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get off yer cushion! [revised]

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I’m troubled by how little attention the Buddhist community pays to the needs for food, shelter, and care by people all-around — while busily gathering funds to purchase and maintain properties where a select few can sit and get to know the self (in Dogen‘s words).

Here just three examples. In the mail a plea to contribute to a centre’s annual mortgage payment of $100,000 and for an additional building at $200,000. Then, in the news, the announcement of a $14-million project to house 60 monks and 200 guests and “provide seminars dealing with issues such as conflict, anger or grief.” Also a Buddhist center that offers retreats on such topics as “sacred feminine” and “spirit of creativity,” charging $685 for five days plus voluntary giving for teachers and staff.

How many meals could a soup kitchen serve with that kind of money, how many homeless people receive decent shelters, how many families feed their children, how many sick, lonely, and dying people be cared for? How many opportunities, right where we live, to practice compassion and generosity?

Back in the 1980s, Zen teacher Bernie Glassman created housing for the homeless and started businesses for the unemployed. “Social action,” he writes, “grows naturally out of … spirituality and livelihood. Once we begin to take care of our own basic needs, we become more aware of the needs of the people around us. Recognizing the oneness of life, we naturally reach out to other people because we realize that we are not separate from them.” 

Naturally, my worldview is blurred by personal opinions and limited information. So please, if you’re aware of Buddhism-inspired social action projects that address real suffering of real people, kindly send details and web links. Thank you.

later that day: there are now several ideas and links in the COMMENTS.

text source: Glassman, B., & Fields, R. (1996). Instructions to the cook: a zen master’s lessons in living a life that matters. New York: Bell Tower, p. 8. image: “world’s largest Buddha statue” at


11 responses »

  1. Peter your reflections are heard heart deep. I know not of any Buddhist project as it is outside of my awareness. I do know of individuals like you who practice where they live. People who share their floor space for cushions and work in soup kitchens and help a neighbour who has fallen and broke her arm. Like many things, sometimes we get lost while following a grand plan. I like what you say about practicing where we live. Perhaps reaching out to others farther away when we can.

    It is sad to think about someone tripping over a homeless person in their doorway while on their way to catch a plane to learn about suffering.

    • you’re wise to remind me/us that charity (compassion and generosity) begins at home. All day I’ve been aware of what I do to alleviate suffering, why I do it, if it’s enough.

      Never enough.

  2. Thank you! Thank you! I’ve been saying things like this for years. “Western” Zen, and probably Zen in general, is out of balance in favor of mostly the wealthy few. And this skews what people think “practice” is.

    Here are a few engaged programs I know about here in the U.S. (There are other centers with prison projects. My own sangha had one going up until recently, when its two leaders moved away.) – which is a worldwide organization that began in Taiwan.

    There are others, but certainly it’s not commonplace enough.

    • Thanks for the links, nathan, and your sharing in the exasperation. we’ve both written about this before, this predominantly white-middle-class sangha. A few years ago i sat with and worked as tenzo (retreat cook) with a well-established zen group in Los Angeles. Among the 50 or so people I encountered there, only a tiny handful were “of colour” as you say in the US. Hardly representative of that city’s demographics … and this after the center had been in operation for 40+ years.

    • See also the National [US] Buddhist Prison Sangha (out of Daido Loori’s work, Zen Mountain Monastery, NY) at

    • There’s a book of 16 essays Action Dharma: New Studies in Engaged Buddhism by Damien Keown, Charles S. Prebish, and Christopher Queen (Paperback – Jul 23 2003). Amazon lists it at $65 (which may be a mistake); perhaps it’s available locally or via interlibrary loans.

  3. In Victoria, I know a little about Food not Bombs; feeding vegetarian food every sunday to the homeless; i don’t know if it’s considered a buddhist project, but certainly buddhists could contribute. I am told that many of the people making the food don’t have cars, but carry the food in their bike carriers.

    • Thanks dawne. I checked where it says:

      “Food Not Bombs shares free vegan and vegetarian meals with the hungry in over 1,000 cities around the world to protest war, poverty and the destruction of the environment. With over a billion people going hungry each day how can we spend another dollar on war?”

      I’ve seen their table on Sunday mornings under a big tree, corner of Vancouver and Pandora, near the “Our Place” shelter. Details at

      I’ll walk over there tomorrow to see …

  4. Well and timely spoken!!

  5. From today’s CBC NEWS report on “B.C.’s hidden new face of poverty”:

    [The suburbs], magnets for both immigration and refugee settlement, have become nodes of low income, unemployment and the invisibly poor. The people who live there are disproportionately new Canadians and visible minorities. Local governments have yet to catch up to the changing face of Lower Mainland poverty.

    The city of Coquitlam approved its first permanent homeless shelter just last month, after intense debate and in the face of vocal opposition from local residents. [emphasis added]

    … But it’s becoming impossible to ignore the growing need for shelters, social services and supports in areas built for low-density, single-family dwellings in middle-class neighbourhoods. Part of the problem is that poverty in the suburbs can be hidden behind the doors of neatly appointed bungalows.

    more at


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