Robert Tansey, known by most people as Bob, recently returned to live and work in Washington, DC after six years in Beijing, China. He retired from the U.S. Foreign Service in 2009 and went to work with The Nature Conservancy (TNC), an international non-profit organization. [For more on TNC, see our feature on them in this edition of the Quarterly] Bob is continuing his work with TNC at their world office near Washington, DC. He has been practicing Nichiren Buddhism for over 46 years as a member of the Soka Gakkai International (SGI), a leading Buddhist lay organization. That practice has played a significant role in his work as a diplomat and environmentalist.
Quarterly: So Bob, you began practicing Nichiren Buddhism more than 40 years ago. What brought you to this philosophy?
B. Tansey: I came of age in the 60’s. I’d lived from age 4 to 14 in a small town in northwest New Jersey. My dad changed jobs and we moved to Toledo, Ohio. As I entered and lived through my teen years I became increasingly aware of racism, violence, war, hypocrisy, and poverty. I was troubled by human suffering and wasn’t finding solutions in my own traditional American religious upbringing or in admonitions to simply do what I was “supposed” to do with my life. I was essentially an agnostic by age 14. It sounds funny, but when I was 17 my “career goals” were urban guerilla, mercenary and buffalo rancher.
At that time, I was the only national merit scholar in my high school class and was solicited by about 45 colleges and universities. I didn’t apply to any of those. In fact I was only planning to go to college for a semester and pretty much only because that was the trajectory I had been on. That kind of shows you how little hope I had in my life at that time. I remembered John Kennedy saying “Ask what you can do for your country.” So I thought that I should go into public service if I managed to live something like a normal life. That seemed to mean going to Washington, DC, and I applied to only two schools, Georgetown and George Washington University. GW offered me a loan so I headed there in September 1969. At that point I’d read a little about Buddhism and other philosophies. I liked the idea that people had untapped potential, like Herman Hesse wrote about in Demian.
My first day at GW, I was sitting on a bench on a sidewalk. A couple of young women came up to me and asked me if I’d like to go to a Buddhist meeting. Being curious and with nothing else to do at that moment I went with them. At the meeting, I was struck by the idea of “human revolution,” that each of us can develop for the better and make a positive contribution to the world. I began chanting shortly afterwards, saw results from that, and have continued for over 46 years.
Quarterly: You received a graduate degree from George Washington University in Public Administration; from there you went to serve with the U.S. Foreign Service. Did your practice of Buddhism lead you to this public service career?
Tansey: During my last semester of my undergraduate studies I had some very interesting interviews but no job offers. When a short-term job ended I did temp light labor. Some friends got me a job at a customs house brokerage. After working there for a year I remembered my goal of going into public service. I applied to some Federal agencies and got offers from the predecessors to the Dept. of Energy and USEPA. I took the offer with Energy. Later I decided to get my MPA [Masters in Public Administration] while working at the Energy Information Administration. I went into consulting for a while. One day my wife Stephanie declared that she didn’t want to die in Falls Church, Virginia.
At her urging, I took the foreign service exam – though I wasn’t at all sure whether I would accept an offer if I passed. I had the flu when I took the written exam and slept in between each section of the day-long test. I passed regardless and then passed the day-long oral exam. I began to chant seriously [part of the Buddhist practice that helps in achieving goals, making decisions, etc.] about whether I wanted to become a diplomat, living around the world. I was doing okay as a technocrat in DC, had a young family, and was very active in our Buddhist community in northern Virginia.
I’d been to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls and had been to Japan for Buddhist trips and because Stephanie’s parents were living there. That was the extent of my international travel. Between my MPA and interest in the world I was fairly well-read and I’d met people from quite a few countries within our Buddhist community in the DC area, but the rest of the world was almost like a mystery to me in terms of my actual experience.
Quarterly: Did you face any challenges in your work reconciling Buddhist faith with diplomacy or did it have a positive effect?
B. Tansey: I thought about this question of “reconciling” many times and chanted a lot about it, with the intention to create value in each of my assignments. That determination definitely had a positive effect. I think I was also better able to think about the common people in my various countries of assignment and to think about national interests in that context. I believe others sense that as well, whether they were Guatemalans, Chinese, Turkmen or Nigerian.
Quarterly: Were you able to accomplish any particular personal goals along the way that you would like to share?
