Fighting World Poverty

Buddhist leaders tackled world poverty, the first of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in an online forum last week.

“Before the pandemic, there was a time when focusing on SDGs would have been seen as political,” said Zen priest Rev. Alan Senauke. “They were right in a sense—SDGs can’t be accomplished without political action. But politics are dependent on a social, personal, and political transformation. Now I define it as a moral obligation.” Rev. Senauke is abbot of the Berkeley Zen Center in California. “This is what we owe to each other as fellow citizens of this planet.”

The forum was hosted by the Bay Area Buddhist Association, an alliance of Buddhist organizations representing Soto Zen, Jodo Shinshu, and Nichiren Buddhism. The group hopes Buddhist leaders and laypeople of all stripes join them in addressing great challenges facing the world today, including education, hunger, climate change, clean water, affordable energy and other pressing problems. The association, which was founded last year, took the mantle declared at a 2018 world Buddhist conference in Japan supporting the UN’s goals.

Rev. Senauke, the keynote speaker, said tackling these problems reflects the Buddhist teachings, summed up in the saying, “The whole world is my true human body.”

(Buddhism emphasizes the interdependence of all life, tying together the relationship between the earth, people, plants, animals, water, air, our actions, and innumerable other causes and conditions, which together, create all life.)

“Those words are pushing me forward to work on this,” Rev. Senauke said. “They are not other people’s business, this is our business.”

He said his wife called attention to how when shopping, he had mindlessly chose products and sellers based on cheapest price. He realized those products resulted from the labors of many people, including farmers, field workers, packers, shippers, grocers and so forth, many of them underpaid and with no labor safeguards. The products often come from great distances.

Participants chimed in on the need to become more conscientious consumers, supporting fair trade and sustainable products.

Rev. Senauke drew attention to the relationship between wealth and poverty. “When there’s wealth, there’s poverty. The greater the wealth, the greater the poverty.” He said he tries to live by the precept “I vow not to live at the expense of others.”

Berkeley Buddhist Temple’s Rev. Kiyonobu Kuwahara offered another point of view: “To me, being rich itself is not bad. The point is how to help the community. Each individual can cultivate compassion and mindfulness to help those in need. If people hear the dharma, they can help others.”

Rev. Fred Brenion, Higashi Honganji minister in Southern California, drew a connection between systemic racism and poverty, explaining how racist policies discriminated against people of color, depriving them of economic access and help.

Other participants spoke about their various efforts to help people, such as collecting and distributing clothing and helping ex-convicts get training and jobs.

Rev. Tonen O’Connor, a Zen priest in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, encouraged people to go forward without expectation of success, instead of stymied by the problem’s enormity. “We do what we do because it is necessary. How are we actually engaged?… Look at it backwards and ask, what am I doing?”

-Rev. Ken Yamada, editor, Shinshu Center of America