In 1997 I went to Yonkers, N.Y., to interview one of the most senior Zen Buddhist teachers in the United States about Ben & Jerry's Chocolate Fudge Browne ice cream. Pretty sweet assignment, right? (Is that a collective groan I hear?)
The teacher was Brooklyn-born Bernard Glassman, also known by his Zen name Tetsugen, who started a community there designed to provide job training, employment, child care, housing, medical care, and other assistance to ex-drug addicts, ex-felons, single parents, the homeless, HIV and AIDS sufferers, and others facing hard times. He named his endeavor Greyston and one of its creations was a bakery that produced brownies for Ben & Jerry's ice cream products.
I was reminded of Greyston and Glassman -- both still going strong, by the way -- by a story that ran recently in The Washington Post about a White House-sponsored conference on Buddhism and public life. It contained the following paragraph:
"The daylong conference represents, some experts say, the start of a civic awakening not only among U.S. Buddhists, but even Buddhists overseas, where spiritual and religious life can sometimes be separated from things like politics and policy. U.S. Buddhists have high rates of political attentiveness and voting, but until recent years haven’t considered or focused specifically on how their Buddhism translates into public action."
Start of a civic awakening? Well, what about Glassman and the movement known around the globe as Engaged Buddhism? Or Soka Gakkai -- like Zen, a Buddhist import from Japan -- that has for decades in this country sponsored non-partisan peace and disarmament rallies, lobbied for environmentally sustainable lifestyles, and organized human rights projects that include seminars in Japan on Anne Frank as a way of combatting anti-Semitism?
Then there's the global work of the Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who spent nearly four decades in exile after he preached peace at the height of the Vietnam war, angering both sides in the conflict to a degree that the North, the war's eventual winner, refused to allow him reentry to his homeland until 2005. He's often credited with coining the term Engaged Buddhism.
And don't forget the Vietnamese Buddhist monks who publicly immolated themselves in protest of that war. If that's not civic involvement, what is?
In short, when it comes to Buddhism, journalists tend to focus on self-help stories such as the psychological benefits of Mindfulness meditation and other Buddhism-derived personal practices designed to strengthen emotional equanimity. But they tend to overlook stories about the long established involvement of Buddhist groups in the public square, both here and abroad. The one glaring exception, of course, is Tibet's Dalai Lama, who thanks in large part to China's aggressive opposition, is probably better-known for his traditional political role in Tibetan society than for his spiritual teachings.
It is true that in its Asian homeland, Buddhism historically was often more individually focused rather than outwardly concerned, despite Buddhism's core teaching that all life is interdependent. Asian Buddhism also has what I view as its shadow side of public engagement. Renowned Buddhist religious leaders supported Japanese military aggression during World War II. More recently, Buddhist monks were in the forefront of Sri Lankan popular support for the government in its brutal civil war against the (largely Hindu) Tamil rebels. And today, Buddhist monks have taking the lead in Myanmar's abominable treatment of its Rohingya Muslim minority.
But it's not been that way in the West ever since the start of Buddhism's large scale popular acceptance in the 1960s and '70s. Here, Buddhism has been embraced as pacifist and countercultural. That's because so many of the Westerners from Judeo-Christian backgrounds attracted to Buddhist thought were influenced by that era's progressive politics, egalitarian social mores and zest for social transformation that they melded with their newfound Buddhism.
Here's another example of how that played out; Buddhist involvement in the origins of the modern hospice movement.
Since 1987, the San Francisco Zen Center has been a pioneer in hospice programming. Frank Ostaseski was the hospice program's founding director, but he has since moved on and is now a major figure in the international end-of-life, compassionate care movement.
I saw for myself the degree of his influence when I briefly served as a hospice volunteer where I live in Maryland some years back. Many of my co-workers told me they acted out of their Christian convictions, but that did not stop them from praising the writings of Ostaseski and other Western Buddhists that helped them deal with the painful situations in which they found themselves.
Glassman has also moved on and now spends most of his time directing the Zen Peacemaker Order, which describes itself as "an international collection of groups for supporting the vision and inspiration for Socially Engaged Buddhism throughout the world." A prime ZPO activity is staging "Bearing Witness Retreats" in locations of past human atrocities, such as Auschwitz-Birkenau and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The Washington Post story on the White House conference, which President Barak Obama did not attend, was published in advance of the conference. The paper did not publish a follow up story after the conference itself, nor did any other mainstream outlet, as far as I can tell. A few specialized Buddhist publications did, however, according to Bill Aiken, Soka Gakkai's national spokesman and a conference organizer, as did one religion news blog. (The Religion Dispatches blog post noted a telling exchange between a leading American Buddhist teacher -- not Glassman -- and a member of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship about the necessity of warranted military action in a world fraught with danger.)
It's too bad there was not more mainstream interest in the conference because had there been more coverage, statements produced by the 125 or so conferees on the need for confronting climate change and this nation's racial problems might have been reported as clear proof that Buddhists already are very much engaged in the public debate.
Note to religion-beat journalists: there's still plenty of time for follow up.