INTERVIEW: Bhikkhu Bodhi
by Danny Fisher
[NOTE: This interview was originally posted at elephantjournal.com.]
Though many know him well as the Pali scholar responsible for prodigious English translations of huge pieces of the Tripitaka, the Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi has emerged in the last few years as one of the globe’s most important and industrious Engaged Buddhist leaders.
Born Jeffrey Block in Brooklyn in 1944, he was ordained in the Theravada Buddhist tradition of Sri Lanka at age 28. In 1984, he succeeded the great Venerable Nyanaponika Thera as editor of the Buddhist Publication Society. By 1988, the venerable was named president of the organization. He would hold these positions until 2002, when he returned to the United States.
He now lives at Chuang Yen Monastery in Carmel, NY, and teaches there and at Bodhi Monastery in Lafayette, NJ. He also serves as chairman of the Yin Shun Foundation, an organization devoted to translating into English the works of the late Chinese Mahayana Buddhist Master Yin Shun.
The Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi’s published works include The Noble Eightfold Path: Way to the End of Suffering, The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya (with the Venerable Bhikkhu Nanamoli), Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: An Anthology of Suttas from the Anguttara Nikaya (with the Venerable Nyanaponika Thera), The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya, A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma: The Abhidhammattha Sangaha of Acariya Anuruddha, and the enormously popular collection In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon.
Since his return to the United States, the venerable has been actively involved in global relief and environmental efforts. He played a primary role in founding Buddhist Global Relief, a visionary humanitarian organization based in the United States. In addition, he co-authored (with David Loy and John Stanley) the Buddhist Climate Declaration—a pan-Buddhist declaration on climate change that an international collection of Buddhist clergy (including myself) signed. He was also one of the many diverse religious leaders who converged on Copenhagen during the recent United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
I asked the Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi if he would be willing to answer a few questions about all that he has been up to lately, and he graciously agreed.
We “spoke” via email.
For those unfamiliar with Buddhist Global Relief, would you please acquaint us with it?
Buddhist Global Relief is an organization of Buddhists who share the vision of a Buddhism actively committed to the work of alleviating the suffering caused by social and economic injustice. The organization includes people from different Buddhist affiliations who aspire to give concrete expression to the Buddha’s great compassion in a way appropriate to the crises of the contemporary world. Our advisers include Rev. Heng Sure, Joan Hoeberichts, David Loy, Jan Willis, and Andrew Harvey.
BGR was born from the “commentary” that I wrote for Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly in 2007. When I wrote that essay, I had no intention of founding an organization. My purpose was simply to call attention to what seemed to me a lacuna in American Buddhism, namely, a sufficiently active concern with addressing the suffering brought about by present-day unjust social and economic structures. When the essay was published, I didn’t show it to anyone, but several of my students discovered it on their own and began to speak among themselves about taking up the challenge I had laid down. We held several preliminary discussions, and then decided to establish an organization dedicated to alleviating global suffering.
In quest of a more specific mission, we drew upon the Buddha’s statements that “hunger is the worst illness” and “the gift of food is the gift of life,” and decided to focus on providing food aid to people in the developing world afflicted by chronic hunger and lack of food security. This is a problem that over a billion of our fellow humans confront everyday. Ten million people, over half of them children, die of hunger and hunger-related disease each year. This tears at my heart, and so it is with the friends with whom I established BGR. Thus we chose hunger relief and improved food security as our guiding aim.
We officially came into being in June 2008. We’re an all-volunteer organization, but we have an excellent executive director, Kim Behan, who works almost full time on a voluntary basis. Our Board includes a former project director of CARE and the CEO of a Florida crisis center. At our present stage of development, we aren’t able to send people overseas to work on projects. Rather, we raise funds for food relief and related projects, mainly from individual donors, and partner with relief organizations operating in the countries we serve.
We provide food relief to victims of natural disaster, violent conflict, and drought. In countries stricken by chronic poverty, we support projects aimed at developing better long-term methods of food production and distribution. We’re also moving in the direction of support for the education of poor children, particularly girls. This, we have realized, may be one of the best long-term strategies for combating chronic poverty.
