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 email@example.com for more information.
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.
Many Buddhists are concerned about the climate and ecological emergency (CEE) and are wondering what to do about it.
We are a group of people who have come together as Buddhists to practice compassion for all beings. We recognise that we all have an important role to play in addressing the CEE and developing a fairer and more just world. XR Buddhists (XRB) has been in existence for three years: we have sat in meditation, organised vigils with other faith groups, joined non-violent direct actions and provided a supportive community for Buddhists who are equally concerned about climate change.
We became part of Extinction Rebellion (XR) Buddhists because we felt strongly that our Buddhist wisdom teachings offer something unique to this movement which has allowed us to offer a powerful presence, stability and a place of refuge to other members of Extinction Rebellion. We were also drawn by Extinction Rebellion’s principles, which reflected the Buddhist principles of non-violence non-blaming, a regenerative culture and inclusivity.
On the 9th of April, we are meeting at Hyde Park in London as part of a series of events and protests organised by Extinction Rebellion. This will specifically be a day of outreach, training, and meditation: it will not be disruptive to the public. The events will carry on throughout the following week and to the Easter weekend. We welcome people at any time, but Saturday the 9th is a particularly good day to join us if you are new to XR Buddhists.
We would very much like to extend a warm invitation to members of your sangha and people from your tradition who would like to come along. You can either meet us at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park at 0930 on the 9th of April (we will be the ones with meditation cushions and an XR Buddhists banner!) or join our XRB Rebellion Telegram group to get updates on where we are.
We would be grateful if you could pass this invitation on to members of your group, and if anyone wants to find out more, they could look on our website, which includes some pre-rebellion events which might be of interest. Or they are welcome to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
My experience of this year’s COP26 was different as I didn’t go to Glasgow. Like others, I find going to large protests challenging due to a health condition I have, and although I have kept trying, I made the decision for COP26 to stay home.
My usual tendency is to want to be in the thick of things, up front holding the banner, showing my love and commitment through being right where it matters. Instead I found myself on my sofa in front of my laptop, when the main action was hundreds of miles away.
I had offered to help out with the Faith Bridge online vigil, which ran alongside the in person vigil in Glasgow. Two colleagues had already put in a lot of work, and I joined the team just a few weeks before the conference. As is my usual style I hadn’t thought much about it, just thought it seemed a good option as I wasn’t going to Glasgow but still wanted to be involved.
So it was actually a surprise to discover what I did: a tremendous sense of solidarity with people of all faiths – people moved by a deep care for the earth and humanity, based on timeless lineages of spiritual practice. Somehow, by having the time and space to witness this in others, these qualities opened up more deeply in me, in a way I haven’t experienced so fully before.
Taking part in the online vigil was full of treasures – sitting in silence with others on screen, each in our own homes, witnessing all the hard working rebels in Glasgow in the cold and rain sitting on the road side, listening to Muslims reciting Quran verses on stewardship of the earth, lighting candles for future generations, zooming in at 3.30am for an all night vigil,,,. It brought to life in me a sense of kinship, and of the critical importance of giving and receiving support in these momentous times. So rather than it being about “me” “being an activist” and “doing” lots of things (all of which are of course valid and necessary), in this experience I was part of a larger circle. Offering my prayers, presence and deep appreciation, and trusting that that too makes a difference.
Wendell Berry says it well: “protest that endures I think is moved by a hope far more modest than public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one’s own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence”. And I would add – alongside one another.
By Abbie who is a member of XR Meditatorsand XR Buddhists
If you don’t stand for something – you’ll fall for anything.
This popular culture maxim never seemed more appropriate than it does in these increasingly turbulent and devisive times. It may sound a bit old and overused but, in light of the current state of things, it actually bears quite a fresh significance.
I spent several days in Glasgow this week, showing my support for Extinction Rebellion in their efforts to maintain scrutiny and political pressure on our world leaders, who seem to require the proverbial rocket up their backsides in order to even seem like they’re doing anything of any consequence towards the existential threat that we’re facing.
The mood in the city felt quite surreal at times. Maybe the effects of a transition for many, from a low level of awareness of all things Climate Change, to an increased presence of the matter in the press, making it all the more difficult to turn away from and maybe enhancing the sense of confusion and frustration that still surrounds the Covid fiasco. The people were mostly very sweet and helpful, and maybe a bit bewildered and overwhelmed by the sudden increase in the intensity of the shift that we’re seeing. I have certainly felt, at times, a decline in my own sense of general wellbeing as a result of being confronted with the prospect of such an uncertain future.
However, it is interesting that when we take some kind of action to address a problem that concerns us, our perspective on it can change and it can somehow, all of a sudden, seem much less daunting. I’m thinking of the Climate Emergency as a primary example here, but have experienced this effect on many occasions in the past. The impact of horror and misery diminished in the face of the kind of courage and humility that transcends our selfish interests and somehow penetrates to the heart of the problem.
