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Do We Scare Off People with our Spiritual Activism?

Kingian Nonviolence trainer Kazu Haga talks spiritual roots – both of Kingian nonviolence and his own. Together we explore when it’s useful to show up as spiritual activists, and when we can take advice from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, who tailored his language differently when he was at a political march or in the pulpit. This is the third in our interview series together (see also #1 and #2). ~ Dawn

DAWN HANEY, Turning Wheel Media: In Buddhist communities people often look to the Civil Rights Movement, particularly Dr. King’s work around this sort of very spiritually informed activism. It’s very inspiring to folks, even though it comes more out of a Christian context than a Buddhist context. How does the current form of the [Kingian nonviolence] training relate to those spiritual roots? And more generally, how do you see spirituality informing our movements?

KAZU HAGA, East Point Peace Academy: Well the Kingian nonviolence training itself I wouldn’t say is grounded in a spiritual tradition. When you look at Dr. King’s work, and when you read his speeches, there’s a big difference from the language he uses when he was at marches and rallies and demonstrations versus when you read his sermons. One thing I think he was really good at was recognizing the audience that he was trying to reach out to, framing things in a way that captures people. And I think oftentimes when you use language that’s specific to a certain tradition you lose part of the audience. I think he was really good at, when he was at rallies and demonstrations, using language that broadens his base. Similarly, the Kingian nonviolence training, even though King was a minister, and was the son of a minister, and a grandson of a minister, really frames the discussion and philosophy in ways that don’t turn people off.

At the same time, I really do feel like whether you want to call it spirituality, or faith, or whatever you want to call it, I think the philosophy of nonviolence in general really speaks to the core values of who we are as human beings …. Dr. Lafayette [one of the co-founders of Kingian nonviolence trainings] always says that nonviolence is about bringing the best out of human beings, or the very best in people. I think that speaks to us at that deeper core in people, and faith in people, and a faith in humanity that even if you don’t necessarily have a religious or spiritual tradition, it speaks to people on a deeper level than just intellectual workshops or political workshops.

Some people may be scared off by the word “spiritual,” but I do feel that it’s grounded in something deep and something that we all have just in our core as human beings.

DAWN HANEY: I think that particularly coming to political work as a Buddhist, not being part of the dominant spiritual narrative of the U.S., we’ve really struggled with that. If you front with Buddhist language, or even “Buddhist” in the name, people are like, “I’m not so sure about who you are, or what you’re about.” We’ve been playing with that, sometimes showing up to political action events and seeing what is it like when we front with “Buddhist Peace Fellowship” versus being a little more quiet and subtle about that. Sometimes it’s strategic to have faith-based leaders speaking out around politics, and sometimes it’s important to downplay that to speak to a larger base.

KAZU HAGA: I think there are some core teachings and philosophies and practices in Buddhism that can cut across any sort of religious divide.

DAWN HANEY: You said that early on in your life that you’d done a pilgrimage?

KAZU HAGA: My introduction into any sort of political or social justice work was when I was 17; I was living in Massachusetts at the time. I dropped out of high school and I wasn’t living a very productive life at all.

I heard about this Japanese Buddhist oracle, Nipponzan Myohoji, which was a small offshoot of the Nichiren Sect. It’s this radical bunch of monks and nuns really committed to social justice. They were going to walk from Massachusetts to New Orleans, and eventually down the coast of Africa to retrace the slave route, and talk about the legacy that slavery left behind, and begin the process of healing and reconciling from that history. I heard about this walk three days before it started and I was 17 years old, and had never done anything like it but it piqued my interest and so I decided to go on it just for the first week. I essentially didn’t come home for a year and a half after that.

I walked to New Orleans with this group and one of the nuns of that order took me under her wing a little bit and invited me to go to Nepal with her. I ended up overseas for a year studying in their temple in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka and studying their philosophies of non-violence and their commitments to social justice.

That was my introduction to all of this work. I lived a monks life for a year and a half.

