The Greatest Spiritual Explosion
The great Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca once said: “The day that hunger is eradicated from the earth, there will be the greatest spiritual explosion the world has ever known. Humanity cannot imagine the joy that will burst into the world on the day of that great revolution.”
Although, as a Buddhist, I consider the Buddha’s enlightenment and his “turning the wheel of Dharma” to be the greatest spiritual events in history, I believe Lorca’s statement harmonizes well with the spirit of the Buddha’s teachings.
“Not only is it hard to meditate with an emaciated body, but it’s hard to do much of anything except wait intently for the next meal.”
A close connection between the Dharma and the struggle against hunger lies implicit in the classical account of the Buddha’s quest for enlightenment. The Buddha tells us that during his quest he subjected himself to long, grueling fasts that reduced his body to a tent of bones (see Majjhima Nikaya 12). When he finally realized that the true path to awakening required, not self-mortification, but deep meditation, he also realized that it wouldn’t be easy to meditate with an emaciated body. He then decided to give up his austerities and resume eating ordinary food. It was only after he regained his strength that he could attain the ultimate goal.
Not only is it hard to meditate with an emaciated body, but it’s hard to do much of anything except wait intently for the next meal. In his teachings, the Buddha shows that he clearly recognized the distress caused by hunger. He spoke of hunger as the “worst of illnesses” and refused to teach a hungry man until the man was fed. He taught that the step-by-step practice starts with giving and that the most essential gift is the gift of food. He also pointed out that giving food brings long-term benefits to everyone: “If people knew the results of giving as I know them, they wouldn’t eat without having shared their meal with others” (Itivuttaka 26). This emphasis on bestowing food has reverberated through Buddhist texts down the centuries. The Sutra of Golden Light says, “Let the hungry, parched, and thirsty receive food according to their needs.” The Sutra of Earth Store Bodhisattva praises offering food and drink to the old, sick, and pregnant women. And the poet Shantideva goes so far as to declare: “In times of famine, may I turn myself into food and drink to stop all hunger and thirst.”
Lorca’s words resonate with these messages but cast them in a more contemporary mold. His words express a conviction that should stir our own sense of conscience, awaken us from our slumbers, and rouse us to committed action. To my mind, his statement suggests two things. First, it implies that the biggest barrier to the eradication of hunger is not, as we often assume, lack of technological expertise or a shortage of funds and resources, but moral and spiritual paralysis. We already have the technologies needed to eradicate hunger. We have the funds and sufficient resources to produce enough food to feed everyone. Hunger persists because we lack the will, the heart, and the collective imagination to end it.
Today, more a more reprehensible problem than violence is spiritual numbness.
The numbers of those who suffer from hunger are staggering. Close to a billion people are condemned to chronic hunger and malnutrition every day; another two billion subsist on inadequate diets. Each year ten million people—60% of them children—die from hunger and hunger-related illnesses. These figures boggle the mind and leave us grappling with questions that challenge our culture’s claim to decency. With our immense resources and powerful technologies, how can we let so many children go to bed hungry every night? How can we spend billions of dollars on deadly weapons of war yet tighten our purses when it comes to combating hunger?
It’s often said that hatred is the most pernicious root of human suffering. There’s no doubt that acts of violence, driven by savage hate, can unleash a massive flood of misery. However, in my view the more reprehensible root of suffering in today’s world is spiritual numbness, indifference to the fate of our fellow beings. Spiritual numbness stifles understanding and love. It begets inertia and stymies the effort to reach out to those who need a hand. Spiritual numbness is all the more egregious because it does not immediately strike us as evil. To the contrary, we take it to be perfectly normal, the default mode in the scramble to get along. Indifference flourishes best under the cover of normalcy, under the guise of decency. Under that cover we can tolerate the violation of the most basic human rights, among them the right to food, which is nothing short of the right to life.
“The indifference that protects us also hinders us.”
