My name is Abbie, I’m 44 and I live in Brighton. I work in a mental health service. Like most of us I have been concerned about the Climate Emergency for decades. I recycled, refused to have a car, got green energy… However, it was when environmental activism and my Buddhist practice came together that my feet took to the streets. I heard a talk from one of my Buddhist teachers Yanai Postelnik from Gaia House, just before the April Extinction Rebellion event. Yanai talked about his frustration with the lack of progress around environmental issues, and of how he overcame his own fear and joined climate demonstrations: using the symbol of palm outstretched, “Abhaya” in Pail, a gesture of the Buddha. This resonated with me, as someone with a history of problems around anxiety. Yanai also talked about the spiritual crisis we are facing, and how activism was a deep expression of our Dharma practice, a gesture of our commitment to love and truth.
So I joined the April Rebellion in London and was deeply moved by the courageous actions and loving atmosphere that I found. I then became part of XR Buddhists, feeling particularly drawn to meditating at the frontline of protests: this to me was less about trying to secure a particular outcome (although of course this is crucial), but a way of bearing witness to this pivotal moment for humanity, a prayerful action, carried out with others. In the words of another of my teachers Rob Burbea “Opening to the pain of what is going on in the world in all its confusion and complexity, in a celebration of human togetherness”
If any of this speaks to you, I would encourage you to get in touch with your local XR group, or come join XR Buddhists, you would be most welcome.
Abbie is a member of XR Buddhists and Brighton XR Meditators
The next Rebellion has been announced. Local groups will take actions in their own areas from the 28th August, and from the 1st September the rebellion will concentrate on Cardiff, Manchester and London.
Where is it?
If you are in the South West or Wales and would like to get involved please get in touch with Amber at Amber.firstname.lastname@example.org and if you are in the North of England or Scotland and would like to get involved in the Quiet Rebellion then please get in touch with Kate at email@example.com. If you think you will be coming to London then you can keep in touch with what we are doing by joining our Broadcast Telegram group. Many of us are planning to stay in London for at least the first week (starting from the 1st September). If you have any questions about how to get involved or queries about what that will look like then you can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What is it?
Usually at the Rebellions XR Buddhists take part in a mixture of walking and sitting meditations. These are an opportunity to bear witness to the climate and ecological crisis. A Sangha on the streets. There is no need to get arrested as part of this practise. XR Buddhists who have been involved in previous rebellions find that it’s a very powerful experience to meditate on the earth in such public spaces as part of a group.
We are very conscious of mitigating the risk of Covid transmission during the Rebellion. We will be practising social distancing, wearing masks and sanitising.
What can I do now?
Let people know that the Rebellion is happening, and reach out to your Buddhist friends to see if they would like to be involved in some of the events.
Help us out with spreading the word by looking at these activities we require help for (both at home activities and on the street activities) and let us know if you can help!
Ask your Sangha if they can put something in their newsletter about the Rebellion. You could send them one of the letters we have written to prepare the community for the Rebellion.
Ask your Buddhist group if they would like someone from XR Buddhists to join a meeting and talk for 5-10 minutes about what XR Buddhists are and that’s happening with the Rebellion.
If you are thinking of coming to London then think about accommodation. You can either book a hotel, hostel or airbnb, or use XR’s accommodation finding service to link you with other Rebels who may have a spare couch or garden you can camp in.
If you are going to take part in an action (or even if you aren’t planning to) you then make sure you have done your NVDA training. You can do it online if you sign up to the Rebel Academy.
We will keep updating this page and our events page with more details of what XR Buddhists will be doing. Joining our Telegram Broadcast and Telegram Chat channel is the best way of getting the latest updates.
Being a rebel feels like a natural consequence of living as a Buddhist. The Buddha wasn’t afraid to speak up against the culture of the day – peacefully and with strength – and that’s what I see Extinction Rebellion doing, in a time of great crisis for our sacred Earth. I was arrested in October 2020 but this was the least of the week I spent with other rebels – walking in meditation through the chaos with my fellow Buddhists, joining with those of other faiths and singing ‘Amazing Grace’ together on the bridge, sitting quietly beside a young girl locked into a bath-tub. We achieved a lot that week – the public conversation about the climate was different once we’d finished – and it’s time to remind Parliament that we mean business.
