Walks have taken on this role numerous times in the past century. Gandhi's walks along the dusty roads of India were part of his peaceful strategy for freeing his country from the grip of the British Raj. Martin Luther King's walks in the cities of the South helped win civil rights for millions of disenfranchised African Americans. Maha Ghosananda's “Dharma Yatras” in Cambodia attempted to heal the wounds left by two decades of brutal conflict. Mass walks in Washington have protested our country's wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
Over the past year, the long walk has become a method for Buddhist Global Relief to raise funds to sponsor our projects helping poor people escape the ravages of poverty. The seed of the BGR walk was a dream I had several years ago in which I walked the length of Manhattan. I acted on this dream in May 2010, accompanied by Evan, a young man staying at my monastery, and Sylvie Sun, a BGR board member. We started from Sylvie's home in Fort Lee, New Jersey, walked across the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan, and continued walking until we reached Chinatown, a distance of about fourteen miles, which we covered in six hours.
When word of this walk spread among my students, one suggested organizing a long walk to raise funds for BGR. Thus last October we held our first walk, “10,000 Steps Against Hunger,” at South Mountain Reservation in New Jersey. This year, over the weekend of Sept. 10th and 11th, BGR walks took place in three locations: New York, Michigan, and the South Bay of California. Accounts of these walks will be found elsewhere in this newsletter. Next year we plan to add walks in Los Angeles and Seattle.
While the ostensible purpose of this walk has been simply to raise funds, the act of walking in unison for several miles has a more profound spiritual meaning, serving as a means by which we lay bare our fundamental moral convictions. On reflection I can discern in our “Walk to Feed the Hungry” three layers of significance. While these might be distinguished in thought, in reality they are inseparable, the three blending and reinforcing each other with every step that we take.
At the most obvious level, the walk is an expression of generosity and compassion. By walking together, we raise funds. By walking together, we manifest concern for the poor and hungry. Our steps are acts of compassion intended to alleviate suffering. Through collective action we express our belief that all human beings are essentially alike, that we all merit the resources essential to a decent life. We also make a commitment — a bold and unstinting commitment — to extend a helping hand. We reach out across oceans, continents, and cultures to lift up those cast down by life's circumstances. Or, even better, we equip them with the means to uplift themselves: with education, training, tools, food, and seeds.
At a second level, our walk encapsulates our sense of conscience; it affirms our awareness of an impersonal imperative pointing us towards social justice. By walking we express the recognition that something is fundamentally skewed with a global social and economic system that treats human beings as disposal. We resist a system that pushes a billion people into the pits of poverty and crushes them beneath the weight of incessant hunger. We express moral revulsion at the cruel miscarriage of social justice that occurs when, amidst an abundance of food, ten million people — over half of them children — die each year from malnutrition and hunger-related illnesses. With our silent steps we proclaim that the global food system must ensure that no one goes hungry, that we must guarantee everyone a sufficient quantity of healthy nutritious food. More broadly, we advocate for a new world order founded on the pillars of social justice and respect for the inherent dignity of every human being.
At a third level, walking becomes a way of expressing our own real nature, of manifesting the deep potentials for generosity and goodness inherent in the human heart. By walking in the company of spiritual teachers and kind-hearted friends, we blow open the narrow walls of self-concern in which our personal dramas normally unfold. Instead, we rise to a new perspective — a universal perspective — that takes the good of all as our guiding ideal. By walking in solidarity with the world's poor, we repudiate the rampant cynicism of the dominant culture which regards human nature as corrupted by incurable selfishness and greed. Rather than yielding to the dictates of blind self-interest, we show that, as individuals, we flourish best when we nurture our innate impulses to generosity, love, care, and concern. Even more pointedly, we express the hope, trust, and conviction that humanity as a whole flourishes best when we all flourish together. We walk because we look upon one another as lost brothers and sisters. We walk to share the burden of suffering with the weakest in our midst, and we rejoice in discovering our power to uplift those who urgently need our help.
By walking to feed the hungry, we recover what we have almost lost — our own souls, our hidden potentials for generosity and compassion and selfless love. Despite the propaganda of politicians and policy analysts, it is not economic competition that is going to redeem our world. It is not strategies of aggression, domination, and repression that are going to make us safe. The secret to transforming the world, the key to security and safety, lies in cooperation and collaboration. It lies in respect for all human beings, and in compassion for all beings in the wider web of life. The key to our redemption from the brink of self-destruction is exactly what the enlightened spiritual teachers of humanity have always emphasized: helpfulness, generosity, and love, channeled into selfless action on behalf of all sentient beings, including people we will never know or see. As we travel through this journey of life and death, we walk together as a way of demonstrating our primal unity. We walk together to embody in action our intrinsic and inseparable solidarity in the quest for well-being, happiness, and security.
The New York and Bay Area walks of 2012 will be held on October 13th. The walk in Seattle will be held on October 6th, the walks in Michigan and Los Angeles on October 20th. Details will be announced later, but those living in these areas can reserve these dates now.