Buddhist Global Relief was born in response to an essay I wrote in 2007 for Buddhadharma magazine about the need for Buddhists in the U.S. to be more vocal advocates of social and economic justice in today’s world. I saw this task, not as a “politicization” of Buddhism, but as a natural extension of the Buddha’s mission of saving sentient beings from suffering. Too often, I felt, we use the notion of “benefiting all sentient beings” as an excuse for inaction. We think it’s sufficient to subscribe to such vague and sentimental slogans while investing most of our energy in a private spiritual quest aimed at personal fulfillment.
This call for greater engagement is in no way intended to devalue the role of contemplation, meditation, and Dharma study. These constitute the core of the classical Buddhist quest and are central to my own life as a monk. But, I felt, a balance between contemplation and ethical action is critically necessary, and under present circumstances, responsible ethical action entails more than simple adherence to precepts of abstinence and restraint. The very foundations of civilization are in danger, being eroded by a free-for-all economy driven by greed and religious fundamentalism driven by dogmatism and hate. To usher in a more just and equitable social order we are called to act: to act from the ground of the wisdom and compassion generated by our practice, to act on the basis of what I call “conscientious compassion,” a compassion that takes responsibility for the fate of humanity and sentient life on earth.
Following my return to the U.S. in 2002, after twenty years in Asia, I had greater access to the internet. The wide panoramas opened up by the computer made me more keenly aware of the anguish of the contemporary world. Seeing for myself the pangs of affliction that assail people around the globe, I felt moved to make a stronger commitment to redeeming action—action capable of delivering “sentient beings” from the harshest types of suffering to which they are exposed. This was compellingly brought home to me by the two wars my country had launched, on questionable or spurious grounds, wars that racked up a death toll of several hundred thousand, brought wholesale devastation to two countries, and drained over a trillion dollars that could have been used for far more constructive purposes. My awareness of global suffering was further heightened by the South Asian tsunami of late 2004, which struck my spiritual homeland of Sri Lanka and swept away over 200,000 lives across southern Asia.
At the same time I observed that many American Buddhists were inclined to turn the Dharma into a private venture in which we give priority to “my practice” and “my progress” above all else. Such an approach, I feared, holds within it the danger that Buddhist practice could become a subtle form of narcissism. After twenty years in Asia I could see that, despite our economic hardships, in the U.S. we enjoy a degree of material comfort and security far greater than billions of simple people in the so-called “Third World” could ever hope for. We take this security for granted, oblivious to the perpetual insecurity that bears down heavily on most of the planet’s population.
Such suffering stems largely from unjust social and economic systems that deprive people of the means they need to live securely and happily. In most cases, these structures are not accidental but are shaped and imposed by a privileged elite, who enrich themselves and their cohorts while others must struggle daily just to obtain adequate food, housing, education, and work. If we apply the Buddha’s formula of the four noble truths to our collective situation, we would see that to eliminate the effect—the suffering that stems from oppressive social and economic systems—we must make changes to their underlying structures. This need not entail a Marxian program of social revolution, but an ethic of compassion does imply that we should promote an equitable social order that guarantees everyone access to the essentials required for human flourishing. Beyond the bare material requisites of life, people need opportunities to develop their talents and skills, to form healthy and harmonious communities, and to live with purpose and dignity.
When my essay was published, under the title “A Challenge to Buddhists” (given by the editor of Buddhadharma, not by me), I did not show it to anyone. Several of my students, however, read it and began to discuss it among themselves. Over the next couple of months, they brought the challenge of the essay up with me, and after a few conversations we decided to establish a Buddhist organization that could address the problem of global suffering. Initially, in our naivity, we thought we could simply aspire to “provide relief to people worldwide afflicted by poverty, natural disaster, and societal neglect.” As our discussions evolved, we realized this was too broad and too ambitious; we had to be more specific. We needed a more precise point of focus.
I suggested that we make hunger and malnutrition the center of our mission. I chose this subject on the basis of my own personal experience of hunger during my first years as a monk in Sri Lanka. I will relate this story in the next installment of this blog.
– Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi