Articles

Hope, hoplessness and acting without expectations

By Kaspa Thompson

Recently I’ve been reading George Monbiot’s Regenesis. It begins by describing problems with our existing global food systems. Problems with how we treat the soil; with how we pollute the earth, rivers and sea; how we use far too much land; and so on.

Reading this first part of the book my spirits dropped. The problems facing the world are so large and complex, and the forces invested in keeping things as they are so great, is there any hope, I wondered?

As I began reading the second half of the book I noticed my spirits lifting. In the second half Monbiot is meeting and talking to people who are coming up with solutions, with alternative ways of farming, and so on. I try to keep in mind what he said about Feral, his book about depleted nature that proposed rewilding as a solution: how at the time rewilding was a concept that was laughed out of the door, and that now, a decade later, it’s now considered a viable option. Things can change.

It’s striking how much my mood and view changes depending on what I’m paying attention to, the bad news or the news of positive change.

In many of the activist spaces I’ve noticed more people moving away from thinking about mitigation and to thinking about deep adaptation. I have noticed a big shift in people’s thinking in this direction since COP26 last year. 

When I land in the view that things are definitely going to get worse and there is little I can do I have a mix of reactions. Sometimes, I feel real heartbreak at the suffering that people and other living beings are already experiencing, sometimes I feel such longing for things to be different, and a deep sense of despair at how little power I have in the face of the crisis.

And sometimes when I land in that view I feel relief and empowerment. Relief because there is something true about how awful things are, and coming into relationship with the truth ultimately brings relief, and empowerment because it leaves me with the question how can I live well in the midst of this crisis? (What does deep adaptation look like?) and that brings some energy for building strong communities etc.

“Act without expectations.” Many of you will have heard this teaching before. I heard it again from David Loy at an event on Buddhism and the Climate Crisis last weekend. Think strategically, use your wisdom to choose the best place to put your energy (as far as you can tell) take action, and let go of expecting any particular results. Trust that it’s good to act for goodness sake.

This is sometimes described as acting from hopelessness. Not the hopeless of despair that I can feel when faced with the impossibility of knowing what effective action looks like, but the hopelessness that is a deep coming to terms with that impossibility and leads to the energy to act anyway.

This acting without expectations is often held up as the more enlightened approach to activism. And there’s some truth to this, certainly if we act with expectations of particular results then we are inevitably bound for disappointment, and there is a genuine wisdom in not knowing.

And yet I do want to champion those other reactions as well: fear, despair, anger, even longing and hope. These are all natural responses to the crisis and it’s important to welcome and honour each feeling as they arise. I have lived with myself long enough now to know that they will come and go, and that while I shouldn’t treat any of them as holding the complete truth, there is some wisdom in every kind of response.

Can our Buddhist practice be large enough to encompass the whole breadth of our human experience and all the different kinds of responses to the crisis? I also  trust that the more of our feelings we can welcome and meet with compassion, the more likely we are to be able to take up the invitation to act without expectation.

CARNIVAL AND FAITH

By Yogaratna

Vajrayoginī in the form of Nāropa’s Ḍākinī

I want to focus on two ways we can respond with positive emotion to the overall situation (of climate change, biodiversity loss, authoritarianism in the world.  Ways of responding with positive emotion  which can be cultivated.  The two ways are to do with playfulness or humour (or what I’m labelling ‘carnival’) — and faith.

Why am I talking about ‘carnival’?  I think it has a very useful range of meanings and associations.  According to the dictionary: an annual festival, typically during the week before Lent in Roman Catholic countries (which happens to be now), involving processions, music, dancing, and the use of masquerade or dressing up.  More generally it can be an exciting or riotous mixture of elements.  Historically carnival sometimes involved playful inversion of hierarchy: servants becoming masters.

Carnival and theatre have been influential in how protest is done, especially in the last twenty years or so.  At Seattle in 1999 (protests against global trade agreements) the police were sometimes heavy-handed in their response to peaceful speaking out.  The police had apparently been trained in the expectation that they would be facing violence.  On some occasions they really didn’t know how to respond — when, for example, all the protestors suddenly sat down.  And there were also ‘Pink Blocs’ of protestors dressed in tutus armed with feather dusters for tickling the police.

This is an example of something I think is very important — an ethically positive, playful or carnivalesque response to what may seem overwhelmingly difficult situations, and abuses of power.  Mikhail Bakhtin once wrote: ‘laughter must liberate the happy truth of the world from the veils of gloomy lies spun by the seriousness of fear, suffering and violence’.

Laughter can be a very strong and deep energy — and of course not all laughter is good laughter.  Laughter can be very unskilful, even abusive.  But it can be highly skilful (the laughter of enlightenment in the Vajrassatva mantra for example ‘ha ha ha ha ho’).  It’s important why we’re laughing, and how.  

