Today I received a conditional discharge for my third arrest on September 3rd last year. Here’s the mitigating statement I included with my guilty plea. Onwards, dear friends. Our Dear Earth needs us. With love & grief <3
“I have been a law-abiding citizen all of my life and I respect the difficult job that the police and our courts have to do. I made a conscious decision to break the law as a part of the Extinction Rebellion protest as I have felt increasingly desperate about the climate and ecological emergency.
As we know, climate change is already having catastrophic effects across the world. Governments are continuing to fail to meet their own targets of carbon reduction, and the effects of this are spiralling to a frightening degree. After spending a long time with climate science and observing the actions of our own government and big corporations, I no longer have faith in these institutions to handle this emergency. They are not making the radical changes that are necessary to mitigate the worst of the effects of climate heating and ecological devastation, and their actions continue to be woefully inadequate.
I understand why it is difficult for these institutions to take the radical actions they need to take, and, I can no longer stand by and witness their lack of action. In the tradition of other movements demanding radical change, I stand with Extinction Rebellion and their strategy of non-violent direct action, as I strongly believe that these last-resort strategies have the best chance of effecting the kinds of changes we need to effect.
I know that this doesn’t make Extinction Rebellion popular with large sections of society, especially those resisting drastic change and those with the most to lose. I know that this uses up precious police and court resources. I deeply regret the inconvenience and distress that our disruption causes to the public.
I also believe that this disruption is ethically necessary in the face of the much huger catastrophes that await us if the current levels of emissions continue – food shortages, mass migrations, more catastrophic extreme weather events, extinctions… We all know about this crisis, but we turn away.
I can no longer turn away. I am willing to accept the consequence of my actions, which I carried out in the name of our precious Earth.”
Satya Robyn is a Buddhist teacher, writer, psychotherapist, and you can find out more about her love letters to the planet at www.dearearth.co.uk.
I have recently retired after for 26 years in the NHS as a psychotherapist. I am also a mindfulness teacher in the Buddhist tradition. Over the years of my practice I have developed a familiarity with my inner life which ensures that I do not act impulsively. My decision to occupy the road on the 18th October was based on a long period of reflection, research and discussion with friends.
My reasons are as follows:
That we are in a situation of climate and ecological breakdown is now established beyond any reasonable doubt. The IPCC report in 2018 stated that: ‘only rapid far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society’ will hold any chance of reduce the effects of climate disruption, which includes armed conflict over resources, famine, flooding, mass extinction of species including insects and coral reefs, increasingly frequent weather events such as wild-fires, hurricanes. This is not some dystopian science fiction, or a wild alarmist shouting about end of the world, but the conclusions from thousands of research papers around the world by our best scientists over many years.
The crisis is not just happening at some comfortable distance or happening in a remote date in the future. From various studies across the world in the last year we know that we have already lost 75% of insect species, half of all wildlife, half of our tropical forests, and 24 million people were forced to move due to climate instability this year and this set to increase hugely. To take a couple of statistics in detail: we have now lost 90% of our nightingales, and 75% of our butterflies. Will our children grow into a world without butterflies – without the song of the Nightingale? What kind of a world is it that does not respond in the face of such tragedy?
I am alarmed and dismayed that in the face of this widely known and well-documented and proven evidence, that our Government’s response has been utterly inadequate.
As a psychotherapist I am only too aware of the potentially lethal costs of denial of reality. Just as an alcoholic or a drug addict continues to destroy themselves whilst claiming they have everything under control, as a species we are sleep-walking toward the precipice. In the face of this I must ask myself what am I called upon to do? What truly matters? I have 2 children in their early 20s who on our current trajectory stand to inherit an impoverished, nightmare world ravaged by famine, storms, mass migration and war.
What am I to do as a parent, as a Buddhist, as a human being? What is the path of compassion, the path of wisdom in our current terrifying predicament? If there is anyone in this courtroom who has a better solution than the action I took on the 18th October, sitting in peaceful meditation on Oxford street, please tell me. I have been an activist for most of my life and believe me, have done everything else: petitions, planning responses, marches, letters to my MP, street actions. All worthy in themselves, but the evidence is clear to me: they were not enough, not nearly enough. My decision to engage in non-violent civil disobedience was not an easy choice, but I can see no other.
