October 31, 2013
The power of walking
Walking can be viewed in bare physical terms as an intricate interplay of nerve impulses, muscles, and bones resulting in a change of location. However, walking can also serve as an act of conscience by which we project our values and ideals out into the world. Gandhi’s walks along the dusty roads of India were part of his peaceful strategy for freeing his country from the grip of the British Raj. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s walks in the cities of the South helped break down the walls of segregation and win civil rights for millions of disenfranchised African Americans. Maha Ghosananda’s Dharma Walks in Cambodia attempted to heal the wounds left by two decades of brutal conflict. Mass walks in Washington have protested our country’s wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. And also right here in the US, a walk by Buddhists is being held each year to provide relief for people around the world suffering from hunger.
In mid-2008, along with several of my friends and students, I founded Buddhist Global Relief, with the specific mission of developing programs to address chronic hunger and malnutrition. In our lifespan of five years, we’ve launched over 60 projects in countries ranging from Vietnam, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, and India, to Niger, Kenya, and South Africa, to Haiti and the US. To raise funds, we hold the annual five– to ten–mile Walk to Feed the Hungry, usually in the fall. Our first walk was held in 2010 in South Orange, New Jersey. Over the past three years, the number of walks has increased: this year walks will take place in ten locations across the US, with solidarity walks by our beneficiaries in Cambodia and India.
While the ostensible purpose of this walk has been simply to raise funds, the act of walking in unison for several miles has a more profound spiritual meaning. We might discern in the Walk to Feed the Hungry three layers of significance, which blend and reinforce each other with every step that we take.
At the most obvious level, the walk is an expression of generosity and compassion. By walking together, we enable people to make donations. We manifest concern for the poor and hungry. Our steps are acts of compassion intended to alleviate suffering. Through collective action we express our belief that all human beings are essentially alike, that all merit the resources essential to a decent life. We also make a commitment to extend a helping hand. We reach out across oceans, continents, and cultures to lift up those cast down by life’s circumstances. At best, we equip them with the means to uplift themselves.
At a second level, the walk expresses our sense of conscience, our acknowledgment of an impersonal imperative pointing us towards social justice. By walking we express the conviction that something is fundamentally skewed with a global social and economic system that treats human beings as disposable. We voice discontent with a system that pushes a billion people into the pits of poverty and crushes them beneath the weight of incessant hunger. We express moral revulsion at the cruel miscarriage of social justice that occurs when we spend trillions of dollars on war and weaponry yet let ten million people—over half of them children—die each year from malnutrition and hunger-related illnesses. With our silent steps we proclaim that the global food system must guarantee everyone a sufficient quantity of healthy, nutritious food. More broadly, we advocate for a new world order founded on the pillars of social justice and respect for the inherent dignity of every human being.
At the third and final level, walking becomes a way of expressing our own real nature, of manifesting the deep potentials for generosity and goodness inherent in the human heart. By walking in the company of spiritual teachers and friends, we blow open the narrow walls of self-concern in which our personal dramas normally unfold. Instead, we rise to a new perspective—a universal perspective—that takes the good of all as our guiding ideal. By walking in solidarity with the world’s poor, we repudiate the rampant cynicism of the dominant culture that regards human nature as corrupted by incurable selfishness and greed. Rather than yielding to the dictates of blind self-interest, we show that, as individuals, we flourish best when we nurture our innate impulses to generosity, love, care, and concern. Even more pointedly, we express the hope, trust, and conviction that humanity as a whole flourishes best when we all flourish together. We walk to share the burden of suffering with the weakest in our midst, and we rejoice in discovering our power to uplift those who need our help just to survive.
By walking to feed the hungry, we show that it is not an untrammeled market economy that is going to redeem our world. It is not strategies of aggression, domination, and repression that are going to make us safe. The secret to transforming the world, the key to security and safety, lies in cooperation and collaboration. It lies in compassion for all beings in the wider web of life, and in generosity and love channeled into selfless action on behalf of people we will never know or see. As we travel through this journey of life and death, we walk together as a way of demonstrating our primal unity, embodying in action our intrinsic and inseparable solidarity in the quest for well-being, happiness, and security.
The Walk to Feed the Hungry in New York City will take place this coming Saturday, November 2, at Riverside Park in Manhattan. Participants will gather at 9:15 am and start to walk at 10:00 am. The walk will be followed by a communal lunch, with dharma talks and chanting. Buddhist Global Relief invite all readers to join them. To learn more about BGR, and to find out about walks around the US, go to www.buddhistglobalrelief.org.
Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi is a Theravada Buddhist monk originally from New York City. He is the former editor of the Buddhist Publication Society in Kandy, Sri Lanka, and has many important publications to his credit, the most recent being his full translation of the Anguttara Nikaya (Wisdom Publications, 2012). In 2008, he founded Buddhist Global Relief, a nonprofit sponsoring hunger relief and education in countries suffering from chronic poverty and malnutrition.
Image courtesy of author.