But play, carnival, laughter can be ethically positive — and maybe loosen us up if our worldviews have got a bit rigid or polarised.  I’m going to use Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita as an extended example of what I mean.  It’s mainly set some time in the 1930s, and tells the story of what happens when the devil (and his very mischievous cat) visit the rigidly atheistic Soviet Union.  It’s a very knowing and witty parody of Soviet society at that time: wildly carnivalesque, full of magic, religion, and the romantic.  The satire is against repression of freedom of thought and of speech — against an authoritarian society’s dismissing of the imagination, of religion itself and the mythic dimension.  And yet nobody seems responsible for the way things are — the characters in the story don’t come across as particularly bad.  Even the devil character doesn’t actually seem bad — far more mischievous and subversive, maybe a symbol of a society’s repressed energy.  I’d say the novel itself ultimately celebrates romantic love and people caring for each other — and the energy of the human imagination.

 So I think Bulgakov’s novel was written to some extent against Stalin’s Soviet Union — the authoritarianism, the millions of State-sanctioned murders, the violent repression of free speech and different points of view.  And it was written against fear itself.  It is deeply serious, but also great fun, a celebration of some of the wilder human energies.

Hard to know what would have happened if Bulgakov had tried to publish this novel (as he intended), since he died of natural causes (in 1940) as he was finishing it. This was the time when writing a satirical poem about Stalin could get you executed — which is pretty much what seems to have happened to the poet Osip Mandelshtam. But The Master and Margerita lived well beyond its creator – secretly passed from hand to hand, it was known and loved by many thousands of Russians decades before it was finally published in the Soviet Union in 1968.

 When faced with what can seem an overwhelmingly difficult situation, all the positive human qualities matter.  But perhaps this satirical energy and wild, magical but ethically positive vision are particularly valuable in cutting through what might be a repressed, cowed, fearful state of mind.  Skilful laughter is so opposite to cowed and fearful.

In our own time, right now, the far-right seems to me scarily influential and close to dominance in the USA and Europe, and we may well be on the unstoppable ride of runaway climate change. In some ways, things are looking even grimmer than in Bulgakov’s lifetime. Hopefully, things politically won’t go too far in that direction. On the other hand it seems worth considering that one day we might need to think in terms of resistance rather than outright opposition – of keeping positive vision alive in covert forms, like bulbs in the ground surviving winter.  Which is what Bulgakov’s novel was part of back in the 1930s. Maybe even our Buddhist practice itself will need to be more covert and under the radar. 

If we’re going to face the big picture, we’re going to need inspiration and emotional sustenance — to keep our souls and spirits alive.  Obviously, we can find inspiration in our friendships and relationships, in our practising the Dharma, in the sangha.  But it might be helpful to deliberately cultivate more symbolic, non-rational sources of inspiration (aka the mythic context) – perhaps there are parts of us which can only be reached this way.  Maybe all great poetry, art, music by tapping into the mythic, has something of this liberating and inspiring function.  By the way I’m sure we are all already doing this, I’m just suggesting that it’s really important at a deep level for long-term emotional resilience.  So how might we do this in practice?  We all probably have our own ways.  We could maybe try something we haven’t done before, which might be a clowning workshop, or action theatre (a very in-the-moment, embodied and self-aware form of improvisation where you come up with stories and maybe respond to other people as they improvise).   We can listen to and be inspired by carnival (in the sense I’ve been evoking) as it manifests in the arts: books, films, dance etc.  

So that’s a bit about carnival.  What about faith?

In fact the Buddhist tradition does have its own wild and playful sides.  One of many examples (from the Tibetan Vajrayana in this case) is Vajrayogini. She’s a sort of archetypal Enlightened deity figure. She has the form of a beautiful young woman, naked apart from a few symbolic bone implements. Her skin is red, the colour of unconditional, universal loving-kindness.

She’s ecstatic and free, dancing in the sheer void of ultimate reality – sometimes she’s represented as dancing on (or trampling) bodies representing greed, hatred and delusion.

She takes no prisoners. If we dare to dance with her (perhaps by engaging in years of spiritual practice) she will destroy us utterly – and make us into something far beyond what we were.

Vajrayogini might sound a bit much!  Not everyone’s cup of tea maybe.  But meditating on Vajrayogini is just one example  of a Buddhist faith practice — which can be more of a slow burn, or long fuse.  Such an important and deep energy.  Our heart-response to our ideals of love and compassion.  During meditation I sometimes visualise the Buddha, with golden light radiating from his heart to mine.  Very simple and undramatic.  But it works — I feel it physically, and in my depths emotionally.  If my values or interests have been maybe getting subtly superficial, materialistic, self-centered — then faith practices like this one help remind me, reconnect me with what I really care about at a deep level.  And that can feel like a deep relief, and release of positive energy.