As you note, the roots of BGR are in an essay you wrote for Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly in 2007. In that piece, you make two observations about the modern Engaged Buddhist movement in the West. First, that many Engaged Buddhists “seek fresh perspectives from the dharma…to use while simultaneously espousing sociopolitical causes not much different from those on the mainstream Left.” Second, Engaged Buddhism “remains tangential to the hard core of Western interest in Buddhism, which is the dharma as a path to inner peace and self realization.” Would you say a bit about how BGR as an organization responds to these issues?
I don’t want to criticize my fellow Engaged Buddhists for espousing socio-political causes shared by those of the mainstream Left, since my leanings too are towards the progressive Left, and I espouse many of those same causes: ending the wars in the Middle East, transforming our consumerist economy into a more benign one, regulating carbon emissions and developing green technologies, promoting a more just and equitable society here in the U.S. But what seemed to me to be lacking in the American Engaged Buddhist movement were programs actively aimed at tackling the suffering caused by social and economic injustice.
To give an example: When the South Asian tsunami struck at the end of 2004, Bodhi Monastery, where I was living at the time, raised a sizeable sum of money to provide relief. I looked on Google at the lists of organizations doing relief work in Sri Lanka and Indonesia. Amidst many secular, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim organizations, I could find only two Buddhist organizations, and these had roots in Asian Buddhist countries. This struck me as disturbing. I had to ask myself, “We Buddhists always speak about loving-kindness and compassion. Do we regard these as merely beautiful states of mind, or can they also issue in action?” It was this experience, simmering in the back of my mind, that led me to write my essay for Buddhadharma, and the fruit was the birth of BGR.
I lived in Sri Lanka for about twenty-three years. There I observed that the Buddhist temple is the social and cultural hub of the community, and the resident monks are the ones who take the initiative in looking after the well-being of the people, regardless of religion and ethnicity. But as Buddhism is rooting itself in the U.S., I see a danger that it might become an elitist methodology for discovering inner peace, or for living happily in the here and now, at the cost of its capacity for transforming broader systemic causes of suffering. It seems to me that both the ultimate liberative goal of the Buddha’s teaching, and the active compassionate application of the Dharma to the alleviation of socially caused suffering, are at risk of being pushed to the sidelines in favor of a “feel good about yourself” version of Buddhism, or a Buddhism that functions as a mere existential psychotherapy. This risk is especially serious as Buddhism becomes integrated into mainstream American culture. BGR aims to provoke a sense of what I call “conscientious compassion,” the attempt to give active expression to compassion through concrete measures aimed at alleviating real human suffering even of the most demeaning kind.
Would you say something about Buddhist Global Relief’s current projects and emphases? What are you doing right now? Also, looking ahead, what are the long term goals for the organization?
BGR provides relief to the poor and needy throughout the world regardless of nationality, ethnicity, gender, or religion. However, our first projects were in Buddhist countries in Asia. During our first project period, from December 2008 to June 2009, we launched three projects. In Sri Lanka, we joined hands with the relief organization Sarvodaya to provide right livelihood opportunities for poor urban women. In Myanmar we sponsored Save the Children’s efforts to assist the homeless survivors of Cyclone Nargis. And in Vietnam we feed destitute hospital patients.
Our second project period covered the second half of 2009. In this phase, we assisted Sarvodaya’s efforts in Sri Lanka to feed displaced persons in the refugee camps. In Cambodia, we have partnered with Lotus Outreach to provide a monthly stipend of rice to fifty families so their girls can attend school. Without the stipend, the girls would have to drop out of school in order to work for their families; most would wind up in the sex industry. In northern India, again with Lotus Outreach, we covered the cost of tuition and school materials for a hundred poor children who were working in the brick kilns 14-16 hours a day. These kids now attend school for the first time in their lives.
