“How can we use Buddhist values to create a better society?” This is the central question posed by the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, and it was the question framing a two-week training on Socially Engaged Buddhism that I and eight other Princeton students were fortunate to participate in this summer. Socially Engaged Buddhism teaches social action and social critique based on Buddhist philosophy and values. Developed by Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhadasa Bhikku, and Sulak Sivaraksa, the philosophy recognizes suffering in the modern world as connected to structural violence and ‘mass delusion,’ and promotes personal spiritual development, social critique, and network-based action in response to social ills and injustices.
I spent the past week in Dhaka, Bangladesh as the first part of my month in Southeast Asia. This week I was exploring Bangladesh’s political and cultural history with a special focus on the place of ethnic & religious minorities in this country on university-sponsored research. I’ve just arrived in Bangkok and am transitioning into the second part of the trip exploring the intersections of religion and grassroots democracy activism in a Buddhist context in Thailand and Burma. I’m excited; will hopefully be able to post on this later. Continue reading
The crisis of survival and the threat to sustenance arises from ecological disruption that is rooted in the arrogance of the west and those that ape it. This arrogance is grounded in a blindness towards the quiet work and the invisible wealth created by nature and women and those who produce sustenance. Such work and wealth are ‘invisible’ because they are decentred, local, and in harmony with local ecosystems and needs. The more effectively the cycles of life, as essential ecological processes, are maintained, the more invisible they become. Disruption is violent and visible; balance and harmony are experienced, not seen. The premium on visibility placed by patriarchal maldevelopment forces the destruction of invisible energies and the work of women and nature, and the creation of spectacular, centralized work and wealth.
Such centralization and the uniformity associated with it works further against the diversity and plurality of life. Work and wealth in accordance with the feminine principle are significant precisely because they are rooted in stability and sustainability. Decentred diversity is the source of nature’s work and women’s productivity; it is the work of ‘insignificant’ plants in creating significant changes which shift the ecological equilibrium in life’s favour. It is the energy of all living things, in all their diversity, and together, the diversity of lives wields tremendous energy. Women’s work is similarly invisible in providing sustenance and creating wealth for basic needs. Their work in the forest, the field, and the river creates sustenance in quiet but essential ways. Every woman in every house in every village of rural India works invisibly to provide the stuff of life to nature and people. It is this invisible work that is linked to nature and needs, which conserves nature through maintaining ecological cycles, and conserves human life by satisfying the basic needs of food, nutrition, and water. It is this essential work that is destroyed and dispensed with by maldevelopment: the maintenance of ecological cycles has no place in a political economy of commodity and cash flows. …
The revolutionary and liberational potential of the recovery of the feminine principle consists in its challenging the concepts, categories, and processes which have created the threat to life, and in providing oppositional categories that create and enlarge the spaces for maintaining and enriching all life in nature and society. The radical shift induced by a focus on the feminine principle is the recognition of maldevelopment as a culture of destruction. The feminine principle becomes a category of challenge, which locates nature and women as the source of life and wealth, and as such, active subjects, maintaining and creating life-processes.
Vandana Shiva, “Staying Alive: Women, Ecology, and Development,” South End Press 2010, pp 44-46.
The Environment Matters In Religion, Too
Lately I’ve been feeling down about how religious people can neglect the environment or even feel environmental problems and suffering unimportant. Imam Khalid’s post today was encouraging. Imam Khalid Latif is NYU’s Muslim Chaplain and a shining beacon of compassion, fidelity, and hope for the religious and the progressive alike. He writes:
Our consumption is having a drastic impact on the world around us and it has an impact on people elsewhere. The over-consumption of the wealthiest nations, including our own, lends towards a need of fulfilling demand elsewhere when our own resources fun out. Our mistreatment of our land has not taught us to treat land better, but rather encouraged us to go and find land elsewhere to ruin also. The water we need to feed the mass quantities of livestock that we breed to consume in our franchises or to take the multiple showers and baths we take in a day, is water that others than don’t get to drink. Grains that we produce go to feed these animals as well, not because we’re trying to take care of the animal, but because we need them to be well-fed for when we turn them into the fast-food sandwiches that we enjoy eating. That’s water and grain that we are taking out of other people’s mouths. … When you consume too much, it has to come from somewhere. When you waste too much, it has to be put somewhere. Both extremes have consequences. The world produces sufficient amounts of everything to satisfy our basic needs. Our greed is what becomes hard to satiate.
