So What’s Been Going On Here?


Rev. Danny Fisher (pointing) with the students in University of the West’s “Spiritual Leadership” class at Pershing Square before their walking tour of Los Angeles’ Skid Row. Photo by Anny Shi.

Over at her fabulous, fabulous blog Dharma Cowgirl, the great Monica Sanford (who was integral to the creation of this blog) notes all the recent posts here about my class’ recent visit to Skid Row, as well as their announcements about social media projects they’re working on. She continues, in reference to the projects:

It would be interesting to see what exactly the assignment description entailed, because right now these projects seem somewhat random and aren’t really well related to American Buddhism.

This was a good reminder that I’ve been running behind on my own post to frame the direction of the blog this semester. As Monica mentioned in her post, Dharma Dialogue began last fall in UWest Religious Studies Department Chair Dr. Jane Iwamura’s “Buddhism in the U.S.” class. This semester, it has been handed off to myself (representing the Buddhist Chaplaincy Department) and the students in our “Spiritual Leadership” class.

In the catalogue, “Spiritual Leadership” is described this way:

The course will introduce students to spiritual leadership, and consider values, responsibilities, functions, and resources for spiritual leaders. Special attention will be given to looking at examples and archetypes of spiritual leadership in Buddhist and other religious traditions…

This semester I also added a wrinkle: a very specific emphasis on poverty. I did this for two reasons:

  1. I felt it was one major common denominator in the work of the various figures who serve as conversation starters in this class (Gandhi, King, Tutu, Aung San Suu Kyi, A.T. Ariyaratne, Maha Ghosananda, and others). Part of leadership as exemplified by these people is serving and speaking up for the most vulnerable among us. From Dr. Ariyaratne’s Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement to economic justice in the vision of Dr. King (and everything in between), the lives of the poor are front and center.
  2. As chaplains-in-training — and, heck, just as persons living in America — our students really need to be paying attention to poverty if they’re not already.

As to point #2, you might ask “Why exactly?” Well, let’s consider a few facts. According to the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy:

In 2010, 15.1 percent of all persons [about 46 million Americans] lived in poverty.  The poverty rate in 2010 was the highest poverty rate since 1993. Between 1993 and 2000, the poverty rate fell each year, reaching 11.3 percent in 2000.

Poverty in the United States experienced a huge spike in the last decade, after declining steadily in the previous year. In addition:

The poverty rate for all persons masks considerable variation between racial/ethnic subgroups. Poverty rates for blacks and Hispanics greatly exceed the national average. In 2010, 27.4 percent of blacks and 26.6 percent of Hispanics were poor, compared to 9.9 percent of non-Hispanic whites and 12.1 percent of Asians. Poverty rates are highest for families headed by single women, particularly if they are black or Hispanic. In 2010, 31.6 percent of households headed by single women were poor, while 15.8 percent of households headed by single men and 6.2 percent of married-couple households lived in poverty. There are also differences between native-born and foreign-born residents. In 2010, 19.9 percent of foreign-born residents lived in poverty, compared to 14.4 percent of residents born in the United States. Foreign-born, non-citizens had an even higher incidence of poverty, at a rate of 26.7 percent.

Worst of all…

Children represent a disproportionate share of the poor in the United States; they are 24 percent of the total population, but 36 percent of the poor population. In 2010, 16.4 million children, or 22.0 percent, were poor. The poverty rate for children also varies substantially by race and Hispanic origin…

Add to the mix several disquieting facts about income inequality in the United States and a poverty map of the U.S. (below), and you’ll probably start wondering — as my students have — what this means when it comes to thinking about Buddhist ministry and doing professional spiritual care and counseling.


Graphic from VisualizingEconomics.

Our walking tour of Skid Row — which included meditation and discussion at the Los Angeles Central Library afterwards — was my way of getting the students to truly bear witness to those suffering some of the very worst effects of poverty.

Getting back to Monica’s question, though — the purpose of the social media projects and their relationship to American Buddhism — I think the best place to start is with the social media project assignment.

