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Transmitting the Dhamma in Word and in Deed: An Interview with Bhikkhu Bodhi

By | 9/17/2023

Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi is one of the most prolific translators and interpreters of the Pāli Canon. The American Buddhist monk’s translations include the Majjhima Nikāya (with Bhikkhu Ñaṇamoli), the Saṃyutta Nikāya, the Aṅguttara Nikāya, and the Suttanipāta. His influential anthologies such as In the Words of the Buddha and The Buddha’s Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony, as well as his collections of essays such as Investigating the Dhamma and Dhamma Reflections have guided seekers and scholars alike in their explorations of the Buddha’s teachings.

After earning his PhD in philosophy from Claremont Graduate University (1972), Bhikkhu Bodhi received novice ordination in Sri Lanka in 1972 and full ordination in 1973. He was formerly the editor and president of the Buddhist Publication Society in Kandy, Sri Lanka. He returned to the U.S. in 2002 and now resides at Chuang Yen Monastery. Since 2013, he has been the president of the Buddhist Association of the United States. Ven. Bodhi is also the founder of the organization Buddhist Global Relief, which funds projects to fight hunger and to empower girls and women across the world.

Having the opportunity to speak with the esteemed bhikkhu whose work has been a major influence on my thinking for the last twenty-five years was a real privilege. In this interview, I asked Ven. Bodhi, over Zoom, about his journey into monasticism and scholasticism, the value of pariyatti for contemporary meditators, the role of belief on the path of practice, and social engagement. Our conversation even waded into the deep waters of anattā and paṭicca-samuppāda, essential concepts that form the framework of the meditator’s path.

The text below is based on the transcript of our Zoom session. It has been edited for clarity.

Kory Goldberg: Thank you, Bhante. It’s a privilege and an honor to be speaking with you today. To begin, can you please tell us how a Jewish guy from New York became a Buddhist monk in Sri Lanka, dedicating his life to translating the words of the Buddha?

Bhikkhu Bodhi: Okay, that’s quite a long story. <laughter>

KG: How about a short version? <laughter>

BB: Even though I’m Jewish, I didn’t have a particularly religious background. In fact, my parents were agnostic, but we would go to the synagogue for the Jewish high holy days and we would observe some of the Jewish ceremonies, just to preserve the cultural tradition rather than out of religious faith.

Initially, I became interested in Buddhism when I was in my junior year at Brooklyn College in 1965. One day, while browsing in a bookshop, I saw some books on Buddhism. Out of curiosity, I picked them up and that stimulated my interest even more. And during my last two years of college, I read books on Buddhism, but I had no real knowledge of how to practice the Dhamma, no clear idea about how to practice meditation. I tried to meditate on my own a few times, thinking that as soon as you sit, cross your legs, and focus on the breath, you immediately go into samādhi. It didn’t quite work for me that way <laughter>. And so after a few sessions, I gave up.

In the fall of 1966 I started graduate school at Claremont Graduate University. I majored in western philosophy. In the second semester, a Buddhist monk from Vietnam came to study at the same university and came to reside in the same residence hall where I was living. I became friendly with him and took him as my first teacher and guide to Buddhist practice. He introduced me to the practice of meditation. After some time, I actually was ordained by him as a novice monk in the Vietnamese Mahāyāna system. At that time, among the younger generation of monks in Vietnam, there was a renewed interest in the early sources of Buddhist teachings—in the Pāli Nikāyas and the Chinese Āgamas. And so, my teacher, whose name was Ven. Thich Giac Duc, encouraged me to go to Sri Lanka to study.

During my last year of graduate school, I met several monks from Sri Lanka who were passing through the Los Angeles area. I became friendly with one of them—Ven. Piyadassi Thera—and he invited me to Sri Lanka, saying that he could arrange for me to stay in a Buddhist monastery. The next year I wrote to him, telling him that I would like to come to Sri Lanka, and he connected me with a learned Sri Lankan elder, Ven. Balangoda Ananda Maitreya, who was fluent in English. And so, when I finished my graduate studies in 1972, I left for Sri Lanka to become a Theravāda monk.

