Dharma Warrior Training: Practice at the Front Lines

By Vulpes vīrya 

It’s 6am, two hours before sunrise, raining lightly when we pick up my friend. With masks on and phones off, he asks, “So, what is the plan?” We have twenty minutes until showtime. He has no clue, having committed to the general plan the night before and gone to bed early. Not that he slept well, he tells us. Like myself, his heart was racing, granting only shallow sleep and vivid dreams. To calm his nerves and soothe his mind, he tells me, he chanted the paramitas. Myself, I visualized Vajrasattva and did tonglen practice. 

Breathing in, I breathe in fear.

Breathing out, I breathe out fearlessness. 

Breathing in, I breathe in uncertainty.  

Breathing out, I breathe out clarity.

The basic components of the plan were simple, but we’d heed our intuitions once in action. Once dropped off on the side of the highway, we removed the ladder from the trailer and descended the embankment into the forest, eventually sloping to the rail tracks. Neither of us had been here before, but we knew that our destination was accessible this way, plus we’d be in the shadows. Trying not to clank the ladders, we navigated a sea of blackberries, and eventually found a slippery watercourse by which to descend the steep ravine. In stealth, we moved towards the guarded enclosure topped by razorwire. I whispered prayers to the trees we were there to protect. 

Our overarching goal was to get past the razorwire and secure the tree house perched in the branches of a massive cottonwood tree. The general plan, we reviewed, would involve a two-piece aluminium ladder, and it could go two ways depending on how close the fence was to the scaffolding around the tree. 1) We’d lean the first ladder against the outer fence, I’d climb up, he’d pass me the second ladder, which I’d slide down the other side and use to descend into the enclosure; or 2) the ideal scenario, the fence would be close enough to the scaffolding, such that we could lean the assembled ladder directly onto it, snubbing the fearsome razorwire altogether. From either of those points on, my comrade would run for it and evade arrest, and I would race up the scaffolding, get into the treehouse and lock myself in place for as long as possible.

Trees behind razorwire with construction workers in camouflage trousers and yellow jackets and hats.  There is a sign about it being 'Trans Mountain property' and warning people not to obstruct.

After leaving the highway, our approach to the enclosure took about 15 minutes. As we stumbled through shrubs and thorns, over logs and streams, our silence was absorbed by the white noise of the highway. I murmured the Green Tara mantra, recalling the fearlessness she evokes in the midnight forest, and opening my heart to her boundless support and love. Although nervous, I was comforted by the darkness. I also felt confident by the non-verbal communication with my friend. Although I didn’t know him very well, I knew that he was a committed meditator with a love for Mother Earth. Wasn’t it paradoxical that, from a group of over 70 activists dedicated to “Protect the Planet Stop TMX”, this gutsy mission was taken on by the two Buddhists? It made me laugh out loud.

From August 2nd through to autumn, we had successfully delayed tree clearing for construction of the Trans Mountain Expansion (TMX) pipeline at Holmes Creek, in Metro Vancouver. Four individuals had taken turns occupying a portaledge hung from the trees, with a base camp of constant support. Living in a one-person tent suspended 30’ above the ground for several days is not for everyone, but it’s not so bad, and the generosity and inspiration the action galvanized in others was remarkable. [See my Youtube videos under #stopTMX, from my 5 days on the portaledge. Also, for an excellent video about the tree house, search Youtube for “The Highest Treehouse in the World!?” of Dec. 11, 2020.] Summer at the Holmes Creek protection camp had been blissful. 

According to the TMX construction schedule, tree clearing and pipeline construction would resume after December 10th. So, after celebrating our small victory, we’d set about preparing for winter. Notably, a new tree dwelling emerged at Holmes Creek.T, an energetic young Québécois with a love of nature decided to build it, and what emerged was a masterpiece. Affectionately known as the Hilton, the tree house was built around the branches of a large cottonwood, about 70’ off the ground. Accessed by a rope with ascenders, its occupation would be limited to trained climbers. The Hilton featured a roof and walls, windows, a little propane stove, a fold-up sleeping ledge and a trap door, as well as provisions. For December 9th, we’d scheduled a climber training/ refresher, and the first overnight occupation would commence that evening. 

A group of people climbing a tree, there is a wooden platform at the top of the tree. The sky is blue and the perspective is looking up at the trees from the ground.

T had been working on the treehouse until 11pm on Dec. 8th. If only he’d slept there! In the early hours of Dec. 9th, the Holmes Creek Camp was raided by TMX with the force of three private police agencies (CN Rail, BNSF Rail and RCMP). In the blink of an eye, our beloved camp was surrounded by secure fencing, injunction tape and signage; the Hilton secured and fortified. With the tip of an arborists chainsaw, the portaledge came down. It was a tragedy. We’d lost not only our stronghold, but also our beacon of resilience, optimism and hope. 

As the days progressed, we drummed and smudged sage; sang and shouted; did road blockades with signs and banners held to the traffic. Like disempowered ants, we scurried around our quashed nest and watched everything we held dear destroyed by a colossal military power. All the while, the Hilton cottonwood become enclosed by layer upon layer of fencing. Soon scaffolding started to go up around the tree. By Sunday Dec. 13th, it had reached the base of the treehouse and we knew the Hilton would be disassembled the next day. 

My thinking that Sunday was clear. If I could find someone to help me with the ladder, I was willing to try my best at this final chance of winning back the Hilton. If successful, we would delay construction, add to the steadily inflating project expenses and gain some media attention. If unsuccessful, I’d get arrested, possibly injured. I was willing to risk it. The writing is on the wall, with more good reasons to cancel this pipeline by the day. Yet this federal project is behaving like a tanker lacking a navigator. Even with federal statements on its lacking profitability; even as markets vanish and shipping ports close; as the expenses to the public purse grows and as covid outbreaks become the norm at its man camps; even so TMX continues to drive forward, terrorizing and criminalizing indigenous peoples protecting their unceded territories, destroying critical habitat of species at risk, all the while expanding tar sands infrastructure, and diverting funds away from necessary social investments. I was intent to do what I could to stop the needless destruction.

Back to the pre-dawn of Mon. Dec. 14th , I find myself in this absurd situation, hiding in the shadows and preparing to confront razor wire, heavy security and intense physical exertion. As we hid behind the wide cottonwoods near the enclosure, prepared to assess the feasibility of our mission, the Shambala Warrior mind training echoed in my veins. 

Firmly establish your intention to live your life for the healing of the world. Be conscious of it, honour it, nurture it every day. Be fully present in our time. Find the courage to breathe in the suffering of the world. Allow peace and healing to breathe out through you in return. When you see violence, greed and narrow-mindedness in the fullness of its power, walk straight into the heart of it, remaining open to the sky and in touch with the earth. 

Trees.  There is scaffolding in the trees and at the top of a tree there is a wooden treehouse. There are a few people in yellow jackets moving up the scaffolding.

I could feel my posture and breathing steadied by years of Dharma practice. I felt that I was in the right place at the right time, stepping up to do what needed to be done, like a Bodhisattva in training. I was here on behalf of the trees, the water and air, and all the wildlife reliant on this green corridor. I was here to speak and act for the present and the future (maybe even for the past); for the children in the 26 schools along the pipeline’s route; for the salmon runs that had rebounded against all odds. I was here as an expression of humanity, to protect and connect with all my relations of life; to honour and nurture my indigenous roots, colonized so many generations ago; to decolonize my heart-mind.

In our moment of decision, I was not afraid. I felt calm and grounded, and wholly prepared for whatever would follow. As we peered out from behind the trees, we saw more security inside the enclosure than we’d expected. Whereas the previous five days had featured only one, today there were several security figures, with at least two uniforms, patrolling inside the enclosure. We also saw numerous blinking coloured lights, and understood these were motion-detection and other forms of surveillance. As if to settle our decision beyond doubt, a guard inside the enclosure approached the fence nearest us and pointed a small box in our direction. I slipped back behind the tree for a few minutes and breathed quietly. Peering slowly out again, the guard had not moved and was still pointing the object in our direction. I guessed it was an infrared camera. Having noticed some movement that implied guards might be leaving the enclosure and moving in our direction, we didn’t need to discuss. We exchanged only one word: “Run.” After crossing the rail lines, we found a slope amenable to descending to the greenway below. From there, it was an easy 2 km to where we’d be collected, still under cover of darkness.

As we walked, we talked about our mission through the lens of the Dharma. We both felt happy that we’d tried, grateful that the decision had been so clean and easy to make, and glad that we were not attached to outcomes. We reflected on how the Buddha had been an activist, 2500 years ago, and that we were expressing this lineage. Granted, we are deluded to the extent that we can’t know everything, including how “things” are meant to go in this crazy world. However, we reflected that we are informed on current science, economics, and politics. Those profiting from this harmful project are also deluded, yet the effects of their actions have profoundly destructive consequences that extend vastly beyond their reach as individuals. Our small act was one of healing; for all of us; for all beings.

Do not set your heart on particular results. Enjoy positive action for its own sake and rest confident that it will bear fruit. Staying open, staying grounded, remember that you are the inheritor of the strengths of thousands of generations of life.

