Somerset Silent Rebellion in action outside Barclays Bank in Yeovil, Somerset 16th September 2023
At a recent meeting of the XR Buddhists Action Design Circle we discussed the themes from XR strategy of local engagement and outreach. We decided that it would be good to open up the discussion to the whole XR Buddhist sangha. I thought it might be helpful to share my experience here in Somerset as an example.
My first action with XR, involved sitting outside Barclays Bank in Yeovil in February 2019 as part of an action organised by South Somerset XR (SSXR). So it was meaningful for me when this July, in response to a call from XR Buddhists (XRB) to organise local actions on the same day, sitting at Barclays Banks, to try to get something happening at Barclays in Yeovil again.
Six of us participated – me from XRB, a retired vicar from Christian Climate Action (CCA), and four members (old friends) from SSXR group. The action was a great success, with a nice write-up in local media. The CCA guy was the only one with experience of this type of action. The local rebels were most happy with the way it enabled them to get the message out without any aggression, and in a visually arresting way. One of them had never meditated before, and really enjoyed it. They said, please invite us next time.
Afterwards I reflected on the fact that I had been the only Buddhist present, despite my having invited my local sangha, so I decided that in future we would need a more inclusive name, and with permission from the Cambridge group, Silent Rebellion, I created Somerset Silent Rebellion, with a Telegram chat group, now 23 members strong.
So, when the opportunity came along for another local Barclays action in September, I put out the call, and this time nine came (50% increase) – the same six from before, plus a local buddhist, a guy from Animal Rebellion, and another CCA person. Another successful action – no local media, but useful photo sharing in various buddhist and general forums, plus a plan for a Barclays meditative action at the XR southwest regional gathering (Unite to Survive) in Bath on 28th October.
The reason I’m writing this article is to encourage XR Buddhists to follow the strategic direction of XR central towards going local and reaching out to other groups. Since involving with XRB in late 2019 I’ve been up to London lots of times to join actions, but it takes time, money and effort from here in Somerset. XRB friends from further afield just don’t make it. XRB actions have been rather southeast-centric.
You can see the benefits from our Somerset experience – more people involved, more local visibility (arguably more impactful than sitting in a busy London street), less traveling, and adding to the range of styles of action that general rebels know of.
If you would like to share your thoughts on this, please write a response in the Telegram chat group and/or join the XRB Action Design Circle, on whose behalf I’ve written this piece. The XRB Action Design Circle is committed to providing materials and guidance to support people organising locally.
Three years ago I took part in civil resistance for the first time when I joined Extinction Rebellion for their October 2019 uprising. On my fourth day with XR I was finally arrested, minutes after my friend Satya Robin had been carried past me by six police officers, sobbing deeply. I’ve written before of that first experience of arrest but what’s kept coming back to me from those four days isn’t that, but rather the long walk home along the Thames on each of the previous three nights.
There were about 5000 of us taking action in Westminster that October, but the moment you stepped outside the protests there was no sign at all that anything was happening. Everywhere else, London just hummed along as normal. So too on the UK news channels that we all kept looking to for evidence of our actions’ ‘impact’. Barely a mention. The dissonance this generated – as if stepping back and forth each day between two completely different realities – came to a head on the third of those slow night-walks home, as I found myself looking across the Thames at the ongoing redevelopment of Battersea Power Station. The familiar old chimney-stacked giant was surrounded by the dark outlines of cranes, all lit up with red safety lights. It presented an eerily beautiful spectacle: the massive station hulked against the dark skyline beyond the river’s swirling current, surrounded by little votive lights. As I stood looking at it the unease finally gathered itself into a question that, once spoken, has never really gone away: Who exactly are you kidding?
Last week I travelled up to London to take part in my first action with XR’s offspring, Just Stop Oil. There’s much to say about how the nature and tone of this new campaign has changed since 2019. As has XR’s, perhaps. What’s on my mind here, though, is how it felt to revisit the now fully revamped power station – or rather, shopping mall – the day before our JSO team walked out into a busy Aldgate junction and sat down.