On my way to Sri Lanka, I stopped off in Thailand for a week, and then traveled to Vietnam to meet Ven. Giac Duc. This happened in the midst of the Vietnam War. I spent two months in Vietnam, and then went to Sri Lanka. I arrived in Colombo at the end of October, 1972.

KG: Did you ever feel threatened when you were in Vietnam during the war, as a Western Buddhist monk?

BB: It’s an interesting question because I used to take leisurely walks around the streets of Saigon, wearing the brown robe of a Vietnamese monk. When I look back at that time, I realized that this was quite foolish, since I could have been kidnapped and held for ransom. <laughter>

KG: We’re lucky you weren’t!

BB: I must have been a naive young man, thinking that everything is hunky dory with the world, even though there was a bitter war going on! <laughter>

KG: Maybe you had some protective devas hovering over you!

BB: Yes, maybe. <laughter>

KG: Your voice is one of the most prolific in the English world of Pāli Buddhism. While doing this work, what are some of the challenges that you face when translating an ancient language and culture into modern English?

BB: Working in Sri Lanka, I had good models to emulate. First, let me explain how I came to be a translator. When I went to Sri Lanka to become a monk I had no intention to become a translator, but I did want to be able to read the canonical texts in the Pāli language. When I came to stay with Ven. Balangoda Ananda Maitreya at his temple, I studied Pāli under him, and on my own I would read the English translations from the Pali Text Society. The problem I faced was that I couldn’t understand them! The translations were in English, of course, but they were composed in a stilted language, almost as if imitating the style of the King James version of the Bible. And so, as I studied Pāli. I would rely upon translations by Ven. Ñāṇamoli Thera, Ven. Nyanaponika, Ven. Nyanatiloka, and other monks fluent in English. This helped me to build up a vocabulary of fairly adequate English renderings of the key Pāli doctrinal terms.

In that way, slowly and gradually, I started to translate texts for myself in order to be able to understand them in the original language. Again, with no intention of becoming a translator, from time to time I would go to stay with the elder German monk, Nyanaponika Thera, and ask him questions about passages in the texts. I would show him what I was working on and ask him about the blanks in my translation. When he saw what I was doing, he was favorably impressed and encouraged me to continue with my translation.

Once, when I had stayed with him for a month or so, he gave me notebooks that he had compiled in the late 1940s in which he had translated substantial passages from the Pāli commentaries into English. There were passages from the Dīgha Nikāya commentary and some passages from the Majjhima Nikāya commentary. Looking at both the venerable’s translations, and the original Pāli texts, I was able to pick up the style of the commentaries and then go even further into the sub-commentaries. In that way, I got familiar with the style of the texts, both the canonical texts and the commentaries.

KG: Were there any challenges in this translation process?

BB: A big challenge I faced in translating from Pāli is that there are many technical terms for which we don’t have adequate counterparts in English. The early translators had to construct a kind of artificial English to render the Pāli technical terms. They created what has come to be called “Hybrid Buddhist English,” the counterpart of Hybrid Buddhist Sanskrit.

I drew on the technical terms that had already been developed by earlier translators. In a way, translating the wording of the canonical texts was less of a challenge than getting a good style: the diction is different, the syntax is different. So, one has to make choices about whether one is going to adhere closely to the diction, the syntax of the canonical text, or take liberties to put the text more freely into English. I believe that though the Buddha was addressing ordinary people, he would have spoken in a somewhat elevated, eloquent voice. I decided to try to take a middle way. I wanted to preserve the elevated tone and the technical terminology, but to use a style of English that an ordinary educated reader could easily understand—often with the aid of explanatory notes.

KG: Yes, the middle way is always the best!

How do we know that all the Pāli texts that we have today are actually the authentic words of the Buddha? Can we make this claim with certainty?

BB: Actually, we have no way to confirm this with absolute certainty. The best we can do is rely on probabilities. From the kind of work being carried out by scholars like the German monk Ven. Anālayo—comparative studies of parallel versions of a given text—we can construct what I would call a probability scale. In regard to those texts that show a great deal of correspondence between the different versions of a sutta, we can have a fairly high degree of confidence about their provenance. We can’t say with certainty which suttas come directly from the Buddha himself, but we can say which suttas go back to a very early period in the compilation of the texts.

