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10 Principles of Our Radical Rebirth

BPF’s recent “radical rebirth” is more than just a slogan. It’s an exciting and daunting project for us, and for the great people (you!) who are building this community with us. How do we put the Buddha’s teachings into action — in innovative, challenging, and joyful ways? It’s a tough puzzle sometimes, but here are 10 principles guiding us in this exciting and transformative moment. Let us know what you think, what you would add, and where you might differ!

1. Let’s Go Beyond the Personal

How many times have you heard a teacher say something like the following at a dharma talk?

War, poverty, and environmental destruction are deeply harming all of humanity. The sources of these problems are greed, hatred, and delusion. As we practice on the path of awakening, we are helping to heal these unwise ways of the world.

True. And yet… for me, even these socially aware talks can often feel incomplete, one-sided, and somewhat misleading. Not to say that personal practice is unimportant, but it alone cannot suffice: we also need to THINK BIGGER. To organize collective expressions of compassion and awakening in the realm of power and social welfare.

Thai Buddhists ordain trees as part of a movement to stop deforestation.
Image by Rod Harbinson.

What’s radical is partly a matter of context, and as many Buddhist teachers and scholars have noted, the same individualism that made the Buddha’s teachings radical in his socially deterministic time, now play neatly into the hands of modern consumerist culture. We need less of the “Free-Yourself” type dharma, and more attention to “Free Us All” conversations. Rather than conflating personal and collective liberation, let’s connect the two approaches.

2. Let’s Expect Oppression

No one wants to be the Debbie Downer criticizing weak “diversity” practices within a sangha; calling out fatphobic jokes about losing weight during a meditation retreat; or gravely predicting a police attack on an Occupy encampment. (One Zen teacher told me that during an Occupy support meeting in his sangha, when he asked what they should do in the event of a police raid, a student exploded at him: “Why do you have to be so negative?!”)

Hell hath no fury like a Buddhist whose mellow has been harshed! But like it or not, oppression is part of the social order. We ourselves participate in the cultures it produces. The sooner we accept this fact, the less time we will waste being all shocked when oppression affects our social and spiritual communities. Instead, we can focus on how to understand and respond to harms as they arise. Refuge should encourage us to see oppression clearly, rather than placidly pretend it doesn’t exist.

3. Let’s Openly Challenge “McMindfulness”

I love this term, “McMindfulness” — coined by David Loy and Ron Purser to describe the way in which mindfulness gets stripped of its ethical foundations, commodified and reformulated into a booster-shot for efficiency. (Ideally, profitable efficiency — as Kenji Liu wrote earlier this year in his great essay, “Capitalists Want You To Be Happy.”)

At BPF we love McMindfulness, the term; what we don’t love is the trend it names. Let’s keep calling it out, and also demonstrating the ways we do want Buddhist wisdom to go mainstream — for the wholesome benefit of all.

4. Let’s Embrace Compassionate Confrontation

Mi’kmaq-led resistance to fracking.

As our friends over at Waging Nonviolence say:

For us, to wage nonviolence is to embrace conflict, so we try to embrace such conflicts in constructive ways.

We can have compassion for a wage-thieving restaurant boss, even as we picket her storefront so hard that she nearly goes bankrupt before finally coughing up the back wages she owes.

Without getting wrapped up in too many stories about good and evil, we can still push back — hard — against the Monsantos and South-Western Energy companies of the world. As Zen master and pioneer of “applied Buddhism” Thich Nhat Hanh puts it in his version of the Second Precept,

I will respect the property of others, but I will prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other species on Earth.

Being compassionate yet unyielding with those who oppose us has an added bonus, too: it can help us to respond with kind firmness to the mistakes that we ourselves will inevitably make, as we strive to bring about peace and justice.

5. Let’s Share Inspiring Alternatives

Sometimes there’s nothing like a potable-water-producing billboard to help rescue us from despair and eternal cantankerousness. Whatever lights up our inspiration and creative vision, let’s make sure to include plenty of it in our radical Buddhist diet.

6. Let’s Get Friendly With Organized Labor

Organized labor can mean anything from official unions to undocumented worker campaigns, wildcat strikes, and student walkouts. Supporting it could involve joining a picket line, starting a union drive inside the nonprofit where you work, or starting conversations on a Buddhist view of wage theft.

It’s not always easy to find places to plug in, but the effort can pay off. Organized labor doesn’t get anything close to the love it deserves, given the potential it holds as a force for justice. Following in the footsteps of spiritual and social leaders like Ella Baker, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Father Thomas Haggerty (Catholic priest and co-founder of the Industrial Workers of the World), this generation of engaged Buddhists could cook up some wonderful contributions to reviving a healthy labor movement.

