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By Kaspa Thompson
We recently changed the name of an XR Buddhists Telegram group from ‘Anti-oppression’ to ‘Healing Oppression’. I like the new wording. It says that we are not just standing against something, but working to change something and that work is the work of healing.
What might a Buddhist approach to healing oppression look like?
First, a little context. Although there are some ways in which I have experienced oppression, as a white middle-class man in the global north much of my life has benefited from this system of oppressed and oppressor.
What is the cause of suffering? In the twelve link chain of dependant arising that the Buddha described, the ultimate cause of suffering is ignorance.
What is the ignorance that leads to suffering? It is our lack of awareness of selflessness, emptiness and interconnectedness.
What are selflessness and emptiness? Selflessness is what remains when we let go of greed and ill-will. We discover that there is a basic human goodness underneath everything else. We discover that there is a place of love and compassion deep within us. Emptiness is knowing that this is true for all beings: knowing that there is an underlying reality to life which is kind and loving and wise and connects us to all other living things. The experience of this teaches us that we are loved, and that we are capable of loving all beings.
Much of the time we are separate from this truth. We burst into a world of suffering and impermanence, feel the pain of separation, act with greed and ill-will from that place of pain, and then those actions and impulses become habitual.
Buddhist practice and teaching encourages us to trust that this pain and separation is not the only truth: that despite the very real and painful suffering we experience (and that some people experience more than others) the reality of love and connection is more fundamental. Occasionally we are gifted a deep embodied experience of this.
What is oppression? Oppression is the playing out of greed and ill-will and ignorance from those with more power to those with less power. It happens in interpersonal relationships, and across whole groups of people. From very obvious harmful words and actions, to more subtle behaviour that favour some groups over others, to the creation of structures that reinforce that favour and division.
Oppressing others is one strategy for trying to overcome the pain of separation: the belief that if someone can get more power, more status, and more wealth over others then they will feel better. Or that if they can hurt others and treat them as worthless then maybe they will feel worth something themselves.
I guess that strategy must work a bit, or at least people believe that it will, because we keep seeing it over and over again.
As well as creating profound suffering for whole groups of people, this oppression also has a direct impact on the climate crisis. The greed of the powerful and wealthy leads to more and more extraction of fossil fuels from the Earth. This extraction feeds the greed of the wealthy; it increases the carbon in the atmosphere and harms the lives and communities of the people on the land where the extraction is taking place.
There is fundamental goodness, there is greed, ill-will and ignorance and there is the deep wounding of being oppressed. We all contain some mix of all of these, and some people are more oppressive and some are more oppressed.
There are four important ways to work to heal oppression.
The first is to turn inwards: to maintain the practices that keep bringing us back into the deep truth of connection and love, to investigate the ways in which we are still acting from greed, ill-will and ignorance, and to ask if/how we have benefited from oppression, and how we are perpetuating it. The practice of staying connected to love allows us to have the courage to ask ourselves these difficult questions.
The second is the work of developing and keeping loving kindness to others. Sometimes this comes easily and naturally, and sometimes this feels like more conscious work. As a Pure Land Buddhist emptiness and selflessness come to me in the form of Amida Buddha. Emptiness and selflessness are not just abstract ideas, but something relational with a life of their own. I trust that the love of the Buddha is flowing towards me. That it is flowing towards each of us. The more deeply I trust in this (supported by the occasional experience of really feeling loved) the more that love for others naturally appears. Other Buddhists might call that acting from emptiness.
The third is to be willing to deeply listen to the stories and experiences of oppressed people, and to support the processes of grieving in those communities when that is appropriate. It is important to have spaces where experiences of oppression can be heard, understood and held with loving kindness. All of us experience oppression and woundedness to some degree or another. Having the space to be heard in this way is important for all of us. Healing our wounds comes from having those wounds witnessed and understood and met with love.
The fourth is paying attention to and working to dismantle the systems that work to keep oppression alive. From how roads were built in the U.S. to separate off black neighbourhoods, to the defunding of legal-aid in the UK, to anti-trans legislation, to criminalised homosexuality, to…
As we begin to become aware of these systems, we can work together with those groups of people that have been oppressed to dismantle them, and to create systems that are built on the fundamental truth of connection and the fundamental attitude of love for all beings.