Where we find disparities between roughly parallel versions of a sutta, we can say that the different schools may have preserved a core sutta in somewhat different ways—perhaps one school has elaborated it more fully than some other school, or condensed it, etc. But although we may perceive differences in the language, formulation, and structure of a sutta, there’s pretty much substantial agreement among the early schools on the central teachings and practices of early Buddhism. And so, I think we can have a fairly high degree of confidence that doctrines like the five aggregates, four noble truths, dependent origination, and the three marks of existence— and practices like the noble eightfold path and the four foundations of mindfulness—come from the Buddha himself.

KG: The Dīgha Nikāya includes many suttas that are more devotional in nature and don’t really have much to do with the Buddha’s teachings. What do you think was the intention of the compilers to include these suttas?

BB: One has to look at the different Nikāyas and ask whether there’s any overriding purpose behind these different collections, any theme or agenda that governs the collection as a whole. We don’t have definite historical evidence to draw upon, but we can propose some tentative conclusions based on the contents of the different Nikāyas. The Swiss scholar Joy Manné published a paper (in the 1990s) comparing the intention of the Dīgha Nikāya and the Majjhima Nikāya. The conclusion that she came to is that the suttas of the Majjhima Nikāya by and large were directed inward towards the Buddhist community and served the purpose of teaching people who have newly embraced Buddhism the fundamental Buddhist teachings. These suttas were particularly directed toward newcomers to the monastic order, inculcating in them knowledge of the basic tenets of the Buddha’s teachings. We can see this quite clearly in the first 50 suttas of the Majjhima Nikāya and some among the last 50, and the final chapter of this collection.

In contrast, Manné found that many suttas in the Dīgha Nikāya seem to be directed outwards towards the broader Indian society and culture of that period. Here we see the Buddha debating with the brahmans about their groundless claims for caste superiority. We also see the Buddha engage in discussions with wandering ascetics, trying to show them that their severe practices don’t lead to ultimate liberation. Instead, the Buddha proclaims the gradual training through sīla, samādhi, and paññā. And we find still other suttas in the Dīgha Nikāya that are intended to inspire a spirit of devotion in those who have newly embraced the Dhamma.

It seems to me that the early generation of Buddhists recognized that they were, to some extent, in competition with the brahmans and with Brahmanism, so they had to come up with authoritative texts that could meet the needs of ordinary people immersed in the prevalent culture. Ordinary people living their day-to-day lives were not concerned with the four noble truths, dependent origination, the three marks of existence, meditation, and so forth. What they wanted and needed was protection, and thus they required texts that would give them a sense of security. These devotional and mystical suttas of the Dīgha Nikāya may have been composed to serve those needs. The Buddhist monks could recite these suttas for the lay community to confer blessings and security and protection.

KG: Most of Pariyatti’s listeners [readers] are Vipassana meditators who have varying levels of experience. How important is it for them to study the words of the Buddha?

BB: I think it’s quite important for serious meditators to acquire a basic acquaintance with the canonical texts, which can be especially helpful for the development of insight. It’s certainly not necessary for a meditator to achieve scholarly mastery over the texts. But there’s certainly a core group of texts that a practitioner should become familiar with.

Would you like specific recommendations?

KG: Sure!

BB: For the purpose of developing paññā and the purification of the mind, the first thirty suttas in the Majjhima Nikāya are very important. And then certain core chapters in the Saṃyutta Nikāya, particularly Chapter 12 on dependent origination, Chapter 22 on the five aggregates, Chapter 35 on the twelve sense bases. And then for the Goenka tradition, which emphasizes contemplation of feeling, Chapter 36. In the fifth book of the Saṃyutta Nikāya we find chapters on the noble eightfold path, the four foundations of mindfulness, the seven factors of enlightenment, etc. I would say that a meditator should gain some acquaintance with these texts.

KG: Great, thank you. I’ll turn those chapters into a curriculum of study. <laughter>

BB: But I should add that matters differ from person to person. Some people can obtain quite excellent results in their meditation without becoming familiar with canonical texts at all. But for others it can be helpful to become acquainted with them.

KG: Reading the suttas is not as easy a task as, let’s say, reading the Harry Potter series. <laughter>

BB: I’ve never read Harry Potter! <laughter>

KG: Well, in comparison, the Pāli texts often seem dense, complicated, and even repetitive. Why is this so?