Kazu-e1387587159929-187x300Kazu Haga is a nonviolence trainer and founder of the East Point Peace Academy in Oakland, California.  East Point Peace Academy envisions a world where historic conflicts are fully reconciled and where new conflict arises solely as an opportunity for deeper growth.  Where the depth of human relations are so high that it allows each individual to attain their fullest human potential. Kazu works in prisons, jails, schools and communities to build a powerful, nonviolent movement of peace warriors.

Kazu’s strength comes from his commitment to peace work since the age of 17, when he embarked on a 1.5-year journey across the US and South Asia, studying nonviolence while living in temples with a Buddhist order committed to peace and justice. He reflects “I believe that those working for peace need to have the same levels of commitment, training, strategy and discipline that the military invests into war. The military trains its leaders at WestPoint. EastPoint will serve as a counter to that.” Contact Kazu at

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Comments (19)

  • Belinda G

    This is just awesome – thanks again BPF for a major dose of inspiration. Love y’all.

  • Dawn Haney

    Thanks Belinda! If you want to keep up with Kazu’s inspiring work, you can follow East Point Peace Academy on Facebook:

    Their post from yesterday:
    “Today, we are finishing a two-day Kingian Nonviolence workshop for a group of incarcerated veterans. In the morning of the first day, many participants were upset that they had to sit through a two-day class. By lunch time, everyone was engaged, laughing, and sharing their stories. Even the Deputy who was on duty was engaging with them and laughing along. Our workshops in this jail are still unfunded, which means that each two-day workshop we do costs us over $100 in supplies alone. None of the trainers are getting paid for this training. Please consider making a small donation to help this work continue. Donate online at or hit us up to find out other ways to give.”

  • bezi

    East Point Peace Academy… I dig it! Some serious multi-level meaning going on there…

    Yeah mannn… from my own current vantage point – and with the caveat that I believe it could change profoundly in any given opportune moment – I’d have to say that some large portion of the population is indeed shook by spiritual activism. I find it productive to really build on why. This society is so secularized, infantilized, overstimulated, overmedicated, awash in thoughtless consumption, scandalizing, trifling distractions, political, social, cultural and economic paranoia, unresolved personal trauma, daily existential insults, affronts to reason, sensibility, never-ending ecological calamity, tribalized conflicts, etc. – that there’s literally no context in which to place one who advocates a holistic body/mind/spirit approach to change. I imagine Buddhists particularly to present, to the uninitiated, as an activist paradox or contradiction:

    so let me see you’re

    community minded
    individualistic (practice-wise)
    concerned about the future
    focused on the present moment

    Cognitive dissonance like a mutha@#$%&*! I mean: I see myself in all of these and beyond. I have a sneaking suspicion I’m not alone. Hee haw. And as I see it spelled out here I have to confess it looks um… a shade on the ‘inconsistent’ side, shall we say? Except that it’s not! We acknowledge and deal with (or at least we’re encouraged to deal with) two kinds of truths, absolute and relative. In my experience a LOT of folks can’t roll with that. I have challenging moments myself. As the days unfold I feel more and more that, somewhere very close to the Essential Question (if such a thing exists), is the issue of whether we can develop the capacity to hold two (never mind a teeming horde of) contradicting beliefs in mind at the same time.

    Quite simply, I don’t think it’s something many can do yet. That’s where our work starts. Reality’s complicated! (hah!… ya think?!)

    Let’s just keep it real. We’re all caught up in a total whirlwind. The pumps don’t work cause the vandals took the handles, plus some. There will inevitably be some big-picture things we fail to grasp. It’s the nature of the limits of human consciousness… exactly the kind of thing we’re trying to remedy. And if my understanding of psychology is right, when we can’t do big-picture thinking, we overcompensate with Virgo-like obsession with tiny details we feel we can manage a little better. But we’ve GOT to persist in both micro and macro-cognition/contemplation. Life on the planet requires it.

