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Bodhisattvas in the Trenches

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In honor of Vesak Day (the day that commemorates the Buddha’s birth), I thought I’d share the stories of three “bodhisattvas in the trenches” who are doing good work around the world. A deep bow to all of them for the dedication and their practice, in the service of liberating all beings.

Beth Goldring is an American Zen nun who founded Brahmavihara/Cambodia AIDS Project in 2000.  Beth works closely with her Cambodian staff to ensure that AIDS patients with little to no resources are able to have access medical and pastoral care.

The Project has made a tremendous difference to many people, serving a caseload of about 400 patients. They’ve provided transportation, food, financial support, and have even built houses and repaired water systems.

Even with all that, though, as Beth writes, “the essential point of our work is chaplaincy: helping people realize that the Buddha’s compassion is already fully present, even and especially in the midst of their suffering.” The team visits the sick, offers ceremonies for the dead and dying, and also provide massage, Reiki and healing touch.

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Katie Loncke is a young woman in the San Francisco Bay Area who is exploring the edge where dharma meets community organizing. She works closely with the Faithful Fools, an interfaith community center addressing poverty and homelessness in San Francisco. And she’s also an active member of the East Bay Solidarity Network, a mutual support network of workers and tenants who use collective direct action to stand up to exploitative bosses and landlords.

Katie brings a radical, feminist, Marxist analysis to the work. In her writing on her blog, shes grapples with tough questions and wonders “…whether and where there is room for compassion within direct actions that make a target uncomfortable — or ‘harm’ them (major scare-quotes) economically.”

Katie goes on to write: “I believe it’s possible to speak and act very forcefully against a perpetrator (I’m experimenting with saying ‘perpetrator,’ rather than ‘enemy,’ to guard against the typically dehumanizing crystallization of enemyism, and to invoke the work of radical anti-sexual-violence communities that seek to transform both behaviors and systems) while still maintaining compassion for them.”

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Sarah Vesaki-Phillips studied closely with Joanna Macy before heading out on her own to support communities in the Appalachians as they struggled with the devastating practice of mountain-top removal by coal mining companies.

Sarah has been pioneering the field of Eco-Chaplaincy (along with members of the Upaya Buddhist Chaplaincy Program that I support) which she describes as “a form of inter-religious and secular ‘spiritual’ support for people engaged in environmental and social justice work to help prevent burn-out and inspire and sustain long-term vision.”

Sarah bases her approach in Joanna’s “The Work That Re-Connects” to support local people in organizing to end mountain-top removal and restore pride in “mountain culture.”

Sarah’s next project is to join a 60-mile march in West Virginia this June, commemorating the 1921 Miner’s March when over 12,000 coal miners converged to recognize the United Mine Workers of America. Sarah writes, “we are marching, again, in the steps of those brave miners to draw national attention to the atrocity of the current conditions for workers and the environment.”

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And finally, a tip of the hat to the Tzu Chi volunteers in the Southeast U.S. After the April 16 tornadoes that touched down in Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, Tzu Chi volunteers prepared breakfast for families still living in the tornado-struck area with nowhere else to go. They distributed blankets, packs of daily necessities, and large bags of food to the local residents. Tzu Chi is a Buddhist-based international humanitarian organization who have been doing good work since 1966.

If you know of other “bodhisattvas in the trenches,” people embodying the vision and purpose of socially engaged Buddhism, I’d love to hear about them to feature in the future.

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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.

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About Maia

I've been practicing and studying the Buddha way since 1994, and exploring the question "What is engaged Buddhism?" since the late 90s. As former executive director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and editor of its journal, Turning Wheel, I had the honor of meeting and working with many practitioners of engaged dharma, including Roshi Joan Halifax, Joanna Macy, Alan Senauke, and Robert Aitken Roshi. I write about socially engaged Buddhism on my blog, "The Jizo Chronicles," as well as on the theme of personal and collective freedom on my website, "The Liberated Life Project." Through my Five Directions Consulting, I offer support to individuals and organizations who aspire to integrate awareness into their work.

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