“A business that does harm and makes a profit will continue to exist even though it shouldn’t, but a non-profit that does good in the world but can’t generate enough revenue to cover its costs won’t continue to exist even though it should. “
This interview was prepared in conjunction with a podcast conversation between three people: Interdependence Project’s Associate Director Patrick Groneman, Executive Director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship Sarah Weintraub and myself. The interview questions came from Patrick and Sarah. You can download an audio podcast of the actual discussion here.
How did you come to Buddhist practice and where are you now in your practice?
Ari Pliskin: My path has been one of building community to experience interconnectedness across geographic boundaries. I have done this both physically and digitally. After working as a Social studies teacher in NYC for two years, I encountered Buddhism while vagabonding in South America. I first visited an ashram in Peru to deepen my yoga practice and eventually felt more at home in a Zen temple in the mountains in Argentina. I am completing a yoga teacher training and I study Zen with Roshi Eve Marko. I work as the personal assistant to Roshi Bernie Glassman, helping him develop and manage programs and workshops, promoting them and attending to him when he teaches away from home.
Young people love the internet. There is a lot of talk of “Wisdom 2.0” and “Buddha Dharma 2.0” Conferences. As “the youth” (meaning under 40 years old), we are more accustomed to digital tools than our page-turning parents and grandparents might be. We are in a unique position to more naturally bring our communications into the realm of digital media. How have cell phones, i-pods and the internet played into your dharmic investigations? (both professionally and personally)
AP: I discovered Bernie and the Zen Peacemakers online and first encountered Bernie’s vision by listening to a podcast of a talk he gave at Harvard. It spoke to me so I signed up for Zen Peacemakers seminary training in Socially Engaged Buddhism. While in seminary, I created a blog and Facebook page to promote our work and, after my internship, Bernie hired me to market our Symposium for Western Socially Engaged Buddhism full-time. The Internet has enabled me to support a socially engaged global cybersangha with members who I have gotten to know personally through events like the Symposium (where I met Patrick and Sarah) and our Auschwitz Bearing Witness Retreats. However, as much as I enjoy the Internet, we can’t forget about local communities…and even if I try, my girlfriend won’t let me
As American Buddhists we are in a really unique position. Both in representing traditions and lineages of Buddhism to an unfamiliarized American culture, and in bridging our personal lineages we’ve inherited through our family and culture, with the Buddhist lineages we are taking on. So I’ll ask, what are the specific ways that your organization is integrating elements of American culture with the Buddhist principles you are promoting, and in what ways does your personal practice involve dealing with similar issues?
AP: In my view, the integration of Zen meditation with other aspects of life into holistic spiritual practice is most appealing thing Bernie and the Zen Peacemakers have to offer the world. We use the tantric mandala of the 5 Buddha family energies, to look at all life as a spiritual practice. There are Buddha (not-knowing), Padma (relationships), Vajra (training), Karma (social action) and Ratna (resources, livlihood and social enterprise).
While the monastic model emphasized meditation, Bernie’s contribution is that all areas of life are looked at as a spiritual practice. In a contemporary American context, this includes relationships, business and social action. You can see this in the creation of the Greyston Foundation and the Montague Farm Zen House. We’ve come to see that a business that does harm and makes a profit will continue to exist even though it shouldn’t, but a non-profit that does good in the world but can’t generate enough revenue to cover its costs won’t continue to exist even though it should. Because I believe that balancing the books is part of our spiritual practice, I recently signed up for my first business class.
I am also committed to an integrated approach and for that reason me and 3 other friends are joining together to form a residential intentional community dedicated to meditation, yoga and community work as a spiritual practice. The idea is to take a stand against gentrification and eventually to develop social enterprise. We aim to start in early Fall.
What is sangha for you? Who do you consider your sangha? What makes a group of people a sangha? For you, for us as young American Buddhists, etc…?
AP: In one sense, the message of Socially Engaged Buddhism is that all sentient beings constitute our Sangha. We need to care for everyone. In another sense, Sangha is the core practice community. The Sangha originally referred to the monastic followers of the Buddha. To me, it is the core group that integrates meditation and community work as a spiritual practice, specifically reaching beyond our class bubble to build a multi-class community. In this sense, my community reaches beyond my Sangha. I prefer for my core Sangha to be a residential intentional community.