Earlier this year, BPF helped raise money to support the Hong Kong dock workers’ strike.

7. Let’s Link Prison Dharma to Prison Abolition

Facilitating meditation in prisons is great; and yet, without addressing the rise of the Prison Industrial Complex, we’ll be “continuously mopping the floor of a flooded house without ever thinking to turn the faucet off.”

Prisons are just one example: whatever the issue is that gets us going, let’s take the time to deeply examine the structural roots of the problem.

Luckily, some Buddhist leaders are turning in this direction, determined to look unflinchingly at the root causes of exploitation, oppression, and suffering.

Rev. Danny Fisher and Jane Iwamura are currently co-teaching a rad-sounding course on “Buddhist Ministry and the Prison Industrial Complex.

Buddhist Global Relief could content itself with alleviating the suffering of hunger and poverty. Instead, they keep digging deeper, questioning why hunger and poverty exist in the first place. 

8. Let’s Confront and Heal Racism

At Buddhist Peace Fellowship we continually turn to scholar Andrea Smith’s Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy as a helpful outline of institutional racism. She outlines histories of Slavery/Capitalism in relation to anti-Blackness; Genocide/Colonialism and the erasure of Indigenous peoples, and Orientalism/War as racism toward the “(Middle) East.”

While all three forms of racism remain important and relevant today, we feel that Buddhism’s historical legacies, having spread through many parts of Asia and beyond, should push all of us who feel indebted to the Dharma to give Orientalism particular attention. This means, for instance: pushing back against the romanticizing of “Eastern Wisdom!”

It means pushing back against stereotypes of Asian people as inherently calm, submissive, intuitive, or “Ching-Chong” moronic.

It also means learning about the amazing liberation and justice struggles happening right now all over Asia and the Pacific, and within the Asian Diaspora. Let’s support these struggles materially when possible!

Last August, 2,500 Cambodian garment workers protested sexual harassment, went on an illegal strike, and occupied their factory.

9. Let’s Delight In Disrupting Business As Usual

It’s understandable that many Buddhist activists, weary of the righteous one-note anger of their political compatriots, might try to carve out space for more “peace-is-every-step” types of protest. Sitting or walking meditation; chanting; yoga; carrying a banner with a peaceful Buddhist logo or slogan.

Trouble is, we sometimes get lazy about evaluating whether or not these tranquil demonstrations are actually accomplishing anything. Not that each and every action needs to yield immediate, quantifiable results, but there is definitely a danger of listing toward complacency and self-righteousness, being too easily satisfied in our wholesome motivations. For the Buddha, wholesome motivation was important, but also insufficient: he advised investigating the results of our actions to ascertain their merit.

Keep the banners, sure, but let’s add blockades to our repertoire — diversifying our tactics and candidly reflecting on their outcomes.

This year I highlighted 5 Fresh Ways To Sit Politically, and also cautioned against 5 Buddhist No-No’s At Political Protests.

10. Let’s Build Spiritual Friendship For The Long Haul

Whatever our political agreements and differences, we know we need each other. Locally, regionally, across borders and even across time, let’s keep connecting to share wisdom and knowledge for the difficult path to liberation. Not just for each of us, but for all.

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Comments (19)

  • Richard Modiano

    Excellent guidelines. I’d expand number 10 to include Buddhists of all traditions, especially those of the older ethnic traditions that are often slighted because meditation doesn’t play a major role in their practice.

  • Dan Siegel

    I love the suggestions and the way they are presented. Another issue should be explored: What is your/our theory of change? Mine: the masses make history. Engaged Buddhists and other activists should develop strategies and tactics that engage the involvement and leadership of people directly impacted by the policies that oppress and exploit them.

  • Regina sneed

    Excellent presentation of the ten ideas and enjoyed the graphics which I feel do a lot to reinforce the text and glue concepts into the mind. I would like to have a local gathering in sf. With other sf BPF members. It’s been a while since we came together in person.

  • Barry N. Bishop

    A good start, but agreeing with Richard there are many more than ten. Here are two more on which I am working. Our cultures, our world, has allowed the Market to dominate humans and the entire environment. It commodifies us, it turns us into raw materials, into resources for profit-making. The Market isn’t inherently evil, but it is inherently amoral. Regulating and controlling the Market in the name of inherent human dignity, in the name of the inherent value of all beings, in the name of a controlling ethic would put some of our problems in balance. And that is to make each of us into an end in him- or herself instead of a means to someone else’s ends.