In this context(activism), it felt like being removed from the sense of impending catastrophe and somehow placed above it, so as to be able to perceive it from a relative vantage point, thereby reducing its impact without negating the seriousness of it. This effect may be as simply explained as the idea that ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’. 100,000 people united in the spirit of a single cause is a much less daunting prospect than trying to tackle it alone or in small numbers. But that alone doesn’t really seem to speak to the feeling that I had as I marched through the rain soaked streets with my colleagues and friends along with thousands of complete strangers.
In reality, I never felt closer to the weight of the problem. In fact, in a certain sense, it felt amplified by being in the city, so near the beating heart of commerce, bombarded by the super-cynicism of the heavy hitting profiteers, all falling over themselves to hijack the Climate Change bandwagon and convince us all that their product will be the one that makes a difference, that plucks us from the jaws of certain death as we blindly and apathetically consume our way towards disaster!
Without the unifying effect of the XR brand of activism, I might actually have been overwhelmed by these more spiritually corrosive forces and resigned to playing the victim instead of actually standing up and claiming my rightful place amongst those who commit to challenging the status quo and staying on the right side of history.
Although this level of deceit is disturbing and, in some ways inspiring for me, it probably has a more trivialising effect for a large chunk of the population, who still have little or no sense of the devastation that awaits if systemic change is not immediately implemented. They are as likely to swallow the commercial greenwashing as they are the wanton fallacies that are being spouted by our crooked leaders, who seem to be just trying to bide their time until the story dies down, so they can get back to promoting business as usual.
We heard of a certain high profile, international business that was advising its clients that 2-3 degrees of global warming would be good for their profits, and the sooner we get there the greater the gains. This mentality highlights the naivety, cynicism and misunderstanding at the heart of the problem that we face; Which is only worsened by politicians such as Boris Johnson, who is world renowned for his lack of integrity, claiming Climate Leadership and thereby undermining the authenticity of the whole business!
You might be detecting a hint of anger and skepticism in the tone that I am writing with, but I also, believe it or not, hold out a certain amount of hope for a different future. It may be radically different from the greener and brighter future that we are being promised by the powers that be, but I still firmly believe in the resilience and beauty of the human spirit. And that, there will always be a strong current of love and hope at work in whatever survives and emerges for the prospects of posterity.
As a Buddhist I feel very lucky that I get to depend more on the qualities of my faith, that are not conditional upon societal prosperity, than to have to place all of my hopes and dreams on a system that was always doomed to failure.
Namo Amida Bu.
Dayamay Dunsby is a member of XR Buddhists UK and a teacher at Bright Earth Buddhist Temple
Faith groups in six cities converged on selected Barclays banks on 18th October to highlight their leading role in fueling the climate crisis. In London, Glasgow, Bristol, Brighton, Shrewsbury and Sheffield, Buddhist groups sat in protest vigils, and engaged with the public to bring attention to the fact that Barclays investments constitute a very real threat to our future. They are the highest investor in fossil fuels of any bank in Europe, and in the years since the Paris agreement in 2015 they have invested $145 in coal oil and gas projects across the planet.
The day was part of Greenfaith’s Faith 4 Climate Justice two days of action to send a message to Governments and corporations in the run up to COP26.
The London experience
As XR Buddhists gather in London outside the Tate Modern it’s good to know that we are part of something bigger: that our friends in other cities are with us today. We sit in meditation, and we spend some time connecting with what brought us to engage in this action. If we take time to reflect in this way, we often find that our motivation for any particular action connects both to personal history and to what we hold dear in the world. This is the wellspring of a wholesome and reliable ground from which to act. Without it our actions can too easily become motivated by anger and blame.
As we set off for the slow 20 minute walking meditation down Fleet Street to the bank we attract a lot of attention, most of it silent: people take pictures or turn to look at our placards, some of which show a burning Earth with the words ‘Barclays: the Ecocide Bank’ underneath. This is a reference to the law of Ecocide which the Ecocide foundation, hope to make a criminal offence, along with other international crimes such as genocide.
On reaching the bank we settle down to meditation. As the meditators take their place in a line on the pavement I am struck as always by the quiet power and grace of the meditative posture: so rare and precious in a bustling noisy cityscape. I am handing out leaflets; I am pleased to see that most passers-by glance at our banner. It is hard to miss: it reads in very large script: ‘Barclays: Funding Climate Breakdown.’ I pop inside the bank to hand in our letter to the manager, to be told by the cleaner that they are not in. No police are called. It’s only later that I see someone who is probably a manager (smart suit, Barclays blue tie, definitely ignoring us) hurry into the bank, followed by someone who looks like a security guard.
I hope he looks at our letter some of which reads:
Sitting in silent meditation we bear witness, and bring to the publics’ attention that Barclay’s investments constitute a direct and imminent threat to their future.
