American Buddhism: Beyond the Search for Inner Peace

An Interview with Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi on Buddhism as a force for social justice

Below is an excerpt of an interview originally posted on the blog of Religion Dispatches. Joshua Eaton and Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi discuss “Buddhist Global Relief, the future of politically engaged Buddhism in the United States, and his shift from private spirituality to public witness.” We invite you to share your reflections about the political engagement of your tradition in the comment section below! 

You have said that there is support for social engagement in “Buddhist doctrine, ethical ideals, archetypes, legends, and historical precedents.” Which of those do you find most inspiring for your own social justice work?

In terms of doctrine, I would start with the Buddha’s tenet that suffering originates from the three unwholesome roots: greed, hatred, and delusion. Classical Buddhism regards these “defilements” as embedded in individual minds and thus primarily deals with the problem of personal suffering: the suffering that arises when one acts in their grip.

But in the modern world, social systems and institutions molded by greed, hatred, and delusion have become so pervasive in their reach that they deeply impact the destinies of whole populations, both nationally and globally. Greed, hatred, and delusion thus generate suffering not merely as factors in individual minds but also in their systemic and institutional embodiments.

For this reason, a solution to the problem of suffering requires that its roots be extricated at multiple levels, including those collective levels touched only distantly by classical Buddhism. This would entail developing a keen diagnosis of how these defilements produce collective suffering, and how we can adopt alternative ways of living that would mitigate their harmful impact.

On top of this, I would add the Buddha’s emphasis on generosity and helpfulness to others as a source of happiness; the value he ascribes to the four “immeasurables”—loving-kindness, compassion, altruistic joy, and impartiality; the five precepts [to refrain from (1) killing, (2) lying, (3) stealing, (4) sexual misconduct, and (5) intoxication] with their foundation in avoiding harm to others; and the guidelines he laid down for the monastic Sangha.

Among these last I would highlight the “six principles of harmony and respect”: (1-3) loving-kindness in deed, word, and thought; (4) sharing righteous gains; (5) observing precepts in harmony; and (6) holding views in harmony. Not all these principles can be observed by a whole society in the way they are prescribed for the monastic order, but their underlying intent is sufficient.

In the search for an ethically based politics the figure of the “wheel-turning king” can serve as a model—the king who rules righteously for the good of all in his realm, including the birds and beasts. This last point is critical, for the way we treat our “fellow passengers” is morally atrocious. Historically, King Asoka, as revealed in his edicts, comes closest to exemplifying the ideal of the wheel-turning king. And of course there is the figure of the bodhisattva, who vows to liberate countless beings from suffering. If this meant only teaching them to train their minds, without also transforming oppressive social systems, that would strike me as a big omission.

Read the full interview on Religion Dispatches.


Joshua Eaton is a journalist, activist, and speaker. He is currently online editor for Spare Change News. He has also served as co-editor-in-chief of Cult/ure: The Graduate Journal of Harvard Divinity School. Joshua holds a MDiv in Buddhist studies from Harvard University and a BA in psychology from the University of West Georgia. His writing has appeared in Buddhadharma, Global Post, Tricycle Blog, Flagpole Magazine, and other publications. 

February 28, 2013 at 5:44 pm Leave a comment

Our Shared Responsibility

This week, we share a reflection from Kirstie Moreno, an AmeriCorps VISTA placed at the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance (MHSA). As one of the coordinators of the Massachusetts Faces of Homelessness Speakers’ Bureau, Kirstie has the opportunity to travel with speakers across Massachusetts and New England to raise awareness of homelessness and its solutions among schools and community groups. In this piece, originally posted on the MHSA blog, she reflects on her experience working with the Speakers’ Bureau and the importance of remembering our shared humanity.

After spending the majority of my college years in anthropology and psychology classrooms, I graduated with a weakness for being excessively analytical. Despite all the unnecessarily convoluted theories, the simplest message I took away from my college experience was this: while we all have diverse life experiences as individuals, we also all share the common experience of being human.

As a coordinator of the Massachusetts Faces of Homelessness Speakers’ Bureau, I’ve heard many stories of struggle, and I’m surprised by how unfathomably amazing our speakers are each time they present their stories. I consistently find myself in awe of their strength, will and courage—every time our speakers agree to a speaking engagement, they are going out in front of a huge group of strangers to lay bare their experiences of hardship and to advocate for those who are still without homes.

