When BODHI was co-founded in 1989 (in the US as well as Australia) it became one of the world’s first Buddhist-influenced non-government organizations seeking to improve social and environmental justice for all. Both major forms of Buddhism recognise the importance of compassion. A central tenet of Mahayana Buddhism (which includes Tibetan Buddhism) is the concept of “bodhicitta”, the wish to be of benefit to all beings. An important aspect of Theravada Buddhism is the concept and practice of “metta”, or loving kindness. In principle, both forms of compassion extend to all forms of life, including people of any race, faith, ethnicity, status or caste.
The experience of each of the co-founders of BODHI was that organized and practical expressions of either metta or bodhicitta were rare, at least by Buddhists and Buddhist sympathisers. We knew, of course, that Buddhist teachings had a powerful, generally positive influence in many countries, but also that many nominally Buddhist counties had experienced internal conflict and overt aggression - but so had many Christian and Muslim countries. We also knew of organized programmes in Western countries to raise funds for Tibetan refugees in India and Nepal, efforts which had commenced soon after His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama had fled the Chinese invaders in 1959, accompanied by about 80,000 of his countrymen, in the first of several waves. (See an interview with the Dalai Lama in 1960.) We also knew of small groups working to support individuals, families, monastics and monasteries. But we did not know of any Buddhist-influenced organizations similar in aspiration to OxFam, Save the Children Fund, or the Catholic aid organization Caritas.
Although a Buddhist group called Tzu Chi (“compassionate relief”) had been founded in Taiwan in 1966 we did not, at that stage, know of it. Nor (in those pre-internet days, when research was more difficult) did we know of the Karuna Trust, which, based in the UK, had then been active for several years. We knew of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, but its focus was more on dialogue and the promotion of peace, than on poverty relief via partners, as we intended.
Today, there are many Buddhist-influenced organizations that seek to promote social and environmental justice, from Buddhist Global Relief to the Foundation for Universal Responsibility. Some of these are linked in the International Network of Engaged Buddhists.
However, few among these groups seek to actively promote poverty relief and poverty prevention. BODHI, though small, has supported almost 50 such projects, mainly in India, Bangladesh, Thailand and Tibet. We also have tried to raise concerns about numerous issues relevant to social justice, in our newsletters (of which this is the 50th), on our various websites, and via Facebook. Recurrent themes have included climate change, inequality, racial and other forms of discrimination and the lack of female education and empowerment and its consequent effect on poverty. Compared to the need, BODHI can only make a small difference, but we can do far more collectively than as individuals.