Called to Act
The founder of Buddhist Global Relief, Brooklyn-born monk Bhikku Bodhi reflects on his path from inner peace to changing the world.
You started an organization to fight world hunger, you write about the devastating consequences of climate change, and you marched with the Occupy Wall Street movement. When did you decide that, in addition to your spiritual work as a Buddhist monk and translator of ancient texts, you needed to be an activist?
Before I became a monk, back in the late 1960s I had a strong passion for social and economic justice, and used to participate in demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. As I became involved with Buddhism, I felt I had to focus inwardly on my spiritual growth. This led me to the monastic path in 1972. In time, however, perhaps starting in the early 1990s, my personal spiritual progress seemed to demand that I turn my attention outward to the state of the world. As I witnessed persisting militarism, the widening gulf between the rich and the poor, and, more recently, the impact of climate change, I felt a call to action. I could only heed this call after I returned to the U.S. in 2002, after 20 years in Asia. I am still more a theorist than an activist, but I try to respond to the voice of conscience telling me that true compassion must be expressed in socially transformative action.
Buddhist Global Relief focuses primarily on food aid to those with a lack of food security. How did you decide that world hunger would be your cause of choice?
When we first began to discuss creating Buddhist Global Relief, we thought we could simply define our mission as providing aid for those suffering from poverty and societal neglect. But in a short time it became clear that we would need a more precise mission. One manifestation of suffering in today’s world that I had encountered in Asia was the extent of global hunger. My further reading taught me that close to a billion people suffer from chronic hunger and malnutrition, and each year 10 million people die from hunger and related illnesses, most of them children—that’s the equivalent of a Nazi Holocaust annually—when it would take just a small fraction of military expenditures to lick world hunger.
How can we balance the need to fight for social and environmental justice with the desire for inner peace and contentment?
I believe the two should go together hand in hand. If we fight for social justice without inner peace—or at least without an effort to cultivate inner peace—our action can be driven by the same kind of destructive anger we are trying to overcome out in the world. If there is simply a quest for inner peace without a concern for social justice, we can easily slip into a narcissistic concern with our inner well-being at the expense of the call for compassionate engagement with the wider social context in which our own life is nested. But when the two are joined, inner balance of mind serves as a platform for developing clear insight into the causes of our predicaments and into practical strategies that can promote effective solutions.
Do you have any strategies for getting through tough times?
Whether it be tough times in one’s personal life or in facing global events, the strategy I myself use is to bring together two of the paramitas, or spiritual perfections, of the Buddhist path: patience and determination. Patience enables one to endure difficulties without becoming upset, agitated, and overwhelmed. Determination prevents patience from turning into stagnation, a resigned acceptance of the status quo. Determination pushes one to continue to strive for positive transformations, whether inwardly or outwardly. Patience provides the understanding that effective change is a gradual process that isn’t always amenable to our will. My first Buddhist teacher taught me: “Without barriers, there can be no progress.” This statement has often come to my rescue when I have felt daunted by hardships.
Find Your Calling
The scale of problems facing the world today makes it difficult to know where to focus our efforts as individuals. How do we find our personal calling for social action?
Set aside some quiet time for deep reflection. During this period, reflect briefly on a number of social issues that stir your sense of conscience. Turn each one over in your mind, as if they were in procession, until one of them starts to pull strongly on the strings of your heart. Don’t jump to the conclusion that this is your calling, but repeat the process daily for a week or more, until you find that one issue keeps on “breaking open your heart.” When that issue emerges, you can conclude—at least until you test it in action—that this is your vocation, the area to which you should dedicate your efforts. This happened to me in the formative stage of Buddhist Global Relief, when images of children with wasted bodies and devastated lives kept on popping into my mind and breaking open my heart.
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