Astonishingly, and fortunately for anyone who meets them, our speakers have found the strength and wisdom not only to overcome their individual sets of struggles, but also to advocate—no longer defining themselves by their struggle but instead by how they overcame it. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if these individuals can attribute their homelessness to unavoidable, generational cycles of abuse, poverty, violence, or substance abuse, or if they openly take responsibility for the choices that led them to the street. Regardless of their particular experiences of homelessness, they share a very similar mantra—while life doesn’t hold guarantees, we have an obligation to have a net positive effect on those we can affect.

Our speakers’ inspiring perspectives on life are, for me, a true embodiment of the humanism that I wish so many of us would share—no more defining ourselves by our greatest differences but instead by our ultimate similarity, our humanity, in order to best seek and further social progress. Everyone needs to fulfill the basic human needs of security and shelter in order to create a home. Just think back to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs; in order to even begin thinking about tomorrow, you need to know where you will be tonight. I personally believe that the best way to address the basic human need of shelter is by providing housing opportunities for un-housed individuals through Housing First initiatives. The speakers of the Massachusetts Faces of Homelessness Speakers’ Bureau are on the road week in and week out—sharing their stories, talking about the importance of Housing First and reminding all of us that as part of one humanity, we are responsible for each other.

Having traveled with our speakers to present to nearly 2,000 people in the last four months, I have seen the speakers’ courage again and again. I hope their stories will encourage people to recognize our shared responsibility to ensure an equally humane existence for everyone.

To schedule a Speakers’ Bureau presentation in your community, email or call 617-367-6447.

Kirstie MorenoKirstie Moreno is one of two AmeriCorps VISTAs coordinating the Massachusetts Faces of Homelessness Speakers’ Bureau at the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance. Her responsibilities include facilitating presentations and working closely with the speakers. A recent Wellesley College alum, Kirstie is particularly interested in advocacy for mentally ill persons recidivating through homelessness and institutional confinement.

January 3, 2013 at 12:12 pm Leave a comment

Ethics of Sacrifice

This week, SAM Coordinator Ikhlas Saleem reflects on the relationship between the messages of Eid Al-Adha and our ethical responsibilities toward our neighbors.

On October 25th, 2012, beginning at sundown, Muslims, around the world, celebrated Eid Al-Adha (Holiday of Sacrifice). This celebration commemorates the willingness of Ibrahim (Abraham) to sacrifice his oldest son in an act of submission to God and Isma’il’s (Ibrahim’s first son born from Hajar) acceptance of this sacrifice. Before Ibrahim commits the sacrifice, however, God intervenes and reveals to him that his sacrifice has already been fulfilled and to sacrifice an animal in place of Isma’il. For many who are familiar with this story, it can be deeply troubling. Why must Ibrahim sacrifice his son? Or any individual at all? It can be read, as I have chosen to read, that the test here for Ibrahim (and the listener) is this difficult question: what are we willing to sacrifice for the greater good?

The celebration of Eid al-Adha coincides with the end of the Hajj (Pilgrimage to Mecca) as the Hajjis (Pilgrims) descend from Mount Arafat (located to the east of Mecca). Hajj, for many Muslims, represents the greatest sacrifice. Some save for years in order to attend the Hajj, others travel by foot, camel or sea, and then there are those who have had the opportunity to perform the Hajj multiple times. What is it about the Hajj that attracts so many?

Yes, it is a pillar of the Muslim faith that one should complete the Hajj in their lifetime. But when the Hajjis return to their respective homelands it is not the pillar in which they speak of, it is rather their experience within an ummah (community). El Hajj Malik Shabazz said of the Hajj: “Never have I witnessed such sincere hospitality and overwhelming spirit of true brotherhood as is practiced by people of all colors and races here…”

The Eid and the Hajj call us to a recommitment to the practice of community life. During the Hajj, we are stripped of our clothes, our assets, our egos, our homes, and whatever else we may carry with us. This stripping of the material serves to remind us that we are indebted to one another. When sacrificing an animal for the Eid, one is required to give 1/3 to those who cannot afford; 1/3 to neighbors and friends; and 1/3 is to be kept for one’s immediate family.

The observance of the Hajj and the Eid should cause us to reflect upon our daily practices. What are we being asked to sacrifice and for what cause? In this spirit of shared community, we are being asked to assume an ethical responsibility that involves a sacrifice of our material wealth to sustain the livelihood of individual and community. What we must ask is, does this model of community apply to the Hajj and Eid alone? If we are to translate the experience of the Hajj within our own communities, what ethical responsibilities does that entail and to whom?