As Buddhists we recognise and carefully consider any problematic impacts of direct action. Here, Andy and Joe respond to Dharma challenges by a long-term practitioner.
Q Few practitioners are at the advanced stages of the path necessary to be able to cope with the challenges experienced during direct action.
A It is our experience that even relatively beginner practitioners may progress spiritually through supported, compassionate, mindful engagement with the challenges of direct action. Clearly one should only engage in direct action if one is not in danger of losing one’s spiritual foundation, and we would certainly encourage anyone who is impacted in this way to take care of themselves in whatever way they needed. There are many ways to take action of course e.g. in a support role, and not everyone will be willing or able to join protest actions on the streets.
Q Throughout the suttas there are warnings about exposing ourselves to situations where it is difficult to guard the sense doors.
A It’s true that practitioners are advised to hold back from activities that would undermine their inner stability. Therefore each person must choose how to engage in a way suitable to them. The retreat experience in which we can and do guard the sense doors is invaluable, but we continue to practice when we move out into the world. For most of us this movement in and out of the world is the reality and both can contribute to our spiritual development.
Q Direct action creates attachments that hinder our progress to awakening. Once we are “thus-achieved”, or well-advanced along the path, then direct action may be possible, even advisable, but very few of us are.
A We practice mindfulness during actions in order to hold back from being drawn into attachment and anger. This is a valuable practice in and of itself.
A key offering of the Dharma in the context of direct action is non-attachment to results. This is our perspective. It is freeing and takes the stress out of our action. Instead we focus on cultivating the wholesomeness of our motivation and do our best to be well prepared.
Q The Buddha tells us how to develop our practice. It’s a well-trodden path. Most of us in secular dharma (who aren’t monastics) have a difficult job following this anyway because our lifestyle puts us in the way of worldly distractions. So, we should not make it more difficult by going looking for them.
A Direct action on climate change is not a distraction any more than any other compassionate action in the world. We have chosen a focused compassionate practice of non-violent direct action. This isn’t a ‘worldly distraction’ as it arises from a deeply held compassionate sense of universal responsibility, which is the very foundation of the path of awakening.
Q There may be wise ways of responding to legitimate concerns about the environment that involve little or no such dangers. It may therefore be more appropriate to explore these even though it may seem to us they are less effective or exciting, judged by the world’s standards.
A It is important for each individual to choose forms of action that suit their capacity and temperament. The most important point is the intention. If the intention is to generate excitement, then the action is indeed worldly; if the intention is universal compassion and responsibility, then the action is Dharma.
Q Then there is the consideration of the suffering of those adversely affected by XR protests. Some would say “the few must suffer for the many” but this is hardly compassionate.
A As XR Buddhists we favour actions that do not cause suffering. We are confident that our actions arise out of compassion for all beings; but actions toward a more sustainable and more inclusive world inevitably will cause discomfort even suffering to some. There is no way to avoid this, but to do nothing is to allow and perpetuate a system that causes huge suffering, particularly to the poor, the non-dominant cultures and to the other species. If our system continues as it currently does it threatens our very existence with the unimaginable suffering this will cause. There is no way to avoid suffering, we can only attempt to minimise it.
Q The non-violent meditator who stands apart from the world and its norms is likely to receive short shrift.
A This is not our experience. Our meditations may be quiet but they are also very powerful, conveying peaceful determination and rootedness. Very often when we meditate within the wider extinction rebellion movement, others will join us and sit with us. It is often evident that other activists and members of the public are inspired and moved by our meditation. Although we may be sitting apart we have placards that make clear the issues we addressing in the world.
Q. I agree with the goals of XR, but I’m not likely to engage in street actions: is there anything else I can offer from my meditation practice?
