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Dharma in Action: Colombia

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Good to be in touch with all of you again following Rohatsu sesshin. It was a beautiful experience, capped off by the 70 of us who sat Rohatsu going outside early on the dawn of December 8 to watch the morning star rise over the mountains just outside of Santa Fe. What a moment!

Here’s an interesting announcement that recently came to my attention. In the coming year, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship is co-sponsoring a “Dharma in Action Fellowship” with the Fellowship of Reconciliation. From the BPF website:

The Buddhist Peace Fellowship is looking for a Buddhist activist to work for peace in Colombia through the Dharma in Action Fellowship (DIAF).  The DIAF Fellow will be placed with the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s peace team to provide nonviolent protective accompaniment to threatened peace activists in Colombia, while exploring the relationship between Buddhism and activism.

Applications are due January 3, 2011!

More details are available from BPF here.


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.

Radical Dhamma: Engaged Buddhism Starts on the Cushion But it Can’t End There

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Buddhist Peace Delegation, Washington DC, 2007

This past Monday, we had a memorial service for Robert Aitken Roshi at the Upaya Zen Center temple. We were on the last morning of our seven-day Buddhist Chaplaincy Training intensive, and I’d just been blessed to spend the week with 38 chaplaincy students, Roshi Joan Halifax, Sensei Fleet Maull, and Jimmy Santiago Baca, all of us exploring “Dharma at the Edge.”

Roshi Joan asked me to say a few words about Aitken Roshi during the service. As I prepared to do that, I remembered just how radical Aitken Roshi was in his life and in his Buddhist practice. As I recounted before on this blog, I got a chance to spend three days with him back in 2005. I’ve never forgotten his encouragement to me to ensure that the Buddhist Peace Fellowship would not forget its radical, anarchist roots, and to keep placing ourselves in harm’s way if need be for the protection of all beings and of the Earth.

Some time after my trip to Hawai’i to meet Roshi, he sent me a gift in the mail – a copy of the book Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement, and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America. This was characteristic of his great generosity as well as his desire to educate fellow Buddhists about the mechanics of radical social change and anarchism. I still can hear his strong voice in my head: “It’s not enough to sit on the cushion.” Roshi’s heroes were people like Dorothy Day, Emma Goldman, Philip Berrigan, Daniel Ellsberg, and Kathy Kelley (of Voices in the Wilderness).

Yesterday, I came across a wonderful piece of writing from sister blogger Katie Loncke. She writes:

As Buddhists and dhamma practitioners, I would love to see us having more conversations about what compassion and social change actually look like: locally, on the ground, in practice.  Because it’s too easy for us to invoke these words — compassion, inner work, social change — and assume that everyone is on the same page.

The truth is, we’re not all on the same page.  And it’s not until after the event is over, on the subway ride home, when a gaggle of us start discussing in detail the relationship between inner and outer work, that these fundamental differences emerge, sharp and cold, like mountain peaks, from the soothing golden fog of Buddhist unity.

Katie then goes on to outline five points where she digresses from “spiritual liberalism”:

1.  Mystified Mechanism. When we start doing the inner work of developing compassion and insight, our outer social justice work will automatically get good.

How?  Sometimes folks talk about spirituality helping to reduce burnout, or converting the motivation of anger into the motivation of compassion.  But while both are wonderful benefits, neither speaks to the testable effectiveness of the particular outer work itself.

2. Healing As (Total) Resistance. Smiling at strangers on the subway is resisting militarism.

Well, I disagree.  Our healing work, spiritual work, and structural resistance work ought to inform each other, but they are not interchangeable substitutes.  Mandela didn’t inspire a movement and challenge the status quo just by praying compassionately for the liberation of the oppressor. (Though he did that, too.)

3. Social Change Relativism. Together, a growing movement is working for peace and justice in the world.  From green business to prison meditation to high-school conflict resolution programs on MTV, signs of hope and change abound.

Are all forms of progressive activism equally useful?  No.  But the shorthand of social change frequently obscures this fact.  Coupled with a feel-good engagement paradigm, the ‘every little bit helps’ idea makes it very difficult to hold each other accountable for our political work and its actual outcomes.

4. Root vs. Radical. Radical political agendas fail to grasp the root cause of oppression: dualism.  And ultimately, the best ways of overcoming dualism are through meditation and small-scale, intimate, interpersonal, compassion-building exercises.

Even if dualism is the “root cause” of oppression, that doesn’t make it the best or most actionable point for resistance, always.  Besides: why is this idea of dualism so pervasive and tenacious, anyway?  In large part because of the political and material structures (i.e. schools, economies, hierarchical religious institutions) that train human beings.  Without changing the power relations governing those material structures, there’s little hope of giving non-dualistic living, and appreciation for inter-being, a real shot on a global scale.      

