play in this process because they approach it as a moral issue and they approach this right relationship with the environment that is very fundamental to our moral being.”
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