In the Zinder province of Niger, where infant and early childhood mortality rates are among the world’s highest, we partnered with Helen Keller International on a nutrition project that aims to reduce childhood malnutrition, morbidity, and mortality. The project provided micronutrient supplementation to children, nursing mothers, and pregnant women. Our next project—our eighth and second in Africa–will be in Mali, again in partnership with HKI. There, too, we will provide micronutrient supplementation to children and their mothers. WHO calls micronutrients “the magic wand” in preventing death and promoting healthy development.
As our work has unfolded, we’ve gradually come to see that a key to reducing poverty and ensuring more adequate nutrition in traditional countries is education, particularly of girls. Thus, while we started with an emphasis on direct food relief, we are now extending our scope to include an indirect but more long-range component that focuses on promoting education of poor children. We seek to enable children who haven’t gone to school to attend school, and to ensure that those who go to school stick it out until they complete at least their primary education.
For the future, I would love to see BGR spread over the U.S. and bring into its fold people from a wider range of Buddhist groups. To date, we’ve been based in the northeast, and most active members are my own students, but I would like BGR to become a truly national organization, with branches on the west coast, the deep south, and the central states. I believe that BGR responds to a strong force lying dormant in the American Buddhist consciousness: the force of compassion seeking outward expression. Our work offers a channel through which that force can flow, and we would like to draw on the talents and dedication of the many Buddhists out there who feel an affinity with the kind of work we’re engaged in.
I suggest that those with such an interest check out our website. We’ve posted suggestions of how people can help, along with material they can use for publicity and fundraising, such as PDFs of brochures and posters. They can also write to our ED if they would like to join our efforts more directly.
You recently came back from attending the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, where you were part of a delegation of religious leaders organized by the Global Peace Initiative of Women. What were all these religious leaders doing at Copenhagen? What did you do while you were there?
I first have to clear up a misconception. Neither I myself, nor the group I was with, convened by the Global Peace Initiative of Women, attended the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. GPIW convened this conference in Copenhagen because the convention was taking place at this time, but we didn’t attend the convention itself, which was restricted to authorized governmental delegates.
GPIW’s purpose in organizing this meeting of religious and spiritual leaders is best stated in their own words: “Our goal will be twofold: to create a positive, supportive environment for the conference through prayer, meditation and dialogue so that the best outcome can be achieved; and to convey that while carbon reductions are important, this is not enough to preserve and restore our planet. A new relationship with the earth must be formed… so that we live with true respect and reverence for the life forces that sustain us.”
Our GPIW group included representatives of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, and even two shamans from the Brazilian Amazon forest, who were very impressive. We held seminars, discussions, and meditations, where we explored the spiritual and ethical dimensions of the climate crisis and the shifts in consciousness needed for a satisfactory long-term solution to emerge. Several of our events were held at the “People’s Climate Forum,” which brought together tens of thousands of people and hundreds of groups exploring alternative solutions to the climate crisis. These, to my mind, hold more promise than the conventional solutions that were being forged by governmental delegates at the Bella Center. We were in Copenhagen only from December 7th to the 13th, before the national leaders arrived. By the time the negotiations really gained momentum, most of us were back in our home countries following the transactions over the media.
What would you say that you personally took away from this gathering? How might these experiences influence your next steps in response to the climate crisis?
Although I appreciated the opportunity to exchange ideas with representatives from other religious and spiritual communities, I came away from the conference somewhat disappointed. This is because I consistently find that people with a predominantly spiritual disposition suggest solutions to the climate crisis that would require changes in human nature that are much too sweeping than what we can realistically expect. In holding this skeptical attitude, perhaps, I am being a “bad Buddhist.” But I just don’t believe it is realistic to expect the human community as a whole to awaken to the Oneness of all Life or the deep inter-relatedness of all living beings. Yet at Copenhagen, and elsewhere among spiritual contemplatives, I have heard too much talk along such lines, and I don’t think it is very helpful to adopting the steps needed to resolve the climate crisis at the practical level. For a long-term solution, perhaps such proposals hold out promise, but we have got to act fast, far faster than human nature can be changed.
