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Interview with Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

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Today we’re kicking off a monthly series of profiles about socially engaged Buddhists.

I couldn’t be more delighted to feature Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi in this first profile. I first met Bhikkhu Bodhi when he came to the 2007 Buddhist Peace Delegation in Washington, DC. He gave a stirring speech the night before we marched, as he linked the teachings of the Buddha with the imperative to work for peace in the world and to end the war in Iraq.

Last year our paths crossed again in San Francisco, where I joined Bhikkhu Bodhi in a walk along the Bay (photo above) along with his colleagues from Buddhist Global Relief (BGR), and other dharma friends including Alan Senauke and Katie Loncke.

It’s an honor to spend time with someone who is such an accomplished scholar and has a heartfelt commitment to alleviating suffering. I hope you enjoy getting to know Bhikkhu Bodhi better through this interview… and make sure to check out the annual Walk to Feed the Hungry happening on September 10th, organized by BGR. There are many ways to be involved!


JC: Where do you call home?

Bhikkhu Bodhi: Technically, a monk is a “homeless person,” so, in compliance with this tradition, I would have to say that I have no home. But as a matter of practical convenience, for the past four years I have been residing at Chuang Yen Monastery, in Carmel, New York, a woodlands area in the beautiful and quiet Hudson River Valley. At the monastery, I live in Tai Hsu Hall (named after the famous Chinese Buddhist monastic reformer of the early twentieth century), which is separate from the other monastic residences and thus serves me virtually as a hermitage on the premises of the monastery.

JC: What are you reading right now?

Bhikkhu Bodhi: I read simultaneously along several tracks. For my Buddhist reading, I have been reading, in Chinese, the Mahasamnipata Sutra, a collection of Mahayana sutras preserved in the Chinese Tripitaka. I’ve also been looking at the Pali commentary to the Suttanipata, though hardly reading it in a sustained way.

For edification in social and cultural matters, I just recently finished reading Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism. This is a brilliant analysis of the predicament of modern American democracy by Sheldon S. Wolin, professor emeritus at Princeton University.

JC: Who inspires you – Buddhist teachers, activists, writers, artists…

Bhikkhu Bodhi: My greatest inspiration in my life as a Buddhist monk has been the person who served as my mentor during my years in Sri Lanka, the German elder Ven. Nyanaponika Thera (1901-94). It was his clear comprehension of the intersection between the ancient Buddhist teachings of the Pali Canon and the compelling needs of our time that gave me the perspective and sense of direction that has guided my own development as a Buddhist monk and teacher.

Over the past ten years, since my return to the U.S. and my affiliation with Chinese Buddhists, I have been greatly inspired by three modern Chinese Buddhist masters who are hardly among American Buddhists (hardly surprising when their works are virtually untranslated). One is Ven. Tai Hsu, mentioned above; the second is his student, Ven. Yin Shun (1906-2005), widely regarded as the foremost Chinese scholar-monk of the past century; and the third is Ven. Jen Chun (1919-2011), a senior student of Ven. Yin Shun and the founder of Bodhi Monastery in New Jersey, where I lived for four years. All three of these teachers emphasized what Yin Shun called “Buddhism for the human realm,” an approach that advocates a fusion of the “world-transcending” aspect of the Dharma with its capacity for world transformation and the ennoblement of human life in our concrete existential situation. Incidentally, I recently read an essay in which Thich Nhat Hanh is cited as calling Yin Shun “the Buddhist teacher whom I most revere.” I cannot testify to its accuracy, but Nhat Hanh’s “Engaged Buddhism” seems to be a free rendering of Yin Shun’s renjian fojiao refracted through French existentialism.

Apart from Buddhist thinkers, the persons I have come in recent years to admire most are those engaged in the struggle for a more just and compassionate world. Martin Luther King’s speeches and writings have impressed me with their powerful currents of deep spiritual faith and social conscience; King has acquired accelerating a relevance, especially as the militarism and social injustices that he decried long ago have become so badly exacerbated over the past decade. I also greatly admire Bill McKibben for his courage in leading the campaign against the ravages of climate change.

