Interfaith Explorations Continue on Day Three

National Headquarters , Midwest  |  August 22, 2023
Bourke Carus, whose grandfather, Paul Carus, worked to keep the spirit of the 1st Parliament of the World’s Religions that took place in 1893 alive, is guided by Debra Boudreaux, Tzu Chi USA CEO, when he visits Tzu Chi’s booth in the main exhibition area. Photos/Allen Chung

Written by Ida Eva Zielinska

The Global Ethic and the Path to Ordination to Monastic Life for Buddhist Women

This session circled one of the Global Ethic’s five tenets: Equal Rights and Partnership Between Men and Women. Ven. Chao-Hwei, a spiritual sister of Ven. Dharma Master Cheng Yen as they both had the same spiritual mentor, Ven. Master Yin Shun, was a panelist, and her narrative revealed some of the obstacles Ven. Master Cheng Yen herself had faced on her spiritual path. 

Three co-panelists, Ven. Zinai and Ven. Dhammadipa, female practitioners from different Buddhist traditions, and Dr. Darcie Price-Wallace, an academic specializing in Tibetan Buddhism, joined Ven. Chao-Hwei in a discussion that highlighted what full ordination and monastic training mean in Buddhist traditions and the various challenges that women face in getting ordained and acquiring proper training. 

“The Global Ethic and the Path to Ordination to Monastic Life for Buddhist Women”session brings female monastics of different Buddhist traditions together to share their views and experiences.

In their discussion, they covered the historical overview and real-life experiences. Session attendees learned that Buddha Siddhartha Gautama established the fourfold sangha (community of practice) that includes bhikkhus (male monastics), bhikshunis (female monastics), upasakas (male lay followers) and upasikas (female lay followers). And yet the order of female monastics died out in some Buddhist traditions and was never established in others. 

Until recently, women who wished to pursue a spiritual life in the Theravada and Vajrayana traditions stayed stuck in “novice nun” status as they were not allowed full ordination. Starting in the late 20th century, movements to restore or establish the bhikshuni sangha began via help from countries where the full ordination of Buddhist women has been preserved and practiced, such as Taiwan, Korea, and Vietnam. 

However, obstacles to full ordination persist on the ideological, institutional, and individual levels. Furthermore, those who are successfully ordained face the issue of acquiring proper monastic training, which in Buddhist traditions is an arduous process for both males and females. There is a gradual change, with nuns now permitted to pursue doctoral levels in their training, but there is much work ahead to attain equal rights for women within the Buddhist monastic system.

Buddhist-Catholic Dialogue: It’s Time to Talk

“Time to Talk,” a Buddhist Catholic Dialogue on Climate Change, is an initiative of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. Their monthly Zoom session, grounded in deep listening, focuses on the question: What is it in our Buddhist and Catholic traditions that compels us to confront the climate crisis? Participants come together in a space of prayer, contemplation, meditation, and sharing in the mode of Lectio Divina (literally divine reading), part of monastic spirituality, and focus on Buddhist and Catholic texts which manifest the two traditions’ imperative toward compassion in response to suffering caused by climate change.

The “Buddhist-Catholic Dialogue: It’s Time to Talk” session invites lively discussions. Photo/Hector Muniente

Chuck Hutchcraft, Ordained Zen Buddhist Priest and Mindfulness Teacher, Venerable Hui Ze Monastic at the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple, Michael Terrien, Benedictine Oblate and Coordinator of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Care for Creation Ministry and a member of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, Rev. Alexei Smith, Ecumenical and Interreligious Officer, Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and Dr. Rey-Sheng Her, Deputy CEO of the Buddhist Tzu Chi Charity Foundation came together to introduce the process so PoWR attendees could experience it themselves. 

Rev. Alexei Smith reads the Dalai Lama’s quote repeatedly, allowing session participants to reflect on it. Photo/Hector Muniente

Participants sat in a circle around a table with a flower arrangement, as Ven. Hui Ze and Rev. Alexei Smith alternated in reading two quotes, each written by a representative of the faith of the other:

It is not healthy to love silence while fleeing interaction with others, to want peace and quiet while avoiding activity, to seek prayer while disdaining service. Everything can be accepted and integrated into our life in this world, and become part of our path to holiness. We are called to be contemplatives even in the midst of action, and to grow in holiness by responsibly and generously carrying out our proper mission.