BB: Certainly, they’re repetitive, but we should remember that during the first 400 years of Buddhist literary history the texts were transmitted orally, and oral literature involves a lot of repetition. The suttas might be considered “dense” because, as the Buddha himself says, “the Dhamma itself is deep, difficult to see, and difficult to understand.”

I would not say, however, that the suttas are complicated. Interestingly, we find a fair amount of cross-referencing among the suttas. One sutta might mention a particular topic in a concise manner and then pass on to another subject, as if assuming that the reader or listener is familiar with that topic. And so, when you come across a passage like this in a text, you may not know what the Buddha is speaking about. But because the texts have this intricate system of cross-references, a theme mentioned briefly in one sutta may be elaborated in another sutta. And it’s that other sutta that you should turn to in order to find the full explanation—or at least a more elaborate explanation.

For example, let’s take a sutta in which the Buddha is defining the factors of the noble eightfold path. He says, “Bhikkhus, what is the noble eightfold path?... right view.” He’ll define right view as knowledge of dukkha, its arising, cessation and the path leading to cessation. Then he’ll define the other factors. When he comes to right mindfulness, he will say: “Here, a bhikkhu dwells contemplating the body, the feelings,” and so on. So, you get this brief formulaic definition of right view as understanding of the four noble truths, and of right mindfulness as the four foundations of mindfulness. But for a fuller explanation, you would have to go to another collection. In this case, for right view, you would go to Chapter 56 of the Saṃyutta Nikāya for more information about the four noble truths, and for right mindfulness, you would go to the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, which is the tenth sutta in the Majjhima Nikāya.

KG: So, this cross-referencing system can help meditators who wish to study keep the suttas more engaging and easier to understand.

BB: Yes. When I was a junior monk, as I read the existing translations of the texts, I would make short summaries of each of the suttas, particularly the Dīgha Nikāya and Majjhima Nikāya. Then I read through them a second time, but this time in Pāli. As I proceeded, I made up a list of the important topics that I came across in a notebook. Whenever I came across a sutta that had some important explanation of any of those topics, I would jot down a summary of the sutta passage and give a reference to the sutta itself. So, I would have sheets on the four noble truths, sheets on the five aggregates, and separate sheets on any of those particular aggregates that was treated in greater detail. I’d have sheets on impermanence, on dukkha, on anattā, non-self. I’d also have sections on dependent origination, the noble eightfold path, the enlightenment factors, and so on. In this way, I was able to see the cross-references among the suttas.

KG: I guess creating these lists helped you write your anthologies where the suttas are placed into categories or themes.

BB: Yes. In the Buddha’s Words was largely based on those handwritten notes that I compiled back in 1973 and 1974.

KG: Many meditators in the West, as well as in Asia, hold scientific and secular worldviews, and many even seem allergic to religion altogether. How important is it for these meditators to accept traditional Buddhist metaphysical concepts like karma and rebirth, notions that are difficult, if not impossible, to verify for oneself? How do you make sense of these concepts?

BB: I am not dogmatic about these particular teachings, even though I fully accept them myself. I don’t say that if you want to be a good practitioner, you have to accept karma and rebirth, otherwise you’re doomed. My approach is to encourage newcomers to the Dhamma to begin by practicing those aspects of the Dhamma that they can see for themselves, that they can verify for themselves, and then ponder whether such practices really induce beneficial changes in their lives. If, through your direct experience, you can confirm that these particular teachings are meaningful, that you can see them for yourself, and can see that they can make positive transformations in your life, that should serve as a strong inducement for you to place trust and confidence in those aspects of the teaching that lie beyond your present capacity for direct confirmation.

You don’t want to blindly believe the teachings; in the initial phases you want to stick with what you can see and confirm for yourself. But if you want to practice the Dhamma to the full extent, then these teachings—on karma and rebirth, etc.—provide the background, framing, and context for the doctrine and the practice.

