XR Buddhist Satya was one of hundreds of rebels who chose to sit alone in a road today, to highlight how afraid they are of the consequences of not acting urgently enough in the face of the climate crisis.
Satya writes: After weeks of preparation, anxiety grabbing me in the stomach whenever I imagined this moment, I felt calm as I walked into the road this morning and stopped the traffic.
I had no support from the public. The boy who mocked me. The old woman who muttered obscenities at me. The man who drove his car within a centimetre of me and then rolled down his window to hiss in my face, ‘dumb bitch’. I get it – I was the crazy lady, stopping them from getting where they needed to go. Ranting about apocalyptic futures. What does any of it have to do with them? How dare I?
I don’t need people to like what I’m doing. I need them to open their hearts – just a tiny crack – to the true horrors of the climate and ecological emergency. We won’t reach everyone. But maybe one member of the public wondered why I would be desperate enough to do such a thing. Maybe one parent thought about their daughter’s future. Maybe you, reading this, will take action of your own.
Today hundreds of us across the UK were alone together as we blocked busy roads, our hearts pounding. We will keep raising the alarm, until the truth is told and until urgent action is taken. We refuse to be by-standers. We will SPEAK UP.
Local Press: The action received good local press in Worcester. See photos of other rebels in Worcester, and read their quotes in the Worcester News.
My action (as part of the Oily Hands protest on 28 August last year) was aimed at encouraging the University of Cambridge to divest from climate-wrecking fossil fuel investments. I did this because there is a climate emergency, which the University of Cambridge is not treating like an emergency. I believe my action was necessary and morally justified by the situation, therefore not criminal. If you break down a door to rescue someone from a burning house, breaking the door is not criminal damage. I’ll also be arguing that what happened was not ‘damage’, and giving evidence that I didn’t intend to cause damage. I’ll be referring to the right to protest, and to cause some disruption, which so far has been respected by the police, and arguing that my action was legitimate and proportionate protest in that sense.
You might possibly sympathise with wanting to do something positive about climate breakdown. But you may think that the situation does not justify tactics like chalk-spraying on a wall, that other means were open to me, my action was not a lesser evil, justified as an attempt to prevent a greater evil.
So what about these tactics, including things like chalk-spraying on a wall? I appreciate that many people don’t like XR and its tactics. But there is a background which makes these tactics necessary. There has been 30 years or so of petitions from environmental pressure groups, of the Green Party struggling to be heard with a political system and media heavily dominated by big business which is almost entirely hostile to green issues. 30 years of almost no substantial action on climate breakdown by governments of both ends of the political spectrum. But the climate situation, attested to by David Attenborough and the climate scientists, is desperate.
I’m not going to throw lots of facts and figures at you. And I’m not in any way minimising the suffering of anyone in the current pandemic. Coronavirus has rightly been front page news every single day for the last year — but we need at least that kind of response to the threat of climate breakdown. In fact the magnitude of suffering on its way to us from the breakdown of Earth’s living systems is far greater than what we have experienced over the last twelve months.
So the situation is desperate. But what about these activist tactics such as chalk-spraying a wall? There is research commissioned by the very reputable Wellcome Trust (1) showing that people don’t like XR and its tactics, but that those same people do know and remember what XR is saying — a lot more than they know and remember the messages of other campaigning groups. This kind of activism is unpopular but has raised people’s awareness and people’s minds are changing. Since our action, the University of Cambridge and Trinity College separately have both announced plans (2) to divest from fossil fuel investment. And in his statement Professor Stephen Toop (Vice Chancellor) explicitly recognised that morally this is the right thing to do. But this is only after 5 years of campaigning by many people. Climate change has shot up the agenda in this country in the last few years, for example the wave of local councils declaring a climate emergency after XR’s actions in April 2019. There are many reasons for that, it’s not just down to XR. But would all this really have happened without the pressure from activists?
So there is evidence that conventional tactics have on the whole not worked, that these more direct tactics have had a positive impact, and that they are needed. I sincerely wish these tactics were not needed, but they are. And I sincerely regret if anyone felt hurt or offended by my action. I did not do this lightly. But what are the consequences of not speaking out on this issue? This is an emergency, the alarm needs raising because action is not happening at anything like the scale or urgency that is needed. In an emergency, you need to get peoples attention, even if that means annoying them.
