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.
In the last decade or so a conversation has rapidly developed around questions like: What should a public Buddhist position be on issues like poverty or race or health care? And what should we do about that?
“Buddhism was much more of a personal extreme sport. You went off to a monastery and mediated while your friends played golf. You were following some inner quest for enlightenment. But then came the maturation of Buddhism in America, where you look up from the meditation cushion and say: What does this actually mean, in terms of my citizenry, profession, relationship to others?” said Clark Strand, a former Zen Buddhist monk who became an editor and writer on Buddhism.
The event is called “Bringing Our Voices to the Public Square and Compassionate Action to Our Communities” and was organized by a committee of top leaders from both the immigrant-based Buddhist communities and the mostly white convert communities who make up three-quarters of U.S. Buddhists.
Among them is Bill Aiken, spokesman for the U.S. branch of Soka Gakkai, a Japanese Buddhist movement. Aiken said a few people got an idea for the event after looking at research showing there are over 3.5 million Buddhists in the United States — more than the numbers of Muslims and Hindus, groups whose civic profile seems higher, he said.
“We thought: Why are Buddhists invisible? The answer is we’re not reaching out enough, not extending ourselves,” said Aiken.
But what constitutes a “Buddhist” policy agenda?
Janet Gyatso, a specialist on Buddhism at Harvard Divinity School, said it’s too early to tell.
“If you ask Buddhists how to solve poverty, they don’t know, they’re just at the beginning of thinking about this, about what would be a Buddhist response to poverty. They are actively seeking to start to think about what they could do to affect politics in a positive way for the future of the planet. Maybe in 50 years you’ll have these rifts [like you see in other faith communities] but right now that’s premature. It’s just Buddhists saying: ‘Hey, we should speak up!’”
Gyatso said similar movements are going on in Asia, in places including Sri Lanka and Thailand, where Buddhists are speaking out on public issues specifically from a religious perspective.
“It’s not been completely absent, but it hasn’t been a big profile of Buddhists,” she said of civic activism. “This is a new thing, I’d say over 20 or 30 years it’s been growing exponentially.”
American Buddhists identify heavily as liberal; 66 percent say they are Democrats or lean Democratic.
But defining their policy priorities is a work in progress, Aiken said. Organizers gave attendees a list of about 10 items from law enforcement to human rights and asked people to prioritize. By far the most popular priority was climate change and the environment, with education coming second and “peace and disarmament” third, Aiken said.
The Buddhists will spend half the day having a conference that’s a kind of intro-to-activism, with sessions named things like “American Buddhism: Engagement in the Public Square.” Then they head to the White House for something akin to a briefing.
It’s not clear how much time will be given Thursday to the more sensitive foreign policy issues, including the persecution in Buddhist-majority Burma of Rohingya Muslims and the Dalai Lama-led push for more autonomy for Tibet from China. The latter is especially sensitive for the Obama Administration in its relations with China.
Aiken said the Rohingyha issue “is very much on people’s minds and it will have significant focus at this conference.”
Several leaders at the conference said the purpose of Thursday’s meeting is to try and start a general conversation about how Buddhists, specifically, would go about creating a political identity – not to hone in yet on very specific policy positions or start lobbying on them.
Aiken and Strand say there has never been a broad meeting of U.S. Buddhists at the White House, that past meetings have been narrowly focused on an issue such as Tibet. Among those they will talk with are Melissa Rogers, the director of the White House’s Office of Faith-based and Community Partnerships, Shaun Casey, head of the State Department’s newly expanded faith office (his title is U.S. Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs) and representatives from the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Council on Environmental Quality.
The Buddhist leaders attending include the Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, board chairman of Buddhist Global Relief; the Rev. T.K. Nagagaki of the New York Buddhist Council and popular meditation teacher and writer Tara Brach.
“There’s a huge impetus to get on the same page about things, to cobble together a collective religious identity, so they can stand together,” Strand said.
Gyatso said the motivation is external as well as internal.
“You’re seeing a much more active role of Buddhists realizing they have a responsibility and a role to play,” she said, citing topics like social justice, hospice care, animal rights. “People have this idea of Buddhists having a moral vision about what’s right and wrong.”