Yes. Thank you.Here are two suggestions for prayers and vows; please adapt them to your own needs and heart:
Prayer for the Earth
May people around the world including Governments, awaken to the reality and urgency of the ecological and climate crisis and act quickly and with wisdom.
May climate justice prevail in this world, so that inequality and harmful exploitation everywhere is ended for the good of all
May there be spiritual and ecological harmony in the world between people, in our treatment of animals and in our relationship to the environment, providing wellbeing and happiness to all beings everywhere.
And from a personal perspective here are the Eco-Satttva vows:
Eco-Sativa Vows (from: The Eccosattva Training course by One Earth Sangha)
Based on my love of the world and understanding of deep interdependence of all things, I vow:
To live on Earth more lightly and less violently in the food, products and energy I consume.
To commit myself daily to the healing of the world and the welfare of all beings; to discern and replace human systems of oppression and harm.
To invite personal discomfort as an opportunity to share in the challenge of our collective liberation.
To draw inspiration, strength and guidance from the living Earth, from our ancestors and the future generations, and from our siblings of all species.
To help others in their work for the world and to ask for help when I feel the need.
To pursue a daily spiritual practice that clarifies my mind, strengthens my heart and supports me in observing these vows
Joseph Mishan is a mindfulness teacher in the Vipassana tradition, a psychotherapist and the coordinator of Dharma Action Network for Climate Engagement in London and a joint coordinator of XR Buddhists UK.
Andy has been studying, practising and teaching Buddhism within the Gelug Tibetan tradition for 40 years. He joined XR in 2019, and is active in his local XR group in South Somerset.
I felt very happy to take part in this action protesting against the fossil fuel corporation Schlumberger, and the £150m bailout recently given to it by the UK Government. I always feel a little nervous and irrationally guilty about risking arrest. And the D lock round my neck for 4.5 hours was a little uncomfortable! But I did some good meditation, and felt very cared for and supported by my fellow protesters.
Bikkhu Analayo is a Theravadin monk, scholar and meditation teacher. In this book, he looks at how buddhist practice can help us facing climate change and its impacts. The book is based on a series of four talks and essays each based on one of the four noble truths. You can either watch the talks that all also include a meditation, or download the book for free. As a scholar, he is really interested in early buddhist texts and explores questions like the relationship to nature in early Buddhism and different understandings of interdependence. He gives some examples of sutras and explores what those mean for our understanding of ecology and acting on climate change. I’ve found this to be really helpful knowledge when talking to other Buddhists who might be skeptical about why buddhists should need to act on climate change. The other area of inquiry is how to not be overwhelmed and here his approach is based on the Brahma viharas/divine abodes. There is also a conversation with him and Joseph Goldstein on the website introducing the topic: Mindfully Facing Climate Change
I joined the October 2019 Rebellion in London as a reaction to the existential crisis we face.
Being part of the Rebellion was a joy, it was just like being with family. Knowing this we joined the Manchester Rebellion as a family. John shares our belief in the need for action in the face of the twin crisis. Stan and Rudi came along because we told them they would enjoy it – and they did. The Manchester Rebellion felt even more like being with family. Stan and Rudi were spoiled by all the kind, loving people we mixed with. Rebellion means many things to many people for us it means belonging. Belonging to a diverse non-discriminating community. We listened to talks from Amazonian Indians and conversed and were entertained by fellow Northerners. Rebellion is a taste of what the world could be like, an amazing sense of togetherness.
I’d tend to say that I’ve not much use for hope when looking at the Climate and Ecological Emergency, but of course XR has a wild, improbable hope written all over it. The infectious power of that hope is surely why so many thousands of us have already responded to its call: the idea that if sufficient numbers of citizens confront this planned extermination of the living world by rising up in non-violent civil disobedience, our doing so might yet precipitate a significant process of change. And despite how bad things look, I most certainly feel the visceral pull that hope, or I wouldn’t be caught up in this.
One thing we can be sure of is that XR’s emergence has triggered something that’s caught many of us by surprise. A great many people, it would seem, already know the game is up on industrial civilisation, but have had no way of expressing that knowing, let alone of acting upon it. Which is to say, perhaps, they’ve had nowhere to place the burden of it, and have been left lying awake at 3am with an ever-worsening situation quietly gnawing at them.
