Climate change, racial justice and peace building were the main focus of discussion in the first White House-U.S. Buddhist Leaders Conference. Under the theme “Voices in the Square— Action in the World,” 125 leaders, monks and scholars from 62 Buddhist communities and 13 universities, representing each of the major Buddhist traditions and ethnicities, gathered on May 14 at George Washington University and then the White House to discuss these topics among themselves and with officials from the Obama Administration.
The SGI helped spearhead the conference, which marked the first time in U.S. history that such a broad representative gathering of Buddhist leaders had taken place. Together, they discussed their roles as socially engaged Buddhists in addressing social concerns. WASHINGTON, D.C., May 14— By any standard, it was a remarkable sight. Buddhist leaders, monks and scholars representing each of the major religious traditions and ethnicities had come together for the first White House-U.S. Buddhist Leaders Conference.
In light of the estimated 3.5 million people in the U.S. who identify as Buddhists, there was a shared sense that the Buddhist tradition, with its emphasis on interconnectedness, wisdom and compassion, could contribute much to the national conversation.
During the conference, participants considered from a Buddhist perspective the issues of climate change, racism and war, learning from those communities and activists who are engaging in these issues.
It was a day filled with exploring ways in which we can take action and best engage in social change. We learned from Dr. Mary Evelyn Tucker of the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology, who pointed out the power of faith groups uniting to bring an educated and moral force to bear on the issue of climate change. The Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams of the Center for Transformative Change meanwhile reflected on the need to continue to challenge the insidious effects of racism, which, like the degrading of the environment, is rooted in that human tendency that disregards the supreme dignity of life.
This was followed by reports from several U.S. Buddhist communities on their efforts— from disaster relief to environmental advocacy—to act to address the needs of our times. Included was a presentation by Danny Hall, the SGI-USA Director of Peace and Community Relations for West Territory, who spoke about the SGI’s commitment to rid the world of nuclear weapons and cultivate a culture of peace.
In the afternoon, participants gathered in the South Court Auditorium of the White House for briefings and earnest dialogues with several officials of the Obama Administration, including the special assistant to the president and executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, as well as the administration’s point persons on Asian American, LGBT and environmental issues.
The White House program was emceed by actor/director and SGI-USA member Patrick Duffy, who introduced a message from SGI President Ikeda in which he emphasized that the foremost purpose of religion is to respond to the fundamental questions of “How can we inspire hope in people?” and “How can we give meaning to life?”
President Ikeda also reminded us that “Buddhists best express the spirit of the teachings by taking initiative to bring about positive change in the communities and places where they live.”
In the course of the White House meeting, we also presented a Buddhist Declaration on Climate Change as well as a Call for Racial Justice, signed by the participants.
The path to this historic event began in the spring of 2012 during a meeting I had with Melissa Rogers, who serves as the Special Assistant to President Obama and Executive Director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. This conversation laid the groundwork for initiating a dialogue between representatives of the diverse American Buddhist community and White House officials.
The event concluded with great appreciation being expressed for the key role played by the SGI-USA. To help identify and reach out to the 125 representatives who would make up this conference, I was fortunate in gaining the invaluable support of noted Buddhist scholars, Dr. Sallie King of James Madison University and Dr. Duncan Williams of the University of Southern California. Also assisting was Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi of Buddhist Global Relief, Rev. T.K. Nakagaki of the Buddhist Council of New York and Matthew Regan of the International Buddhist Committee.
Reflecting on the event’s significance, Clark Strand, spiritual writer and former Zen Buddhist monk, who last year published his book Waking the Buddha, noted: “For many decades now, American Buddhism has been dominated by the quest for personal enlightenment. It’s good to see other Buddhist schools opening their eyes to the kinds of social and political realities that have concerned the SGI from its very creation. That is a very hopeful sign.”