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Which Side Are You On?

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Which Side Are You On?



Justice is traditionally represented by the symbol of a scale, where the strengths of a case’s opposition and support are weighed out, ostensibly with impartial objectivity.

This symbolism is noble but doesn’t take into account the often-unconscious biases that we carry into so many situations, the collective sum total of which amount to institutionalized racism, sexism, classism, and more.

Even so, the scale is an important symbol that helps us to visualize countervailing energies.

I believe that somewhere there is a metaphorical scale that is collecting the courageous responses that have been flowing so strongly these past weeks: from the thousands of people of color and white folks showing up in the streets of New York, Oakland, Chicago, St. Louis, and other cities – often in the face of police armed with military-grade guns and equipment, teargas canisters, and even tanks – to individuals who are writing brave words, folks like Paul Gorski talking about the challenging conversations we need to be having, and like Jessie S, naming how anti-black racism lives in each of us and what to do about it.

On the other side of the scale are the acts that have provoked these responses and the silence that so often accompanies them. This past week it was the decisions from Missouri and New York grand juries to not indict the police officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner, respectively. But these are simply the latest in a long long long line of injustices, and the conspiracy of silence and complicity which keep those injustices in place.

As terrible as these grand jury decisions have been, they are serving the purpose of waking up a lot of people who have been oblivious to or in denial of racial injustice. It’s pretty impossible to deny that something is horribly wrong when you watch the video of Eric Garner – a peaceful and unarmed man who did nothing more than selling a few cigarettes on the street – pleading for his life.

And then you realize that the officers involved are not being held accountable in any way.

And then you learn that young black males are 21 times more likely to be shot dead by the police compared to their white counterparts.

And that African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites

The scale is there, waiting for you to weigh in. Which will it be? Speaking out the truth of this suffering and finding ways to respond to it… or remaining silent, eyes closed, living in the ignorance of your personal comfort zone.

I am speaking right now particularly to those of you who identify as Buddhist, and who happen to be white. If you choose to remain silent now, to turn away, you are weighing in on the side of perpetuating the injustices that run rampant in our society.

Because you see, something big is a’brewing right now, and you, me, we have a precious opportunity to step up and help it happen. This waking up is not just an individual thing. This process that the Buddha illuminated more than 5000 years ago involves everything and everybody. This is what he said at the moment of his waking up, “I and all sentient beings on earth, together, attain enlightenment at the same time.”

I realize the title of this article will irritate dharma practitioners who have studied and practiced the way of non-duality. I am one of you (a longtime dharma practitioner), and I get that. I get your concern.

And – this is an invitation to realize that non-duality includes points at which we need to take a stand on the side of love. You can hold a place of compassion for an individual officer who may have been trying his best in the moment, and yet call out the ways that he (or she) acted from a place of unexamined bias, and call out a ‘justice’ system that is blind to the reality of racism.

It’s time.

Which side are you on?

If you’re ready to stand on the side of love, here are some starting points:

  • Use your dharma practice to help you settle into a place of receptivity and curiosity…. And get in touch with your deep intention to help all beings be free from suffering, yourself included.
  • Listen. Listen to the experience of people of color without jumping to defensiveness or explanations. Be willing to be in a space of ‘not knowing.’ We have much to learn.
  • Understand that racism hurts all of us. Don’t act out of guilt. Realize it is in everyone’s best interest, including yours, to dismantle an unjust system.
  • Organize a conversation about institutionalized oppression, racism, and privilege in your sangha. Get inspired by the models of the East Bay Meditation Center and Brooklyn Zen Center who have put the values of diversity and inclusivity at the heart of their practice.
  • Show up in support of actions that are happening in your city.
  • Join up with Sangha in the Streets, a Facebook group where you can find out about ways to offer a contemplative presence at these actions, or initiate one yourself.
  • Start a conversation about what the Beloved Community would look and feel like, talk about your vision and listen to others. Check out this video from Dr. Lee Lipp, a senior practitioner at San Francisco Zen Center.

Above all, don’t be silent. Don’t turn away. You may not know what to do, but you can at least talk about that… talk about what you are seeing that deeply disturbs you, reach out to others, start a conversation about what needs to happen. And listen, always listen.

Buddhist Education for Social Transformation in Thailand

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Ouyporn Khuankaew, co-founder of IWP

Ouyporn Khuankaew and Ginger Norwood are two Buddhist feminist activists based in Thailand who co-founded the International Women’s Partnership for Peace and Justice (IWP) in 2002. Through IWP, Ouyporn and Ginger and a wonderful team of other activists offer workshops on anti-oppression feminism, collective leadership, gender and diversity, nonviolent direct action, and peacebuilding.

In the winter of 2011, I was honored to spend some time at IWP (located north of Chiang Mai), and have a deep appreciation for the work that Ouyporn and Ginger are doing to support activists from all over Asia. Just a few weeks ago, Ginger graduated from Upaya’s Buddhist Chaplaincy Training Program here in Santa Fe, so our connections with each other literally span the globe.

This summer, IWP is launching a new training program called BEST — the Buddhist Education for Social Transformation Project. BEST is an innovative yearlong certificated course focused on transformation of individuals, communities, the environment, and the world. The program is open to anyone seeking a Buddhist perspective in his or her approach to personal development, social justice and social change work.