Since we are facing a situation that, over the next two decades, is about to crash down upon us with unimaginable ferocity, I feel that we need solutions that are feasible, solutions that can be reasonably implemented. I must stress that these need not be “business-friendly” solutions; I certainly hope they won’t go easy on Big Oil, Big Coal, and the meat industry (one of the major sources of greenhouse gases, contributing a higher total percentage than the transportation sector). But we do need policies that accept the reality of human nature as it is and that can work by appealing, first, to people’s enlightened self-interest (in an entirely secular sense), and then, expanding upon this, awaken a sense of altruistic concern for others, a concern not based on any spiritual premises but simply on the basis of a sense of justice and compassion.
I don’t think we can make the preservation of the biosphere contingent on urging people to “awaken” to the Unity of Life or to Universal Interdependence. Those realizations, I believe, can only be attained, or even envisioned, by an extremely small elite of spiritual contemplatives, and I’m not even sure to what extent they correlate with the Buddha’s teachings. They seem to have more affinity with Native American intuitions or even with the American Transcendentalist interpretation of Indian spirituality. If we make the awakening to such realizations the prerequisite of implementing climate-change policies, we had better start now kissing human civilization good-bye.
Obviously, there has been a lot of talk in the media about the convention and its outcomes. As the co-author (with David Loy and John Stanley) of the Buddhist Climate Declaration–the pan-Buddhist declaration on climate change that many Buddhist clergy (including myself) signed–I’m curious to get your take. How did it go?
My perspective on the results of COP-15 is ambivalent. On the one hand, I feel that we have to be thankful that the conference did not end in complete disaster, without any prospect for a solution to the climate crisis. It seemed to be heading in that direction right up to the last day, and the one who rescued it from the brink of utter failure was President Obama. On the other hand, I also regret that all that emerged from the convention was a non-binding accord and that a final agreement will have to wait another year. This accord is said to be merely a “first step,” and it certainly accomplished a lot more than was expected on the morning of the last day of the convention. But time is running out, and it is a big question whether we can avert the worst results of rising carbon emissions.
I am disappointed that legislation proposed in the U.S. Congress does not aim at a more ambitious target for CO2 reduction than 17% off 2005 emissions by 2020. This figure is actually misleading, for the rest of the world uses 1990 as its base, and in those terms the U.S. objective amounts to a meager 4-5% reduction. We certainly need to raise the bar much higher if we’re going to motivate other nations to adopt stringent environmental policies.
I would have liked to see the U.S. pioneer the transition to a clean economy, but we also have to face the sad fact that our country is one of the most obstinate and self-absorbed on earth. The denialists and delayers are too outspoken, so that even close to half our population doesn’t acknowledge global warming as real. Being a Buddhist committed to both a spiritual life and social justice, I believe that to preserve human civilization, we need fundamental and radical measures that strike a deeper level than mere pragmatic technological fixes to runaway greenhouse gas emissions. These would include especially the development of a universal sense of social responsibility, a commitment to ensure that people everywhere can obtain the basic requisites of survival: clean water, nutritious food, education, peaceful means of conflict resolution, and satisfactory health care. This would entail that we adopt, as a matter of national priority, a policy of generosity aimed at promoting the well-being of the entire global community. Some might balk at the expense this would involve, but in reality it would require but a mere fraction, less than 5%, of the vast expenditures we make to conduct wars and produce weaponry.
Corresponding to this, I see a need to change our economic model from the one that currently prevails. We need to rapidly transit away from the paradigm of neo-liberalism, which promotes the unregulated operation of markets, to regulated markets and a return of the welfare state, which ensures that no one is left without vital protections. Contrary to the claim that the free flow of market forces brings maximum benefit to everyone, the consequences are actually quite the opposite. Such a model valorizes greed and ruthless ambition as legitimate grounds of political and economic policy. The result is that, with markets acquiring a global reach, the destruction they bring—economic, environmental, and social—has also become global. The uncontrolled quest for profits and dominance can never meet the demands for justice in an increasingly integrated world.