Religions should not be limited to praying. Ethical action is more important than praying. What is Buddha, Allah or Christ supposed to do if we human beings destroy our earth; fill the oceans with plastic so the fish, seals and whales perish; and cause rapid increase of desertification and greenhouse gases to be released into the atmosphere? Christ, Allah and Buddha are not responsible for the climate change and the destruction of the environment; it is a man-made problem. Therefore, we must take the responsibility and find solutions to the problems. That is why we need environmental ethics that focus on action and compassion for all sentient beings.

Session participants contemplate the meaning of the passages read. Photos/Hector Muniente

As the facilitators read the passages repeatedly, participants were to “listen to prayerfully,” as there may be a message of truth, something worth honoring. They explained the four steps to this contemplative practice: Reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation. The goal was to find what strikes you, then “chew on it,” and from the insight, whatever came from the meditation, to offer a prayer. Finally, during contemplation, the instruction was to “rest in silence and open the heart.” Gazing at an image was also part of the practice; here, it was the flower arrangement at the center of the room.

 After the contemplative component, the facilitators invited sharing of insights and personal reflections about what words or concepts stood out. Here are a few of them:

I began to see the assault on the environment as an assault on divinity. And so basically, in wounding the earth, we are wounding the divine and our concept of the divine. And so that became a very profound reminder, I think, but just really a sense of how it’s an act of desecration, you might say, to injure the earth in any way.

The line with ‘for all sentient beings.’ I can’t help but the elementals of fire, earth, water, and air; they’re screaming at us to get our attention to do this differently. To me, greed is power without loving wisdom. And I think to bring back that love and wisdom and to really honor the elementals and what they do for us, how we would not exist without them. And that’s our moral obligation, the ethical obligation to really honor what we’ve been given. We don’t own it; it’s ours to cherish and be good stewards and guardians of rather than users of

A session participant shares his thoughts and insights. Photo/Hector Muniente

What struck me was ‘it's time to talk.’ I think it also means it's time to coordinate, to enter into cold action. And this room that we are gathered here, that's great. Despite all of the ills surrounding us to find hope and act together.

The two words that stuck in my mind were compassion and action side by side. What action can we take to reach the people who, it seems, are cut off from compassion? The destruction is so immense that unless the people who have the actual power, who are causing the most destruction in industry, finance, and politics, unless we awaken compassion in them, I don’t have a lot of hope. So I’m just left with the question, ‘How can I have compassion for those who act without compassion?’ And ‘what action can I possibly take to fight for compassion?

During his sharing, Rey-Sheng Her, Deputy CEO of the Buddhist Tzu Chi Charity Foundation, highlighted the importance of compassion and action as well, directed at one and all, especially as we’re all sharing this world equally. “Buddhists believe in interdependent arising, that everything that is, coexists. So others and self are equal. And Bodhisattvas put others first and then themselves. [At Tzu Chi] we practice this philosophy and also environmental protection, compassionate action by recycling,” he explained.  

Rey-Sheng Her, Deputy CEO of the Buddhist Tzu Chi Charity Foundation shares during the session. Photo/Hector Muniente

Rey-Sheng Her introduced Ven. Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s use of the term “cherish material,” saying, “Materials convey life, cherish material life. Our economic system encourages mass production, mass consumption, and mass abandonment. So we don’t treat materials as life.” He described Tzu Chi’s extensive recycling operations, “We have over 200,000 recycling volunteers in Taiwan and 10,000 recycling stations. By recycling, the volunteers learn to reduce and then reuse. Learning by doing is a very important philosophy for our foundation and the Bodhisattva practice.” 

[Another[ important thing is that all religions should collaborate, not only dialogue, but we should work together. Altruism, compassion, put that in action. I think it’s the fundamental philosophy for every religion; the philosophy of religion is love. It’s time not to distinguish between each other, but to work together to solve social problems, world problems, which means rich and poor, decrease the gap, and environmental sustainability. I think compassion and altruism are crucial now. And especially put that in collaborative action.

