Dana Wiki and the Future of American Buddhism: Danny Fisher interviews Joshua Eaton

Danny Fisher interviews Joshua Eaton, author and creator of Dana Wiki, an online resource for Buddhist community service.

Danny Fisher
30 November 2010
What the Dana Wiki homepage looks like.

This past week saw the launch of a new and improved website and URL (www.danawiki.org) for Dana Wiki — a recently developed online resource meant to aid Buddhist Americans in community service work. The driving force behind the project is Joshua Eaton — who just earned his Master of Divinity in Buddhist Studies at the Harvard Divinity School, where he also served as editor-in-chief of Cult/ure: The Graduate Journal of Harvard Divinity School. He is now contributing scholar at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue’s new State of Formation. I recently caught up with Joshua via email to discuss Dana Wiki and the future of American Buddhism…

For those who don’t know, what is Dana Wiki?

Dana Wiki is a collaborative, online handbook to to help Buddhist meditation groups, temples, dharma centers, retreat centers, etc.—get more involved in community service. It has five main sections:

  • a section on the nuts-and-bolts logistics of organizing a community service group, from recruitment and funding through reflecting on a service project and celebrating achievements
  • a section with information specific to different types of community service: education and childcare; the environment; health, death, and dying; homelessness; immigration and ESL; politics and activism; poverty; prisons; and other service areas
  • a section that lists different nonprofits to serve with by their location, their service area, and their religious affiliation (if any)
  • a section with quotes, scriptural excerpts, meditations, and practices that relate to community service and can be used as part of group reflection after a service project
  • a section with information on engaged Buddhist teachers and organizations.

Since Dana Wiki is a wiki—just like Wikipedia—anyone who registers can create articles, edit articles, or add media.

The idea is that Buddhist congregations will start groups that form a relationship with a local nonprofit where they’ll perform some sort of community service together once or twice a month. After each service activity, they’ll debrief on how it went and reflect together on how the service relates to their Buddhism. They’ll also get together periodically to celebrate their accomplishments together and to share those accomplishments both with their congregation and with the broader community. This is based on a very particular model of service used in AmeriCorps—the Planning, Action, Reflection, Celebration, and Sharing (PARCS) model.

Of course, many people involved in Buddhist congregations are already in helping professions—social work, teaching, healthcare, counseling, etc.—and it’s unfair to expect them to do even more with their already busy lives. For these people, Buddhist congregations can start groups that reflect together and publicize their accomplishments. So, the planning and action would take place in people’s careers, while the reflection, celebration, and sharing would take place in their Buddhist communities. I think these sorts of groups where people can make explicit connections between their professional lives and their spiritual lives could be very helpful, especially in careers with a high burnout rate.

Why is this project a priority? Why Dana Wiki and not another kind of Buddhist wiki?

The idea for Dana Wiki came during a conversation with Adam Lobel—a Shambhala acharya and a PhD candidate in Tibetan studies at Harvard—in the late fall of 2007. I was still a MDiv candidate at Harvard University at the time, and I wanted to create a community service group in a local Buddhist congregation for my required field education placement. Adam suggested that I spend that summer researching community service groups in different religious congregations and create a curriculum for Buddhist community service groups, then work through that curriculum with a local congregation in the fall. His idea for a curriculum became Dana Wiki.

In many ways it was the perfect time for something like this to happen, because I had just finished a term of service in AmeriCorps the year before, had lived in a Catholic Worker house two years before, was studying Buddhist ministry at Harvard, and was in a situation where I could get academic credit and be paid for doing the research and putting the website together. What’s more, the wonderful Lama Willa Miller—a PhD candidate in Tibetan studies at Harvard who use to teach with Lama Surya Das, and now has her own organization, the Natural Dharma Fellowship—agreed to supervise me, and gave me really invaluable guidance. So, all of the causes and conditions were there.

Two events really convinced me that Buddhist congregations need to be more involved in their communities. The first happened after Hurricane Katrina. I had a group of friends who spent a lot of time in and around New Orleans doing recovery work. One of them said to another Buddhist friend of mine, “You Buddhists are always talking about compassion. I’ve seen groups in New Orleans from almost every religion helping out with the relief effort, but I haven’t seen a single Buddhist group.” When I heard this, I was so disappointed. Of course there had been Buddhists involved in the Katrina relief effort—including myself and others I know—but we didn’t have any organized presence, which is important.

The second event happened during my term in AmeriCorps. Every soup kitchen or shelter I worked with during that year had a full list of churches that would come and prepare a meal for their clients once or twice a month, and I realized that I didn’t know of a single Buddhist congregation that did anything like that. It just isn’t part of our idea of what a Buddhist group should do. Again, there are many individual Buddhists involved in this type of community service, but we don’t have much of an organized presence.

Of course, there are also many people—Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike—who feel that social service or political action are outside of the realm of Buddhist practice. Even very, very educated religious scholars, ministers, and activists have confessed to me that they see Buddhism as primarily concerned with individual salvation. Right now I’m working on a book proposal for an anthology of Buddhist scriptures and commentaries about politics and social justice. By showing American Buddhists that social service and activism are part of their theological heritage with this book, and by giving them the practical tools to further Buddhism’s social engagement with Dana Wiki, I hope to put the misconception that Buddhism is an individualistic practice to rest.

Josh, you recently wrote a really great blog post that appeared across the internet entitled “Some Thoughts on American Buddhism.” How does the Dana Wiki project fit into your vision of what American Buddhists need to do better?

