Danny Fisher speaks with the Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi about a recent Center for Interfaith Action meeting he attended.
I’ve spoken to the Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi twice before for Shambhala SunSpace—once about how to help Haiti, and once about his visit to the White House. A well-known and prodigious translator of Pali Buddhist texts into English, he is also the founder of Buddhist Global Relief – a visionary, Buddhist-inspired humanitarian organization contributing to relief and justice efforts all over the world. Bhikkhu Bodhi recently attended a meeting following-up on what began at the White House, and he shares that experience with us.
Venerable, would please share with us about the recent Center for Interfaith Action meeting that you attended?
On October 8th, BGR Executive Director Kim Behan and I attended the second meeting convened by the Center for Interfaith Action on Global Poverty (CIFA) to create a framework for enhancing the role and impact of faith-based organizations in global action on health, poverty alleviation, and development. The first meeting was held at the White House on July 26th and brought together an extraordinary team of people representing the world’s major faith-based charities, several secular relief organizations, and influential members of the donor base.
The framework is intended not only to facilitate interfaith collaboration in promoting health and poverty alleviation, but also to strengthen connections between the faith community and nonfaith actors. These latter include governments, private foundations, secular donor groups, and international agencies engaged in development programs. The conveners recognize that faith-based organizations have the potential to play an important role in promoting health and development, but they also see that better channels and more effective instruments are needed to tap this potential and scale up the impact of faith-based organizations. The strategic framework is intended to suggest means by which these channels can be opened and the role of faith-based organizations in the international arena accordingly made more prominent.
Several weeks after the first conference, CIFA sent all the participants a questionnaire intended to solicit our suggestions for ways to ensure that the framework would be comprehensive and effective. The consulting agency used by CIFA, GivingWorks, pooled the proposals and drafted a preliminary version of the strategic framework, which they sent to us on October 4th. The purpose of the meeting on October 8th was to review and comment on the draft. It was held in collaboration with the UN at the office of the UN Population Fund in New York. After a bit of a wild goose chase, Kim and I reached the meeting room just as everyone was introducing themselves. There were about forty people present, including representatives from the National Council of Churches, InterAction, Bread for the World, the World Council of Churches, World Vision, the World Bank, the UN Population Fund, the UN Office for Partnerships — and Buddhist Global Relief.
The first part of the meeting was devoted to an overview of the draft, followed by a lengthy discussion of the document among the participants. Kim and I kept silent during the early part of the discussion, regarding this as an opportunity to listen and learn. But after most members had spoken, the executive director of CIFA, Jean Duff, looked up at Kim and me and said: “I would like to hear what our representatives from Buddhist Global Relief have to say.” Kim turned to me and said to me: “You speak, bhante.” I rose to my feet, a bit apprehensive about speaking before people who knew much more about this field than I do. But, screwing up my courage, I called attention to something I could not find in the draft but which I know from our BGR work is critical in helping impoverished communities emerge from poverty. I said: “One crucial factor to development that I could not see in the draft–or which was not sufficiently emphasized—is the role of women.” At once I noticed half a dozen pairs of eyes light up, and bright smiles appear on the faces. I wasn’t sure whether the smiles were agreeing with me or mocking me as a naïve novice in the field of relief work, but I continued: “From what I understand, improving the condition of women can make a major contribution in helping poor communities rise up from poverty. It is especially necessary to promote the education of girls; for when girls are educated, they will bear fewer children, have a better understanding of health and nutrition, be equipped to contribute more effectively to the uplift of their families and communities. Thus I feel that the document should have made special mention of this.”
I continued by calling attention to a difference between the Buddhist (or spiritual) conception of development and that upheld by most secular development agencies, which focus solely on material prosperity: “From a Buddhist point of view, material development is certainly a prerequisite for health and well-being, but it should not be regarded as self-sufficient. Buddhism and other spiritual traditions aim at the development of the whole person, in all the dimensions of our being — material, social, intellectual, aesthetic, and spiritual — and this model can be adopted by followers of any religion as a key to promoting development. A faith-based relief organization should respect the religious beliefs of their beneficiaries, but they should try to help them develop in a holistic way within the framework of their belief system. They should not focus solely on development according to a purely materialistic world view that neglects the other dimensions of the human person.”
After our morning discussion, we went for lunch. During the lunch break, several people, both women and men, came up to me and said that they appreciated my remarks on the important role that women can play in development. One woman even rebuked herself (and her colleagues) for having overlooked that point.
We reconvened after lunch. The first afternoon session was a panel discussion by members of the UN Interagency Task Force on Faith-Based Organizations. This panel was cochaired by Ms. Thoraya Obaid (former director of the UN Population Fund) and Mr. Amir Dossal (from the UN Office for Partnerships). Participating in the panel were representatives from UNESCO, UNICEF, UNAIDS, UNDP, WHO, the UN Alliance of Civilizations, and the World Bank. One theme that consistently emerged from their presentations was the change in the approach to development that has been taking place in UN circles. Whereas in earlier decades it was considered almost taboo at the UN to mention culture and religion in connection with development, now these factors are being regarded as critical, even indispensable.
After the panel discussion it was time to explore ways to turn the framework into a plan of action. The purpose was not to launch initiatives, but to find modalities of practical action that could be incorporated into the framework. We divided up into groups of four or five people each to discuss this challenge at a more intimate level. My group consisted of representatives from Africare, InterAction, and the FISH Foundation (which works to uplift poor communities in the US). At the end of the breakout sessions, the executive team asked each group to summarize their conclusions to the entire task force. On the part of our group, I proposed that, because our organizations cover so many different areas, we devise a scheme of five or six basic categories of developmental concern, so that the different organizations could team up with other organizations that share their own concern.
At the end of the day, when we were about to depart, Kim and I went to the executive director of CIFA, Jean Duff, to say goodbye. I told her that we had learned much from the meeting, but we had both been intimidated by the technical jargon used by some of the participants. She said to me: “Don’t worry about that. You guys are the visionaries. We really appreciate having you here. The others are still catching up with you and need to learn from you.” This gave me an immense feeling of gratification.
On November 22nd and 23rd, the task force will meet once again over two days in Washington, DC: the first day at the National Cathedral and the next day at the White House. At this meeting, CIFA will present the authorized version of the strategic framework. This will be done in the recognition that the document is not a fixed code of prescriptions but a flexible guide to action, which is subject to modification over time as its recommendations are tested by attempts at actual implementation. The week before the meeting on Oct. 8th, I was invited by the executive director and program director of CIFA to moderate one of the panels on Nov. 22nd. I consider this a great honor, not so much for myself as for Buddhist Global Relief and for the American Buddhist community as a whole.
For more about Bhikkhu Bodhi and the work of Buddhist Global Relief, visit http://www.buddhistglobalrelief.org.