One seed of the idea was in what I saw as the incredible effectiveness of this blog for Dr. Iwamura’s purposes, and the possibilities of technology/social media. We’re being encouraged more and more to use social media and such in higher education, and watching Dr. Iwamura and her class last semester really inspired me. I also saw it as an interesting new way that the students could do what we’re ultimately asking them to do in the “Spiritual Leadership” class: that is, begin to, in the words of Dr. Cornel West, show us that “justice is what love looks like in public.”

As we look at the issue of poverty and the ways that different spiritual leaders engaged the problem, the students have each found things to be inspired by and things to critique in terms of approaches to spiritual leadership around poverty. “To be a great leader, you must habitually envision greatness,” says Dr. West. This is a very personal/subjective/individual undertaking, of course. But, by studying and critiquing the attempts by others to do this, while examining the same issues for themselves, the students are beginning to discern what approaches and meaningful to them and who they are as leaders.

So here’s what I asked the students do specifically:

I would like you to propose an educational social media project on a social issue of concern to you. You will be educating others from your place as spiritual leaders-in-training. Maybe you would like to create a Facebook page or group devoted to exploring the epidemic of violence against women in the military, with a view to how spiritual resources can help combat the problem. Maybe you would like to use Pintrest to collate sets of infographic and other visual information about global poverty and development, while also appealing to the viewers spiritual side with photography and quotations. Maybe you want to run a Twitter “mini-course” (as Stephen Prothero and I have done) in which you use tweets to share readings and reflections, as well as dialogue with others about something like racism. Or maybe you want to do a series of YouTube videos in which you talk about Buddhist responses to globalization. You can pick any topic or social media platform. The only requirements are (1)  that you use a social media platform;  (2) that you discuss the parameters for your project with the instructor (sign up for office hours!); and (3) that you share the proposal as a post on the Dharma Dialogue website. In addition, you are expected to comment on your colleagues’ posts and offer ideas and constructive feedback.

While I did not require that they do a project about poverty, the students’ unique projects demonstrate (to me, anyway) some of the things they’ve each learned for themselves about spiritual leadership from looking at Buddhist and non-Buddhist approaches to offering spiritual leadership to the poor and disenfranchised.

As to the second part of Monica’s question — what do these projects have to do with American Buddhism? — I think one thing to say is that the work we’re doing probably has more to do with American Buddhism implicitly than explicitly. By asking our students — many of them either Buddhist Americans or Buddhists living and working in America — to thoughtfully, deliberately engage with a social concern near and dear to their heart, I hoped we might contribute to the mission of this blog by bringing attention to aspects of Buddhist life and practice that, generally speaking, are not as much a part of “Buddhism in America” as others.

That said, while I understand completely where it comes from, I do think it is a bit of problem that many Buddhists might look at the students’ projects and ask Monica’s same question, “What does all this have to do with American Buddhism?”

A few years ago, I was fortunate to do a long interview with my friend Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi in which he said (among many other brilliant, striking things):

I lived in Sri Lanka for about twenty-three years. There I observed that the Buddhist temple is the social and cultural hub of the community, and the resident monks are the ones who take the initiative in looking after the well-being of the people, regardless of religion and ethnicity. But as Buddhism is rooting itself in the U.S., I see a danger that it might become an elitist methodology for discovering inner peace, or for living happily in the here and now, at the cost of its capacity for transforming broader systemic causes of suffering. It seems to me that both the ultimate liberative goal of the Buddha’s teaching, and the active compassionate application of the Dharma to the alleviation of socially caused suffering, are at risk of being pushed to the sidelines in favor of a ‘feel good about yourself’ version of Buddhism, or a Buddhism that functions as a mere existential psychotherapy. This risk is especially serious as Buddhism becomes integrated into mainstream American culture.

On the one hand, we could say that the particularly strong emphasis in North America on meditation over other aspects of Buddhism is right on in certain ways. Meditation is a key soteriological tool in the endeavor to minimize and ultimately end one’s own suffering, and then be of benefit to others. On the other hand, though, we might also say that too exclusive a focus here will miss the full breadth and depth of what Buddhism has to offer.

In the Samyutta Nikaya and the Visuddhimagga, for instance, it is said:

…When a wise one, well established in shila,
develops Samadhi and prajna,
then as a bhikkshuni, ardent and sagacious,
she succeeds in disentangling the tangle [emphasis added].

