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The Intersection of Engaged Anthropology and Engaged Buddhism

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Scenes from the Life of the Buddha, Pakistan-Afghanistan, ancient Gandhara. Courtesy of Freer Gallery.

Four Scenes from the Life of the Buddha, Pakistan-Afghanistan, ancient Gandhara. Courtesy of Freer Gallery,

As some of you may know, in addition to all the other hats I wear, I am a bonafide cultural anthropologist. In fact, my beginning years as a dharma practitioner coincided with getting a graduate degree in anthropology at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco from 1993 – 1996.

This year, I was invited to participate on a panel at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, held last month in San Francisco. The panel was titled, “The Anthropology of Buddhism and the Buddhism of Anthropology: Crossing the Borders Between Religion and Science” which dovetailed nicely with the theme of the entire conference: Borders and Crossings.

I thought some of you might be interested in reading the paper that I presented at the conference, a rather personal reflection on my experiences as both a Buddhist and an anthropologist… and an exploration of what “engagement” might mean. I’d love to hear your comments.

Read the rest of this entry

2011: The Year in Engaged Buddhism

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Day 31 at Occupy Wall Street (photo by David Shankbone)

Last December, I published a round-up of highlights from the year in socially engaged Buddhism. Here I continue that tradition and take a look back at 2011. As always, I welcome reader comments about important events or trends that I’ve missed. The Jizo Chronicles is always a much better blog when it’s co-created with my readers!

  • Early in the year, issues of gender, power, and sexual relations in the dharma world were very much in the spotlight. In August, 2010, The New York Times published a story about the sexual improprieties of Zen teacher Eido Shimano. This set off a volley of letters and articles from within the Buddhist community that continued into January 2011, including this one from Roshi Joan Halifax.  Just a few weeks later, the same issue arose with Genpo Merzel and over the summer, within a Chicago Theravadin temple as well. Clearly, this topic is very much alive for all of us and needs to continue to be addressed in an open and constructive way in our sanghas. (By the way, one little-known resource for grappling with these matters is the book Safe Harbor: Guidelines, Process, and Resources for Ethics and Conduct in Buddhist Communities by Hozan Alan Senauke.)
  • In February and March, thousands of people congregated in the Wisconsin Statehouse in to protest the draconian budget cuts being proposed by Governor Walker. Among them were members of sanghas from Madison and other parts of the state, holding a space for equanimity and compassion. This uprising of “people power” and grassroots democracy foreshadowed the Occupy movement that would emerge in fall of 2011.
  • On March 11, the northern region of Japan was hit first by an earthquake with an 8.9 magnitude and then by a huge tsunami. The area was devastated by these dual natural disasters, and then came the worst news – waters from the tsunami had flooded nuclear reactors in Fukushima, triggering a nuclear meltdown. As always, the good folks from the Tzu Chi Foundation, a Buddhist-based relief organization, were on the ground offering assistance almost immediately. Buddhists from around the world contributed to help relieve the suffering, and Joanna Macy and Thich Nhat Hanh offered wise words.
  • Also in March, the Buddhist Council of the Midwest named Ven. Pannavati-Karuna as the winner of the “Women and Engaged Buddhism Prize.” Ven. Pannavati founded “My Space,” a nonprofit organization in North Carolina dedicated to providing a positive youth development program for homeless and at-risk youth.
  • Thai Buddhist activist Sulak Sivaraksa was the recipient of the 28th Niwano Peace Prize, awarded in Tokyo in May. The award was given “in recognition of his contribution to a new understanding of peace, democracy and development and to environmental preservation based on the core principles of his Buddhist faith.”
  • September 17 marked the beginning of Occupy Wall Street, which would soon explode into a global Occupy movement. Though voices from the Buddhist community were sparse in the first few weeks of the movement, by October more dharma practitioners were expressing solidarity with the spirit and values of Occupy. Tenzin Robert Thurman showed up at Zuccotti Park to talk about “a cool revolution,”  I penned this article with Roshi Joan Halifax which appeared in the Huffington Post, and Michael Stone and Ethan Nichtern organized Buddhist teachers and practitioners to sign onto this letter of support.
  • Another highlight of October was the bi-annual International Network of Engaged Buddhists conference, held this year in Bodh Gaya, India. The theme was “The Future of Buddhism: From Personal Awakening to Global Transformation,” and speakers included Anchalee Kurutach, Alan Senauke, Mangesh Dahiwale, Roshi Joan Halifax, Jeyanthy Siva, and Sulak Sivaraksa. 
  • Throughout 2011, an important background story was Aung San Suu Kyi’s increasing involvement in the political scene of Burma (Myanmar). Since her release from house arrest in November, 2010, Suu Kyi has taken part in numerous dialogues about the situation in her country, both with Burmese officials and with international journalists and diplomats (including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton). For some commentary on this development and the current conditions in Burma, see Hozan Alan Senauke’s piece, “Burma Back at the Crossroads.”