I sometimes use a simple example to illustrate this point. When I was living in the Forest Hermitage in Kandy, Sri Lanka, we didn’t have main current electricity, so I had a portable radio with shortwave channels. Every day I would listen to the BBC World Service, which came in on shortwave “Band One.” One day when I turned on the radio I went to the place on Band One where I would get the BBC World Service, but it didn’t come. I moved the dial back and forth along the band, but I couldn’t find the BBC World Service. I then looked more closely at the radio, and I saw that I must have hit the band dial, making it go from shortwave Band One to AM. Then an analogy occurred to me: Somebody might be on the AM band looking for the BBC World Service. They can’t find it and then conclude that the BBC World Service is a myth, a fiction, a construct of British metaphysics propagated from the Philosophy Department of Oxford University. By the same token, when we read the Buddhist texts that speak about celestial realms, ghostly realms, hell realms, and so forth, since I can’t see them with my present mental capacity, I might then conclude, “ah, they don’t exist!” <laughter> But if I’m able to switch the bandwidth of my mind to different levels through powerful samādhi, I can then tune my mind into those other realms.

KG: For many of us who might have trouble tuning into those realms, to those bandwidths, do you think we need to buy into the concepts to truly uproot all the mental defilements and achieve liberation? Do we even need these concepts for proper ethical reasoning from a Dhamma perspective? Is ethical integrity and liberation dependent on these concepts?

BB: It seems to me intuitively that in order to have the motivation to uproot the mental defilements and to gain liberation, to attain nibbāna, we must have a conviction about the reality of karma and rebirth, which are tenets included under right view. After all, liberation means being liberated from the cycle of repeated existence and from the mental defilements that sustain the cycle of repeated existence. As I see it, the inability to place complete trust and confidence in those teachings would be an obstacle to reaching the final goal. This doesn’t mean that a person who suspends belief in such teachings can’t benefit from the practice of Buddhist meditation; certainly, they can. It’s just that their practice would not be geared toward the ultimate eradication of the defilements or toward release from the cycle of rebirths. This would seem to follow logically from a skeptical attitude toward those teachings.

KG: Anattā is often translated as non-self. This concept is more obscure than the other two characteristics of existence anicca (impermanence) and dukkha (dissatisfaction). Can you please explain the concept of anattā and discuss why it’s important for those on the path of liberation to understand what it means?

BB: Anattā, which I translate as non-self, is a negation of the idea that we possess at the core of our being an attā (Sanskrit, atman), a persistent substantial self. The idea of anattā is not a negation of our empirical personality. It doesn’t mean that we don’t exist as persons, as individuals; it means that at the core of our being, there is no substantial, persisting agent behind our actions, no persisting subject of experience, no truly existing ‘I’ or ego-entity that remains the same throughout the changing flux of experience. Anattā means that our experience is a constant flow of bodily and mental phenomena that are rapidly arising and passing away. But because they arise and pass away so rapidly, they create the illusion of a persisting entity, a self.

According to the Buddha’s teaching, grasping upon the idea of a self, of an ego-entity, of a truly existing ‘I’, is the root of our suffering, the root of all of our pain, misery, grief, worry, stress, anxiety, and so on. It is also the root-cause of our migration through the cycle of repeated birth and death. Therefore, to gain liberation, one has to uproot the idea of the self, to see into the reality of anattā, non-self, what we refer to or identify with as “myself.” What I am is a constellation of the five aggregates, the five collections of bodily and mental phenomena, namely, material form, feelings, perceptions, volitional formations, and consciousness. Those five groups of factors function together through conditions, creating this illusion or appearance of an ‘I’ or self, which is the fundamental delusion. And through the practice of insight meditation, one sees through that delusion and dispels the illusion of the ‘I’, and that paves the way to liberation.

KG: With respect to the ten fetter model, please explain the difference between the first fetter, sakkāya diṭṭhi, identity view, and the seventh fetter, māna, conceit.

BB: This is a subtle point. The first fetter, sakkāya diṭṭhi, is the view of a self in relation to the collection of five aggregates. In this view, one might take one or another of the aggregates to be the self, or hold the view that the self is outside the aggregates, or that the self possesses them, or exists within the aggregates, or that the aggregates exist within the self. All conceptually formulated views of self are eliminated with the first breakthrough experience, the attainment of stream-entry, because with that breakthrough experience, one sees into the truth of the Dhamma, sees into the truth of non-self. Along with that insight, all conceptual philosophical views or religiously based views of a self or soul are eliminated.