You may think that comparing my action to breaking down a door to rescue someone from a burning house is far-fetched. But climate breakdown is an immediate threat to human life. The climate scientists have found that people have been dying due to climate change since 2003. And that includes deaths due to climate change in this country since 2010.
I’d like to address the issue of damage for a moment. I used chalk spray, which is very soluble in water, because my clear and deliberate intention was to make a statement without causing damage. I believe that something that can be thoroughly cleaned with water and a little abrasion cannot legitimately be described as damage. I’m a dementia healthcare assistant whose gross hourly pay rate is £9.89 per hour. Whatever the financial cost is of cleaning the wall, I believe it should be met by Trinity College, having profited for so many years from its deeply unethical climate-wrecking fossil fuel investments.
A word about protest. The police and criminal justice system have so far recognised that there is a right to protest, and even that that protest might disrupt other people to some extent. My action falls within that category. Peaceful legitimate protest should not be criminalised.
Lastly, I’d like to tell you a little about myself. I’d like to point out how ordinary I am. I’m not alienated from society, I’m one of the majority of ordinary people in this country who want serious action to be taken on this threat to all our futures. My first real job was 6 years in the Home Office in Westminster (mainly in the probation service policy unit). I chose the Home Office because I believed in law and order, as I still do. I value public service. I’m an ordained Buddhist, and I’ve been a carer for the last 10 years – for the last 6 years on a dementia assessment unit. I care very much about ethics.
Having said that, I’ve no wish to say I or we are the good guys and they are the bad guys. I’ve no wish to polarise or demonise. I know the world is complex, and I know from personal experience that there are some very fine and ethical people working for the University of Cambridge. But the law should be about ethics, and appropriately holding people and institutions to account for their actions. The University of Cambridge has been (and is still being) criminally irresponsible and should itself be on trial. What I did was legitimate and proportionate protest, not a crime.
On 1st October 2020, Cambridge University publicly pledged to divest from all direct and indirect investments in fossil fuels by 2030. Professor Stephen J Toope, Vice-Chancellor, stated: “The University is responding comprehensively to a pressing environmental and moral need for action with an historic announcement that demonstrates our determination to seek solutions to the climate crisis.” University of Cambridge pledges divestment from fossil fuels by 2030 https://www.cam.ac.uk/news/cambridge-to-divest-from-fossil-fuels-with-net-zero-plan
I’m not sure a typical activist exists – but it’s definitely not me. It was quite late in life before I can claim to having strong eco concerns and I also arrived late to Buddhism. I’m afraid I worked in the City as an IT consultant for many of the banks funding the eco crisis. I did fairly well from it, and looked after my family, including frequent flights to the Caribbean to see the in-laws. I can’t say I had a sudden ethical awakening and left the city because of it. But some sort of unknown, little understood crisis was emerging in me. I left my well paid City job to work repairing wooden boats, maybe being in the outdoors and on the water so often brought me back to my youthful connection with nature.
Just six years ago in 2015 during a difficult life period, the rumbling internal crisis caught up like a Tsunami and severe anxiety led me to Buddhism in 2015. In 2016 I read the book “This Changes Everything” by Naomi Klein and was incensed to learn about all the Ecocide going on. I had no idea what to do with that feeling. My poor wife’s ears. I continued to meditate, my anxiety subsided in some ways but rose in others as my concern at the injustice of what was happening increased. I floundered for a while, I’d seen so many petitions etc come and go over the years. I gave up meat and made many other personal changes. I have many more to do, I am quite the hypocrite still. I eventually discovered XR and also Joe at DANCE and went along to an incredibly noisy Barclays meditation protest in Trafalgar Sq the same day XR occupied the bridges. As a newbie at some point I found myself locked outside the Bank in adhoc liaison with a crowd of Police while Joe, Mark and Rowan meditated on inside. I just told the police to wait, these people will surely need the loo soon.
Taking action worked wonders on my anxiety, I was alive again, a human in touch with the cries of the world. My local XR group grew and we did lots more actions locally and together in London. Waterloo bridge supporting the Wellbeing tent was one of the highlights in my life. The prospect of blocking four lanes of traffic in Marble Arch – one of the scariest. ‘Go in with your knees knocking, it’s good spiritual practice’ I was told by Rowan.