    It helps me to keep a historical perspective. Buddhism has apparently gone through what must have been ground-shifting upheavals in the past. In any of the many periods of schism – like when the Second Buddhist Council at Vesali (in the third century BC!) broke the Mahasanghika school from the Theravada – I can imagine Siddhartha’s followers struggling with feelings of groundlessness and existential angst. And I doubt they could have imagined in their wildest dreams that their traditions would not only endure, but go on to influence politics and culture at a global level!

    buuuuut ~ they DID

  • nathan

    It’s interesting, bezi,I get your point about the U.S. being secularized. And yet, it’s an odd kind of secularized. One readily informed by a Judeo-Christian ethos, where the large majority of folks still claim some significant connection or allegiance to a religious tradition. Or spiritual practice(s). In my experience, nearly the only time I’ve faced regular, heavy secular opposition to religious our spiritual practice is in activist circles. Which is why when I think of the question “Do we scare people off with our spiritual activism?.” I tend to think, “yes, some other activists.” The average person out there interested in social change may or may not react to work being done from a religious and/or spiritual lens, but amongst the “hardcore” or significantly dedicated crew, it seems like this divide is wide and really hard to bridge. Seems to me that this space is one place Buddhists can focus on. How to bridge. How to help folks move through their obsession with having to have their understanding of the world be front and center all the time in our collective work. The back and forth between monotheists and secular materialists I’ve witnessed in activist communities – somehow that needs to be broken through.

  • bezi

    oh yeah, big time. Secularized, but also saturated in the most bizarre way with hyper-conservative Calvinist notions about work, family, faith, sex, race, gender, economics and on and on. I’m hardly the first to point it out but the way America deals with “the act” – schizophrenically legislating against it and throwing it in your face at every opportunity – is the perfect example. What a freaking mess.

    I didn’t mention all this because I had a whole little alliterative, preacher-hype kind of flow going on up there that I was getting a bit of a kick out of and didn’t want to interrupt with unnecessary commentary. But yea, duly noted…

    at the same time… I wasn’t going to say anything because I don’t know how I feel about it or how useful it might be to mention but… some of us seem to scare off others by just being ourselves, minus anything resembling overt agitation. In this situation one might be told in no uncertain terms by the few apparently brave souls who presume to come forward that one is “intimidating”, “scary” and even “terrifying”. Haah? As if the person in question was stalking the avenues with a Dracula cape clutching a creepily carved pumpkin. Bwoo-whoo-haa-haaaa! (?)

    Really? That’s how u feel? Oy.

    This speculative person may in fact be very chill and kind and empathetic and interested in helping. And even slightly on the goofy, self-effacing side of things. But everyone’s so goddamned spooked and ‘noided that they never discover it ~

    real pity, that…

  • Dawn Haney

    Thanks bezi & nathan for taking this conversation to interesting places! Quick thoughts before bed:

    Having spent some time organizing in the Southern Bible Belt, and having grown up in parts of Indiana where even Catholics get the side eye for being of questionable religious standing, I don’t think that it’s only activist circles who might get scared off by spiritual activism from a Buddhist angle.

    Even here in the Bay Area, a hot bed for Buddhism & mindfulness practice, folks have their own ideas about what Buddhism is, and get turned off when we don’t fit their new age, Orientalist projections about how Buddhists should be.

    I’m curious if others have found this to be different in other geographies & contexts – that folks are curious and welcoming to folks identifying as Buddhists?

  • Richard Modiano

    Here in Los Angeles Rev. James Lawson offered workshops in non-violence at the AME Church until his retirement; he was King’s non-violence trainer and had 50 years of non-violent activist experience. He no doubt scared some people away with his declaration that you must be prepared to risk your life if you intend to commit to non-violent confrontation.

    About relating to other activists, there is some distrust because of the bad record of institutional religion, and when I’m asked, “How can you be a Buddhist and a Marxist?” I answer that they’re complementary dialectical systems. I give the same answer to my bourgeois Buddhist friends too. It seems to me that the way to bridge the gap between the spiritually motivated and the secularists is to work alongside them and convince by example.

  • bezi

    they’d have to accept / give one the opportunity first

    he’s kinda pimpin that hat! GANGSTA…

  • Richard Modiano

    H.H. Dalai Lama isn’t clueless; he made the same assertion in Long Beach, CA last year and was careful to draw a distinction between Marxism and Leninism.

