I’ve been to two Rebellions. The first time I went as a steward, and didn’t know anyone. Stewarding was my way of dipping my toe into the world of activism. I was present, but most of my job involved telling tourists which way Buckingham Palace was, rather than bringing down the systems of power and finance which perpetuate the climate and ecological emergency.
The second time I came as part of XR Buddhists. I crossed the threshold of arrest. I helped to organise a mass meditation in Trafalgar Square. Working with others, I helped publicise what we were doing on social media. But the moments that stuck with me from that Rebellion weren’t the big semi-planned ones, they were the spontaneous ones.
One morning towards the end of the Rebellion we were meeting for a check-in in Parliament Square. I was still processing my arrest and night in the cells. This Rebellion had happened with London fairly empty (due to COVID 19) and I worried we hadn’t reached as many people as we might have. Sometimes in the middle of actions, I can feel fretful about whether anything is changing. All of that was swirling in me as I met with a few other XR Buddhists that morning.
Parliament Square was almost empty, there were a few people around for the Faith Vigil. And up two trees there were a couple of brave protestors who had been there for days. Police officers stood around at the base of the trees. It was an attempt to isolate the protestors in the trees, to make it harder for people to communicate with them and to send things up to them. And so we chose to sit among the trees, among the indifferent police. It felt a bit awkward going and sitting among the police. Even though I know there is no reason I can’t meditate under the tree, I was still very conscious of the police presence. We sat there, and connected with the trees, with the ground, with the activists above us who had spent the night on their own, in front of the Houses of Parliament.
After sitting for a while, Joe suggested we could call up to the occupied hammocks and offer some words from Joanna Macy. One of the protestors looked out over her hammock and said she would like that. So we mic checked this quote up to her:
“This is a dark time, filled with suffering and uncertainty. Like living cells in a larger body, it is natural that we feel the trauma of our world. So don’t be afraid of the anguish you feel, or the anger or fear, because these responses arise from the depth of your caring and the truth of your interconnectedness with all beings.”Joanna Macy
It was a beautiful moment. She told us we had made her cry. It was a moment of connection with someone we could barely see, but a way of recognising the pain and hope that we felt. I wished I could have given her a hug, or some hot food and a good coffee. But we did what we could.
To come to a Rebellion is to grapple with the hopes, the grief, the anger, and the attachments we have to change. It isn’t always easy. But it offers an opportunity to connect with others in big and small ways. That can be powerful.
It was near the beginning of the September Extinction Rebellion actions in London. A dozen or so of us Buddhist rebels sat in a circle in the centre of Parliament Square. Around us other rebels began to appear: people with flags sticking out of their backpacks, or banners folded up under their arms, or carrying instruments. There were tired faces peering into coffee mugs. There were people chatting in small groups. Around the edge of the square there was a scattering of police in canary yellow jackets. Behind me people were meditating and praying. They were lined up against the fence, facing parliament, sitting in the multi-faith vigil.
We were also meditating. I felt the cool air against my cheeks, the solid earth beneath me, and my heart beating quickly as I anticipated a day of non-violent civil disobedience.
The meditation ended. I opened my eyes and noticed the others here with me. I had been sitting in Zoom meetings with these people throughout the year and I suddenly felt immensely grateful for their company and support.
Did we check in before or after the meditation? I can’t remember, either way at some point each of us said a few words about how we were feeling. Someone asked if we could chant together.
Satya agreed to lead us in chanting a Quanyin mantra. She began by inviting us to picture Quanyin as large as the Statue of Liberty, and to imagine her smiling down at us, or to imagine that we were being held in the palm of her hand. Then Satya began to chant “Namo Quan Shi Yin Bosat.” The rest of us joined in – a circle of Buddhist rebels connecting with the One Who Hears the Cries of the World.
I have been reciting this mantra for many years. As a Pure Land Buddhist my main practice is nembutsu – reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha – but like millions of Buddhists around the world I often find it easier to connect with Quanyin (Avalokiteshvara in Sanskrit), one of Amitabha’s bodhisattva attendants and a bodhisattva of compassion.
