In the summer of 2007 a commentary I wrote for Buddhadharma magazine was published under the title “A Challenge to Buddhists.” The essay called on American Buddhists to balance the strong emphasis on inner contemplative practice with a readiness to address the immensity of suffering that besets humanity in our present-day world. I argued that the Dharma should serve not only as a means of inner transformation but also as a standard for world transformation, for reshaping social and economic structures in accord with the ethical ideals endorsed by the Buddha’s teaching.
We have to remember that the Buddha did not teach only meditation and high philosophy; he also placed the strongest stress on morally upright conduct. Under the conditions of our age, I contended, moral reflection requires that Buddhists be ready to stand up for the voiceless victims of social, economic and political injustice, even if Buddhism must re-vision itself to meet this critical ethical need of our time. This, I would say, is a necessary step if the values of lovingkindness and compassion are to manifest as effective moral courage.
When the essay was published, I had no idea that my own students and Dharma friends would be the ones to take up its challenge. However, the workings of karma are sometimes unpredictable. By mid-2008, unexpected nets of causality brought together a group of people eager to form a new Buddhist organization dedicated to social and economic justice. Out of our initial meetings emerged Buddhist Global Relief (BGR), which we describe as “an interdenominational community of Buddhists and friends of Buddhism who seek to give concrete expression to the Buddha’s great compassion as an ongoing project in the contemporary world.”
Seeking a more specific mission for BGR, we drew upon two statements of the Buddha—that “hunger is the worst kind of illness” and “the gift of food is the gift of life”—and decided to focus on providing food aid to people in the developing world afflicted by chronic hunger and lack of food security. Few realize that today hunger is the world’s number-one killer, claiming close to ten million lives every year. That amounts to a Holocaust and a half annually, and almost sixty percent of its victims are children.
I see Buddhist Global Relief as an attempt to express a distinctly Buddhist sense of conscience in relation to this unspeakable tragedy. The word conscience doesn’t have a precise counterpart in the vocabulary of classical Buddhism, but for me it represents one of the driving forces behind the Buddha’s own mission and the expansion of his teaching through the centuries. Conscience is the agency that translates our sense of moral rightness into action. It is what motivates us to regard the suffering of others as our own and to take personal responsibility for working to alleviate this suffering.
In contemporary Buddhist discourse it is common to talk of compassion, but through overuse this word has lost its punch, often coming to mean little more than a pious feeling of sympathy for the destitute and downtrodden. It no longer sufficiently conveys the urgency of the mission imposed on us by our stark confrontation with global destitution. I prefer to couple the word compassion with the word conscience. In my view, what we need most, as a spur to socially transformative action, is a compassionate sense of conscience that is, at the same time, a conscientious compassion.
Conscience, as I see it, moves in two directions, ascending and descending. The ascending movement propels us upward toward the moral heights, to strive to embody our most exalted ideals ever more fully in our attitudes, deeds and relationships. But conscience also points us downward and outward, forcing us to look more acutely at the wider world in which we move. Conscience then becomes the deep voice within that constantly reminds us of the great disparity between our ideals, as determined by our sense of goodness and justice, and the hard reality of lived experience, where injustice, violence and cynicism hug the spotlight. Conscience shapes our moral commitments, pushing us to act in such a way that the world better measures up to how we envisage it might be.
In Buddhism, we often speak about the need to develop compassion toward all sentient beings, but too often this beautiful rhetoric serves to comfort us rather than move us to take the practical steps needed to ameliorate their suffering. Yet, when it is coupled with a sense of conscience, compassion can work wonders. True compassion drives us into the bonfire of life to rescue those engulfed by the flames of misery and despair. When compassion and conscience are conjoined, as a conscientious compassion and a compassionate sense of conscience, we acquire the key we need to redeem the oppressed and endow their lives with dignity and purpose.
One of the most heartrending symptoms of social injustice today is the persistence of global hunger and malnutrition. Indeed, as the current financial downturn plunges ever more people more deeply into poverty, the ranks of the hungry steadily increase. This year marks the first time in history that the number of people beset by chronic hunger has surpassed a billion. It is hard for one who has not experienced hunger—experienced it in the marrow of one’s bones—to understand how much misery it can bring: the sapping of one’s vitality, the loss of interest in everything but food, the anguish felt as one sinks from weariness toward crippling illness and death. When this condition enfolds the lives of a billion people, with perhaps a billion more subsisting on substandard diets, the immensity of this suffering boggles the mind.
BGR’s focus on hunger is a perfect arena in which to practice conscientious compassion. The recognition that global hunger is an experience of suffering shared by many opens our hearts to the pain of the world and evokes an outflow of soothing empathy. The recognition that this hunger is a manifestation of social injustice pricks our sense of conscience and stokes in us a fierce, unquenchable urge to alter the social and economic forces that subject whole populations to such a cruel and lethal fate.
Perhaps never before has a Buddhist organization appeared that is dedicated specifically to the problem of global hunger. Already, in its first year, BGR has launched three pilot projects, in Sri Lanka, Burma and Vietnam. Our next three projects will bring food relief to hungry refugees in Sri Lanka’s camps for displaced persons; provide rice to poor schoolgirls and their families in Cambodia to enable the girls to continue their education; and support micronutrient supplementation in Niger, where approximately one-fourth of all children die before reaching their fifth birthday, mainly from malnutrition.
The progress of Buddhist Global Relief in the first year of its existence has been remarkably rapid even without a full-scale fundraising drive. Though we have started on a small scale, mainly through word of mouth, the work of BGR holds great promise for the future. Its mission is an earnest effort to embody a Buddhist sense of conscience—a conscientious compassion—in redressing one of the most poignant manifestations of social and economic injustice in our time.