Jarvis Masters: A Story in Need of a New Ending



The fabric of a criminal trial is woven of stories…                                                                     the defendant’s story and the prosecutor’s story. Of course, there is also the victim’s story. From these threads come the jury and the judge’s stories. Each subsequent appeal then spins another story. We cherish the illusion that law is based on solid facts, that one true narrative incontestably trumps the false. That’s what we see in old episodes of Perry Mason. But the reality of a trial is more often rife with ambiguity; the narratives may be widely at variance or sometimes seemingly close, with small but significant differences. In the end, one story will win out—a defendant will be convicted or set free—not necessarily on the basis of truth, rather by which story the judge and jury choose to affirm.

In June of 1985 corrections officer Sgt. Howell Burchfield, was murdered inside San Quentin’s C-block by members of a prison gang, the Black Guerrilla Family. In 1990 three inmates were convicted of this murder: one for ordering the killing, a second for the act itself, and the third, Jarvis Jay Masters, for participating in a conspiracy. The first two defendants received life sentences. Jarvis was given a death sentence for purportedly sharpening a weapon that was never found. His capital conviction rested on the doubtful testimony of two prison informants and the presence of gang notes. He never killed anyone.

Attorneys for Jarvis filed his automatic appeal in late 2001. Fifteen years later, in February of 2016, after further briefs and oral arguments, the California Supreme Court handed down a 75-page opinion—S016883—in the case of People v. Masters. In opening comments the court writes:

The trial court denied the automatic motion to modify the verdict… and sentenced Masters to death on the murder count and to life with the possibility of parole on the conspiracy count… We affirm the judgment in its entirety.

So the conviction stands, for now, and Jarvis Masters remains on Death Row.

Jarvis has been my friend for twenty years. We visit regularly, talk on the phone, reflect, laugh, and cry over things in life. When I read the Court’s unanimous opinion I felt like I had been punched in the gut. I cannot imagine how Jarvis felt. Two days later we met in one of the death row visiting cages, eating food from the vending machines, surrounded by other prisoners and their lawyers. The mood between us was somber but close, and we could only shake our heads at the court’s half-argued answers offered in response to the numerous cogent challenges of the appeal brief.

In the November 2015 oral arguments before the California Supreme Masters’ attorney Joe Baxter characterized Jarvis as “an innocent man crushed by the system…who had no opportunity at his 1989-90 trial to present a compelling defense that the state had the wrong man…” Baxter asserted that the trial record shows “a perfect storm of errors.” As I heard it, the defense asked:

  1. Was testimony and evidence suppressed in the original trial that denied Jarvis “a meaningful opportunity to present a complete defense?” This disallowed testimony included key gang-leaders’ misidentification of Masters; gang-leaders’ lists of actual conspirators, which excluded Masters; and the lack of a lineup of suspected participants in the murder.
  2. Were key gang members and informants promised reduced sentences, favors, and deals in return for incriminating testimony against Masters? And were these deals not made known to Masters’ lawyers at trail?
  3. Looking at the 1989-90 trial were there multiple errors of judicial procedure prejudicial to the defense? These errors include suppression of information, destruction of evidence, hearsay testimony, and the denial of motions to sever the trials of Masters and a second defendant.

In the Court’s published opinion, these defense arguments calling for a new trial were dismissed out of hand, one after another. An article in the Marin Independent Journal says:”

Masters’ lead lawyer, Joseph Baxter, said the ruling was “poorly written and poorly reasoned,” with mistakes of fact and case law….“It’s really a shabby product,” said Baxter… “We expect better from that court.”

A capital case in California has two aspects: a guilt phase, rendering a verdict of guilt or innocence; and a penalty phase, determining the sentence.

For Jarvis and for many of his friends the most troubling part of the Supreme Court’s opinion is a pivotal section quoting extensively from the penalty phase of his original trial. The placement and detail brought out by the Court seems designed to paint Jarvis Masters as an unredeemed and unredeemable monster. It is hard to read it any other way. And the effect of these allegations draws ones attention away from the Court’s inadequate responses to strong challenges in the appeal brief.