But my background and personal circumstances meant that my high levels of anxiety returned, occasionally this turned to depression. So eventually I started to step up self care, meditating more regularly, more personal ethical lifestyle changes helped the despair a little bit. I found the excellent guide by Vessantra called “20 steps to avoid overwhelm” very helpful. A year later I eventually gave up my Facebook addiction. While posting stuff about the eco meltdown felt good in some ways it was probably stressing others. I tried to balance it for a while with hopeful and humorous Facebook posts. Now I rarely look at it and I feel so much better, less distracted, more focused. The world still goes on, I do need to establish a less distressing and balanced way of keeping abreast of news and contact with friends.
On and off I tried my luck to get my lovely local Sangha to take on board environmental concerns within the context of Dharma but this was a struggle so for a while I decided in practical terms to separate my Dharma practise and Eco efforts. Inside me they were inseparable. I’m glad I now have this sangha too.
I was invited to take up Samba drumming with my local XR, this was hugely therapeutic – music, outdoor practise, friends and laughter. Making a noise to protest was a strange contrast to sitting quietly in protest outside a bank. Even the Parliament Sq arrest for I can only guess drumming out of time was enjoyable.
We all know what we face in the world but at times we must have fun.
I did a workshop with Parami along the lines of Joanna Macey’s ‘seeing with new eyes’ where we role-played eco concerns. I was paired with a young girl, 17 who I could see was really very scared for her future, as an older guy with a past life far from ethically perfect – I felt ashamed. That memory drives me. I never feel I do enough activism but I have to balance that with my own well being. I’m not an academic which can limit my confidence in speaking out which frustrates me. I’m currently doing an excellent course on having difficult conversations which may help with that perhaps.
In part helped by Catherine Ingram’s article called ‘Facing Extinction’ I started to grieve for the world I knew and loved, I started to accept that much of it was gone or going. Bizarrely this helped. Grieving helped ease the tension in me of what we faced. I started to let go.
I of course still feel the urgency and the weight of what we face but I’ve come to realise this – I may not have the genius and appeal of Star Treks 7 of 9 but like her I need to plug in and regenerate on a regular basis. Our self care is equally if not more important than the activism. Be kind to yourselves and dare I say – May we all “live long and prosper”
14 Cambridge people of faith sat in socially-distanced contemplation on Parker’s Piece throughout today to reflect on the environmental crisis and call for @DanielZeichner MP to support the Climate & Ecological Emergency Bill.
Thanks to the wonderful Jez (@jezpete) for these photos and to the lovely Buddhists of Cambridge for taking part in this action.
Today I received a conditional discharge for my third arrest on September 3rd last year. Here’s the mitigating statement I included with my guilty plea. Onwards, dear friends. Our Dear Earth needs us. With love & grief <3
“I have been a law-abiding citizen all of my life and I respect the difficult job that the police and our courts have to do. I made a conscious decision to break the law as a part of the Extinction Rebellion protest as I have felt increasingly desperate about the climate and ecological emergency.
As we know, climate change is already having catastrophic effects across the world. Governments are continuing to fail to meet their own targets of carbon reduction, and the effects of this are spiralling to a frightening degree. After spending a long time with climate science and observing the actions of our own government and big corporations, I no longer have faith in these institutions to handle this emergency. They are not making the radical changes that are necessary to mitigate the worst of the effects of climate heating and ecological devastation, and their actions continue to be woefully inadequate.
I understand why it is difficult for these institutions to take the radical actions they need to take, and, I can no longer stand by and witness their lack of action. In the tradition of other movements demanding radical change, I stand with Extinction Rebellion and their strategy of non-violent direct action, as I strongly believe that these last-resort strategies have the best chance of effecting the kinds of changes we need to effect.
I know that this doesn’t make Extinction Rebellion popular with large sections of society, especially those resisting drastic change and those with the most to lose. I know that this uses up precious police and court resources. I deeply regret the inconvenience and distress that our disruption causes to the public.
I also believe that this disruption is ethically necessary in the face of the much huger catastrophes that await us if the current levels of emissions continue – food shortages, mass migrations, more catastrophic extreme weather events, extinctions… We all know about this crisis, but we turn away.
I can no longer turn away. I am willing to accept the consequence of my actions, which I carried out in the name of our precious Earth.”
Satya Robyn is a Buddhist teacher, writer, psychotherapist, and you can find out more about her love letters to the planet at www.dearearth.co.uk.
I have recently retired after for 26 years in the NHS as a psychotherapist. I am also a mindfulness teacher in the Buddhist tradition. Over the years of my practice I have developed a familiarity with my inner life which ensures that I do not act impulsively. My decision to occupy the road on the 18th October was based on a long period of reflection, research and discussion with friends.