Perhaps it was through my practice of the meditations on loving-kindness and compassion that I felt “a call of conscience,” a sense that our Buddhist practice should enable us to share the sufferings of those weighed down by grinding poverty…

JC: What social issue is close to your heart right now?

Bhikkhu Bodhi: There are two issues, intimately interwoven, that are close to my heart right now. The one with which I am most directly involved is global hunger and chronic malnutrition, which afflicts close to a billion people around the world and claims 10 million lives a year, 60% of them children. It was to tackle this problem that, together with some of my friends and students, I established Buddhist Global Relief three years ago. In these three years we have already launched over twenty projects that provide food relief and educational aid to people in poor communities in countries ranging from Vietnam and Cambodia to Mali, Niger, and Haiti, and also in the U.S.

But food availability is closely connected with climate change. If the earth’s climate changes at its current rate, the consequences will include a drastic reduction in the world’s resources of food and water. The result will be mass starvation, political chaos, terrifying violence, and regional wars. Hence my concern with alleviating global hunger also spills over into a concern with preventing runaway climate change.

JC: How does your dharma practice inform your involvement on that issue?

Bhikkhu Bodhi: During my early years as a monk, I hardly paid any attention to social issues. My focus was almost entirely on my Dharma studies and personal spiritual development. In recent years, however, I came to feel increasingly a sense of responsibility for the fate of the world. The conviction came to me that a predominantly personal and private approach to spiritual development is sadly inadequate as a response to the crushing misery that afflicts billions of ordinary nameless people around the world. Perhaps it was through my practice of the meditations on loving-kindness and compassion that I felt “a call of conscience,” a sense that our Buddhist practice should enable us to share the sufferings of those weighed down by grinding poverty, compelled by an unjust system to endure constant hunger, fear, and the threat of disabling illnesses without adequate medical services. As this conviction gained momentum in my mind, and I met people with similar sentiments, this led to the creation of Buddhist Global Relief in mid-2008.

JC: If you could invite people to join you in taking one action on that issue, what would it be?

Bhikkhu Bodhi: It is hard to limit my invitation to one issue. I should mention, though, that Buddhist Global Relief will be holding its second annual “Walk to Feed the Hungry” on September 10th, in at least three places: New York City (Riverside Park), Michigan (Kensington Park), and the Bay Area of California.

For details, please check our website: I invite those who live in these areas to join us on this walk (I will be walking in Michigan); if this is not possible, please consult our website and, through First Giving, consider sponsoring those who will be walking. All donations go to support our Fall-Winter 2011 projects.

JC: What else would you like people to know about you?

Bhikkhu Bodhi: I should mention that I also translate Buddhist texts from Pali into English. A couple of months ago I completed a translation of the Anguttara Nikaya, which has been submitted to Wisdom Publications and will be published in 2012. I donated a substantial portion of the royalties from my earlier publications to create, through Wisdom, a Nikayas Fund. The intention is to donate sets of the English translations of the four Nikayas to monasteries and libraries in the disadvantaged countries of Buddhist Asia, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere where the costs would be formidable.

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.

14 responses »

  1. Dear Bhikkhu Bodhi,
    Thank you for your beautiful life of service.
    I have a few questions.
    a) What is the difference between engaged Buddhism and Buddhist charity work?
    b) Why did you start the Buddhist Global Relief? Aren’t there many groups who already do the relief work that you are doing? Why didn’t you join one of them?
    c) What is specifically Buddhist about the BGR?
    Thank you,
    For All Beings,
    Thomas Pearce

    • Dear Thomas,

      Thank you for taking the time to reflect on my interview and to pose some questions. I have answered each one below the question.

      With metta,
      Bhikkhu Bodhi

      a) What is the difference between engaged Buddhism and Buddhist charity work?
      BB: The boundaries between engaged Buddhism and Buddhist charity work are difficult to define with a high degree of precision. In fact it may not be possible to draw hard and fast boundaries between the two. Practicing charity is a mode of engagement with the world, and engagement can express itself in the form of charity. Nevertheless, while recognizing that my views on this issue depend on certain assumptions about both the nature of Engaged Buddhism and the nature of Buddhist charity, I would briefly distinguish the two in terms of their underlying premises and intent.
      Buddhist charity work might be described simply as organized charity motivated by Buddhist ethical ideals, particularly the ideals of generosity and compassion. It is the expression of compassion—empathy with those subject to suffering—by providing those in need with the means to emerge from their suffering and attain some degree of security and well-being. Buddhist charity work is compatible with all forms of traditional Buddhism. It is the application, via organized communities, of the virtue of generosity, which is included in such traditional lists of Buddhist virtues as the “ten bases of merit,” the paramitas, and others.