There already exist resources to help us do the work outlined in each of these areas, both within our Buddhist traditions and in the social justice movement. I hope that by keeping all four of these areas in mind we can walk the path of healing oppression.
- Join the XR Buddhists Healing Oppression Telegram discussion group
- See our list of resources for Healing Oppression
Kaspa Thompson is a Buddhist Teacher at Bright Earth Buddhist Temple, a psychotherapist and member of XR Buddhists. He is also facilitating Buddhist Action Month for the Network of Buddhist Organisations.
XR Buddhist Satya was one of hundreds of rebels who chose to sit alone in a road today, to highlight how afraid they are of the consequences of not acting urgently enough in the face of the climate crisis.
Satya writes: After weeks of preparation, anxiety grabbing me in the stomach whenever I imagined this moment, I felt calm as I walked into the road this morning and stopped the traffic.
I had no support from the public. The boy who mocked me. The old woman who muttered obscenities at me. The man who drove his car within a centimetre of me and then rolled down his window to hiss in my face, ‘dumb bitch’. I get it – I was the crazy lady, stopping them from getting where they needed to go. Ranting about apocalyptic futures. What does any of it have to do with them? How dare I?
I don’t need people to like what I’m doing. I need them to open their hearts – just a tiny crack – to the true horrors of the climate and ecological emergency. We won’t reach everyone. But maybe one member of the public wondered why I would be desperate enough to do such a thing. Maybe one parent thought about their daughter’s future. Maybe you, reading this, will take action of your own.
Today hundreds of us across the UK were alone together as we blocked busy roads, our hearts pounding. We will keep raising the alarm, until the truth is told and until urgent action is taken. We refuse to be by-standers. We will SPEAK UP.
Local Press: The action received good local press in Worcester. See photos of other rebels in Worcester, and read their quotes in the Worcester News.
Dr. Martin Wood, a lecturer at Gloucestershire University, is looking for a few folk willing to help him with research – email@example.com or 07943 666390. He said:
“I am doing some ongoing research concerning religio/spirituality and environmental activism over the last three years. It’s all concerning emotion, ritual and symbolism in relation to themes like the creation of significant if not sacred space during direct communal action…not something many of us have been involved in over the last year or so. The work has been provisionally considered for Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art and Belief but there is a great deal of work that needs to be done on it. I am hoping it will lead to a more nuanced and insightful understanding of not only of the deep held convictions of activists in relation to their spiritual lives but also as a way of contributing to the strategies that could be considered when it comes to getting more people active in non violent direct action in the coming, hopefully post Covid, period of time.
Extinction Rebellion UK, XR Families, XR Buddhists, in cooperation with Extinction Rebellion Africa and Namibian and Canadian Activists organise peaceful protest Earth Day action to Canadian High Commission, Trafalgar Square (London), to demand Canada, home of ReconAfrica, and other members of the G7 (the company trades and has offices in 4 of those 7 countries) stop this project, all new oil exploration, criminalise ecocide and fund alternatives for countries like Namibia and Botswana to whom a climate debt is owed.
Thanks to Joao Daniel Pereira for the photos. If you are inspired by these photos please sign this letter.
22 March 2021: Protesters including XR Buddhists Nick Clarke and Zoe Solomans outside the Namibian High Commission in London highlighting the risks posed by oil drilling licences granted to Canadian oil company ReconAfrica.
Licences for oil exploration (with a 25 year licence for oil production if oil is discovered) cover an area of approximately 35,000 sq kms of which about 25,0000 are in Namibia. In total this is an area larger than the size of Holland! The boundary of the licenced areas include the main river flowing into the Okavango Delta which it abuts for about 270 kms and up to the edge of the Delta. The Delta is an oasis in the middle of the Kalahari desert, so large it can be seen from space and home to the largest remaining wildlife populations in Africa and a UNESCO world heritage site. It also remains the home of the San people, so ancient that all modern humans can trace their DNA to them. All of this is under threat from the inevitable pollution from oil drilling.
Drilling is being conducted by a Canadian company, ReconAfrica. A number of its chief officers have a background in fracking, from its founder Craig Steinke and including its VP of Drilling (who pioneered fracking in the US) and its current CEO. The company believes there are 125 billion barrels of oil in the region. If burnt that would release 1/6th of the worlds remaining carbon budget!
