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Project Dana – Engaged Buddhism in Hawaii

Rev. Clyde gHoyuh Whitworth

Jodo Missions of Hawaii

SUMMARY: In this paper, I first attempt to give a brief background of the origins of Engaged Buddhism. Then I suggest that the term gEngaged Buddhismh must necessarily be taken in the context of how Buddhism was initially understood by the west. Dr. Alfred Bloomfs concepts of the Pro-active and Prudential strategies of social engagement are then explored, and several examples of each are provided. The remainder of the paper is an introduction to Project Dana, which is an interfaith, non-profit, volunteer organization, in the State of Hawaii, U.S.A. I explain how this N.P.O. of Nishi (Honpa) Hongwanji Buddhist origin clearly subscribes to the Prudential Strategy, and in what ways the project works within the system as advocates for, and assistants to, the elderly, disabled and their caregivers. In the conclusion, I briefly describe Honen Shoninfs teachings of girui no jogo
h and highlight the Jodo Shu connection to Project Dana.

The origin of social engagement in Buddhism can be linked back to Shakyamuni Buddha himself. The Buddha was quite outspoken in opposition to the caste system in India, as he promoted equality between all classes of people. Shakyamuni Buddha taught that living the ideal of what it means to be a brahmin, supercedes actually being born a brahmin. This was contrary to the Hindu teaching that only those men born into the Brahmin class can be considered a brahmin.

However, from the earliest days of the Buddhafs ministry, the monastic sangha benefited from the patronage of kings and wealthy businessmen. Over the centuries after the Buddhafs passing into parinirvana
, this patronage grew, as seen in the Mauryan Dynasty, specifically under the rein of the third Mauryan emperor, Ashoka (273–232 B.C.E.). gAs these three spheres [of political, economic, and religious] became more conflated, Buddhism as an institutional and organizational body became increasingly removed from the common people, mostly confining itself to scholarly pursuits in large monasteries.h (Watts, 2004) This severely limited (and still limits) social engagement in Buddhism from an institutional standpoint. As not only allies but potential threats to political leaders, the Buddhist religion has found itself largely controlled by government throughout the ages, and any social activism on behalf of Buddhist denominations has been discouraged.@

However, outside of the large, centralized Buddhist institutions, there are exceptions. For example, in the Kamakura Period in Japan, many new denominations sprang up which moved against the political and religious authorities and became socially engaged to a certain extent.

Although the term "Engaged Buddhism" may have been popularized by Thich Nhat Hanh in the 1960fs and 1970fs, the concept of gEngaged Buddhismh may be traced back to the late colonial period when modernism became a force in many Asian countries. In order to understand this term correctly, it must be taken in the context of how Buddhism was understood at this time. Buddhism was interpreted initially in the west as more of a philosophy of stoicism rather than as a living religion closely connected to the daily lives of millions of people throughout Asia. Therefore, the term gEngaged Buddhismh represents a sort of double distortion – the term gengagedh attempting to rebalance the initial misconception in the term gBuddhism,h a rather poor translation of what believers in Asia might call gBuddha Dharma.h

On another level, the term gEngaged Buddhismh is significant in that it represented a response to the threat of Christianity, and more fundamentally to the larger threat of secular modernism which has privatized religion. In this way, social engagement in Buddhism has become an important part of Asiafs response to modernism and to colonialism, providing for many people an indigenous ideology to respond to the power of western ideas like capitalism and communism.

Rev., Dr. Alfred Bloom proposes that as Engaged Buddhism continued to develop throughout the second half of the 20th Century, two distinct strategies have evolved; the gPro-active Strategyh and the gPrudential Strategy.h The Pro-active Strategy attempts to completely transform the social system. It is a revolutionary approach that seeks to transform society through non-violent means such as civil disobedience, public protest, conscientious objection, and refusal to serve governments until a better, more just social system is developed. There are a few high profile Engaged Buddhist movements that are currently employing the Pro-active Strategy. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has worked tirelessly over the years towards regaining autonomy for the Tibetan people, as he nurtures a peaceful reconciliation with China. Maha Ghosanandafs peace marchers continue to work towards bringing peace and stability to Cambodia. A Buddhist laywoman in Burma, named Aung San Suu Kyi, leads a movement towards democracy in opposition to the ruling junta government. Sulak Sivaraksa continues to carry on his efforts for social justice while inspiring numerous Engaged Buddhist activists in Thailand. The Nipponzan Myohoji is another example of a pro-active group that is dedicated to protesting injustices, and leads many walks in promotion of peace around the world. Also, numerous organizations in India follow the inspiration of the late Dr. B. R. Ambedkar in using Buddhism to fight for the equality of Untouchables.

