When BODHI was co-founded in 1989 (in Australia as well as the US) it became one of the world’s first Buddhist-influenced non-government organizations seeking to improve social and environmental justice for all.
Both major forms of Buddhism recognise the importance of compassion. A central tenet of Mahayana Buddhism (which includes Tibetan Buddhism) is the concept of “bodhicitta”, the wish to be of benefit to all beings. An important aspect of Theravada Buddhism is the concept and practice of “metta”, or loving kindness. In principle, both forms of compassion extend to all forms of life, including people of any race, faith, ethnicity, status or caste.
The experience of each of the co-founders of BODHI was that organized and practical expressions of either metta or bodhicitta were rare, at least by Buddhists and Buddhist sympathisers. We knew, of course, that Buddhist teachings had a powerful, generally positive influence in many countries, but also that many nominally Buddhist counties had experienced internal conflict and sometime practised overt aggression - but so had many Christian and Muslim countries.
We also knew of organized programmes in Western countries to raise funds for Tibetan refugees in India and Nepal, efforts which had commenced soon after His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama had fled the Chinese invaders in 1959, accompanied by about 80,000 of his countrymen, in the first of several waves. (See an interview with the Dalai Lama in 1960.) But we did not know of any Buddhist-influenced organizations similar in aspiration to OxFam, Save the Children Fund, or the Catholic aid organization Caritas. Although a group called Tzu Chi (“compassionate relief”) had been founded in Taiwan in 1966 we did not, at that stage, know of it. Nor (in those pre-internet days, when research was more difficult) did we know of the Karuna Trust, which, based in the UK, had then been active for several years. We knew of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, but its focus was more on dialogue and the promotion of peace, than on poverty relief via partners, as we intended.
Today, there are many Buddhist-influenced organizations that seek to promote social and environmental justice, from Buddhist Global Relief to the Foundation for Universal Responsibility. Some of these are linked in the International Network of Engaged Buddhists. However, few among these groups seek to actively promote poverty relief and poverty prevention. BODHI, though small, has supported almost 50 such projects, mainly in India, Bangladesh, Thailand and Tibet. We also have tried to raise concerns about numerous issues relevant to social justice, in our newsletters, on our various websites, in reports and other publications and via social media including Facebook.
Recurrent themes have included climate change, inequality, racial and other forms of discrimination and the lack of female education and empowerment and its consequent effect on poverty. Compared to the need, BODHI can only make a small difference, but we can do far more collectively than as individuals.
The Guardian has a new article by Rose George called India’s poor sanitation is damaging millions of children. There’s no excuse
It is reproduced below:
Earlier this year, in a sweltering classroom in Delhi, I met a young Indian boy named Ram. His father is a watchman in a government apartment block, and the family live in the building’s garage. But there is no toilet, so Ram, a small, whipsmart and endearingly cheeky boy, must cross two busy highways to get to the overcrowded public toilet in a nearby slum.
Obviously, rather than risk this, Ram and his siblings sometimes do their business in the open near the apartment block, making him one of India’s 564 million people who practise open defecation. Because of this, Ram told me: “They’re throwing us out.” I asked where his family will live instead and he just shrugged.
Ram is an example of the idea that children can be active citizens. They earn this right because they can teach us adults things we have forgotten, as with a child’s most common lament: “That’s not fair!” They are right: it has been 25 years since India launched itself on to the path of structural adjustment, and despite media focus on its growth, triumphs and controversial prime minister Narendra Modi, it’s not just Ram who should be saying that there is too much about modern India that is not fair.
Modern India has a massive middle class (the third largest in the world after China and the US), economic growth that makes market economists salivate and the third largest number of billionaires. It also has 250 million people with zero assets. Not even a radio. And, as Caught Short, a new report by WaterAid reveals, it has more stunted children than any other country. Nearly 50 million Indian children are stunted, including Ram. Probably because, like millions of other Indian toddlers, he was constantly exposed to disease carried by faecal particles he encountered when going to the toilet wherever he could.
A single gram of human excrement can contain 10m viruses, 1m bacteria, 1,000 parasite cysts and 100 worm eggs. Living barefoot and not washing your hands, you’re likely to ingest dangerous bugs with your food and drink, if you have any. Diarrhoea ensues; and any nourishment children do get is washed out by the bugs, stunting their growth and development. Half of all cases of malnutrition are linked to diarrhoea, says WaterAid. If a child experiences five or more cases of diarrhoea before the age of two, he or she may be stunted. Beyond that age, “the effects are largely irreversible”.Ram’s situation is unfair and immoral, but it’s also uneconomical. Poor sanitation loses India 6.4% of GDP – $53.8bn – according to World Bank calculations. It is now well known that investing a dollar in sanitation can save a government $6-8 in costs: healthcare, mostly, but also days not worked and children whose earning potential is as stunted as their height.
The writer and activist Harsh Mander, author of a searing book on Indian indifference called Looking Away, would give children a fair start (which is the name of a current UNICEF India campaign), in the form of a universal social floor. It would cost 10% of GDP and cover an equal school environment, where children of different backgrounds – income, ethnicity or religion – are schooled together. There would be access to basic healthcare, in a country where a quarter of the population fall into poverty because of hospitalisation costs. This is not a fantastical proposition. In 2014, World Bank president Jim Yong Kim said that “there’s now overwhelming evidence that [user fees for healthcare] actually worsened health outcomes”. Higher taxes? What an unfashionable notion. Yet India’s tax income is 14% of GDP, one of the lowest among similar nations.
It is common in India to stop at traffic lights and see a young girl with dirty hair and a wide smile gesturing to her mouth; or a boy selling tissues or trinkets. It has also become far too common, on a micro and macro level, for India’s thriving middle class to look away – or worse, to look through. Unicef’s Fair Start campaign highlighted this with a film that used children from marginal communities as actors. It may not seem a sophisticated concept, but it is groundbreaking for one reason: when the film’s wealthy children see poor children begging, or heading off into the bushes to go the toilet, they actually notice them. Unlike the adults, who have learned that windows can be opaque, these children see clearly to the other side of their prosperity and privilege.Do we have to wait for this generation to grow up before we stop tolerating the current levels of inequality and poverty? No one is asking Indians to look through a looking-glass. Just a window, and to acknowledge that the poverty on the other side is not only unfair and unacceptable, it’s fixable.
Radio Free Asia has reported that demolition began on July 20, 2016 at the once thriving Larung Gar Buddhist Academy in Sertar, Sichuan, China. Before the Chinese invasion of Tibet this was in a part of Asia that was culturally Tibetan and controlled politically from Lhasa. The density of settlement (see picture below) is very similar to the great monasteries which once existed in the vicinity of Lhasa, and which were brutally ransacked and destroyed by Chinese invaders decades ago. Larung Gar attracted many students, including many women. It is reported that some were ethnic Chinese and some came from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia, who attend separate classes taught in Mandarin, while larger classes are taught in Tibetan. The closest city is Chengdu, 650 kilometers away, 13 to 15 hours to reach by vehicle. The monastery was founded in 1980 by Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok (1933-2004), who is reported as having a ecumenical (non sectarian) vision. This destruction shows ongoing Chinese anxiety and control.