Stepping inside the illuminated interior of this newly completed playground for the rich (‘every inch monetised’ as one reviewer put it) wasn’t so different to looking at it from across the river three years ago. Here in this newly unwrapped shopping mall, then, I met more or less what I’d come expecting to meet: a palpable sense of the overwhelming momentum which these civil resistance campaigns have been attempting to set their shoulder against – the brightly lit state of entrancement at the heart of our oil-fuelled consumer economy. But the reason I’m bothering to talk about this here isn’t simply to go over all that. It’s a conversation I had with my friend Geoff the following day, my limbs still heavy with that spectacle of cheerful omnicide, a few hours before heading off to meet up with the JSO team.
Geoff’s an artist and builder, and someone for whom honesty’s an involuntary virtue. When we first met around twelve years ago I’d recently become drawn to Japanese Pureland Buddhism, in large part through the unforgettable book on this tradition by the novelist Hiroyuki Itsuki: Tariki: embracing despair, discovering peace. Itsuki’s spiritual memoir spoke deeply to me at the time, as it does now. It also connected with Geoff in a way I doubt any other ‘dharma book’ would have. The melancholic authority of Itsuki’s account of his lifelong survivor’s guilt, and of how he found in the Pureland dharma of Other Power a recourse that stayed his hand more than once from taking his own life – all this feels as alive and real to me now as it did then. As I sat with Geoff in a cramped Conway Hall coffee shop I talked with him about that sense of overwhelm, stood before the old power station three years ago and last night – and about the shrillness or silliness, as it seemed to me, of any of us imagining we might somehow turn this juggernaut around ‘in the next two or three years’.
Geoff listened, intent as always. Then he asked if I might not have all this the wrong way around. Suppose it was more the case, he said, that whatever turn this is, it’s something already here – embodied not least by each of these little London roadblocks: an inexorable process of slippage with its own unpredictable tipping points, as our lethal dominant culture transitions or collapses, for better or worse, into whatever comes after it. We might choose to try and influence that transition or not, as we wish, but whatever it may or may not evolve into later is not only radically unknowable from where we stand, but curiously irrelevant.
At the heart of Itsuki’s memoir is a memory. As a 13-year-old boy he nearly lost his life when he attempted to swim the Taedong river, in full spate after heavy rains. As he reached the middle of the river Itsuki realised he wasn’t going to make it, his limbs weakening in the cold as the river’s ferocious undertow began to overpower him. By the time he somehow made it back to the bank and crawled out, this experience of the inexorable drag of the Taedong current had filled the young Itsuki with a deep sensation of his own powerlessness – a physical sensation rather than an idea, one that never left him. It’s this heavy-limbed understanding of his incapacity as an isolated individual, Itsuki tells us, that forms the beating heart of his lifelong understanding of Other Power: ‘A single drop of water in a mighty river. A person is a single drop of water in a mighty river.’
For more than ten years now this sense of being born on an invisible current is how I’ve most viscerally related to a sense of Other Power. Sometimes I’ve spoken of this current as Mother – Our Mother at the Bottom of Time, as my rosary-praying friends like to say – sometimes as Amida, Oya Sama – sometimes simply as Spirit. Whatever. I’m not very good with names – an incorrigible fidget – but insofar as Other Power feels palpable to me, it’s in these gravitational terms. Like Itsuki says, an involuntary bodily sensation rather than an idea – neither a reward for anything, nor something achieved through effort or ‘spiritual attainment’. Just, how things are when we stop trying to manipulate reality to suit our preferences.