    The second project is to undo the depersonalization that increasingly turns us into data for someone else’s purposes. We are digitalized to fit into preformed categories that increase the efficiency of political as well as economic systems. We will not escape the computer, the welter of means of communication that too often create more distance than closeness, the analyses that reduce us to our behavior and diagnoses, and so forth, but we can insist among ourselves that all the technological and analytic means come to serve the ends of personalization and caring.

  • Ian Mayes

    Dawn and Katie, I already surmised that this was the kind of political perspective that you all were coming from. What I wonder is HOW exactly this particular perspective came to be the BPF party line?

    Was there some kind of contentious political split that happened between the young radicals on one side and the middle-aged liberals on the other side? Did the split result in eventually the middle-aged liberals throwing their hands up in the air and saying: “FINE! You can HAVE the damn organization! We’re leaving!”?

  • Richard Modiano

    Ian, note that this is a radical REBIRTH, that is, a return to first principles. The founding generation of BPF had a radical vision to start with, and Robert Aitken Roshi (1917-2010) was a self described anarchist. One of his last articles for Turning Wheel called for the creation of a Buddhist anarchist caucus within BPF. During his last years he privately expressed his disappointment with the direction that BPF took during in its later phases. Quite frankly, I shared his disappointment (and I’m no young radical, I’m a 62 year old Wobblie.) So I’m glad that BPF has taken this path and that there’s a youthful crew at GHQ. And I would add that the present zeitgeist seems to accord with the current tendency at BPF (see this article by Chris Hedges: Excerpt: “An increasing number of Americans are getting it. They know that we have been stripped of political power. They recognize that we have been shorn of our most basic and cherished civil liberties, and live under the gaze of the most intrusive security and surveillance apparatus in human history. Half the country lives in poverty. Many of the rest of us, if the corporate state is not overthrown, will join them. These truths are no longer hidden.”)

  • Katie Loncke

    Thanks Richard, Dan, Regina, and Barry — I’m appreciating your additions!

    Richard, I agree that it’s an important and sometimes delicate aim to bring together Buddhists of various traditions without the more “secular” or “scientific” dharma folks feeling weird around more “bells and smells,” ritual, devotional, and community-based practices. I think BPF has done a pretty good job of this over the years (long before I got here), and I hope we can keep up that trend… building international community would certainly help on that front, I think. And thanks for pointing out that we’re returning to many of the principles that have guided BPF since the beginning!

    Ian, on that score, what’s weird (and wonderful) is that despite the radical rebirth, there hasn’t actually been a split. (Though maybe it appears that way — I’m open to hearing that…) It’s more of an extension and continuation, building on the work that BPF has done in the past, and seeing clearly the work we want to do here and now. Many of the people who have been involved with BPF for a long time (including current Board members, former staff, and former Executive Directors) actually share a lot of agreement with these 10 principles! We may not have the exact same ideas about how to put them into practice, in programs, and that’s something that we, of a newer generation, are trying to figure out thoughtfully — something related to what you’re bringing up, Dan, about theories of change. But even there, I see more agreement than disagreement. And in reality, I don’t actually think that these “radical” principles are so controversial. Do you? Which ones would you see as potentially prompting someone to throw up their hands and run away?

    And Regina, we are working on more meetups for 2014, we promise! :) Good to know that there is interest! What was your favorite part of when BPFers used to get together in SF?

  • Mushim

    These 10 Principles are great, Dawn and Katie. I continue to be BPF member who is happy to be mug-carrying member!

    In my opinion, we don’t want to waste time misusing a wrong idea of mindfulness to make ourselves feel more peaceful and loving. We need to go to the root, exactly as you’re saying, and investigate. Every since I read this poem by William Blake, probably around 1980, I’ve never been able to forget: “Pity would be no more, / If we did not make somebody poor.”

  • Maia Duerr/Liberated Life Project

    Wow, what a great list! I love these 10 principles. And Ian, just to affirm that what Katie has written in the comment above is right on, I am one of those former BPF executive directors who fully embraces this evolution in BPF’s growth. Not a split for me at all… it is wonderful to see Katie and Dawn and others with lots of energy to open up these questions and keep things moving in a radically progressive and interdependent direction.

    I do have to say that I personally feel a bit conflicted when it comes to the McMindfulness principle. I would be one of the first to step up and critique commodified interpretations of the dharma. But I have to confess that part of my own professional work includes bringing mindfulness into various settings, including corporations. I like to think of it as a kind of Trojan Horse… we can get in the door because ‘mindfulness’ has become a desirable quality in those realms, but we can also use mindfulness as a vehicle to raise awareness in all kinds of ways and that should not stop at the personal. As long as there is a demand for mindfulness, sure, let’s offer that — but let’s create every opportunity we can to have it help create the conditions for more justice and equity. That’s what I loved about the post just published on TW by Funie Hsu — excellent work!