My reasons are as follows:
That we are in a situation of climate and ecological breakdown is now established beyond any reasonable doubt. The IPCC report in 2018 stated that: ‘only rapid far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society’ will hold any chance of reduce the effects of climate disruption, which includes armed conflict over resources, famine, flooding, mass extinction of species including insects and coral reefs, increasingly frequent weather events such as wild-fires, hurricanes. This is not some dystopian science fiction, or a wild alarmist shouting about end of the world, but the conclusions from thousands of research papers around the world by our best scientists over many years.
The crisis is not just happening at some comfortable distance or happening in a remote date in the future. From various studies across the world in the last year we know that we have already lost 75% of insect species, half of all wildlife, half of our tropical forests, and 24 million people were forced to move due to climate instability this year and this set to increase hugely. To take a couple of statistics in detail: we have now lost 90% of our nightingales, and 75% of our butterflies. Will our children grow into a world without butterflies – without the song of the Nightingale? What kind of a world is it that does not respond in the face of such tragedy?
I am alarmed and dismayed that in the face of this widely known and well-documented and proven evidence, that our Government’s response has been utterly inadequate.
As a psychotherapist I am only too aware of the potentially lethal costs of denial of reality. Just as an alcoholic or a drug addict continues to destroy themselves whilst claiming they have everything under control, as a species we are sleep-walking toward the precipice. In the face of this I must ask myself what am I called upon to do? What truly matters? I have 2 children in their early 20s who on our current trajectory stand to inherit an impoverished, nightmare world ravaged by famine, storms, mass migration and war.
What am I to do as a parent, as a Buddhist, as a human being? What is the path of compassion, the path of wisdom in our current terrifying predicament? If there is anyone in this courtroom who has a better solution than the action I took on the 18th October, sitting in peaceful meditation on Oxford street, please tell me. I have been an activist for most of my life and believe me, have done everything else: petitions, planning responses, marches, letters to my MP, street actions. All worthy in themselves, but the evidence is clear to me: they were not enough, not nearly enough. My decision to engage in non-violent civil disobedience was not an easy choice, but I can see no other.
I would like to submit the defence of necessity. On this I note the following definition from Archbold (2019) .. (17- 117):
Stephen, Digest of the Criminal Law, p. 9, says that an act which would otherwise be a crime may in some cases be excused if the defendant can show:
(a) that it was done only in order to avoid consequences which could not otherwise be avoided and which, if they had followed, would have inflicted upon him, or upon others whom he was bound to protect, inevitable and irreparable evil;
(b) that no more was done than was reasonably necessary for that purpose; and
(c) that the evil inflicted by it was not disproportionate to the evil avoided.”
To take each in turn:
a) That my actions were taken in order to avoid ‘inevitable and irreparable evil’ is I think beyond reasonable doubt. I can think of no other disaster in the history of our civilisation that comes close in scale and magnitude to the tide of horror and suffering which is gathering pace as we steadfastly look the other way.
b) I submit that sitting in the road was reasonable in that it was a given that all previous strategies to raise the alarm have failed to change our course.
c) I hope it is self evident that the evil inflicted – which was at the level of inconvenience to the public – was not disproportionate to the evil avoided . Here we are comparing the possibility of some inconvenience to some members of the public with the certainty of incalculable suffering on already occurring on a global scale and which is set to intensify.
And so to conclude I submit that the defence of necessity applies in my case.
And from a personal perspective, non-violent civil disobedience is the path I have chosen, and did not choose lightly, but only after reflection and an examination of the evidence from my own experience of activism and from the evidence of its historical efficacy.
My conclusion, to summarise, is this:
As a society we are out of time.
And I am out of options.
Joe is a a vipassana meditation practitioner and teacher, psychotherapist and long-time activist.
I am 67 in March and up until 2019 I have been a law-abiding citizen. I have spent my working life in business and organisations as a leadership professional focusing on Leadership Responsibility and business practice, with a strong belief that principle centred businesses could contribute to a sustainable and safe future.
However, when in 2019 I became aware of the compelling scientific evidence around the immediate climate crisis, I realised that it was too late to rely on business to drive the agenda for change, particularly in view of the wide spread ignorance and denial of scientific evidence.
