Buddhist Action: Forming a new Moral Action Group 1

Birth of a new Buddhist Action Coalition

Over two hundred Buddhists braved the frigid cold of this past Saturday, February 3rd, to spend the day at Union Theological Seminary. While most of those in attendance were local, Buddhists from other parts of the country, including as far away as California, joined in the Buddhist Action Coalition congress, including members of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship.  The task at hand: working collectively to form a new Buddhist moral action organization. The mission of the Buddhist Action Coalition will be find a skillful way that Buddhists can bring our practice off the cushion with a mind to confront the great challenges of our time. The challenges are many, and include economic and social injustice, racial and gender discrimination, disintegrating immigrant rights and the devastating results of climate change. None of these issues exist in isolation. For example, racism informs mass incarceration, which compounds entrenched gender and racial economic disparities.

bar graph showing international incarceration rates

When the United States has a higher incarceration than any other democracy, how can we not put our compassion into action? When women still do not receive equal pay for equal work, how can we only think of our own peace of mind? What if the Buddha only cared for his own liberation, instead of the liberation of others? Where would that leave all of us? If we are to follow the example of the Buddha, we would leave the comfort of the forest (or med hall!) and walk amongst our fellow humans in order to relieve suffering, wherever it exists.

What can Buddhists do in the Face of Injustice?

Buddhists have a lot to offer the social justice movements. As Rev. angel Kyodo Williams said, who joined the meeting via Skype, “The Buddha’s teachings bring a particular nuance about the nature of our connectedness with one another.” She added that, as Buddhists, we recognize that “Our unique individual path to liberation is inherently intermingled, intertwined with the collective path of liberation, that one does not exist without the other, that we don’t have a personal liberation without a collective liberation.” It is time that all Buddhists reconsider the term ‘Engaged Buddhism’ and see it as simply Buddhism: the natural, outward expression we evince towards helping others once we see, with compassion, that we are not separate from their suffering.

Sebene Selassie at a podium at the Buddhist Action Coalition

Sebene Selassie addresses the participants

So what can we do?  Anything, just make a move.  As Rebecca Li, sociology professor and dharma teacher said, “We are, just by being here putting our moral conviction into action.”  Since a major part of the planning for the group involved communicating with others about no less a contentious area as politics, Rebecca cautioned that we might put our dharma practice and faith to the test.  “How,” she asked, “are we going to engage politically without being sucked into the divisive speech, the mental habit of demonizing those with whom we disagree, and developing rigid views and thoughts as we are listening to each other, practices that are so pervasive in the realm of politics today?”  The precepts are among the many things that Buddhists have to bring to the arena of politics, which also helped in the group work discussions, which were lead by trained facilitators throughout the day.

Sharon Salzberg sitting among people

Sharon Salzberg participates in a discussion group

The coordinators of the event, including Rev. Greg Snyder, Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, Sebene Selassi and Bob Kolodny, purposely kept a low profile.  “We don’t want to have a lot of talking heads in front of the room lecturing people on ‘how it’s going to be,'” said Greg Snyder.  “In order to make this group work, we need a non-hierarchical, rather than a top-down, approach.”  With hundred of people sharing their vision for the formation of the Buddhist Action Coalition, there will be a broad sense of ownership, since it is literally being created by the community.  “This is not about egos, but about forming a group that will have lasting impact,” added Rev. Snyder.

Lori Levine, of Acelero Learning, conceived of beginning the group discussions with dyads, and having those dyads join other dyads, until groups of 12 were formed.  The exercise, she reasoned, will help the participants develop trust, an imperative to honest sharing on difficult topics.  As Katie Loncke, of Buddhist Peace Fellowship shared, “We will move at the speed of trust.”

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi participating in a dyad discussion

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi participating in a dyad discussion

The Future of Buddhist Action Coalition

At the close of the day, the consensus was that the group was off to a good start, with next steps soon to follow.  The challenge is great, but as Ven. Bodhi said in his closing words, “It’s not enough just to personally develop or accept precepts and cultivate our meditations on loving kindness and compassion.”  Instead, he suggests, “It is really necessary for us to roll up our sleeves and get out into the action, to work from the principles, the guidelines of loving kindness and compassion.”  Ven. Bodhi emphasizes this point by adding, “the expression I prefer now rather than compassion is solidarity, the deep identification with those who are subjected to persecution, oppression, marginalization and the diminishment of their humanity.

Compassion NYC shares the sentiment of Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi and all who were in attendance.  Updates on the Buddhist Action Coalition will be reported on regularly on this website, as will all actions planned by the group.  Stay tuned, CNYC_ers!

Setsuan Gaelyn Godwin, Laura O’Loughlin, Rev. Greg Snyder


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