Another participant continued on the action topic: “Any action requires possible change. We have to change. And sure enough, if we change from something convenient to something less convenient, that requires sacrifice, something we have to give up. [We must be] ready to be open to that sacrifice in our comfort, in our everyday routine to achieve results.”

And, bringing everyone to the present moment and space, someone focused on the echoing noise in the session space since it was divided from others a short distance away simply with cloth partitions, He recounted that he absorbed a message from that: “I had to write my thoughts down because the cacophony around us is what we face in the world. And what struck me so much is as I wrote what you were saying, each time it formed a thought, and then the thought was pushed out by all this noise. That was the symbol I needed to take away. It was, ‘If I don’t focus on the nature before me, the cacophony of the earth will destroy my voice.’” 

However, here, on that day, in that sacred space, the participants truly focused on their inner voices as they gazed at the small arrangement of flowers, swallowed up in an enormous garage without visual access to the sky or the vast horizon of Lake Michigan’s shimmering waters; the blossoms symbolizing all of nature and creation. Their voices raised a resonant chorus demanding inner and outer change in response to the climate change crisis.

Participants take a group photo at the end of the session. Photo/Hector Muniente

Sowing the Seeds for Catalytic Transformations: Faith Consultation on Food Systems

Tzu Chi‘s “Sowing the Seeds for Catalytic Transformations: Faith Consultation on Food Systems” session highlighted the role faith-based organizations and values play in creating sustainable food systems, sharing various ways faith groups have influenced the food systems discourse, including contributions to the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, organizing regional dialogues in the MENA around food and faith, and side-events at the UN Climate Change Conference in 2022 (COP27). 

Steve Chiu, Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation’s Representative to the United Nations, moderated, as panelists Kelly Moltzen, co-convener of the Interfaith Public Health Network and program manager with the Bronx Health REACH initiative, Asma Ahad, Director of Halal Market Development for the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America, Maurice Bloem, Chief Sustainability and Impact Officer at Church World Service Inc., and Tzu Chi Dharma Master Ven. Shih De Cheng explored how faith-based groups can promote food security and equity through transforming food systems with faith values and actions. 

The Problem with Plastics

This discussion about eliminating plastic waste to help the environment reviewed why a global treaty is necessary, what measures it could contain, and how we can implement it. The four panelists, Jane Patton, US Fossil Economy Campaign Manager, Center for International Environmental Law; Jo Banner, Co-Founder and Co-Director, The Descendants Project; Frankie Che-u Cha-wat Ha-tako Orona, Indigenous leader and Executive Director of Society of Native Nations; and Debra Boudreaux, Chief Executive Officer, Tzu Chi USA, discussed the challenges and drew from their work as well as personal life experience.

“I grew up seeing chemical plants everywhere. Petrochemical plants, plastic plants, and oil refineries plants were part of the landscape to me. They were so part of the landscape that I was well into my 20s before I saw them, before I really understood what these plants were, what they were putting into the air that I couldn’t see but I could smell, I could feel its effect on me,” Jane Patton shared. She explained the history of the land where the plants stand, saying, “These pieces of land were taken from indigenous people. They were incorporated into European civilization. They were turned into plantations, and years down the line, they were then turned into chemical plants.”

In order to talk about plastics, we have to talk about where they come from and how they’re made and the communities that are subjected to that production before we ever even get to be horrified by the plastic that we can see in the river and in the environment and we can work with our neighbors to do cleanup on. There are entire communities that have been systematically sacrificed for plastic, for oil before plastic, for big agriculture before oil, and then for just land grabs before that. I define the problem of plastics as one of justice, as one that’s on the whole lifecycle of plastics.

The session panel attacks the problem of plastics head on. Photo/Jennifer Chien

Patton revealed how in the last five years, since around 2018, “a lot of the accumulation of plastics in the ocean started to become very clear. Everything started happening very quickly after that. The ‘break free from plastic’ movement started growing, which is a worldwide movement to stop people using plastics. The research on climate and health impacts of plastics and how toxic they are really started to become salient. And things started moving very fast at the UN. Usually when it comes to policy of any kind, things don’t usually move quickly unless there is enough of a momentary push or a signal event or there is an acute harm that happens.”