  • Dawn Haney

    Dang, if I had known H.H. the Dalai Lama was into ball caps, I’d have sent him a BPF one! Maybe he’ll break down his ideal version of socialism for us, while fronting with a Buddhist Peace Fellowship image.

    As bezi & Richard both note, there are MANY things that can scare people off – our stated politics, our zealous commitments, even just our existence in the world! I am interested in the specifics of how spiritually-based activism draws some people in as it pushes others away – when working under the name “Buddhist” Peace Fellowship, I wanna know how others are going to react to me, who will be drawn to be in alliance with me and who will be suspicious.

  • bezi


    here’s an anecdote that turned out to be not as quick as I thought it would be. The last place I spent time at, trying out for a slot in sangha… which shall remain nameless to keep from blowing up THEY spot (not mine)… almost everyone I met and worked with was into the whole bezi idea if you will, except two people – white males – who also happened to be the managers of the compound. Shortly into the first conversation with one of these blokes, it came out that he was from somewhere in Connecticut… which, he remembered, was having troubles back in the 70s with “forced bussing.”

    um… yeah. Noyce.

    Here’s the thing: from the perspective of African Americans it was “school desegregation.” I grew up in Boston and my mum and dad SAW the condition the neighborhood schools were in, but we just happened to be on the edge of a neighborhood in Roxbury where one – the William Monroe Trotter (by all means google him) – was really good. In ’74 when I was going into first grade at that school, this “forced bussing” business scared the living SHYTE out of me because all the adults around me were wilding over it (rocks, eggs, threats of personal violence, war) and I didn’t realize I was in a school that wouldn’t be affected until I was older.

    To meet a black American for the first time and set it off with comments about forced bussing reveals a lot and ultimately somehow misses the mindfulness mark, far as I can tell.

    Imagine my surprise when he told me I hadn’t “shown enough work aptitude and professionalism”. What a freaking LOAD. And all these other folks who had liked me, bigged me up, thanked me for being proactive and responsive… never said a mumbling WORD about ANY of it. I wrote a long, likely longwinded letter asking the lady under whose auspices I was there: ‘what happened? I thought YOU were at least down’. She’d been out traveling with the Lama there and wasn’t around for any of this. Yet when I wrote her asking… yea. What Happened. She was all like ‘oh I thought ‘so-and-so (this person) made it clear’… like she had neither inkling nor concern about the way the whole thing went down. That’s when I sent my verbose debriefing email. That was months ago, I haven’t heard back yet and I suspect I never will. I even forwarded the email to one cat there who was REALLY down, knew Hip Hop, black history, etc. Not a mumblin’ word…

    … and there you have it. Doing me made me an outsider though the vast majority was (or seemed) convinced. What’s ironic, further, is that when I told them about applying to and being rejected by this ‘other’ sangha – a HIGHLY bourgeois, privileged one apparently – everybody got live with all this self righteous scorn and derision about how THEY were the radicalized underdog, the true guardians of Buddhist mindfulness, compassion and inclusiveness!

    If it wasn’t my life we’re talking about it’d be comedy. But it’s not a game, at least at the relative level. However, maybe cuz of having the absolute perspective as well – I do get a few hoarse chuckles out of the whole situation from time to time…

  • Dawn Haney

    damn, bezi. thanks for sharing this story here. I’m so sorry that happened to you, you are a SERIOUSLY dedicated practitioner to keep coming back to Buddhist circles when this is the kind of reception you get for, as you say, “just doing you.”

    It’s reminding me of several truisms (or at least, things I find true) about racism. One, the way we scapegoat the South as the racist part of the country is such BS when we look at how school desegregation went down (i.e. didn’t happen) in the places like Boston and Detroit. Two, it really only takes one (or two) folks to make a space racist and unwelcoming, even if 99% of the folks there welcomed you. I’ve seen too many times where those folks in the 99% will insist that a space was welcoming because *they* were welcoming, and they only saw people welcoming you or saw only “minimal” (to them) awkward conversations about race. It’s like another version of the one drop rule – one drop of racist can make a whole space racist!

    Thanks for hanging out with us – as you know from hanging around various threads here, this certainly is no perfect place where everyone has the same anti-racist credentials and lingo. But we damn sure keep talking about it!