First, American Buddhists need to publicize their community engagement more. Asvaghosa’s Buddhacarita, verse 15:111, says that when the Buddha approached the five ascetics in the Deer Park at Sarnath to give his first sermon, they addressed him as a peer. The Buddha corrected them, saying, “[A]ddress me not as ‘worthy Sir,’ know that I am a Victorious One, I have come to give the first wheel of the dharma to you.” American Buddhists need to do the same thing with our community service and civic engagement. There’s nothing unspiritual or wrong about asking to be recognized for our legitimate accomplishments.

Second, American Buddhists need to actually be more civically engaged. Many of us are very involved individually, but as a group—that is, institutionally or congregationally—we tend to be less involved than our Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and even Hindu neighbors. Part of the problem is that we tend not to think that way, to think of ourselves as building institutions or congregations. Another part is that, as I said before, we often buy into this misconception that Buddhism has nothing to do with society, community, politics, etc. For example, PBS’s recent and much-publicized documentary, The Buddha, said flat-out, “The Buddha never stopped a war.” I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard that, because it simply isn’t true. The prologue to the Kumala Jataka (no. 536) explains how the Buddha intervened to stop the Shakya and Kolya tribes from going to war over water rights to the Rohini River. Can you imagine a documentary about Jesus on PBS claiming that he never helped the poor? American Christians would hardly let that slip.

Finally, as I said in “Some Thoughts on American Buddhism,” we need to learn from our Christian, Jewish, and Unitarian-Universalist neighbors more when it comes to the nuts-and-bolts of building and maintaining religious institutions in the United States. They’ve been at it much longer than us, and we can learn a lot from them. There isn’t a Buddhist way to raise capital for a building project or run a congregational library that’s different from the Christian way. Why reinvent the wheel?

Dana Wiki is a direct attempt to solve this third shortcoming; I spoke with and visited Christian groups that were involved in community service in my research, along with reading training materials on community service put out by different Christian congregations. I also hope that it will help address the first and second shortcomings by 1) getting American Buddhists more visibly and institutionally involved in community service, and 2) getting America Buddhists to reflect more on community engagement as part of their theological heritage. It won’t solve these problems on its own, of course, but I hope it will, at least, help.

How can readers help with or support Dana Wiki?

The most important thing is that they start community service or reflection groups in their local Buddhist communities. That’s the whole point of Dana Wiki. It’s also the only way that the information in Dana Wiki can improve and grow—by being tested in the experiences of those who are actually using it. And if people do start groups that use Dana Wiki, I’d love to hear about them!

There is also a growing community of Buddhist ministers, chaplains, activists, etc. I hope that Dana Wiki will become a hub where they can share best practices, material for reflections, and the like. Buddhist ministers, seminarians, and activists can share Dana Wiki with their colleagues, along with using it and contributing to it themselves. There is a lot of content on the site, but it is still missing a lot of content, as well. So, I hope that a community of knowledgable practitioners will form around Dana Wiki who can contribute really good content to it. That was the whole point of making it a wiki to begin with.

Finally, I graduated from the divinity school at Harvard University this past May, and am still looking for a permanent job. If someone felt moved to donate some money toward Dana Wiki‘s web hosting and domain registration, I would deeply appreciate it. I’d like to think that the buddhas and bodhisattva’s would appreciate it, too.

Finally, I’m curious: you’re obviously finding ways to increase the usefulness of the internet in terms of the American Buddhist community widely. Would you say a little about that? How can we American Buddhists better approach and work the internet as a beneficial tool?

In an article in the autumn 2008 International Institute for Asian Studies Newsletter titled “Early Adopter,” Andrew Glass talked about how Buddhists have been quick to adopt new technologies, especially when it comes to textual production. The first written manuscripts in India, the first ever block prints, and the first ever oil paintings were all Buddhist. I actually think that we’re doing the same when it comes to the internet. My own teachers’ relatively small organization—Padmasambhava Buddhist Center—has a website, a YouTube channel, a Facebook page, an email newsletter, live video streams of teachings, DVDs and CDs, etc. A couple of weeks ago I even looked up a section from Keith Downman’s translation of the autobiography of Yeshe Tsogyal on Google Books, looked up the original Tibetan on the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center, then looked up a Tibetan term I hadn’t seen before using Tibetan and Himalayan Library‘s online Tibetan-English dictionary. These days you can do that sort of things from a public library in the middle of Nebraska!

If I had to offer some constructive criticism, though, it would be to say this. First, any Buddhist group or organization needs a website that is up-to-date, in terms of both its content and its technology. Nothing is more disappointing than going to a group’s website and finding an events calendar from 2007 or a page that looks like the Internet in 1996. (Or, worse yet, finding no website at all.) Second, websites are one area where, like building construction, we might need to hire professionals instead of relying on volunteer work from congregation members. That doesn’t necessarily mean paying a top-notch web design firm tons of money, but it might mean finding someone who knows what they’re doing and can get the job done right. A good web presence really is an investment; if we present ourselves to others professionally, they will be far more comfortable giving us their financial and moral support.

Visit Dana Wiki online.

Danny Fisher

Danny Fisher

Rev. Danny Fisher, M.Div., D.B.S. (Cand.), is a professor and Coordinator of the Buddhist Chaplaincy Program at University of the West in Rosemead, CA. He was ordained as a lay Buddhist minister by the Buddhist Sangha Council of Southern California in 2008. In addition, he is certified as a mindfulness meditation instructor by Naropa University in association with Shambhala International. A member of the National Association of College and University Chaplains, he serves on the advisory council for the Upaya Buddhist Chaplaincy Training Program.