Healing Oppression

By Kaspa Thompson

A photograph of a mural showing a group of monks listening to one monk who is sitting on a bench.
A mural of the first council. Monks listen to Upali. Upali was a barber that the Buddha ordained before a group of princes, thus undermining the caste system. Photo by Photo Dharma from Penang, Malaysia

We recently changed the name of an XR Buddhists Telegram group from ‘Anti-oppression’ to ‘Healing Oppression’. I like the new wording. It says that we are not just standing against something, but working to change something and that work is the work of healing.

What might a Buddhist approach to healing oppression look like?

First, a little context. Although there are some ways in which I have experienced oppression, as a white middle-class man in the global north much of my life has benefited from this system of oppressed and oppressor.  

What is the cause of suffering? In the twelve link chain of dependant arising that the Buddha described, the ultimate cause of suffering is ignorance.

What is the ignorance that leads to suffering? It is our lack of awareness of selflessness, emptiness and interconnectedness.

What are selflessness and emptiness? Selflessness is what remains when we let go of greed and ill-will. We discover that there is a basic human goodness underneath everything else. We discover that there is a place of love and compassion deep within us. Emptiness is knowing that this is true for all beings: knowing that there is an underlying reality to life which is kind and loving and wise and connects us to all other living things. The experience of this teaches us that we are loved, and that we are capable of loving all beings.

Much of the time we are separate from this truth. We burst into a world of suffering and impermanence, feel the pain of separation, act with greed and ill-will from that place of pain, and then those actions and impulses become habitual.

Buddhist practice and teaching encourages us to trust that this pain and separation is not the only truth: that despite the very real and painful suffering we experience (and that some people experience more than others) the reality of love and connection is more fundamental. Occasionally we are gifted a deep embodied experience of this.

What is oppression? Oppression is the playing out of greed and ill-will and ignorance from those with more power to those with less power. It happens in interpersonal relationships, and across whole groups of people. From very obvious harmful words and actions, to more subtle behaviour that favour some groups over others, to the creation of structures that reinforce that favour and division.

Oppressing others is one strategy for trying to overcome the pain of separation: the belief that if someone can get more power, more status, and more wealth over others then they will feel better. Or that if they can hurt others and treat them as worthless then maybe they will feel worth something themselves. 

I guess that strategy must work a bit, or at least people believe that it will, because we keep seeing it over and over again.

As well as creating profound suffering for whole groups of people, this oppression also has a direct impact on the climate crisis. The greed of the powerful and wealthy leads to more and more extraction of fossil fuels from the Earth. This extraction feeds the greed of the wealthy; it increases the carbon in the atmosphere and harms the lives and communities of the people on the land where the extraction is taking place.

There is fundamental goodness, there is greed, ill-will and ignorance and there is the deep wounding of being oppressed. We all contain some mix of all of these, and some people are more oppressive and some are more oppressed.

There are four important ways to work to heal oppression.

The first is to turn inwards: to maintain the practices that keep bringing us back into the deep truth of connection and love, to investigate the ways in which we are still acting from greed, ill-will and ignorance, and to ask if/how we have benefited from oppression, and how we are perpetuating it. The practice of staying connected to love allows us to have the courage to ask ourselves these difficult questions.

The second is the work of developing and keeping loving kindness to others. Sometimes this comes easily and naturally, and sometimes this feels like more conscious work. As a Pure Land Buddhist emptiness and selflessness come to me in the form of Amida Buddha. Emptiness and selflessness are not just abstract ideas, but something relational with a life of their own. I trust that the love of the Buddha is flowing towards me. That it is flowing towards each of us. The more deeply I trust in this (supported by the occasional experience of really feeling loved) the more that love for others naturally appears. Other Buddhists might call that acting from emptiness.

The third is to be willing to deeply listen to the stories and experiences of oppressed people, and to support the processes of grieving in those communities when that is appropriate. It is important to have spaces where experiences of oppression can be heard, understood and held with loving kindness. All of us experience oppression and woundedness to some degree or another. Having the space to be heard in this way is important for all of us. Healing our wounds comes from having those wounds witnessed and understood and met with love. 