This is a project of such insanity it is hard to find the right words. All of these plans were under the radar until drilling began this year. However the world is waking up.
Activists in Namibia, Botswana, South Africa, Germany and Canada are challenging these plans. In the UK we are linked to them and are uniting under the banner of ReConOut! This network includes people within XR (with a strong XR Buddhist and faith flavour) and from the region. ReConOut were at the Namibian High Commission to present a letter to the Namibian High Commissioner, HE Linda Scott describing their concerns. You can find a link to this letter below.
At this action Nick Clarke said: “Today is World Water Day and I am joining with activists across the globe highlighting threats to water systems. The Okavango Delta is a jewel of biodiversity, its value is beyond all measure and its waters sustain the livelihoods of more than a million people. Oil exploration inevitably risks polluting the Delta. If we were to burn the amount of oil ReconAfrica believes is there it will contribute to catastrophic levels of climate change risking billions of deaths and the collapse of our human societies. In solidarity with activists in Namibia, Botswana and Canada and indigenous peoples of the region I am imploring the Namibian government to think again and look for sustainable alternatives to meet its economic and energy needs. We understand this would come at a cost and we demand industrialised countries support Namibia to fund these alternatives.”
Moving forward the network will be focussing on G7 leaders as they meet in Cornwall in early June. These G7 talks will include much on climate change and plans for the COP climate talks in Glasgow in November. ReconAfrica has corporate links with the US, Canada, Germany and the UK. The failure of industrialised countries to regulate their companies, to allow further oil exploration at home and globally, to not meet their commitments to fund alternatives to fossil fuels for countries in the global south to meet their energy and economic needs and the UK cancellation of much of its overseas aid… these and others are all issues it will be demanding leaders address. The Drilling in the watershed of the Okavango Delta needs to be urgently stopped: it is profiting shareholders in the global North and the wealth of a small company above the lives of millions in the short term and all of life in the future and sacrificing a priceless pristine ecosystem. In challenging this project we can also show how it exemplifies so many issues that must be addressed globally.
ReConOut will be starting with actions in April and May, building momentum towards the G7 talks and then on to COP.
- ReConOut letter to the Namibian High Commissioner: https://cryptpad.fr/pad/#/2/pad/view/pza3M6bYXWGcUewxZubxUCehtnhrpfsk0mEyBpYBs+A/
- Good overview of the ReconAfrica project and impacts: https://www.independent.co.uk/climate-change/opinion/oil-excavation-kavango-namibia-botswana-b1825483.html
- Wider issue of finance for Global South and responsibilities of the G7: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/mar/31/g7-should-double-help-for-poorer-countries-to-cut-co2-emissions-says-un
- Interview with Nick Steinsberger, ReconAfrica VP of Drilling: https://oilprice.com/Interviews/The-Worlds-Last-Great-Oilfield-An-Interview-With-Nick-Steinsberger.html
XR Buddhists from across the UK yesterday took part in Extinction Rebellion’s Money Rebellion.
Despite the worsening climate & extinction crisis, banks continue to invest massively in fossil fuels. The money rebellion is to raise awareness and to put pressure on banks to defund fossil fuel and other harmful investments. One of the main targets was Barclays bank, who have invested $145 billion in fossil fuels since the Paris Agreement in 2015.
Find out how your own bank is doing here: https://switchit.money/
My action (as part of the Oily Hands protest on 28 August last year) was aimed at encouraging the University of Cambridge to divest from climate-wrecking fossil fuel investments. I did this because there is a climate emergency, which the University of Cambridge is not treating like an emergency. I believe my action was necessary and morally justified by the situation, therefore not criminal. If you break down a door to rescue someone from a burning house, breaking the door is not criminal damage. I’ll also be arguing that what happened was not ‘damage’, and giving evidence that I didn’t intend to cause damage. I’ll be referring to the right to protest, and to cause some disruption, which so far has been respected by the police, and arguing that my action was legitimate and proportionate protest in that sense.
You might possibly sympathise with wanting to do something positive about climate breakdown. But you may think that the situation does not justify tactics like chalk-spraying on a wall, that other means were open to me, my action was not a lesser evil, justified as an attempt to prevent a greater evil.