But the seventh fetter, māna, which is translated as conceit, is the non-conceptual notion of an ‘I,’ a spontaneously arisen notion of an ‘I’. It’s a habitual tendency for that notion of ‘I’ to arise, enabling one to identify oneself in some way, and then use that identity as a basis for comparison, for thinking “I’m better,” or “I’m equal,” or “I’m worse.” This is a more emotionally charged notion of ‘I,’ therefore it’s eliminated only at the stage of arahantship. The stream-enterer has removed the conceptual view of self, but only the arahant has fully uprooted the conceit “I am.”

The most useful text for understanding this distinction is Saṃyutta Nikāya, chapter 22, sutta 89, the Khemaka Sutta.

KG: How does our understanding of anattā impact our relationships with other people and with the environment, and how might it form our assumptions about the world?

BB: If somebody wrongly grasps the teaching of anattā, it might lead in an unwholesome or undesirable direction. If you wrongly grasp anattā and thinks that there’s no self anywhere, that nobody has any self, you might think you should cut off all human relationships and to dispel all concern for the natural environment. So here, the teaching of anattā first has to be correctly understood at the philosophical level. This means that we must recognize the reality of empirical persons as conscious subjects of experience in their own right. They are not permanent substantial subjects, but at the empirical level they are real persons. This understanding should be complemented by developing the four brahma vihāras, or divine qualities of loving-kindness, compassion, empathic joy, and impartiality.

We need these four virtues to be the basis for our human relationships. A problem that was not faced so critically in the Buddha’s time, but has now become the overwhelming, all-encompassing problem that we face as a human community, is the ecological destruction caused by climate destabilization, climate devastation. We have to balance our drive towards liberation through insight into anattā with an overriding concern to preserve a livable environment and to protect human beings and other living beings from being devastated by climate calamities. A flourishing environment is critical if we are to maintain our practice.

KG: With respect to that concern for climate stabilization, might there be a connection between anattā and the concept of interdependence that we see both in later Buddhist traditions as well as in Indigenous ways of knowing and relating to the world?

BB: Yes. The recognition of interdependence and connectedness stems not so much from the teaching of anattā, but from the teaching of paṭicca-samuppāda, dependent origination—the teaching that all phenomena arise through conditions. In the early Buddhist texts, the teaching of dependent arising is particularly connected with the chain of conditions that are responsible for our bondage in saṃsāra. But it can be given broader applications, extended to the interdependent relationship between human beings and the natural environment. For instance, although we might not be aware of this, human beings are utterly dependent on the insect population. Our bodies themselves are composed of billions of bacteria which perform many essential functions for us. And so, if the insect population is decimated through environmental devastation and if the bacteria populations are devastated, then human life, which depends on them, will also collapse.

KG: I find that the interweaving of so many domains makes it increasingly difficult to apply or support the principle and practice of non-harm. For instance, most of our clothing is made by people in the developing world who receive very low wages, work under dangerous conditions, don’t have proper healthcare, education, housing, and so forth. Even the food we eat is riddled with labour rights issues, environmental degradation, and the mass murder of farm animals. So, for someone wishing to follow the Dhamma principles of non-harm, how do we go about facing such situations, including more ambiguous ones where it’s nearly impossible to actually know the consequences of our actions because there’s all this interweaving happening.

BB: That’s a very difficult question and a very difficult dilemma to wiggle one’s way out of. We should certainly make an effort to learn the sources of the commodities we purchase and the food we eat so as to reduce the harmful impact we make through our lifestyle. But, here in the United States, in the West, it’s very difficult to do that. For example, if you’re living in a small town where there is no system of mass transport to get to one’s job, one has to use a car. To use the car, one needs gasoline, and the gasoline contributes to global warming. Yet in such a situation, as a matter of practical necessity, one has no choice but to use the car.

As you mentioned, a lot of the food that we eat has been produced by farmers who are underpaid, who are exploited. The clothing that we wear is produced in countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam, where people work for extremely low wages. Toys and many electronic gadgets are made in China by prisoners and low-wage workers. It’s just so difficult to avoid acquiring goods that entail some harm in their production. But we have to do our best to avoid harmful actions.