I spent four days in London with XR’s October 2019 Rebellion, on the last of which I finally met up with an old friend from the Amida Shu sangha who I’d been trying to find all week – a Buddhist priest called Satya Robyn. Satya’s been deeply involved in XR this past year and it’s been a joy to watch the humane, grounded spirituality of her Amidist school of Buddhism – the one that’s most deeply shaped my own perspective on prayer – informing her response to and engagement with XR.
I joined Satya and other XR Buddhists early that final morning for a meditation vigil – one that would blockade the doorway to BP’s London Headquarters. Rookies that we were, we’d not factored on their second door, and by the time we crossed our legs we sort of knew our arrestible action was going to be politely ignored – as indeed it was.
After a couple of hours sitting there in silence we made our way to Trafalgar Square. By this point pretty much all the remaining XR presence in London had been corralled into that central zone, and the police had begun an accelerated process of removal and arrest. Mopping all this up.
I met some Cornwall friends at a road-block at the top of Whitehall and sat down with them. Peering between the legs of the police I found myself watching a troupe of young dancers who’d formed themselves into a ghostly, pulsating siphonophore, a composite creature floating and revolving in the open space between us and the main police lines, in complete silence. The Shimmer, as I later learned this many-legged being was called. As I sat entranced by its slow movement, Satya was carried past me by four police, sobbing deeply as she hung between them. You can read her own account of it here.
A few moments later an officer told me to move from the road, and when I refused, he asked if I understood the consequences of that refusal. I remember replying that what I understood was the consequences of this movement failing, and that understanding what its failure meant filled me with grief and terror. A bit hyperbolic, maybe, but true.
My mouth was now dry as sandpaper and I’d begun to feel dizzy. Then something unexpected happened: an old friend, a writer connected to the Dark Mountain Project, appeared out of nowhere and laid his hand on my shoulder without saying a word. The effect of his gesture was extraordinary. I felt rooted to the earth by it, as if the small weight of his hand ran down through me and into the ground, planting me there on the tarmac. The officer asked if I wanted to have more time to think about it, to which I replied I’d not been thinking about much else for the past four days, so now was probably good.
My friend was arrested a few moments after me, and like Satya and many others I know, he spoke of the overwhelming emotion that the experience evoked in him. For me it was rather different. Mainly, it was just a relief. To be finally doing something, maybe. As the police processed me I had plenty of time to talk to them about their role in the unfolding street theatre which our actions that week had co-opted them into. About the extra shifts they were working as a result. About why we were there.
The following nine hours were, I think, the most interesting of my recent life. They were also the quietest of that week. There’s been much discussion, since, about the privilege-bias of XR’s mass-arrest strategy. I certainly get that being arrested is a lot less vulnerable or high-stakes for some of us than it is for others – and yes, the whole encounter offered a nine-hour forensic examination of the social privileges that have shaped and still surround my rather sheltered life. So I’ve no real defence to offer this privilege-bias charge, other than to keep the situation where I can see it, as best I can anyway. And being on the wrong side of a police counter seemed to enable this quite effectively.
But about privilege itself. My friend Amos taught me that what the word privilege actually means is ‘exemption’. The term comes to us from an old tradition of papal exemption from communal taxes. And that’s exactly how privilege plays out in our culture, isn’t it? And why it has the bitter connotation that it does. What our culture tells us to do with privilege is to conserve it: hoard it, shore it up – keep it for yourself, and then pass it on to your own young.
One privilege I was aware of during that week in London was the behaviour of the police. None of us were being killed for being here, as is happening right now in so many other parts of the world – the Amazon especially – to those who dare to take a stand on these same issues. But more significant yet, for me, is the privilege that still enfolds most of us in the UK: the relative ecological stability we still enjoy, but that we can no longer expect to pass onto to our children – our own, or anyone else’s – as they set out on their lives. And along with that stability, pretty much every good or beautiful or otherwise crucial thing you can name or point to.