The fourth is paying attention to and working to dismantle the systems that work to keep oppression alive. From how roads were built in the U.S. to separate off black neighbourhoods, to the defunding of legal-aid in the UK, to anti-trans legislation, to criminalised homosexuality, to…

As we begin to become aware of these systems, we can work together with those groups of people that have been oppressed to dismantle them, and to create systems that are built on the fundamental truth of connection and the fundamental attitude of love for all beings.

There already exist resources to help us do the work outlined in each of these areas, both within our Buddhist traditions and in the social justice movement. I hope that by keeping all four of these areas in mind we can walk the path of healing oppression.

Kaspa Thompson is a Buddhist Teacher at Bright Earth Buddhist Temple, a psychotherapist and member of XR Buddhists. He is also facilitating Buddhist Action Month for the Network of Buddhist Organisations.

Sitting alone in the road

XR Buddhist Satya was one of hundreds of rebels who chose to sit alone in a road today, to highlight how afraid they are of the consequences of not acting urgently enough in the face of the climate crisis.

Satya writes: After weeks of preparation, anxiety grabbing me in the stomach whenever I imagined this moment, I felt calm as I walked into the road this morning and stopped the traffic.

I had no support from the public. The boy who mocked me. The old woman who muttered obscenities at me. The man who drove his car within a centimetre of me and then rolled down his window to hiss in my face, ‘dumb bitch’. I get it – I was the crazy lady, stopping them from getting where they needed to go. Ranting about apocalyptic futures. What does any of it have to do with them? How dare I?

I don’t need people to like what I’m doing. I need them to open their hearts – just a tiny crack – to the true horrors of the climate and ecological emergency. We won’t reach everyone. But maybe one member of the public wondered why I would be desperate enough to do such a thing. Maybe one parent thought about their daughter’s future. Maybe you, reading this, will take action of your own.

Today hundreds of us across the UK were alone together as we blocked busy roads, our hearts pounding. We will keep raising the alarm, until the truth is told and until urgent action is taken. We refuse to be by-standers. We will SPEAK UP.

Local Press: The action received good local press in Worcester. See photos of other rebels in Worcester, and read their quotes in the Worcester News.

Satya sitting in the middle of a road, wearing a sign that says I am terrified of starving people resorting to violence because of the climate crisis
Satya sitting in the road in Worcester
A police officer pulls Satya out of the road by one arm, Satya is lying half in and half our of the road
Being pulled out of the road


photo of Barclarys Stop Funding Ecocide banner

XR Buddhists from across the UK yesterday took part in Extinction Rebellion’s Money Rebellion.

Despite the worsening climate & extinction crisis, banks continue to invest massively in fossil fuels. The money rebellion is to raise awareness and to put pressure on banks to defund fossil fuel and other harmful investments. One of the main targets was Barclays bank, who have invested $145 billion in fossil fuels since the Paris Agreement in 2015.

Find out how your own bank is doing here: https://switchit.money/

Nick and Patrick meditate in Barclary bank. 'Nick is wearing a sign that reads $145 Billion invested in fossil fules since 2015.. criminal.' Patrick is wearing a sign that says 'Barclarys the ecocide bank'
Nick and Patrick meditating in a Barclays highstreet branch
Three people meditating outside a Barclays bank in Cambridge. They have pasted lots of 'the ecocide bank' posters to the windows and have signs and banners including: Stop Ecocide funding, clean up properly divest now and stop funding fossil fuel.
XR Buddhists meditating outside Cambridge Barclays
Joe meditating inside a Barclays
XR Buddhist Joe is being carried out of the bank by two police officers.
Joe being removed by police
three meditators sit in front of some wide concrete steps wearing signs saying 'infinite growth finite planet' and listing high-street banks investment in fossil fuel in billions on dollars in 2020.
Satya. Mel and Kaspa demonstrating in Malvern
Placards reading Infinite Growth, Finite Planet, and Your Bank Funds the Climate Crisis.
Signs used in the Malvern demonstration
a person sits outside a Barclays bank, near and ATM, wearing an Barclays the Ecocide Bank placard.
Meditating outside a Barclays brank branch
two XR rebels hold a green banner with the words: the planet needs a Barclays bank holiday

Dr Helen Skilton’s Mitigation Statement

1) Helen being carried away by five police officers.

2) Helen sitting down whilst a police officer takes notes
Helen’s arrest

I am pleading guilty to the charge of obstruction, because I was, intentionally obstructing the road outside the Oil and Gas Fiscal Summit in Oct 2019 as part of Extinction Rebellion’s peaceful civil disobedience protest.

