Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi talks about Buddhist Global Relief’s “Walks to Feed the Hungry”

Not long ago, we brought you news about Buddhist Global Relief‘s 2012 Walk to Feed the Hungry fundraising events. This is the third year for the events, which seek to raise funds for the organization’s programs that provide relief to communities around the world afflicted by chronic hunger and malnutrition. So far, walks have in total raised over $120,000 to support BGR’s humanitarian efforts.

All the walk events in 2012 will take place this month in the following cities: Ann Arbor, MI (October 13), Chicago, IL (October 13), New York, NY (October 13), San Francisco, CA (October 13), San Jose, CA (October 14), Los Angeles, CA (October 20), and Escondido, CA (October 25). Walks have already taken place in Seattle, WA, and Yorkshire, UK.

Buddhadharma News reporter Danny Fisher caught up with the Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi — the well-known translator of Pali Buddhist texts into English, and the founder of Buddhist Global Relief — to ask him about the walks. They talked via email; read the interview after the jump.

Bhante, for the benefit of those who don’t know anything about them, what are Buddhist Global Relief’s Walks to Feed the Hungry? Also, why walks in this context?

The Walk to Feed the Hungry is an event that BGR has been holding for the past three years as a means to raise funds to sustain our projects, which center on providing relief to people worldwide who lack adequate nutrition. The idea of holding these walks started in 2010. In May of that year, for fun and exercise, I took a long walk through New York together with a couple of my students. Starting from Fort Lee, New Jersey, we crossed the George Washington Bridge, and then walked down the length of Manhattan to Grand Street at the lower end of the island.

When I told our BGR team members about this walk, one member suggested that we hold a walk as a fundraiser, and this set our plans in motion. Since then, the Walk to Feed the Hungry has become an annual event. In the first year, 2010, we held one walk, in South Orange, New Jersey, and the participants were almost all people living in the greater New York area. In 2011 three BGR walks took place: in New York City, near Ann Arbor in Michigan, and from San Jose to Palo Alto in California.

This year, more people around the US and even abroad have organized BGR walks. We now have ten walks scheduled in this country, due to take place in middle and late October. A BGR walk by supporters in England was already held on September 29. And to our delight, two Asian communities that we support, in Cambodia and India, have held walks in their own countries to express appreciation for the help we give them. For the past two years, one of our New York supporters, Dan Blake, a professional jazz saxophonist, has organized benefit jazz concerts close to the time of the walks. So these have become an integral part of the season.

The walk provides a very convenient opportunity to raise funds. Participants in the walk can set up their own First Giving fundraising pages on the BGR website and raise funds from their friends and relatives. Others can give to walkers to support their walks or simply donate to support a walk in any location of their choice.

Of the various causes that could have been primary, why has hunger become the central focus of Buddhist Global Relief?

We originally founded Buddhist Global Relief for the purpose of combating poverty, but we saw soon enough that this mission was too broad. We needed a more specific point of focus. Reports I read online continually hammered home to me the vast amount of suffering in today’s world due to chronic hunger and malnutrition. I had learned that close to a billion people suffer from malnutrition; that another two billion subsist on inadequate diets; and that ten million people a year die from hunger and hunger-related illnesses, most of them women and children. I found this shocking! I thought that in a world where food is still abundant, especially in a country where mountains of food go to waste each year, such a situation is utterly unacceptable. I felt that, out of compassion and a sense of social justice, we had to do something to alleviate the plight of those afflicted with chronic hunger. This commitment, moreover, squared well with the Buddha’s stress on the benefits of giving food.

Our emphasis, however, has not been on providing emergency relief to communities hit by catastrophe. That type of relief, to be effective, requires a budget in the multi-millions, and we don’t have anything in that range. Thus, we had to adopt a more modest and realistic approach. What we do is to partner with organizations already working in the countries where we decide to launch projects. Our projects focus on helping people use small-scale, ecologically sustainable methods of cultivation to acquire more food for their families and communities. We also support projects that educate people about right nutrition and healthier dietary practices. And, to tackle the roots of poverty and malnutrition, we provide food assistance to poor families so they can permit their daughters to continue their education and to give women the chance to launch right livelihood projects by which they can earn more to support their families. Readers can find much more detailed information about our history and our projects on our website.

I’ve interviewed you before about your work with Oxfam, CIFA, and the White House on large, cooperative poverty initiatives. Would you say something about you as an individual Buddhist and the organization Buddhist Global Relief cooperating with other religious and secular organizations on large-scale efforts? This seems like it has been a priority for you and BGR.

As a small organization run entirely on a volunteer basis, we do not have the funds or personnel to operate in the countries that need the type of assistance we can provide. As I said earlier, the way we work is by forming partnerships with organizations working in those countries, which range from Cambodia and Vietnam, through India and Sri Lanka, to Kenya, Niger, and Malawi in Africa, and Haiti and the US. In this way we can take advantage of their greater expertise, yet we can enter into active partnerships by which we look at their specific needs and help them to formulate specific projects. So far our partners have been mostly secular organizations, though we have also linked up with a few fellow Buddhist partners such as Dharmagiri Outreach in South Africa and Bodhicitta Foundation in India. Some of our partners are larger organizations such as Helen Keller International, but most often we collaborate with smaller, locally based organizations such as Lotus Outreach and Rachana in Cambodia, Ecology Action in Africa, and the What If Foundation in Haiti.

The part of BGR’s website devoted to the walks quotes something you have said: “We’re living at a transformative moment of history when humanity is faced with a critical choice: either we continue to flow with the currents of greed and ignorance and risk devastating the earth, or we adopt a scheme of values that gives pride of place to compassion, care, and social justice.” In a broad sense, what do you think practicing Buddhists can do to promote movement toward the latter option?

Buddhism already gives pride of place to such values as compassion, kindness, and generosity, so stressing these values would not be teaching Buddhists something they are not already familiar with. However, traditionally these qualities are esteemed as personal values conducive to one’s own spiritual growth and beneficial to those in one’s immediate sphere of influence. Today, however, aggressive and destructive forces, relentlessly bent on profit and domination, have put in jeopardy the very survival of human civilization as we know it. Thus, in my opinion, compassion and kindness as purely personal values are no longer adequate to the demands of the era in which we live.

There is also, in Buddhism, a tendency to treat such qualities as love and compassion as purely subjective states, to be cultivated in meditation and personal relationships. This would be a type of compassion that is like a piece of classical art: beautiful and praiseworthy but inert. What we need, in my view, is a kind of love and compassion that can gush forth and reshape our social milieu. This would be a compassion conjoined with a wider global vision and spurred on by the courage to engage the hard, even brutal reality of greed, militarism, lust for power, and heartless exploitation so rampant in the modern world.

To respond effectively to our contemporary crisis, I believe we must elevate the sacred Buddhist values of love and compassion to the position of guiding principles that can drive the choices we make on matters of social, political, and economic policy. Further, while I think the idea of social justice is implicit in the Buddhist tradition, it has not been articulated as clearly as it has been in modern Western political theory. Quite independently of what the Buddhist scriptures might say, I feel that it is necessary for contemporary Buddhism to incorporate principles of social and economic justice into our thinking and programs of social action. The commitment to social and economic justice, and the mobilization of a common will to implement this commitment through courageous nonviolent action, is something that Buddhists can learn from the West, especially from the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s.

How can those who would like to participate or donate help?

To learn more about the walks, how to register for a walk near you, and donate to support the walk, please see the BGR website: www.buddhistglobalrelief.org. All the information you need is right there. But please don’t delay, because the walks in the US will begin on October 13.