In my own life, I’ve loved continuing to work closely with Roshi Joan Halifax on co-directing Upaya’s Buddhist Chaplaincy Training Program, which I think of as a bodhisattva academy. This was a landmark year in which the Association of Professional Chaplains recognized our program as the equivalent of 42 graduate credits. I’ve been taking the program myself as student these past two years, am currently writing my thesis on the Protest Chaplains of the Occupy Movement, and if all goes well I will be ordained as a lay chaplain next March.

Because of my increased investment of time at Upaya this year, I’ll be posting less original material on the Jizo Chronicles in 2012. However, I will continue with my interview series here, as well as keeping the Calendar of Events updated. You can find more of my reporting on socially engaged Buddhism by looking over at Upaya’s blog.

And I’d love it if you’d check out my Liberated Life Project site and subscribe to it if you feel moved.  That’s where most of my original writing is going these days. I think of it as a “no-self, no-improvement” blog, in true dharma fashion : )

May all beings be happy, safe, and free in 2012…

Maia

10 Asian+Asian American Buddhists Who Make a Difference

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Canyon Sam

I’m taking this cue from Arun over on the blog Angry Asian Buddhist, which explores issues of race, culture, and privilege in American Buddhism.

As Arun notes in his May 23rd post, this is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. He suggests: “…it would be great if the Buddhist blogging community took advantage of the eight remaining days in May to spend a little time—maybe just one post—recognizing the voices of Asian American Buddhists.”

I want to take Arun up on that invitation and highlight a few of the contributions of Buddhists of Asian and Asian American descent to the field of socially engaged Buddhism. Please note that the list includes people born in the U.S. as well as born in other countries… I couldn’t imagine a list about engaged Buddhism that left off folks like Kaz Tanahashi and Thich Nhat Hanh, so that’s why I expanded on Arun’s original suggestion.

This list is by no means exhaustive… I’m only touching on a few of the engaged Asian and Asian American Buddhists that I have known, worked with, and deeply appreciate.

Anchalee Kurutach was born and raised in Thailand but has lived in the U.S. since 1988.  She has been involved with refugee and immigrant work for over twenty years in both Asia and the U.S. Anchalee is very active in both the Buddhist Peace Fellowship as well as the International Network of Engaged Buddhists.

Anushka Fernandopulle, a dharma teacher in the Theravada tradition, is on the leadership sangha of the East Bay Meditation Center, in Oakland, CA. In addition to her past service as a board member for the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and her support for many other progressive organizations, Anushka brings a dharmic perspective to politics: she serves as a mayoral appointee to the San Francisco Citizen’s Committee on Community Development, a commission that advises the city on community development policy.

Canyon Sam  is a third generation Chinese American activist, author, and playright. She is the author of Sky Train: Tibetan Women On the Edge of History. After spending a year backpacking through China and Tibet when she was in her twenties, Canyon became very involved in advocating for Tibetan human rights and she helped to found the Tibetan Nuns Project.