      Engaged Buddhism I would see as a project rooted in a distinctly modern perspective. It is the recognition that a vast amount of the suffering to which human beings (and other forms of sentient life) are subject today stems from social, economic, and political conditions which impose destructive, unjust, and oppressive agendas . Hence Engaged Buddhism aims directly at alleviating suffering by advocating for changes in these destructive agendas. This involves, at a still deeper level, the insight that the suffering inflicted on people has systemic origins, springing from oppressive and unjust social relations, economic structures, and political institutions. Engaged Buddhism thus sets out to challenge these systemic causes of suffering by highlighting their role in the genesis of suffering and by proposing, in their place, new structures that more closely harmonize with the spiritual and ethical ideals of the Dharma: that is, structures, institutions, and modes of relatedness that more effectively conduce to peace, social harmony, social and economic justice, and environmental sustainability.

      I see Buddhist Global Relief as straddling both sides of this divide. At the more direct level, BGR is involved in Buddhist charity work. But underlying this work is the perception that global hunger stems from inequitable power relations and unequal access to the means of food production and distribution. It is also a product of the colonial domination of “third world” countries by the dominant powers of the North, which continues in more subtle ways through the control that giant agro-business corporations exercise over food production and distribution.

      b) Why did you start the Buddhist Global Relief? Aren’t there many groups who already do the relief work that you are doing? Why didn’t you join one of them?

      BB: For general background history, see:
      More specifically, when I was living at Bodhi Monastery in New Jersey, after the South Asia tsunami of late 2004, which badly hit Sri Lanka, my “spiritual home” for over 20 years, our monastery collected funds to assist the victims of the earthquake. I was given the responsibility of determining to which organizations we should distribute the funds. I wanted to give them to Buddhist organizations operating in Sri Lanka. But when I checked the internet for such Buddhist organizations, what did I find? Many secular organizations coming to the rescue (CARE, Direct Relief International, Save the Children, Docs without Borders, etc.), many Christian and Jewish organizations (many not guided by a missionary agenda), a few Muslim organizations, but only two or three Buddhist organizations.

      This deeply disturbed me and left me pondering, “It seems that we Buddhists speak far and wide about compassion, and we brand ourselves as the emissary of universal compassion, but when we’re challenged with the acid test, we’re in our retreat centers sending pious wishes, ‘May all beings be free from suffering,’ but it’s the other religions that are out there doing the hard work of helping those who are hurt.” I felt strongly that something had to be done to fill this gap.

      c) What is specifically Buddhist about the BGR?
      BB: This question can be answered via our website by looking at our Vision and Mission statements, and our Guideposts—Core Beliefs and Core Values. See the menu at the left of the Home Page for links to these items.

  2. Thank you, Maia and Bhikkhu Bodhi, for this beautiful interview! And the photo reminder of that lovely walk.

    Thomas, I appreciate your questions, and I’ve been thinking lately, too, about the difference between charity and (in my case / language) solidarity. Would love to think through this further with other dhamma friends engaged in the work.

    I find it very interesting that Bhikkhu Bodhi’s early monastic years, focusing on “the Dharma and personal development,” gave way to a greater sense of responsibility for social issues. I wonder whether the hope for a similar trajectory motivates some of the current initiatives to teach Buddhist-inspired “mindfulness” and lightweight ethics in corporate settings, the military, and other arenas that, on the whole, do tremendous damage at the expense of human and non-human life. I have the impression that, despite his own transition into a more hands-on social & environmental justice way of being, Bhikkhu Bodhi doesn’t really get behind this kind of ‘awakening from within the system’ (or at least doesn’t do much of it himself — preferring instead more direct forms of resource redistribution). But I wonder whether this is a correct perception?