There’s the saying that faith can move mountains — and it’s true.  It does.  It’s what motivated Martin Luther King, the suffragettes — so many heroic people who changed the world for the better.  Maybe we aren’t heroic, it’s ok not to be a hero! tho I suspect many of us are in reality more heroic than we think we are.  But whatever or whoever we are or think we are — we can all play, we can all harness that deep wild playful energy.  We can all draw on deep skilful inspiration, wild energies, and we can all cultivate faith.

Mother Nature’s Children

By Andy Wistreich

In Mahayana Buddhism, the wisdom understanding emptiness is sometimes referred to as the mother. This is because the beings liberated from samsara – arhats, ārya bodhisattvas and buddhas – are all born from the wisdom realising emptiness. Because emptiness is the ultimate nature of everything, we might call these highly realised beings mother nature’s children, because they have realised directly through meditation the final nature of all things. 

Conventionally speaking, mother nature refers to the natural world, the environment, and mother earth. All life on earth is born from this mother, through interaction with space and the sun, thereby producing earth’s atmosphere. Because we are all, along with everything that grows and moves on planet earth, children of mother earth or mother nature, we are siblings of all humans, other species, trees et cetera.

Is there any link or correlation between these two mother natures? Very much so. All evolution is a process of cause and effect. Ecologically every life-form is interdependent with many other life-forms and elemental substrata. Because of cause and effect and interdependence, nothing exists independently. The absence of independent existence is what we buddhists call emptiness.

Generally, people mean the natural environment when they speak about nature. In buddhism we can talk about relative nature, for example the hardness of the earth element, and ultimate nature, the lack of independent existence, or emptiness. 

Relative and ultimate natures are sometimes called the two truths, and everything that exists always has both these truths, depending on which way you look at it. So, for example, if you look at a tree, relatively it is a tree and ultimately it is emptiness.

As Buddha said in The Heart Sutra, “Form is empty; emptiness is form; emptiness is not other than form; form also is not other than emptiness.” Realisation of this fundamental non-duality of form and emptiness is what liberates us from suffering, samsara.

With the pandemic, mother nature has brought her human children to their knees. We have collectively been shown that mother nature is more powerful than us. Not surprisingly, people get back up again, and many try to forget that this mother is in charge of her family. 

This is unfortunate, because the climate and ecological crisis is much more devastating and powerful than the pandemic, and unless we begin to live by the natural laws, our mother will destroy us.

The natural laws are simply the laws of cause and effect of actions, what we commonly call karma. If you heed the teachings of the buddha and other sages, you will not perform destructive actions. Instead, you will practise non-violence and non-harming towards other living beings and their environments.

The ecology is governed by natural laws of cause and effect, and our happiness and misery are also so governed. If we practise kindness towards our relative mother nature – the environment and living beings – and practise wisdom towards our ultimate mother nature by abandoning false notions of independent existence, all will be well. Thus, we will live harmoniously with everything.

I was inspired to write this by our XR Buddhists retreat. It became increasingly clear to me during the retreat how our problematic relationship with mother earth may be healed through the Dharma – the teachings of the Buddha – if we only take it to heart. I am deeply grateful to XR Buddhists for providing me with this insight.

Varieties of activism

By Andy Wistreich

XR Buddhists meditate outside a Barclays bank

There are various kinds of activism, and thus various kinds of activist. Moreover, one activist can engage various kinds of activism either at different times or simultaneously. 

Activism is comprised of specific actions aimed at identified results in the world. Here we are concerned with activism for the benefit of all (as distinct from for example far-right activism which seeks the benefit of one group at the expense of everyone else.)

As you read through the following descriptions of types of activism, you may recognise elements of your own journey as an activist and locate where your personal emphasis seems to lie right now. Remember that activism requires flexibility to the moment, and shapeshifting, so it’s advisable not to feel too fixated in a single type.

The varieties of activism described here are not in a hierarchy. The transformations required in our time require all the powers and forces available, from every possible type of activism. In practice, successful collective actions include many kinds of activists working together alongside one another. We can’t generally tell by looking at anyone, what kind of activism they are practising.

This article divides activism into three main types – direct, radical, and deep. There is a further division of deep into outer, inner, and secret. As indicated above, this taxonomy is not exclusive, simply a method to explore the overarching topic of activism, to help support the processes of all activists.

Direct Activism

It’s called direct because it pinpoints a specific situation, methodology and purpose, and focuses directly at that point. Traditional methods include strikes, occupations, pickets, blockades, and marches. It may be volent such as engaging in fighting police or opponents of the action, using weapons, such as Molotov cocktails or not. It may be non-violent as in the non-violent direct action (NVDA) practised by Extinction Rebellion, which includes disruptive or obstructive actions, which might involve lock-ons, gluing oneself to fixed objects or just sitting or standing somewhere for a purpose.