I would like to submit the defence of necessity. On this I note the following definition from Archbold (2019) .. (17- 117):
Stephen, Digest of the Criminal Law, p. 9, says that an act which would otherwise be a crime may in some cases be excused if the defendant can show:
(a) that it was done only in order to avoid consequences which could not otherwise be avoided and which, if they had followed, would have inflicted upon him, or upon others whom he was bound to protect, inevitable and irreparable evil;
(b) that no more was done than was reasonably necessary for that purpose; and
(c) that the evil inflicted by it was not disproportionate to the evil avoided.”
To take each in turn:
a) That my actions were taken in order to avoid ‘inevitable and irreparable evil’ is I think beyond reasonable doubt. I can think of no other disaster in the history of our civilisation that comes close in scale and magnitude to the tide of horror and suffering which is gathering pace as we steadfastly look the other way.
b) I submit that sitting in the road was reasonable in that it was a given that all previous strategies to raise the alarm have failed to change our course.
c) I hope it is self evident that the evil inflicted – which was at the level of inconvenience to the public – was not disproportionate to the evil avoided . Here we are comparing the possibility of some inconvenience to some members of the public with the certainty of incalculable suffering on already occurring on a global scale and which is set to intensify.
And so to conclude I submit that the defence of necessity applies in my case.
And from a personal perspective, non-violent civil disobedience is the path I have chosen, and did not choose lightly, but only after reflection and an examination of the evidence from my own experience of activism and from the evidence of its historical efficacy.
My conclusion, to summarise, is this:
As a society we are out of time.
And I am out of options.
Joe is a a vipassana meditation practitioner and teacher, psychotherapist and long-time activist.
I am 67 in March and up until 2019 I have been a law-abiding citizen. I have spent my working life in business and organisations as a leadership professional focusing on Leadership Responsibility and business practice, with a strong belief that principle centred businesses could contribute to a sustainable and safe future.
However, when in 2019 I became aware of the compelling scientific evidence around the immediate climate crisis, I realised that it was too late to rely on business to drive the agenda for change, particularly in view of the wide spread ignorance and denial of scientific evidence.
It was then I decided to actively see what I could do to help build awareness of our predicament. I am pleased to say that we now are living at a time where awareness of the climate crisis is widespread. However, response to that knowledge falls short and it was this that dro.ve me to add my voice to those with growing concerns that we are moving past key deadlines that will radically impact our environment and future generations
In the UK I would like to be able to say that our Government is responding accordingly, and indeed we are hearing the right words being spoken, but unfortunately in many instances the actions are directly contradictory to what was being said(see below).
This was made evident to me when, just before my arrest in September, I visited the HS2 camp at Jones Hill, and unfortunately directly witnessed this hypocrisy. I also witnessed it again at the Euston Square site in London and it was then I decided that I wanted to use my legitimate right to protest by sitting in protest on Lambeth Bridge.
Below I have listed the factual evidence of the duplicitous statements made by the Government and the reality in terms of the HS2 project
“At home we are putting biodiversity targets into law; removing deforestation from our own supply chains” (Boris Johnson )
“We are going to make sure the natural world stays right there, top of the global agenda” (Boris Johnson 2020)
“Left unchecked the consequences will be catastrophic for us all” (Boris Johnson 2020)
“Extinction is forever” (Boris Johnson)
Fact: HS2 is currently the biggest deforestation project in Europe
Fact: HS2 will not be carbon neutral in its 120 year lifespan-HS2 Review
As well as destroying our natural ancient woodland heritage, there is scientific evidence, endorsed by David Attenborough, which points to a direct correlation between pandemics and the displacement of virus carrying smaller mammals through deforestation and biodiversity breakdown.
Our PM’s recent words reflect the urgency of the climate crisis and yet continuing projects like HS2 directly contradicts his own declarations. Opposition from the public to HS2 is increasing daily and a growing number of MPs are also beginning to question its legitimacy and need.
In summary I felt compelled to call out and hold the government to account for not living up to it’s strong and public commitments and for actively pursuing such projects that demonstrate that their words are merely that, just words – but ones with damaging consequences.
Paul Wielgus combines his Buddhist and secular mindfulness teaching with Eco-Dharma practices such as Joanna Macy’s ‘Work That Reconnect’; he is currently engaging in an enquiry into Buddhist attitudes to racial justice and related issues.
