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Buddhadharma : Fall 2011
A nurse weighs an infant at a BGR-supported clinic in Niger. Screening children for malnutrition in one of the programs supported by Buddhist Global Relief in the Diffa district of Niger. Southern Asia, he decided to do something to help the people in Sri Lanka and he sent an appeal for donations to all his dharma friends. Within two weeks, they had collected $160,000 and set about finding nonprofits to give the money to. Bhikkhu Bodhi found a list of relief organizations work- ing in Sri Lanka. “We thought we would donate to Buddhist ones,” he said, “but when I looked at the list I saw many secular organizations working in Sri Lanka, such as CARE, Save The Children, Direct Relief International, and Doctors Without Borders. I also saw a large number of Christian orga- nizations, not all of which had missionary intent, and several Muslim and Jewish organizations. But I could only find two Buddhist organizations.” Over the next few years, the lack of Buddhist relief orga- nizations played on Bhikkhu Bodhi’s mind. Then he wrote a commentary for the Fall 2007 issue of Buddhadharma, urging American Buddhists to move beyond simply talking about loving-kindness and compassion and to become active in alle- viating the suffering of the world’s poor and disenfranchised. The message was blunt: We Western Buddhists tend to dwell in a cognitive space that defines the first noble truth largely against the back- ground of our middle-class lifestyles: as the gnawing of discontent; the ennui of over-satiation; the pain of unful- filling relationships; or, with a bow to Buddhist theory, as bondage to the round of rebirths. Too often, I feel, our focus on these aspects of dukkha has made us oblivious to the vast, catastrophic suffering that daily overwhelms three-fourths of the world’s population... If Buddhism in the West becomes solely a means to pursue personal spiritual growth, I am apprehensive that it may evolve in a one-sided way and thus fulfill only half its potential. Attracting the affluent and the educated, it will provide a congenial home for the intellectual and cultural elite, but it will risk turning the quest for enlightenment into a private journey that, in the face of the immense suffering which daily hounds countless human lives, can present only a resigned quietism. Some of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s students were inspired to take up the challenge and by June 2008 they had formally established Buddhist Global Relief and had it regis- tered as a corporation in New Jersey. BGR, however, does not have an office or head- quarters in New Jersey, or anywhere else. It is a volunteer organization and the vol- unteers, who are based across the globe, work out of their homes. BGR staff do not themselves do work in the field, rather, for each project that BGR is involved with, they team up with a partner organization that is already working in the country they seek to help. BGR’s approach keeps overhead and administrative costs to a minimum and maximizes their efficiency. The long-range goal of Buddhist Global Relief is to com- bat all manifestations of poverty. However, Bhikkhu Bodhi said, the specific mission is to focus on hunger and chronic malnutrition because “the Buddha himself said that hunger is the worst illness and that the gift of food is the gift of life.” Every year, ten million people die from hunger and malnu- trition—more than half of them children. “The most stubborn roots of poverty and hunger lie in the lack of education,” said executive director Kim Behan, so BGR addresses hunger and malnutrition by fostering education as well as by giving food aid and assisting with agricultural development. In its first year, BGR exclusively funded projects in South- east Asian Buddhist countries. It began expanding its scope when it teamed up with Helen Keller International to pro- vide micronutrients such as iodine, iron, and vitamin A in Niger and Mali. “Many people in West Africa go blind or die because of a lack of sufficient micronutrients,” said Bhik- khu Bodhi. “The micronutrient supplements themselves are not very expensive, but it is important to get people who are trained to distribute them and to see that they’re administered properly. So we sponsored this project to train people.” After that, BGR also began to sponsor projects in Central Asia, and more recently it got involved with projects in Haiti and the United States. “We were doing a lot of work internationally,” Kim Behan said, “but donors were asking what we were doing here at home. There is a lot of pov- erty right here.” This U.S. project that BGR sponsored was done in conjunction with Golden Harvest, a nonprofit farm run by volun- teers. Through its Adopt-a-Plot Program in Maryland, Garden Harvest is providing helenKellerInternatIonal