On the other hand, the gPrudential Strategyh seeks to work within the system to aid society as it presently exists and to guide social change without completely reinventing the system. The Sarvodaya Shramadana movement, founded by A.T. Ariyaratne, has worked for the past forty years to peacefully bring spiritual, moral and cultural values back to society in Sri Lanka. Venerable Master Cheng Yenfs Tzu-Chi Foundation assists victims of natural disasters, provides medical aid to the poor, promotes environmental conservation and offers a myriad of other free services to those in need around the world. The Amida Trust in the United Kingdom offers many humanitarian projects around the globe. The World Conference for Religion and Peace, co-founded by the Rissho Kosei-kai, serves as a non-governmental organization working in association with the United Nations towards the goal of world peace. The Buddhist Peace Fellowship, one of the oldest socially engaged Buddhist nonprofit organizations in the United States, appears to straddle the line between the Prudential and Pro-active strategies in that their socially engaged efforts range from prison chaplaincy to death penalty protests and anti-war activism. Finally, Thich Nhat Hanh also continues to work with both Pro-active and Prudential factions within the Vietnamese Unified Buddhist Church.

In Hawaii, Project Dana can also be considered a Prudential Strategy that works within the system in order to aid society. We are not activists in a Pro-active sense. We are advocates for older adults, people with disabilities, and family caregivers. We work with the system, receiving both Federal and State grants, in order to serve the needs of these under-represented populations. Project Dana views social engagement as a means by which each volunteer may endeavor to perfect the virtue of selfless giving (dana-paramita
) in our daily lives. At Project Dana we believe that perfecting the virtue of selfless giving could be something as simple as offering a friendly smile and greeting, or as complex as an organized, interfaith coalition of 30 churches and temples across the state of Hawaii.

In his unpublished lecture entitled, gApproach to Engaged Actionh, Rev., Dr. Alfred Bloom states that, gThe Sangha cultivates commitment [to the community] through its spiritual and educational activities. It also provides a supportive community that can aid people voluntarily in their struggle. The Buddhist principle that underlies this perspective is interdependence, which involves our relation to the whole of society... It recognizes the need for a non-dichotomous relationship which avoids simply an eus against themf mentality.h (Bloom, 2005) Dr. Bloomfs concept is key to the fundamental philosophy of Project Dana. As we come to realize our interdependence as a society, we naturally want to assist others who might be in need of our help. Through recognizing the commonality of issues regarding aging amongst all people, we realize that we are not alone in the process and seek to do what we can to help one another. Some recipients of Project Danafs volunteer services are also volunteers for Project Dana. One elderly lady who depends upon a volunteer to carry heavy groceries to her home every week, also volunteers by providing respite to a neighbor who is a caregiver. One elderly man who depends upon a volunteer to give him rides to doctors appointments, also volunteers his time by providing phone visits to another elderly man who lives alone.

There are many more stories like these that I could share, but perhaps it would be more pertinent to read the comments made by a recipient of our services and a Project Dana volunteer. A young volunteer with physical disabilities is quoted as saying: gAs a Project Dana volunteer, I feel that I am a contributing member of society.h It is important to people with disabilities, and our older adults, that even though they may have their independence challenged, they are still able to contribute to society through their volunteer activities with Project Dana. An elderly recipient of our services is quoted as saying: gLife would not be as nice without your help!h Asking for volunteer help is very challenging for the people of Hawaii. We are a proud society, with a gsuffer in silenceh and gdo it yourselfh attitude. By the time the elder usually makes the decision to ask for help, they are often in very serious need of multiple services in order to maintain their ability to continue to live at home. Many recipients of our services are incredibly grateful, and realize that their lives would be very different if not for the volunteer assistance they receive.

Regarding the recruitment and retention of our volunteers, as an interfaith movement, members of the many different churches and temples of the Project Dana coalition maintain an active recruitment effort within our individual congregations. However, none of our church and temple members are ever made to feel guilty if they are not able, or willing, to assist as volunteers. Yet those of our many congregations who feel the call to socially engage in volunteer activities are strongly encouraged to do so. The amazing level of retention of our volunteers is due to the spiritual link of gFaith in Action
,h that the ministers of our different churches and temples regularly reconfirm in their sermons. Also, Project Dana offers quarterly training sessions, which not only enable our volunteers to provide the very best assistance to the recipients of our services, but by meeting together in a large group of volunteers from many different racial, religious and cultural backgrounds, these training sessions also provide them with a profound sense of unity and purpose. Recognition services are also held annually to welcome in our new volunteers, and give the older volunteers the opportunity to share their experiences over the past year. These can be wonderful sessions that are truly inspirational, and encourage the volunteers to keep doing what they can to assist others.

As socially engaged volunteers of Project Dana, we depend upon the teachings of our many different faiths as inspiration in our expression of spiritual gratitude. Bonbu
as we may be, there is still the human need to reach out in thankfulness through our thoughts, speech and actions. Project Dana provides structure for this human need through promoting gFaith in Actionh volunteerism and advocacy. Yet these efforts are not selfishly reserved for those within our own congregations, nor are they reserved for those who are religious people. Our volunteers assist anyone above the age of 60, or people with disabilities of any age, who live in our communities. As active advocates for the elderly and disabled, we collaborate with more than 130 public and private agencies across the State of Hawaii.