It was then I decided to actively see what I could do to help build awareness of our predicament. I am pleased to say that we now are living at a time where awareness of the climate crisis is widespread. However, response to that knowledge falls short and it was this that dro.ve me to add my voice to those with growing concerns that we are moving past key deadlines that will radically impact our environment and future generations
In the UK I would like to be able to say that our Government is responding accordingly, and indeed we are hearing the right words being spoken, but unfortunately in many instances the actions are directly contradictory to what was being said(see below).
This was made evident to me when, just before my arrest in September, I visited the HS2 camp at Jones Hill, and unfortunately directly witnessed this hypocrisy. I also witnessed it again at the Euston Square site in London and it was then I decided that I wanted to use my legitimate right to protest by sitting in protest on Lambeth Bridge.
Below I have listed the factual evidence of the duplicitous statements made by the Government and the reality in terms of the HS2 project
“At home we are putting biodiversity targets into law; removing deforestation from our own supply chains” (Boris Johnson )
“We are going to make sure the natural world stays right there, top of the global agenda” (Boris Johnson 2020)
“Left unchecked the consequences will be catastrophic for us all” (Boris Johnson 2020)
“Extinction is forever” (Boris Johnson)
Fact: HS2 is currently the biggest deforestation project in Europe
Fact: HS2 will not be carbon neutral in its 120 year lifespan-HS2 Review
As well as destroying our natural ancient woodland heritage, there is scientific evidence, endorsed by David Attenborough, which points to a direct correlation between pandemics and the displacement of virus carrying smaller mammals through deforestation and biodiversity breakdown.
Our PM’s recent words reflect the urgency of the climate crisis and yet continuing projects like HS2 directly contradicts his own declarations. Opposition from the public to HS2 is increasing daily and a growing number of MPs are also beginning to question its legitimacy and need.
In summary I felt compelled to call out and hold the government to account for not living up to it’s strong and public commitments and for actively pursuing such projects that demonstrate that their words are merely that, just words – but ones with damaging consequences.
Paul Wielgus combines his Buddhist and secular mindfulness teaching with Eco-Dharma practices such as Joanna Macy’s ‘Work That Reconnect’; he is currently engaging in an enquiry into Buddhist attitudes to racial justice and related issues.
I’m staring at my screen as a handful of American road blockers are all but beaten up by a passer-by on his way to work. I keep replaying his high-pitched, furious shout: “What is wrong with you people?”.
The rebels’ vulnerability is palpable but the scene evokes a deeper sense of frailty than that. The idea, maybe, that obstructing a few commuters might head off the relentless extermination of the living world that both rebels and motorists are caught up in, like it or not. For all its nastiness, a sort of unfunny silliness seems to hover about the scene.
Anyway, whoever those road blockers are, this letter’s for them.
Back in Spring 2019 some friends from Cornwall decided to mark XR’s April uprising by walking the 400 miles from Land’s End to London. They set out on their March for Life with a month in hand, timing their arrival in London for its start. I’d arranged to join those falling in with the march at a West London tube station for its final ten-mile leg. At this point I’d not much idea what that would entail.
We heard the drumming well before we saw them, then caught sight of bright flags swirling above the traffic. Finally several hundred marchers swung into view, flailing drums and yelling. As they approached, big sewn and painted banners showed there were other groups here now – people who’d walked from Cardigan, Stroud and other parts of the West country, hooking up with the Cornwall marchers as they neared the city.
Over the next few hours I got the hang of what these people meant by a march. Among other things it meant occupying whole lanes of the busy dual carriageway into London, and closing down busy roundabouts armed with nothing more than High Viz vests and attitude.
At some point I fell in with a ten-year-old girl and her grandmother. Somewhere else in the crowd the girl’s mother was here too. The next time I saw the two of them was a week later on the BBC as they spoke about watching the mother get arrested on Waterloo Bridge, and how proud they both were of her.
As we came to the last stretch through central London, heading for the muster at Hyde Park Corner, the police presence became much more intense. By the time we reached Kensington High Street their motorcycles were buzzing and weaving round us like wasps at an August picnic. In the midst of all this a formidable and likeable Welsh woman at the head of the column – the kind of person you might want beside you, faced with an angry motorist – swung round as we entered the intersection of Kensington High Street and Church Street and announced in her booming Welsh lilt that it was surely time that ‘we all sat down for a nice little rest’.
