Ever since Western converts began adopting Buddhist traditions, their community has sought a balance between the quest for personal peace and tranquility and the sense of social engagement that has sometimes expressed itself, most recently on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, with the well-worn activists’ phrase No justice, no peace.
That seemingly irreconcilable conflict made itself felt when several generations of Buddhists came together for the 2014 National Gathering of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (or “BPF”). That noteworthy group, now 36 years old, congregated during Labor Day weekend at the East Bay Meditation Center, housed in a low-slung, two-story building in Oakland, California’s economically revitalized heart. At the gathering, the fellowship’s newest, post-Occupy incarnation seemed to carry a message for its more solitary, meditation-oriented elders: Don’t just sit there, do something.
The relatively small size of the event, as well as its modest setting, stood in sharp contrast to that of well-attended, corporate-funded mindfulness conferences such as Wisdom 2.0. In a private conversation the first evening of the gathering, I told Thai Buddhist activist Sulak Sivaraksa (addressed “Ajahn [teacher] Sulak”) of my own written criticism of that conference, and of the “engaged Buddhist” teachers who privately thanked me for “saying what needed to be said” but refused to support that position publicly.
“If they can’t say publicly what they feel privately,” said Ajahn Sulak, “we call that ‘being a hypocrite.’ I’ve experienced that myself, many times. Teachers or abbots tell me ‘I agree with you, but I can’t say so publicly.’ That means they have economic interests that prevent them from speaking up. Even Thich Nhat Hanh, who is a friend and whom I consider a teacher, is reluctant to speak as freely as he did before he ran such a large institution.” A good spiritual friend (kalyana mitta), Ajahn Sulak continued, speaks the truth: “That’s why I admire the American Quakers. They tell the truth, no matter what the consequences.”
Western Buddhists have at times been reluctant to speak truth to power. Some Buddhist organizations and entrepreneurs have, instead, unabashedly cozied up to it, hoping some prestige would rub off on them. That practice was perhaps best exemplified by an admiring (some might say “fawning”) interview of Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s “Darling Tyrant,” at the 2014 Wisdom 2.0 conference. Kagame’s practice of mindfulness was apparently so inspiring that it allowed his audience to ignore his administration’s involvement in, according to the Spanish government, “crimes of genocide, human rights abuses, and terrorism,” as well as his government’s suspected involvement in the murders of Rwandan dissidents and threats to the journalists who reported them.
Corporate-sponsored “mindfulness” seems to be a growth industry. The Quaker “Religious Society of Friends,” in contrast and as a result of its practices, has “never become large . . . or powerful,” Ajahn Sulak told me. “But they tell the truth. All Buddhists should learn from the Quakers.”
The following morning’s meditation was followed by a plenary session on the “Future of Engaged Buddhism,” with perspectives from “five veteran BPFers”: Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, Susan Moon, Mushim Patricia Ikeda, Martha Boesing, and Donald Rothberg. For the morning breakout session I chose Rothberg’s workshop on “Keeping Cool in the Fire: Becoming More Skillful with Inner and Outer Conflicts.” Drawing extensively on the work of Norwegian conflict resolution expert Johan Galtung, Rothberg may have been unaware how quickly he was to be drawn into a conflict of his own.
The primary goal of Rothberg’s presentation, which included graphic representations and other practical tools, was to offer guidance on how to bring two sides of a conflict into agreement—preferably in a “win/win” scenario. The presentation was engaging and extremely useful. But it quickly drew objections from some of the young activists in the crowd, for reasons I could easily understand.
“This doesn’t apply when there’s a severe imbalance of power between two forces,” said one. My heart was with them—especially since, as Rothberg himself had said, Western dharma practitioners “tend to be conflict-avoidant.”
The conference’s keynote speakers, Ajahn Sulak and American Buddhist writer Joanna Macy, had touched on the same point during their opening addresses the night before. “Western Buddhists . . . are very suspicious of attachment,” said Macy. “They feel they need to be detached . . . so don’t get upset about racism, or injustice, or the poison in the rivers, because that . . . means you’re too attached.”
“This causes some difficulty for me,” she continued, “because I’m attached.”
