US First White House Buddhist Leaders Conference – 14 May, 2015

It was a very full day. (You can see a detailed account here.) A diverse gathering of Buddhist teachers and leaders, from a range of lineages, ethnic backgrounds, and geographical locations, made it to Washington DC to take part in what was seen as a historic occasion. This was the first time a range of Buddhist representatives had been invited and welcomed into the White House, to register their concerns, and make themselves known as a body that has political and social impact. Perhaps more important, was that we, as Buddhists, recognized ourselves as stepping out to engage more fully on the political stage.

As a gesture of moving toward making a political statement, we submitted two statements on behalf of Buddhists, one on Racism, and one on Climate Change.

US First White House Buddhist Leaders ConferenceAn article a few days before in the Washington Post asked, “Are we about to enter the era of the political Buddhist?” It went on to say, “On Thursday about 125 U.S. Buddhist leaders from across the spectrum will gather in Washington for what organizers say may be the biggest conference ever focused on bringing their faith communities into public, civic life. After the conference, the group will meet with officials at the White House, which longtime writers on U.S. Buddhism say is a first….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 my own estimation, the primary importance of the White House visit was placing ourselves as politically and socially engaged in response to the pressing issues of our times, and in doing so, overturning a somewhat erroneous narrative that Buddhism is passive and detached. (While some Buddhists maybe, that is not what the Buddha taught or lived.)

As millions of tons of carbon, nitrous oxide and methane gases continue to heat our biosphere, it is not a moment too soon to step up. Not only by focusing on the consequences, but also on the causes, right down to the most profound cause of separative consciousness. What is very affirming to understand, is how much we have to offer into the social and political discourse of America, and further afield, as a Buddhist collective.

In response to some very good questions in the group Q&A session with State Representatives, while seated in an auditorium in the South Wing, I found myself becoming somewhat agitated as the Associate Director for the White House Council for Environmental Quality, Angela Barranco, encouraged us as Buddhists to be engaged in increasing pressure around policy. While an important point, and while her overall address was excellent, I commented to her that, while we can all do something, considering the urgency of our situation, and considering that real power lies in government, what seems more important is that the government shift billions of dollars in subsidies from the fossil fuel industry to renewables. Of course, as she pointed out, and as we are all aware, even with the best will in the world, political machinations distort an expedient and clear response. (And, of course, huge power now lies with the Corporations and their overarching influence.)

Overall, while it was a long day with presentations beginning at 9.30am and continuing to 5pm, and while there was too little time to talk together, which would have been great, there were excellent presentations in the morning from members of the Buddhist community, and very engaging, open, transparent and positive input from the government officials in the afternoon. It was clear to all, that this meeting of Buddhists, while the first in the White House, would not be the last.

One final word; kudos to Buddhist Peace Fellowship for bringing great banners that we could get behind, (literally and figuratevely!)

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9 thoughts on “US First White House Buddhist Leaders Conference – 14 May, 2015”

  1. Thanks you for this excellent report-back, Thanissara. It’s been good to read posts by you and Alan Senauke to learn more of what unfolded during the day in D.C. And thank you for engaging in dialogue with the Associate Director for the White House Council for Environmental Quality (Ms. Barranco) and pushing her on more assertive government action. I continue to wonder what are the most impactful avenues for positive change, on climate issues as well as a host of other pressing issues. Government holds some power, to be sure, but often only responds to massive pressure from the voting public, and it is unfortunately all too true that corporations have a huge influence.

    I look forward to more conversation in the dharma community about how we can bring the teachings and our practice forward in service to a more just and peaceful world for all beings. And I also want to give a huge nod to the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, which has been doing this work for almost 40 years now.

