Taigen joined the First U.S. Buddhist Leaders Conference at the White House May 14th featuring a widely diverse range of Buddhists. We met together in the morning near the White House at George Washington University, with a number of fine presentations by Buddhist participants. In the afternoon we met at the Executive Office Building of the White House, and received briefings, followed by Q&A; from some Administration officials.
Our focuses included presenting statements on Climate Change and Racial Justice, as well as considerations of religious freedom and conflict. Alan Senauke, who also attended, has written an informative background article.
The 130 attendees were very diverse, mostly from Asian-American communities, including many monks and nuns. Also present were a number of good academics, including Duncan Williams, Sallie King, Chris Ives, and Ken Kraft. There was a fairly sparse Zen representation. But key organizer Bill Aiken from Soka Gakkai did an excellent job of bringing together an unusually diverse group, and arranging a good program at the White House.
One highlight was the traditional Vesak Ceremony honoring Buddha's birth and Awakening, the first ever performed inside the White House.
The Administration spokespersons all were sincere, and receptive, and a couple of them were extremely impressive. The representative from the White House Council on Environmental Quality lauded the administration's Climate Action Plan. However, when I questioned her about the administration's opening the Arctic to drilling the previous week; about the dangers of fracking; about the dangers of nuclear power, with reference to Fukushima; and about the TPP agreement that will give Fossil fuel and other major corporations the power to overrule all environmental and economic policies if they hinder corporate profits, she avoided any real response.
Also attached from Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi are "A Buddhist Diagnosis of the Climate Crisis", a detailed outline based on the Four Noble Truths, and a shorter version called "Keeping it Simple and Practical". Bhikkhu Bodhi's helpful presentation of his long outline in the morning was a highlight of the whole event for me. Another presentation was from Duncan Williams on the history of "Buddhist Engagement in the public square" going back to the 1920s, mostly focused on Soto Zen responses from the Japanese-American community.
One of the best things about the event was the intention to continue next year the lobbying on behalf of Buddhist values, probably at the capitol with congress. There was discussion of how to include, alongside other influential religious groups, consideration in the government of Buddhist values of compassion, inner transformation, and longer temporal perspectives. It was suggested that when we write the President or congress that we explicitly include our motivation from Buddhist values. After the formal event some of us went in front of the White House and held banners created by Buddhist Peace Fellowship (see pictures).