So what about these tactics, including things like chalk-spraying on a wall? I appreciate that many people don’t like XR and its tactics. But there is a background which makes these tactics necessary. There has been 30 years or so of petitions from environmental pressure groups, of the Green Party struggling to be heard with a political system and media heavily dominated by big business which is almost entirely hostile to green issues. 30 years of almost no substantial action on climate breakdown by governments of both ends of the political spectrum. But the climate situation, attested to by David Attenborough and the climate scientists, is desperate.
I’m not going to throw lots of facts and figures at you. And I’m not in any way minimising the suffering of anyone in the current pandemic. Coronavirus has rightly been front page news every single day for the last year — but we need at least that kind of response to the threat of climate breakdown. In fact the magnitude of suffering on its way to us from the breakdown of Earth’s living systems is far greater than what we have experienced over the last twelve months.
So the situation is desperate. But what about these activist tactics such as chalk-spraying a wall? There is research commissioned by the very reputable Wellcome Trust (1) showing that people don’t like XR and its tactics, but that those same people do know and remember what XR is saying — a lot more than they know and remember the messages of other campaigning groups. This kind of activism is unpopular but has raised people’s awareness and people’s minds are changing. Since our action, the University of Cambridge and Trinity College separately have both announced plans (2) to divest from fossil fuel investment. And in his statement Professor Stephen Toop (Vice Chancellor) explicitly recognised that morally this is the right thing to do. But this is only after 5 years of campaigning by many people. Climate change has shot up the agenda in this country in the last few years, for example the wave of local councils declaring a climate emergency after XR’s actions in April 2019. There are many reasons for that, it’s not just down to XR. But would all this really have happened without the pressure from activists?
So there is evidence that conventional tactics have on the whole not worked, that these more direct tactics have had a positive impact, and that they are needed. I sincerely wish these tactics were not needed, but they are. And I sincerely regret if anyone felt hurt or offended by my action. I did not do this lightly. But what are the consequences of not speaking out on this issue? This is an emergency, the alarm needs raising because action is not happening at anything like the scale or urgency that is needed. In an emergency, you need to get peoples attention, even if that means annoying them.
You may think that comparing my action to breaking down a door to rescue someone from a burning house is far-fetched. But climate breakdown is an immediate threat to human life. The climate scientists have found that people have been dying due to climate change since 2003. And that includes deaths due to climate change in this country since 2010.
I’d like to address the issue of damage for a moment. I used chalk spray, which is very soluble in water, because my clear and deliberate intention was to make a statement without causing damage. I believe that something that can be thoroughly cleaned with water and a little abrasion cannot legitimately be described as damage. I’m a dementia healthcare assistant whose gross hourly pay rate is £9.89 per hour. Whatever the financial cost is of cleaning the wall, I believe it should be met by Trinity College, having profited for so many years from its deeply unethical climate-wrecking fossil fuel investments.
A word about protest. The police and criminal justice system have so far recognised that there is a right to protest, and even that that protest might disrupt other people to some extent. My action falls within that category. Peaceful legitimate protest should not be criminalised.
Lastly, I’d like to tell you a little about myself. I’d like to point out how ordinary I am. I’m not alienated from society, I’m one of the majority of ordinary people in this country who want serious action to be taken on this threat to all our futures. My first real job was 6 years in the Home Office in Westminster (mainly in the probation service policy unit). I chose the Home Office because I believed in law and order, as I still do. I value public service. I’m an ordained Buddhist, and I’ve been a carer for the last 10 years – for the last 6 years on a dementia assessment unit. I care very much about ethics.
Having said that, I’ve no wish to say I or we are the good guys and they are the bad guys. I’ve no wish to polarise or demonise. I know the world is complex, and I know from personal experience that there are some very fine and ethical people working for the University of Cambridge. But the law should be about ethics, and appropriately holding people and institutions to account for their actions. The University of Cambridge has been (and is still being) criminally irresponsible and should itself be on trial. What I did was legitimate and proportionate protest, not a crime.