How do we respond to the fact that we’re living within a cannibal economy – a culture that’s knowingly and wilfully devouring the future lives of its own young? The dilemma of how to spend our own obscene exemption from what they will have to face still seems to me to overshadow these other, unevenly distributed privileges.
Meanwhile I found myself absorbed by those around me – especially the officer currently responsible for me, a nervous young man about my eldest’s son’s age, who seemed unfamiliar with the necessary protocols, and who I found myself feeling oddly protective of as he stumbled over some of the details and was met with a brisk impatience from his supervisor.
As you may have gathered, I’m not entirely convinced that this strange new composite being called XR has quite figured out what it is yet. We’ll see in the coming months and years, I guess. One thing I did learn that day is that a police cell is a good place to pray. This may sound stupid, but as XR UK’s next uprising approaches, I’ve noticed that the biggest obstacle to returning to arrestible action, for me, is that fractious argument around privilege. But however exposing those questions feel, I reckon that all things considered, such problems are best negotiated by going back and doing it again, and then again, as we work out together what this movement might yet become.
All of us now, one way or another.
Mat Osmond, Mid-Cornwall XR
Mat Osmond’s a writer and illustrator based in Falmouth, Cornwall, with a longstanding connection to the Amida Shu Buddhist sangha. His most recent piece for The Dark Mountain Journal, Black Light, picks up some of threads mentioned here. Mat’s convener for Art.Earth’s 2021 creative summit at Dartington, UK, Borrowed Time: on death, dying & change. Much of Mat’s spare time currently goes on helping to further the regenerative groundswell that is XR, within his local community and beyond.
This is a time of upheaval. In that upheaval things that were below the surface, come into the light, into the conscious mind. It’s sometimes instinctive to cling to what is being changed, to feel fear of the future, or get caught up in the energy of the change. For some of us this may be a time where the dharma and practice take on deeper meanings and importance, for others they may feel further away. However this newsletter finds you – welcome. You will find poetry and prose, invitations to pause, and how we are going to continue the conversation about race and XR Buddhists.
Healing Race – event hosted by XR UK Buddhists
Date: 26 July 2020, 19:00 – 20:30
Join us as we commence our healing work around racial injustice. We have been moved by the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on BIPOC/BPOC/BAME peoples, and we have marched in support of Black Lives Matters triggered by the death of George Floyd. Action out in the world needs to be supported by action within ourselves – ‘the way out is in.” Now is the time to use our Dharma practice to begin our own personal journey into racial healing within ourselves and in our spaces, holding whatever emerges with understanding, love and compassion>
This event is open to all and will be structured to create safe spaces to hold all “racial” groups. It is designed for those practising or interested in Buddhism and engaging in environmental and/or social activism. The session will be held by Rehena and Satya, and will include meditation and sharing (individual and group) with the result of practical and personal actions towards healing.
Email email@example.com if you have any questions.
Rehena Harilall was born and grew up as an activist in Apartheid South Africa, and was engaged in the Truth and Reconciliation work post 1994. She celebrates African and Indian heritages. She is a psychologist who now works as a management consultant in business, also mentoring and delivering leadership programmes and volunteering her skills to global south grassroots groups. She practices in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh with the Dharma name “True Deep Source”. She is engaged in a variety of social and earth justice movements driving fundamental societal, economic and environmental change. She has been active in the XR October Rebellion with XR Buddhists.
Satya Robyn is white and is at the beginning of her journey into exploring race. She is a Pureland Buddhist priest and runs a temple in Malvern with her husband. She works as a psychotherapist using Internal Family Systems, and has written novels and books about Buddhism. She has been a part of Extinction Rebellion since July 2019 and is co-coordinator of XR Buddhists.
You may also enjoy “Breathe – Towards Racial Justice & Healing” with Black Buddhist Teachers Amaragita (UK) and Larry Ward (US) who will share their wisdom – calling us towards addressing and healing racial injustice in our practice and in our challenging of racially unjust structures to protect the Earth all her beings. This event is on Sunday 9th August at 1900. Click the Eventbrite link for more details.