The letter below comes from our friends at Buddhists Across Traditions. We encourage you to attend their short sunrise and sunset meditations that they are putting together for Earth Day on the 22nd of April. They are also coordinating a film to showcase what all the Buddhist organisations are doing for the climate emergency and we will put something together on behalf of XR Buddhists. If you would like to contribute please contact email@example.com by the 27th of March. Please share this letter with your local Sanghas and Buddhist groups and encourage them to respond.
Dear Dharma Practitioners & Elders,
The earth is not just our environment. The earth is our mother.
(Dalai Lama XIV & Thich Nhat Hanh)
We hope this letter finds you safe, peaceful and happy.
The Earth and caring for the earth are fundamental to our Buddhist practice: the Buddha touched the earth on attaining enlightenment. You may be aware already how the destruction of nature and the resources of nature is impacting us all. Our respected teachers attribute this to ignorance, greed and separation from the earth and other living beings.
We are grateful for the numerous contributions Buddhists across all traditions and schools are making to address this. We write to you for us to collectively come together to show our commitment to our practice and the Earth- together we are one.
WE ARE THE EARTH – 22nd April, Earth Day
We invite you, along with your sangha practitioners, to come together on Earth Day to sit together and honour the Earth, generating the energy of healing, harmony and peace.
We are delighted to offer a communal online space at sunrise and sunset for practitioners across all traditions to sit together in harmony. Please join us with your sangha. We will be gathering to practice for 30 minutes at 0600 (sunrise) and 2000 (sunset) on Zoom. The zoom link for those meetings is here (https://us02web.zoom.us/j/83386645643). There will be an opportunity for members to practice in accordance with their tradition. Please find attached some images to promote the event to your membership/practitioners.
We ask that you also encourage your members to take the opportunity to commit to some action to mark the day. A list of possible actions is included here.
Honouring Buddhist Earth Action Achievements
For this day we would like to take the opportunity to gather and showcase the numerous projects and commitments Buddhist groups, organisations and networks have been doing around climate, environmental justice and caring for the earth.
We would like to invite you to showcase your achievements, please send us a short submission (statements/presentations/videos) outlining what you have done/are doing by the 30th March. We will then consolidate all submissions, which will then be shared on social media on the day and also sent to relevant outlets. We will also send you a completed version for your own use on social media or other fora.
We look forward to future collaboration as we work across traditions to take care and raise awareness of the preciousness of our Earth. We will be in touch again to see how we may unite for upcoming milestone events like the G7 conference and the global climate change conference – COP26.
May all beings live in harmony with the earth and one another,
Kamlo, Mikey, Rehena
Buddhists Across Traditions
www.buddhistsacrosstraditions.org Who we are: Buddhists across Traditions is a UK BPOC/BAME-centered collective (with white allies and currently white-led organisations) uniting Buddhist and Mindfulness groups in service of racial healing, social equity and justice. We recognise that our practices can blossom a radically different society.
There were six groups who came together to address the main theme of ‘What would Buddha do?’ by sharing reflections on the talk given by Joe, and responding to the questions’ What are appropriate Buddhist responses to the emergency?’’ What can Buddhism offer climate activism?’ and ‘Where do Buddhism and XR action converge /diverge? ‘
All groups touched on the theme of compassion pointing out that it is appropriate for Buddhists to put compassion first, and that Buddhists are more likely to focus on compassion than rage. Wisdom also needed to relate compassionately to those suffering, and that Buddhists can help others to turn towards difficult truths with compassion. Buddhism can provide a unifying soothing balm, and compassion and mindfulness are expressions of regenerative culture.
On the theme of unity and interconnection, it was said that collaboration and interfaith action help to change the shared narrative. It is appropriate for Buddhists to respond by supporting others, joining together, emphasising interconnectivity, expressing interbeing and sowing seeds of hope Also we can help our communities, including our own Buddhist communities, to get on board. Using tantric precepts, we can care for our own energy and the energy of others in the climate activism movement.
Regarding taking non violent direct action, people felt that our practice can help us to define our authentic edge with this, and respond with honesty , and also that a sense of urgency should accompany the underlying sense of compassion and love. Being out of our comfort zone is itself part of our practice, as is reflecting on the personal practice that relates to inconveniencing others, and these help us to grow. We can find ways to exercise respectful remonstration when needed. Buddhism is itself a revolutionary approach to life and radical action can take many diverse forms. We can each reflect on how to be most effective: by trying to wake others up, or by focusing on waking ourselves up ?
People felt that the qualities that Buddhists can bring to climate activism, through sitting and walking meditation and our general presence , include:-
stillness; peace; silent witnessing: embodied equanimity; dignity; determination ; the power of bearing witness; non violence and deescalation.
