The Wisdom Blog: Classic & Contemporary Buddhism

Buddhist Leaders Gather in Washington, D.C.

by Taigen Dan Leighton
May 20, 2015
Wed, 05/20/2015 - 12:25 -- Taigen Dan Leighton
Editor’s Note: Last week 125 Buddhist figures from a range of traditions gathered in Washington, DC, for the first meeting between White House and State Department officials and Buddhist faith groups. According to the Tricycle blog, “Teachers from the Sinhalese, Cambodian, Burmese, Bangladeshi, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Tibetan, Vietnamese, and Thai Buddhist lineages attended, as well as scholars, activists, and leaders of convert groups who do not affiliate with any one particular Asian school.” Several Wisdom authors were in attendance, including Bhikkhu Bodhi--who was a featured speaker at the event--as well as Lama Willa Miller and Taigen Dan Leighton. Below we share Taigen’s account of the gathering.

I want to report a memorable event Thursday May 14, billed as the “First U.S. Buddhist Leaders Conference at the White House.” We met together in the morning near the White House at George Washington University, with a number of fine presentations by Buddhist participants. In the afternoon we met at the Executive Office Building of the White House, and received briefings, followed by Q&A, from some Administration officials. Our focuses included presenting to the White House statements on Climate Change and Racial Justice, as well as considerations of religious freedom and how to bring nonviolence to religious conflict.
The 130 attendees were very diverse, mostly from Asian-American communities, including many monks and nuns. Also present were a number of good academics, including Duncan Williams, Sallie King, Chris Ives, and Ken Kraft. There was a fairly sparse Zen representation. But key organizer Bill Aiken from Soka Gakkai did an excellent job of bringing together an unusually diverse group, and arranging a good program at the White House. The planning committee also included Duncan Williams, Sallie King, and Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi.
One highlight was the traditional Vesak Ceremony honoring Buddha's birth and Awakening, the first ever performed inside the White House. 
The Administration spokepersons all seemed sincere, and receptive, and a couple of them were extremely impressive.   
However, the representative from the White House Council on Environmental Quality lauded the administration’s Climate Action Plan. When I questioned her about the administration’s opening the Arctic to drilling during the previous week; about the dangers of fracking; about the perils of nuclear power as a substitute for fossil fuels, with reference to Fukushima; and about the TPP agreement that will give Fossil Fuel and other major corporations the power to overrule all environmental and economic policies if they hinder corporate profits, she avoided any real response.  
Please read our statements to the White House about Climate and Racial Justice, signed by many of we Buddhist attendees. 
Please also read the two brilliant pieces from Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, a Theravada monk from New York, ordained in Sri Lanka, and a leading translator of the Pali Suttas. These are “A Buddhist Diagnosis of the Climate Crisis,” a detailed outline based on the Four Noble Truths; and a shorter version called “Keeping it Simple and Practical.” Bhikkhu Bodhi's excellent presentation of his long outline in the morning was a highlight of the whole event for me. I have already used it to discuss this with my sangha, and found it very helpful.  
Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams spoke movingly about racial justice, and how our legacy of slavery and racism is the ground from which Climate injustice arises. Another presentation was from Duncan Williams, a USC prof. who is also a Sotoshu priest in Japan, on the history of U.S. “Buddhist Engagement in the public square” going back to the 1920s, mostly focused on Soto Zen responses from the Japanese-American community. These included a successful 1927 Supreme Court case undoing Hawaii’s insistence that Buddhist couples from Asia be forced to re-marry in Christian ceremonies. Soto priests led successful labor strikes in Hawaii sugarcane fields in the early 20s. Duncan also spoke about the U.S. concentration camps for Japanese-Americans in World War II, with Japanese Buddhist priests interred first. 
One of the best things about the event was the intention to continue next year the lobbying on behalf of Buddhist values, probably at the capitol with congress. There was discussion of how to develop, alongside other influential religious groups, some reactionary, consideration in the government of Buddhist values of compassion, inner transformation, and longer time perspectives.  It was suggested that when we write the President or congress that we explicitly include our motivation from Buddhist values. 
After the formal event some of us went in front of the White House and held banners created by Buddhist Peace Fellowship (see pictures below). 
Worthy of attention is this moving piece by BPF Co-Director Katie Loncke “I Arrived At The White House… And Didn’t Go Inside.”
I did go inside myself, but wondered about it before accepting the invitation.  I believe the White House representatives did hear our concerns.  But more important was simply the opportunity to help activate our communities, and to meet with others working on this.  


Taigen Dan Leighton
Ancient Dragon Zen Gate, Chicago

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