I’m not an expert on the environment. I am expert on my own habits though. Ramadan can teach me how little I really need and how oblivious or how awake I am to the world around me. All those things we learn and hear and become desensitized to are actually real. The way we treat the world is indicative of how we treat ourselves and each other. I am more focused on satisfying my needs rather than what makes sense for many others and myself.
A few days ago I was walking through midtown Manhattan and passed by a young-ish man sitting on the edge of the crowded sidewalk. Eyes half-lidded as in a trance, he held in his hand a US Military ID: the cardboard sign leaning against his knees said “Homeless Veteran, Please Help.”
Growing up and living in New York, it’s impossible to not face the homeless on a daily basis. Since the recession began in 2007, I noticed a strong uptick in the numbers of homeless on the subways and sidewalks. The number seems to have gone down slightly in the past few years, but the homeless remain a strong presence in my conscience. Indeed, when I first began this blog back in 2010 I had wanted to write an article about the ethics of living with the homeless. I feel that we have a moral obligation to the homeless as humans, although I struggle to understand what exactly this is. Please join me in conversation about this.
The number of homeless in New York City shelters at the start of 2013 was 51,000, a rise of over 60% since 2002, when Mayor Bloomberg took office. 75% of these are families with children. In 2012, over 105,000 different people stayed in the New York City shelter system – not to mention the many uncounted people who avoid the shelter system. 
These numbers point to regional, national, and transnational economic dynamics as well as dysfunctions in the very services that are meant to help people in need. New York City and State provide public housing, unemployment benefits, drug rehabilitation and intervention programs, food stamps, emergency shelters, etc, and fund nonprofits, including religious organizations, that provide jobs assistance, emergency food aid, shelters, and many other services. Yet obviously these services do not meet the needs of those who end up on the streets and bouncing amid the homes of friends, family, and strangers. And of course, a major component (if not the most important component) of homelessness is consciousness. Continue reading
Jai Sri Krishna! I am pleased to be resuming this blog on a “tentative” basis. While I like having the opportunity to distill and share my thoughts on subjects related to spirituality and public life, during the academic year it’s just not possible to do that on top of my Work. We’ll see how long this revival lasts. In the coming posts I will share some drafts I had written and not published and then I hope reframe this blog in a new direction.
Although it will still fall under the same broad category of “spirituality and life,” I would like to use this blog to offer thoughts and spark discussion about the intersection of spirituality and social justice. In public life there often seems to be a dichotomy between actors (activists, social justice advocates, etc) and thinkers (academics, philosophers, writers, spiritual practitioners) and I think that spiritual people usually fall on one side or another of the divide. Activists who really take their spiritual selves seriously – or spiritual practitioners who take social justice work seriously – are a rare breed, and it is very moving to meet such a person. Not that religious or spiritual people are not activists – there is an amazing tradition of Christian involvement in social justice and civil rights advocacy. But those who consider themselves to be on a “spiritual path” are often less likely to take social justice seriously. Continue reading
I return to this blog after over a month of radio silence. As Karttik drew to a close, academic demands picked up and I found myself unable to maintain many of my favorite activities & practices, let alone this blog. As soon as the semester ended I dashed away to India where I’ve spent the last three weeks, mostly offline, immersed in chanting, hearing, and visiting holy places. It was quite a changing experience, perhaps even a turning point in my spiritual life, in ways that I’m barely beginning to understand. I spent two-plus weeks in Vrindavan and four days in Mumbai at Sri Sri Radha Gopinath Mandir. Both experiences were deeply affecting, although in quite different ways. This was my first time in India, but that simple geographical fact wasn’t what made my experiences so powerful. The spiritual potency of these places themselves – and of the people there – is bound to impact anyone who travels to the Holy Dham, no matter one’s level of consciousness. It’s said that spending a fortnight in Vrindavan creates a lasting impression, and that was certainly my experience.
These entries will begin to elaborate in some of these impressions in a way that sheds some light on my experiences, and hopefully provides a meaningful experience for the reader as well. These entries largely adapted from my diaries and correspondence over the last three weeks. Even though it was only three weeks, it was an extremely busy time internally, so far more than three weeks worth of material was generated! (I am normally a very internal person, but even I had a hard time keeping up with it all) Not all of the accompanying photos are mine; I don’t really like to take pictures as I travel, preferring instead to be “in the moment,” but many others do! As always, share and comment responsibly.