Finally with regard to the Buddhist faith itself, in relation to activism, participants mentioned the importance of taking refuge over and over, reliance on faith and practice, inclusion of devotional aspects into activism , and the inspiration of the timeless quality of the teachings of the Buddha.
2021 is going to be a big year for actions (pandemic willing!). And XR Buddhists want to be prepared for it. We’ve taken part in many actions as a group, including mass meditation, closing down banks for the afternoon, arrests for sitting in a road as well as online actions. When we had our recent workshop on ‘how will XR Buddhists change the world in 2021’ I was really taken with the number of ideas people had for things that we could do. These included:
Massive die in to show that climate change means suffering and death
Action in tufton street/think tanks
Earth day action in spring
Earth overshoot day action
Rebellion of One
World Water Day
Action around flooding
Meditate outside Newspaper/Media Corporations
Meditate in Parks during lockdown with an info board
Coordinated actions (vigil/sits/ silent march) in different geographies on same day: i.e. Earth day or Nov UN Climate Change Conference
Mass chantings at the next Rebellion
We’d like to get a group together to discuss how we can turn these things into reality. You don’t need to be arrestable to join this group! Actions require lots of people, including people to take photos, to update media, to be a Legal Observer, to steward, to offer wellbeing and more.
If you would like to keep in touch with this group please join the new actions Telegram channel here. If you aren’t sure what Telegram is then you can email firstname.lastname@example.org. We will have our first meeting on Friday 5th March at 1700 and you can join that on zoom. As ever, details of our events can be found on our events page.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A lady dressed in green, with flowers in her hair, is holding a big blue planet Earth in her arms. She has a rope around her neck, and she’s being dragged through the streets of Cambridge (UK) by some scary-looking monster academics, complete with black gowns and mortar-boards — and very black hands. Dancers all in red are miming their grief. There’s a samba band, and a procession of people with banners and placards, many of them with black hands too.
It’s the Oily Hands Extinction Rebellion protest, drawing attention to the University of Cambridge’s long-standing refusal to take approximately £400m out of investments in fossil fuel extraction, and to sever its many links with the climate-wrecking fossil fuel industry.
I’m nervous. We’re right under the noses of many police. As we get near Trinity College (the College with the largest fossil fuel investments) I make sure I’m near the front of the procession. Suddenly I’m jumping over a low parapet and heading for the nearest part of the College, fumbling in my bag for the chalk-spray can. I put my left hand on Trinity College’s wall, and spray around it like a stencil, leaving an image of my hand just like people did in the Stone Age. I manage this 5 times, before feeling a gentle but firm grip round my arms, and a deep voice saying something about arrest.
9 of us were arrested and charged, mainly with ‘criminal damage’ — despite the fact we deliberately used chalk spray, which is very soluble in water, and the images were cleaned off almost immediately.
That was 28 August 2020 — near the end of a summer which had felt quite busy for me. I’d d-locked my neck to the main gate of the Schlumberger Research Centre (infrastructure support to the fossil fuel industry) for 4.5 hours. I’d mimed in an inflatable dinosaur suit (mocking Darwin College for failing to evolve and divest from fossil fuels). On a hot busy Saturday afternoon,along with 15 others, I had stood completely naked for 40 minutes outside Kings College (the Naked Truth about our vulnerability to climate and biodiversity breakdown). And so on.
Some Buddhists see this kind of activism as nothing to do with Buddhism. Some Buddhists feel that they do want to take direct action on these issues, but aren’t sure how to do that in ways appropriate to their spiritual practice.
I’m in the second category, but the question of how to respond appropriately is very live for me. I agree that the climate/natural world breakdown, and the global structural racism underpinning it, is a desperate emergency. I also agree with the XR emphasis on ordinary law-abiding people speaking out non-violently in many different ways, including disruptive actions risking arrest and imprisonment. But exactly how to speak out? How far to go? Is everything that is non-violent OK? And what is non-violence?
Starting from first principles, I think as Buddhists we need to respond in ways appropriate to what’s actually happening around us. When he came across the sick monk, the Buddha did not say to himself: I will benefit the world more if I spend the next hour teaching meditation and giving a Dharma talk. He himself cleaned up the sick monk — and then gave one of his most memorable teachings about responding to suffering. (Vinaya Pitaka, Mahavagga 8.26.1-8).
