Since November 2011 I have been acting as the national coordinator for the Buddhist contribution to ‘A Year of Service’ (AYOS) – a programme of themed voluntary social action undertaken by faiths in the UK. The programme arose from the government’s Big Society policy and has been led by the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) through Project Manager Laura Marks and the Mitzvah Day organisation.
Mitzvah Day is an inspiring charity that started some five years ago and now leads a very successful national annual period of social activity with the Jewish community working in partnership with business groups and those from all faiths and none. (If you have not yet done so, visit their website listed at the end of this article.)
David Cameron’s Big Society has proved elusive. I can see why any government struggling with recession and public service cuts would want to encourage voluntary action to help fill the gap. And I can understand why the thought of nine annual Mitzvah equivalents all spearheaded (and funded) by faith groups and their business partners would bring tears of joy to beleaguered government ministers.
However, initiatives such as Mitzvah Day take several years to become established and although inspiring and valuable in spreading volunteering, are obviously not a solution to declining public services. It is difficult to see how regular and inclusive social services can be provided on a voluntary basis.
But whilst voluntary social action is not a realistic way to provide regular social services, it is helpful, enjoyable and rewarding (non-financially!) as a natural expression of generosity and as a life-enhancing activity. And it is something that ought to be part of everyone's life: If you are not contributing some voluntary effort to your local community, why not?
Whilst being a little wary of government motives behind A Year of Service, I have been happy to publicise and promote social action from the ‘Buddhist community’ and link it with AYOS. Working with other Buddhists in planning and coordinating events has made me much more aware of the good work that Buddhist groups do. I have also enjoyed meeting regularly with the AYOS Reference Group members - a mix of civil servants, faith representatives and charitable groups - and sharing ideas, plans and progress. There are a lot of well-intentioned people about.
But my main reason for wanting to work on this was to help sympathisers and practitioners of Buddhism to make friends with each other and the broader community, to work together, and to see themselves as part of a cooperative virtual community (sangha) comitted to awakening, rather than as isolated and perhaps inward looking groups each with a separate take on Buddhism (sometimes that my particular Buddhism is right and yours is not). I would prefer to encourage identification with a broad community of practitioners to help counter any tendency towards sectarianism within British Buddhism.
I also wanted to counter a stereotype of Buddhists as deliberately detached from life - of standing on the sidelines. Awakening is about a wholehearted embracing of our lives and our communities. This will involve regular periods of quiet retreat and reflection but also requires us to act skilfully with others. And the truth is that many Buddhists and groups are already involved in community action, outreach and social engagement.
So the idea of having an annual day (or month) during which Buddhists organise enjoyable inclusive community events in partnership with others, and can showcase what they already do, seemed like a good one. And maybe one that could become a recognised part of the Buddhist calendar – a new British Buddhist festival – very much in line with the way that Buddhism has historically adapted to different cultures and nations.
Colleagues in the NBO agreed with this intention and this year’s event has been called – EarthKind and Buddhist Action Day (and which has become Buddhist Action Month because events are happening right through July). So EarthKind has been the main focus of my efforts over the past nine months or so.
I must emphasise that AYOS has provided no funding for any other faith group to help them organise events – the whole programme has been voluntary.
At times during the past nine months I wondered seriously whether there would be any EarthKind events in July at all. Nail-biting stuff. The 'Buddhist comunity' can seem pretty laid-back and incoherent when trying to organise things. However, the result has been good. Somewhere around twenty events across the country and probably others we don't know about. Have a look at the links below to see a list of events. So well done to all of the people who have got involved and done something, and I would welcome reports of how things went.
I hope that July will come to be seen as the annual Buddhist Action Month – with the 3rd July as the formal festival, but the whole month as available for enjoyable and useful events. You might want to think about what you or your group can organise for next year’s Buddhist Action Day – 3rd July 2013 – and start planning now.