The opinion, drawing from the penalty phase, dredges up alleged acts of violence from Jarvis’s life in foster care at the age of twelve, to uncorroborated incidents when he was a teenager confined by the California Youth Authority. The opinion, citing testimony in the penalty phase, says that “Masters was also implicated in two other robbery-related incidents that occurred during his robbery spree.” He was neither charged nor convicted for these crimes.

Most damning are allegations of a gang-related murder of another prisoner on the San Quentin yard. Again, Jarvis Masters was never charged with this crime, and the penalty phase record fails to mention that along with Jarvis, three other prisoners were sent to the Adjustment Center (San Quentin’s punishment/isolation section) for non-cooperation in this investigation. This murder was neither solved nor did it go to trial.

In a 1994 study of California’s Death Penalty, the Public Law Research Institute (PLRI) writes:

For purposes of the penalty phase, “aggravating factors,” or “aggravating circumstances” are defined as facts (sic) about the defendant’s record or the offense itself that weigh in favor of imposing a death sentence.

          “‘Mitigating factors,’ or ‘mitigating circumstances’, are any aspects of a defendant’s character, background, record, offense, or any other circumstances proffered by the defendant that, although not constituting excuse or justification for the crime, might serve as a basis for a sentence less than death.”

Amazingly—at least to me—“aggravating factors” in the penalty phase need not be based on confirmed evidence, adjudication, or legal conviction. How can these factors be reckoned as fact? They include hearsay testimony of prisoners who may or may not have been present; the word of a corrections officer or investigator who has no direct evidence. How can such a collection of ancient unsubstantiated allegations be the legal grounds for killing a prisoner in 21st Century California?

The California Supreme Court shaped its own story from the penalty phase of Jarvis Masters’ trial, painting him as violent and dangerous. This is not the man I know: a peacemaker, a practicing Buddhist, a writer, and a keen observer of human nature, including his own. Jarvis does not deny the violence in his own past. This is clearly expressed in his book That Bird Has My Wings where he writes:

Those who want to make sense of my life will see, through my writing, a human being who made mistakes. Maybe my writing will at least help them see me as someone who felt, loved, and cared, someone who wanted to know himself for who he was.

But Jarvis has never been convicted of shooting, stabbing, or killing another human being. That is the actual legal record. Again in a civilized nation of laws how can we execute a man based a story built of inference and character assassination? Really, in the spirit of civilization, how can we execute anyone?

Jarvis still has other opportunities for appeal. His state habeas corpus petition, which considers evidentiary issues outside the trial transcript—particularly the recantation of key witnesses and challenges to an incriminating prison note following the Burchfield murder—awaits oral arguments before the California Supreme Court. Appeals in the Federal court system might be years down the road. We had hopes he would be free now.

Last week was Jarvis’s 54th Birthday. He has been in San Quentin since the age of nineteen. Since 1990 he has been on Death Row. To my mind and to many others he is an innocent man, innocent of the murder of Sgt. Burchfield or anyone else. Retribution cannot bring back the life of Howell Burchfield. We grieve for his family, and this his murder is also our loss. But taking the life of an innocent man, Jarvis Masters, compounds the crime. The California courts—unable to admit its errors and prejudices—bear this burden. So do we. It is a story that needs a new ending.

—Alan Senauke, Berkeley California,  March 2016




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Clear View Project Fundraising—Winter 2015-16

  Clear View Project                                                                                                         1933 Russell Street                                                                                               Berkeley, CA 94704

  alan@clearviewproject.org                                               http://www.clearviewproject.org                                           http://www.clearviewproduct.com


Climate March in Rome Following Buddhist-Catholic Dialogue

18 December 2015

Dear Friends,

Since 2008 Clear View Project has been providing education and basic support to the most needy in Burma, India, and elsewhere. Over the years we have raised more than $125,000 in donations supporting projects that we have personally visited and where friendships flourish. With your support so far this year, Clear View has been able to gather $25,000 for education and meditation resources going to Ambedkarite Buddhists in south and central India. These activities make a critical difference to young people determined to lift themselves from lives of caste and gender-based discrimination.

Today is a good day to ask for your donations.