As the familiar long wait to be processed after the JSO roadblock played itself out I spoke to my arresting officer about the chances of survival if one were to fall into the Thames at night. Not good, apparently. One of the things I learnt from this man is that the Thames has up to eleven different currents moving within it at any one time, which along with the deep cold are part of what makes it so dangerous. I don’t know where any of this goes next, and seem to have lost track of what I’d even mean by hope or despair, but I think Geoff’s right about these campaigns. Our individual actions and these transient alliances they sometimes coalesce into are of course integral to whatever transition we’re living through. A single drop of water in a mighty river. But more simply than that, what our involvement in these campaigns offers us is a way to live our lives right now as if causing harm to others – or rather, seeking not to – matters. To align our daily lives with the steadying current of nonviolence, ahimsa, caught up as we arein a collective act of intergenerational harm whose scale renders it literally unthinkable within the entranced bubble that is business as usual.
None of this feels resolved, but in here somewhere is why I feel the core of my own response to biospheric collapse, now, is to find and connect with friends with whom to lean back into Other Power with whatever years I have left. To keep turning towards living the dharma in company, as we align together with whatever un-nameable current these friendships form part of, whether or not we find ourselves presently locked or glued on to anything.
I spent most of 2021 planning for COP in Glasgow, I helped to organise an interfaith pilgrimage from London and Bristol all the way to Glasgow. I stayed in Glasgow for the duration of the conference, along with many other activists peacefully holding space in the streets. On the last night of the conference I took part in an overnight interfaith vigil with many of the people I’d travelled with in the previous months. We lit candles and sat together and took turns to walk silently in small groups down to the conference centre with our placards and send our love to the people inside who were working on getting a deal. I remember being disconnected from everything in Glasgow – but I cried that night. I cried leaning against the chain link fence, where we had tied our ribbons with their messages of hope. I cried as dawn broke with all the anger I felt there being so little to show for our year of efforts.
It took me several months after coming back to recover from being away for so long, and from the heartbreak of another COP opportunity wasted. And life turned again, I had to find work, retrain, and reorientate my life. And so this year I’ve been far less aware of COP, and it’s taken me a while to find space to stop and breathe and allow myself the openness to engage a little with what is happening. COP is happening in Egypt this year from the 6-18th of November. And there will be vigils once again.
I go through cycles in my relationship with activism. Sometimes the scale of the challenge seems so vast, and the immediate results so vague and minimal that my motivation dwindles. But what I come back to is that just because I live in a world of complex political, social and economic systems – it doesn’t let me off the hook from engaging. I can’t control what happens in the outside world, but I can choose to turn towards suffering. To witness it. To be present for it. I can choose that.
There were emails fluttering into my inbox about COP, about vigils, and about political prisoners in Egypt and it’s taken me a while to turn towards that suffering. I was sent this article about COP by Naomi Klein about what it means to have COP in Egypt.
The Egyptian communities and organisations most affected by environmental pollution and rising temperatures will be nowhere to be found in Sharm el-Sheikh. There will be no toxic tours, or lively counter-summits, where locals get to school international delegates behind their government’s PR. Organising events like this would land Egyptians in prison for spreading “false news” or for violating the protest ban.
In the article, she focuses on a British-Egyptian citizen Abd El-Fattah who is being held in prison in Egypt on terrorism charges for a post he made on social media about torture. He is a pro-democracy activist and figurehead of the 2011 uprising. A book of his writing, many of which were smuggled out of prison, has just been published. It is called You Have Not Yet Been Defeated (the title of this blog post). The title reminds me that I am not in prison, and I can speak out, and that there is still hope.
So I’ve bought the book. And I’ve signed up for some vigil slots. And so my COP this year is going to be less on the streets. But I do want to use this as an opportunity for myself to turn towards suffering, particularly the intersection of political struggle and climate. I’m grateful for all the activist work that is happening, often at much greater cost than I face when I go to the streets or even when I am arrested. This year I’m going to spend some time understanding more about what is happening in Egypt, and sharing that with people when I have the opportunity.
If you would like to take part in the daily vigils in London they will be outside the Carriage Gate entrance to Parliament between 1 and 2pm daily between 6th and 18th November – more information here. Sarah MacDonald is also organising a daily vigil between 1200 and 1300 on College Green in Bristol during COP and you can contact herat firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
The life story of the Buddha is a great source of teachings, very relevant to today. Born into a royal family, before enlightenment, the Buddha was Prince Siddhartha. There had been a prophecy after his birth that he would either become a great emperor, or a great spiritual teacher.