So along with two hundred others I did as I was told. (It seemed best.) A minute later we were squashed up shoulder to shoulder, our ragged circle filling up the space between four sets of traffic lights. And within seconds, of course, we were surrounded by backed-up traffic.
Ten minutes later we were still sitting there. The police had begun remonstrating with the march stewards, but to my surprise they weren’t moving in to arrest anyone. Everything that unfurled over the next fortnight seems to be right there, looking back. The heady triumph of ‘taking’ a busy junction, when the truth is surely that we were being given it. And for me, at that point, an uneasy sense of the ridiculousness of it all – sitting in the road as people attempt to get to wherever they’re going. The arrogance of it, even.
Then a man in his 20s began to speak. He asked us to join hands and called for a two minutes’ silence. A pause to remember the non-human species being driven to extinction, right now, by human civilisation. 200 species vanishing every day, he reminded us. One of those best-guess abstractions that gesture towards a too-big-to-touch grief. Towards a dying so all-pervasive that most of us struggle to even get it in focus, let alone act upon it.
For that two minutes, hands held in silence as an ever-growing number of engines revved on all sides, it felt like a deep well of calm fell open within the city’s endless hubbub. Even the police stood in silence now, waiting. I think those two minutes were when I got Extinction Rebellion. Or when Extinction Rebellion got me, maybe. And as we finally climbed to our feet and headed for the Knightsbridge junction where the game would begin all over again, a half-jesting idea popped into my head – one that, silly or not, seems to have stuck there. That what I was watching, sat there in the road, was the birth some new species of religion. So new, in fact, that it was just beginning to work itself out. As if in capital cities around the world, something was trying on one shape after another as it worked out what sort of creature it might be exactly. And as it puzzles its way through each absurd little gesture of resistance, what’s becoming clear is that most of the old rules for how religions are meant to behave are no longer of much use.
‘Here’ it seems to say ‘it really doesn’t matter what name you address your prayers to, nor what you do or don’t believe about them, nor what you choose to call yourself. Here, there’s just one rule to steer our emerging communion (shall we call it that?): that we come together only when and only by physically obstructing the extinction-engine that our culture has become.’
And because no one quite knows how this is meant to work we keep getting it wrong, and will presumably continue to do so. All we have to go on, after all, is that at this point any gathering which does nothing to hinder our culture’s murderous trajectory no longer speaks to our shared need.
I said that this letter was for that handful of American rebels. I hope they had good friends on hand to support them and didn’t lose heart. But I think I was wrong leave out the passer-by.
What does prayer mean to you? Whatever reply comes easiest to your lips, may it set you down between that man’s perplexed rage and the defiant, reedy voices of those young women blocking the road with their uncertain singing. And may it quietly open you to what holds them and all of us within its dark belly: the looming grief which these scrappy encounters keep calling out to passing traffic with no real idea of what to do about it. And may that prayer allow you to remain there in the uneasy space between them without pretending to have an answer, and to see this moment – which is to say, our moment – for the precious opportunity that it surely is.
Note: this is a light edit of a letter I wrote to friends at The Way of the Rose, a loose knit inter-religious rosary fellowship.
Mat Osmond, Mid-Cornwall XR
Mat Osmond’s a writer and visual artist based in Falmouth, with a long-standing sense of connection to Pureland Buddhism’s grounded understanding of prayer. His most recent essay for The Dark Mountain Journal, The Schoolgirl and the Drunkard, picks up some of the threads spoken of here. Much of Mat’s spare time currently goes on helping to further the regenerative groundswell that is XR, within his local community and beyond. He’s convener for Art.Earth’s 2021 creative summit at Dartington, UK, Borrowed Time: on death, dying & change.
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.
A lady dressed in green, with flowers in her hair, is holding a big blue planet Earth in her arms. She has a rope around her neck, and she’s being dragged through the streets of Cambridge (UK) by some scary-looking monster academics, complete with black gowns and mortar-boards — and very black hands. Dancers all in red are miming their grief. There’s a samba band, and a procession of people with banners and placards, many of them with black hands too.
It’s the Oily Hands Extinction Rebellion protest, drawing attention to the University of Cambridge’s long-standing refusal to take approximately £400m out of investments in fossil fuel extraction, and to sever its many links with the climate-wrecking fossil fuel industry.
