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News ::
Engaged Buddhist Sit for Peace
14 Nov 2001
Those activists attending the weekly peace vigils in Copley Square may have seen something a little unusual in the past few weeks. Across the street from the main vigil, near the Boston Public Library, a group of Buddhists have been meditating for peace, sitting in the cold on the sidewalk in silence, holding up a banner reading “Sitting for Peace”.
Engaged Buddhists Sit for Peace
By Matthew Williams

US, Boston, Mass.; Nov. 13, 2001--Those activists attending the weekly peace vigils in Copley Square may have seen something a little unusual in the past few weeks. Across the street from the main vigil, near the Boston Public Library, a group of Buddhists have been meditating for peace, sitting in the cold on the sidewalk in silence, holding up a banner reading “Sitting for Peace”. They are part of a new group, the Boston Engaged Buddhist Group, which is part of a growing trend within Buddhism--socially engaged Buddhism, the belief that the compassion Buddhists cultivate in meditation must be manifested in action to relieve suffering in the world.

After they had finished sitting, I talked to some of those who had been meditating. Obviously, they though the bombing of Afghanistan was the wrong way to go. The Venerable Pandito, a Theravada Buddhist monk originally from the war-torn country of Cambodia, said, “We Buddhists believe that no war is a good war, that no violence is overcome by violence. We believe that violence is overcome by peaceful means only.”

Another vigil participant named Tamar said, “As Buddhists we believe that we are all interconnected. We believe that if I hit you it’s the same as hitting myself, and so the actions in Afghanistan--it’s like bombing our own country to bomb other people. We are sowing the seeds of more pain, more suffering, more terror for innocent people all over the world. So we try to offer our compassion and wisdom to everyone in the hope that it will bring peace and an end to suffering, even in a small way.”

They choose to meditate specifically in order that they may better offer this compassion and wisdom. According to Tamar, “Our practice is about cultivating compassion and wisdom. Our posture is about being able to sit still and take whatever comes with an open heart and an open mind. We’re trying to offer that to the community around us and encourage that kind of response when we’re in danger--rather than acting from a place of revenge or anger to act from a place of wisdom and compassion to benefit the whole world.”

The Venerable Pandito said “What’s been going on since the September 11 attacks is full of anger and misunderstanding. We would like to call on all people to join us in meditation to clear our minds of our anger and misunderstanding towards others.” He noted that, “As we sit, more and more people are aware of us and of themselves and that within us there is a peaceful part. When people drive or walk by they understand that not all of us here in the United States are for the bombing and for the retaliation.”

I spoke with other people at the vigil about their reactions to the Buddhists’ presence. They were all positive. Sarah said, “I think it’s absolutely complementary to have the Buddhists sitting there in meditation. I think it’s fabulous. They are doing another whole realm of energy work. I’m so glad that they see themselves as part of this whole process and don’t isolate themselves.”

Matt Daloisio said, “I think the more faith communities we can get to come out here the better. I think there needs to a cross section of faith communities coming out in opposition to the bombing and in support of justice.”

Buddhism is an ancient religion, founded in northern India in the sixth century BCE. Although it all but died out in India, before doing so Buddhism spread to much of the rest of Asia--Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, China, Tibet, Korea, Mongolia and Japan, taking many different forms as it did so. It began to spread to the West (including the United States) with Asian immigrants. A trickle of people of non-Asian descent converted, but there was a great growth in Buddhism among non-Asians, especially whites, beginning in the late sixties and early seventies.

Socially engaged Buddhism is a relatively new trend, born out of the contact between Western activism and this Asian religion; and out of many of the conflicts that engulfed Asia in the twentieth century such as the Vietnam War and the Chinese invasion of Tibet. The term “socially engaged Buddhism” was coined by a Vietnamese Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh, who was one of the leaders of a movement for peace, national reconciliation and grassroots democracy in Vietnam during the midst of the civil war and American invasion. As Buddhism came West, so did the idea of engaged Buddhism, where it was further enriched by a number of Western teachers.

Some of the engaged Buddhists I spoke with at the vigil felt that the practice of meditation (which need not necessarily be tied to a particular religion or any religion) was something valuable they could offer to the whole peace movement. Rob said, “We all need to be less reactive in our response, more mindful [. . .] . A lot of people get into a polarity, I’m either for or against, and some people assume all kinds of things. People who are pro-peace often end up getting very angry and alienating others and vice versa, and even fighting among themselves. I think what meditation practice brings is a step back from reactivity so you can begin to bring to the world a model of non-reactive and kind ways of talking.”

Eric said, “One of the things that spiritual practice has to offer is to be able to come from a place of peace when you’re working for peace. A lot of times people feel very strongly about their work for peace and tempers can occasionally get high. Then people get into a dualism of us vs. them, which leads to the inability to see another point of view. I think if you’re able to see that other person’s point of view--it doesn’t mean you have to agree--then you’re working from a place where it’s much easier to be heard because you have an understanding of the other person. Then maybe you will have an appropriate way to talk to the other person or to be with the other person.”

They of course did not think meditation alone was the solution to our current crisis and terrorism. Rob focused on the structural issues familiar to many activists: “What would it take to redress poverty in the world? There’s a proven correlation between low per capita income and the presence of terrorism. It would make sense if you really want to avoid terrorism to address those root causes. It’s actually cheaper to do that than to crank up our war machine.” He referred me to an article by the World Watch Institute available at http://wwwbodydharma.org/choices/violence/bell.html.

Tad, on the other hand, spoke of the importance of simple things, such as being present and kind: “When I buy a cup of coffee I can be with that person and say, ‘Thank you, have a good day.’”

The Boston Engaged Buddhist Group--a mostly white group--grew out of a group at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center, but includes Buddhists from many different sanghas (Buddhist congregations). Some members are experienced activists who wanted to bring a Buddhist element to their activism; others are new to activism and are coming to it from their desire to put the Buddhist virtues of compassion and wisdom into action in this time of crisis.

As a new group they are still trying to figure out where they want to go. Tamar explained, “We’re a very new group so we don’t know exactly what we’re going to be doing. We like this way of expressing ourselves because it also allows us to practice together, to do what we’re asking other people to do. We’re in the process of deciding how we’re going to connect with other peace groups and what other kinds of work we’re going to do.”

For those who would like to join the Engaged Buddhist Group, they sit every Tuesday evening in Copley Square from 5:45-6:15 as part of the larger peace vigil from 5:30-6:30. Their next meeting is November 16, 7:15-8:45 pm at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center, 331 Broadway, Cambridge MA. For more information or to be added to their mailing list, contact them at engbuds (at) yahoo.com. For more information on socially engaged Buddhism, see the website of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, http://www.bpf.org.

The larger vigils are sponsored by United for Justice with Peace, http://www.justicewithpeace.org. A coalition of many Boston area groups, they have organizing meetings after the weekly vigils at 6:45 at the Community Church of Boston, 565 Boylston St. in Copley Square.
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