While I work here at SAM, I am most interested in how our daily practices and interactions within and outside of community relate to how we approach homelessness. On what levels do individuals and communities engage and are there systematic processes that can ensure a socially just community? I welcome your thoughts in the comments section below, or contact me at


Ikhlas Saleem is a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School and received her BA from Wellesley College. She is originally from Atlanta, GA. 

November 8, 2012 at 5:05 pm 1 comment

SAM Welcomes Ikhlas Saleem!

SAM is pleased to welcome our new Social Action Massachusetts Coordinator, Ikhlas Saleem. In her first post below, Ikhlas shares the experiences that led her to work with SAM and her hopes for the upcoming year.

It is with gratitude that I introduce myself as MHSA’s new Social Action Massachusetts Coordinator for the 2012-2013 academic year. As part of the field education program at Harvard Divinity School, I will intern with SAM in preparation for entering community and social justice work. I am currently in the second and final year of the Master of Theological Studies degree, focusing on women, gender, sexuality, and religion, with a particular concentration in Islamic Studies. While my ultimate aim is to enter a doctoral studies program, in the interim I am interested in working directly with faith and ethical communities on issues of economic and social justice.

This past summer, I worked as a graduate research assistant for the human rights program at The Carter Center in Atlanta, GA. There, I focused on engaging faith and ethical communities, globally, on securing human rights for women. This involved researching faith communities and connecting their ideological/theological beliefs to the economic and social position of women within their societies. I have also worked within various interfaith settings such as the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual in which women across faith and cultural traditions work to reimagine new theological and lived realities for women and children.

Though much of my experience has been centered on women, at the heart of my interest is the belief that our understandings of community must encompass a full awareness of the concerns held by all members of the community. Community, then, is not limited to our traditions, but involves the very issues that surround us in the places which we inhabit. Homelessness is an issue that affects all of us in Massachusetts, and ensuring the well-being of all requires our immediate attention and action. There are many ways for us to respond to homelessness, including volunteering our time at shelters and food pantries. However, while it is important to meet the immediate needs of those who are experiencing homelessness, our ultimate aim should be to end the homelessness of our neighbors with permanent housing solutions. How can we build healthy communities (faith-based or not) without securing housing for all of the members of our communities? To answer this question, communities must reflect upon what it means to be in community with one another.

During my year at SAM, I hope to gain insight into some of these questions and more. How are/can communities work towards ensuring that all have access to housing? What are the challenges? And how can SAM serve as a facilitator for communities engaging in the issue of homelessness? One of my main goals is to focus on sustaining partnerships and implementing long-term advocacy initiatives. I intend to reconnect with current SAM partners and reach out to those whose voices we have yet to hear to stimulate discussion and advocacy around these questions. I hope that you will aid SAM in this endeavor by contributing to the SAM blog and regularly visiting our Facebook and Twitter account to check for advocacy alerts and events in your area.

If you want to get more involved with SAM, have ideas to share about faith and social action, or would like to pass on news articles and links, please contact me, Ikhlas Saleem, at


Ikhlas Saleem is a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School and received her BA from Wellesley College. She is originally from Atlanta, GA.  

October 23, 2012 at 11:30 pm Leave a comment

Bring Our Neighbors Home: Take Action Today!

The Massachusetts Senate Committee on Ways & Means released its Fiscal Year 2013 budget recommendations today. The Senate Budget allocates $1.4 million to the Home & Healthy for Good line item (7004-0104), instead of the $2.2 million funding level proposed by the Governor’s Budget.

Your support throughout this budget process has been critical, and our work is not yet over. Now is the time to voice to the Senate our commitment to ensuring that Massachusetts invests in what works – permanent supportive housing that ends the homelessness of our most vulnerable neighbors and saves the Commonwealth money in the process.

Take Action: Contact Your State Senator!

State Senator James B. Eldridge, Chair of the Joint Committee on Housing, has agreed to file an amendment in the Senate Budget to allocate $2.2 million to line item 7004-0104 for Home & Healthy for Good supportive housing for chronically homeless individuals.

Please take a moment to call your state senator and ask him or her to co-sponsor this important amendment. To find out who your senator is, click here or contact Caitlin Golden at or 617-367-6447 ext. 28. When you speak with your senator, please ask him or her to call the office of Chairman James B. Eldridge at 617-722-1120 and sign on as a co-sponsor to this amendment. The proposed deadline for amendments is Friday at 5 pm, so it is important to take action now.

