Journeys to the Field

Dear Friend,

Having spent decades teaching Zen and working in Socially Engaged Buddhism, I am now spending these early years of my ’70s giving workshops and serving in socially engaged projects around the world. Please support me in this work!

With love and gratitude,

Working with the Dalits (Untouchables) in India

Dalit Woman and Child

Bhikkhuni Pannavati is assisting Dalits in Tamil Nadu, Southern India. Bernie assisted her with his first journey to the field of Soutnern India in November, 2011. He was accompanied by Roshi Eve Marko and Friends of Bernie Sustainers, Senseis Roland and Barbara Wegmüller.

Shantum Seth Interview by Ari Pliskin: 10 things that complicate the story of India’s “Untouchables”

Preparing for the Socially Engaged Pilgrimage in India, I asked Shantum to review the newsletter we were preparing. Though he is a devout Buddhist who lived with and was introduced to Buddhism by downtrodden Indian Buddhists in Uttar Pradesh, he warned us against overly simplifying the situation. Though there is definitely a revolutionary role played by Ambedkarite Buddhism in liberating “untouchables”, Shantum explained, it stems primarily from a social and political base rather a Dharmic one. In fact, there is more of an emphasis on ‘equality’ than ‘liberation’. Dalits form the bottom rung of the oppressive Hindu caste system. There are many nuances that complicate this story:

  1. Buddhism isn’t totally free of social distinctions. While proclaiming castelessness, some Buddhists still marry according to caste expectations, just like Hindus.
  2. There are many stratifications based on sub-castes amongst the Dalits.
  3. There are reformist Hindus who reject the caste system.
  4. Dalit is just one self-identification by people who are considered “untouchable”.
  5. Dalits or “untouchables” are actually considered to be outside of the caste system altogether. They are “outcastes”.
  6. In terms of socio-economic status, Dalits aren’t the worst treated group in India. Muslims are treated worse than Dalits and “tribal” peoples, even worse than Muslims.
  7. Because of benefits of affirmative action policy, some people seek fake identification as Dalits in order to illegitimately reap the benefits.
  8. Though many Dalits venerate Ambedkar (a Buddhist) and loathe Gandhi (a Hindu), Ambedkar and Gandhi respected each other and sometimes praised the other. They both worked to eradicate the curse of untouchability, but had different means, to achieve this end.
  9. Ambekar’s second wife (after the first died) was a Brahmin (the ‘highest’ caste) woman who converted to Buddhism at the same time as Ambedkar.
  10. There are many prominent Dalits, including a former president, former Chief Justice of the Supreme court, and the Chief Ministers of important states such as Uttar Pradesh.

All this is not to say that Dalits haven’t faced discrimination and that Ambedkarite Buddhism hasn’t helped them. It’s just that the more you know, the more complicated things get. As Charlie says “go figure”.

Assisting Sarvodaya in Sri Lanka

Founder of the Sarvodaya Movement of Sri Lanka Dr. A.T Ariyaratne

Sarvodaya, Sri Lanka’s biggest charity, is dedicated to making a positive difference to the lives of rural Sri Lankans. Their grassroots movement reaches 15,000 villages in 34 districts with 1,500 staff throughout Sri Lanka. The Founder, A. T. Ariyaratne and Bernie have been friends and have shared ideas for 30 years. In December, 2011, Bernie, Roshi Eve Marko and Friends of Bernie Sustainers, Senseis Roland and Barbara Wegmüller visited Sarvodaya in Sri Lanka and Bernie plans to assist Sarvodaya in the coming years.

Non-Violent Peace Training in Palestine


Due to the Arab Spring there is an increased interest in Non-Violent Peace training. Bernie will be assisting one of the Leaders in this training, Sami Awad, in Palestine.


Interfaith Encounter Association

The Interfaith Encounter Association, an Israeli NGO, is dedicated to promoting peace in the Middle East through interfaith dialogue and cross-cultural study. It believes that, rather than being a cause of the problem, religion can and should be a source of the solution for conflicts that exist in the region and beyond.


Clowning for Kids in Refugee Camps

Clowns Without Borders offers humor as a means of psychological support to communities that have suffered trauma. Bernie will be accompanying Mr. YooWho (Bernie’s clown mentor and previous coordinator for Clowns Without Borders) to be a schlepper and disturber in refugee camps.


Serving the Inner-City Homeless and Disadvantaged

In the 1980’s, Bernie established the Greyston Foundation in Yonkers, New York, which today serves as a national model for community development and social enterprise. Bernie will return to serve the poor and homeless by working in Greyston’s HIV Health Clinic outreach program and by supporting Greyston’s staff in developing its spiritual foundation.

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Feeding Disadvantaged Families

In 2010, Bernie and the Zen Peacemakers started the first Let All Eat Café in Western Massachusetts in order to establish a unique family-friendly soup kitchen. Bernie will serve in new Cafés being started in the United States and Europe by groups who have been inspired by Zen Peacemakers’ model.

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The Rwanda Genocide was one of worst genocides to occur in the 20th century. Taking place in 1994, hundreds of thousands of Tutsis (a Rwandan ethnic class) were killed in the small African country of Rwanda. Hopefully this five minute video may raise awareness for the usually-overlooked genocide.

“Humanity’s darkest side is extraordinarily fresh in the raw memories of Rwanda’s survivors – and killers. It is incredible that they can all live together. Their path of forgiveness and reconciliation demonstrates humanity’s hope.” —quote by Grant Couch, participant of Bearing Witness Retreat in Rwanda


Brazil: Coming Soon