5. Bhudd-opian Visions. Gandhi said it best: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Often, this gets construed to mean: build the best alternative society you can, and slowly it will change the entire society.  Especially in Buddhist communities that prize extended retreat time, a decade of study with a realized Asian master, and this sort of removal from everyday householder society, there’s a danger of trying to build our sanghas into utopias, and assuming that they will automatically radiate peace and well-being into the world.  Might be true on an individual or small-group level, but why should we believe that we can scale up well-being from personal transformation to world peace, without specific strategies for tackling enormous material systems?

I think these are really important questions, and I bow in gratitude to Katie for bringing them forward. On the same morning I came across Katie’s article, I also happened upon this piece on Transformative Organizing (TO) from this year’s US Social Forum. I’ll write more on this in another post, but in a nutshell, “TO is about creating deep change in how we are as people, how we relate to each other, and how we structure society. It brings together approaches to transformative change, ideological development, and impactful grassroots organizing to create a new paradigm for organizing.”

The interesting thing to me is how TO starts from the basis of effective organizing, and enfolds both inner and outer transformation from there. Too often, I think that many of us as engaged Buddhists give short shrift to the dimension of outer transformation, as well as the challenges in our relationships with each other, especially when there are power inequities based on race, class, and gender. It’s kind of like a spiritual/political bypass.

Meanwhile, in Montague, MA, this week, hundreds of people are attending the Engaged Buddhist Symposium at the Zen Peacemaker Institute. I wonder if these conversations are happening there as well, if people are exploring where the radical edge of dharma lies, and how we as practitioners in this day and age, living in this profoundly broken yet beautiful world, can really get down in the dirt with all beings.

If you’re at the Symposium, or if you have thoughts about all this, I’d love to hear your voice in the comments below.

Another World is Possible: Spiritual Activism at the Detroit USSF

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Another world is possible
Another US is necessary

Something amazing is about to happen in Detroit. From June 22 – 26, thousands of people will gather in that city to connect, to share ideas, and to inspire each other toward a better world. This is the purpose of the US Social Forum — one of the nation’s largest grassroots gatherings of activists and organizers.

This is the way organizers describe the forum:

The US Social Forum (USSF) is a movement building process. It is not a
 conference but it is a space to come up with the peoples’ solutions to the 
economic and ecological crisis. The USSF is the next most important step in our
 struggle to build a powerful multi-racial, multi-sectoral, inter-generational,
 diverse, inclusive, internationalist movement that transforms this country and
 changes history.

This is the second time that the forum has happened in the U.S.; the first was in Atlanta in 2007. (The World Social Forum is the older, bigger sister to the US forums.) That year, a small group of spiritual activists offered workshops and contemplative spaces. This year, the number has grown dramatically — perhaps a sign that compassion-based activism is taking root in social change movements, thanks to organizations like stone circles and others. The Buddhist Peace Fellowship is also getting involved this time around as well.

Here’s a guide to events that fall under the category of spiritual/transformative practices at this year’s forum, compiled by stone circles:

Faith and Spirituality led by a local committee on the ground in Detroit with support from organizers around the country, including stone circles and Word and World.

~Sacred Space Canopy with programming every day from 10 am – 5 pm including reflection, ritual, prayer and dialogue as well as space for individual practice.
~Interfaith Service on Friday morning, as a prelude to a march and rally at Chase Bank
~People’s Movement Assembly, “The Faith Community from Internal Reflection to External Action”
~Many workshops on topics such as nonviolence, self-care, Sabbath economics, street retreats, the spiritual left and much more.

Transformative Practice and Organizing led by a group of organizations from around the country including Center for Transformative Change, Movement Strategy Center, Rockwood Leadership Program, Social Justice Leadership and stone circles!

~Transformative Practice Canopy with continuous practice offerings, workshops and more
~People’s Movement Assembly on Defining Transformation for Social Change
~Daily morning practice in Cobo Hall, beginning with 20 minutes of quiet meditation and followed by a complementary practice for 30-40 minutes.
~Many workshops on topics such as art and creative practice; somatics, trauma and transformation; transformative organizing, fearless meditation and more.

Health and Healing Justice, led by a collective of individuals and organizations in Detroit and from across the country including Generation5, Kindred and others.

~Healing Justice Practice Space with individual and collective healing sessions
~People’s Movement Assembly on Healing Justice and Liberation
For more info, see Kindred’s website!

In addition, Sarah Weintraub, executive director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, will offer a workshop on “Caring for Ourselves and the World: Practices for Self-Compassion and Self-Care.”

If you’re able to get to the USSF, by all means do — and please tell us about your experience. If you can’t make it there, I hope you can take heart in knowing about this amazing event and the inspiring people who are presenting and participating there.