I did it because it is the only thing I can think of to highlight, to the general public and those in power, that we are harming our planet and that we are going to have to change to prevent reaching tipping points of no return.

I am a Biology teacher and I teach ‘Climate Change and Human Impact’ to my pupils at GCSE and A level. It is in the syllabus, it is in all the text books. It is a scientific fact that humans are having a devastating impact on our environment causing destruction and ultimately extinction of many organisms.

We have taken over half the habitable land to grow our food and we are polluting our land, sea and air, with little, if any, accountability. Our world is no longer a safe place for most living organisms, including many humans, and without change it will get far worse.  

I would like the truth about how serious this issue is to be told.  Not just in school text books but in our politics, our media, our culture: places where everyone can hear it, again and again, loud and clear. We are going to have to change, otherwise a tsunami of devastation is going to hit us.

We, the human race, are not separate from the rest of this world. We are not independent, we are just one small part of an amazing planet, with miraculous conditions for life. This planet does not belong to us. We belong to this planet. All the elements we use, flow through us. We breath air, oxygenated by plants and algae. We eat food, made from other living organisms. We consume water and minerals, that are recycled through our atmosphere. Not one part of our live-support is separate from any other part of this world.

Currently, it is not a crime to pollute and destroy our life-support system and it is a not crime for our government & media to keep denying, deflecting and delaying. But there should be.

Until there is a law protecting our living planet from destruction, people who are aware, will just have to keep obstructing highways, disrupting business-as-usual, until the truth is told and we start acting now.


By Mat Osmond

I’m staring at my screen as a handful of American road blockers are all but beaten up by a passer-by on his way to work. I keep replaying his high-pitched, furious shout: “What is wrong with you people?”.

The rebels’ vulnerability is palpable but the scene evokes a deeper sense of frailty than that. The idea, maybe, that obstructing a few commuters might head off the relentless extermination of the living world that both rebels and motorists are caught up in, like it or not. For all its nastiness, a sort of unfunny silliness seems to hover about the scene.

Anyway, whoever those road blockers are, this letter’s for them.

Back in Spring 2019 some friends from Cornwall decided to mark XR’s April uprising by walking the 400 miles from Land’s End to London. They set out on their March for Life with a month in hand, timing their arrival in London for its start. I’d arranged to join those falling in with the march at a West London tube station for its final ten-mile leg. At this point I’d not much idea what that would entail.

We heard the drumming well before we saw them, then caught sight of bright flags swirling above the traffic. Finally several hundred marchers swung into view, flailing drums and yelling. As they approached, big sewn and painted banners showed there were other groups here now – people who’d walked from Cardigan, Stroud and other parts of the West country, hooking up with the Cornwall marchers as they neared the city.

Over the next few hours I got the hang of what these people meant by a march. Among other things it meant occupying whole lanes of the busy dual carriageway into London, and closing down busy roundabouts armed with nothing more than High Viz vests and attitude.

At some point I fell in with a ten-year-old girl and her grandmother. Somewhere else in the crowd the girl’s mother was here too. The next time I saw the two of them was a week later on the BBC as they spoke about watching the mother get arrested on Waterloo Bridge, and how proud they both were of her.

As we came to the last stretch through central London, heading for the muster at Hyde Park Corner, the police presence became much more intense. By the time we reached Kensington High Street their motorcycles were buzzing and weaving round us like wasps at an August picnic. In the midst of all this a formidable and likeable Welsh woman at the head of the column – the kind of person you might want beside you, faced with an angry motorist – swung round as we entered the intersection of Kensington High Street and Church Street and announced in her booming Welsh lilt that it was surely time that ‘we all sat down for a nice little rest’.

So along with two hundred others I did as I was told. (It seemed best.) A minute later we were squashed up shoulder to shoulder, our ragged circle filling up the space between four sets of traffic lights. And within seconds, of course, we were surrounded by backed-up traffic.

Ten minutes later we were still sitting there. The police had begun remonstrating with the march stewards, but to my surprise they weren’t moving in to arrest anyone. Everything that unfurled over the next fortnight seems to be right there, looking back. The heady triumph of ‘taking’ a busy junction, when the truth is surely that we were being given it. And for me, at that point, an uneasy sense of the ridiculousness of it all – sitting in the road as people attempt to get to wherever they’re going. The arrogance of it, even.

