Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Buddhists, Hindus, Jains & Sikhs Combine for 1st White House Conference for Social Justice

Hindu American Seva Charities (HASC) again made history, co-hosting with The White House Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Agencies and the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships an historic conference, Community Building in the 21st Century with Strengthened Dharmic Faith-Based Institutions for the Dharmic (defined as ,Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Sikh) Religious Leaders. HASC partnered with many Buddhist, Hindu, Jain and Sikh organizations, including the Council of Hindu Temples, Federation of Jain Associations of North America, Soka Gakkai International-USA Buddhist Association and others to create a coalition that can reach deliver collaborative solutions and services to benefit the communities around us while promoting better understanding of our beliefs, cultures and values.

In his opening remarks, Paul Monteiro, Associate Director, White House Office of Public Engagement observed that the Dharmic-American community is interested in all the same issues that everyone is interested in – healthcare, security, education, etc. He encouraged the participants to follow up this conference with action, saying “the real measure of this conference’s success will be in how much more engaged in service the dharmic communities become in the months ahead.”

“In America, our collective faith infrastructures (temples, ashrams, and meditation and yoga studios) are in early stages of development. The Dharmic Americans, mostly post 1964 immigrants, are just becoming part of the mosaic of the pluralistic landscape of America. …As we see it, in America, the seva movement is a tool for social justice, a way to deal with community issues. The eastern Dharmic traditions share many commonalities and have infrastructure gaps. We are trying to understand how can we engage with each other collectively, what are our issues? How can more of us engage with the administration?” said Anju Bhargava of HASC, lead organizer of the event. “We hope this will be the first step in the Dharmic community coming together to explore and identify common ground and building a coalition that will strengthen each other and our nation.”

Asim Mishra, Acting Chief of Staff of Corporation for National Community Service emphasized, “service as a strategy is not service for the sake of service only; it has to be a credible way of solving problems in communities. We need to broaden the reach to address priority issues – economy, education, veterans and disaster relief. Serve America Act makes service a larger part of the national fabric. VISTAs and Americorps, Teach for America are funded through CNCS.”

Senator Harris Wofford, advisor to Martin Luther King and the pioneering force behind the creation of Peace Corps spoke of the profound contribution that Hindu spirituality made to the US Civil Rights movement said, “I am experiencing public happiness at this gathering, to see the pursuit of self-government, ‘Svaraj’ as they would say in India. When I was 12 years old I went to India. In 1938, I saw Gandhi in Mumbai. I started with Kennedy in D.C. and subsequently went to India through the Peace Corps. After college I got a Fullbright scholarship and went with my wife for one year to pursue the ideals of Gandhi—and wrote a book about him [. . . ]I came back and joined the civil rights movement, and brought Gandhi-ism to America [. . .] This room, where the conference is being held, is the Indian Treaty room, where many things have happened – and history can be made here with this Dharmic undertaking. A follower of Gandhi said that the two great idea ideas of the 20th century were from Einstein and Gandhi. Einstein showed how to access tremendous physical energy through splitting the atom; Gandhi taught us how to crack the atom of people power. The diaspora power of India is great.

Ambassador Cahill, former Counsel General in India, stated, “If there is any strong force in the world, it is individuals who are committed, and faith based organizations have particular strength. We as individuals we can do so much, sometimes more than big organizations.”

During a session with Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook, United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, concerns were raised about the condition of religious minorities (particularly Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist) in Pakistan and Bangladesh, as well as the plight of Budhists in South-east Asia and Tibet. Dr. Siva Subramanian, HASC Board Member called on the ambassador to bring the US Dharmic community to the table so they can work more closely with her in addressing their concerns.

Other topics of focus for the participants were the serious challenges being faced by Burmese and Bhutanese refugees in America; the networking of dharmic community resources for disaster response and in support of anti-terrorism efforts; the support of religious literacy programs in the public schools and providing much needed support for dharma-based members of the US Armed Forces.

Eskinder Negesh indicated his Office of Refugee Resettlement, has settled 60,000 Burmese and Bhutanese refugees in the past two years. He expressed concern about the high rate of suicide among the Bhutanese refugees and welcomed the Dharmic group to work with him to get to the roots of the issues, just as HASC has assisted with this research on Bhutanese refugees for the past two years.

Homeland Security representatives emphasized that government depends on the communities for help in response and recovery. Dharmic members serve on the Council and DHS expressed an interest in increasing the two-way information sharing in faith based communities, recognizing the importance of protection of places of worship through information sharing. DHS is working together to keep communities safer. Public engagement can be enhanced with the “See something, Say something campaign,” especially with the Dharmic community.