Now, in England’s third COVID lockdown, feeling exhausted by the past year, and knowing I am not alone in my exhaustion, I find myself thinking about a story of Quanyin that I have heard many times.
Quanyin – The One Who Hears the Cries of the World – hears of someone suffering in the world and responds to that suffering. She helps them, and then she hears another person in trouble. She works tirelessly lifting people out of their difficulties. However there is always another suffering being and the work seems endless. Still she continues. One by one she helps everyone that needs it.
Seeing the endless suffering she is overwhelmed and splits into many pieces. Amitabha notices this shattering and goes and tends to Quanyin. He puts her together again, giving her eleven heads and a thousand arms. She goes back into the world renewed, and continues the work of helping people.
If you look carefully at images and statues of Quanyin you will often find an Amitabha Buddha in her headdress.
I know how it is to become exhausted by responding to needs, both in my personal life and as a climate activist where I feel called to respond to the immense need of the earth and her ecosystems for healing.
When I deeply examine my own inner life I find that the things that most exhaust me are emotional responses and impulses that come from self-protection. When I act from a place of anger it is quickly tiring. When I act from a place of rescuing it is tiring. When I am afraid for myself it is tiring. All of these thoughts and feelings have their own good reasons for showing up, and because they are self-protective they take energy from us and leave negative karmic traces.
When I am empty of all of these things, and act from this place of emptiness, it is not tiring.
What remains when greed, ill-will and ignorance empty out? It is love: love without agenda; love that needs nothing for itself; love that longs for the well-being of all.
This all-accepting love is the particular quality of enlightenment that Amitabha exemplifies.
Are any of us fully-enlightened beings? I tend to agree with Suzuki Roshi who said there are no enlightened people, only enlightened moments. For myself, I know that greed, ill-will and ignorance continue to rise.
It was mid-afternoon. A large group of rebels had sat in the road of Great George Street along one edge of Parliament Square. A line of police were strung across one end of the road, stopping us from disrupting the traffic on Parliament Street. Someone noticed that there was a clear space in front of the police line and suggested that would be a good place to meditate. We took our cushions and benches and settled into our mediation postures in front of the police. We were joined by other rebels until there were two dozen or so of us meditating in two lines across the road.
In many areas of my life I often feel ambivalence. Questions as big as should I take on this piece of work, to as small as would I like tea or coffee lead me to a place of self-doubt and indecision. The decision to sit in the road was one of the easiest I have made.
Blessed by Quanyin, my mind was clear. Blessed by Quanyin, I felt completely grounded. Blessed by Quanyin, I felt a great compassion for the earth.
We sat and meditated in the road for hours.
Every now and again there was a stirring in the police line. One officer left and another replaced them, a message was passed from one end of the line to the other. At around half past four an officer knelt down and started speaking to someone near the edge of the road, five or six people away from me. After that conversation the rebel stood up and left the road. “Here we go” I thought.
Another hour passed in which very little happened and then officers began speaking to rebels one by one, letting them know Section 14 of the Public Order act was in place, and that if they didn’t clear the road they would be arrested.
Satya was sitting next to me. Out of the corner of one eye I saw an officer approach, kneel down and speak to her. After a couple of minutes, Satya was carried away by two officers and moments later I was arrested as well.
Later that evening, after a long journey through traffic in the back of a police van with two other rebels, I was signed into a cell at Lewisham Police Station.
The metal door closed behind me. I looked around the cell. A bed with a thin, plastic covered mattress was fixed to one wall. There was a steel toilet in the corner. “Don’t worry, ” I had been told, “the camera can’t see the toilet.” The camera was behind a dark globe of glass in one corner of the ceiling. The floor and walls were all covered in pale blue plastic. Everything was easy to wipe down.
A fluorescent light offered a flat, too bright, illumination.
I walked up and down the cell. Once, twice, three times. I lay on the bed and looked at the ceiling and remembered the stories I’d heard of Tibetan monks maintaining compassion for their jailers in much, much worse circumstances than this.
I wasn’t feeling much compassion. I felt anger and frustration at the lack of awareness of the climate crisis in government, and at the position I found myself in.
If someone is imprisoned, shackled, or chained, Or if his hands and feet are in stocks, If he evokes the strength of Guanyin, His bonds will open and he will be free.
I put my attention on my breath and with each cycle of breath I said the Quanyin mantra to myself. At some point my thoughts started to wander and after a while I fell asleep.
I woke up and shivered. I had no idea what time it was. The light in the ceiling was still bright. I had been promised a meal and no meal had arrived. I had been told I could ask for a blanket if I was cold and I was cold.
I looked at the silver call button on the wall and couldn’t bring myself to press it and ask for a meal or a blanket. A deep seated fear of disturbing authority figures had caught hold of me. I sat on the bed, enmeshed in fear. Sometimes this is how it is to be human. Despite the mantra of Quanyin my self-protective feelings had taken over.
Sometimes the clouds cover the sun, and all we can do is trust that the sun is still shining in the sky, high above the clouds, and wait for the clouds to clear. The same is true in my practice, sometimes I just have to trust that the strong feelings will clear and then I will see the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas again. And somehow this act of trusting seems to help.
I turned away from the button and continued to recite the mantra silently, following my breath. A police officer knocked on the door and offered me a blanket. Later, I got to speak to my solicitor, and eventually in the early hours of the morning I and a handful of other rebels were let out.
Early Friday evening, as the light was beginning to fade, around a dozen Buddhist rebels sat in a circle in Trafalgar Square. We had just taken part in a mass meditation with many other rebels. There had been around sixty of us altogether, creating a calm centre in the middle of the busy square.
As we sat quietly I remembered the opening circle just a few days ago. So much had happened since then: sitting in the road, walking meditation through the city and the many different emotions rising and falling within me throughout the whole week.
Each person said a few words about how they were feeling and then the request came again, could we share some chanting together. Satya asked us to imagine Quanyin standing high above us again, perhaps up on Nelson’s Column. We chanted her mantra together.
I was reminded that thoughout all of these actions, and alongside all the suffering in the world, we are supported by the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas: there is an unconditional, wise love that flows towards us and through us, and takes root in our hearts.
Without this remembrance, I could not face the climate crisis, and without this remembrance I could not take action.
Namo Quan Shi Yin Bosat
Kaspa Thompson is a Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist. He is the coordinator of Buddhist Action Month. He co-leads the Bright Earth Buddhist Temple in Malvern.
It’s April 15th 2019; my anxiety rises as I approach the London venue where I’m expecting over 40 fellow Buddhists to gather. A few early arrivals are there already and they tell me that they can’t get in. My anxiety obediently notches up a point or two and I press the bell myself as if my status as organiser will surely work magic. It doesn’t. More people arrive, the door remains firmly shut and I remind myself that I am not in charge of the unfolding of life’s mysteries, including where the key to this particular door might be situated. Finally, one of the building staff arrive the door is opened and we file in to the cool interior to arrange the room and prepare for the gathering.
This is Dharma Action Network for Climate Engagement, soon to give birth to Extinction Rebellion Buddhists, at our second major Extinction Rebellion protest. We have Buddhists from across the lineages arriving to take action on this first day of two weeks of protests on the climate crisis. The planning is already done on social media. We will be starting with walking meditation to Marble Arch and then sitting in meditation in the road to block traffic. We have placards to hang around our necks which read ‘Grief and Love for the Earth’; over these words hovers a photograph of Earth from space. An incomparably beautiful blue-green planet, our home, now ravaged and depleted by years of remorseless exploitation.
But before we hit the streets we are meeting to connect with ourselves and each other, to remember why we are here. We meditate together, we speak and we hold silence to make room for the passion and the pain of our ravaged Earth, and of all beings caught up in this destruction. When we file out of the building we move from open hearts, which hold us in the knowledge that although we cannot ever know of the results of our actions, we can be sure of the necessity and the rightness of what we are doing, and the manner in which we are doing it.
Emerging from the underground station we form into a line and in noble silence we slow- walk the quarter of a mile down the length of Edgware Road; a quiet stream of contemplatives moving through the daily mayhem of a busy London street.
People stop and make way; I like to think they are moved by our message and our dignity.
