Bhikkhu Bodhi’s introductory statement

I have to echo Sebene’s thanks to all the people who turned out today.  I think this gathering has been a tremendous event with great potential for the future.

I first want to explain how the whole development that led to this gathering began.  It started right after the election of Donald Trump as president, before the inauguration, I think during the Christmas week of 2016.  A woman who lives in North Carolina, a Buddhist activist named Sumi Loundon Kim, wrote me an email saying that she was feeling completely disoriented after the election, and she asked, “Isn’t it time that we form a Buddhist PAC?”

I wrote back to her saying that the term PAC means a committee that raises funds to support a candidate.  I said: “What I think you mean is an organization or coalition that would present a Buddhist point of view on public affairs.” She replied: “Yes, that’s what I had in mind.”

About the same time, two people sent me a news report about Reverend William Barber, who had gathered 2500 clergy to sign a letter protesting to congress about the people that Trump was appointing to his cabinet. I searched on the internet for the list of 2500 signatories, pasted it into a Word document, and searched for “buddh”, but I did not get any hits. Then I searched for “zen” and got one hit, somebody in Minnesota or Idaho. And that was it–the only Buddhist signatory to Rev. Barber’s letter.

It struck me that we Buddhists often have strong, conscientious commitments on issues of public concern, but we have not formed a group to express a joint Buddhist position on these vital issues.  And that, I thought, was a crying need of our time. 

After the initial contact with Sumi, I communicated with a few other Buddhist activists, including Bob Kolodny and Greg Snyder, who are both here today. We also spoke to Alan Senauke, who lives in California, and  Sumi, whom I just mentioned. We held a series of initial discussions about forming a national Buddhist public affairs organization,  but it wasn’t easy to organize on the national level because the geographical range was too large.  Thus we decided that the best way to go about starting a Buddhist social action network was to organize at the local level in the hope of creating a few local nodules around the country, which would eventually coalesce into a national coalition. And the meeting that took place here today is the starting point.   

I think it’s extremely important to look at public affairs from the perspective of a Buddhist conscience. I use the word “conscience” not in the sense of feeling guilty about wrongs we have committed, but in the sense of an effort to draw upon one’s moral ideals, one’s guiding moral commitments, as a lens through which to examine the great problems – the major political, social, economic, racial problems—that we face as a society. We begin with a critical assessment of our challenges, and then we formulate an alternative vision of the way things should be, of how systems and policies should be transformed to correspond to our deepest, most heart-felt moral convictions. 

There is a widespread attitude among Buddhists, especially western Buddhists, that politics is an arena to be avoided if we are to progress along our spiritual path.  It’s seen as a detour from our spiritual quest.  We believe that to get involved in political issues, in matters of public concern, is a distraction and an entanglement, a falling away from our spiritual aspirations for purification, enlightenment, awakening, liberation.

But as I look at our situation today, I see that while politics is often corrupt, dirty, and divisive, it is also the field where the great moral issues of our time are being debated and decided.  The issues of racism, protection of immigrants, the climate crisis—all these crises come together in their deep, compelling, moral dimensions, and yet, if we’re to address them, it’s not enough just to adopt precepts and cultivate our meditation on loving-kindness and compassion.  It’s necessary for us to “roll up our sleeves” and get into the sphere of action – to work from the principles and guidelines of loving-kindness and compassion to alter oppressive and destructive structures and systems, to create in their place a social order that exemplifies love and compassion. It’s in the political field that decisions are made about who will get healthcare and who will be excluded, who will receive basic social services and who will be discarded, about whether we will make the transition to clean energy or continue to burn fossil fuels, about who will live and who will be condemned to die. These issues mark a critical intersection of the ethical and the political, and to treat them as negligible is to reneg on our moral responsibilities.

The expression that I see as best defining our present task is solidarity. Solidarity means a deep identification with those who face persecution, oppression,  marginalization—the diminishment of their humanity.  We see this here in the U.S, in the criminal justice system with its police brutality and mass incarceration; in the rounding up and deportation of immigrants; in policies that force people into homelessness and hunger; in tax policies that will result in some 13 million people losing their access to healthcare. But this marginalization and dehumanization of people is occurring not only in the United States but all around the world.  Even though we might focus on local and national issues, we also have to recognize the global ramifications of U.S. policy. This is not something that was started by the Trump administration but goes back decades. Our policies, though packaged in the wrappings of good intentions, actually create misery and suffering for hundreds of thousands of people around the world.

To give an example, just a few days ago I read an article on The Intercept about a U.S. drone attack on a group of farmers in Afghanistan who had gone to the nearby town to purchase groceries and were traveling back to their home. The drone attack was launched and 14 people were killed. Just one little girl, aged 4, survived. In the attack she had lost her parents and younger brother and other relatives, and now has to face the rest of her life without her immediate family.

Yet people in this country have very little knowledge about this.  Such incidents don’t get on the front pages of the newspapers, or the headlines of the mainstream websites. However, these are things that we should consider deeply and we must act together to transform our policies locally, nationally, and globally. We should strive to create a world based on the principle that every human being has the right to live safely, to meet their basic physical needs, to fulfill their potentials, and to pursue the goals that give their lives meaning and value.

The meeting that we had today might be considered the starting point for the emergence of a collective Buddhist voice of conscience.  Though the meeting will come to an end in just a few minutes, we have to continue to work together and see if we can combine our hearts and minds to make this development a concrete reality—a major partner in the field of inter-faith collaboration in the task of transforming our society and the world.  Thank you very much, and may all blessings be with you.