I’ve had an eventful year, with travel and ordinations in Europe, teaching in Upaya Zen Center’s unique chaplaincy training program, a visit to the White House, and an opportunity to meet Pope Francis in Rome as part of a intimate Buddhist-Catholic dialogue on the subject of “Suffering, Liberation, and Fraternity.” A month from now, in early January, I’ll return to India—accompanied by my 21-year-old son Alexander—and continue on to Sri Lanka for the biennial conference of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists. For twenty-five years INEB has been the source of some of my closest engaged Buddhist friends, a community of inspiration. All the international work I’ve done has emerged from INEB circles. I always go there with an open mind, ready for what comes next.

Clear View Project is intentionally personal and modest in scale. My effort is to build friendship, to encourage, and connect friends to other friends (some of whom have deeper pockets than I). This has always been my networking strategy. For 2016 I am highlighting three Buddhist-based projects in Asia.

  • Nagaloka/Nagarjuna Training Institute in Nagpur, India: Clear View has been supporting Nagaloka for the last seven years. Nagaloka/NTI is a second home for me. It is joyful to practice with, learn from, and teach the young NTI students, Dalit Buddhists from poor rural areas across India, carrying forward the radical social vision of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. Please see their website: <http://www.nagaloka.org>. In the last year Nagaloka has expanded its program to include more than 100 students, and they have almost completed construction of new dormitory and guest program housing.
  • Sakya Hostels in Chennai, India: These hostels, or residences, were organized for displaced or orphaned Dalit children after 2004’s devastating Indian Ocean Tsunami. They are going strong, with separate comfortable facilities for young boys and girls—offering room, board, and love as students attend local schools. Last year Clear View helped with substantial donations toward the purchase of land and construction of a new girl’s dormitory.
  • Bodhi Hill School & Retreat Center, Burma: INEB friend Harn Sai Leng Wan (just to my left in the photo from the Rome Climate March) is a young visionary educator and trainer. Combining educational approaches from the Buddha, from Rudolf Steiner, and other pedagogical pioneers, Bodhi Hill will provide a home for 300 students and teachers. This vision is just beginning to unfold, but I know that Harn and his team can make this happen and we are committed to offer our full support.

To be concrete about how your donation can be put to work:

  • One student’s room and food for a year at Nagaloka or the Sakya Hostels costs $300.
  • As Bodhi Hill’s funding begins, an acre of land in Shan State, Myanmar costs roughly $350.

Particular capitol needs are much more extensive and, of course, daily expenses are more modest. Your donation of any amount is gratefully received.

There is always more to say and share. I’ll write again when I return from India and Sri Lanka…

 But for now, please donate at <http://www.clearviewproject.org/fundraisingdonations.html>

We deeply appreciate your friendship and support.                               Warmly, in peace ,                                                                                                     Alan Senauke

Clear View Project is a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization. EIN 45-2251087.  Your donation to Clear View Project is tax deductible to the full extent of the law.

Rome Slides 39


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Jarvis Masters : Notes on Oral Arguments at the California Supreme Court— 3 November 2015


For thirty-four years, since the age of nineteen, Jarvis Jay Masters has been in San Quentin. For thirty of those years he has lived on the scene of a crime he did not commit. His lawyers Joe Baxter and Rick Targow filed their opening appeal brief with the California Supreme Court in December of 2001. Fourteen years later, in November of 2015, the California court heard oral arguments on this appeal. While Jarvis remained in his death row cell, his friends traveled to Sacramento witness the proceedings. Here is background and some rough impressions and thoughts.


In June of 1985 Sgt. Howell Burchfield, a corrections officer, was murdered in San Quentin by members of a powerful and violent prison gang.  Three inmates were convicted of this murder in 1990: one for ordering the killing, a second for doing the act itself. The third, Jarvis Masters, was convicted of participating in the gang conspiracy.  The first two defendants received life sentences. Jarvis was given a death sentence on the basis of informant testimony and questionable “kites” (prisoner notes) describing the manufacture of a murder weapon that was never found.

Jarvis Masters’ life of Buddhist practice, writing, joys and sorrows has unfolded within the shabby confines of one place, San Quentin. After twenty-one years housed in San Quentin’s Adjustment Center, the “hole” — solitary confinement with no access to telephone, no contact visits, and limited exercise — in 2007 Jarvis was moved to San Quentin’s East Block death row, one of three housing units warehousing nearly 750 condemned men.


