In 1968, Buddhist poet Gary Snyder wrote a challenging piece called “Buddhism and the Coming Revolution.” In it, he says, “The mercy of the West has been social revolution; the mercy of the East has been individual insight into the basic self/void. We need both.”
Ten years later, in 1978, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship took form as the first organizational flower of socially engaged Buddhism here in the West.
BPF was born on the back porch of the Maui Zendo, co-founded by Nelson Foster, Robert and Anne Aitken. The spark for BPF flew from Roshi’s in-depth study of 19th and 20th century anarchism and his long experience as an anti-war and anti-military activist. They were soon joined by Gary Snyder, Joanna Macy, Jack Kornfield, Al Bloom, and many others. Its ecumenical approach to the Dharma was a matter of principle, a real strength in the face of Buddhism’s sectarian history. At the start, there was a circle of friends, predominantly Euro-American Zen practitioners, most clustered in Hawaii and the Bay Area, with the rest scattered across the States. After a year there were only about fifty members, but it was a real network nonetheless, linked by friendship, common purpose, and by the dedicated work of Nelson Foster, who regularly published the newsletter and maintained active correspondence with members.
Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have long nurtured forms of spiritually-based activism and social transformation. BPF itself emerged as a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an interfaith umbrella of nonviolent peace and justice organizations. In those first years the ties between BPF and FOR were close and very encouraging for lonely Buddhist activists. From this branch of the peace movement, with its links to Jesus, Gandhi, Thomas Merton, and Martin Luther King, we began to find ways consonant with and parallel to the Dharma to explore suffering and social change.
From the start, BPF was working for human rights in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh, in Vietnam, and in Cambodia, actively engaging with issues of war, disarmament, and nuclear weapons. BPF’s work has been consistent, but the problems we confront are deep and persistent. Over thirty years later, no major issue we have worked on has been completely resolved. We must remind ourselves over and over that the work of compassion is not about attachment to results, but about the process of compassion itself.
…If we want to be in touch, we have to get out of our shell and look clearly and deeply at the wonders of life — the snowflakes, the moonlight, the songs of the birds, the beautiful flowers — and also the suffering — hunger, disease, torture, and oppression. Overflowing with understanding and compassion, we can appreciate the wonders of life, and, at the same time, act with firm resolve to alleviate the suffering. Too many people distinguish between the inner world of our mind and the world outside, but these worlds are not separate. They belong to the same reality.
— Interbeing, Thich Nhat Hanh
We can’t consider the history of BPF without bowing deeply to the continuing influence of Thich Nhat Hanh. Our first contacts came through peace activists and friends at the Fellowship of Reconciliation, dating back to Thay’s first visits to the United States in the late 60s, his exile from Vietnam, and his role as head of the Buddhist delegation at the Paris peace talks. In 1983, BPF and the San Francisco Zen Center (which now sponsors the Zen Hospice Project) organized Thich Nhat Hanh’s first retreat for Western Buddhists at Tassajara. In 1985, ’87, and ’89 BPF co-sponsored him in longer tours and larger venues. We continue to learn from Thich Nhat Hanh and benefit from the thousands of people who come to engaged Dharma practice through his teaching.
From the beginning, BPF has had a newsletter. The first versions are typed and mimeographed, mailed to a small set of friends of the founders. As membership grew, the newsletter was the mail form of communication between socially engaged Buddhists. Early issues of the BPF newsletter featured pieces on Theravada, Tibetan, Zen, and Pure Land traditions, outlining a doctrinal and historical basis for engaged Buddhism, and setting precedents for our own emerging work. These foundations were important at a time when most Westerners turned to Buddhism as an escape from the world and the turmoil of the times.
The quality of the newsletter continued to improve, and soon Turning Wheel evolved into an award-winning magazine in its own right. Under the editorship of Susan Moon some of the best known thinkers and writers in socially engaged Buddhism appeared in Turning Wheel’s pages: Thich Nhat Hanh, Joanna Macy, Gary Snyder, Alice Walker, and of course our founder, Robert Aitken Roshi.
Since Susan Moon’s retirement in 2007, we at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship have been searching for ways to both expand Turning Wheel’s audience and maintain the strong link to the organization that gave birth to the magazine. As part of that process, we’ve found that the kind of interactivity and discussion that can happen on the internet provides exactly the tools we need to expand Turning Wheel’s mission, bringing Buddhist activists into closer conversation with each other, and the world.
And so Turning Wheel Media was born. We hope you will stay in touch with us as we explore urgent questions of our historical moment, from perspectives grounded in hope for freedom for all beings.