August 14, 2012

Bodhisattva Work

Interview with Turning Wheel Media

The Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF) was founded by Robert Aitken Roshi, his wife Anne, and Nelson Foster on the back porch of Aitken Roshi's Maui Zendo in 1978. The idea was to further interdependent practice of awakening and social justice, and BPF promotes these ideals to this day.

Over the course of time, as BPF grew and established chapters all over the United States, it found the need for a newsletter as a means of communicating between the national office and the BPF chapters. This was the humble beginning of what came to be known as Turning Wheel magazine, what is now known as Turning Wheel Media.

In April Tricycle caught up with the co-editors of Turning Wheel Media, Katie Loncke, Everett Wilson, and Jacks McNamara, to talk about Turning Wheel's recent transition into an online-only publication—and of course, social action and Buddhist practice.

Can you give us some sense of Turning Wheel’s history from its inception with the BPF to its recent transition into Turning Wheel Media? Turning Wheel started out in 1979 as “The Buddhist Peace Fellowship Newsletter,” edited by Arnie Kotler. He and then David Schneider edited it and expanded it, and in 1990 Susan Moon became the editor, further developed it into a quarterly magazine, and changed the name to Turning Wheel.

For the next 17 years Susan brought some of the best known thinkers and writers in socially engaged Buddhism to Turning Wheel’s pages: Thich Nhat Hanh, Joanna Macy, Gary Snyder, Alice Walker, Jarvis Jay Masters, David Loy, and of course our founder, Robert Aitken Roshi. Susan also prided herself in seeking out and encouraging lesser-­known voices with important things to say about what Buddhism in action might look like. Since Susan Moon’s retirement in 2007, we’ve been searching for ways to both expand Turning Wheel’s audience and maintain the strong link to the organization that gave birth to the magazine. As part of that process, we decided that the kind of interactivity and discussion that can happen on the Internet provides exactly the tools we need to expand Turning Wheel’s mission and to bring Buddhist teachings into conversation with the world.

 What’s your vision for Turning Wheel Media? What did you hope to accomplish by going online? Our main hope is for Turning Wheel to help bring Buddhist teachings into conversation with the world. It’s one thing to talk about interconnectedness, for example, or contemplate it on the cushion, but it’s not as easy to examine the linkages between gas prices in the U.S. and wars in the Middle East. We’ve found that the interactivity and discussion that can happen on the Internet provides very useful tools for this kind of critical discussion (when used skillfully). While we hope to carry forward our legacy of in­depth writing and innovative art, an online media platform also offers unique benefits.

Lively debates can educate bloggers and writers as well as readers. Multi­media offerings like videos and podcasts bring a different kind of dynamism, and can literally help amplify newer voices in engaged Buddhism. Cyber­connectivity and hyperlinks can guide inspired readers directly to groups already taking action, in their area or elsewhere. The faster pace of online life, and the ease of sharing articles, may help with a 'regroupment' process for engaged Buddhism, allowing younger generations of dharma­informed activists (many raised on multi­media web culture) to more easily find one another, and hopefully collaborate on political work.

Like Tricycle, Turning Wheel is a nonsectarian organization. In what ways is that a strength? Is it ever a weakness? Everett: As part of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, we’ve always greatly valued diversity. It seems to me that focusing too narrowly on a particular Buddhist tradition or school could too easily put Turning Wheel in the position of preaching to the choir. By remaining non­sectarian, we hope to invite and encourage respectful disagreement. Learning to value the opinions of others—even non­Buddhists—is a crucial part of examining the complexity of the world where we actually live.

Is it ever a weakness? I don’t think so. I suppose you could argue that by being non­sectarian we might present Buddhism as being somewhat bland and homogenous. The reality of course is that historically Buddhism itself has been less sectarian than we might like to think. Recent scholarship is suggesting that all of the major Buddhist schools evolved at roughly the same time, and Theravadan and Mahayana Buddhists practiced side by side in the same monasteries for centuries. I also think that at a certain point, even thinking in terms of Buddhist and non­Buddhist is problematic. I’d like Turning Wheel to be so inclusive that Muslims, Christians, Pagans, atheist—people from any belief system—can find something of value on our website, and feel inspired to engage in the conversation by sharing their own views and perspectives.

