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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…


Thanksgiving for Real [guest post by Alan Senauke]

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November sky over Upaya Zen Center, Santa Fe

I was thinking about what to write for a Thanksgiving post when this showed up in my in-box this morning from my friend Alan Senauke. So I happily give the floor to Alan, and wish all of you a happy holiday.


Thanksgiving For Real

Hozan Alan Senauke


When the Way is entrusted to the Way, we attain the Way…When treasures are entrusted to treasures, these treasures certainly become giving. We offer ourselves to ourselves, and we offer others to others.

—  Eihei Dogen, “Bodaisatta Shishobo”


Digging around a bit I find that the first “thanksgiving” in the so-called New World may have taken place in June of 1564 on the River of May (now St. Johns River, Florida), celebrated by French Huguenots who fled religious wars in Europe. Another thanksgiving was marked on September 8, 1595 in the Spanish colony of what is now St. Augustine, Florida.  By then the Spanish had massacred most of the early French colonists and many of the local native peoples.

In 1619 English settlers landed at Berkeley Hundreds on Virginia’s James River and offered a day of thanksgiving, as per a regulation in their charter.  Within several years, the ongoing Anglo-Powhaton wars had driven the native tribes out of the region, and left many of the early settlers dead.

The surviving fifty-three members of the Plymouth Colony celebrated their first successful harvest in New England with a day of thanks in November 1621. A larger group from the Wampanoag tribe, led by Massasoit, arrived uninvited at the festival, causing initial alarm.  But they came with generous offerings of food and drink (hence the now traditional Thanksgiving dinner of eel and stuffed lobster), and they partied together avidly. By 1676, only 400 Wampanoags remained and their leader Metacom, or King Philip, was captured and shot.  His severed head was displayed on a pike in Plymouth for twenty years.

By now you are surely wondering what does this have to do with Buddhism?  I am getting at the fact that our annual fourth Thursday in November tryptophan orgy, followed by Black Friday — the traditional kickoff to Christmas shopping — has a history marked by domination: domination over native peoples, domination over poultry — ask any turkey — and the domination of consumerism over all of us.

Still the force of giving and gratitude cannot be erased by history. It is a universal activity of the true human. Many of us will, in fact, experience just this as we sit down with family and friends on Thanksgiving Day. Or as we serve a meal to those in need. In Buddhist terms Dogen Zenji writes:

When we can give up even one speck of dust as the practice of giving, though it is a small act, we can quietly rejoice in it. This is because we have already correctly transmitted and carried out one of the virtues of the buddhas, and because we have practiced a bodhisattva’s act for the first time.

The Bodhisattva’s first perfection or paramita is dana, giving. There are many kinds of giving: material aid, spiritual comfort, the Buddha’s teachings, fearlessness, and more.  This is a universal principle. Judaism calls it tzedakah, in Islam it is sadaqah (clearly the same word), Christianity has caritas (Latin) and agape (Greek).  We can draw fine distinctions, but these are related practices — giving without the expectation of reward or recompense.

In his inspiring book The Gift, writer Lewis Hyde says:

Between the time a gift comes to us and the time we pass it along, we suffer gratitude… Passing the gift along is the act of gratitude that finishes the labor. The transformation is not accomplished until we have the power to give the gift on our own terms.

This is a curious expression, to “suffer gratitude.”  The Latin roots of “suffer” imply to carry up or to bear from under. In earlier days it meant to allow something to arise. At the same time, the word suffer inevitably suggests our experience of the pain of life, the mark of our precious human existence.

This awareness undercuts the theme of domination running through the history of thanksgiving as a holiday. When we suffer gratitude there is no room for domination. When giving and gift circulate freely we have moved beyond the realm of subject and object.  Giving gives, receiving gives, suffering disperses like morning mist in sunlight.