Radical Activism

Radical means changing from the root, so radical activism takes place within an understanding of the place of specific issues rooted within a system. Thus, radical activism is aimed at changing the system in whatever way necessary to ensure sustainable transformation. In other words, it’s revolutionary. 

We can see, in recent statements by Greta Thunberg, Gail Bradbrook and other leading climate activists that they have become increasingly radicalised. Increasingly we are seeing system change as an implicit or explicit requirement in communications from Extinction Rebellion.

Deep Activism

This recognises that transforming society depends on transformation of consciousness, and thus goes deeper than direct and radical activism. In climate activist circles, the experience of grief and anxiety is openly acknowledged as a common part of the deal. Extinction Rebellion has always highlighted regenerative culture as a means of mitigating these, and thus sustaining the zeal of activists. Deep activists may go further than this purpose and see that without transforming the roots of culture in consciousness, meaningful change isn’t possible.

Here, I divide deep activism into three: outer, inner, and secret deep activism. As mentioned above, these are not exclusive and aren’t presented as a hierarchy. The separation is simply for discussion.

Outer Deep Activism

This can come through religious faith. For example, the Faith Bridge in Extinction Rebellion includes groups of activists from Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Buddhist faiths. Typically, activists of faith call upon their holy beings such as God or Buddha as a source of power, inspiration, and support in their activism. They use prayer, meditation, ritual, and mantra to invoke this connection, and might call upon the powerful being they worship to help bring about the change they seek.

It is also practised by activists of no faith, invoking deep connection to the earth, the universe, universal love and so forth, as sources of inspiration, comfort, and power. 

Outer deep activism, through the agency of the outer Being or beneficent force, helps the activist to feel part of a whole – the whole of humanity, the web of life, nature, or creation. This in turn renders the approach to activism more selfless.

Inner Deep Activism

This recognises the source of the supreme being or universal power as situated within each individual. Theists might talk of ‘the God within’ or soul, and Buddhists of Buddha nature. Sometimes it’s referred to as an inner light. Some feel that all living beings have it; others say it’s only found in humans. 

The point for inner deep activists is that through connecting with this basic element within oneself, one may connect to it within every other being. This brings an additional power to meditation and other practices of deep activism, enabling activists to feel a deep interconnectivity with those with and for whom one takes action.

Secret Deep Activism

This is based on personal connection with the innermost essence of consciousness, which transcends one lifetime, together with its ultimate nature, its absence of inherent existence. It is accessed through Tantra (or its equivalent such as psychedelics) and is thus particularly insightful. Moreover, it offers access to transformative energies from within the subtle energy system of the activist, which may be harnessed as agents of change beyond oneself. Skilful actions at this level of awareness require extensive training and guidance.

Summary

As said at the outset the purpose here is not to suggest a hierarchy of activism but to offer potential channels for reflection and discussion. Effective activists know where they are coming from and are not fixed in the methods they utilise.

The challenges of our time are so great that we have little chance of success unless we use as much of our personal and collective potential as possible. As mass extinction and societal collapse look ever more likely outcomes of our collective predicament on planet earth, it’s up to each of us who care about that, to become excellent activists in as many ways as we can and offer our service for the good of all.

Power, Buddhadharma and XR

By Andy Wistreich

Yesterday, while walking along the beach at Studland in Dorset, we were approached by a man who gave us a small piece of flint. ‘Do you know what this is?’ he said and proceeded to explain that after the dinosaurs became extinct, their carcasses etc caused the acidification of the oceans, which led to a proliferation of jellyfish. He said that flint is fossilised compressed jellyfish. The same will happen when we become extinct, he explained.

External power

When we talk about the ‘powers that be’ with respect to this climate and ecological emergency, we mean organisations and their leaders with the power to resolve the crisis. As shown at COP26, they are doing the opposite – enabling things to get worse. This power matrix has various names – ‘the industrial growth economy’, ‘neo-liberalism’, ‘neo-colonialism’, or just plain ‘capitalism’. Regarding the fossil fuel industry, there are corporations who extract fossil fuels, industries that produce the plant and machinery to do this, the massive motor vehicle and aviation etc industries, the road construction industries and many other vested interests.

During XR actions, one of the rebels’ most popular songs has the chorus, ‘Power to the people; people got the power; tell me, can you feel it; it’s getting stronger by the hour.’ This refers to a power not of oppression or exploiting the planet for profit. It’s a shared power. It’s inclusive, equally distributed, and just. It’s revolutionary, because it urges total transformation of the system.