Katie: I’d echo Jacks and Everett, and also just add that in my view we also have a responsibility to be careful about the non­sectarian approach, and avoid reinforcing a mainstream U.S. tendency to collapse all Buddhist/Eastern traditions into one big New­Agey jumble.We also don’t want to define the “essence” of Buddhism as mindfulness, or sitting, or worse: some commodity that’s easily marketable. I hope our non­sectarianism can highlight the particularities of different lineages and traditions, as well as finding the spiritual commonalities among them that inspire us to work together in the world as Buddhists or dhamma­-friendly people.

What’s the relationship between social action and Buddhist practice? How can we prevent ourselves from becoming proverbial “navel­gazers” and why is it important to do so? Jacks: For me this question always comes back to the model of the bodhisattva, the person who returns to the world of birth and death after they achieve enlightenment so that they can help all beings to become free. If Buddhism is about acknowledging and ending suffering, we cannot be concerned only with our personal suffering—we must be concerned with the suffering and liberation of all beings. If we want to look at causes and codependent arising, we must look at structural violence and environmental injustice as part of the causes and conditions of the world that we live in. To create a harmonious world where beings are truly free, we must work to end racism, classism, ableism [prejudice against people with disabilities], homophobia, gender oppression, and all other forms of discrimination. The struggle for social justice is an inextricable part of this work. I do not believe that sitting on the cushion and finding peace only within myself will ever be enough to create peace in a world built on the foundations of capitalism, imperialism, and war.

Many consider the media to be part of the whole rotten system that needs to be uprooted and changed. Do you hope that Turning Wheel Media can function as an antidote to that? There have been complaints about the media since the media existed, but there is still an important role for quality media to play, even as we try and figure out what that might look like in the Internet medium.

Turning Wheel’s primary role in the media may be to thoroughly meditate on the implications of what good investigative reporting uncovers. Media by the people and for the people remains incredibly important in uprooting systems of domination and obedience that keep us from questioning the regimes we live under, shining a light into corners that we’d rather not look at, and supporting truly transformative revolutionary change.

We’d say that’s bodhisattva work.


Image 1: Jacks McNamara, Co-Editor, Turning Wheel Media; Communications and Outreach Coordinator, Buddhist Peace Fellowship.

Image 2: Everett Wilson, Co-Editor, Turning Wheel Media.

Image 3: Katie Loncke, Co-Editor, Turning Wheel Media; Director of Action and Media, Buddhist Peace Fellowship.

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wanwaimeng's picture

Hi Dominic,
Are you from the States? Is Buddhism popular amongst the black community in the US?

Dominic Gomez's picture

Hi Wanwaimeng. I was born and raised here. My parents emigrated from the Philippines after WWII. There are some schools that are more attractive to America's different ethnic populations than others. This article talks about it:
I grew up in San Francisco, and the black community there was less tied to tradition than in other parts of the US. Buddhism wasn't so strange.

aewhitehouse's picture

In my eight or so years of studying Buddhist philosophy, I've observed that the "engaged Buddhism" initiative has a lot of overlap with partisan views and the self-righteousness that accompanies it. Social justice is a noble pursuit, yet it has to unfold with gentle, enabling activism. It is less effective be forced on individuals who are not yet like-minded. In fact, I have observed that it makes the non like-minded dig in their heels even more exacerbating the problem. It is good that Peace Fellowship acknowledges these differences and is open to honest, civil dialog.

I subscribe more to the approach that to change the world for the better, I must change myself for the better. In my view, we wag our fingers at those we see as racist, ableist, homophobic, etc. without acknowledging the work we need to do on ourselves. Also, it seems a spiritual drag to constantly self-arbitrate as to what set of behaviors or attitudes really constitute the offenders of the social justice paradigm.
I personally question whether or not Ms. McNamara is on the mark about what needs to be done so that all beings can be truly free. Taking her approach into account, it seems that some beings must be placed into the bondage of shame so that only certain others can be freed.


tim.mccravy's picture

As the Buddhist path is a personal path, then the decision to engage or not engage in social justice issues is also a personal one. Myself I do feel compelled to challenge injustice has a compliment to my own personal growth. If we wait until we ourselves have reached the perfection before taking on wider social issues, then no one will ever speak up. Even MLK was not perfect in his personal life. Had he used that as an excuse not to engage in social action, just think of what we'd have lost.

Dominic Gomez's picture

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a master of gently enabling a black community resigned to injustice to change and activate themselves

aewhitehouse's picture

Precisely. Dr. King was profoundly effective in that regard.