The stance of indifference lets us go about our daily business without feeling disturbed by events that should tug at the strings of our hearts. We can surf the TV for football games, crime dramas, and sitcoms while kids in Haiti eat mud pies and drink polluted water. We can crack clever jokes while financial vultures grab up land in Africa and South America. We can dream sweet dreams while, in lands we’ll never visit, hunger drives nameless millions into the arms of illness and early death.
However, the same indifference that protects us also hinders us. We carve out a comfort zone to conduct our daily affairs but in doing so we close doors to a greater freedom. We lock ourselves into a room that we take to be safe and secure, and we find ourselves trapped by the four walls of ego: grasping, worry, fear, and isolation. We think our narrow pursuits will enable us to thrive in opulence, but no matter how much we get we still feel empty, we remain convinced that we still need more.
This brings me to the second implication of Lorca’s statement. His words imply that what we need most to eradicate global hunger is a moral and spiritual transformation. Feats of technology and infusions of cash to boost sagging economies won’t do the trick on their own. Financial aid is, of course, essential for development, but to combat hunger ultimately nothing less is demanded of us than a transformation of values and a commitment to transformative action.
The transformation starts when we see each person—whether man or woman, adult or child—as a subjective center of experience, someone separated from us by only the thinnest psychic membrane. This calls for an imaginative effort to extend the sense of identity from the tight boundaries of the self to all who share our yearning for freedom, well-being, and security. By identifying with others, we expose ourselves to their suffering, but at the same time we throw open a door that leads from the bottom of the heart to the great compassion connecting us to all humanity and to all sentient beings in the limitless web of life. We thereby open ourselves to the most sacred wells of our own being, in which flow the waters of boundless love, hope, and generosity of spirit. What then takes place is nothing short of a revolution—an inner revolution that turns our normal relationship with the world on its head.
This inner revolution is the precondition for the outer revolution—Lorca’s “great revolution”–needed to abolish global hunger. The great revolution is driven by two major vectors. One is compassion, the other a commitment to social justice. We put compassion into action by deeds of generosity, by giving to causes and organizations dedicated to the struggle against world hunger. Each time our efforts help a child shift from the fields or factories to the schoolhouse, we can experience a moment of joy. Each time we help a farmer grow more food to feed her family and sell her surplus in an equitable market, we can chalk up a victory for humanity.
“Generosity is not enough … In our own small ways we can each become revolutionaries.”
But generosity is not enough. To prevail in the struggle to eradicate global hunger we must also heed the chimes of social justice. This entails learning about the global forces that sustain poverty and hunger and then demanding equity for the poor. We can’t just sit on the sidelines. We must be ready to stand up for peasants left helpless when reckless speculation causes food prices to spike beyond their meager incomes. We must come to the defense of low-income families whose sustenance is threatened by cuts to social spending and support small-scale farmers whose land is being swallowed up by agro-industrial ogres in order to grow crops for biofuels.
The magnitude of the effort needed to eradicate world hunger should not discourage us from the attempt. The question whether hunger can ever be eradicated does not so much demand an answer as an effort to rise to our best potentials, rooted in the conviction—the courageous faith—that we can make a difference in the here and now. Our individual limitations are not insurmountable. In our own small ways we can each become revolutionaries, paving the long road toward the great revolution that will bring world hunger to an end.
“I would even look at my sandals, wondering if they were edible.”
In mid-2008, along with several of my Dharma friends and students, I founded Buddhist Global Relief as a Buddhist nonprofit whose mission is to provide relief to poor communities around the world afflicted with chronic hunger and malnutrition. The choice of hunger as our focus came out of my own early experience as a monk in Sri Lanka. The countryside temple where I was ordained and spent my first two years as a monk was poorly supported, and to make matters worse, shortly after I arrived the Sri Lankan government adopted shortsighted economic policies with grave impacts on the population. As a Theravada monk, I did not eat after mid-day, and the food at the temple was extremely frugal: a thin rice porridge for breakfast and just red country rice with a thin dahl and some green vegetables for lunch. Because the red rice was filling, I was not immediately aware of the effect the poor nutrition was having on my health. But after three or four months, I could clearly feel the vitality and energy ebbing from my body. A point was reached where almost all I could think about was food. My mid-day meal would be fully digested by 2 or 3 pm, and then an insistent feeling of hunger would swell up and gather momentum. I could almost feel the cells of my body crying out for amino acids, vitamins, and minerals. I would even look at my sandals, wondering whether or not they were edible.