Duncan Ryuken Williams, a Professor of Buddhist Studies at UC Berkeley, has written on Japanese Buddhist history, Buddhism and environmentalism, and American Buddhism. He is the author of several books, including Buddhism and Ecology: The Interconnection of Dharma and Deeds (Harvard, 1997).

Sister Jun Yasuda, whose picture graces the new masthead of the Jizo Chronicles, is part of the Nipponzan Myohji order. She has led and participated in peace walks to address issues such as nuclear disarmament, prison reform, and Native American rights for many years now. Sister Jun-san lives at the Grafton Peace Pagoda in upstate New York.

Kaz Tanahashi

Kaz Tanahashi, born in Japan, has lived in the U.S. since 1977. Besides being an artist, author, and translator (his recently updated translation of Dogen’s Shobogenzo was just published earlier this year), Kaz is very active in environmental and peace issues. He founded the organizations A World Without Armies and Plutonium Free Future (with Mayumi Oda).

Rev. Ken Tanaka  is a scholar and co-editor (with Charles Prebish) of the book The Faces of Buddhism in America. A leader in the Shin Buddhist community, Rev. Tanaka has called for the development of an “Engaged Pure Land Buddhism”

Mushim Ikeda-Nash  is a Buddhist teacher, author, diversity consultant, and community peace activist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Mushim was coeditor of Making the Invisible Visible: Healing Racism in Our Buddhist Communities. Her work has been featured in two documentary films, “Between the Lines: Asian American Women Poets” and “Acting on Faith: Women and the New Religious Activism in America.

Ryo Imamura was politically active on the Vietnam War issue and farmworkers’ rights, and along with Robert Aitken Roshi helped to found the Buddhist Peace Fellowship in 1978. Ryo is currently a professor of East-West Psychology at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.

Thich Nhat Hanh –  No list on engaged Buddhism would be complete without mention of Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh, who coined the term while he was still living in Vietnam during the war. Thay’s activism includes founding the School of Youth for Social Service (SYSS) in Vietnam, but probably his most important contribution to socially engaged Buddhism is his embodiment of what it means to “be peace” as a way of working toward peace.

Quote of the Week: Sister Chân Không

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Sister Chân Không, who was born in 1938 in Ben Tre, Vietnam, is one of the pioneers of socially engaged Buddhism. She is best known for her collaboration with Vietnamese Zen teacher Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh.

A student of Thây’s since 1959, she assisted him in establishing the Van Hanh University and the School for Youth and Social Service (SYSS) in Vietnam.

In 1966, Sister Chân Không was ordained as one of the first members of the Order of Interbeing. Throughout the Vietnam War, she was at Thay’s side and helped him to organize the Buddhist Peace Delegation which campaigned for peace in Vietnam during the Paris Peace Talks.

Since the end of the war, Sister Chân Không has continued to be involved in support efforts for the people of Vietnam. Her autobiography, Learning True Love: How I Learned to Practice Social Change in Vietnam, was originally published in 1993 and released in a revised edition in 2007.

This quote comes from an interview with Alan Senauke and Susan Moon which appeared in Turning Wheel magazine in Winter of 1994. What I love about it is the encouragement to stay with simple steps in working toward peace and justice… a welcome reminder during our own time of so much social transition and turmoil.

Sometimes I feel overwhelmed. But I try to work one day at a time. If we just worry about the big picture, we are powerless. So my secret is to start right away doing whatever little work I can do. I try to give joy to one person in the morning, and remove the suffering of one person in the afternoon. That’s enough.

When you see you can do that, you continue, and you give two little joys, and you remove two little sufferings, then three, and then four. If you and your friends do not despise the small work, a million people will remove a lot of suffering. That is the secret. Start right now.

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If you enjoyed this post, I invite you to visit my other website: The Liberated Life Project — a personal transformation blog with a social conscience.