Many people are understandably suspicious of revolutions. Their history isn’t encouraging because they have often led to dictatorship by a strong man who seizes power from the people, with the false promise to manage the chaos that followed the revolution. 

So, for many people, ‘power’ has a bad name – it’s being abused now and could be abused in future. A reluctance to address the issue of power sets in, and so, even among activists, an underlying sense of powerlessness prevails. Protests against the existing powers-that-be fall on deaf ears. Burnout and disillusion take over.

However, unless we create a new ecological civilisation, with many features in common with indigenous cultures, with respect to relations between each other and the environment, extinction of ourselves and countless other species follows.

Internal power
See the source image

In Tibetan Buddhism, enlightenment is sometimes discussed in terms of three deities – Avalokitesvara, Manjushri and Vajrapani. These embody respectively enlightened compassion, wisdom, and power (aka action or skilful means). Vajrapani generally appears as a wrathful deity, with bulging eyes, fangs, upstanding hair and surrounded by fire. He is the ‘Lord of the Secrets’ because he protects secret mantra – the vajrayana. His power is the power of mantra, of wrath, of ritual protection of the Dharma. It is a power that can be terrifying.

When it comes down to it, this power is simply the power of the completely pure mind, cleared of egoistic selfish compulsion –without self-interest or grasping, acting for the wellbeing of everyone. Its fierce aspect deters the ego-empire-building inclinations of those of us bogged down in samsara, who too easily slip into the mode of power-over-others when circumstances allow.

XR Buddhists often speak of the powerful meditations they experience when sitting in meditation in an XR action. There seems to be an effect on those around, when a group of XR Buddhists meditate in public, an effect that grounds the energy in a powerful way. Arguably, this is the internal power of Buddhadharma, manifesting and pervading the space.

Connecting external and internal power

XR’s third demand is for citizens’ assemblies (CAs) to determine how we can get out of the climate and ecological crisis we’re in. The CA is a form of deliberative participatory democracy whereby a group of citizens is randomly selected through a process known as sortition, to deliberate and propose a way forward which is put to a referendum and then carried out. The CA has access to experts who help them understand the causes of the problem being deliberated. Their decisions are made in the interests of everyone.

Deliberative participatory democracy is quite different from the representative democracy that prevails at many levels in so-called democratic countries. Representative democracy has been hijacked by political parties, professional lobbyists and media friends of wealthy elites and has spawned a caste of professional politicians who are skilled liars. Once every four of five years these politicians secure election by promising to solve everyone’s problems, but once in power proceed to shore up the system that creates those problems.

Deliberative participatory democracy enables ordinary people without vested interests to collectively figure out practical solutions to collective problems. Nevertheless, popular power is vulnerable to manipulation, and in the turbulence situation of social transition, the egoic grandiosity of individuals can disrupt its democratic character.

The emerging ecological civilisation will only succeed if it is founded on altruistic compassion and transcendence of such ego-grasping. Therefore, we need Dharma to help us build a positive resilient future society. Dharma offers the possibility of power beyond power – selfless power.

Dual power

Right now, we are in a situation of dual power. On the one hand corporate colonialist capitalism and its political institutions hold the strings of external power everywhere. Simultaneously, there is an emerging global consciousness of the nature and roots of the crisis and the necessity to end consumerism, fossil extraction, ecocide, and inequality. This consciousness is manifesting in diverse forms and movements all over the world. It’s a growing internal power with external forms. 

Classically, dual power is a stage in revolutionary transition. As a buddhist, I support a non-violent revolution that isn’t rushed but isn’t afraid to acknowledge the issue of power. This requires a power that starts within, abandons ego-grasping and radiates universal love and compassion – a power that manifests the radical inclusivity of genuine participatory democracy. Radical inclusivity accepts everyone and every part of everyone. In radical inclusivity there is no inequality, exploitation, or social injustice. It holds all beings dear.

This stage of dual power is hard to live through, but it points towards a transformation to come. It is the ‘chrysalis phase’ when the caterpillar of the old civilisation liquifies inside the chrysalis prior to reconstituting as the butterfly of the new civilisation. It has been said that the covid pandemic is the beginning of the chrysalis phase of the 21st century global transition.

It certainly feels like there is a meltdown underway as the old civilisation breaks down. Uncertainty, insecurity, anxiety everywhere – it can feel scary. But meanwhile one may feel a groundswell of determination and courage for change. XR Buddhists sit silently on the ground of this rising energy, at one with the pain and yearning of the world. Thus, we participate as agents in the process.

COP26: Online solidarity

My home vigil shrine for COP26

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 Meditators and XR Buddhists

meditating Inside Barclays Bank

by Kaspa

Three people sit in meditation wearing placards  that read: Barclays the Ecocide Bank.
Meditating inside Barclays Bank in Glasgow during the second week of COP26.

The Barclays bank security guard was loud, flustered and very quickly asked us to leave. Adrenaline surged through my system. Three of us were sitting in silent meditation. We ignored his words and kept sitting quietly with our eyes closed. I heard one of our police liaisons trying to reason with the guard, and then another voice joining in. I half-opened my eyes. This new voice was a police officer in a bright yellow jacket. How had I got here?

“Would anyone like to sit inside the bank?”
I tentatively raised my hand. Two other people put their hands up as well. Okay, I said to myself, I guess I’ll be sitting inside the bank.

Barclays bank are the biggest investor in coal in the UK, they are the most invested in fossil fuels of any bank in Europe and 7th in the world. Since the 2015 Paris agreement they have invested $145 billion in fossil fuels and despite having net zero goals in 2020 their investment in fossil fuels was higher than in 2019…

It’s clear we need an immediate end to fossil fuel extraction, and the environmental and human cost of continuing to use them will be devastating.

We were planning to mindfully walk to the bank, to sit outside in meditation with our banners and placards which read, ‘Barclays the ecocide bank’, and to hand out leaflets and talk to passers-by. If some of us agreed to sit inside the bank it would probably increase the visibility and presence of the protest.

Despite knowing all of that I was ambivalent about ratcheting up the tension by arriving just before the main protest and sitting inside the bank.  Lots of positive change throughout history has come about through non-violent direct action – I know that there is value in creating the right amount of disturbance and yet I was wary.

Satya and I had decided to go home a day earlier than planned, and getting arrested would put a dent in those plans, I wasn’t sure of the value of arrest as protest in this context, I was simply tired after a few long days of demonstrating in Glasgow and knew it would be both jangling and exhausting.

I had a mix of reasons for wanting to act. From all of the very good arguments of the value of NVDA and protest, to wanting to feel useful, to competitive parts of me that compare me with other activists, to the parts of me that are flabbergasted at continued investment in fossil fuels and business as usual.

Taking all of this into account I had raised my hand.

In the bank our brilliant police liaison (a demonstrator trained in speaking to the police) continued to talk to both the police and the security guard. The police were asking how they could trust we really were peaceful, and they were letting the liaison know that we were now trespassing as we’d been asked to leave.  And yet, they weren’t rushing to speak to us directly. I half-opened my eyes again. There was a police van outside now, and a whole crowd of officers, and a crowd of public, and a dozen or more other XR Buddhists sitting in meditation outside the bank.

I don’t know how much time passed. A few minutes perhaps. It felt both longer and shorter. How long could we continue to sit without risking arrest, I wondered? How much use was it to increase the drama of the protest by being here?

None of the three of us inside wanted to be arrested today, we’d each said that we’d ignore requests from bank staff for us to move, but would move when the police instructed us to.

The police convinced the liaison to pass on the message that we were now trespassing and that it was an offence to stay once we’d been asked to leave.

I stood up and had a chat with the officer. He very slowly ushered me to the door, and I sat down outside with the other XR Buddhist protestors.

We sat for another half an hour or so. I focussed on my breath, and occasionally noticed people chatting to Satya and Joe who were handing out leaflets. Some of them agreed to change where they banked after reading our leaflets filled with facts. One or two were upset with us for being there at all.

Slowly most of the police left.

As my nerves calmed I was able to unpick some of my different emotional responses to that encounter. Anger and frustration at the bank, gratitude for those sitting with me both inside and outside the bank, fear of conflict, fear of an escalation into physical violence (later I learnt one of our police liaisons had been pushed by the security guard), gratitude to the earth for supporting me, for my body for continuing to breathe, for the teachings and traditions and practices that allowed me to remain more or less steady.

The bell rang, signalling the end of meditation. We bowed, gathered up our banners and walked in mindfulness and silence away from the bank.

Later, away from the protest, as my emotions began to settle I noticed a deep well of grief for what we have lost already, the acute personal pain of the Earth’s suffering that was lodged within me, and a deep sense of connection to both the Earth and the XR Buddhists I had shared the day with.

Karma is Action: due to compassion we are impelled to act

By Andy Wistreich

14 people sitting in meditation on the steps outside the national gallery at Trafalgar Square.
Andy with XR Buddhists at the Impossible Rebellion

The Buddha always links karma with the environment. This linkage can be found in all buddhist traditions. For example, the 14th century Tibetan, Lama Tsong Khapa says, “From the nonvirtuous action of killing, such things in the external environment as food and drink, medicine, and fruits will have little strength, be ineffective, have little potency and power, or, being difficult to digest, will induce illness. Hence most living beings will die without living out their expected lifespans.”

According to the Buddha, the environment we are born into is a result of our karma, our actions in previous lives. The kinds of environments that exist, and the kinds of bodies we take within them, result from causes first activated when a universe appears. The universe is composed of particles of earth, water, fire, air, or space, which interact to produce the various ecosystems of planets, oceans, plants, and sentient life-forms. However, the way these ecosystems evolve and how we experience them is determined by our karma.

Collective karma creates for example the human realm, and then within that, individual karma shapes the way we each experience it. For the Buddhas, the entire universe is always a buddhafield, a pure mandala of unlimited bliss and wisdom, but for sentient beings like us, our collective and personal karma determines the kinds of suffering and happiness that we experience.

Karma is a Sanskrit word meaning action. Our actions are karmic causes that generate potentials which reverberate through time. When these potentials later ripen, we experience the karmic results. Constructive actions bring about positive results, such as good environments, whereas with destructive actions it’s the opposite.

Right now, we are humans on planet earth. Our collective good karma connects us with the abundance, beauty, and generosity of mother earth. Individual karma means we enjoy this abundance to a greater or lesser degree.

Meanwhile, our collective bad karma means that we are presently part of a global culture that is disrupting and degrading the ecosystems of mother earth. Some humans pursue destructive courses of action, while others try to reverse that direction.

Why is it bad karma to help degrade the ecosystems of planet earth? Quite simply, it’s because this harms the sentient beings who live here. To do so unknowingly isn’t necessarily bad karma, but in the current situation, where those responsible for fossil fuel industries, and other systems that harm the environment know very well what how destructive their actions are, their karma is very bad indeed. Ecocide destroys countless lives and opportunities for wellbeing.

Things have come to such a serious juncture that even to do nothing implies consent to the ecocidal culture that infuses our economic, societal, and political structures. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said, ‘You have to do something!’

On another occasion, the Dalai Lama said, ’Universal responsibility is the key to human survival.’ This indicates that human survival isn’t a given. ‘Universal responsibility’ is the driving force that motivates action for the benefit of everyone. If sufficient people adopt this motivation, human life will continue.

Thus, in general, the actions of Extinction Rebellion are very good karma, because they are motivated by a concern for all, both now and in the future. Although many XR activists, including some in the XR Buddhists contingent, don’t relate to the Buddha’s teachings on karma, nevertheless, these actions, if motivated by universal compassion, will certainly lead to positive results. Actions motivated by universal compassion and responsibility are the actions of Bodhisattvas.

Following brief involvement in the Impossible Rebellion at the beginning of September 2021 I undertook a personal five-week retreat. During the retreat this article came to me, and I jotted down some notes, from which I have now written it. I dedicate it to the positive outcomes of the actions of XR Buddhists.

A response to the IPPC report

XR Buddhist Kaspa has written a response to the IPPC report on his temple’s website:

On Monday morning I sat and watched the beginning of the live-streamed press conference from the IPCC. I listened to a couple of speakers and then I couldn’t listen any more. I stood up and decided to get on with the day’s work. I went into the bedroom to change into my painting clothes, collapsed onto the bed and sobbed.

Read the whole post here: Buddhism and the Climate Crisis

Protesting at G7: guIlt, worry, big mind and hope

by Kaspa Thompson

four people standing on a stage made from cubes of scaffolding decorated with large colourful squares, on the beach
The stage at Harbour Beach St Ives.

It was Sunday lunchtime. The heat was blazing. I was sitting with half a dozen XR Buddhists in meditation on Smeatons Pier.

Down on the beach below Rob Hopkins (author of ‘From What is to What if’) was giving a talk about imagination and longing. There was a crowd of rebels listening attentively. XR flags occasionally lifted up and flapped in the light breeze.

I was travelling light and hadn’t bought a meditation cushion or bench. For a while I simply sat cross legged on the hard concrete. Then my back started to ache. I tried taking off my shoes and using them as a cushion. That didn’t help my back at all and my bare feet pressed up against the rough surface of the pier. Then I thought ‘Is my head burning?’, glancing down at the time on my phone and wondering how far through the meditation time we were.

Despite all of this physical discomfort, this was one of the most peaceful and settled experiences throughout my weekend. Despite how few people were looking up at this row of XR Buddhists, or walking by us on the pier, for me this was one of the most significant actions.

There was something very powerful about finding some of what Suzuki Roshi called Big Mind in the middle of, on the one hand, a noisy crowded weekend of protests, and on the other a keen awareness of the suffering that the climate crisis has caused and will continue to cause.