A coalition of almost 200 organizations from more than 125 countries is now advocating with the United Nations to do something about this problem, something well beyond “bring your own bags” or “recycle your bottles.” That coalition and steadfast work has resulted in a mandate to negotiate a new treaty within two and a half years. 

“We don’t have a plastic pollution problem; we have a plastic production problem,” Jo Banner, the next speaker, announced. She co-founded The Descendants Project, which challenges systems, primarily legal systems, that have exploited the descendants, such as herself, of those enslaved to plantations. She knows the impact of plastic production processes firsthand as she resides in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley, an 85-mile stretch of land along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, home to over 200 petrochemical plants and refineries.  

In my area, in my parish, we’re at the highest risk of cancer in the country at the 95th percentile of cancer risk. You hear a lot of numbers. Parts per million (the number of units of mass of a contaminant per million units of total mass), 2.5 ppm, millions, trillions, all of this, how much is being produced, but for me, the number that always means the most, it’s one. It’s one because all it takes is for one of your loved ones to be sick. And when that was your person that’s impacted, is that one person worth us having plastic everywhere?

Indigenous leader Frankie Che-u Cha-wat Ha-tako Orona spoke next and opened by saying, “For us as Indigenous people, I always say when we talk about the word environmentalism or activism, I would say it’s part of our culture. It’s part of who we are as a people because we’re taught by the Elders to leave a place better than the way that we found it. So it’s naturally part of who we are.”

Indigenous leader Frankie Che-u Cha-wat Ha-tako Orona shares his perspective. Photo/Jennifer Chien

However, Orona noticed that not all people adopt this view: “We have a tendency in today’s society, in today’s time, that we separate our environment, as something separate from us as human beings, but we’re not. We are one and the same.” He shared guidance from his uncle, an Elder: “Uncle would say that sometimes we forget about responsibilities, our commitments and our agreements, to what he would call the natural laws. If you don’t like natural laws, then stop breathing and see what happens. He would say that many of the problems we have today are because we’ve forgotten that connection.”

Our environment has rights just as much as we have our rights. We fight for our rights. The environment should have its right to not just survive but thrive. Because that’s the only way we’re going to ensure that we have a healthy, sustainable future moving forward. Mother Earth will take care of itself. She will continue to give us unconditional love no matter how much harm and pain we do to it. But how many times do you do something wrong before your grandmother or your mother scolds you because they’re tired of it, right? And we’re really leaning towards that. We’re already past that middle threshold. And uncle would say, ‘What did you think was going to happen when you start sucking death out of the ground?’ We look at petrochemicals, plastics, which most people don’t realize, that 99% of plastics are fossil fuels.

Orona called for conscience and love: “If you know it’s wrong, it’s wrong. If you know it’s right, it’s right. The only thing that’s going to really get us out of the crisis that we have today when it comes to plastics and petrochemicals and fossil fuels and the damage that they’re doing to our environment and our human health, the one thing that’s going to fix it is love. If you love your air like you love your child, you want it to not just survive, but to thrive. If you love the land, you want it to thrive. You want it to have the same equal rights you have to thrive.” 

Debra Boudreaux, Tzu Chi USA, picked up on the thread of love for the environment and offered measures we can adopt right now in our own lives while work to curb plastic production at the UN treaty level unfolds simultaneously. She recounted the story of how Ven. Dharma Master Cheng Yen launched Tzu Chi’s environmental protection and recycling activities. “One day, she was crossing the street on her way to deliver a speech, and she saw a whole bunch of trash flying around.” This sight caused her to reflect, and as people applauded her speech, clapping, she thought, “How about using those two clapping hands to do something meaningful, to pick up the trash.”

Debra Boudreaux addressed the panel and audience. Photo/Jennifer Chien

Ven. Master Cheng Yen’s comment launched Tzu Chi’s vast environment protection mission, which has grown from 1990 till now and currently involves 200,000 dedicated volunteers in Taiwan picking up trash for recycling. It was a gradual process that slowly built momentum, “From there, the two clapping hands, it started to change us, to tell us how to bring our neighbors, our community together to find a way. And this kind of united way will be a very strong indicator to entrepreneurs. You have to find something else, always turning the negative positive.” And it did in Taiwan.

