A New Bottom Line

The first Spiritual Activism Conference offers a hopeful vision for a movement of spiritual progressives—and interesting lessons for engaged Buddhists.

Phil Catalfo

Spiritual progressives being human, mistakes were nonetheless made in putting the conference together. There was a noticeable shortfall among the plenary speakers of women, people of color, and (in the mind of some participants, at least) representatives of spiritual traditions other than Judaism or Christianity. Several Buddhist teachers at the conference felt the dharma was relegated to small-group sessions and not allowed enough of a presence in the conference's major events; but the same could be said for Hinduism and Islam. Organizers acknowledged they had hoped to present a more acutely diverse array of speakers; and it's probably not fair to fault them for not having put together a “perfect” itinerary. But the attendees—mostly white baby boomers (although there certainly were a notable number of under-30s in evidence)—surely represented a more heterogeneous collection of spiritual practices than the conference lineup seemed to indicate.

As for Buddhists, this four-day colloquium on spiritual activism provided a unique opportunity for the American sangha and other “spiritual progressives” to consider how they might complement each other in terms of applying the essential teachings of their respective traditions to tikkun, Hebrew for “healing the world.” Donald Rothberg, a Vipassana teacher and member of the Spirit Rock Teachers Council, sees a tidy complementarity here. “There's a long tradition in Judaism and Christianity of theological reflection on society that's just beginning in Buddhism,” he said. “Buddhism doesn't have the equivalent of 'liberation theology,' for instance. But Buddhism has more of a contemplative tradition, which has been in the Judeo-Christian tradition but has not been its primary focus.” Buddhism's contemplative emphasis, Rothberg adds, means that it can contribute something to this nascent movement that Western faith traditions cannot: “clarifying what the process of working together looks like, and why spirituality makes any difference.” At the conference, Rothberg led a workshop called “Training for Spiritual Activists” at which he asked attendees, “Okay, you're a spiritual activist; what do you need to overcome to become a better, more mature activist?” The answer, according to participants: conflict, anger, and the tendency to demonize opponents. “That's something Buddhists are particularly good at responding to,” he points out. “And if one doesn't pay attention to those issues, how far is the movement going to go?”

Taigen Dan Leighton, a dharma teacher in the Shunryu Suzuki Roshi lineage who leads sanghas in the San Francisco and Chicago areas (and who, like Lerner, was active in the Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s), agrees that Buddhism can help activists “see how to transform anger, not to become victimized by our own outrage,” but also notes that the current of “social gospel” in the Judeo-Christian tradition offers Buddhist practitioners a pragmatic viewpoint that could yield a healthy fusion of the spiritual with the societal. “There's the potential now for a mature, activist spirituality,” he says. “Any critical situation is a tremendous opportunity.” And Leighton minces no words about our present situation being critical: “Basically, the American people are under attack by the government. I feel I must respond to that from the bodhisattva precepts, as a dharma holder.”

Lest anyone think it's not a dharma teacher's role to voice political outrage, Leighton comments, “There is some segment of American Buddhists who think they need to be polite and never criticize anybody. But that's horribly damaging to Buddhism. All Buddhism is 'engaged' Buddhism.” Still, he adds, “What's happening now is critical and horrible, and yet we need to find our own sense of slowing down, so we can respond from clarity and inner dignity and calm, rather than frustration. It's like Gary Snyder says: What's happening now is totally urgent, so we have to act as if our hair's on fire—and yet we also need to act as if we have all the time in the world.”

Phil Catalfo is a former senior editor at Yoga Journal, the author of Raising Spiritual Children in a Material World, and co-author of The Whole Parenting Guide. He lives with his family in Berkeley, California.

Image 1: Rabbi Michael Lerner

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