Early Buddhism doesn’t make vegetarianism compulsory, but I often encourage dedicated practitioners to adopt a vegetarian or even a vegan diet, at least to some extent. When I was a monk in Sri Lanka, I was not completely vegetarian. I tried to be, but it was difficult because people would regularly serve fish or chicken as the main sources of protein. But since I have been back in the United States, I’ve been completely vegetarian—in fact, almost vegan.

KG: Amongst meditators, there seem to be two distinct approaches in thinking about the politically corrosive time that we currently inhabit. On the one hand, there are those meditators who think that spiritual practice requires a component that is engaged politically, socially or environmentally. On the other hand, there are those who believe that the serious meditator should live a quiet, private, meditative life that is disengaged from worldly affairs. From your perspective, is there a connection between the Buddha’s transformative meditative practices and social engagement, advocacy work, philanthropy, and so forth?

BB: I don’t take a categorical, dogmatic stand on this issue, saying that all meditators have to be socially engaged, that if you’re not socially engaged you’re not a true practitioner.

Before I encountered the Buddhist monk from Vietnam I told you about, when I was in graduate school, I was a staunch opponent of the Vietnam War and also concerned about civil rights. But when I became involved with Buddhist practice through my meeting with that Buddhist monk, I thought, “My task now is to look after my own inward cultivation, and that’s how I could be of the greatest long-term benefit to others.”

During my early years in Sri Lanka, I lost interest in world events and just focused on my Dhamma studies and meditation practice. But in the 1980s, I was appointed the editor for the Buddhist Publication Society, which started to publish a newsletter for which I had to write cover essays. I then knew that I had to understand the relevance of the BuddhaDhamma to the situations we face in the modern world, to social and cultural currents gaining prominence in today’s world.” And so, as I looked into worldly events, I came to see the important ways in which Buddhist ideas and values could contribute to social upliftment and social transformation, how the Dhamma could help to create a more just, more peaceful, more compassionate world.

After I returned to the United States in 2002 and gained access to the internet, I could then get a much fuller view of what was taking place in the world. Suddenly, my own attitude underwent dramatic changes as I became very much concerned about developments taking place in this country and their impact on the wider world. At that time, we launched the war in Afghanistan and then extended the war to Iraq. It was so obvious to me that the Bush administration had concocted false pretexts for attacking Iraq and then expanding the war throughout the Middle East and even into Africa. It became a critical part of my own commitment as a conscientious Buddhist to understand such events. to take a stance, and to contribute in whatever way I could by signing petitions and connecting with organizations that aim to promote greater social and economic justice and to preserve our democracy from a rising tendency toward autocracy.

In 2008, along with some of my students and friends, I helped to form an organization dedicated to the mission of combating chronic hunger and malnutrition around the world. The organization is called Buddhist Global Relief. I’m not involved with the organization’s day-to-day work, but I’m the chairman of the organization and oversee the decisions that are made in running the organization.

KG: What does Buddhist Global Relief do?

BB: When we held our initial rounds of discussions, we decided that the organization would address the problems of social oppression, injustice, and poverty that afflict people around the world. But we quickly came to realize that such an agenda was just too broad for a fledgling organization with about six members. We then decided to narrow down the mission to focus on chronic hunger and malnutrition, which afflicts about 800 million people. As we looked into this problem, however, we realized that it isn’t enough to support projects that provide direct food aid. We also had to address the underlying roots of hunger. Among these was the subordinate status of girls and women in many traditional cultures. Thus, a lot of our projects promote the education of girls, giving them the opportunity to complete high school, and in many cases, attend university. We also support women, enabling them to start right livelihood projects in order to earn more to support their families. We also help with climate change projects, promoting ecologically sustainable models of agriculture.

 KG: Fascinating. This last point especially hits home as my wife and I run a small-scale permaculture garden that feeds about 45 families in my community.

I’d like to ask a question about right speech, which I find to be one of the most challenging aspects to practice on the path. Can you please explain this concept and share any suggestions for practicing it effectively?