We arrive at Marble Arch and are greeted by another group of Extinction Rebellion activists who have already blocked the road. After discussion we decide to ask if they will agree to us meditating in front of them. They are more than happy. We take our places on the road and as the singing bowl chimes we close our eyes for an hour meditation on the road. Presence, peace, rootedness. Police come and go, traffic honks support or anger, people shout abuse and encouragement. And we sit. We sit in honour of the Earth, inspired and held by two and half thousand years of our spiritual tradition.
The Buddha’s example
But this is an essay about whether Buddhists should remain apart from direct action on the social and environmental crisis that is facing us, and instead focus on personal growth and enlightenment. Are not these crises (and many others) merely the playing out of samsara; the arising and passing of forms fundamentally empty and transient? Should the Buddhist contribution not be to cultivate wisdom and clear seeing; to reveal the ultimately delusional nature of reality? Should Buddhists therefore not avoid politics and certainly direct action?
We might start to address this question by looking at the Buddha’s own life. What stance did he take in response to the issues of his day? There is in fact much evidence from the Buddha’s teaching and his life that he challenged the established order of his day quite directly.
The caste system was a dominating and powerful influence on the lives of the population of South Asia at the time of the Buddha. He took a radical stance on this. In the Assalayana Sutta a conversation between the Buddha and the Brahmin caste supremacist Assalayatta is reported in detail. Assalayatta is pretty smart: ‘a master of the Three Vedas with their vocabularies, liturgy, phonology, etymology, & histories; skilled in philology & grammar, fully versed in cosmology’ Nevertheless, the Buddha dismantles the Brahmins claims of his caste’s superiority with impeccable logic: asking for example, how sure the Brahmin is that all his caste is ‘pure’ Brahmin going back into history; and whether his case is subject to the same natural laws both physical and karmic as other castes and so on. The Brahmin’s claims start to look extremely thin and he is reported to have become rather dejected ‘When this was said, the Brahmin student Assalayana sat silent, abashed, his shoulders drooping, his head down, brooding, at a loss for words.’ The Buddha’s position is clear from this conversation: that he holds all four castes to be of equal merit. It is to be noted that the Sanghas which the Buddha set up did not allow any expression of the caste system.
In relation to women we also find the Buddha taking a decisive position. He established a monastic rule that ensured that the testimony of women should be sought if any dispute arose in the community – a radical act for his day. He also made it clear that women had the same potential for awakening as men, and he created a parallel nun’s order about five years after the start of the monk’s order. Within the nuns’ order women had the opportunity to opt out of what was a highly oppressive patriarchal system. His advice to his follower King Pesanadi the King of Kasala also expressed his view of women: he encouraged the king not to be downhearted on the birth of a daughter with these words: ‘Some women are better than men oh King. There are women who are wise and good, who are pure in thought and deed…’
The Buddha was also directly in contact with the kings of his day and gave advice to them – for example about the treatment of prisoners, education and the wisdom of going to war. He also addressed householders with the ’57 mental postures’; a guide for living which included advice on how to deal with lust and greed for example. The Pali literature of the Theravadins reveals the Buddha facing political intrigues and several wars. He counselled: Victory breeds hatred. The defeated live in pain. Happily the peaceful live, giving up victory and defeat.’
It is worth adding that many of the radical initiatives that the Buddha introduced were subsequently dropped or ignored after his death, Buddhism has become more patriarchal for example, and more focused on individual awakening rather than the good of the whole, perhaps influenced by the individualistic culture of the modern world. But the historical records do point to a man whose actions and words reflected an uncompromising stance on the importance of compassion and respect for all beings.
Let us now turn to more faith-based objections to engaged Buddhist action. In my experience perhaps the most common objection to active engagement in the climate crisis is that based on the Heart Sutra’s wisdom teaching that ‘form is not different than emptiness’. If the real world is illusory why would we get engaged with it? Surely the best and most we can offer is the invitation to recognise this – to not get so hung up on the so-called real word? Should we not let go and relax into non-attachment to this illusory world, into the truth of formlessness. But this is to ignore that the Heart Sutra immediately adds: ‘emptiness is not different than form.’ In his book Eco Dharma David Loy, Buddhist activist and author writes: ‘the Buddha did not teach – nor does his life demonstrate – that non-attachment means unconcern about what is happening in the world.’ The exclusive emphasis on emptiness is the route to the ‘spiritual bypass’ which confers a bland un-concern for suffering of any sort as a misunderstanding. In her contribution to ‘Response to the Climate Emergency’ Joanna Macy sees this view of emptiness as a justification of non-action as a ‘spiritual trap that cut the nerve of compassionate action’. To give lived expression to the whole of the Heart Sutra’s teaching, ‘form is not different than emptiness and emptiness is not different than form’, is to find a path of deep compassion for all beings while holding our actions and the results of our actions within a knowledge of the vast emptiness of all things. In practice this confers on even the most decisive activism the qualities of clarity courage and calm.
There is of course a model for this compassionate and wise action in the service of others, which is the bodhisattva ideal of Mahayana Buddhism. This emphasises the combination of wisdom and of compassion and it replaces the focus on personal liberation with the aim of benefit to all beings. It is compassion in action. As the Dalai Lama has said: ‘It is not enough to be compassionate. You must act.’
In a recent interview David Loy is asked ‘what is Buddhism for?’ He replies: ‘how does our practice empower us to respond appropriately [to the climate crisis]? ‘and he goes on: ‘If Buddhism doesn’t help us to do that maybe Buddhism isn’t what the world needs today’. I believe, along with the growing number of deeply committed practitioners in our movement, that the world desperately needs the qualities and wisdom which Buddhism offers.
Thich Naht Hahn, the father of engaged Buddhism, emphasises the reality of interdependence. He encourages compassionate action based on the recognition that we ‘inter-are’; we are part of a vast web of intricate interdependence and interconnection. This means that work in the world is part of our work on ourselves (and vice versa): and so we do not wait until we are perfectly enlightened to enter the fray. Our activism is an expression and vehicle of our inner transformation; it is sacred work. This is why XR Buddhists must in my view continue to embrace expressions of activism which convey the power and potency of our faith, as we tread this path of engagement in our beautiful, precious and troubled world.
Joseph Mishan is a mindfulness teacher in the Vipassana tradition, a psychotherapist and the coordinator of Dharma Action Network for Climate Engagement in London and a joint coordinator of XR Buddhists UK.
XR Buddhists emerged as an active group in the October 2019 Rebellion. Its roots were in Dharma Action Network for Climate Engagement (DANCE). DANCE itself was the brainchild – or more accurately perhaps the heart-child – of a group of dharma teachers based in Gaia House in 2013. The intention was to provide a ‘a forum for the wider sangha to explore bringing Dharma responses to the climate crisis.’ It emphasised a ‘commitment to kindness and compassion, to live from an understanding of our interconnectedness, and interdependence.’ (see DANCE website) There are a number of DANCE groups, but it was London DANCE that initiated the formation of XR Buddhists. DANCE had taken part in the early XR action in November 2018, most notably an occupation of Barclays bank in Piccadilly Circus where we meditated for 3 hours (finally being physically removed, but surprisingly not arrested). Then during the larger rebellion in April 2019 DANCE led protest meditations in the roads, and took a leading part in organising the Regenerative Culture workshops during the uprising.
The decision to form an XR Buddhist affinity group was made before the October 2019 rebellion. Members of DANCE felt that at the next rebellion we needed to be more recognisably XR and more integrated with the XR organism. (The problem with the DANCE acronym is that it is often confused with the moving about kind of dance which is clearly not a good way to describe sitting quietly with the eyes closed). And so XR Buddhists was born.
Members of DANCE had not really thought through what would happen to the XR Buddhist group after the rebellion; but two weeks of activism on the streets and in a wet tent in Trafalgar Square formed a strong and enduring bond within the group. And so DANCE now remains to provides a wider forum for Buddhists activists who may not want to be identified with XR, but both XR Buddhists and DANCE share a strong belief in the uniqueness and importance of a Buddhist contribution to climate activism – and many folk belong to both.
I am confident that as the climate movement unfolds in the years to come, that the presence of meditators will continue to bring the message of peaceful determination and grounded spirituality to the streets of our towns and cities.