  • bezi

    and talking, and talking, andtalkingandtalkjing



    >> it really only takes one (or two) folks to make a space racist and unwelcoming, even if 99% of the folks there welcomed you <<

    real talk! *cough*

  • nathan

    >> it really only takes one (or two) folks to make a space racist and unwelcoming, even if 99% of the folks there welcomed you <<\

    This is a real predicament. I have witnessed this very thing in my sangha. The quick spiral into hell that occurs when some white practitioner opens their mouth, and says something cringeworthy. Given our general desire for niceness and non-conflict, none of the direct situations I've witnessed have adequately been addressed.Let alone led to any really clear and progressive changes in how things are done at zen center.

    Seems to me that unless a community has a committed group of folks willing to challenge the imperialist underbelly and risk their social status in the process, the status quo tends to prevail. Beyond this, the challenging voice needs to be translated into sangha culture over time. But moving from a liberal lens of diversity, to a radical culture devoted to liberation for all feels like an almost herculean task.

    bezi, the word "inclusiveness" stood out for me in the experience you shared. It reminded me of how the predominantly Catholic school I used to work at treated those of us who weren't Christian. I recall one conversation in particular while discussing our annual Christmas celebration where I and another brought up concerns being raised by some of our Muslim students. One of my colleagues looked at us after those comments and said "But everyone is included in this celebration. We want everyone to feel a part of it." She couldn't recognize that the entire framework of the event was built around her experience. That the rest of us, non-Christian students and staff, were basically along for the ride.

    Adding a few speeches or blessings from non-Christians to the mix – which was their common practice – really didn't cut it. But after three or four years of experiencing all that, and not knowing exactly how to describe my objections, I realized that the crux of it was the focus on "inclusion." That if inclusion is the endgame of a group's efforts to address diversity, nothing much is gonna change. The center remains intact and in fact, thrives even more so because it's propped up by an appearance of being a radical shift.

    The inclusion model seems really common in American sanghas. Being welcoming and inclusive. And because of that, it does really only take one or two overtly racist folks to poison the whole works.

  • Katie Loncke

    yep, yep, and yep…

    “>> it really only takes one (or two) folks to make a space racist and unwelcoming, even if 99% of the folks there welcomed you < <" on one level, i find this very true. especially in your case, bezi, where the minority of overtly racist people had direct decision-making power over your inclusion in the community! i think it also means that we are going to perpetually fail if our only measure of anti-oppression is 100% solid interpersonal interactions, all the time. (gah!) i do feel a lot of pressure around this in spiritual activist communities... it's like there's a higher bar for spiritual communities to prove themselves politically. i feel nervous that people i care about in the spiritual context might act kinda awful (intentionally or unintentionally) to people in my other, more political communities. so i often avoid inviting political friends to spiritual activist circles. but even as we strive for improvement on the interpersonal level in spiritual activist communities, i hope it can also push us to examine and address the *structural choices* and priorities of an organization, in addition to their ambiance (not sure this is the right word) — which, in a racist, ableist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, etc. society, is almost surely gonna include and reflect oppression in some ways. to me, there's a big difference between, for instance, "including" non-christians in a christian dialogue, being nice and inoffensive, versus organizing christians to join campaigns against islamophobic surveillance policies, or islamophobic speaking tours, or islamophobic posters on public buses.

    in buddhist sanghas, there’s a difference between sanghas that preach inclusion for “one and all,” and sanghas that actually offer physical modifications and options besides zafu sitting, or walking meditation, which not everyone can do. sanghas that help encourage other sanghas in their area to make their facilities more accessible.

    there’s a difference between liberal sanghas that may claim to welcome the lgbtqts community, hang a rainbow flag and maybe even support same-sex marriage, versus sanghas that sometimes actually address queer sexuality in dharma talks, exploring the question of desire in a historical cultural ambiance that (hello!) shames, pathologizes, and even criminalizes queer desires.

    and there’s a difference between majority-white sanghas that do and don’t examine & try to address their impacts on white flight, gentrification, and other cultural & economic changes to neighborhoods that can result in racist displacement as culturally white meditation centers crop up.