On the afternoon of November 3rd the California Supreme Court convened after lunch in a stately dark-paneled room at the Stanley Mosk Building, next to the state capitol. The seven Supreme Court justices sat before the gathered attorneys and spectators. Among the spectators were law students from U.C. Davis, roughly twenty-five Jarvis Masters supporters, and principals from the original trial including former Marin super court judge Beverly Savitt, Marin district attorney Edward Berbarian, and former lawyers and investigators working for Jarvis.

Attorney Joe Baxter began strongly, characterizing Jarvis as “an innocent man crushed by the system…who had no opportunity at his 1989-90 trial to present a compelling defense that the state had the wrong man…” Baxter asserted that the trial record shows “a perfect storm of errors,” and proceeded to argue that case over the next forty-five minutes. As I heard it, the core questions — fully documented in the appeal brief — were:

  1. Was testimony and evidence suppressed in the original trial that denied Jarvis “a meaningful opportunity to present a complete defense?” This disallowed testimony included key gang-leaders’ misidentification of Masters; gang-leaders’ lists of actual conspirators, which excluded Masters; and the lack of a lineup of suspected participants in the murder.
  1. Were key gang members and informants promised reduced sentences, favors, and deals in return for incriminating testimony against Masters? And were these deals not made known to Masters’ lawyers at trail?
  1. Looking at the 1989-90 trial what are the applicable standards of prejudice for the multiple errors of judicial procedure? These errors include suppression of information, destruction of evidence, hearsay testimony, and the denial of motions to sever the trials of Masters and a second defendant. Applying these standards, were the trial errors in aggregate sufficient to call for vacating Masters’ conviction?

It is beyond my ability to navigate the byways of Joe Baxter’s arguments, the court’s numerous questions, and response from Alice Lustre of the Attorney General’s office. As legal friends have explained, oral arguments are to some degree a formality, the completion of a process in which the Supreme Court already has a strong sense of where their opinion is headed. That is to say, they may have come to a general conclusion, which now must be written and agreed to. That being the case we watched their engagement, and in the court’s questions we tried to get a sense of how they were leaning. Some of the justices’ questions seemed clarifying and supportive; none were hostile.

I visited Jarvis on Wednesday, the day after the arguments. He had just completed a visit with attorney Scott Kauffman of the California Appellate Project, who had also attended the previous day’s hearing. Listening to both of us, drawing on his own legal savvy and knowledge of the case, Jarvis was understandably hopeful and anxious. At one point in our conversation he said, “I trust your good common sense. What does your common sense tell you?”

I wish the law was always aligned with common sense or maybe with my common sense. And I know too well that different people may have little sense in common. Still, common sense tells me that the appeals brief and Joe Baxter’s argument guide the Court to see clearly the weight and number of grievous evidentiary and procedural errors in People v. Jarvis J. Masters. In their wisdom, I like to think they will say that after thirty years it is time to set aside prejudice and injustice. Time to begin again to look for truth.


Jarvis has been my friend since the late 1990s. When he calls from San Quentin he talks with my wife and children, and they have come to know each other well. Jarvis has married, and seen his friends’ and relatives’ children grow up. He has had good friends and family inside and outside the prison age and die. Those years have seen the publication of his two books: Finding Freedom: Writings From Death Row (Padma Publishing) and That Bird Has My Wings: The Autobiography of An Innocent Man on Death Row (Harper One).

Now Jarvis and his supporters wait for the next word. The Supreme Court oral arguments start the clock for an opinion that will be issued within ninety days. That means by January or early February we will know what comes next. With good reason I hope for the best outcome — that the Supreme Court will recognize that an innocent man has been denied justice. Stay tuned and keep the faith.

Hozan Alan Senauke

6 November 2015


Jarvis Masters Legal Team

Note: In 2008 the California Supreme Court ordered a habeas corpus evidentiary hearing, which was held in Marin Superior court in 2010 and early 2011, raising detailed questions about evidentiary problems in the trial. The judge-referee’s report on this hearing and briefs from Jarvis’ attorneys and the attorney general’s office have yet to be brought back to the Supreme Court for oral arguments. You can read my summary of these sessions at: <http://www.freejarvis.org/whats_new/Summary_of_Evidentiary_Hearing_January_2011.pdf>


Please give generously what you can to Clear View, and feel free to ask me about our projects in India and Burma. Checks can be written to Clear View Project—1933 Russell Street, Berkeley, CA 94703 or to our Paypal account which reach at: Clear View Fundraising.