I’m very excited to share this news with you for two reasons.

> First — If you are an activist based in Asia or if you know someone who is, the BEST training is now open for applications. The course is open to people of all identities, welcoming of all genders and sexual identities, spiritual/faith traditions and beliefs, ages, ethnicities, education levels, professions, etc. First priority will be given to activists living and working in the Asian region. The deadline for applying is May 1, and you can find the application material on this page. 

Second — I’m very excited that Ouyporn and Ginger have invited me to teach at BEST during the opening session this July. BEST has limited funding which is prioritized for supporting program participants. I don’t have enough resources to make this trip on my own, so I am asking for help to cover transportation to Thailand so that I may support this great program and teach a workshop on “The Mandala of Socially Engaged Buddhism.”

You can find out more on my fundraising page here:

I would be deeply grateful for any support you can offer, and my biggest thanks to those of you who have already made a contribution to this travel fund! And thank you also for helping to spread the word about BEST to others who may be interested.

palms together,


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.


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.”


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.”


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.


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.

What Does The Progressive Movement Need?

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First off, a disclosure which probably comes as no surprise — I am indeed one of those socially engaged Buddhists who falls into the “progressive” political camp. But as you’ll know if you’ve read some of the past posts on The Jizo Chronicle, such as this one, I am supportive of pluralism among engaged Buddhist voices.

So — on to the matter at hand. Recently, Ethan Vesely-Flad, editor of the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s magazine, invited me to write a short piece to fit in with the theme “Renewing the Movement.” Here’s the background that he gave me:

Many justice activists have been deeply discouraged by the Obama administration’s first 18 months in office.  Conservatives are mobilizing to take back seats in the U.S. Senate, House of Representatives, and throughout state and local elections this November.  Islamophobia is on the rise through right-wing talk radio and fundamentalist Christian communities, building on New York City’s Park51 development effort by the Cordoba House.  The continuing framework of institutional racism is being hotly debated in the wake of such recent incidents as Shirley Sherrod’s forced resignation from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  And no discernible progress has been made on such issues as climate change, immigration reform, and cutting the U.S. military budget.  It’s a very challenging political moment for progressives.

Yet some 15,000 justice activists gathered this June at the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit to work to build together a new world.  Tens of thousands will rally in DC on October 2nd for the One Nation: Working Together mobilization for jobs, immigrant rights, and financial reform.  And more than a thousand rallies and actions for addressing the climate crisis will take place in over 135 countries on October 10th.  Action for social change is happening across the world.

The essay I wrote for FOR was intended to respond to these questions (again, from Ethan):

* What do you see as the top priority (or priorities) for the global peace and justice movement today?
* What strategies should the movement use as it campaigns on those issues?
* What examples of creative action and hope do you see that can inspire us?
* What is a moral framework we can provide to our political and community leaders to inspire them to action?
* And should our activism be spiritually centered?  Is there a particular role that faith communities can play in this movement?

So this was my contribution to that issue:

Dialogue Across Differences: Mobilizing a Wider Base

We live in a society that, by all appearances, is characterized by polarization and divisiveness – Tea Party candidates whose platforms are based on fear of the other seem to be gaining ground across the country; subtle and not-so-subtle racism aimed at President Obama, coming from both conservatives and progressives; and the proliferation of biased news outlets like Fox. We are a nation in the throes of toxic hatred.

Or so it seems. As Steve Chapman writes on in an article titled “America Only Seems Polarized”: “Stop watching cable TV news channels and listening to politicians. Using them as a gauge of how divided we are is like using the National Hockey League to estimate the level of violence in America.”

In fact, a 2008 survey from the National Opinion Research Center found that the largest ideological group is moderates, even though extremist voices get the most coverage.

And yet there is some truth in all this. It’s common for many of us to interact only with people who think like us, which stretches the perceived divide further.

I believe that no matter how hard progressives work on issues that are important to us, until we can find ways to build bridges rather than walls and learn how to communicate effectively with the majority of Americans who yearn for more civility in public discourse, we won’t gain much traction.

One of the most important things that the global peace and justice movement can do is to reclaim what it means to be a decent and engaged citizen. One of the ways we can do this is by creating opportunities for dialogue across differences and building relationships with those who may not, at least initially, be on the same political page as us.

For example, I envision a cadre of people trained in mediation and dialogue skills working in places like Arizona to facilitate constructive conversation around issues like immigration. This would take a brave group of people, who themselves are able to hold multiple truths and find ways to bring people together rather than divide them. Some organizations that do this include the Public Conversations Project and the Zen Peacemaker Community with its “Bearing Witness” vigils in places like Rwanda and Auschwitz.

Grounding these dialogues in the wisdom that comes from our faith traditions, guided by principles of love and non-duality, can only help in this effort. More than ever, the faith-based approaches that Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., forged are needed for a sustainable path to social transformation that mobilizes a wider base of people. But they need to be combined with more savvy about organizing methods and new media realities.

Organizations like stone circles and The Movement Strategy Center, and foundations such as the Seasons Fund for Social Transformation, are right in the middle of this equation, dedicated to bringing together effective organizing strategies with the deep well of spiritually-based action and transformative practices. I believe this is the future of activism.

How about you? How would you answer those questions? What does the U.S. progressive movement need now?

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