Then a man in his 20s began to speak. He asked us to join hands and called for a two minutes’ silence. A pause to remember the non-human species being driven to extinction, right now, by human civilisation. 200 species vanishing every day, he reminded us. One of those best-guess abstractions that gesture towards a too-big-to-touch grief. Towards a dying so all-pervasive that most of us struggle to even get it in focus, let alone act upon it.

For that two minutes, hands held in silence as an ever-growing number of engines revved on all sides, it felt like a deep well of calm fell open within the city’s endless hubbub. Even the police stood in silence now, waiting. I think those two minutes were when I got Extinction Rebellion. Or when Extinction Rebellion got me, maybe. And as we finally climbed to our feet and headed for the Knightsbridge junction where the game would begin all over again, a half-jesting idea popped into my head – one that, silly or not, seems to have stuck there. That what I was watching, sat there in the road, was the birth some new species of religion. So new, in fact, that it was just beginning to work itself out. As if in capital cities around the world, something was trying on one shape after another as it worked out what sort of creature it might be exactly. And as it puzzles its way through each absurd little gesture of resistance, what’s becoming clear is that most of the old rules for how religions are meant to behave are no longer of much use.

‘Here’ it seems to say ‘it really doesn’t matter what name you address your prayers to, nor what you do or don’t believe about them, nor what you choose to call yourself. Here, there’s just one rule to steer our emerging communion (shall we call it that?): that we come together only when and only by physically obstructing the extinction-engine that our culture has become.’

And because no one quite knows how this is meant to work we keep getting it wrong, and will presumably continue to do so. All we have to go on, after all, is that at this point any gathering which does nothing to hinder our culture’s murderous trajectory no longer speaks to our shared need.

I said that this letter was for that handful of American rebels. I hope they had good friends on hand to support them and didn’t lose heart. But I think I was wrong leave out the passer-by.

What does prayer mean to you? Whatever reply comes easiest to your lips, may it set you down between that man’s perplexed rage and the defiant, reedy voices of those young women blocking the road with their uncertain singing. And may it quietly open you to what holds them and all of us within its dark belly: the looming grief which these scrappy encounters keep calling out to passing traffic with no real idea of what to do about it. And may that prayer allow you to remain there in the uneasy space between them without pretending to have an answer, and to see this moment – which is to say, our moment – for the precious opportunity that it surely is.

Note: this is a light edit of a letter I wrote to friends at The Way of the Rose, a loose knit inter-religious rosary fellowship.

Mat Osmond, Mid-Cornwall XR

Mat Osmond’s a writer and visual artist based in Falmouth, with a long-standing sense of connection to Pureland Buddhism’s grounded understanding of prayer. His most recent essay for The Dark Mountain Journal, The Schoolgirl and the Drunkard, picks up some of the threads spoken of here. Much of Mat’s spare time currently goes on helping to further the regenerative groundswell that is XR, within his local community and beyond. He’s convener for Art.Earth’s 2021 creative summit at Dartington, UK, Borrowed Time: on death, dying & change.

What Would Buddha Do?

By Joseph Mishan

Here is the video and transcript of the talk Joe gave at the What Would Buddha Do? people’s assembly on 3rd Feb.

A commentary on 3 questions:

  • What are appropriate responses to the Climate and Ecological Emergency
  • What can climate activists learn from Buddhism
  • Where does Buddhism and XR-style activism converge and diverge

As Buddhists we are asked to face into the truth of the way things are. I think it’s really important to enter this discussion with full awareness of what is at stake; with awareness of the extent and gravity of the Climate and Ecological Emergency that we are facing. Otherwise it can become an interesting absorbing, even fascinating discussion that is divorced from the real world and so lacks urgency and reality.

I’m sure a lot of you perhaps all of you, will be familiar with the facts of the Climate and Ecological Emergency, but I know from my own experience that it’s so easy to forget and to drift into complacency or into numbness.

So I’m going to do a very brief whistle stop tour of the facts of the crisis

We now know that the rate of extinction of species means that we are in the midst of the 6th mass extinction event. Human activities have caused the world’s wildlife populations to plummet by more than two-thirds in the last 50 years. And humans plus domesticated livestock now account for 96% by biomass of all life on Earth.

The amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere is approaching a level not seen for at least 800,000 years. On our current trajectory we are heading for a global average temperature increase of at least 3.2%C which could occur as early as 2060 according to a recent UN report. This would intensify mass extinction and large parts of the globe would become uninhabitable. We can expect starvation, intensified extreme weather events mass migration and armed conflict. We have 8 years to reduce CO2 levels by 45% if we are to have any chance to avoid this.

The Earth’s oceans are acidifying, heating up and rising as a result of atmospheric heating and the C02 increase. Acidification is causing mass die-offs of coral reefs which are the breeding ground for many species of fish and feed a large proportion of the population. Half of the Great Barrier Reef has been bleached to death since 2016. We can expect further escalation of extreme storms, storm surges and flooding. This will effect coastal cities and communities across the planet.

And it is important not to forget the fact that poorer communities and countries around the world are the first to experience these impacts  although they have done least to contribute to the problem.

James Hansen former director of NASA, who is outspoken on climate crisis, has said that the Earth’s warming has brought us to the “precipice of a great tipping point”. If we go over the edge, it will be a transition to “a different planet”, an environment far outside the range that has been experienced by humanity. There will be no return within the lifetime of any generation that can be imagined, and it will exterminate a large fraction of species on the planet”

Is there hope in all this?

Yes. There is hope. The chief of the UN Environment Programme this:

‘Is it possible to avert disaster: Yes? Absolutely. Will it take political will? Yes. Will we need to have the private sector lean in? Yes. But the science tells us that we can do this.”

And I think the new Biden administration in the USA is looking really impressive and hopeful, with the climate issue being embedded in the structure of Government, new initiatives and jobs, and a lot of consultation and involvement of impacted minorities. There are also many signs from industry;  from car manufacturers to even the banking world that world is waking up to the crisis.  But action needs to be swift and radical. We will see what COP26 in Glasgow brings: XRBuddhists will be there making it happen of course.

It’s against this background then that I’d like to share a few reflections on the questions in front of us. I hope this will be food for thought.

I’m going to offer some reflections drawn from my own personal experience and perspective of activism which I hope will provide some fertile ground for the discussion we are going to do in our groups.

The climate crisis is, and will be, the cause of widespread suffering, particularly within communities that are often largely ignored. This includes non-dominant cultures in the global south and non-human species across the globe. It’s easy to get overwhelmed or numbed out by the statistics, and to forget about how much suffering is, and will be, experienced.The image of a koala bear wandering listlessly as if bewildered, in a burning forest in Australia last year with its fur smouldering, was so painful to watch. The fact that now only 4% of all life on earth by mass is wild, is a devastating statistic, and the image of hundreds of endangered sea turtles washed up dead coast of Mexico last year because of early floods was just really hard to look at.

So what can I do? Referring back to the first question What are appropriate responses to the Climate and Ecological Emergency?’

You may be aware that the phrase ‘an appropriate response’ is from Zen master Wun Yen in the 9th century. It was a typically pithy Zen response to the question from a student which was “What are the teachings of your entire lifetime?” and Wun Yen simply said, “An appropriate response.”

I think there are 3 points when addressing the appropriateness question (which I take to be a koan): firstly, what is an appropriate response to the level of urgency, secondly what is an appropriate response in view of our personal capacities, and thirdly what is an appropriate response in view of our alignment with our precious faith tradition.

I’m going to look at each in turn.

Starting with the level of urgency. The threat to the planet is imminent. It would surely be foolish to sit in the path of a No 52 bus whilst contemplating the essential emptiness of all phenomena. It is appropriate to do what we can to get out of the way. You may be aware of the Pali word ‘samvega’. Samvaga means ‘spiritual urgency’  – ‘a chastening sense of our own complacency in the face of suffering’. It refers to waking up to the realities of old age sickness of death, of how we have been living so blindly and complacently. Biku Bhodi has said that in the light of the climate and ecological crisis that: “we are invited not to panic, but to fiercely and decisively response”. This does not determine what we do, but does  informs the urgency and energy with which we do it.