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Clear View Project is Now Tax-Exempt

September 10, 2015

Climate March in Rome Following Buddhist-Catholic Dialogue

Climate March in Rome Following Buddhist-Catholic Dialogue

Dear Friends,

Clear View Project has been up and running since 2008, providing education and basic support to the most needy in Burma, India, and elsewhere. We have raised more than $100,000 in donations, and maintain close connections to those we are supporting. Today I am excited to tell you that Clear View has received our own tax-exempt 501(C)(3) status from the IRS. So it is a good day to ask for your donations.

We’ve had an eventful Spring and Summer, with visits to the White House, an opportunity to meet Pope Francis in Rome as part of a intimate Buddhist-Catholic dialogue on the subject of “Suffering, Liberation, and Fraternity,” and joining with Buddhists, Catholics, and people of all faiths in an interfith climate march in Rome.

With the support of generous friends in our wide network, Clear View Project has been able to gather almost $23,000 for education and Buddhist resources to Ambedkarite Buddhists in central and south India. These are activities make a critical difference to young people determined to lift themselves from lives of caste and class-based discrimination.

I want to keep this letter short, but we are deeply grateful to our fiscal sponsors for the last seven years—Inochi and Buddhist Peace Fellowship. They have enabled us to function smoothly and continue to do their own cutting-edge social change work.

Please give generously what you can to Clear View, and feel free to ask me about our projects in India and Burma. Checks can be written to Clear View Project—1933 Russell Street, Berkeley, CA 94703 or to our Paypal account which reach at: Clear View Fundraising.



Clear View Project is a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization. EIN 45-2251087.

Your donation to Clear View Project is tax deductible to the full extent of the law.


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Freedom Seems Near For Jarvis Masters


Tuesday morning, August 11, I visited with my friend Jarvis Masters, an innocent man on California’s San Quentin Death Row. On the ground of our common Buddhist practice Jarvis and I have been meeting and talking regularly for more than15 of the 25 years he has already endured on Death Row. All together he has been in prison for the last 35 years. (For details of his case see http://www.freejarvis.org/. You can also follow events which will be posted on my blog www.clearviewblog.org ) On this day Jarvis marked the successful end of a twelve day hunger strike, and he expressed gratitude to his many supporters—people he knows and many he doesn’t know who have been standing beside him at this critical moment.

In mid-July the California Supreme Court notified Jarvis and his attorneys that the court was prepared to hear oral arguments on the Appellant’s Opening Brief, a 515 page document that was filed with the court in December of 2001—15 years ago! This is exciting news because generally the State Supreme Court tends to call for arguments when they have already formed a majority view of the case. So we have reason to believe that Jarvis will be a free man in the near future. This is what we have all hoped for and worked towards for so long.

The compelling radio clip linked here is from the Pacifica evening news on Monday, August 11. Attorney Joseph Baxter succinctly lays out the essence of Jarvis’s appeal and why he agrees about the urgency of making this case now.


I am frequently in touch with Jarvis by phone and by visits to San Quentin. If you have a message for him or ideas about how we might more widely circulate information about his case, feel free to write me and I will forward them to him. Meanwhile Jarvis thanks you for your friendship and care.

—Hozan Alan Senauke

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Towards a Social Dharma—Caring For Our Common Home, Our True Body

By Hozan Alan Senauke

July 2015

Along with other U.S. Buddhists, Hozan Alan Senauke, Zen teacher and founder of the Clear View Project, visited the Vatican in June of 2015, meeting with U.S. Catholics and with Pope Francis on the need to clarify and coordinate the wide faith community’s response to the global climate crisis and other social concerns. On the occasion of the release of Laudato si’, the Pope’s powerful encyclical on climate change, Alan invites us to look deeply at the teachings of interdependence and respond to our situation accordingly with a new “Social Dharma.” This piece was also published at http://www.oneearthsangha.org/topics/dharma/

Rome Slides 34

The Buddha was enlightened under a tree. Sitting under that Bodhi tree on the banks of the Neranjana River, he was taunted by the demon king Mara who did his best to plant seeds of doubt. Mara asked by what right this man Gauthama claimed the seat of enlightenment. The Buddha remained steady in his meditation and simply reached down to touch the Earth. The Earth responded loudly: “I am your witness.” Mara fled and the Buddha continued to practice meditation. The Earth was partner to the Buddha’s work, as she must be our partner and our support.