I’m not suggesting that Buddhists should do nothing but various kinds of social work and activism. Personally I do see activism as a crucial part of my spiritual practice, not the whole of it. But I think that things are so urgent today, that people of faith in particular need to speak out. And it’s important that we do that from as resourced and as skilful a place as possible. We need to go on retreat, to meditate, to do traditional Buddhist practices. But we need the life of activity, as well as the life of calm. We need to ground our practice in reality, to test the qualities and insights we develop, by challenging what is going on.
You might agree with all that in principle, but still question the efficacy, or even the ethics, of these slightly confrontational direct action tactics. And isn’t it all a bit undignified — even un-Buddhist?
Well. I do wonder if we sometimes get into a somewhat etherealized notion of Buddhism, or even the Buddha. The Buddha of the Pali Canon was on occasion perhaps surprisingly down-to-earth. At one point, for example, the Buddha criticised his cousin Devadatta in very forthright terms. He later argued that what might seem harsh speech was, in this very particular case, a lesser evil (Abhaya Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya 58). The wisest way of responding in that particular situation. The Buddha also spoke out against some of the most sensitive and tightly-held beliefs supporting the social power-structures of his day, including the caste system.
I wonder if sometimes we want to escape from samsara by turning our backs on samsara. Perhaps we just don’t want to get our hands dirty with the world’s problems. Some Buddhists of my kind of age-group (I’m 54) seem to see activism as a youthful phase they’ve long since grown out of. I’m just referring to negative tendencies we can all slip into. I accept that we all need to rest from engaging with the world’s problems from time to time (I do anyway) — and traditional practices can be vital spiritually. But majoring on them exclusively can also be a negative turning away from the world, a mask for inertia and fear.
I do accept that there can be serious ethical issues around direct action. People can be seriously inconvenienced, or even feel bullied, by roadblocks for example. People can feel personally attacked when an institution is criticised. But to me it seems like there is a fire, and we need to shout to get peoples’ attention. Shouting will annoy people, at least momentarily, but that really is a lesser evil compared to not raising the alarm.
The global response to the pandemic graphically demonstrates how most people have not got the message about climate and biodiversity breakdown, as well as the global structural racism that underpins it. Coronavirus has been front page news every day since March 2020, economies and businesses have been turned upside down, not to mention the ordinary lives of billions of people. But the breakdown of the Earth’s living systems is a far bigger problem, which calls for this kind of response as a bare minimum, and that is not happening anything like enough.
The Earth’s living systems, and issues of global justice, are talked about in contemporary politics, but with almost no positive results overall. So how do people’s worldviews change? How do important institutions change? There is some similarity with women in the UK 100 years ago being excluded from the political process. The mainstream ‘common sense’ view was that women should not have the vote, that women were not even capable of thinking politically. Does anyone think that women would have been given the vote, if they hadn’t spoken out, argued and campaigned for it?
Protest can make a difference. On 1 October 2020, the University of Cambridge announced that it would divest from all direct and indirect investments in fossil fuels by 2030 and cut its greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2038. That was after a five year campaign by Zero Carbon Cambridge, and many people. It’s hard to believe that change happens without people speaking up for it.
Having said all that, I don’t think that any tactics are justified. Of course we should be non-violent in the sense of not hurting people physically. But what about emotional non-violence? I think certain tactics, such as perhaps breaking things, can provoke so much revulsion that the tactic stops being a lesser evil and becomes counterproductive. There is a sweet spot: enough disruption to raise people’s awareness and hopefully lead to dialogue eventually, but not so much that people turn off and completely shut down. It’s a hard thing to assess. And the people causing the disruption will always be unpopular, all the more so when they’re bringing bad news.
In my own life I have been emphasising this more ‘spiky/spicy’ end of activism, risking arrest and so on. But that hasn’t always been and (I hope) won’t always be the case. Useful and meaningful resistance is a wide spectrum, which for me definitely includes all Buddhist practices. Writing letters, holding up banners, theatre, music, going on marches and so on can all be effective ways of making a point or getting dialogue going. There are myriad ways of doing activism, or supporting it. Some of the best activism might be trying to skilfully talk about these issues with anyone we know personally.
Whatever form of speaking out, resistance, activism is right for you — I wish you well with it.
Can activism be a real spiritual practice?