Because his parents wanted a successor, they feared the latter possibility, so they kept him closeted in the palace, entertained (distracted), and satiated with every sort of worldly pleasure. Rather like our privileged lives before we notice that all is not well in the world, this was all he knew.
Driven by curiosity, just like us at a certain stage in our life, Siddhartha secretly ventures outside the palace four times, each time encountering a sign that causes him to reflect on the reality of the human condition. The first three signs are of ageing, sickness, and death respectively.
In our time, at a global level, we face the challenge of a global pandemic, and of mass extinction, which correspond to the second and third signs.
On his fourth venture into the outside world, Siddhartha witnesses a meditator sitting silently and peacefully on the ground, engaged in the deep inner process of going beyond ageing, sickness, and death. The prince is inspired. It is this fourth vision that leads him to renounce his palace and its pleasures and set out into the world to seek enlightenment, whereby he will transcend his own suffering and more importantly become a genuine and powerful support and teacher to others lost in the confusions of the world.
When people witness XR Buddhists’ actions – sitting in silent meditation inside or outside banks and other sources of the climate and ecological emergency, something touches them deep down. They are often drawn to read the placards around our necks and the leaflets we offer them. It’s not just the words they read that touches them, but the power of the stillness with which we sit in meditation.
There are many kinds of protest, violent and non-violent, loud, and silent etc. Protests make demands on those in power, to do what the protesters want. Occasionally they produce change of direction by their targets. They either inspire or annoy passers-by, probably in equal measure.
I am not sure that XR Buddhist actions are really ‘protests’ in this sense. The term ‘vigil’ is nearer to what they are, but still doesn’t quite convey the power of witnessing meditation, since vigil implies watchfulness, and meditation is more of a deepening into inner stillness.
Siddhartha’s consciousness was transformed by witnessing the fourth sign. As a result, he took a totally new direction in life, and completely turned his back on the old way of life.
Today there is no hope for our world if we continue with business as usual. The only possibility for emergence from the polycrisis is a global transformation of consciousness and collective will towards a completely different society, culture, economics, and politics.
If passers-by witness an XRB action it is hard to say just what is the impact. May it be transformative and help them to recognise the need for a new civilisation, harmonious with the ecology and with one another. When I participate in an action this is my wish.
Recently I’ve been reading George Monbiot’s Regenesis. It begins by describing problems with our existing global food systems. Problems with how we treat the soil; with how we pollute the earth, rivers and sea; how we use far too much land; and so on.
Reading this first part of the book my spirits dropped. The problems facing the world are so large and complex, and the forces invested in keeping things as they are so great, is there any hope, I wondered?
As I began reading the second half of the book I noticed my spirits lifting. In the second half Monbiot is meeting and talking to people who are coming up with solutions, with alternative ways of farming, and so on. I try to keep in mind what he said about Feral, his book about depleted nature that proposed rewilding as a solution: how at the time rewilding was a concept that was laughed out of the door, and that now, a decade later, it’s now considered a viable option. Things can change.
It’s striking how much my mood and view changes depending on what I’m paying attention to, the bad news or the news of positive change.
In many of the activist spaces I’ve noticed more people moving away from thinking about mitigation and to thinking about deep adaptation. I have noticed a big shift in people’s thinking in this direction since COP26 last year.
When I land in the view that things are definitely going to get worse and there is little I can do I have a mix of reactions. Sometimes, I feel real heartbreak at the suffering that people and other living beings are already experiencing, sometimes I feel such longing for things to be different, and a deep sense of despair at how little power I have in the face of the crisis.
And sometimes when I land in that view I feel relief and empowerment. Relief because there is something true about how awful things are, and coming into relationship with the truth ultimately brings relief, and empowerment because it leaves me with the question how can I live well in the midst of this crisis? (What does deep adaptation look like?) and that brings some energy for building strong communities etc.