B. Tansey: The foreign service is a challenging career and provides ample opportunity for personal growth. I learned a lot about how to pursue goals with others. One of my proudest accomplishments was winning the 2007 Frank E. Loy Award for Environmental Diplomacy for my accomplishments as Environment, Science, Technology and Health Officer based in Tel Aviv. I worked on Israeli-Palestinian water issues and regional cooperation. While I was troubled by the long-lived conflict in the region I was proud to be able to contribute something positive through my work.
Quarterly: After retiring from the Foreign Service you went to work for The Nature Conservancy in China; can we assume this also has a connection with your faith and practice?
B. Tansey: Stephanie and I and our children Alena and David had spent seven years in China in the 1990s. I wasn’t looking to go back to China per se, but my job search led me in that direction and in the direction of working for the environment. In terms of Buddhist teaching, we live in the “three realms,” the realm of the self, of society or other human beings, and of the natural environment. So it was very meaningful for me to work in and with China – home of one-fifth of the world’s people – to help conserve the lands and waters and which all life depends.
Quarterly: Tell us more about the various government and private groups you worked with and how your efforts have made an impact.
Tansey: As most people know, China has had rapid economic growth for over thirty years. It’s a huge challenge to keep natural ecosystems intact. I worked as part of a team and am reluctant to take credit for particular accomplishments, but I’ve been able to help with new initiatives in marine fisheries conservation, water funds designed to protect watersheds and downstream drinking water, efforts with China’s Ministry of Water Resources to incorporate environmental flows and biodiversity in their work, protection of elephants by decreasing demand from China for ivory, and in other ways. For me, this work was extremely satisfying. Stephanie and I have just moved back to DC; I’m now working from the TNC world office, connecting the work of our policy innovation teams for lands, waters, oceans, cities and climate change to our efforts on the ground and in the water in China and the Asia Pacific region.
Quarterly: Daisaku Ikeda, President of the Soka Gakkai International, or the Buddhist Society for the Creation of Value, has annually issued a peace proposal since 1983. While styled as a “Peace Proposal,” his suggestions to world leaders and the general population encompass much more than issues related to war and peace. As a practicing Buddhist and a member of the SGI, how much have Ikeda’s proposals and your understanding of Buddhist principles influenced your work?
Tansey: Mr. Ikeda’s writings, including his peace proposals and other commentaries on sustainable development have been a rich source of inspiration for me. I take some of the concepts he puts forward, relate them to what I’m seeing in secular sources, chant with appreciation that I get to work for the world and for idealistic ends, and find connections for my own efforts—including my ongoing effort to develop myself further.
I’d like to go back to the beginning of our discussion. Before I encountered Buddhism, I was a teenager without much hope or strong goals for the future. I didn’t know much about the world except from reading. Now I’ve lived in eight countries and been to 63. Stephanie has her own unique work arena as a dialogue skills educator. Alena is carrying out democracy and governance projects working for the U.S. Agency for International Development. David is a math teacher at Dunbar High School in the District and making other contributions to making public education work. Way back then, I didn’t know whether I even wanted much of a future, much less to raise children. I guess I’ve lived “the path of human revolution” and now can say I’m pleased to not only have found means of service myself but also to have a great family with each of us continuously challenging ourselves in our own way and in our own field. That’s a lot to appreciate!
Bio of Bob Tansey
- Born in Jersey City, New Jersey. Grew up in Sparta, New Jersey from age 4-14 and spent high school years in Toledo. Moved to Washington, DC in 1969. Foreign service assignments in Guatemala; Calgary, Canada; Taiwan, Beijing and Chengdu; Turkmenistan; Israel; and Nigeria from 1985-2009.
- Bob is a genuine multitasker and extremely well organized while always purpose-driven.
- He received a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from George Washington University while working full time at the Energy Information Administration and starting a family. His children were three and one years old when Bob embarked on his first Foreign Service assignment to Guatemala.
- At the urging of his wife Stephanie, he took and excelled at the Foreign Service exam, which put him the path to a career in the U.S. Foreign Service. He retired from the Foreign Service in 2009 having served in locations throughout the world and spent a total of 13 years in China between the FS and a next career in the NGO arena.
- That earlier time spent in China and his environmental diplomacy award in Israel led to a new career with the Nature Conservancy based in Beijing.
- He has been practicing the Buddhism of Nichiren Daishonin for over 46 years.