Richard Reoch, human rights advocate and president of Shambhala International, speaks with Tricycle
In some sense, we should regard ourselves as being burdened: We have the burden of helping this world. We cannot forget this responsibility to others. But if we take our burden as a delight, we can actually liberate this world. The way to begin is with ourselves. From being open and honest with ourselves, we can also learn to be open and honest with others. So we can work with the rest of the world on the basis of the goodness we discover in ourselves. Therefore, meditation is regarded as a good, in fact excellent, way to overcome warfare in the world: our own warfare as well as greater warfare.
—Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche
Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior
Richard Reoch is the President of Shambhala, the international spiritual organization founded by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche (1940-1987). Reoch is a former senior official of Amnesty International, a trustee of the Rainforest Foundation, and currently chair of the International Working Group on Sri Lanka, an organization whose aim is to end the Buddhist world’s longest-running war. In association with the Garrison Institute, an interfaith retreat center and spiritual think tank in upstate New York, Reoch is a founding member of the International Buddhist Peace Service, an initiative that focuses on worldwide conflict resolution using Buddhist principles. His service at Amnesty is particularly notable for his focus on both the victims and perpetrators of torture. Reoch was interviewed earlier this year by Tricycle’s James Shaheen and Elizabeth Lees at Karmê Chöling, a Shambhala retreat center in northern Vermont.
How did you first come to Buddhism? When I was six, my parents joined the Toronto Buddhist Church. I went there every Sunday until I was twenty-three. While most of the service was in Japanese, there were a few chants that were in English. And there was one, which you always recited at the end of the service: “We pledge to follow in the footsteps of the Buddha, and to work earnestly for the welfare of all humanity. Particularly to those who are standing forth to the great change we call death, we send forth oceans of wisdom, mercy, and love.” I attribute entirely everything I have subsequently done to that.
So Amnesty International was a perfect fit. Yes, and early on, it brought me right back to an unexpected encounter with Buddhism! In my earliest days at Amnesty, I interviewed a man who had been the abbot of a monastery that had resisted the Chinese during the invasion. He went through all kinds of rigors and eventually escaped. I never mentioned anything to him about my connection with Buddhism. At the end of the interview, he said to me, “I can see that you have a great interest in our religion, but what you are doing [at Amnesty] is more important.” That answered a question that I’d had in my mind; I’d been given this amazing affirmation. He continued, “You’re magnetized to religious practice, but the work you’re doing, for human rights, is more important. Do that.” I worked for Amnesty International for twenty-three years.
Do you see your political and social engagement linked to your Buddhist background? Totally. It was much later in my life that I came across the term “engaged Buddhism.” And I remember being genuinely perplexed, and actually irritated. We pledged every day at the Buddhist temple to devote our lives to working for humanity. Why would you need to add the word engaged to Buddhism?
The Buddha was a social radical, a social transformer. After attaining enlightenment, he crisscrossed northern India, teaching. He established communities that were alternative social models to the caste society he grew up in and was destined to rule in. But in these new societies, you took a vow, part of which was that you wouldn’t refer to what your previous caste had been. Men and women wore robes and shaved their heads so that they wouldn’t be distinguished by the traditional marks of gender or wealth. They went out and begged for food from all classes—scandalizing the brahmins by mixing food from brahmin households in the same bowl with food from “untouchable” households. And when the monks walked along the dusty roads in their bright saffron gowns, they were a walking advertisement for a completely new way of living. Now meditation is a part of that change, but it goes hand in hand with it, not before or after. Ultimately, from the point of view of the dharma—at least, my understanding of it—cultivating your mind through meditation is also social radicalism. Because if the goal is to produce more people who are manifesting the attributes of enlightenment—namely, wisdom and compassion—then that, by necessity, is a transformation of the social situation as well.
Still, a lot of people’s association with Buddhism is that it’s a retreat from the world. How do you respond to that? On the night of the Buddha’s enlightenment, he is said to have understood that everything is completely interconnected and interdependent. Therefore it is impossible for anybody to go on retreat from the world. Everybody knows that when you go on retreat, the whole world, no matter how tiny your retreat cabin, is there, in terms of your experience. And the purpose of retreat is precisely to transform the world.
But you don’t see a progression—first you transform your mind, then you go out into the world? That’s a false dualism. There’s nothing about our situation that can be cut off from the rest of what is going on. The only way you can be cut off is through ignorance—the root problem, as identified by the Buddha —which leads to sorrow and suffering.