In late June Pope Francis released his encyclical Laudato Si’/Praised Be, a passionate plea for environmental sanity and social/spiritual transformation. This eloquent document—subtitled On Care for Our Common Home—is addressed to “every person living on this planet,” inviting us all to take part in dialogue and action to protect our future, that of our children, and of all beings.

In the very first paragraph of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis references the lyrical work of his namesake Saint Francis of Assisi. In “Canticle of the Sun” St. Francis reminds us that:

…our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with colored flowers and herbs.”


For many of us Pope Francis is a breath of fresh air: a world religious figure who is not afraid to speak of the plight of the poor and the hazards of a “throwaway culture.” He can speak the truth bluntly, “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth,” and argue wholeheartedly for an “integral ecology” which sees…

…a relationship between nature and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it.

Such understandings and concerns are certainly present within Buddhist traditions going back to the Buddha’s awakening. In recent decades we’ve seen the development of socially engaged Buddhism. But it seems to me we are still lacking a rigorous Buddhist equivalent to the “Social Gospel.” We need a “Social Dharma” to care for our common home. This Social Dharma must reach across our different cultures and Buddhist traditions. That means to care for our bodies, our communities, and our planet. It means to understand the connections between climate change, poverty, racism, and militarism. All these are threads in the common garment of domination and oppression. To ignore them is to invite the destruction of all we cherish.

Rising in the early 20th Century from the squalor of the industrial revolution, the Social Gospel was a fresh approach to Christ’s message and Christian ethical teachings, which were interpreted in the light of social justice including poverty, racism, child labor, war, crime and much else. While earlier popes had addressed these issues in various ways, none in memory has been as outspoken as Pope Francis, so clear about the inequities of our world and the dangers of our way of life. Again and again Pope Francis hammers home his Social Gospel in the pages of Laudato Si’:

Social problems must be addressed by community networks and not simply by the sum of individual good deeds. This task “will make such tremendous demands of man that he could never achieve it by individual initiative or even by the united effort of men bred in an individualistic way…The ecological conversion needed to bring about lasting change is also a community conversion.

As Buddhists we can embrace the Integral Ecology of the Pope’s message and place it at the heart of a Social Dharma. Integral ecology is not Christian or Buddhist but truly human. The core Buddhist teachings and precepts are about our relationship to all beings, not treating anyone or anything as an object for our manipulation. In the Zen tradition Master Dogen writes, “Understand that the ancient Buddha teaches that your birth is not separate from the mountains, rivers, and earth.” This means that we are responsible to and for the world we live in. Elsewhere, Master Dogen offers these encouraging words:

…Give flowers blooming on the distant mountains to the Tathagata. Offer treasures accumulated in our past lives to living beings…We offer ourselves to ourselves, and we offer others to others.

A gift at has been given to us to sustain, take care of, and share with everyone. The whole earth is my true body. We all stand on the same ground and this ground is unstable. The planet is at risk. Those who are poorest, those with the least access to resources suffer most. But, really, we are all threatened. In the light of interdependent reality, in the circle of giving and receiving we all suffer. So I ask can we let go of harmful things: fear, privilege, and the vain quest for comfort at the expense of others’ lives? In the spirit of Right View can we create a Social Dharma? In words from a fable written by my old teacher Robert Aitken Roshi:

Owl said, “What are Right Views?”

Brown Bear said, “We’re in it together and we don’t have much time.”

 So…what shall we do? We don’t have much time.


Hozan Alan Senauke is founder of the Clear View Project and Vice-Abbot of Berkeley Zen Center where he has been in residence for thirty years. In June of 2015 he participated in a Vatican-sponsored Buddhist-Catholic dialogue in Rome on the subject of “Suffering, Liberation, and Fraternity.”


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Buddhists Go To The White House

WH Buddhist Conf 05_15_14_1064 lo-res

Buddhists Go to the White House

Hozan Alan Senauke—16 May 2015

The streets of Washington DC were lined with blossoms and greenery, the prospect of promise. One hundred thirty Buddhist teachers, monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen, academics, and organizers met on Thursday May 14 for the first “White House—U.S. Buddhist Leadership Conference,” the subject at hand being “Voices in the Square—Action in the World.”

While I am ambivalent about a designation of Buddhist “leaders” — and can think of many other friends and elders who could have and should have been in the room—in this event the notion of leadership cuts in two directions. A remarkably diverse group of women and men were meeting to shape a common understanding of how to bring our various Buddhist practices into a troubled world. At the same time there was a unique opportunity to be in dialogue with White House and State Department staff interested in finding Buddhist allies to work on issues of climate change, racial justice, and peacebuilding.

Point person for this all-day event was William Aiken, public affairs director for Soka Gakai International., with help from Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi of Buddhist Global Relief, Dr. Sallie King of James Madison University, the International Buddhist Committee of Washington DC, and Dr. Duncan Ryuken Williams of University of Southern California. With all their respective contacts and networks, this was a remarkable gathering, with wide and unique diversity in race, nationality, gender, and Buddhist traditions.

Beginning with welcome and a short meditation, the morning program at George Washington University featured brief presentations on some broad and pressing concerns. A video from Mary Evelyn Tucker and a strong analysis by Bhikkhu Bodhi laid out the Four Nobel Truths of Climate Change. Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams of the Center for Transformative Change made the compelling connection between climate justice and racial justice, saying, “We have in our hearts the willingness to degrade the planet because we are willing to degrade human beings.” Duncan Williams unpacked just one historical strand of U.S. Buddhists’ long engagement with society.

Even more briefly we heard accounts of social change work taken on by a half dozen communities and organizations among us. These presentations could have continued productively for days.

After a vegetarian box lunch and a brief time to make new acquaintances in four topical breakout groups, we all strolled a few blocks to meet with staff at the “working White House” of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. There was a quick hand-off to White House staffers of two Buddhist declarations—one on climate change and another on racial justice. Then followed two and a half hours of staff briefings along with sometimes pointed q & a between Buddhists and staff.

Our discussants were: Melissa Rogers of the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Partnerships; Dr. Shaun Casey, the State Dept.’s Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs; Rev. Susan Hayward, Interim Director, Religion and Peacebuilding, US Institute of Peace: and Angela Barranco from he White House Council for Environmental Quality (CON).

Four things stand out from the day. First, that we gathered in collective concern for compelling issues that threaten the survival of all sentient beings, not the interests of Buddhists alone. Second, the rich opportunity and frustrating brevity of being with so many friends and allies. Third, that declarations and tinkering with policy will not bring about the change we need. Particularly in relation to the climate emergency, we cannot go forward on an implicit assumption that our quality of life and consumption can continue as is; that we just have to find cleaner sources of energy. This is not possible. Fourth, that in the “working White House” of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, we were able, Buddhist practitioners and White House staff together, to chant the four Bodhisattva vows, beginning with: Beings are numberless; I vow to save them. Now we must live those vows.

The organizers’ intention and participants’ hope is that this would be the first in a series of meetings in Washington. For this first step to lead in a productive direction that must be the case. It is good to meet a first time but it is only through relationship—among ourselves as Buddhist practitioners and with the ear of those in government—that we will accomplish anything and turn to the work of bodhisattvas.

In his eloquent closing words, Jack Kornfield drew our attention to a quotation at the foot of one of our White House briefing pages. He likened it to the teachings of our great and ancient Tibetan teacher Shantideva. But the source is rather different.

“Instead of driving us apart, our varied beliefs can bring us together to feed the             hungry and comfort the afflicted; to make peace where there is strife and rebuild what has    broken; to lift up those who have fallen on hard times.”                                                          —President Barack Obama, February 2008

And after: Leaving the White House grounds, twenty or thirty of us unfurled banners that had been hand-made by BPF friends in Oakland. We walked around the corner from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to stand at the Pennsylanvia Aveune side of the White House holding three banners that read:                                                                             •The Karma of Slavery is Heavy—I vow to work for racial justice                                             •U.S. Militarism Breeds Violence, Not Safety—I vow to work for peace and freedom  The •Whole Earth Is My True Body—I vow to work for climate justice  

Then, reluctantly, we went our separate ways back into our everyday communities and worlds.

Karma of Slavery Miltiarism Whole Earth





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