When we venture out from the prison of self-concern, in service to life on Earth, Joanna Macy recalls two gestures that grant empowerment. The earth-touching mudra (Bhumi sparsha) gives us the authority that we are grounded in dependent co-arising with all things, and that our inseparability from all life gives us power to act on behalf of all beings. From that profound understanding comes the Abhaya mudra, the fearlessness gesture of right hand raised, palm forward. This mudra means “fear not: you will never be separated from the web of life, for that is what you are”. (In On Being With Our World, p. 178) 

Staying open, staying grounded, recall that the thankful prayers of future generations are silently with you. Staying open, staying grounded, be confident in the magic and power that arise when people come together in a great cause.

As a citizen, I have engaged in several forms of communication with my government and its agencies. I now feel impelled to civil disobedience because I have witnessed and tasted the corruption, systemic racism and violence of this state. It’s become clear that petitions, letters, and other forms of polite democratic engagement will not achieve the changes we require quickly enough. With my conditions as they stand, I am grateful for the opportunity to step up and actively challenge the greed and ignorance that is driving this fossil fuel enterprise. The risks are high, but they are worth it.  

Staying open, staying grounded, know that the deep forces of Nature will emerge to the aid of those who defend the Earth. 

As a Buddhist, I subscribe to the notion that effective action will be rooted in wisdom and compassion. Wisdom enables us to diagnose and address the dangers of climate breakdown by seeing it as a whole, identifying its underlying causation, and determining what can be done to remedy it. Compassion allows our heart to feel the danger vividly and personally; to expand beyond our limited self and embrace all those exposed to harm .  Just as the Buddha prescribed the middle way of moderation, effective activism occurs in a continuum between extremes. If we consider that there is a spectrum in which to express resistance to corporate greed, capitalist dysfunction, genocide and/ or ecocide, then any expression that manifests compassion and wisdom can be celebrated as precious.

In the crucible of meditation, bring forth day by day into your own heart the treasury of compassion, wisdom and courage for which the world longs. Staying open, staying grounded, have faith that the higher forces of wisdom and compassion will manifest through our actions for the healing of the world. 

Unlike grief, horrified anxiety, righteous anger or irrational guilt, compassion is caring tremendously for the suffering of others, as though it were our own. The development of love and compassion through activism is a massive opportunity for personal growth that is often overlooked. The Dharma makes it crystal-clear that anger and hatred are poisons or afflictions, even dis-ease, that lead to suffering and nothing else. Whereas many activists insist that love and rage go hand-in-hand, the Dhammapada is unequivocal “Hatred will never cease through hatred in this world; through love alone will it cease. This is an eternal law” (v5). While a genuine passion for justice is beautiful – something needs to be done! – when this call to action percolates up through our psyche and our conditioning, including our in-born hatred, it will only emerge as a scream, which is not pleasant or helpful; it just hurts. “Hatred is terrifically powerful, but one thing more powerful is compassion”. Both come from the same source, but hatred is twisted and warped, which affects its power. Although the power of hatred may seem potent, the Dharma assures us that there are greater powers available to us. “Fathomless power emerges out of a clear and loving heart, out of our buddha-nature when it is free of distortion” (ibid p. 107).

Sit with hatred until you feel the fear beneath it.
Sit with fear until you feel the compassion beneath that. 

By 7:30 we were in our respective homes. After some breakfast and a shower, I lay down for a deep, long nap. My mind required no verses to fall asleep this time. Having put the mind training into practice, my whole being was suffused with contentment.

When you see weapons of hate, disarm them with love.
When you see armies of greed, meet them in the spirit of sharing.
When you see fortresses of narrow-mindedness, breach them with truth.
When you find yourself enshrouded in dark clouds of dread, dispel them with fearlessness. When forces of power seek to isolate us from each other, reach out with joy. In it all and through it all, holding to your intention, let go into the music of life. Dance!”

~ Excerpts from the Shambhala Warrior Mind-Training, by Akuppa (2005)

 Vulpes vīriya is training for ordination with the Triratna Buddhist Community. 

Posts and articles are the views of their authors and not necessarily of the XR Buddhists group.

4 thoughts on “Dharma Warrior Training: Practice at the Front Lines”

  1. This is so beautiful. I am so glad to hear you are adopting this mindfulness approach. In the end its nonviolence that will win the day, even though it doesn’t feel like it much of the time. Blessings.

  2. Your determination for environmental justice is an inspiration. We claerly can’t expect justice through the courts, which have proven to be emersed in outdated colonial values.

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