My own Zen teacher says, “Don’t treat anything as an object.”  This means to see all that we encounter — persons, material things, feelings, ideas, and so on — as part of oneself.  That is, subjectively.  With such an attitude, which is the mind of zazen, domination cannot emerge.  We meet the world with an open hand. We immediately know thanks in giving, thanks in receiving, thanks in being. And then we are in the next moment, where the hand is opened once more.  This is thanksgiving for real.

I give the last word to Dogen, again from “Bodaisatta Shishobo.”  Enjoy the day.

It is like offering treasures that are going to be discarded to people we do not know. Give flowers blooming on the distant mountains to the Tathagata. Offer treasures accumulated in our past lives to living beings. Whether a gift is Dharma or material objects, each gift is truly endowed with the virtue of offering.



Quote of the Week: Alan Senauke

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A few days ago, I enjoyed a beautiful walk along the San Francisco Bay with Alan, Bhikkhu Bodhi, Katie Loncke, and Kim and Sylvie of Buddhist Global Relief. Together, we spanned three generations of engaged Buddhism, and the conversation on our walk ranged from dharma questions for Bhikkhu Bodhi (who has translated many classic Buddhist texts) to debating the utility and futility of electoral politics.

Alan gifted me with his new book, The Bodhisattva’s Embrace: Dispatches from Engaged Buddhism’s Front Lines. I’ve been reading the book and deeply appreciating how much Alan has contributed to all of us over his many years of practice and service. It’s a beautiful book and I highly recommend it.

This excerpt comes from the book’s introduction:

It is hard to define engaged Buddhism. But I think it has to do with a willingness to see how deeply people suffer; to understand how we have fashioned whole systems of suffering out of gender, race, caste, class, ability, and so on; and to know that interdependently and individually we co-create this suffering. Looking around we plainly see a world at war, a planet in peril.

Some days, I call this engaged Buddhism; on other days I think it is just plain Buddhism — walking the Bodhisattva path, embracing the suffering of beings by taking responsibility for them. In almost every religious tradition there [are] similar ways and practices integrating faith and activism. Across religions and nations we are each others’ sisters and brothers and allies. Our effort is to be more truly human.



Quote of the Week: Hozan Alan Senauke

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Alan Senauke is one of the people most responsible for bringing forth socially engaged Buddhism in the United States over the past 20 years.

Alan is a Soto Zen priest who received dharma transmission from Sojun Mel Weitsman in 1998, and currently serves as vice-abbot of Berkeley Zen Center. He came to Buddhist practice after being deeply involved in the civil rights and peace movements, including being part of the 1968 Columbia University student strike.

I was lucky enough to work with Alan directly at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship during his years as executive director there (1991 – 2001), and then afterwards when he served as a special advisor to many of BPF’s projects, particularly international efforts in Burma and other parts of Asia. He went on to found The Clear View Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating Buddhist-based resources for relief and social change.

Alan is smart, compassionate, down-to-earth, and utterly grounded in the Buddhadharma. To me, he is the embodiment of someone who has fully integrated what it means to take loving, compassionate action in the world. Alan’s new book, The Bodhisattva’s Embrace: Dispatches from Engaged Buddhism’s Front Lines, has just been published, and I highly recommend it. And he also happens to be a damn fine bluegrass musician.

Here’s this week’s short quote from Alan:

…Recognizing unity, even in the midst of difference and turmoil, is the essence of peacemaking.

And when you have time to read and digest it, here is that same quote within a longer selection — this is the beginning of Alan’s beautiful essay titled “Vowing Peace in an Age of War,” which he wrote in 1999 for the Dogen Symposium at Stanford University.

San Quentin Prison sits on a bare spit of land on San Francisco Bay. This is where the state of California puts prisoners to death. The gas chamber is still there, but for the last five years executions are done by lethal injection in a mock-clinical setting that cruelly imitates a hospital room. Five hundred seventeen men and ten women wait on California’s death row, often for fifteen or twenty years. The voting public supports this state-sanctioned violence. In fact, no politician can get elected to higher office in California without appearing to support the death penalty.

