Let’s Talk: It’s Time to Open Our Doors

I spent the year after college in an Ameri-Corps program that placed me in the Task Force for the Homeless in downtown Atlanta, Georgia. During my time there I served at several different transitional homes, emergency shelters, and soup kitchens. It was the end of a string of social-service work for me, which started several years earlier with volunteering at a Latino community center next to my college campus. I spent the summer before my senior year living in an intentional commu­nity that provides homeless services in Boston. Then I went to St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, on my last spring break to prepare meals for victims of Hurricane Katrina.

During this time, I was struck by the fact that all of the social-service groups I served with were dependent on organized religion for sup­port. Many of the soup kitchens were housed in church basements, and almost all of the emer­gency shelters relied on various church groups to come in and cook a meal once or twice a month. A Hindu group took over two whole shifts a month at the soup kitchen where I lived and served in Boston.

I was also struck by how absent my own religious communities seemed 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?”

More important than volunteers, religious institutions provide public spaces. When Occupy camps were evicted from public parks and squares this past winter, it was churches that opened their doors to homeless occupiers and general assemblies. Churches and synagogues have long provided space for scout troops, AA groups, and community meetings, as well as offices for small nonprofits and housing for disaster-relief volunteers. They’re also polling places. And many even provide free space to other religious groups that can’t afford to meet elsewhere. The public spaces religious institutions provide are an invalu­able part of America’s civic life.

It probably won’t surprise anyone to hear that these institutions are declining in membership. Every indicator of traditional religious iden­tity is going down, while “unaffiliated” is the fastest-growing religious identity in the country. As more and more churches are converted into upscale lofts, where does that leave the nonprof­its and Scout troops and popular movements that depend on them? The other traditional alterna­tive is public schools and universities, but budget cuts have left them decimated. Those that haven’t already closed are less and less willing to provide their space free of charge.

What if Buddhist centers and meditation groups opened their doors and let civil society in? Buddhist thinkers have long thought that public spaces are a necessary part of a just society. For example, the Indian poet Asvaghosa (80–150 AD) goes into elaborate detail when describing the many beautiful public spaces the Buddha’s father—the model of a righteous king—built after his son’s birth. The Indian philosopher Nagarjuna (150–250 AD) and the famous Indian emperor Ashoka (304–232 BC) also tell kings to build public spaces, mentioning them in the same breath as monasteries and temples. The tradition is clear: good kings build and maintain public spaces for their citizens. In a democracy, that duty falls to us.

With traditional religious institutions shutting their doors, it’s time we opened ours. Buddhist centers and meditation groups cannot possibly hope to fill the gap that churches and synagogues are leaving in America’s civic life, but we can still make a difference in our communities.

Remember my acquaintance in New Orleans who asked why Buddhists were always talking about compassion but weren’t doing anything? It’s up to us to prove him wrong.

From the Winter 2012 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly.

Joshua Eaton is a writer and social activist and holds a master’s of divinity in Buddhist studies from Harvard University.



  1. Jonathan Figdor says

    If Buddhism has a successful future ahead of itself, it will take the advice of this bright young Buddhist activist. Meditation is great (heck, even we Humanists and Atheists meditate), but you have to do more than that. You have to put in your time caring for your fellow human beings, whether that is working on a Habitat for Humanity build, working at a soup kitchen, tutoring underprivileged children, etc. you just have to put in the time and show that you care.

    Great piece, Josh.


  2. Nils Montan says

    Short and sweet. The truth in this case hurts, and it should. We are 40 plus years into the spread of Buddhism and other "Eastern" religions in the USA and it's clear that the majority of centers and groups remain detached from the nitty gritty problems of our society and culture. Working on yourself is very, very important, but that needs to include working for others. Bravo Joshua for pointing out gently that the Emperor has not clothes.

  3. Keith in St. Louis says

    I recall a legislator about a year ago saying "Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die." For most of us Humanist-Buddhist types, heaven is here on earth; the instruction is to die to one's self to attain liberation. The Abrahamic religions have an afterlife for a reward; we can't claim such a lofty prize. Too, society takes time to adapt. Two years ago I went to a Martin Luther King Day interfaith day-long service when it became apparent that "interfaith" meant inter-denominational of the Christian faith. Given the relatively small sanghas in society I don't think organized charity work among Buddhists is necessarily doable. Maybe as our sanghas get larger, then there could be more of an organized effort? "The emperor has no clothes?" I think not. I think, like all societal changes, time will tell.

  4. Jacob Lindsley says

    Of course this is a wonderful sentiment, but the other side of this issue is that at the moment our focus has been on establishing the Dharma in the West.

    Most Buddhist organizations I know are simply struggling to stay open. Monks and nuns don't have healthcare or housing, and centers can't even keep a stable student base. They don't have the luxury of outreach & charity activities yet. I expect once we see a stable base of Buddhist organizations & Sangha's we'll see more of the kind of work your calling for.

  5. Mark says

    I applaud you on your adventure, but one must not be ignorant. Buddhism is new to the USA, not backed my hundreds of members in their congregations nor do they have the donations coming in like Christian orginazations..

    Buddhist do a lot in the USA. They run hospice centers, work at drug rehabs, run rehab facilities, help at Habit for Humanity, this is too name a few..

    Research before making blanketed statements based on one area of the country.