Second, what is appropriate to our personal capacities – our talents and our passions? There are many and varied ways we can engage in this crisis, and it makes sense to find a way to engage which is in alignment with our abilities, our interests and our life circumstances. We need most of all to engage with what moves us; what evokes our passion and our compassion.  As  Howard Thurman the civil rights activist has said:

“Ask what makes you come alive, and go and do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

And thirdly, how we act needs to be appropriate to or in alignment with our our faith tradition; because our faith is an invaluable and irreplaceable sustaining and guiding force, especially in this time of crisis. With its depth, its richness and its clarity our faith is an indispensable compass which we can return to time and time again.

And to now speak to the question ‘what can climate activists learn from Buddhism’: I’d like to show you some images from our actions. And I’d invite you to be aware of what is evoked in you when you see these photos:


Image 1 of 7

What I see in these images is embodied equanimity in the face of threat  – the threat from police ranks or a disapproving public; and equanimity in our willingness to face into the threat of the climate emergency. And I would submit that the Buddhist deliberate cultivation, and capacity for equanimity as an embodied experience is a key quality that is perhaps unique to Buddhism . Although I would be interested to hear from other faith traditions on this point.

I’d like to add though that engagement in NVDA is also a means by which our practice develops and deepens. Perhaps in particular our capacity to hold strong emotions like fear, agitation or intense excitement are stretched and challenged during engagement. So while we approach action with equanimity our equanimity is also developing. It is after all when are challenged that we make progress on the path: insight and development is rarely the result of an easy life. I have to add that In my experience it is surprising how often joy and love arises as we witness the courage and beauty of our fellow activists.

A few comments now on Where do Buddhism and XR diverge and converge.

Is being a nuisance to the general public, being loud, or openly opposing something, which are all part of the XR approach to activism, in keeping with our faith? How does it sit with us?

Perhaps this partly depends on how we frame and approach what we are doing. The felt experience of seeing ourselves as simply being in opposition to is radically different I think than taking a stand for something we hold dear. Even though they might both result in the same action. An oppositional stance is aimed at the wrongness of the other – the damage done by oil exploration for example – and can lead into by blame and outer-directed anger. Taking a stand against oil exploration on the basis of the damage and pain inflicted upon wildlife or indigenous people comes much more from compassion, and results in the quality of fierce passion.

But there may be actions that XR do that we feel after reflection, are beyond our vows to non-harming or right speech or action. This is for each of us to determine in conversation with our Sanghas. And can we include the possibility that there are times when we are clinging to our faith or hiding on our cushions rather than just taking refuge? So instead of using our faith and practices as a root from which we grow into the world, we stay safe and protected. This goes back to the question of personal appropriateness again which I referred to above: have we found what really matters to us in all this; and what is right for us at this time in our lives?

There is also the question, what is activism actually anyway? Is talking to friends about the climate crisis, or engaging in forums like this part of activism? Is sitting in vigil in our gardens or a public place a form of activism? My own decision to risk arrest was undoubtedly the culmination of an internal  movement which started with less direct actions. Perhaps we might think about our contribution, what ever it is, as a small stream or tributary – one of many such streams – that feeds into a powerful river. We should not lose sight of the fact that we are all a part of something much larger than ourselves.

So to conclude

It is often said that there are two wings to the Buddhist path: wisdom and love, which suffuse and balance each other. Drawing upon these resources we can be steady and powerful. From this place of interconnection beyond our small sense of self, from our experience of the lived reality of interconnectedness, we can perhaps if we listen deeply, get an inkling of what our earth needs of us and what our heart needs; and perhaps find that they are after all, the same. This is to invite our Buddha nature. To ask what would the Buddha do is also to ask: how does the Buddha within speak to us from our hearts when we listen, in those rare and precious moments of deep silence, when we contemplate the terrible suffering that is already being afflicted upon our world.  And when we contemplate too , the beauty of the potential that is within this human form, and which is reflected in the life forms with which we are privileged to share this world?

So these are some thoughts and reflections which I hope might be of some use as you go through the next hour or so.

My invitation is to listen deeply, to listen patiently without expectation to what emerges in you. There is no right or wrong feeling or thought. Only the invitation to remain as far as possible in contact with yourself as we  lean into the realities of this crisis; into this suffering world which yet still so alive, and so astonishingly complex and so achingly beautiful. 