Mandala of Socially Engaged Buddhism

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I’ve referred to the “Mandala of Socially Engaged Buddhism” a couple of time in previous posts on this blog, and I’ve finally dug it up to share it with all of you. If you click on the graphic above, it should open up in a separate window with slightly higher resolution.

Some background on this mandala: It was inspired by a gathering of a number of Buddhist Peace Fellowship chapter leaders in 2003. Everyone shared the kinds of activities that their chapters had organized, and (just as importantly) how they organized these events, what qualities were important for them in the process of organizing.

I was the designated note-taker at this meeting. After digesting all I had heard that day, this mandala is what came to me as a way to summarize what everyone had shared. I realized that the types of activities or events seemed to cluster into four categories (the four quadrants of the circle above), and then I included the six qualities that people consistently named as important parts of the process around the outside of the circle. Later on, I added an archetype into each of the quadrants (e.g. “the healer”) as that was an interesting dimension to play with.

Here are some examples of the kinds of activities you might find in each of the four quadrants:

“Triage”: Stopping Harmful Actions

• Participating in vigils, rallies, and marches against the war on Iraq

• Sitting in meditation vigil at state-sanctioned executions (death penalty)

• Writing letters or calling legislators to call a stop to harmful environmental practice

• Nonviolent civil disobedience and non-cooperation with life-destructive policies

Healing Polarities and Divisions

• Reconciliation or listening circles with groups that have “opposing” points of view

• Practicing Nonviolent Communication

• Addressing issues of racism, classism, sexism, etc. within our sanghas and in society

Building Cultures of Peace

• Working to establish a Department of Peace in the U.S. government

• Work with children and young people

• Building creative arts communities

• Monastic communities that are based on principles of sustainability and non-harming

• Practice simple, sustainable living, individually and in community

Education and Organizing, from a Dharma Perspective

• Empowering ourselves and others with information about a specific issue, such as the minimum wage (economic injustice)

• Inquiry/Analysis. Ask questions: “Why is this situation like this? Who is suffering from this injustice? How can we change it? Who has the power to change it? How can we leverage that power?”

• Designing actions intended to shift power and encouraging others to participate in the change process –provide contact information for legislators, suggested letters to write, invitations to vigils, etc.

The mandala was also influenced by Joanna Macy’s writings about the “Great Turning.” In fact, you’ll see some parallels in this mandala. Macy says that in order for us to navigate the transition from an industrial society to a life-sustaining society, three actions are needed: 1) Holding Actions (similar to the “Triage” in this mandala), 2) Alternative Structures and Analyses (similar to the “Building Cultures of Peace”) and a 3) Shift in Consciousness and Spiritual Awakening (not really a separate part of this mandala, but woven in throughout).

One of the most important points about this mandala is that it is completely interconnected. All four quadrants of action are equally necessary, equally valuable. No one’s work is more important than someone else.

Over the years, this mandala has been a very helpful tool to work with, both with individuals and groups, as we think through how we’ve engaged with social, political, and environmental issues. I’m wondering what thoughts you have about this mandala. Do you notice that your activism has tended to be in one of these quadrants more than others? Do you feel out of balance in any way as you engage with the world? Are the six qualities present in your life and activism? What else might be missing from the mandala?

I consider this mandala a work in progress, so I’d love to hear your feedback on it and any ways that you find it useful.

Dharma in Action: Colombia

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Colombian Children (photo from BPF)

The Buddhist Peace Fellowship and the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) are seeking a Buddhist practitioner for an exciting new project — the “Dharma in Action Fellowship.” This person would:

…join the FOR team to carry out nonviolent protective accompaniment to threatened activists in Colombia, while exploring the relationship between Buddhism and activism during one year of service in the field. The volunteer will carry out human rights protective accompaniment in Bogotá or the rural community of San José de Apartadó…

The Dharma in Action Fellow would be responsible for communicating reflections on the relationship between Buddhism and activism through a socially engaged listserve and/or a personal blog and upon completion of service will give a speaking tour, visiting Buddhist centers in the US to talk about his/her experience and insights while on the team in Colombia.

You can find out more about requirements and how to apply here.

News from the Buddhist Peace Fellowship

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Changes at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, the first organization in the U.S. devoted to socially engaged Buddhism (founded in 1978)… executive director Zenju Earthlyn Manuel is stepping down from her position, and Sarah Weintraub will be taking over as ED.

From a letter from Jesse Maceo Vega-Frey, BPF’s board president:

“[Sarah] is a human rights activist and member of the Bay Area Zen community.  Sarah has extensive experience in socially engaged work, including three years with a Peace Community in Colombia, South America.   She is grounded in an understanding of the Dharma, having grown up in the San Francisco Zen Center community and, after her return from Colombia, training for two years at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center.”

Best wishes to Zenju, who will be finishing up several book projects as well as continuing to lead meditation retreats, and congratulations to Sarah!

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