Disaster relief event opens new period of Buddhist activism at Tufts

Students gather for a weekly mindfulness meditation led by Buddhist in Residence, Priya Sraman, on Monday, Nov. 14, 2016. (Lilia Kang / The Tufts Daily)

Tufts Mindfulness Buddhist Sangha hosted a disaster relief event on Nov 5. The event, co-hosted with Jumbo Hurricane Relief, the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life and Public Harmony, included live music, food and an open-mic.

The event, named “Disaster Relief and Compassionate Action” was meant as a response to “all the recent catastrophe” according to an email from the Tufts Chaplaincy. This includes natural disasters such as Hurricane Maria and the California fires, as well as domestic incidents such as the Las Vegas massacre, according to Sangha members.

According to Ann-Marie Lee, a sophomore and Sangha’s lead organizer, the event opens a new period of Buddhist activism at Tufts.

Harsha Menon, a graduate student active in the Mindfulness Buddhist Sangha, told the Daily that the group has ties to these disasters.

“Three of the Sangha leaders are from Northern California, and the fires came close to their homes. We realized that was another disaster,” Menon said. “We were reacting to those and the hurricanes, and the shootings in Las Vegas. We wanted to know what we could do collectively and put together an event to raise awareness and stand in solidarity with the people who were suffering and participate in our own healing.”

This healing process occurred through art and expression, including remarks from the events organizers, according to Menon.

Associate Director of Administration for Health and Wellness Jennifer Berrios was one participant. She shared that many of her family members live in Puerto Rico and suffered as a result of the hurricane and subsequent federal neglect.

According to Priya Sraman, the Buddhist in Residence for the Tufts Chaplaincy, this event marked a new period for the group.

“This is the first event of its kind organized by the Buddhist Sangha. This is a very young group, still,” Sraman said.

The event attempted to provide a holistic response to disaster, Lee said. The Mindfulness Buddhist Sangha invited Tzu Chi, an international Buddhist disaster relief organization, to help raise money, according to Lee.

Tzu Chi focuses not just on immediate relief, but also on helping out first responders who have been affected by the disaster, according to Sraman.

“The rescuers and firefighters are local people, they’ve also been affected, but they have to continue their jobs. But they often get neglected,” Sraman said. “So the Buddhist organizations try to see who is being neglected and help them as well.”

But charity was only one aspect of the event, Lee noted, and the organizers sought to create a space that allowed people to reflect on disaster.

The event was bookended by live music, performed by Public Harmony. According to Marissa Birne, a junior, Public Harmony is committed to promoting social justice and activism through music.

“[Public Harmony] aligns with our commitment to using music as a means for social good,” Birne told the Daily in an electronic message. “In this case, music helped to create an environment conducive to emotional reflection and sharing.”

According to Sraman, the event was motivated by the philosophical underpinnings of Buddhism. He noted that it reflected a commitment to mindfulness and action, motivated by compassion.

“It doesn’t matter what situation someone is in. When someone is suffering you are pulled to help them,” Sraman said.

Sraman added that compassion without action is not enough.

“If you just know that this is happening, but then you don’t do anything to prevent injustice, you’re being mindful but not being helpful. So there’s no use in that mindfulness. That’s where compassion comes in. So you should be mindful but also kind,” Sraman said.

He noted that conversely, action without prior reflection can also be ineffective, adding that people in New England had given winter coats to clothing drives for disaster relief in Puerto Rico, which does not have cold winters.

“If the Sangha continues to be passionate, we will do more things like this in the future,” Sraman said.

Lee noted that disaster relief work is linked to larger issues of social justice.

“Disaster relief work ties directly to equity and justice, because a lot of the time disasters hit the most marginalized and underserved. If you have the ability to leave before a disaster, you will,” Lee said.

The event, which drew an audience of about 60, lasted for three hours. According to Menon, the participants created a mural to help express their pain and to come together as a community.

Lee noted that, while the lingering damage from the hurricanes in Puerto Rico was the most obvious disaster addressed by the event, the solidarity and hope expressed by the participants and organizers reflected a broader commitment to relief and recovery.

“Every disaster is a disaster in its own right and needs to be addressed that way, especially once the media dies down,” Lee said.

“It’s not that people on Tufts campus don’t feel that compassion or that need to help, I think they do. But after a while it’s just, maybe that genuine feeling only lasted for a week,” Lee said, noting that the cascade of disasters could make people numb.

Sraman noted that community-based activism, such as events like these, is a key part of Buddhism.

Buddhism is not something you do for yourself. You do it and prepare yourself so that you are doing something for others,” Sraman said. “Whatever spiritual development you are doing is not just directed to yourself. It starts with yourself, but it always spreads out.”