My Visit to the White House as a Participant in the Historic First Dharmic Religious Leaders Conference [UPDATED]

The Buddhist Delegation (with representatives from the White House and Hindu American Seva Charities) at the First Dharmic Religious Leaders Conference at the White House, Washington, D.C., April 20, 2012. (The author is in the back row, second from the left.) We're just like the Avengers, except more awesome. Photo by Phil Rosenberg of SGI-USA.

So I had an interesting weekend: I was in Washington, D.C., at the White House as a participant in the historic first Dharmic Religious and Faith Institutional Leaders Conference: Community Building in the 21st Century with Strengthened Dharmic Faith-Based Infrastructures.

Co-hosted by the White House Office of Public Engagement and White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships with Hindu American Seva Charities, the conference brought together a large group of religious and institutional leaders from Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, and Jain communities to discuss service with various government departments and agencies.

Among others, we met with representatives of the Department of Education, Department of State, Department of Homeland Security, and the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. We also heard from and dialogued with a large group of interesting speakers, including Joshua Stanton, founding co-editor of the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogueco-director of Religious Freedom USA, and co-editor of O.N. Scripture — The Torah; former U.S Senator Harris Wofford; and Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook, United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom.

Overall, I concur with many of my colleagues, who felt that the gathering was hugely important symbolically: to see Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains gathered together at the White House to spend a day in dialogue with the government about service and community-building felt like a huge step forward in terms of addressing the lack of attention to and representation of Dharmic religious practitioners in Washington. (Some of you may recall an article I wrote for Religion Dispatches in 2009 that talked about the lack of a Buddhist representative on the White House’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. As of today, this problem has still not been rectified. You can read that article here.)

The conference agenda itself, though, did feel a little overstuffed to me. And things were done in relatively broad strokes. I think we might have benefitted more from smaller groups and more precise focus on unique issues in particular communities, with some attention to broader concerns for us all. But it was certainly a great start in terms of encouraging future events like this, and I thought Joshua Stanton did a really nice job of illustrating the effect the conference had on one person outside these communities looking in. Make sure you give his piece a read over at State of Formation.

In addition to Joshua’s piece, you can read the official press release about the conference here, as well as a substantial blog post at Hindu American Seva Charities’ official blog. [UPDATE: In addition, Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi offers his own take at the official blog for Buddhist Global Relief.] I also thought I would share with you some pictures I took, as well as some other shots I have permission to share with you. You can find those below (and can click on all of them to enlarge).

What a thrill to be invited to the White House, a joy to see some old friends and make new ones, and participate in something so important. Many thanks to the White House Office of Public Engagement, White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, Hindu American Seva Charities, and my friend Bill Aiken at Soka Gakkai International-USA. I’m humbled and always at your service in the future.


All the attendees at the First Dharmic Religious Leaders Conference at the White House. Photo by Phil Rosenberg.
The First Dharmic Religious Leaders Conference at the White House begins! Photo by Phil Rosenberg.
(L-R) Sitting with old acquaintances: Robert Chodo Campbell and Koshin Paley Ellison of the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, the author, and Clark Strand of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. Photo by Phil Rosenberg.
An action shot. Photo by Phil Rosenberg.
Another action shot. Photo by Phil Rosenberg.
Buddhist snack time! Photo by the author.
The author (right) speaking to Bhante Uparatana of the International Buddhist Center (right) as Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi (center) looks on. Photo by Phil Rosenberg.
(R-L) The author with friend and hero Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi. Photo by Clark Strand.
Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi -- one of the most amazing, inspiring, kind people I know and am privileged to call a friend. Photo by the author.
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5 thoughts on “My Visit to the White House as a Participant in the Historic First Dharmic Religious Leaders Conference [UPDATED]

  1. Thanks for sharing Danny. I was very curious about how this event went. What topics were discussed? What was the format of the discussions or presentations? What type of public engagement was exemplified? Who made the Buddhist guest list? Did you know any of the other folks from the other Dharmic communities or were they all new? Do you feel like the diversity of American Buddhism was represented in terms of lay and ordained, practitioner and academic, Asian-American and “convert”? Was there any sense that the White House could be more involved in Dharma-based social action? How? Did you learn anything new? … that’s all for now.

  2. Thanks, Danny. Since, in my blogpost, I am representing an organization, I didn’t want to editorialize but just to provide general information. However, I did write to Bill Aiken to express my personal disappointment at the conference. I received thoughtful replies from Bill and Prof. Hebbar. Both expressed hope that future conferences will be more meaningful and more relevant to our concerns.
    The representatives of the other religions present are all from India, mostly English educated, and work in the professions like medicine, engineering, and science. The Buddhists are from diverse countries, know English as a second language, and for the most part do not have the high professional profiles of the Indians.
    The sudden end to the conference, before we got to the small breakout discussion groups, took me by surprise. I was expecting the small groups to be the most fruitful part of the gathering but at 2 pm we were suddenly told, “Conference over. Time to depart.”

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