There are discussions in XR happening at the moment at all levels about a “fourth demand”. Several local UK groups have also set out a fourth demand that states “We demand a just transition to a green economy that prioritises the needs of all people who experience the inequalities caused by centuries of colonial, gender and class exploitation, thereby aiming to redress this discrimination going forward.” We have been discussing this as XR Buddhists and whether as a group we want to endorse this. If you are interested in this discussion then please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Buddhist Action Month talks
Several XR Buddhist members have been involved in Buddhist Action Month, which this year had the theme ‘…for the Earth’. Check out the talks below!
Yogaratna talking on the Dharma and activism, particularly environmental.
Buddhist non violent protest ‘For the Earth’: talk by Maitrisiddhi
We launched Buddhist Action Month 2020 with this event. Featuring speakers Emilie Parry, Kaspalita Thompson, Joe Mishan and Narapa Steve Johnson, facilitated by Olivia Fuchs and Juliet Hackney.
“We strongly believe that now is the time for us to begin having this conversation about the responsibility of the Buddhist community to confront white supremacy in our sanghas and in our communities. We recognized that this particular moment calls for a particular kind of conversation about and attention to what has been missing from our dharma practise – an integration of the ways we are present or not to the issues of race, love and liberation that shapes our collective wakening.” – Radical Dharma
The murder of Floyd George and the resurgence of the Black Live Matter movement has shifted something in the global consciousness, and in my own. And in the past few weeks I’ve been reading and listening to material which speaks to the Black experience in the US and UK, as well as beginning to grapple with my own whiteness and my own actions which contribute to white supremacy. As part of this process I started reading Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love and Liberation by Rev angel Kyodo Williams, Lama Rod Owens and Jasmine Syedullah, three Black, queer, Buddhists living in America.
Some of my most powerful experiences in Buddhism are when people are sharing their lives. It makes me feel open and tender, and this is what reading this book felt like. The book is a mixture of essays and transcribed conversations between the three authors. The authors talk about their own experiences of coming to the dharma, and how that experience was informed by their blackness, and their queerness. There is something very powerful about people speaking their own truths in this way. It made me realise how important it is to be able to see whiteness, to understand its historical and current power. This book felt like waking up.
We have set up a Telegram channel for general XR Buddhists chat, this is a place for sharing resources, asking questions, etc. To get to the Telegram channel, you need to install Telegram and then click here. If you have any problems then email us at email@example.com.
Lessons from Covid-19, Urgency, Refuge & Hope
Why did the nation respond so quickly and dramatically to Covid-19, and why aren’t we responding like that to the climate crisis? What can Buddhist activists learn? Kaspalita’s article answers this question. Including insight from nature writers Julian Hoffman and Patrick Barkham.
Postering in Cambridge
A bunch of Buddhists (that’s the collective noun, right) went postering a few weeks ago in Cambridge – that’s the photo at the top of this newsletter! A highly recommended activity for the late summer evenings. In the next stage the group are considering getting some bespoke posters together to explain the specific misdeeds of companies they are thinking of postering….
Check in with other folks from XR and join in with a guided meditation each Thursday at 1.30pm. Lead by members of XR Buddhists. All welcome. These sessions are open to any and all XR folk. We’d like to make this valuable resource available to as many as possible: please do share the link with your local XR groups. Zoom link.
Rumours of the next Rebellion are circulating! Keep an eye on the next version of this newsletter where we will have more details on what XR Buddhists will be doing. Forward this newsletter to anyone you think would be interested in and encourage them to get involved by subscribing.
Thanks for the lovely emails about the last newsletter. As ever you can see any upcoming events here on our website, and our next XR Buddhists meeting is due to be Friday 17th July at 1600 – check our events page for the details or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It’s April 15th 2019; my anxiety rises as I approach the London venue where I’m expecting over 40 fellow Buddhists to gather. A few early arrivals are there already and they tell me that they can’t get in. My anxiety obediently notches up a point or two and I press the bell myself as if my status as organiser will surely work magic. It doesn’t. More people arrive, the door remains firmly shut and I remind myself that I am not in charge of the unfolding of life’s mysteries, including where the key to this particular door might be situated. Finally, one of the building staff arrive the door is opened and we file in to the cool interior to arrange the room and prepare for the gathering.