So we need not just meditation but also ethical conduct and wisdom in order to “disentangle the tangle.” We certainly place a great deal of emphasis on meditation in the U.S., but comparatively very little about the Buddhist teachings on ethical conduct. And it’s supposed to be the most foundational aspect of practice in the original formulation of the teachings! How are we to “disentangle the tangle” without solid grounding in morality and virtuous action?

Though there is a thriving engaged Buddhist movement in North America, there is nonetheless a sense that the lessons of Buddhist ethics have not yet fully sunk in as fully as they have elsewhere in the world. My friend Joshua Eaton observed this in an absolutely brilliant article he wrote recently for Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly about the need for Buddhists to open their temple and center doors to social service and justice efforts (even things as simple and basic and cost-free as hosting recovery meetings) like their sisters and brothers in other religious traditions:

I [am] struck by how absent my own religious communities [seem] to be. I’ve never visited a Buddhist center that hosts outside community groups or one whose members regularly volunteer together outside their center. An acquaintance who spent a year serving in New Orleans after Katrina once asked me, ‘Why is it that Buddhists are always talking about compassion but they’re the only group I’ve never seen volunteer down here?’

This whole issue calls to mind the prophetic warning of another great socially engaged Buddhist leader, Sulak Sivaraksa of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (one of the figures we are studying in class), who said:

Buddhism is not concerned just with private destiny, but with the lives and consciousness of all beings… Any attempt to understand Buddhism apart from its social dimension is fundamentally a mistake. Until Western Buddhists understand this, their embrace of Buddhism will not help very much in the efforts to bring about meaningful and positive social change, or even in their struggle to transform their ego.

So our students need to grapple with and engage social problems not just as caregivers-in-training, but also as Buddhist practitioners. Indeed, as Sulak and Bhante remind us, from a traditional point of view, we won’t get very far as practitioners if we’re not thinking about the suffering of others and working to benefit beings as much as we can.

There’s a terrific book about Buddhist and Christian monasticism that I like very much for quite a few other reasons, but I especially love its title: For the Sake of the World. I think this title alone serves as an important reminder to us about why we undertake religious practices, especially those of the most intense (and/or secluded) variety: “for the sake of the world.” If we lose sight of that, we’re not only not leaders, but I might argue that we’re also not really fully practitioners either.


7 thoughts on “So What’s Been Going On Here?

  1. […] is revealed in my new post at University of the West’s Dharma Dialogue […]

  2. Is pudding an absurd topic to analyze for spiritual leadership? The production and consumption of pudding seems trivial. Yet, looking deeply into Snack Pack Pudding has revealed, through its non-pudding elements, a complex network of connections to local and global suffering. In my opinion, this revelation is the essence of mindfulness practice. The source of so much suffering in the world is caused by mindless consumption based on superficial triviality. Yet, across space and time, the sum of these decisions has tremendous impact. In MLK, Jr.’s April 3, 1968 speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” studied as part of this course, he highlighted the role of individual economic decision-making in achieving collective social justice. Thich Nhat Hanh teachings on mindful consumption, adopted by the UN, are about promoting awareness. In contrast to other forms of leadership, spiritual leadership orients people to contemplation on an object. It recognizes that each person makes his or her own decisions. It trusts that each person will, upon full consideration, gradually or suddenly come to enlightenment. So, I think no topic should be particularly Buddhist because every topic is of importance to a Buddhist. Likewise, in my opinion, Buddhist Spiritual Leadership must ultimately and willingly divest itself of its Buddhist identity if it is to engage the broadest possible audience. It is, after all, only a subset of countless vehicles by which spiritual leaders help people reach the other shore.

  3. […] is revealed in my new post at University of the West’s Dharma Dialogue […]

  4. Monica says:

    Thank you for answering my question, Danny!

  5. […] 4/25/2013: the most Rev. Dr. Danny Fisher, DBS, gave me some words in response to my critique.  I like words!  I had a feeling he had some reasons, and knowing him, […]

  6. annyshi says:

    It is a good trip for me to witness the American poverty society. After visiting skid row LA, I had good comparison with my country, Taiwan, and had deep thinking not superficial judgment. Thank you.

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