I’m nervous. We’re right under the noses of many police. As we get near Trinity College (the College with the largest fossil fuel investments) I make sure I’m near the front of the procession. Suddenly I’m jumping over a low parapet and heading for the nearest part of the College, fumbling in my bag for the chalk-spray can. I put my left hand on Trinity College’s wall, and spray around it like a stencil, leaving an image of my hand just like people did in the Stone Age. I manage this 5 times, before feeling a gentle but firm grip round my arms, and a deep voice saying something about arrest.
9 of us were arrested and charged, mainly with ‘criminal damage’ — despite the fact we deliberately used chalk spray, which is very soluble in water, and the images were cleaned off almost immediately.
That was 28 August 2020 — near the end of a summer which had felt quite busy for me. I’d d-locked my neck to the main gate of the Schlumberger Research Centre (infrastructure support to the fossil fuel industry) for 4.5 hours. I’d mimed in an inflatable dinosaur suit (mocking Darwin College for failing to evolve and divest from fossil fuels). On a hot busy Saturday afternoon,along with 15 others, I had stood completely naked for 40 minutes outside Kings College (the Naked Truth about our vulnerability to climate and biodiversity breakdown). And so on.
Some Buddhists see this kind of activism as nothing to do with Buddhism. Some Buddhists feel that they do want to take direct action on these issues, but aren’t sure how to do that in ways appropriate to their spiritual practice.
I’m in the second category, but the question of how to respond appropriately is very live for me. I agree that the climate/natural world breakdown, and the global structural racism underpinning it, is a desperate emergency. I also agree with the XR emphasis on ordinary law-abiding people speaking out non-violently in many different ways, including disruptive actions risking arrest and imprisonment. But exactly how to speak out? How far to go? Is everything that is non-violent OK? And what is non-violence?
Starting from first principles, I think as Buddhists we need to respond in ways appropriate to what’s actually happening around us. When he came across the sick monk, the Buddha did not say to himself: I will benefit the world more if I spend the next hour teaching meditation and giving a Dharma talk. He himself cleaned up the sick monk — and then gave one of his most memorable teachings about responding to suffering. (Vinaya Pitaka, Mahavagga 8.26.1-8).
I’m not suggesting that Buddhists should do nothing but various kinds of social work and activism. Personally I do see activism as a crucial part of my spiritual practice, not the whole of it. But I think that things are so urgent today, that people of faith in particular need to speak out. And it’s important that we do that from as resourced and as skilful a place as possible. We need to go on retreat, to meditate, to do traditional Buddhist practices. But we need the life of activity, as well as the life of calm. We need to ground our practice in reality, to test the qualities and insights we develop, by challenging what is going on.
You might agree with all that in principle, but still question the efficacy, or even the ethics, of these slightly confrontational direct action tactics. And isn’t it all a bit undignified — even un-Buddhist?
Well. I do wonder if we sometimes get into a somewhat etherealized notion of Buddhism, or even the Buddha. The Buddha of the Pali Canon was on occasion perhaps surprisingly down-to-earth. At one point, for example, the Buddha criticised his cousin Devadatta in very forthright terms. He later argued that what might seem harsh speech was, in this very particular case, a lesser evil (Abhaya Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya 58). The wisest way of responding in that particular situation. The Buddha also spoke out against some of the most sensitive and tightly-held beliefs supporting the social power-structures of his day, including the caste system.
I wonder if sometimes we want to escape from samsara by turning our backs on samsara. Perhaps we just don’t want to get our hands dirty with the world’s problems. Some Buddhists of my kind of age-group (I’m 54) seem to see activism as a youthful phase they’ve long since grown out of. I’m just referring to negative tendencies we can all slip into. I accept that we all need to rest from engaging with the world’s problems from time to time (I do anyway) — and traditional practices can be vital spiritually. But majoring on them exclusively can also be a negative turning away from the world, a mask for inertia and fear.
I do accept that there can be serious ethical issues around direct action. People can be seriously inconvenienced, or even feel bullied, by roadblocks for example. People can feel personally attacked when an institution is criticised. But to me it seems like there is a fire, and we need to shout to get peoples’ attention. Shouting will annoy people, at least momentarily, but that really is a lesser evil compared to not raising the alarm.
The global response to the pandemic graphically demonstrates how most people have not got the message about climate and biodiversity breakdown, as well as the global structural racism that underpins it. Coronavirus has been front page news every day since March 2020, economies and businesses have been turned upside down, not to mention the ordinary lives of billions of people. But the breakdown of the Earth’s living systems is a far bigger problem, which calls for this kind of response as a bare minimum, and that is not happening anything like enough.