This is Dharma Action Network for Climate Engagement, soon to give birth to Extinction Rebellion Buddhists, at our second major Extinction Rebellion protest. We have Buddhists from across the lineages arriving to take action on this first day of two weeks of protests on the climate crisis. The planning is already done on social media. We will be starting with walking meditation to Marble Arch and then sitting in meditation in the road to block traffic. We have placards to hang around our necks which read ‘Grief and Love for the Earth’; over these words hovers a photograph of Earth from space. An incomparably beautiful blue-green planet, our home, now ravaged and depleted by years of remorseless exploitation.
But before we hit the streets we are meeting to connect with ourselves and each other, to remember why we are here. We meditate together, we speak and we hold silence to make room for the passion and the pain of our ravaged Earth, and of all beings caught up in this destruction. When we file out of the building we move from open hearts, which hold us in the knowledge that although we cannot ever know of the results of our actions, we can be sure of the necessity and the rightness of what we are doing, and the manner in which we are doing it.
Emerging from the underground station we form into a line and in noble silence we slow- walk the quarter of a mile down the length of Edgware Road; a quiet stream of contemplatives moving through the daily mayhem of a busy London street.
People stop and make way; I like to think they are moved by our message and our dignity.
We arrive at Marble Arch and are greeted by another group of Extinction Rebellion activists who have already blocked the road. After discussion we decide to ask if they will agree to us meditating in front of them. They are more than happy. We take our places on the road and as the singing bowl chimes we close our eyes for an hour meditation on the road. Presence, peace, rootedness. Police come and go, traffic honks support or anger, people shout abuse and encouragement. And we sit. We sit in honour of the Earth, inspired and held by two and half thousand years of our spiritual tradition.
The Buddha’s example
But this is an essay about whether Buddhists should remain apart from direct action on the social and environmental crisis that is facing us, and instead focus on personal growth and enlightenment. Are not these crises (and many others) merely the playing out of samsara; the arising and passing of forms fundamentally empty and transient? Should the Buddhist contribution not be to cultivate wisdom and clear seeing; to reveal the ultimately delusional nature of reality? Should Buddhists therefore not avoid politics and certainly direct action?
We might start to address this question by looking at the Buddha’s own life. What stance did he take in response to the issues of his day? There is in fact much evidence from the Buddha’s teaching and his life that he challenged the established order of his day quite directly.
The caste system was a dominating and powerful influence on the lives of the population of South Asia at the time of the Buddha. He took a radical stance on this. In the Assalayana Sutta a conversation between the Buddha and the Brahmin caste supremacist Assalayatta is reported in detail. Assalayatta is pretty smart: ‘a master of the Three Vedas with their vocabularies, liturgy, phonology, etymology, & histories; skilled in philology & grammar, fully versed in cosmology’ Nevertheless, the Buddha dismantles the Brahmins claims of his caste’s superiority with impeccable logic: asking for example, how sure the Brahmin is that all his caste is ‘pure’ Brahmin going back into history; and whether his case is subject to the same natural laws both physical and karmic as other castes and so on. The Brahmin’s claims start to look extremely thin and he is reported to have become rather dejected ‘When this was said, the Brahmin student Assalayana sat silent, abashed, his shoulders drooping, his head down, brooding, at a loss for words.’ The Buddha’s position is clear from this conversation: that he holds all four castes to be of equal merit. It is to be noted that the Sanghas which the Buddha set up did not allow any expression of the caste system.