Boudreaux drew attention to the use of disposable single-use plastic items, “that’s the key right now. It’s a huge issue.” In response, Ven. Master Cheng Yen wanted to deliver the message of “turning pollution into a solution.” The concept inspired the entrepreneurs who launched DA.AI Technology, Inc., a company that turns the Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles Tzu Chi recycling volunteers collect into an array of clothing and other functional and sturdy products. 

In response to Banner, who had said that the petrochemical plastics industry’s self-serving reasoning, “Let’s recycle. If we recycle it, we’ll get rid of this very complex plastic problem,” and Orona’s cautioning message, “We can’t recycle our way out of it because recycling only perpetuates the continued use of plastics,” Boudreaux said, “I totally agree. Plastic usage should be reduced. We’re on the same boat.” And yet, she asked the panel to consider this:

How are we going to face the reality right now? You’re going to damage the ocean, or you’re going to turn those materials into a way you can tell your children, ‘This is the outcome [of plastic usage].’ It’s not forever; recycling is only terminology to invite people to reflect; think about it when we decide to buy something; consumers leading production.

Boudreaux brought up the notion that our minds can easily be influenced by greed or desire: “When we try to buy something, is that what we want, or need?” She asked for an inner transformation, “Come back to the frugal life, the simple life. If you reduce your desire, if you reduce your greed, we can change from ourselves. Today, morals are beginning to guide people, ‘Don’t use plastic. Bring your own bag,’ and yet you will always think about which bag to bring. You have so many choices.”

Master Cheng Yen, she just tells everyone, ‘Let’s start it from ourselves every day.’ So, if we can start to say, ‘I don’t want to continue to buy something new; I want to help Mother Earth to have a beautiful future for our children.’ Let’s start from us. We can change the world.

Transforming Food Systems With Spiritual Values at the UN

Two consecutive sessions in the PoWR’s exhibition hall’s Green Tent concluded the day. The first, “Transforming Food Systems With Spiritual Values at the UN,” was moderated by Steve Chiu, Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation’s Representative to the United Nations, and brought together Emily Echevarria, Director of Climate Action at the Parliament of the World’s Religions; Kelly Moltzen, co-convener of the Interfaith Public Health Network and program manager with the Bronx Health REACH initiative; and Maurice Bloem, Church World Service Representative to the United Nations. 

Steve Chiu, Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation’s Representative to the United Nations, moderates the discussion. Photo/Daniel Ferrara

The panelists revisited the Interfaith Statement developed for the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit and discussed the relevance of the Inner Development Goals to achieving nourishing, regenerative, and equitable food systems. On a macro level, they spoke of how food systems face challenges like food waste. At the same time, issues of whether food is organic, in season, local, or readily available are also factors to consider, as well as food fads that have passing impacts. 

Regarding inner development goals, the panelists drew attention back to the nature of food and what it means, both in sustenance and human connection. Bloem asked, “How often do we pause to appreciate the meal?” The Inner Development Goals urge us to understand food’s journey and appreciate it with respect. Faith, spiritual, and Indigenous perspectives on the nature of food enshrine such values. To eat healthy, nutritious food is to experience our interdependence with nature, fully embracing the land we live on and those who have nurtured the food provided for us. 

An Evaluation of Faith-based Advocacy on Climate Change

The “An Evaluation of Faith-based Advocacy on Climate Change” panel concludes Tzu Chi’s participation in the Parliament of the World’s Religions on August 16, 2023. Photos/Hector Muniente

The day’s final session featured key actors in the interfaith climate change sphere, reflecting on and evaluating the work of faith-based advocacy on our triple planetary crisis – climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss – and outlining a path forward together. Steve Chiu, Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation’s Representative to the UN, moderated the panel, including Imam Saffet Catovic, Trustee of PoWR; Lynnaia Main, Episcopal Church Representative to the UN; Bruce Knotts, International Convocation of Unitarian Universalist Women Representative to the UN; Beth Blissman, UN NGO Representative at Loretto Community; and Alex Tan, Professor at Tzu Chi University.

Read more about Tzu Chi’s presence at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in our next blog.

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