Quanyin at the September Rebellion

By Kaspa

Buddhist rebels gather in Parliament Square
Gathering in Parliament Square by Mikey

It was near the beginning of the September Extinction Rebellion actions in London. A dozen or so of us Buddhist rebels sat in a circle in the centre of Parliament Square. Around us other rebels began to appear: people with flags sticking out of their backpacks, or banners folded up under their arms, or carrying instruments. There were tired faces peering into coffee mugs. There were people chatting in small groups. Around the edge of the square there was a scattering of police in canary yellow jackets. Behind me people were meditating and praying. They were lined up against the fence, facing parliament, sitting in the multi-faith vigil. 

We were also meditating. I felt the cool air against my cheeks, the solid earth beneath me, and my heart beating quickly as I anticipated a day of non-violent civil disobedience.

The meditation ended. I opened my eyes and noticed the others here with me. I had been sitting in Zoom meetings with these people throughout the year and I suddenly felt immensely grateful for their company and support.

Did we check in before or after the meditation? I can’t remember, either way at some point each of us said a few words about how we were feeling. Someone asked if we could chant together.

Satya agreed to lead us in chanting a Quanyin mantra. She began by inviting us to picture Quanyin as large as the Statue of Liberty, and to imagine her smiling down at us, or to imagine that we were being held in the palm of her hand. Then Satya began to chant “Namo Quan Shi Yin Bosat.” The rest of us joined in – a circle of Buddhist rebels connecting with the One Who Hears the Cries of the World.

Statue of Kuan Yin, Ming Dynasty, by Chaozhong He
Statue of Kuan Yin, Ming Dynasty, by Chaozhong He, photographed by Mountain at the Shanghai Museum.

I have been reciting this mantra for many years. As a Pure Land Buddhist my main practice is nembutsu – reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha – but like millions of Buddhists around the world I often find it easier to connect with Quanyin (Avalokiteshvara in Sanskrit), one of Amitabha’s bodhisattva attendants and a bodhisattva of compassion.

Now, in England’s third COVID lockdown, feeling exhausted by the past year, and knowing I am not alone in my exhaustion, I find myself thinking about a story of Quanyin that I have heard many times.

Quanyin – The One Who Hears the Cries of the World – hears of someone suffering in the world and responds to that suffering. She helps them, and then she hears another person in trouble. She works tirelessly lifting people out of their difficulties. However there is always another suffering being and the work seems endless. Still she continues. One by one she helps everyone that needs it.

Seeing the endless suffering she is overwhelmed and splits into many pieces. Amitabha notices this shattering and goes and tends to Quanyin. He puts her together again, giving her eleven heads and a thousand arms. She goes back into the world renewed, and continues the work of helping people.

If you look carefully at images and statues of Quanyin you will often find an Amitabha Buddha in her headdress.

I know how it is to become exhausted by responding to needs, both in my personal life and as a climate activist where I feel called to respond to the immense need of the earth and her ecosystems for healing.

When I deeply examine my own inner life I find that the things that most exhaust me are emotional responses and impulses that come from self-protection. When I act from a place of anger it is quickly tiring. When I act from a place of rescuing it is tiring. When I am afraid for myself it is tiring. All of these thoughts and feelings have their own good reasons for showing up, and because they are self-protective they take energy from us and leave negative karmic traces.

When I am empty of all of these things, and act from this place of emptiness, it is not tiring.

What remains when greed, ill-will and ignorance empty out? It is love: love without agenda; love that needs nothing for itself; love that longs for the well-being of all.

This all-accepting love is the particular quality of enlightenment that Amitabha exemplifies.

Are any of us fully-enlightened beings? I tend to agree with Suzuki Roshi who said there are no enlightened people, only enlightened moments. For myself, I know that greed, ill-will and ignorance continue to rise.

It was mid-afternoon. A large group of rebels had sat in the road of Great George Street along one edge of Parliament Square. A line of police were strung across one end of the road, stopping us from disrupting the traffic on Parliament Street. Someone noticed that there was a clear space in front of the police line and suggested that would be a good place to meditate. We took our cushions and benches and settled into our mediation postures in front of the police. We were joined by other rebels until there were two dozen or so of us meditating in two lines across the road.

In many areas of my life I often feel ambivalence. Questions as big as should I take on this piece of work, to as small as would I like tea or coffee lead me to a place of self-doubt and indecision.  The decision to sit in the road was one of the easiest I have made.