That weekend I had witnessed the prayers and intention setting of the opening ceremony, marched with a thousand others through the streets of St. Ives, waved off the march through Falmouth and spent a decent chunk of time wandering around in the heat with a group of rebels looking for the best place to stage a theatrical action that didn’t happen. I sang with the song-holders, chatted with other rebels and kept an eye on social media and the news for photos and stories of all the actions that I missed, from Ocean Rebellion’s dawn mermaid action to Surfers Against Sewage’s paddle out for the planet. I found time for hanging out with friends on the beach, for sitting in the park with the dogs, and for more than one ice-cream. I watched Satya cover herself with a sheet and become a corpse for the XR Doctors’ action.

a crowd of protestors sitting in the road. Some demonstrators are carrying a large paper mache globe
Extinction rebellion march in protest at business and government ‘greenwashing’ polices, G7 summit, Falmouth, Cornwall, UK

I spent the following week at home noticing guilt, shame and powerlessness washing around inside me. Had any of this made any difference, I wondered? Had I done as much as others? It’s easy for me to feel responsible for the whole of the climate crisis. Of course that’s not true, but I wonder what purpose that belief serves?

I have heard a distinction made between useful suffering and useless suffering. Useful suffering is the unavoidable suffering that is grist to the mill for practice and leads to fellow-feeling and compassion. This is birth, sickness, old-age, death etc. Useless suffering is the creation of a mind trying to avoid ‘useful’ suffering. It is unhelpful beliefs about ourselves and the world: this shouldn’t happen to me; I’m this sort of person, or that sort of person; or – like me in Cornwall – it’s my job to fix it all.

It is helpful to think of two kinds of suffering, but in my experience both types of suffering (suffering in the world and in our minds) are inevitable and both, if approached in the right way, can be a pointer towards love. We all suffer with birth, sickness etc. and we all create belief systems that don’t serve us.

If we can notice this in a loving way, with some kindness and spaciousness, we discover something about the human condition.  Feeling tender towards our body/mind and their troubles, we begin to feel tender towards the body/mind of others.

This kind of attention brings wisdom. When I get curious about this habit of taking responsibility for all, I discover a couple of things. This habit has good intentions but mistaken beliefs: if I do a good job of being the responsible one I won’t get into trouble. Maybe that was true at one time, but it isn’t true now. I also discover that it keeps me away from paying closer attention to the real harm that I cause (through my carbon footprint etc.). In this role this habit again has good intentions but a mistaken belief: I’ll keep Kaspa safe by keeping him away from these truths, otherwise he will be overwhelmed by shame and guilt. Ironically it serves this purpose by using one dose of shame and guilt to avoid a different one.

As I maintain a loving attitude through this investigation, the habits reveal these truths to me, and they begin to relax and let go. In the light of loving kindness and wisdom the delusion begins to dissolve.

As these habits loosen their grip, really useful questions appear: are there ways in which my actions cause harm? Are there things I can change in response to seeing that? And where is the best place to put my energy, being the kind of person I am, in the crisis we are all facing?

The weekend following the Cornwall actions I co-led a mindful walk on the hills and took part in two XR Buddhist events: a debrief for the G7 actions and a mantra chanting session. Through spending time in those spaces I was reminded again that it is Buddhist practice alongside activism that is the most meaningful to me, and the place where I can best make a contribution. 

I am reminded again of that moment on the pier, when I experienced a deep sense of peace and a knowing both that this was a significant action and that regardless of the impact there is always something to take refuge in: Buddha, the Pure Land, Nirvana, emptiness. The love and wisdom we find there is unconditional: we are welcome there, and it does not depend on anything in the world for its existence.

In actions like this I am given a glimpse of the completion of the Bodhisattva vow (to save all beings) and of the Bodhichitta (the heart of awakening).  Often we think of activism and practice as separate: we act, and then we return to practice to digest the action, and then we act again and then we return to practice and so on.

When our hearts are awakened we naturally make an appropriate response to whatever we find. In the Buddha wisdom, compassion and action arise spontaneously, together and without selfish calculation. Usually our activism and our Buddhist practice support one another. Ultimately they become the same thing.

Often the form of XR Buddhists’ actions reflect this understanding, as we meditate in the road, or in a bank, or whilst winding our way through a busy protest in walking meditation.

Recalling that useful question: where is the best place to put my energy? I find the answer here. I am called to create the conditions for this kind of activism and for this kind of practice: where a deep care for the earth and Buddhist practice and taking action come together.

As to the effectiveness of our actions? On the one hand we are encouraged to let go of results, and I bring to mind how profound and meaningful these actions are in the moment of acting and trust that that is enough, and on the other hand I look back over the past three years since the foundation of Extinction Rebellion and see how far the national conversation on the climate crisis has moved and I am given some hope.

Kaspa Thompson is currently co-coordinator of XR Buddhists. He is a Buddhist teacher at Bright Earth Buddhist Temple, and a psychotherapist.