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    1. Hi Maia, thanks for your feedback. You’re absolutely right regards thinking about the most impactful avenues for positive change. At the Climate Reality Leader training I attended, under the auspices of Al Gore last year in Johannesburg, he had something interesting to say. As a former politician (or as he put it, a recovering politician), he spoke about the importance of lobbying your Senators, and using our political power, however small that may appear, to let our views be known. Voting is one way, also, a workshop on the Peoples Climate Train, last September – the presenter (can’t remember the name of the presenter), who works with government talked about the power of actually writing letters – way more powerful than clicking on petitions (though that is good too.)
      Perhaps one thing an organization BPF can do (and I agree re BPF what an important and amazing influence through all these years, showing great tenacity), is to gather a group of folks, not only in USA, who become proficient at lobbying governments, though effective means – letters is one way. They have to register the letters and respond. The person who led the workshop said they have a very powerful impact – I’ll try to find out more, track him down, and ask him to let us know more about that approach.
      Thanks again for your response, and wonderful work.

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  2. It might be worth unpacking that word “government,” as in “it’s important the government shift billions of dollars in subsidies …” which implies that “government” is a single unified entity (usually personified as the President) which, from all I read of politics in the USA, it is not, both by design and by increasing consolidation (and fracturing) of power. It’s the President and the White House, yes, but also the stupendously dysfunctional Senate, the gerrymandered House of Representatives, and (especially when it comes to corporate power) the Supreme Court. It’s also all those state legislatures (look at what the Republicans have done to sabotage the Affordable Care Act at that level.) All I’m saying is, getting “government” to act ain’t that simple.

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    1. Thank you Thanissara.
      Living as I do in a very different context off the eco-radar in Africa. I honour those who are persistently protesting to the power holders that the planet is being throttled to death.
      From down here both geographically and influentially, it is difficult to motivate interest in these matters when Maslovian lower tier needs are so dominant.
      You as an Americo-African are well placed to speak for us. Thank you and Kittisaro for having done this faithfully for decades.
      “Aluta continua” but now globally.

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      1. Thanks Peter, for taking time to respond. You may be interested to know that there are some encouraging developments SA/ Africa side, that I think don’t get profiled enough. First, I attended the Climate Reality Leader’s training last year in Joburg, and there were over 800 participants, most from the African continent, many doing great things – particularly in solar. At the conference, there was talk of Africa “leap frogging” over the industrial revolution straight to renewables.

        Second, I met with about 60 farmers in our local Underberg region (at the invitation of the Underberg Farmers Association), to explore converting to solar, biogas, wood chips for heat – I have to confess the cause wasn’t so much climate awareness, though it did crop up – but Eskom’s failing power grid and the daily load shedding.

        Third – Kumi Naidoo – who is Greenpeace International ED, is moving back to S.Africa to take on Eskom / government and its plans to increase nuclear and coal based power – to instead encourage going renewable – he is a force to be reckoned with, very prominent in the struggle.
        So – I think, we should be in a good position to represent for ourselves, and maybe even lead by example..

        At Dharmagiri, we are in the process of looking at off grid solutions – at the least having biogas and increasing our solar capacity – most difficult thing for us, is the hail stones re solar panels – especially ones for electricity use (unlike the ones we have now for hot water), as they are very sophisticated, so I imagine, expensive to replace.
        Look forward to seeing you soon!

        PS And yes – totally hear what you are saying about the needs of the majority of the country, which are so pressing – with a government that has become so corrupt – that is a real shame given the huge legacy of Mr Mandela – you know what he’d be saying right now re climate change – he’d definitely be out there as a leader.

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    2. emmryss, (sorry couldn’t get my response to line up under your comment) – You are absolutely right – government is a many headed animal.. with so many different influences and pulls and pushes coming from a wide variety of interests. Thank you for naming the particulars regards the realities of power and how it gets refracted and used, and who/ what interest groups actually hold the most power – at the moment, I see corporate power, funneled through the GOP Congress as being a real threat when it comes to issues around climate change.
      I have to confess to being nervous at my ‘one second sound bite moment’ and so my comment / question did come out naive – and so of course I was back footed as the response pretty much laid out what you are saying.
      However, the underlying principle of what I was trying not to stutter over, felt important to me to try and say. Last night, thinking about all of this, one of my fading thoughts on going to sleep, was that government and power is also people. Making connections to people, from a hopefully authentic place, while not in the realms of power politicking – seems important.. In that I did appreciate that the government representatives were very humane and approachable – which elicited a very hopeful conversation with the Buddhist leader group.

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