Project Dana realizes that there are many underrepresented populations within our society who might benefit from our coalitionfs efforts. Yet we are dedicated to focusing exclusively upon the senior and disabled population. According to recent trends, the needs of our senior population are increasing beyond the bounds of governmental funding. During the past decade, the statefs population of people 65 years of age and older has increased by 17%, and our older adult population is expected to continue to increase exponentially over the next 20 years as the gbaby boomersh transition into their senior years. Leading the nation in life expectancy rates, the State of Hawaii is also ranked 11th in the nation as the largest population of seniors per capita.@ In order to assist in meeting the needs of our ever-increasing senior population, Project Dana maintains a corps of 700+ trained volunteers, serving 900+ persons, totaling an average of 48,000+ volunteer hours annually. If not for the continuous socially engaged efforts of coalitions like Project Dana, many of our older adults would find themselves in incredibly difficult situations, and the economy in Hawaii would most assuredly come under tremendous strain.

Considering the large number of elders Project Danafs volunteers assist, the question of prioritizing individual cases is an obvious issue. While we do offer much attention to older adults on a low-income, elderly shut-ins, and rural area seniors, as my dear mentor and the co-founder of Project Dana, Mrs. Rose Nakamura has mentioned on many occasions, gIt does not matter if they are the President of the United States, or a humble street cleaner, we must strive to act in faith, with no discrimination between those we are entreated to serve.h (Nakamura, 2005) Similar to Rev. Bloomfs statement, Mrs. Nakamura also encourages us to nurture this gnon-dichotomous relationship,h not only between the volunteer and recipient, but also in how we view the recipients themselves.

Through my involvement in Project Danafs ecumenical, interfaith coalition, I have come to find that dana-paramita
is not exclusive to those of the Buddhist religion. Perfecting the virtue of selfless giving is a universal theme that all of the worldfs major religions hold in common. Since its inception 16 years ago, Project Dana has expanded to include 30 sites in churches and temples of various different religious denominations across the State of Hawaii, and has served as a model for 4 Project Dana sites in California, and one Project Dana site in Hokkaido, Japan.

Recently the Project Dana headquarters in Honolulu, Hawaii has hosted several different groups from Japan to study our program. There were a group of 17 community leaders from Amagi City in Fukuoka-ken, who came to learn about Project Dana in January 2005. In April of 2004, Lady Noriko Otani of the Nishi Hongwanji Honzan, brought an entourage from Kyoto to visit the Project Dana headquarters in order to learn first hand what Engaged Buddhists are doing for the elderly and disabled in Hawaii. In early 2004, Shinnyo-en Japan also sent a group of Social Workers to study Project Dana.

Honen Shonin is quoted as saying, gIf one has the heart of Nembutsu
, then going about daily activities, engaging in various other practices like making offerings or meditating, and getting involved in social welfare activities is something one should do.h For Honen, once the practice of Nembutsu has first become firmly established in onefs life, the engagement in ggood practicesh (irui-no-jogo) is a natural progression in the deepening of faith. Not only are these ggood practicesh considered to be supportive of the Nembutsu, in accord with Amida Buddhafs Original Vow, they become an expression of the Nembutsu itself, and should never be considered as a form of jiriki (or self-power).

Due to the noble efforts of Project Dana site coordinators like Mr. and Mrs. Mark Nakamura, and their dedicated corps of volunteers, our Jodo Shu - Hilo Meishoin on the Big Island of Hawaii is an active Project Dana site that serves many elderly and disabled persons in the Hilo area. It is the first Jodo Shu temple in the Hawaiian Islands to continuously maintain a Project Dana site. In an incredibly successful manner, the Hilo Meishoin - Project Dana coordinators and volunteers continue to serve as an inspiration for all other Jodo Shu temples in Hawaii to follow in Honenfs great tradition of irui-no-jogo
. There are many other examples like these, too numerous to mention, which clearly indicate the incredibly bright future ahead for continued growth and development of Engaged Buddhism. Few would debate the fact that Project Dana is indeed at the forefront of the Prudential Strategy movement in Hawaii.


Watts, Jonathan (2004/2005). gThe ePositive Disintegrationf of Buddhism: Reformation and Deformation in the Sri Lankan Sanghah. The World Fellowship of Buddhists Review. Vol. XLI, No. 4 & Vol. XLII, No. 1. pp. 75-89.


Dr. Alfred Bloom:

·          Teachings on Prudential and Pro-active Strategies as per private conversations, Honolulu, Hawaii, March 2005.

·          Quote from an unpublished lecture, gApproach to Engaged Action.h


Rose Nakamura: As per Project Dana training sessions, Honolulu, Hawaii, 2003-2004.

Honen Shonin: Tsuneni osei rareku okotoba, SHZ, p. 493.@

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