More on Japan: Joanna Macy and Thich Nhat Hanh

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ZIZO-BOSATU(KSITIGARBHA Bodhisatva) wood colou...

Jizo Bodhisattva / Image via Wikipedia

This past week, both Joanna Macy and Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh have written some beautiful words in response to the crisis in Japan. Each of them helps us to remember the larger context of this disaster, and of our lives and practice.

First, the letter from Joanna, who is no stranger to the dangers of nuclear power and radiation. In 1992, she spent time with the people  of Novozybkyov, a village about 100 miles from Chernobyl. Joanna and her late husband, Fran Macy, have been dedicated to the cause of nuclear disarmament and guardianship for many years.

Dear Ones,

In this hour of anguish we reach out to our Japanese colleagues and all beings of that noble and stricken land.  As our hearts unite in prayer for them, we experience our own non-separation from the immeasurable suffering inflicted by the successive earthquakes and tsunamis, and by the nuclear catastrophe these have triggered.

Having just begun the last week of my three-month retreat, I break silence to give voice to my solidarity with you all.  By speaking to you, I remind myself of what we can remember in this time of grief and fear.

It helps me to remember what I learned in Novozybkov with survivors of Chernobyl: that is that there are two basic responses to massive collective trauma.  One response is to let it destroy our trust in life and in each other, plummeting us into division, blame and despair.  The other is to let the shared cataclysm strengthen us into greater solidarity, and deepen our knowledge of our mutual belonging in the web of life. Your communications are evidence already of that second response.  Indeed the Work That Reconnects has been preparing us for it.

We remember to breathe.  As we have practiced, we breathe through the reports as we hear and the images of disaster. This helps us simply take in what is happening, and not be blocked by horror or the desire to fix or flee.

We also breathe with those who are caught up in this tragedy, in the intensity of panic, shock, and loss. Feel how this breathing-with helps your heart-mind fearlessly and tenderly embrace them.

You see, if we understand and accept the Great Unraveling, we can let it break us open to greater realizations of our innate solidarity.  That this realization in itself is a kind of “enlightenment” has been brought home to me in my retreat by two great teachers of Japan.

One is the 13th century Zen master Dogen.  He illumines our connections with the ancestors and the future ones, so that we can experience these connections in the immediate present moment.  So does the other figure, the archetypal bodhisattva Ksitigarbha, who is beloved in Japan, where he/she is known as Bodhisattva Jizo, with images .everywhere  Both of them help us realize that we are not alone in this moment of time, but surrounded by past and future generations ready to help.  We who inhabit the present can do what they cannot: that is to make choices and take action/  But the past and future ones are right at our side with support and guidance.

Also, to hold steady and open in this anguished time, try the Spiral of the Work That Reconnects. As I take in the catastrophe in Japan, the Spiral serves to ground my heart-mind, and widen its dimensions.  It brings gratitude for all those at work to bring support and clear reporting.  It helps me honor the heartbreak, to simply open to it and let it reveals our true nature and mutual belonging. It shows me how solidarity can move us forward, and offer us practical, immediate steps to alleviate suffering and enact safe, sustainable, and sane energy policies. An obvious urgency is to stop US Government subsidies and loan guarantees to nuclear industries, including bills that are before Congress now.

As radiation from Fukushima spreads, I know that protection of self and family is on our minds.  I’m asking Anne to append here two kinds of information: about health measures, and some links to breaking news from Japan. See our page dedicated to this issue: http://joannamacy.net/nuclearguardianship/fukushima-dai-ichi-2011.html

Love,
Joanna

And here is the letter from Thich Nhat Hanh:

Dear Friends in Japan,

As we contemplate the great number of people who have died in this tragedy, we may feel very strongly that we ourselves, in some part or manner, also have died.

The pain of one part of humankind is the pain of the whole of humankind. And the human species and the planet Earth are one body. What happens to one part of the body happens to the whole body.