- On 1st October 2020, Cambridge University publicly pledged to divest from all direct and indirect investments in fossil fuels by 2030. Professor Stephen J Toope, Vice-Chancellor, stated: “The University is responding comprehensively to a pressing environmental and moral need for action with an historic announcement that demonstrates our determination to seek solutions to the climate crisis.” University of Cambridge pledges divestment from fossil fuels by 2030 https://www.cam.ac.uk/news/cambridge-to-divest-from-fossil-fuels-with-net-zero-plan
I’m not sure a typical activist exists – but it’s definitely not me. It was quite late in life before I can claim to having strong eco concerns and I also arrived late to Buddhism. I’m afraid I worked in the City as an IT consultant for many of the banks funding the eco crisis. I did fairly well from it, and looked after my family, including frequent flights to the Caribbean to see the in-laws. I can’t say I had a sudden ethical awakening and left the city because of it. But some sort of unknown, little understood crisis was emerging in me. I left my well paid City job to work repairing wooden boats, maybe being in the outdoors and on the water so often brought me back to my youthful connection with nature.
Just six years ago in 2015 during a difficult life period, the rumbling internal crisis caught up like a Tsunami and severe anxiety led me to Buddhism in 2015. In 2016 I read the book “This Changes Everything” by Naomi Klein and was incensed to learn about all the Ecocide going on. I had no idea what to do with that feeling. My poor wife’s ears. I continued to meditate, my anxiety subsided in some ways but rose in others as my concern at the injustice of what was happening increased. I floundered for a while, I’d seen so many petitions etc come and go over the years. I gave up meat and made many other personal changes. I have many more to do, I am quite the hypocrite still. I eventually discovered XR and also Joe at DANCE and went along to an incredibly noisy Barclays meditation protest in Trafalgar Sq the same day XR occupied the bridges. As a newbie at some point I found myself locked outside the Bank in adhoc liaison with a crowd of Police while Joe, Mark and Rowan meditated on inside. I just told the police to wait, these people will surely need the loo soon.
Taking action worked wonders on my anxiety, I was alive again, a human in touch with the cries of the world. My local XR group grew and we did lots more actions locally and together in London. Waterloo bridge supporting the Wellbeing tent was one of the highlights in my life. The prospect of blocking four lanes of traffic in Marble Arch – one of the scariest. ‘Go in with your knees knocking, it’s good spiritual practice’ I was told by Rowan.
But my background and personal circumstances meant that my high levels of anxiety returned, occasionally this turned to depression. So eventually I started to step up self care, meditating more regularly, more personal ethical lifestyle changes helped the despair a little bit. I found the excellent guide by Vessantra called “20 steps to avoid overwhelm” very helpful. A year later I eventually gave up my Facebook addiction. While posting stuff about the eco meltdown felt good in some ways it was probably stressing others. I tried to balance it for a while with hopeful and humorous Facebook posts. Now I rarely look at it and I feel so much better, less distracted, more focused. The world still goes on, I do need to establish a less distressing and balanced way of keeping abreast of news and contact with friends.
On and off I tried my luck to get my lovely local Sangha to take on board environmental concerns within the context of Dharma but this was a struggle so for a while I decided in practical terms to separate my Dharma practise and Eco efforts. Inside me they were inseparable. I’m glad I now have this sangha too.
I was invited to take up Samba drumming with my local XR, this was hugely therapeutic – music, outdoor practise, friends and laughter. Making a noise to protest was a strange contrast to sitting quietly in protest outside a bank. Even the Parliament Sq arrest for I can only guess drumming out of time was enjoyable.
We all know what we face in the world but at times we must have fun.
I did a workshop with Parami along the lines of Joanna Macey’s ‘seeing with new eyes’ where we role-played eco concerns. I was paired with a young girl, 17 who I could see was really very scared for her future, as an older guy with a past life far from ethically perfect – I felt ashamed. That memory drives me. I never feel I do enough activism but I have to balance that with my own well being. I’m not an academic which can limit my confidence in speaking out which frustrates me. I’m currently doing an excellent course on having difficult conversations which may help with that perhaps.
In part helped by Catherine Ingram’s article called ‘Facing Extinction’ I started to grieve for the world I knew and loved, I started to accept that much of it was gone or going. Bizarrely this helped. Grieving helped ease the tension in me of what we faced. I started to let go.
I of course still feel the urgency and the weight of what we face but I’ve come to realise this – I may not have the genius and appeal of Star Treks 7 of 9 but like her I need to plug in and regenerate on a regular basis. Our self care is equally if not more important than the activism. Be kind to yourselves and dare I say – May we all “live long and prosper”
Les is Retired, Wrinkly and Repenting
Watch this XR Buddhists presentation. Touching the Earth: Why should Buddhists respond to the climate crisis, and how can our voices help?