“Act without expectations.” Many of you will have heard this teaching before. I heard it again from David Loy at an event on Buddhism and the Climate Crisis last weekend. Think strategically, use your wisdom to choose the best place to put your energy (as far as you can tell) take action, and let go of expecting any particular results. Trust that it’s good to act for goodness sake.
This is sometimes described as acting from hopelessness. Not the hopeless of despair that I can feel when faced with the impossibility of knowing what effective action looks like, but the hopelessness that is a deep coming to terms with that impossibility and leads to the energy to act anyway.
This acting without expectations is often held up as the more enlightened approach to activism. And there’s some truth to this, certainly if we act with expectations of particular results then we are inevitably bound for disappointment, and there is a genuine wisdom in not knowing.
And yet I do want to champion those other reactions as well: fear, despair, anger, even longing and hope. These are all natural responses to the crisis and it’s important to welcome and honour each feeling as they arise. I have lived with myself long enough now to know that they will come and go, and that while I shouldn’t treat any of them as holding the complete truth, there is some wisdom in every kind of response.
Can our Buddhist practice be large enough to encompass the whole breadth of our human experience and all the different kinds of responses to the crisis? I also trust that the more of our feelings we can welcome and meet with compassion, the more likely we are to be able to take up the invitation to act without expectation.
Vanessa Nakate is a Ugandan climate activist, who started the first climate strikes in Uganda as part of the Fridays for the Future movement. She was invited to various international conferences and was famously cropped out of an AP photo of her and other (white) climate activists. In the book, she reflects on that incident, her climate activism, racism, and there is a deep emphasis on intersectionality, particularly the links between climate and gender.
I found the book a great read, it was an enjoyable mix of things that felt familiar (eg. awkwardly holding up a sign somewhere), but in a very different context, and Vanessa’s personal reflections and history.
Some of my favourite bits of the book are the parts where she is describing her early climate activism. Where she was doing something that was difficult to explain to people, often on her own or with only a few people, often feeling ignored by passers-by. The questions of where to go, and what the signs should say felt familiar. She mentioned that she wasn’t sure what to put on the signs but included one slogan which said ‘Thanks for the Global Warming’ which was intended to be sarcastic.
However, while there were elements of her activism that felt familiar, it was also clear that she operates in a very different context. There was an illuminating discussion about how school strikes may be an option for young people in the West but are more complicated in a place like Uganda where schools have to be paid for, and where failure to attend can be more strictly punished by expulsion. She writes about adapting the school strikes for her local schools by bringing the striking into the classroom, with the consent of the teachers.
One of the threads which runs through the book is intersectionality, in particular, the intersections of gender and race with the climate crisis. One of the difficulties she has in getting more women activists involved, particularly young women, is that standing in a public place with a sign is seen as not something a marriageable woman would do. Or alternatively, she is only doing it to be noticed by men. As she becomes increasingly involved in a global movement, she becomes increasingly aware of the role racism plays in the climate change conversations, as well as the reality of the climate emergency. Not only is she cropped out of pictures, but she notes the general lack of voices from the global South and when they are included it can be in a tokenistic way. However, she also pays tribute to the many other activists, particularly women activists who have inspired the work she does and she brings their voices into the book.
Our Healing Oppression Group have created an ancestor prayer for XR Buddhists.
Before we take our next action we pause to remember our ancestors.
We remember our Indian ancestors, firstly Shakyamuni who was born in Lumbini and enlightened in Bodhgaya and set the dharma wheel turning in this age.
We remember those who came before Shakyamuni and passed their wisdom to him
We remember Mahapajapati who walked one hundred and fifty miles one step after another before becoming the first Buddhist nun.
We remember the monastic and lay disciples of the Buddha, and generations of teachers that spread Buddhism through the East and throughout the world and who refreshed the precious dharma
We remember awakened beings of all spiritual traditions trusting that wisdom appears in the world in many different ways, at many different times, in many different places.