On a stormy evening in March, several hundred people came forward for a vigil and rally to protest the execution of Jay Siripongs, a Thai national and a Buddhist, convicted of a 1983 murder in Los Angeles. Sheets of rain and cold wind beat on everyone gathered at the prison gates: Death penalty opponents, a handful of death penalty supporters, press, prison guards, and right up against the gate, gazing at San Quentin’s stone walls, seventy-five or more Zen students and meditators bearing witness to the execution, sitting in the middle of anger, grief, painful words, and more painful deeds.

My robes were soaked through and my zafu sat in a deepening puddle. Across a chain link fence, ten feet away, fifteen helmeted guards stood in a wet line, rain falling as hard on them as on ourselves. I felt a moment of deep connection: Black-robed Zen students sitting upright in attention in the rain, protecting beings as best we know how; black jacketed police officers standing at attention in the rain, protecting beings as they know how. Is there a difference between the activities and mind of Zen students and prison guards?

Yes, of course. But recognizing unity, even in the midst of difference and turmoil, is the essence of peacemaking. And I imagine there were guards who had the same awareness.

Our witness at San Quentin is part of a great vow that Zen persons take. Bearing witness is the Bodhisattva’s radical act of complete acceptance and non-duality. My own understanding of Dogen Zen leads me to active resistance and social transformation. I vow to bear witness where violence unfolds. I vow to recognize the human capacity for violence within my own mind, acknowledging conditions of greed, hatred, and delusion that arise within me.

I take true refuge in Buddhadharma, and seek to resolve conflicts. I vow never again to raise a weapon in anger or complicity with the state or any so-called authority, but to intervene actively and nonviolently for peace, even where this may put my own body and life at risk.

Who will take this vow with me? Am I really ready? Are you? We offer heartfelt vows over and over again in the zendo. Dogen Zenji and all buddha ancestors are with us in that sacred space. I know it is stretching a point to characterize Dogen or Shakyamuni Buddha as engaged Buddhists. But all buddha ancestors teach us that the dharma is our own experience.

Let us wake up to what is wholesome in the world. Remake Buddhism for this time, this place, this circumstance. In that spirit we can raise our voices in a vow that fits our season. May we realize our vow in action, and step forward from the top of a hundred foot pole…

Buy "The Bodhisattva's Embrace" at

Socially Engaged Buddhism Symposium: Round-up of Coverage

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Photo of symposium from

As promised, here is a round-up of the online coverage of the Socially Engaged Buddhist Symposium held recently at the Zen Peacemakers’ House of One People:

  • The Zen Peacemakers website has summaries of the keynote speeches as well as each of the panels. You can also purchase DVDs on this page as well.

Can Green Buddhism Save the Earth?

Burma’s Saffron Revolution Comes to the Symposium

Special Ministries Discussed at Symposium (including prison ministry and mental health)

Jon Kabat-Zinn on Stress Reduction

There are more articles posted there, so be sure to visit the BW blog.

  • And I know that Kenneth Kraft, co-author of The New Social Face of Buddhism, has an article about to be posted on the Bearing Witness blog, so keep an eye out for that as well.

Did I miss anything? If you were at the Symposium, what are your reflections?

Bodhisattvas Needed in Louisiana

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photo from U.S. Coast Guard

Here’s the idea of the day, from Hozan Alan Senauke of the Clear View Project: How about a Buddhist brigade to Louisiana to help with clean up from this huge mess of an oil spill that will hit land soon? The consequences are projected to be devastating.

Here’s a small resource list to get this off the ground:

  • OIL SPILL CLEANUP–To volunteer: 1-866-448-5816.If you have a boat: 425-745-8017. To report oiled wildlife: 1-866-577-1401. Spill-related damages: 1-800-440-0858. (Please repost.)

If you’re interested in connecting with other dharma practitioners who want to go to the Gulf region to volunteer, feel free to comment on this post and find each other.

Who wants to take the ball and run with it?

