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Awakening in Service and Social Action

An Interview with Donald Rothberg and David Loy


Upcoming practice opportunities for socially-engaged Buddhism:  ‘Buddhism and the Ecological Crisis’ with David on Sunday, April 13; ‘Awakening in Service and Action’ retreat with David and Donald April 17-23; and ‘Loving the Earth: Awareness, Action and Celebration’ on Earth Day, Sunday, April 20.

Q: How did you get interested in connecting meditation and social transformation and what do you see as your central focus?

Donald: I had two very powerful, formative experiences relatively early in my life. One of them was opening up to the suffering of the world - the injustice of the world, the problems of the world - starting when I was a teenager, and the other was going more deeply into the nature of experience - the nature of the mind, the heart, the body. It was natural for me to look for a way to make a connection between those early, powerful formative experiences.

This connection really found form in the late 80s, just after I arrived in California, when I started to meet people in the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF). I met Thich Nhat Hanh and Joanna Macy, and got involved with the BPF in Berkeley. I also started going to Asia, particularly Thailand, where I met regularly with people with the International Network of Engaged Buddhists. I remember feeling a sense of coming home and increasingly having venues where all the parts of me could show up. I didn’t have to leave parts of myself at the door, which had in the past often been the case for me in both Buddhist and social change settings. I had often experienced that the people I knew who were socially involved were not interested in spirituality and the people that I knew who were interested in meditation were not making a clear connection to being active in the world. I was driven or pulled by an intuitive sense of wanting to bring those together.

Q: How did you get interested in connecting meditation and social transformation and what do you see as your central focus?

David: I grew up in the 1960's, when the Vietnam War became a huge issue for many of us. Before I became involved with Buddhism I was an anti-war activist, but as the war began to wind up I began to feel the need to work on myself. I began Zen practice about 1971 in Honolulu, when Yamada Koun Roshi visited from Japan and I joined his full 7-day sesshin. It was a real baptism of fire! But it got me hooked.

The more I practiced Zen meditation and studied Buddhist philosophy, the more clearly I could see the “resonances” between the personal transformation that Buddhism traditionally emphasizes, and the social justice issues that the Western tradition commonly emphasizes. The Buddha said that all he had to teach was dukkha [suffering] and how to end it, and today it's pretty clear that we also need to address the structural and institutional sources of dukkha, not just our own individual karma.

My main contribution to socially engaged Buddhism is perhaps seeing how our individual sense of “lack”  is connected with social, economic, political, and ecological problems. This anxiety and dis-ease we all feel because the sense of a separate self is a construct and therefore inherently insecure.

Q: David, in your book Money, Sex, War, Karma, you describe the Three Poisons as being institutionalized.  What are these institutionalized vices and what is the antidote to them?

David: The Buddha didn't have much to say about evil generally, but he said a lot about the three roots of evil or three poisons: greed, aggression and delusion. Today we need to recognize that they have become more institutionalized. Our economic system institutionalizes greed or "never enough" behavior: consumers never consume enough, corporations are never profitable enough, GNP is never big enough and so on. Our military-industrial complex institutionalizes aggression. To justify all that money and power, it needs an enemy—thank goodness for the war on terror!  And the media institutionalize delusion: their primary concern is not to inform us, but to make money from advertising, which means they promote a certain worldview that accepts and perpetuates present social and economic structures.

In response to this, we don't need a separate Buddhist social movement. But, Buddhism can play an important role in the social justice and sustainability movements that are already springing up, by emphasizing the important relationship between personal transformation and social transformation. Those who work for social justice are often wary of religion, because religious institutions have so often been complicit in supporting and rationalizing injustice. Buddhism, however, offers a different example of what it means to be religious or spiritual.

Q: In light of the national discussion on Climate Change, how is socially engaged Buddhism contributing to this discussion?

David: I'm continually surprised that American Buddhists aren't more organized around this issue, which is such a serious threat to the well-being of all sentient life on this planet. I've been working with John Stanley, webmaster of the excellent website www.ecobuddhism.org. We co-edited the book, A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency, which includes contributions by the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Bhikkhu Bodhi, Jack Kornfield and many others. We've also been doing a monthly Huffington Post blog on Buddhism and ecology. The most popular lecture I offer focuses on the parallels between our own individual predicament, according to Buddhism, and our collective predicament today in relation to the rest of the biosphere.

Donald: David and I have both been involved with monthly meetings, via conference calls, of dharma teachers, including Tara Brach, Bhikkhu Bodhi, James Baraz, and many others from the U.S., Canada, and Europe, coming together to respond to climate change. These meetings came out of the June 2014 International Vipassana Teachers meeting and have resulted in coordinating actions at the community and national level, including developing a statement on responding to climate change (http://www.oneearthsangha.org/articles/dharma-teachers-statement-on-climate-change/) signed by more than 400 dharma teachers, and close to 1000 sangha members.

Q: Donald, you teach Wise Speech. What is it and why is it important to those involved with service or social action?

Donald: Wise speech as outlined by the Buddha, focuses on being truthful, being helpful, coming out of a warm heart, and having a certain appropriateness of speech (which has to do with timing and having clear intentions for the speech). I use “Wise Speech” as a way of talking about what usually is called “Right Speech,” part of the Eightfold Path.

The challenge for those following paths of service and/or social action is that speech and communications is often the main way that they relate to the world. We can reflect on how we communicate to those we are “helping.” Similarly, we can think of demonstrations or writing press releases as a form of communication. There is a lot of overlap between socially engaged Buddhism and what we find in recent nonviolent movements coming out of Gandhi and King. Thich Nhat Hanh talked about nonviolence as a form of acting out of love or acting to address issues with love. Cornel West talked once about justice being the public face of love. It’s a real question: Does one speak in a way that polarizes, that holds that “only I have the truth, that you are wrong, that you are my opponent”? Do we demonize our opponents or “enemies”? What is really the vision of service and action? When we look to speech we can see that the vision of Wise Speech is actually to point in the direction of developing a community of friends, which is very much the vision of nonviolence. The aim of nonviolence isn’t to defeat the enemy but to make a friend of the so-called enemy, to reconcile with the enemy while also responding in a very strong way to suffering, to issues and concerns.

One can have great ideals in terms of social action and if you don’t have clear ways of bringing your spiritual values into communication, into community, into connection, into ways of dealing with conflict, it can make it much harder to realize these ideals.

Q: You’re teaching an upcoming retreat with David on “Awakening in Service and Action: A Study Retreat on Socially Engaged Buddhism” in April 2014. What do you hope your participants will come away with?

Donald: I hope they come away with energy, inspiration, deeper understanding, and a number of specific tools and practices (related to speech and communication, conflict, difficult emotions, etc.), as well as perspectives, that they can take home with them and really use. Two-thirds of the retreat will be in silence. During discussion times, we will explore different themes—ecological issues, economic issues, concerns related to race and gender, and issues of conflict, war, and peace— as we make the connection between traditional teachings and engaged ways of seeing the world and practicing. We’ll keep connecting these larger themes with very specific ways to practice—individually and in groups—so that we come more and more to have a seamless sense of practice, whether in the individual, interpersonal, organizational, or collective realms. And I hope they will also come out of the retreat with a bunch of new friends, a wider sense of community and hopefully a sense for where they, in their own creative ways, can make the connection between inner and outer transformation.


photo by Gwydion M. Williams


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