It was near the beginning of the September Extinction Rebellion actions in London. A dozen or so of us Buddhist rebels sat in a circle in the centre of Parliament Square. Around us other rebels began to appear: people with flags sticking out of their backpacks, or banners folded up under their arms, or carrying instruments. There were tired faces peering into coffee mugs. There were people chatting in small groups. Around the edge of the square there was a scattering of police in canary yellow jackets. Behind me people were meditating and praying. They were lined up against the fence, facing parliament, sitting in the multi-faith vigil.
We were also meditating. I felt the cool air against my cheeks, the solid earth beneath me, and my heart beating quickly as I anticipated a day of non-violent civil disobedience.
The meditation ended. I opened my eyes and noticed the others here with me. I had been sitting in Zoom meetings with these people throughout the year and I suddenly felt immensely grateful for their company and support.
Did we check in before or after the meditation? I can’t remember, either way at some point each of us said a few words about how we were feeling. Someone asked if we could chant together.
Satya agreed to lead us in chanting a Quanyin mantra. She began by inviting us to picture Quanyin as large as the Statue of Liberty, and to imagine her smiling down at us, or to imagine that we were being held in the palm of her hand. Then Satya began to chant “Namo Quan Shi Yin Bosat.” The rest of us joined in – a circle of Buddhist rebels connecting with the One Who Hears the Cries of the World.
I have been reciting this mantra for many years. As a Pure Land Buddhist my main practice is nembutsu – reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha – but like millions of Buddhists around the world I often find it easier to connect with Quanyin (Avalokiteshvara in Sanskrit), one of Amitabha’s bodhisattva attendants and a bodhisattva of compassion.
Now, in England’s third COVID lockdown, feeling exhausted by the past year, and knowing I am not alone in my exhaustion, I find myself thinking about a story of Quanyin that I have heard many times.
Quanyin – The One Who Hears the Cries of the World – hears of someone suffering in the world and responds to that suffering. She helps them, and then she hears another person in trouble. She works tirelessly lifting people out of their difficulties. However there is always another suffering being and the work seems endless. Still she continues. One by one she helps everyone that needs it.
Seeing the endless suffering she is overwhelmed and splits into many pieces. Amitabha notices this shattering and goes and tends to Quanyin. He puts her together again, giving her eleven heads and a thousand arms. She goes back into the world renewed, and continues the work of helping people.
If you look carefully at images and statues of Quanyin you will often find an Amitabha Buddha in her headdress.
I know how it is to become exhausted by responding to needs, both in my personal life and as a climate activist where I feel called to respond to the immense need of the earth and her ecosystems for healing.
When I deeply examine my own inner life I find that the things that most exhaust me are emotional responses and impulses that come from self-protection. When I act from a place of anger it is quickly tiring. When I act from a place of rescuing it is tiring. When I am afraid for myself it is tiring. All of these thoughts and feelings have their own good reasons for showing up, and because they are self-protective they take energy from us and leave negative karmic traces.
When I am empty of all of these things, and act from this place of emptiness, it is not tiring.
What remains when greed, ill-will and ignorance empty out? It is love: love without agenda; love that needs nothing for itself; love that longs for the well-being of all.
This all-accepting love is the particular quality of enlightenment that Amitabha exemplifies.
Are any of us fully-enlightened beings? I tend to agree with Suzuki Roshi who said there are no enlightened people, only enlightened moments. For myself, I know that greed, ill-will and ignorance continue to rise.
It was mid-afternoon. A large group of rebels had sat in the road of Great George Street along one edge of Parliament Square. A line of police were strung across one end of the road, stopping us from disrupting the traffic on Parliament Street. Someone noticed that there was a clear space in front of the police line and suggested that would be a good place to meditate. We took our cushions and benches and settled into our mediation postures in front of the police. We were joined by other rebels until there were two dozen or so of us meditating in two lines across the road.
In many areas of my life I often feel ambivalence. Questions as big as should I take on this piece of work, to as small as would I like tea or coffee lead me to a place of self-doubt and indecision. The decision to sit in the road was one of the easiest I have made.