Odds and Ends

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Graduation Day at Upaya Zen Center

Lots to catch you up on… I’ve been away for a while because I was occupied with Upaya Zen Center’s Buddhist Chaplaincy Program for an intense 10-day period. During this time, we graduated and ordained our very first group of chaplains: thirteen brave souls who started in the program in 2008 and successfully completed all requirements, including a thesis-equivalent final project. And we welcomed 24 new students into the program.

It’s really quite an amazing program – part seminary training in Buddhist teachings and practice, part professional training in chaplaincy and servant leadership, and part mystery school. As one person put it, the program becomes a kind of karmic accelerator for one’s life. I’m honored to work with Roshi Joan Halifax in leading and shaping the program… and this year, I am putting myself in the training as well.

I continue to be in the middle of a busy stretch of life work. But a number of great socially engaged Buddhist items have crossed my desk and I want to pass them along to you. Here’s the shorthand version:

• Hozan Alan Senauke, founder of the Clear View Project, recently returned from a trip to India where he spent time with the “untouchable” communities of Maharastra. You can read his account of it here: “Buddhism Among India’s Most Oppressed: Notes & Impressions.”

• Ouyporn Khuankaew, an amazing, dynamic activist from Thailand, has been right here in Santa Fe for the past few weeks and I’ve loved getting to know her better. Her center, The International Women’s Partnership for Peace and Justice, is offering an event called “Women Allies for Social Change: Exploring Buddhism and feminism for personal and social transformation” in Chiang Mai, Thailand, this July. I’ve added it to the SEB Calendar on this blog.

Also, Ouyporn, Roshi Joan Halifax, and I are cooking up an idea to create a version of the Upaya Buddhist Chaplaincy Program for Thailand. Stay tuned for more developments on this initiative.

• Another project I’ve been involved with is helping to collect material for the companion website to the upcoming PBS documentary “The Buddha.” The show will be aired on April 7. There are a number of good articles there on socially engaged Buddhism, as well as many other topics.

• Finally, there’s been a lot in the news lately about Burma and Thailand. If you’re trying to sort it all out and have a better understanding of what’s going on in that part of the world, Danny Fisher’s Buddhist Beat column on the Shambhala Sun website is a good place to start.

And in case you’re wondering, I really don’t care about all this Tiger Woods/Buddhist news… my only wish for him as well as for everyone else: May all beings be free from suffering.

Quote of the Week: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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January 15 would have been Martin Luther King Jr.’s 81st birthday. I wonder what the world might be like today had he not been assassinated in 1968.

Dr. King’s teachings and politics were more radical than the Disney-fied version of him that tends to be put forward on the commemoration of his birthday. When he was only 23, he wrote to his wife-to-be, Coretta Scott: “I imagine you already know that I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic.” His ability to link apparently disparate issues like race, economics, war, and technology, as well as to build bridges between groups of people, made him a potent leader. In fact, after King’s 1963 speech at the March on Washington, FBI Assistant Director Louis Sullivan charged that King was “The most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country.”

Although Dr. King was himself a Baptist minister, he developed a relationship with, and a deep respect for, Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh; King nominated Thay for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967. And the heart of King’s teaching transcends any one religion – it’s a clear testimony to the truth of our interconnectedness and the power of love to overcome hate. Which sounds quite a bit like the basic teachings of the Buddha, actually.

Rather than try to summarize Dr. King’s amazing life here, here are a couple of good sources to learn more about him:

I could have chosen one of Dr. King’s many quotes on our interconnection – that would make sense for a Buddhist blog, and many have highlighted those quotes. Instead, here’s one that fully exemplifies his passion for peace and justice, as well as his love for his country. The quote is from a speech given on February 25, 1967:

Those of us who love peace must organize as effectively as the war hawks. As they spread the propaganda of war, we must spread the propaganda of peace. We must combine the fervor of the civil rights movement with the peace movement. We must demonstrate, teach and preach until the very foundations of our nation are shaken. We must work unceasingly to lift this nation that we love to a higher destiny, to a new plateau of compassion, to a more noble expression of humaneness.

Martin Luther King, Jr., was a bodhisattva extraordinaire.

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