For more information about Home & Healthy for Good, click here.

Finally, please let us know that you were able to take action by contacting Caitlin Golden at or 617-367-6447 ext. 28.

Thank you for your support at this critical time.

May 17, 2012 at 9:45 am Leave a comment

Zoroastrianism and Social Action

This week, guest blogger Daryush Mehta reflects on the relationship between Zoroastrianism and social action, emphasizing that “every day is a call to action.”

Ask any Zoroastrian about their faith, and you will hear about the mantra that we live by: Good Thoughts, Good Words, and Good Deeds.

Zoroastrianism is widely regarded to be the first monotheistic religion, whose God is named Ahura Mazda (“Lord Wisdom”). The religion’s name derives from the name of the prophet Zoroaster, whose conversations with Ahura Mazda—the Gathas—form the core hymns of the Zoroastrian liturgy. Fire is a sacred symbol, as it represents light, purity, and good thinking. Respect for all God’s creations promotes a symbiotic relationship among them.

The Zoroastrian faith endows the individual with free will to think, speak, and act, and our goal in life is to unify these three aspects of our lives and lift up those in need. In fact, the translation of one of our most sacred prayers (Yathaa Ahoo Vairiyo) tells us, “The power and glory of God is given to those who give protection to those in need.”

A constant struggle between Good and Evil is inherent in the world, and Zoroastrians are taught to think for themselves to better understand the consequences of their actions to live a good life. Human beings possess free will and have been placed on Earth as allies of the forces of light and act as soldiers in the struggle against Evil. Social action is thus firmly embedded in the theology of Zoroastrianism, as we must continually take care of our fellow neighbors, flora, fauna, and the environment in which we live.

I have been privileged to be a part of several events that have highlighted interfaith service and dialogue, including a September 11 remembrance day, a Thanksgiving service project to package food for those who are hungry, rallying to raise awareness for hunger and homelessness issues, and Interfaith Awareness Week. As Zoroastrians, we are involved in projects like these because they embody the Zoroastrian mantra by providing spaces that integrate thought, dialogue, and active service.

For the Zoroastrian, every day is a call to action. Every day is an opportunity to lift up those in need. And every day we continue our journey as good stewards of the Earth.

Daryush Mehta is the Zoroastrian Chaplain at Harvard and MIT and is the Youth Liaison for the Zoroastrian Association of the Greater Boston Area. Daryush is also a research scientist at Harvard and Massachusetts General in the field of voice disorders.

Check out more information about Zoroastrian activities in North America by the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America.

May 10, 2012 at 4:01 pm 1 comment

Next Step: Support Home & Healthy for Good in the Massachusetts Senate!

Right now, there are approximately 1,600 chronically homeless individuals statewide languishing on the streets and in shelters, hoping for a place to call home. Help us serve more people through life-saving models like Home & Healthy for Good. Call your state senator today!

It is a busy time of year for our work to end homelessness, and now more then ever we need your continued advocacy to ensure that the Commonwealth’s Fiscal Year 2013 budget reflects a commitment to proven, cost-effective solutions to ending the homelessness of our most vulnerable neighbors.

Update on Fiscal Year 2013 Budget Process

The Patrick-Murray Administration’s proposed budget includes a funding level of $2.2 million for line item 7004-0104 for Home & Healthy for Good supportive housing for chronically homeless individuals. After the recent amendment process, the Final House FY13 Budget now proposes a funding level of $1.4 million for this line item.

Take Action: Contact Your State Senator!

Now is our chance to voice to the Senate our commitment to ensuring that Massachusetts invests in what works – permanent supportive housing that ends homelessness and saves the Commonwealth money in the process.

Please call your state senator and ask them to contact Chairman Stephen M. Brewer of the Senate Committee on Ways & Means in support of funding line item 7004-0104 at $2.2 million.

To find out who your state senator is, click here or contact Caitlin Golden at or 617-367-6447 ext. 28. When you speak with your state senator, please ask them to call the office of Chairman Brewer at 617-722-1540.

For more information about Home & Healthy for Good, click here.

Finally, please let us know that you were able to take action by contacting Caitlin Golden at or 617-367-6447 ext. 28.

Thank you for your support at this critical time.

April 26, 2012 at 11:54 am Leave a comment

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