Blessed by Quanyin, my mind was clear. Blessed by Quanyin, I felt completely grounded. Blessed by Quanyin, I felt a great compassion for the earth.
We sat and meditated in the road for hours.
Every now and again there was a stirring in the police line. One officer left and another replaced them, a message was passed from one end of the line to the other. At around half past four an officer knelt down and started speaking to someone near the edge of the road, five or six people away from me. After that conversation the rebel stood up and left the road. “Here we go” I thought.
Another hour passed in which very little happened and then officers began speaking to rebels one by one, letting them know Section 14 of the Public Order act was in place, and that if they didn’t clear the road they would be arrested.
Satya was sitting next to me. Out of the corner of one eye I saw an officer approach, kneel down and speak to her. After a couple of minutes, Satya was carried away by two officers and moments later I was arrested as well.
Later that evening, after a long journey through traffic in the back of a police van with two other rebels, I was signed into a cell at Lewisham Police Station.
The metal door closed behind me. I looked around the cell. A bed with a thin, plastic covered mattress was fixed to one wall. There was a steel toilet in the corner. “Don’t worry, ” I had been told, “the camera can’t see the toilet.” The camera was behind a dark globe of glass in one corner of the ceiling. The floor and walls were all covered in pale blue plastic. Everything was easy to wipe down.
A fluorescent light offered a flat, too bright, illumination.
I walked up and down the cell. Once, twice, three times. I lay on the bed and looked at the ceiling and remembered the stories I’d heard of Tibetan monks maintaining compassion for their jailers in much, much worse circumstances than this.
I wasn’t feeling much compassion. I felt anger and frustration at the lack of awareness of the climate crisis in government, and at the position I found myself in.
In chapter twenty five of the Lotus Sutra it says:
If someone is imprisoned, shackled, or chained,
Or if his hands and feet are in stocks,
If he evokes the strength of Guanyin,
His bonds will open and he will be free.
I put my attention on my breath and with each cycle of breath I said the Quanyin mantra to myself. At some point my thoughts started to wander and after a while I fell asleep.
I woke up and shivered. I had no idea what time it was. The light in the ceiling was still bright. I had been promised a meal and no meal had arrived. I had been told I could ask for a blanket if I was cold and I was cold.
I looked at the silver call button on the wall and couldn’t bring myself to press it and ask for a meal or a blanket. A deep seated fear of disturbing authority figures had caught hold of me. I sat on the bed, enmeshed in fear. Sometimes this is how it is to be human. Despite the mantra of Quanyin my self-protective feelings had taken over.
Sometimes the clouds cover the sun, and all we can do is trust that the sun is still shining in the sky, high above the clouds, and wait for the clouds to clear. The same is true in my practice, sometimes I just have to trust that the strong feelings will clear and then I will see the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas again. And somehow this act of trusting seems to help.
I turned away from the button and continued to recite the mantra silently, following my breath. A police officer knocked on the door and offered me a blanket. Later, I got to speak to my solicitor, and eventually in the early hours of the morning I and a handful of other rebels were let out.
Early Friday evening, as the light was beginning to fade, around a dozen Buddhist rebels sat in a circle in Trafalgar Square. We had just taken part in a mass meditation with many other rebels. There had been around sixty of us altogether, creating a calm centre in the middle of the busy square.
As we sat quietly I remembered the opening circle just a few days ago. So much had happened since then: sitting in the road, walking meditation through the city and the many different emotions rising and falling within me throughout the whole week.
Each person said a few words about how they were feeling and then the request came again, could we share some chanting together. Satya asked us to imagine Quanyin standing high above us again, perhaps up on Nelson’s Column. We chanted her mantra together.
I was reminded that thoughout all of these actions, and alongside all the suffering in the world, we are supported by the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas: there is an unconditional, wise love that flows towards us and through us, and takes root in our hearts.
Without this remembrance, I could not face the climate crisis, and without this remembrance I could not take action.
Namo Quan Shi Yin Bosat
Kaspa Thompson is a Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist. He is the coordinator of Buddhist Action Month. He co-leads the Bright Earth Buddhist Temple in Malvern.