An event such as this reminds us of the impermanent nature of our lives. It helps us remember that what’s most important is to love each other, to be there for each other, and to treasure each moment we have that we are alive. This is the best that we can do for those who have died: we can live in such a way that they continue, beautifully, in us.

Here in France and at our practice centers all over the world, our bothers and sisters will continue to chant for you, sending you the energy of peace, healing and protection. Our prayers are with you.

Thich Nhat Hanh

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If you enjoyed this post, I invite you to visit my other website: The Liberated Life Project — a personal transformation blog with a social conscience.

Quote of the Week: Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh

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photo by Don Farber

This week’s quote comes from Vietnamese Zen master Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh, whose bio appears on this Jizo Chronicles post.

In light of the news coming from Japan over these past few days, these words — from Thây’s book Being Peace – are especially relevant and poignant:

Many of us worry about the situation of the world. We don’t know when the bombs will explode. We feel that we are on the edge of time. As individuals, we feel helpless, despairing. The situation is so dangerous, injustice is so widespread, the danger is close. In this kind of a situation, if we panic, things will only become worse. We need to remain calm, to see clearly. Meditation is to be aware, and to try to help….

Our world is something like a small boat. Compared with the cosmos, our planet is a very small boat. We are about to panic because our situation is no better than the situation of the small boat in the sea. You know that we have more than 50,000 nuclear weapons. Humankind has become a very dangerous species. We need people who can sit still and be able to smile, who can walk peacefully. We need people like that in order to save us. Mahayana Buddhism says that you are that person, that each of you is that person.

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If you enjoyed this post, I invite you to visit my other website: The Liberated Life Project — a personal transformation blog with a social conscience.

Quote of the Week: Thich Nhat Hanh and bell hooks

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I’ve been thinking about what to offer for this week’s quote, and came across something a little bit different: a conversation between Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh and writer and cultural thinker bell hooks in Shambhala Sun.

I love the way they traverse through some difficult subjects, including racism and injustice,  keeping love and the Dharma as their touchstones throughout. This passage comes near the end of their conversation:

bell hooks: And lastly, what about fear? Because I think that many white people approach black people or Asian people not with hatred or anger but with fear. What can love do for that fear?

Thich Nhat Hanh: Fear is born from ignorance. We think that the other person is trying to take away something from us. But if we look deeply, we see that the desire of the other person is exactly our own desire—to have peace, to be able to have a chance to live. So if you realize that the other person is a human being too, and you have exactly the same kind of spiritual path, and then the two can become good practitioners. This appears to be practical for both.

The only answer to fear is more understanding. And there is no understanding if there is no effort to look more deeply to see what is there in our heart and in the heart of the other person. The Buddha always reminds us that our afflictions, including our fear and our desiring, are born from our ignorance. That is why in order to dissipate fear, we have to remove wrong perception.

bell hooks: And what if people perceive rightly and still act unjustly?

Thich Nhat Hanh: They are not able yet to apply their insight in their daily life. They need community to remind them. Sometimes you have a flash of insight, but it’s not strong enough to survive. Therefore in the practice of Buddhism, samadhi is the power to maintain insight alive in every moment, so that every speech, every word, every act will bear the nature of that insight. It is a question of cleaning. And you clean better if you are surrounded by sangha—those who are practicing exactly the same.

bell hooks: I think that we best realize love in community. This is something I have had to work with myself, because the intellectual tradition of the West is very individualistic. It’s not community-based. The intellectual is often thought of as a person who is alone and cut off from the world. So I have had to practice being willing to leave the space of my study to be in community, to work in community, and to be changed by community.

Thich Nhat Hanh: Right, and then we learn to operate as a community and not as individuals. In Plum Village, that is exactly what we try to do. We are brothers and sisters living together. We try to operate like cells in one body.

bell hooks: I think this is the love that we seek in the new millennium, which is the love experienced in community, beyond self.

Thich Nhat Hanh: So please, live that truth and disseminate that truth with your writing, with your speaking. It will be helpful to maintain that kind of view and action.

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