From the way the major corporations in the U.S. consistently try to block reforms and transformations needed in many critical areas of human life, from health care to education to clean energy, it’s clear enough that the axioms of neo-liberalism are simply a recipe for disaster. Thus we cannot look at global warming in isolation, but must see it as merely the most conspicuous, and perhaps most threatening, piece of a composite danger that can only be circumvented by altering the roots from which it springs. However, that is part of a long-term solution. For the short-term, I believe we must begin pragmatically with an effective, transparent, enforceable, legally binding agreement to control carbon emissions. We have to ensure that global temperature rise is held below 2° C and carbon dioxide concentration eventually brought down to 350 ppm (parts per million) or lower.
The big dispute among those concerned about global warming is currently between two camps. One might be called the “pragmatists,” those who realize (correctly) that our Congress will never pass the strong and far-ranging type of legislation that we urgently need, and thus are prepared to go along with a weak, badly flawed bill in order to break the deadlock of global-warming denial, evasiveness, and hostility that has drowned all climate-control proposals in a sea of silence practically from the time the issue came into the national spotlight. These pragmatists are best represented by Joseph Romm (of the blog Climate Progress), Fred Krupp of the Environmental Defense Fund, and Frances Beinecke of the National Resources Defense Council. The other camp are the “idealists,” represented, for instance, by the climatologist James Hansen, Bill McKibben of 350.org, and such organizations as Friends of the Earth. They advocate far more radical measures than the boldest people in Congress have put forward, measures that Congress, as presently constituted, would never entertain. They won’t settle for the compromises that the pragmatists seek, and believe (probably correctly) that the policies the pragmatists endorse will only enrich corporations and financial institutions without rescuing us from the harmful effects of escalating carbon emissions.
The basic contention, in terms of specific policies, is between “cap and trade” and a carbon tax. I hardly feel qualified to take sides in this debate, which pits the brightest and most knowledgeable of climate-policy specialists against one another. But I can direct readers to intelligent arguments on both sides of the issue and let them make their own choice between them.
So where do we go from here?
Well, it’s clear to me that we’re up against some very powerful forces, and it ain’t gonna be easy for us by any measure. There are two big obstacles that prevent effective action on climate change.
The first is the American political system, with the role it permits to lobbyists, which effectively gives corporations the capacity to exercise a disproportionate influence on legislation and federal policy. To counteract this, we’ve got to make politicians shiver in their pants with fear that they won’t be re-elected, and for that to happen there must be huge pressure being exerted in the opposite direction by the general public. But where’s the huge public outcry against global warming today? Close to half the American people don’t even belief that it’s happening, and the cold weather these days may have even pushed the percentage of climate skeptics over the 50% mark.
Quite apart from recent weather, the reason we haven’t had that big outcry is due to the second obstacle: the media. How much attention and honest reportage does climate change get in the mainstream media? Very little, almost none in fact, and a lot in the media is dismissive of the whole idea that human activity is heating up the planet. You certainly don’t find critical, investigative reporting about climate change on Fox, the most popular station. For any detailed information you have to go to the good websites, but only a few nerds pay attention to these sites.
Thus it seems we’re in an extremely precarious situation. And neither Al Gore, with An Inconvenient Truth, nor Leonardo Dicaprio, with The Eleventh Hour, could use cinema to awaken a mass public acknowledgment of the impending crisis. So what do we do? My idea of a solution might sound a bit wild, but I’m sure it’s the only escape route we have left—and I’m a hundred percent serious about this: Organize a massive rock concert, with talks on saving the earth by prominent movie stars like Dicaprio; between the music, have talks by prominent spiritual leaders, ecologists, scientists, and so on. And have the spiritual leaders all sitting on stage throughout the concert: Catholic priests, monks and nuns, Jewish rabbis in their traditional garb, progressive Evangelical preachers, Hindu swamis, Buddhist monks and nuns, white-robed Sufis–maybe some dervish dancing–North American and Amazonian indigenous peoples, etc. This will convey a powerful message—a super powerhouse message: the spiritual leaders of the planet are teaming up with the rock musicians, the movie stars, and the scientists, to say to one and all, “The time to act is now.” In this way we’ll get the politicians to act.