We call to mind the wisdom of marginalised and oppressed groups, much of which has already been lost.
We remember our biological ancestors, our parents and grandparents, known and unknown, generations stretching back through time to the first humans in Africa.
We remember the ancestors of our chosen families.
We remember the ancestors of our own mindstream, the beings of our previous lives who practised dharma and brought light and joy to others.
We remember people across the world who stood against oppression and for human rights and the rights of all living things and for the earth.
We remember those who have oppressed and marginalised and harmed.
We carry the legacies of all of these ancestors, their gifts and their burdens. How wonderful to have the opportunity to work with all that has been handed down to us.
We remember our great ancestor the Earth and her great ancestor the universe itself.
“Ancient buddhas and ancestors were as we; we shall come to be buddhas and ancestors. Venerating buddhas and ancestors, we are one with buddhas and ancestors; contemplating awakened mind, we are one with awakened mind.”*
This summer, XR Buddhists are inviting you to think about how we take action in solidarity with marginalised groups.
In the first session we will be considering what solidarity is, why we might find it uncomfortable, and what actions we can personally take this summer. The emphasis is on how participants can act in solidarity with other groups, supporting other activists from marginalised groups in a variety of causes. When we work in solidarity with others we are able to magnify their voices and their causes, and increase our own knowledge and empathic understanding for the complex ways in which capitalism and colonialism intersect. There are lots of opportunities for people to support different actions, some of which are in person, some are digital activism and some include writing letters etc. There are many ways to get involved.
We will then meet up later in the summer to discuss actions we’ve taken (or not taken) and what we’ve learnt. All are invited to join us.
The first session is on Saturday the 11th of June at 1800. We will consider the following questions:
What has brought me here today?
Why do I value solidarity
What holds me back from reaching out
What am I going to do? (link people to anti-oppression telegram)
If you’d like to see some of the actions you could take part in you can join the Anti Oppression Telegram group, run by the Anti Oppression circle. It’s a broadcast channel that posts lots of different actions which are available for support.
The zoom link is here (passcode is 782585). If you aren’t able to make the meeting you are welcome to add your reflections and actions you are interested in taking below.
On May 13th Members of XR Buddhists sat in meditation and protest outside Barclays Islington. Here are some images from the action, and our letter to the bank manager.
Letter to the Manager
Members of Extinction Rebellion Buddhists UK will be sitting in protest meditation vigil at your bank today.
We are sitting to bear witness to the suffering and loss being felt by those at the front lines of climate instability being funded by your bank. Barclays has invested almost $167 billion in the last 6 years, into coal oil and gas projects and industries. The evidence is now irrefutable that fossil fuel emissions are causing climate and ecological breakdown. People of the global south, and indigenous communities are bearing the brunt of these impacts whilst having done the least to cause them.
India is now in the grip of a record-breaking heatwave, and the Horn of Africa is facing one of the worst droughts on record. Your bank is also funding projects with direct effects on local and indigenous groups such as:
the Correjon coal mine in Columbia, notorious for human rights abuses
the Enbridge tar sands pipeline in North America which cuts through pristine lands of the Chippewa and Ojibwe tribes
Arctic Oil and gas projects in the fragile Arctic, threatening the lands of the Gwich’in Athabascan peoples
We send our kindness and care to the staff of Barclays bank; their lives will also be disrupted and impoverished by climate impacts funded by their bank. But as a company it is evident that Barclays’ investment policies are complicit in systemic ecocide, injustice and racism.
Sitting in meditation we display placards which bring the unseen faces and the unheard voices of our fellow beings in the global south into the light of compassion and respect. We acknowledge that these peoples; their knowledge and traditions hold essential teachings in our relationship to the Earth which we ignore to our peril.
We urge your bank to immediately disinvest from fossil fuels and to invest in clean energy projects that can offer a future to all the inhabitants of the Earth wherever they may live.