    i guess what i’m saying is, absent the thoughtful material / structural work, i think the general negative image of spiritual activism that i carry is this tepid neoliberal diversity thing… which is overly dependent on positive interpersonal interaction, and therefore seems doomed to failure…

    on the other hand, in spiritual spaces where i see material institutional priorities and focus on anti-oppression work, it eases some of the pressure for me on each and every interaction among individuals. people will still mess up; *i* will mess up; we have a lot to learn; and that learning & improvement is crucial. but the interpersonal mess-ups or lack thereof are not the only vital element; there’s also other work we need to do!

    thank you for this convo that’s helping to illustrate some of the challenges and opportunities with spiritual activism! y’all give me so much hope and make me feel a little more confident in tying the spirituality and politics more publicly :)

  • Lisa

    As always, I love the BFP articles. And unlike most sites, I find the discussions as thought provoking as the articles. Somewhere in the local strain of Buddhism, we seem to have confused “ending suffering” with being happy. When folks feel discomfort (aversion), they can use their privilege as a shield. Since our privilege is so often invisible to ourselves, though not to others, it works very nicely. The one drop of overtly racists/gender biased/abelist/ classist folk do their thing, and the others scurry behind their aversion and use buddhist “niceness” to drop behind their shields. The shields deflect the issue back to the person whose presence made them uncomfortable. So then we have a bunch of folk who escaped an opportunity to do deep practice and one more person wounded by sangha On we go.

    I am sick to death of false niceness and how people can distort the teachings create it. My father was from the South but I was born and raised in Oakland. And Daddy used to always say he preferred the South. He would say at least people would tell you the truth there.

    I love my tribe of bad-assed Buddhists who tell the truth… about their own aversion, discomfort and needs. About their privilege and how it causes suffering. When people can tell that truth, that’s sangha.

  • Lama Surya Das

    Spiritual Activism is the coming together of spirituality, and activism. It is not about religion, it is not about any form of dogma, it is activism that comes from the heart, not just the head, activism that is compassionate, positive, kind, fierce and transformative.

    Being a spiritual activist means taking our part in creating change, with a spirit of positivity, compassion, love and a balance of interdependence and self determination. Nothing could be more inspiring and more rewarding than being the change we want to see in the world, within and without.

  • Dawn Haney

    Thanks for joining us here, Lama Surya Das! So good to connect with you here.

    I’m curious to hear more about your experience being a spiritual activist in the world – do you have specific examples of how folks have responded to you? I’m hearing that you find it inspiring and rewarding, is your sense that others are generally inspired by your participation as well?

    I think there’s likely a distinction between how other activists respond to folks in more “official” spiritual trappings (for Buddhists, maybe that’s folks wearing robes with shaved heads) compared to lay folks where markers of “being Buddhist” are less visible. I end up having to play them up with signage or slogans, which may have a greater tendency to come off as “preachy.” I’ve often seen Buddhists in robes play an important role as part of an interfaith contingent, or be able to carry a surprisingly radical sign, but I think the roles for lay Buddhists can be less clear. It reminds me of a story that Jack Kornfield likes to tell about one of his students who says, “My parents hate me when I’m a Buddhist, but love me when I’m a Buddha.”

  • Dawn Haney

    When people can tell that truth, that’s sangha.

    Lisa!!! I love this definition of sangha, a place or a community where people can speak the truth even when it’s hard, messy, challenging.

    Ha, I originally mistyped “speak the truth” as “speak the trust” which I think was a great typo. The more folks speak the truth – even if it’s bald-faced, ugly hatred – the more I can trust how they are going to be the next time we interact. There’s something very Dharmic about that, a clear seeing of things exactly as they are.

    And Katie, everything you talk through above reminds me that when we talk about interpersonal oppression, we’re missing the most important work of changing systems, organizations, communities. And as Nathan points to, “inclusion” is framed as an organizational goal, but doesn’t actually reach far enough. I’d probably argue that it’s a good place to *begin* organizational change as a way to start bringing awareness to systems of oppression. But it too often stops there.

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