As members of the Northeastern University Buddhist Group settled into their meditation cushions on Saturday, November 22, and found their breath, a biting wind blew through the green in Boston’s Copley Square. A golden, Thai-style Buddha sat in front of them, its jewelled robe catching the light off of John Hancock Tower. But this wasn’t just a street retreat or a public meditation—it was a protest against climate change.
“Every faith group at Northeastern does a service project . . . and we wanted to somehow bring mindfulness meditation—some aspect of the dharma, the teachings of the Buddha—into society, and obviously for a good cause,” explained Emily Burke, a junior at Northeastern University and a member of its Buddhist Group that helped organize the event.
Some 20 to 30 other students, activists, and passersby joined the meditation vigil, termed SIT350, which ran from 1 to 3 p.m. At a table to one side, students gave pedestrians hot coffee and hot chocolate, along with fliers about climate change. On a banner in front of the Buddha statue, people wrote their hopes and fears about climate change. Many also stopped to meditate for a while.
“They’re just here, so peaceful, and they’re sitting and they’re spreading their message in a way that isn’t confrontational, but just allows you to make your own choice, which I think is absolutely great,” said Patricia Licea, a student at Yale University who was visiting Boston with her friend Dana Chaykovsky. “I’ve never tried meditation, but I’m considering trying it.”
That combination of non-confrontational protest and public meditation is what Harrison Blum, Northeastern’s Buddhist spiritual advisor, says inspired him to suggest a public meditation to raise awareness about climate change. SIT350 joins other recent Buddhist-led climate change actions, including the Compassionate Earth Walk, which traced part of the proposed route for the Keystone XL pipeline, and the large Buddhist contingent at this fall’s People’s Climate March in New York City.
A professional photographer took time-lapse photographs of the vigil that Blum plans to use as part of a social media campaign. He hopes that SIT350 can spread to other cities across the US, or even around the world.
“If we can have 100 pictures each of events that each have hundreds of people in them, and then maybe a complement or a partner to marches and rallies and protests outside of climate change summits, if we can have ten by ten city blocks filled with people silently sitting in the middle of the street breathing together, those are the grander visions I have,” Blum said.
Blum drew inspiration from his time as a protest chaplain at Occupy Boston’s sacred space tent, as well as from Northeastern’s encouragement of religious and spiritual student groups to be involved in public service.
The idea that people of faith need to be directly involved in addressing society’s most pressing social problems has been central to engaged Buddhism. It is also enjoying increased popularity among some Buddhists in the US. In recent years, groups like One Earth Sangha and Buddhist Global Relief have emerged with a focus on environmental justice and inequality. The Buddhist Peace Fellowship has also rebuilt its strong national presence after a period of decline, holding its first national gathering in years this past August.
Emily Burke said that she hadn’t been very involved with climate activism in the past, but she was quick to draw a direct connection between her meditation practice and large social issues like climate change.
“As a Buddhist, some of the most fundamental teachings of the Buddha that really hit me hard are the teachings of lovingkindness, compassion for all beings and for all life, and empathy,” Burke said. “To me, the idea of creating compassion for our environment, for something that we take for granted daily—something that, as a human race, we are just absolutely destroying, for the most part without a care—I think that connecting compassion to that is really, really powerful.”
Some groups have been moving away from public meditation vigils toward more confrontational tactics like joining with large marches or participating in nonviolent civil disobedience. But many of the people at Saturday’s vigil said that actions like SIT350 could be a better entry point for newcomers—especially those who might not feel comfortable at a more confrontational protest.
“This is really nice,” said Yale student Dana Chaykovsky, “to see that there are other alternative ways of making a statement that are maybe more peaceful, more meditative, much easier to get involved in.”