It was because of this experience that, when we first established Buddhist Global Relief, I proposed we dedicate the new organization to providing relief to people afflicted by chronic hunger. In BGR’s life span of four years, we’ve launched some fifty projects in countries ranging from Vietnam, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, and India through Niger, Malawi, Kenya, and South Africa to Haiti and the U.S. To raise funds for these projects, we hit on the idea of organizing a long annual walk of five or ten miles. Our first “Walk to Feed the Hungry” was held in the fall of 2010 in South Orange, New Jersey. In the fall of 2011, we held three walks in New York, Michigan, and the San Francisco South Bay. In October 2012 we plan to hold walks in still more locations: New York, Chicago, Michigan, Los Angeles, San Francisco, the South Bay, and Seattle.
While the main purpose of this walk has been to bring in funds for our projects, we’ve found that the act of walking in unison for several miles has a more profound spiritual meaning, which I would unpack in terms of three layers. These are not utterly distinct but blend and reinforce each other with every step that we take.
Buddhist Global Relief: Feet on the ground.
At the most obvious level, the walk is an act of generosity and compassion. By walking together, we manifest concern for the poor and hungry, expressing our belief that all human beings merit the resources essential to a decent and dignified life. We also make a bold commitment to extend a helping hand. We reach out across oceans, continents, and cultures to lift up those cast down by life’s circumstances, doing so in a way that empowers them to uplift themselves: by equipping them with knowledge, education, training, access to water, tools, and seeds.
At a second level, our walk affirms our awareness of an impersonal imperative pointing us towards social justice. By walking we express the recognition that something is fundamentally skewed with a global economic system that treats human beings as disposal. We resist a system that pushes a billion people into the pits of poverty. We express moral revulsion at the cruel miscarriage of justice that occurs when, amidst an abundance of food, six million children die each year from malnutrition and hunger-related illnesses. With our silent steps we proclaim that the global food system must ensure that no one goes hungry, that we must guarantee everyone a sufficient quantity of nutritious food.
At a third level, walking becomes a way of manifesting the deep potentials for generosity and goodness inherent in the human heart. By walking in the company of spiritual teachers and friends, we raise our consciousness to a universal perspective that takes the good of all as our guiding ideal. We show that, as individuals, we flourish best when we nurture our innate impulses to generosity, love, care, and concern. And we express the hope, trust, and conviction that humanity as a whole flourishes best when we all flourish together.
By walking to feed the hungry, we recover our hidden potentials for generosity and compassion and selfless love. Contrary to the assumptions of “political realists,” it is not policies aimed at acquisition and domination that are going to make us safe. The secret to transforming the world, the key to security and safety, lies in cooperation and collaboration, in respect for all human beings, and in compassion for all beings in the wider web of life.
To abolish global hunger, our most urgent need is to change our present trajectory from one governed by crude self-interest, which has brought us close to the brink of self-destruction, toward one inspired by helpfulness, generosity, and love channeled into selfless action on behalf of those in need of help. As we travel through this journey of life and death, walking together on a clear autumn day is a way of demonstrating our primal unity. We walk together to embody in action our intrinsic and inseparable solidarity in the quest for well-being, happiness, and security.
Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi is a Buddhist monk originally from New York City. After completing his university studies he traveled to Sri Lanka, where he received novice ordination in 1972 and full ordination in 1973. From 1984 until 2002 he was the editor for the Buddhist Publication Society in Kandy, and its president from 1988 until 2010. Ven. Bodhi has many important publications to his credit, either as author, translator, or editor. His translation of the Anguttara Nikaya, The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, is scheduled for release in late 2012. In 2008, together with several of his students, he founded Buddhist Global Relief to help poor communities escape from chronic hunger and malnutrition.