The Earth’s living systems, and issues of global justice, are talked about in contemporary politics, but with almost no positive results overall. So how do people’s worldviews change? How do important institutions change? There is some similarity with women in the UK 100 years ago being excluded from the political process. The mainstream ‘common sense’ view was that women should not have the vote, that women were not even capable of thinking politically. Does anyone think that women would have been given the vote, if they hadn’t spoken out, argued and campaigned for it?
Protest can make a difference. On 1 October 2020, the University of Cambridge announced that it would divest from all direct and indirect investments in fossil fuels by 2030 and cut its greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2038. That was after a five year campaign by Zero Carbon Cambridge, and many people. It’s hard to believe that change happens without people speaking up for it.
Having said all that, I don’t think that any tactics are justified. Of course we should be non-violent in the sense of not hurting people physically. But what about emotional non-violence? I think certain tactics, such as perhaps breaking things, can provoke so much revulsion that the tactic stops being a lesser evil and becomes counterproductive. There is a sweet spot: enough disruption to raise people’s awareness and hopefully lead to dialogue eventually, but not so much that people turn off and completely shut down. It’s a hard thing to assess. And the people causing the disruption will always be unpopular, all the more so when they’re bringing bad news.
In my own life I have been emphasising this more ‘spiky/spicy’ end of activism, risking arrest and so on. But that hasn’t always been and (I hope) won’t always be the case. Useful and meaningful resistance is a wide spectrum, which for me definitely includes all Buddhist practices. Writing letters, holding up banners, theatre, music, going on marches and so on can all be effective ways of making a point or getting dialogue going. There are myriad ways of doing activism, or supporting it. Some of the best activism might be trying to skilfully talk about these issues with anyone we know personally.
Whatever form of speaking out, resistance, activism is right for you — I wish you well with it.
Can activism be a real spiritual practice?
I think what is spiritual practice will be different for every person. But here are some thoughts about my own experience. I think activism has helped me develop deeper metta, equanimity and even insight. I notice that I generally feel much less angry about these issues than I did when I first got really concerned about climate breakdown back in 2006. And I’m glad not to be so angry! Anger can be a positive energy for me, but can also take me into tiredness and depression — especially if the news isn’t good. I’ve had to really reflect on my own views and states of mind. I’ve encountered people with opinions and worldviews diametrically opposite to mine, or just different to mine. Like many activists, I’ve been shouted at, criticised in the local press and on social media, and physically assaulted. I’ve done a lot of reflecting on the conditionality of those people, on mine, on the impermanence of everyone and everything I love — including the beauty and impermanence of the natural world itself.
So I’ve been trying to help preserve what I love, whilst also trying to accept that there will not be a happy ending, almost certainly there will be a great deal of human suffering and destruction of the natural world.
The situation has almost forced me to move towards my fears. I’m not just afraid of what will happen to the world, myself and people I love in the future. I also just feel afraid of speaking out, of being seen as wrong or even criminal — afraid even of being seen.
I think under the pressure of my ongoing activism my Buddhist practice has helped me let go of my negative emotions, such as fear and anger — to some extent! And I’ve been almost forced to clarify: what do I really think, what are my values, what do I really care about? I’ve been almost forced to look after my heart, to nourish and connect with my spiritual inspiration — a deeper energy.
And my heart has opened, keeps opening more, to the power of sangha. The extraordinary beauty of other people’s idealism, which inspires and sustains me.
There are many ways of practising, many ways of doing activism, and there can be a grittier side. At the time of writing this, I’ve been charged with criminal damage (for chalk spraying on a wall). I’ll be self-representing at my trial in a few months time. I’m pleading not guilty, but will probably be convicted and have to pay a fine, compensation and court costs, possibly have to do community service, and the prosecution is seeking a Criminal Banning Order. In the longer term, I will have a criminal record and that might threaten my job as a carer. And I am surprised at how much this one case is affecting me (and my partner). Partly I find there’s a sort of emotional weight to the whole thing of being called a criminal.
Now, all that might sound a bit daunting, and there are limits to what I’m happy to give. But I’ve almost no regrets so far, and this still feels the right direction for me. It’s how I feel free, richer, happier, and more authentically myself. I do actually feel like I have been touching the Earth more — coming into a closer relationship with reality both internally and externally. In the end, I need to speak out somehow.