I think what is spiritual practice will be different for every person. But here are some thoughts about my own experience. I think activism has helped me develop deeper metta, equanimity and even insight. I notice that I generally feel much less angry about these issues than I did when I first got really concerned about climate breakdown back in 2006. And I’m glad not to be so angry! Anger can be a positive energy for me, but can also take me into tiredness and depression — especially if the news isn’t good. I’ve had to really reflect on my own views and states of mind. I’ve encountered people with opinions and worldviews diametrically opposite to mine, or just different to mine. Like many activists, I’ve been shouted at, criticised in the local press and on social media, and physically assaulted. I’ve done a lot of reflecting on the conditionality of those people, on mine, on the impermanence of everyone and everything I love — including the beauty and impermanence of the natural world itself.
So I’ve been trying to help preserve what I love, whilst also trying to accept that there will not be a happy ending, almost certainly there will be a great deal of human suffering and destruction of the natural world.
The situation has almost forced me to move towards my fears. I’m not just afraid of what will happen to the world, myself and people I love in the future. I also just feel afraid of speaking out, of being seen as wrong or even criminal — afraid even of being seen.
I think under the pressure of my ongoing activism my Buddhist practice has helped me let go of my negative emotions, such as fear and anger — to some extent! And I’ve been almost forced to clarify: what do I really think, what are my values, what do I really care about? I’ve been almost forced to look after my heart, to nourish and connect with my spiritual inspiration — a deeper energy.
And my heart has opened, keeps opening more, to the power of sangha. The extraordinary beauty of other people’s idealism, which inspires and sustains me.
There are many ways of practising, many ways of doing activism, and there can be a grittier side. At the time of writing this, I’ve been charged with criminal damage (for chalk spraying on a wall). I’ll be self-representing at my trial in a few months time. I’m pleading not guilty, but will probably be convicted and have to pay a fine, compensation and court costs, possibly have to do community service, and the prosecution is seeking a Criminal Banning Order. In the longer term, I will have a criminal record and that might threaten my job as a carer. And I am surprised at how much this one case is affecting me (and my partner). Partly I find there’s a sort of emotional weight to the whole thing of being called a criminal.
Now, all that might sound a bit daunting, and there are limits to what I’m happy to give. But I’ve almost no regrets so far, and this still feels the right direction for me. It’s how I feel free, richer, happier, and more authentically myself. I do actually feel like I have been touching the Earth more — coming into a closer relationship with reality both internally and externally. In the end, I need to speak out somehow.
I walk around in aimless circles in the old woodland, squeezing damp fallen leaves and mud beneath impatient feet. Maybe if I keep pushing on I’ll outrun the heavy density and restlessness in my body and my tumbling thoughts. My senses are battered by the incessant manic metal chatter of heavy machinery from across the lane to the north. Thousands of houses are being built to meet Government housing quotas. I sense the pain and tug of the earth dragged at by massive metal teeth, carving and reshaping the rolling landscape I have grown to know as home.
Two perfect pine cones lying amongst the soft splendour of moist autumn leaves bring me back to earth. I pick them up and cradle them in my palm, gazing at the intimate complexity of their tiny branches. I clutch one in each hand like precious talismans from an ancient living power that might ward off the encroaching urban sprawl which is spreading over this soft green world. Some yards further on In the welcome embrace of a dark path between rhododendrons and tall elms I am greeted by a small plastic skeleton hand lying on the woodland floor, severed from its skeleton body and fallen here, a plastic exclamation mark announcing mortality. Not far beyond a thin metal tombstone leans askew against a hawthorne tree, and nearby, with a coincidence which is beginning to seem like a conspiracy, two plastic containers of something called hypochlorite acid, adorned with graphics of injury poison and death. A tableau takes shape. I place one of the pine cones in the plastic skeleton hand supported by the poison container. The gravestone marks this place of deathliness and life’s renewal.
Meanwhile as if in reply, the cathedral of trees above me toss their branches in the strong wind. Nature levered from its natural easy rhythms, roused toward boiling point. Like the wind that rammed into my house last night with the force of a bus. Inspired by this reminder of nature’s raw power, its endless capacity to rebound, to survive and regrow, my heart fills with the fierce triumphant power of this wild Earth. I want to pour myself into the trees, into their dense rooted insistence of being, into the muscularity of trunk and branch. I want to wrap myself in the soft Earth of autumn, to sink into the darkness, to enfold myself in its musky embrace and sleep deep and full the whole Autumn through.
Oh never have I found a home so complete. A resting place, a belonging. A love as true as this.