Vajrapani Institute of Wisdom Culture

Dharma, Activism & Interfaith: Is It Time to Step Up?

by Catherine Slocock
First published on: July 15, 2017

It can be hard to see the current political and ecological situation, with its tides of divisiveness and uncertainty, as a gift. To do so, though, is potentially to step up and join the ranks of those who are ready to “go the extra mile” to help our suffering world. Essential though prayer and spiritual practice are, sometimes the scope of embodied spirituality may require a leap of courage that takes us out of the comfort zone of our established spiritual routines into new territory and perhaps even into certain forms of activism. Passivity is a luxury we cannot afford these days. In the words of Nobel Peace Prize Winner, social rights activist and retired Anglican Archbishop, Desmond Tutu: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.

Vajrapani Institute’s resident teacher, Venerable Tenzin Chogkyi, is no stranger to “stepping up'” against oppression. A self-described “progressive, hippie, radical revolutionary,’” she spent a large chunk of her formative years in the Washington DC area, where politics were part of the very air she breathed. She grew up in politically inflamed times, when the war in Vietnam was raging and was only 14 when she took her first definitive plunge into activism, skipping school and hitch-hiking with her big brother to a march protesting Nixon’s re-election. Though she went through the trauma of getting tear-gassed that day, her passion for activism remained intact. In fact, for her, this was the beginning of a lifelong career of championing social justice and challenging inequity.

Later this year Vajrapani Institute will host its first ever retreat specifically dedicated to addressing arguably one of the most painful wounds afflicting this country’s culture. Making the Invisible, Visible: Exploring Bias and Racism through a Buddhist Lens takes place from December 7 – 10, 2017. The retreat leader, Jan Willis PhD, was one of Lama Yeshe’s original students. She also happens to be an old friend of our resident teacher’s and like Venerable Tenzin, has devoted her life to bringing together the twin strands of social justice and Tibetan Buddhism. “She’s such an incredible Buddhist practitioner and scholar, she’s been a university professor for decades and she’s speaking out more and more about social justice issues, bringing that more and more into the conversation,” Venerable Tenzin says.

Muslim writer, activist and speaker, Sister Rabi’a Keeble is another exciting addition to our retreat leader line-up this year. Venerable Tenzin, who connected with her recently for the first time, says both she and Sister Rabi’a remarked on the deep feeling of sisterhood already evident between them on that first meeting. Sister Rabi’a will be joining the speaker faculty for our third annual interfaith retreat, Compassionate Conversations. The event takes place from August 10 – 13, 2017. This year’s theme is “The Wisdom of Uncertainty: the Spiritual Gifts of Challenging Times.” The addition of a Muslim voice to the existing faculty of Christian, Jewish and Buddhist representatives, promises to lend even more breadth and depth to an already rich and dynamic gathering. “To me, it was super-important this year, especially in this era of so much increase in Islamophobia, hate crimes, the Travel Ban and all that’s going on, to have a Muslim representative,” says Venerable Tenzin.

Part of Sister Rabi’a’s particular appeal is that in addition to being a voice of Islam, she is also a passionate advocate for women’s rights. This May, Sister Rabi’a attracted media attention when she took the revolutionary step of opening Qal’bu Maryam Women’s Mosque, the very first women-led mosque in the San Francisco Bay Area (and the second women-led mosque in this country.) In this setting, female participants play a prominent role in the life of the Mosque, delivering sermons and sitting up front. This breaks with the more commonplace arrangement, where women are hidden out of sight and strict limitations are placed on the role they play.

Sister Rabi’a is joining our interfaith retreat at a stage where it has already garnered considerable maturity and momentum. It’s exciting to consider what might potentially emerge from the dynamic mix of backgrounds and experience represented this year. One attribute of these gatherings that participants say is especially valuable is the emphasis on experiencing practices and rituals together. Theory is one thing; experience is quite another.

A particularly powerful alchemy can also unfold when spiritual practice and social justice themes are explored and experienced in tandem. Factor this into an interfaith context, and you’ve potentially got rocket fuel! At last year’s Compassionate Conversations, an experiment with a ritual devised to observe the Jewish day of fasting and mourning known as Tisha B’Av. offered a compelling example of this: “Rabbi Diane and Pastor Steve put together this amazing ceremony,” Venerable Tenzin recalls. “It was all about grieving all the things that we’ve lost and it had traditional elements. We lit candles at the Stupa and then brought them back in… We had just candle-light. Rabbi Diane was crouching on the floor, chanting from Lamentations in Hebrew. Then Pastor Steve and I were walking around the participants reading, starting off with translations from Lamentations in the Bible, then it got into the list of the shooting victims in the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, quotes from Trayvon Martin’s mother and Michael Brown’s mother. I had the list of the Pulse Nightclub shooting victims and I could barely make it through. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room… There was this real bonding. Everyone who was there still talks about that night and how amazing it was… Really going into that deep, painful place last year was somehow really significant ..”

Spiritual activism can take many forms.Taking the time to honor and explore the fruits of others’ spiritual traditions and/or having the courage to mindfully explore some of our culture’s less integrated aspects, such as the cancers of racism or homophobia, are activities that can build essential bridges of renewal, respect and (re)connection. These heartfelt endeavors, are in and of themselves, substantial contributions to global healing. The words of Nobel Peace Prize Winner, social rights activist and retired Anglican Archbishop, Desmond Tutu cannot be repeated too often. Here they are again: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” We’ve got the tools. We’ve got the opportunities. Let’s get going!

Malmö, Sweden – July 20, 2016; credit: JedraszakJ

Catherine Slocock

Catherine Slocock Graham has been passionate about writing and spirituality since childhood. She became a professional writer in her twenties and got deeply involved in Tibetan Buddhism in her thirties. Her journey to healing from depression, childhood trauma and spiritual abuse have become part of the fuel that feeds her creative offerings. And above all, her spirit sparks with joy and gratitude when she hears about bodhicitta/emptiness conjoined and those rare individuals who seek to authentically embody it.