In relation to women we also find the Buddha taking a decisive position. He established a monastic rule that ensured that the testimony of women should be sought if any dispute arose in the community – a radical act for his day. He also made it clear that women had the same potential for awakening as men, and he created a parallel nun’s order about five years after the start of the monk’s order. Within the nuns’ order women had the opportunity to opt out of what was a highly oppressive patriarchal system. His advice to his follower King Pesanadi the King of Kasala also expressed his view of women: he encouraged the king not to be downhearted on the birth of a daughter with these words: ‘Some women are better than men oh King. There are women who are wise and good, who are pure in thought and deed…’
The Buddha was also directly in contact with the kings of his day and gave advice to them – for example about the treatment of prisoners, education and the wisdom of going to war. He also addressed householders with the ’57 mental postures’; a guide for living which included advice on how to deal with lust and greed for example. The Pali literature of the Theravadins reveals the Buddha facing political intrigues and several wars. He counselled: Victory breeds hatred. The defeated live in pain. Happily the peaceful live, giving up victory and defeat.’
It is worth adding that many of the radical initiatives that the Buddha introduced were subsequently dropped or ignored after his death, Buddhism has become more patriarchal for example, and more focused on individual awakening rather than the good of the whole, perhaps influenced by the individualistic culture of the modern world. But the historical records do point to a man whose actions and words reflected an uncompromising stance on the importance of compassion and respect for all beings.
Let us now turn to more faith-based objections to engaged Buddhist action. In my experience perhaps the most common objection to active engagement in the climate crisis is that based on the Heart Sutra’s wisdom teaching that ‘form is not different than emptiness’. If the real world is illusory why would we get engaged with it? Surely the best and most we can offer is the invitation to recognise this – to not get so hung up on the so-called real word? Should we not let go and relax into non-attachment to this illusory world, into the truth of formlessness. But this is to ignore that the Heart Sutra immediately adds: ‘emptiness is not different than form.’ In his book Eco Dharma David Loy, Buddhist activist and author writes: ‘the Buddha did not teach – nor does his life demonstrate – that non-attachment means unconcern about what is happening in the world.’ The exclusive emphasis on emptiness is the route to the ‘spiritual bypass’ which confers a bland un-concern for suffering of any sort as a misunderstanding. In her contribution to ‘Response to the Climate Emergency’ Joanna Macy sees this view of emptiness as a justification of non-action as a ‘spiritual trap that cut the nerve of compassionate action’. To give lived expression to the whole of the Heart Sutra’s teaching, ‘form is not different than emptiness and emptiness is not different than form’, is to find a path of deep compassion for all beings while holding our actions and the results of our actions within a knowledge of the vast emptiness of all things. In practice this confers on even the most decisive activism the qualities of clarity courage and calm.
There is of course a model for this compassionate and wise action in the service of others, which is the bodhisattva ideal of Mahayana Buddhism. This emphasises the combination of wisdom and of compassion and it replaces the focus on personal liberation with the aim of benefit to all beings. It is compassion in action. As the Dalai Lama has said: ‘It is not enough to be compassionate. You must act.’
In a recent interview David Loy is asked ‘what is Buddhism for?’ He replies: ‘how does our practice empower us to respond appropriately [to the climate crisis]? ‘and he goes on: ‘If Buddhism doesn’t help us to do that maybe Buddhism isn’t what the world needs today’. I believe, along with the growing number of deeply committed practitioners in our movement, that the world desperately needs the qualities and wisdom which Buddhism offers.
Thich Naht Hahn, the father of engaged Buddhism, emphasises the reality of interdependence. He encourages compassionate action based on the recognition that we ‘inter-are’; we are part of a vast web of intricate interdependence and interconnection. This means that work in the world is part of our work on ourselves (and vice versa): and so we do not wait until we are perfectly enlightened to enter the fray. Our activism is an expression and vehicle of our inner transformation; it is sacred work. This is why XR Buddhists must in my view continue to embrace expressions of activism which convey the power and potency of our faith, as we tread this path of engagement in our beautiful, precious and troubled world.
Joseph Mishan is a mindfulness teacher in the Vipassana tradition, a psychotherapist and the coordinator of Dharma Action Network for Climate Engagement in London and a joint coordinator of XR Buddhists UK.