We send our kindness and care to the staff of Barclays bank; their lives will also be impoverished and disrupted by climate impacts. But we consider that as a company, Barclays investments demonstrate a reckless disregard of the scientific evidence, the safety of its customers, the planet, its people and the other species with whom we share this world.
I hope this might reach him, but there is no way of knowing. Likewise, there is no way of knowing what is going through the mind of the woman who takes a leaflet and then very deliberately rips it up a few paces further on. What does she find so offensive? Although I find myself thinking I would have liked to speak to her, I doubt anything I said would have changed her mind. A few people stop and talk and are unpleasantly surprised to find they are with banks that have little regard for the future. Many take a leaflet but hurry along without engaging. .
Forty-five minutes later we set off again in a slow paced meditation line to reach a green space near the river. We meditate, reflect and send our gratitude to ourselves, to each other and to all beings on this one precious blue-green planet which we have been gifted.
There is little sign of Barclays grasping the reality of what the future holds and acting accordingly. We are in for the long haul; sustained perhaps by Thomas Mertons words:
Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.
Recently I had to write a reflection for some Buddhist training I am taking. I chose to write about my experience of briefly joining the Western leg of the Camino to Cop. Before sharing that reflection I want to thank everyone that organised (and continues to organise) the pilgrimage, including Mikey from XR Buddhists who has spent a lot of time working on this event over the past year, and Nick from XR Buddhists who helped organise the Marches leg. The Camino welcomes day walkers joining them at any stage, do check out the website for more details.
* * *
Thirty of us walk quickly and quietly along the edge of a field of purple clover. I am surprised by how strong the scent of the flowers is, how it comes up in waves from the ground as our legs brush past the flowers and the too hot September sun heats the soil. We are walking quickly and quietly. Quickly because there are lots of miles to cover. Quietly because we are pilgrims and although for most of the day we are chattering away it is important sometimes to be quiet and listen. We are listening to ourselves, to our own thoughts and feelings coming and going. We are listening to birdsong (not as much as I hoped for) we are listening to each other’s footsteps, and how our breathing changes when we start walking uphill to the top of the Old Hills.
In the silence I bring to mind why I have joined these walkers for a couple of days. Not for a nice day out with friends (although it is partly that) but to support this pilgrimage that started a week ago, and will go on for five more weeks as they walk up to Glasgow for the COP26 Climate Conference.
Scientists tell us that urgent action is required as people of faith we find individual and collective ways of amplifying this message. This walk is one of those ways.
Later as we cross the River Severn, we are greeted by Johnny who is dressed as a polar bear. “I’ve lost my home” he shouts, reminding us of the importance of the message we are carrying.
In the face of the awful news of extreme weather, and the losses and suffering the world has already faced as a result of the climate crisis and ecological emergency it can be easy to fall into fatalism and doomerism. I have fallen into this myself, sometimes, and imagine that I will do again.
When I am in that place I can use the Buddha’s teachings on impermanence to prop up my despair. Everything changes, it’s all impermanent and there is nothing I can do!
When I can approach this suffering and loss with an open heart without falling into despair my experience of impermanence is very different. I think of the long lifespan of the universe and of the earth and how small a time that human beings have been around for. Remembering that offers a kind of spaciousness and relief. Remembering impermanence also suggests to me that change is possible, although some awful effects of the climate crisis are locked in we don’t have to keep making things worse – the habits of consumption, greed and ignorance can also be impermanent. When we meet impermanence with an open heart we feel grief and loss and this quickens the senses and the mind and invites us to take compassionate action.
The Buddha’s teaching on impermanence should not be about taking us out of the world, but about moving us closer to it.
I am sure the key qualities of Buddhas are that they respond with compassion, creativity and energy to whatever circumstances they find themselves in. I find myself in a world in crisis and try to respond with the same qualities. This is why I am walking with these pilgrims, and why I’ll be joining them in Glasgow in November.
I can’t calculate the exact impact of these actions that I take when I join with activists and protestors, with people from all different faith groups and people without any particular faith. I trust that acting compassionately and with a good heart is always worthwhile. The Buddha talked about the value of watering good seeds. For me this joining in this walk is watering good seeds, meditating out in public places in Glasgow will be watering good seeds and even being arrested for meditating in the road is watering good seeds. I don’t know when those seeds will flourish and flower, and maybe I won’t be around to see it, but still I trust in the value of watering them.
I’m reminded of the old zen story* about a monk who kept fishing a scorpion out of the river. Each time he fished the scorpion out he was stung and his friend asked why keep fishing him out? It is in the nature of the scorpion to sting, the monk said, and it is my nature to keep rescuing him.
It is in the nature of the world to be impermanent, it is the nature of people to change, and it is in the nature of Buddhas to respond with compassion.
*I’m not sure if it’s a real Zen story or not. I can’t find a decent source, but it’s online here.