Building a Culture of Engagement

Building a Culture of Engagement: A story from Helsinki

by Juha Penttilä

The special challenge facing Buddhism in our age is to stand up as an advocate for justice in the world, a voice of conscience for those victims of social, economic, and political injustice who cannot stand up and speak for themselves. -Bhikkhu Bodhi

On a sunny weekend afternoon in Helsinki May 2015 a small group of meditators gather together for a letter writing workshop. The aim of the workshop is to co-write a letter to the Finnish minister of Environment and Agriculture demanding stricter, wiser and more compassionate policies on climate change at the COP 21 summit in Paris later on in the year.

The first half of the workshop is more meditative and emotive in nature. We begin with connecting to our intentions, first by sitting together and then through engaging in some of Joanna Macy’s deep ecology practices, as well as writing and sharing some of our inner responses. In the second half of the the workshop we break into smaller groups to discuss different aspects of the content, structure and style of the letter. After working on some rough drafts we come back together and begin to collate the material from the smaller groups. Our session finishes and a sub committee continues to work on the letter.

Our intention is to reach out to other faith based groups as a way of not only nurturing a broader culture of engaged interfaith activism, but also increasing the otherwise limited sphere of political influence our small dharma cell would have working on its own. We meet with a group of Christian environmentalists to discuss climate change and to share our experiences of running the workshop. The meeting is inspiring and encouraging and they decide to write their own letter. Our agitation is bearing fruit.

Weeks pass, the letter is finally finished and we begin to circulate it as a petition in our wider sangha, as well as other Buddhist groups to collect signatures. Autumn arrives. We do not have a lot of signatures and decide to stage an interfaith meditation with our Christian friends in the city center at rush hour to collect more names. It’s cold, dark and rainy, but beautiful.

Someone in our group with magical networking skills manages to schedule an appointment with Kimmo Tiilikainen, the minister of Environment and Agriculture. We have 15 mins with him, and a lot of strategic debate goes into how to best spend this time. We settle on raising a core concern expressed in the letter: the worry that big corporate money and industrial lobbying will end up influencing and distorting the climate policies made at the Paris summit. The follow up question is more personal and dharmic: what, in the minister’s opinion, will allow a politician to maintain their moral compass and sense of ethical direction in the face of this lobbying?

Tiilikainen meets our questions with the charm and suave of a practiced politician, and suddenly the meeting, and with it the whole project, is over. Months of work by dozens of individuals has now seemingly reached its culmination. In a case like this the impacts of our actions are mostly unknowable, but from the outset our intention was not only to influence policy, but also to begin building a culture of engaged dharma here in Finland. Projects end, but the work goes on.

Juha Penttilä is a meditator, organiser and one of the Community Dharma Leaders of Nirodha, the Finnish insight meditation community.

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