Several Buddhist boycotts have been bubbling up over the past few months. In August, Ethan Nichtern announced his resolution to boycott Whole Foods to protest the CEO’s stance on healthcare reform. Burmese monks announced a potential pattanikkujjana, a boycott on alms from the undeserving in the military. Thich Quang Do, leader of GHPGVNTN (Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam) pressed for Vietnamese at home and abroad to boycott Chinese goods in response to “the grave effects of poor quality and toxic Chinese goods on the health and environment of Vietnamese consumers.” More recently, Ajahn Sujato reports of boycotts on monasteries that oppose bhikkhuni ordination—and also provides his tacit support. And the dismay over the Tricycle article “Dharma Wars” has prompted others to talk of boycotting Tricycle itself.
Boycotts are among the humble consumer activist’s cherished weapons of choice. Non-violent and non-confrontational, they target what hurts a business most: revenue. In its most potent form, a boycott effectively holds its target ransom. Even when a community holds little economic leverage, its actions can set in motion the chain of events needed for change to occur. In 2004, the placement of a classic Buddha image on a bikini top galvanized a global protest against Victoria’s Secret. Overseas Vietnamese communities spearheaded letter writing campaigns and a boycott of Victoria’s Secret goods. Soon after, Thai authorities issued stern messages of indignation and publicly mulled import bans. News of the outrage overflowed into media outlets, and the offending merchandise was quickly removed from sales outlets.
The utterness of a boycott can, however, appear excessive—no less when Buddhists set their sights on Buddhists. We are one community after all! Why build walls where we could build bridges? As Danny Fisher has written: “I’m a little concerned by this talk of no longer subscribing to, buying, and/or reading Tricycle. Obviously, folks are upset. But why not use this situation as an occasion for dialogue and understanding? Why does this piece have to be a dealbreaker of epic proportions where we refuse to read anything published under the banner of Tricycle henceforth? My wish is that we can all grow from this conflict instead of holding grudges. How can all of us do better? How can we help?”
In my case, it was the proposed boycott on monks that felt overly harsh. The situation is—from my perspective—too complex to boil down to a litmus test of either recognizing or opposing bhikkhunis. Must one either be branded as “friend” or “misogynist”? I found myself typing up a very similar reaction to the one Danny Fisher wrote above. But then I couldn’t publish it.
After all, a boycott is also a form of communication and dialogue. It’s where we draw the lines. More than just communication with the target of the boycott, these decisions shape the way we communicate our values to the broader community. On the serious issues, boycotts allow us to express our firmly-felt beliefs through both our words and our actions—and our pocketbooks. They can even make corporate strategists think twice. When it comes to issues such as Tricycle and the recognition of contemporary bhikkhunis, I feel obliged—at least in these instances—to respect people who wish to make the firmest statement possible. I have no intention of boycotting Whole Foods, China, bhikkhuni-opposing monks or Tricycle magazine, but I have every intention to take into account what the boycotters have to say. Even if I might not-so-quietly disagree with their strategy, they have given me reason to listen close.