  • ethan davidson

    As to the question “Do we meditate half dressed to save the forests, or go out and ordain trees, as the Thai monks do?”
    Obviously, this question is a mteaphore. If we ordained trees here (which non-monastics have no authority to do) we would be written up by the media, if at all, as wacky nut jobs. This ain’t Thailand.
    So the rel question has to do with meditation vs. action. nd this false dichotomy can not stand, or the whole concept of engandged Buddhism will go nowhere.
    Speaking for myself, I meditate (far to esldom as this point) to gain the calm and compassion to go out and confront the powers that be in the most skillfull way possible. I do believe that if more activists had a practice, or at least a history of a practice, they would behave far more skillfully that they do, And also, that if more practitioners became actists, there would be more activists that are practitioners, and social justice and environmental movements would benefit eimmenly.

  • Jeff Scannell

    As a former BPF board member I want to express deep gratitude for the clarity and forthrightness (is that a word?) of these principles.
    Refreshing, invigorating, inspiring and long overdue. We have no time for minced words.
    This gets to the heart of where I believe we need to go to have a chance of manifesting what Charles Eisenstein calls “the beautiful world our hearts know is possible.” Onward ho.

  • Katie Loncke

    Jeff, that means so much to us; thank you! I hope I get the chance to meet you in person someday. :)

    “The beautiful world our hearts know is possible…”

    Wow. Yes!

  • ethan davidson

    Hm, I just got this, but it must have come out a while ago, as I don’t recall writing my comment.
    In any case, this is good stuff. Especially the part about MCMindfulness. Here I am not talking about teaching “stealth dharma” in jails or school, which I have done. Rather, it becomes problematic when taught to people who are activlye doing harm, the folks in certain corperataions and in the military. We should no be helping them to become more comfortable with unethical behavior.
    Please do keep me informed, especialy as to what is actions are being done by engaged Buddhists.

  • Judith Lipton

    I love these 10 principles! Good going, Dawn and Katie! I have one additional thought: Let’s Work for the Continuation of Life on Earth! We must prevent nuclear war. There is a meeting going on in Vienna right now discussing the humanitarian impact of nuclear war. 160 nations are meeting to discuss banning nuclear weapons, as land mines were banned.
    Even a “small” nuclear exchange of hundreds of warheads would result in nuclear famine and incalculable environmental harm. There are 16,300 known warheads operational right now, and who knows how many in the hands of rogue states or professional terrorists? ISIL is purported to have a “dirty bomb.” The Obama administration is going to propose spending a trillion dollars over the next 30 years to “modernize” the entire nuclear triad, even ground based missiles.
    There is no greater downer than the thought of nuclear war, but if we don’t think about it, we can’t prevent it. Nuclear deterrence is a ridiculous old concept that is bound to fail, eventually. No matter what these facts do to our serenity and composure, we must act. The US congressional push to modernize nuclear weapons rather than retiring them is a golden opportunity to do the right thing: get rid of them all!

  • Shodo Spring

    I really like these principles. I had some resistance to the style you were taking for a while -just couldn’t get into “the system stinks” and besides I didn’t think there was going to be anything new there. But what’s above makes sense to me; I can work with this! You are radical while not spending your time throwing stones. That’s what I need.

  • isaac

    This isn’t buddhism. If you want to be a progressive then just be a progressive, you don’t need to modify every single religion/ideology/belief system in the world and make it progressivism. It’s okay if there’s variety in the world. Really.

  • alycee lane

    “Keep the banners, sure, but let’s add blockades to our repertoire — diversifying our tactics and candidly reflecting on their outcomes.” In this post-Trump election moment, it is especially important to diversify tactics — in fact, to demonstrate the practice of Buddhism as radical resistance to the violence (material, spiritual) that Trump’s election represents. Compassion and lovingkindness are inherently practices of noncooperation with the kind of “business as usual” politics unfolding, a politics that is normalizing a Trump presidency, normalizing the disenfranchisement that marked the election, and normalizing the hate speech and acts that have followed.

    I would also challenge us to consider whether or not our “tranquil demonstrations” betray a deep attachment to the status quo, if not to the permanence of our nation as presently constituted. Do we really believe that nothing is permanent and, if so, how do our politics and activism actually suggest otherwise?

    Anyway, this is a wonderful piece.

  • Rita Lopez

    I really like these principles. I had some resistance to the style you were taking for a while -just couldn’t get into “the system stinks” and besides I didn’t think there was going to be anything new there. But what’s above makes sense to me; I can work with this! You are radical while not spending your time throwing stones.

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