Kenneth Bedell, Policy Advisor, shared the announcement of Together for Tomorrow, a program initiated by the Department of Education and White House Faith OFBNP to re-emphasis the idea that education is not just the responsibility of the teachers, schools or parents, but of the whole community, including the students). Communities can come together using their resources in cooperation with schools, teachers, federal government and parents to address issues. Diversity of religion is important in education as there is the power of diversity. Regarding confusing on the separation of church and state, he clarified that the U.S. constitution does not say that the school has to avoid all talk about religion or sharing of information. The Department of Education cannot dictate curriculum; it encourages the states to develop core curriculum, and the public should provide input. Interfaith groups can make curricula and propose them to the federal government.

Dr. Sushil Jain, CAPT, U.S. Navy-retd and President, Federation of Jain Associations in North America (JAINA) emphasized the importance of “‘serving those who serve of Dharmic faiths. Temples can prepare care packages for soldiers, help the veterans transition to the community and assist fallen citizens (those who have been incarcerated), as they too deserve our support.” He concluded, “This first Dharma Conference at the White house was amazing. It helped JAINA delegates understand the level of attention and priority President Obama has given in reaching out to minority faith group. We, Buddhists, Hindus, Jains and Sikhs were delighted to hear about various programs and how we can partner with federal agencies in addressing our community needs. We at JAINA are looking forward to our follow-up conference.”

Khyati Jyoshi of Fairley Dickenson University observed that religion is lived through acquisition of knowledge, through ritual and action, seva and transnational ties. But many second generation are disengaged and do not consider themselves religious. Perhaps because they don’t get up at five A.M. to do puja or are not vegetarian. She challenged the immigrant generation adapt and more fully engage the second generation, provide adult religious classes for a generation which is hungry for knowledge and eager to know about their roots.

“This conference marked an expansion and deepening of the dialogue between the administration and the Buddhist, Hindu and Jain and Sikh communities and a recognition of the growing contribution these faiths are making in American society. And I think it got a number of the faith representatives thinking about how they can expand on those contributions,” said Bill Aiken, Public Affairs Director, Soka Gakkai Buddhist Association.

Joshua Stanton of Inter Religious Dialogue said, “The U.S. is the most religiously diverse country since the fall of the Roman Empire – so how do we lead? India has been the most religiously diverse country for millennia. How can we learn from the Dharmic communities? How do we increase positive relationships and make pluralism a reality.”

Bud Heckman, Religions for Peace USA said, “We have a United Nations, why can’t we have a united front of religions working for peace? Today, 76% of America is Christian – by 2050 more than 50% the American public will be non-Christian. So understanding the Dharmic community is important.”

Mark Farr, National Vision of Public Engagement observed, “in the service movement of the U.S. we see, increasingly the crucial facing is the idea of disconnect – faith from business, from family. Individually we are disconnected from each other. The Dharmic traditions (such as yoga and meditation) can teach gentleness, compassion and wholeness to the Western traditions.”

We hope this will be the first step in the Dharmic community, in coming together to explore and identify common ground, unite for social justice and build a coalition to strengthen each other and our nation.

Organizations present in this conference:

Arya Samaj
Ashtanga Yoga Studio and Hindu
Bhartiya Hindu Temple
Bridgewater Venkateswara Temple
Buddhist Churches of America
Buddhist Global Relief
Cambodian Buddhist Temple
Charlotte Hindu Temple
Chua giac Hoang (Vietnamese) Temple
DFW Hindu Temple
Fairleigh Dickenson University
Federation of Jain Associations in North
America (JAINA)
George Washington University
George Washington University
Guruvayur Temple
Hindu Center, Charlotte
Hindu Temple of Atlanta
Hindu Temple of Metropolitan
Hindu temple of St. Louis
Hindu Temple of Virgina
Hindu Temple of Wisconsin
Houston Meenakshi Temple
International Buddhist Center
International Buddhist Committee
International Society of Krishna Consciousness
Kashi Temple
M.A. Math (Amma)
Mahwah Hindu Temple
Malibu Temple
Murugan Temple
Naropa University
Nashville Temple
New England Hindu Temple (Lakshmi
Prison Dharma Network
Sanatan Mandir
SGI-USA, Youth Anti-violence program
Sikh Organization
Soka Gakkai International-USA
Council of Hindu Temples of North
Sri Siva Vishnu Temple, Lanham
Sri Venkataswara Temple of NC ,TIPS,
Tricycle – The Buddhist Review
Tzu Chi Foundation #1
Tzu Chi Foundation #2
Univ of the West Buddhist Chaplain Program
UVCEF/CAACC/HCCLTVikramasila Foundation (Tibetan)
Wat Lao Temple
Won Buddhism – USA
Zen Center for Contemplative (Hospice) Care
Inter-religious Dialogue
National Vision of Public Engagement
Religions for Peace USA
Many Federal Agencies
Organizing Committee:
Anju Bhargava
Siva Subramanian
William Aiken
B.N. Hebbar
Mythili Bachu
Shashikant Sane
Sushil Jain
Manoj Dharamsi
Paramjit Labana

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