She added: “I think one of the problems with Westernized Buddhists is premature equanimity. When the Buddha said ‘don’t be attached,’ he meant don’t be attached to the ego.”
During our private interview, Ajahn Sulak emphasized many of the same points. “Anger arises,” he said. “That’s okay. But you must learn to translate that anger into change.”
“Some people want to be ‘goody-goody Buddhists,’” Ajahn Sulak continued, “saying nice things all the time and never challenging power. We believe in nonviolence, but that means we cannot ignore the long-term harm caused by structural violence.”
Or, as BPF’s literature says: “The system stinks.”
While the urge to avoid confrontation is strong in some sections of the Western Buddhist community, many of the leaders it reveres have been unafraid to speak bluntly. They’ve even been unafraid to use terms that border on the politically forbidden. The Dalai Lama, for example, has said he is “not only a socialist but also a bit leftist, a communist. In terms of social economy theory, I am a Marxist. I think I am farther to the left than the Chinese leaders. They are capitalists.”
Ajahn Sulak’s teacher, Buddhadasa, said, “If we hold fast to Buddhism we shall have a socialist disposition in our flesh and blood … [an] ideal of pure socialism which must be acted out, not just talked about for political purposes or for selfish, devious gain.” Ajahn Sulak told a group of Japanese Buddhists that “unless we stand united against consumerism and capitalism, we will not be able to create Dhammic Socialism.”
The Peace Fellowship’s Gathering ended with a refuge ceremony. Experienced dharma practitioners will understand that, by this action, everyone who participated became a Buddhist (or renewed their Buddhist vows). It could also be said that the people in attendance took refuge collectively, as a sangha, as a beloved community.
But there was more to come. A smaller group gathered that evening at a park in downtown Oakland. Their purpose was to demonstrate against the Urban Shield conference, which was about to take place. Urban Shield is, in effect, a trade conference for our cities’ increasingly militarized police forces—and for the vendors who profit off their purchase of heavy weaponry, drones, and other tools for the imposition of violence and the removal of personal privacy and autonomy. It was a good choice for protest, sitting as it does at the intersection of violence and capitalism.
A group of demonstrators planned to block the entrance to the Marriott Hotel, where many attendees were staying, while the rest were there to show their support. The Buddhists gathered before the watchful and slightly skeptical eyes of the park’s denizens: urban families, skateboard-wielding teens, and a homeless person or two. Protesters raised their signs: “Make Peace, Disarm Police”; “Marriott, Evict Urban Shield”; “Urban Shield = Urban Warfare.”
After a few minutes of planning and debate the group—a mix of laypeople and monastics—began its several-block-long walk to the Marriott. Accompanied by the monks’ drumming and chanting, the group passed curious pedestrians and drivers honking horns in passing automobiles, the Wells Fargo Bank glittering in the sun’s final late-evening rays. A giant flag waved atop the Oakland Tribune building, but no reporters emerged to cover the demonstration.
Once at the hotel, a dozen protesters unfurled a sign that read “Evict Urban Shield.” Then they blocked the front entrance and sat in lotus position as supporters cheered them on from the sidewalk.
I found myself moved by these young faces, some of which I now knew by name, as they sat before the hotel doors, their faces serene and their meditation posture largely impeccable. That’s Katie, in the white t-shirt. She’s one of the organizers. And that’s Dawn, her colleague. I think I saw that man, the one next to Dawn, in one of the breakout sessions…
I found myself kneeling before them, ostensibly to take their pictures.
They chose not to get arrested that evening, and the demonstration began breaking up as night fell. I walked away through the now-darkened streets of downtown Oakland. I felt a sense of parting, of separation from a community, as I walked back to my car. Outside the Oakland City Center office complex I passed a bicycle, still locked to a pole but stripped of its wheels and gears.
Driving home, I found myself lost in some back streets, passed bars filled with partiers (that’s right, it was a holiday weekend), and made my way back to a borrowed apartment. Once there I thumbed through the pictures I had taken on my phone.
Don’t just sit there, do something. At the close of this gathering, these demonstrators had resolved that generations-old conflict. There, outside the Marriott Hotel, they had done both.
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