One of your initiatives, the International Buddhist Peace Service, is overtly “engaged” with the world in its aims. Can you say something about that? This idea stems from an incident that occurred when I was in a Red Cross jeep in northern Sri Lanka. In 1995, I was part of a delegation that was visiting the war zones there. We ended up in the midst of a tremendous confrontation, and a soldier came up to me and put his gun in my face. He wore a black mask and a full camouflage outfit. I thought he was going to say something threatening. He instead said, “I totally appreciate the work of your organization,” referring to the Red Cross. And I instantly realized that for him, the Red Cross was a symbol of the opposite of warfare and threat and degradation. This led me to think, “Isn’t it odd: When there are disasters, emergencies, wars, where are the Buddhists?” All kinds of organizations rush to Iran or Turkey or the Philippines whenever they see immense human suffering, but you don’t see the Buddhists.
My question led to a series of discussions that included me, as the president of Shambhala, people at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, people at Dharma Drum, people in the Buddhist Churches of America, the Japanese community, and the Garrison Institute. We explored the possibility of an international Buddhist peace service that would bring the profound insights of the Buddha-dharma together with state-of-the-art assistance, for example, in peacekeeping or mediation. We’re trying to identify where it is that Buddhists might be engaged that would really make a difference.
What else might it provide? In looking at the collapse of various peace processes, one analysis is that a peace settlement has three components: structure, behavior, and attitude. Traditionally, a great deal of attention is paid to structure: drawing lines on a map and deciding how a territory is going to be governed, for instance. Behavior might involve monitoring of ceasefires, monitoring of weapons dismantling, and the introduction of a civilian government. But very rarely have contemporary peace agreements dealt with attitudes, the underlying forces that have led to the conflict.
How might the International Buddhist Peace Service approach changing attitudes? What you find in societies that are at war with each other is that one side doesn’t listen to the other. But it’s so powerful when people take the brave initiative to listen to each other. In Sri Lanka I was involved in taking several delegations to listen to pro-war Buddhist monks. All kinds of people go and talk to these monks and tell them what the Buddha-dharma is and how they should behave. But I realized that nobody ever just listens to them. We made repeated visits, living with them and just listening until they felt sufficiently at ease. Eventually they were able to talk about what is most disturbing to them: a complete degradation of their society through globalization, corruption, drugs, Western culture, the destruction of villages. And then you realize, “There is a tremendous fragility and a genuine anxiety here,” which, as with any human being, ends up expressing itself as aggression. But until you reach that point, you’re not going to enter into a dialogue that helps anybody move on.
It seems daunting to think about how to actually get out and further the cause of peace. How does one get the word out? By building an organization with a media presence in order to be recognized and actually be part of the conversation. Why shouldn’t we imagine that there could be a major Buddhist network with its own news service? I mean, in the United States, you can’t avoid hearing evangelical programs on the TV. Well, what’s inconceivable about the idea that one day there’ll be twenty-four hour Buddhist coverage?
Let’s make it personal again for a moment: What are your suggestions for what people can do on a daily basis to help bring about these kinds of changes? For me the starting point is overcoming ignorance. That’s where the Buddha said we should start. We have to make it part of our daily discipline to become better informed about the world we live in. We need to be able to distinguish between truth and falsity such as misinformation from our governments and from mainstream news media. We also have to learn to deal steadfastly and intelligently with suffering. When there is something awful on TV, like a bombing or some carnage, the first thing is not to switch off, because that would be the equivalent of not addressing human suffering. Second, we need to strengthen our critical faculties: we need to examine what is being said on the news and also see clearly our own reactions to what we are being shown—it’s so easy to become seduced by the pornography of bad news. To cultivate the ability to watch one’s own kleshic activity [negative thought patterns] is a very powerful practice. Third, we need to avoid arrogance. If we think we can solve the entire world’s problems, we will get crushed. We see this when people feel cynical, defeated, or insulted after their efforts:
“If I can’t take the whole thing on, then I won’t do anything.” But in my experience, there is tremendous value in taking just one issue and working on that. Since all life is interconnected, each single step we take is a journey on the path of complete engagement.
Images © Andy Karr
Quotation (of Chogram Trungpa Rinpoche) reprinted with permission of Shambhala Publications, Inc.