    Anyway, this piece brought a smile to my face and deepened the resolve in my heart. Thank you!

    • Katie, do you know the wonderful quote by the late Rev. William Sloane Coffin?

      “Had I but one wish for the churches of America I think it would be that they come to see the difference between charity and justice….Charity seeks to alleviate the effects of injustice; justice seeks to eliminate the causes of it.”

      And your questions about the ethics involved in teaching mindfulness are very important… I imagine you saw Alan Senauke’s post earlier this week on that very subject.

      I’ll let Bhikkhu Bodhi know that both of you have left comments here… hopefully he can drop by and respond.

    • Dear Katie,

      I applaud those who are dedicated to promoting “an awakening from within the system,” but I don’t have either the skills needed to work in this area or access to those with their hands on the gears that control the system. So destiny has consigned me to the role of critiquing the system from the outside (David Loy is also in a similar position and does so far more incisively than I can). However, through Buddhist Global Relief, I am also able to work within the system in ways that can correct some of the damages it imposes. My goal, in any case, is not so much to criticize but to point out that alternatives are possible, indeed necessary, and to advocate changes that would more adequately conduce to social and economic justice for those subject to the ravages of oppressive living conditions.

      With metta,
      Bhikkhu Bodhi

  3. Thank you Maia for this interesting interview! A good, nourishing, one! I love to have experienced his site of laugh, fun and whole-heartedly engagement at Bernie’s symposium of engaged buddhism in massachusetts last summer.
    Thank you for your work.

  4. Pingback: Interview with Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi « The Washington D.C. Buddhist Studies Group

  5. Dear Bhikku Bodhi,
    Karl Marx would agree that the problem is the system, but the Buddha and I say that the problem is spiritual!
    There are many social, economic and political systems in the world and all of them are unjust is some way or other. For us to replace all of them with a perfect “alternative” would be impossible!
    Instead, according to a Path for All Beings (an engaged offshoot of Buddhism), we (1) Investigate suffering; (2) Dedicate ourselves for the sake of all beings; (3) Improve the love in all of our roles and relationships: (4) Fulfill ourselves through the 4 stages of life.
    The Path defines enlightenment as “selflessness” and sees the enlightenment process as a lifelong (or multi-lifelong) learning process through selfless service (Karma Yoga).
    Relief aid plays a small part in the comprehensive process of living this path of dhamma.
    For All Beings,
    Thomas Pearce

    • Dear Thomas,

      I have noted your comments here and on several other socially engaged Buddhist websites, and honestly it seems to me that you are always ready with critique of others who have devoted much of their lives to practice and engagement but I am not sure what exactly it is you are proposing or doing yourself. If you actually are doing some ‘work on the ground,’ so to speak, that brings together the four threads of which you speak, I invite you to share it here or elsewhere.

      I commend Bhikkhu Bodhi, Roshi Bernie Glassman, and so many others who have initiated programs that are deeply rooted in dharma and that are alleviating suffering for many people.


  6. Dear Maia,
    In 1974, I took the bodhisattva vow; and for the past 40 years or so, I have been searching to realize God, the meaning of life and how to fulfill that vow. Then last year, frustrated with the failure of western Buddhists to develop an engaged Buddhist movement, I designed All Beings Buddhism (ABB) with the purpose of relieving the suffering of all beings here and now. The ABB gives selfless service (karma yoga) practice to all householders with the aim of the material fulfillment and spiritual enlightenment of all beings. I, later, de-buddhafied the ABB to make a Path for All Beings.
    It is essential that Buddhists understand that the problems of the world are spiritual and, only in a limited way, systemic. And spiritual problems, we can fix.
    In order to “walk the talk”, we need to have truthful talk first!
    From another Jizo-type bodhisattva,
    For All Beings,
    Thomas Pearce

  7. Pingback: Interview: Arun of “Angry Asian Buddhist” « The Jizo Chronicles

  8. Pingback: Interview: Roshi Joan Halifax « The Jizo Chronicles

  9. Pingback: Interview: Katie Loncke « The Jizo Chronicles

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