Blessed by Quanyin, my mind was clear. Blessed by Quanyin, I felt completely grounded. Blessed by Quanyin, I felt a great compassion for the earth.

We sat and meditated in the road for hours.

XR Buddhists meditate in the road, in front of a line of police
XR Buddhists in the road

Every now and again there was a stirring in the police line. One officer left and another replaced them, a message was passed from one end of the line to the other.  At around half past four an officer knelt down and started speaking to someone near the edge of the road, five or six people away from me. After that conversation the rebel stood up and left the road. “Here we go” I thought.

Another hour passed in which very little happened and then officers began speaking to rebels one by one, letting them know Section 14 of the Public Order act was in place, and that if they didn’t clear the road they would be arrested. 

Satya was sitting next to me. Out of the corner of one eye I saw an officer approach, kneel down and speak to her. After a couple of minutes, Satya was carried away by two officers and moments later I was arrested as well.

Later that evening, after a long journey through traffic in the back of a police van with two other rebels, I was signed into a cell at Lewisham Police Station.

The metal door closed behind me. I looked around the cell. A bed with a thin, plastic covered mattress was fixed to one wall. There was a steel toilet in the corner. “Don’t worry, ” I had been told, “the camera can’t see the toilet.” The camera was behind a dark globe of glass in one corner of the ceiling.  The floor and walls were all covered in pale blue plastic. Everything was easy to wipe down.

A fluorescent light offered a flat, too bright, illumination.

I walked up and down the cell. Once, twice, three times. I lay on the bed and looked at the ceiling and remembered the stories I’d heard of Tibetan monks maintaining compassion for their jailers in much, much worse circumstances than this.

I wasn’t feeling much compassion.  I felt anger and frustration at the lack of awareness of the climate crisis in government, and at the position I found myself in.

In chapter twenty five of the Lotus Sutra it says:

If someone is imprisoned, shackled, or chained,
Or if his hands and feet are in stocks,
If he evokes the strength of Guanyin,
His bonds will open and he will be free.

I put my attention on my breath and with each cycle of breath I said the Quanyin mantra to myself. At some point my thoughts started to wander and after a while I fell asleep.

I woke up and shivered. I had no idea what time it was. The light in the ceiling was still bright. I had been promised a meal and no meal had arrived. I had been told I could ask for a blanket if I was cold and I was cold.

I looked at the silver call button on the wall and couldn’t bring myself to press it and ask for a meal or a blanket. A deep seated fear of disturbing authority figures had caught hold of me. I sat on the bed, enmeshed in fear. Sometimes this is how it is to be human. Despite the mantra of Quanyin my self-protective feelings had taken over. 

Sometimes the clouds cover the sun, and all we can do is trust that the sun is still shining in the sky, high above the clouds, and wait for the clouds to clear. The same is true in my practice, sometimes I just have to trust that the strong feelings will clear and then I will see the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas again. And somehow this act of trusting seems to help.

I turned away from the button and continued to recite the mantra silently, following my breath. A police officer knocked on the door and offered me a blanket. Later, I got to speak to my solicitor, and eventually in the early hours of the morning I and a handful of other rebels were let out.

Rebels meditating in Trafalgar Square, wearing placards which say 'In grief and love for the Earth'
Meditating in Trafalgar Square

Early Friday evening, as the light was beginning to fade, around a dozen Buddhist rebels sat in a circle in Trafalgar Square. We had just taken part in a mass meditation with many other rebels. There had been around sixty of us altogether, creating a calm centre in the middle of the busy square.

As we sat quietly I remembered the opening circle just a few days ago. So much had happened since then: sitting in the road, walking meditation through the city and the many different emotions rising and falling within me throughout the whole week.

Each person said a few words about how they were feeling and then the request came again, could we share some chanting together. Satya asked us to imagine Quanyin standing high above us again, perhaps up on Nelson’s Column. We chanted her mantra together.

I was reminded that thoughout all of these actions, and alongside all the suffering in the world, we are supported by the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas: there is an unconditional, wise love that flows towards us and through us, and takes root in our hearts.

Without this remembrance, I could not face the climate crisis, and without this remembrance I could not take action.

Namo Quan Shi Yin Bosat

Kaspa Thompson is a Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist. He is the coordinator of Buddhist Action Month. He co-leads the Bright Earth Buddhist Temple in Malvern.