BB: According to the canonical texts, there are four aspects of right speech, which are formulated negatively as abstinences but each with a positive counterpart. On the negative side, we find first abstaining from false speech. The positive counterpart of this is to speak the truth. This doesn’t mean that one invariably speaks the truth on every occasion. Sometimes, out of respect for others one has to be discreet, to keep silent. If you always speak the truth too bluntly, you’ll create conflict and enmity. So, you have to be skillful in the way you adopt truthful speech.

The second aspect of right speech is to avoid malicious or divisive speech, which means speaking badly about others with the intention of creating divisions, conflicts, disharmony among people who are on friendly terms with each other. Sometimes you see two people who are friendly and you want to win the exclusive friendship of one for yourself, so you speak denigrating words about the other person so as to create conflict between the two. Instead, we’re encouraged to engage in speech that promotes harmony, that promotes unity, that brings people together.

The third factor is to avoid harsh and angry speech, speech that hurts the feelings of others and creates inward pain. Instead, we should speak gently, politely, cordially, in ways that win the affection of others. And the fourth factor of right speech is to avoid idle chatter, gossip, engaging in frivolous talk. Instead, we should speak what is meaningful, words connected with the Dhamma. Obviously, in their day-to-day relationships people can’t talk exclusively about the Dhamma. or otherwise always keep silent, <laughter> But when we speak, we should keep watch over our mind to ensure that we don’t veer off into idle chatter. We should try to keep our words meaningful and pithy.

KG: What about day-to-day speech, maybe about the weather or the election results or the performance of the local sports team—might this be considered as frivolous speech or idle speech? Sometimes I find such ordinary speech has a bonding effect among people. For instance, if my neighbor complains about the bad weather, I might agree with him and complain along with him <laughter>. In some ways, complaining about the weather unites us, but I wonder if that might be considered wrong speech?

BB: I don’t think that’s wrong speech at all. There are many kinds of speech about ordinary topics that we have to engage in to create bonds of friendship between people. A good way to understand the fourth factor is to avoid idle chatter that merely harps on the faults of other.

KG: What about sharp criticism of political oppression or social injustice? Aren’t there passages where the Buddha encouraged sharp criticism under certain circumstances?

BB: Yes, that’s interesting because the Buddha himself spoke critically to others when conditions warranted such speech. He says that his speech is invariably meaningful and beneficial but is sometimes disagreeable to others. In those cases, the Buddha says that he knows the right time to utter such disagreeable speech.

I think for us, in our day-to-day life, under certain conditions, it’s essential to speak up in ways that are strong, even critical of others. And I have to say candidly, when we look at what’s going on in the political arena in this country, it’s necessary to speak up strongly, sharply and critically, but not angrily. We have to try to control the mind, not let the mind be overwhelmed by anger. But when there is an occasion to speak up strongly on behalf of what is right or against what is wrong, then we should do so. We need to speak up in defense of truth and against falsehood, against lies that harm people, against the dangerous authoritarian trends that have gained ground in this country.

Sometimes I speak up candidly and sharply on certain issues, and then get criticized by Buddhists who say that a monk should not speak about these issues. But I find that, for me, it is important to speak critically on issues where I see our society drifting in a direction that is contrary to the spirit of the Dhamma. I would call this speech that accords with the Dhamma.

KG: Is Buddhist Global Relief just about education, employment and nutrition, or is there a political angle as well?

BB: No, Buddhist Global Relief avoids taking a political angle because it’s a charity. We advocate for policies that promote greater food aid to poor countries and to poor people in the United States, but we don’t advocate for or against particular political figures or parties.

KG: Any last thoughts that you’d like to share with us?

BB: To continue along the topic we just discussed, I think it’s important for practitioners of the Dhamma to manifest loving-kindness and compassion not only in their personal relationships but also in the stands they take, the ways they relate to the greater society in which they’re living. We need to establish more articulate Buddhist voices in defense of a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-generational democracy and to stand against the trend toward theocratic and autocratic modes of governance. I hope that’s not too political. <laughter>

KG: We won’t hold that against you. Sadhu Sadhu sadhu. Thank you so much for your time, Bhante. It’s been a real pleasure, a real honour to have your perspective with us today. Thank you.

BB: Thank you for the opportunity.

Kory Goldberg

Kory Goldberg

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