1. Religion & Spirituality
Barbara O'Brien

ABC: Activism, Buddhism, Compassion

By November 10, 2010

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There are a couple of thoughtful posts on the Buddhist blogosphere about how Buddhism might address political and social activism. In one, via Nathan at Dangerous Harvests, Kloncke writes about practicing the paramitas in a prison cell after being arrested at a protest. In another, Zen teacher Dosho Port writes,

With our calm minds and clarity, dharma people had better start speaking up.

You might grumble like some have in comments that I get from time-to-time when I warn about the post-peak oil collapse, etc., that you'd prefer I stuck to dharma comments in this old blog.

Imho, injustice is a dharma issue.

And if the dharma has nothing to offer to the current political discourse, then that is one lame dharma.

I would argue that in Buddhism, compassion is a verb -- not a sentiment, but activity.

That said, what should we be doing? What is it that Buddhism can bring to activism?

I have some personal experience going back several years with activism and protesting, and I have observed that much of what activists do is counterproductive. For example, displaying anger is never helpful. Anger just grows more anger, and it also causes the people you want to persuade to close their ears and run away from you.

I once went to an anti-war demonstration in which participants were supposed to just quietly hand out informational fliers to people strolling around Rockefeller Center on a Saturday afternoon. When I got there, I found the event already had been hijacked by a couple of angry loudmouths, one with a megaphone, who spewed rage about war and politicians and complacent voters nonstop at everyone in the vicinity.

People walking around the area -- mostly groups of tourists and families on vacation -- were visibly uncomfortable with the angry guys and were going out of their way to avoid getting close to the demonstration. That means they also didn't get the fliers, which were quite well done. The angry guys were so angry even other demonstrators, like me, were afraid to tell them to cool it.

And there may be a time and place for making people uncomfortable, but most of the time uncomfortable people just want to retreat to a place that feels familiar and safe.

Which brings me to questions that I don't think many activists ever ask themselves on a deep level -- why are you doing this? In the case of demonstrations, is the point to give participants a chance to vent, or is it to help shape public opinion? And if you want to shape public opinion, lose the anger and vulgarity. Buddhism has quite a lot to teach about letting go of anger.

There's a difference between "self-expression" and "teaching." To teach people effectively, it's important to listen to them to understand how they see the world before you can effectively communicate. That can be very frustrating when peoples' worldview is distorted by ignorance and fear, but if you want to reach them you have to meet them where they are, not where you are. I don't have much patience for this myself, I'm afraid.

Buddhism also has a lot to teach about equanimity, not allowing oneself to be pulled into a one-sided view, not dividing populations into "us" and "them." And Buddhism teaches us to not attach our egos and self-identities to causes, which is the door to fanaticism.

I also have observed that there is activism that treats symptoms, and activism that treats the disease, and both kinds are very important. If the "symptom" is that people are sick or homeless or in danger, providing relief is an imperative. But there is also the slower work of finding root causes and changing societal structures in ways that prevent so many people from being distressed and helpless. Buddhism has a lot to say about root causes, you know.

Like Dosho, I hear the argument that political activism and social justice are not "dharma" issues, and I don't buy it. Yes, there is a time to retreat from the world and focus inward, but there is also a time to manifest the activity of compassion in the world, and that activity doesn't have to be confined to hospices and soup kitchens. Suffering is where it is, and that's where the bodhisattva goes.

November 10, 2010 at 6:59 pm
(1) nathan says:

I stopped being “active” in the anti-war movement several years due to the very loud mouthed hatred, anger, and cynicism that you speak of. At the same time, I do think that perhaps there are times when some of us can step into such tense, flamed situations coming from a different place. It might simply be through providing a calm, open presence, or it might be something more involved that that. This is where having a devoted practice, and friends on the path for support, are vital.

November 11, 2010 at 11:14 am
(2) Mumon says:

I agree much with your post. I would note though, as many have said, being a Buddhist does not, in any way, shape or form give any kind of guarantee of political position or behavior.

Which brings me to questions that I don’t think many activists ever ask themselves on a deep level — why are you doing this? In the case of demonstrations, is the point to give participants a chance to vent, or is it to help shape public opinion?

I have to step out of Buddhist language for a second here and put on some lefty language. The answer to why I participated in anti-Iraq war demonstrations in the early part of the decade was best articulated by John Berger (“The Nature of Mass Demonstrations”):

A mass demonstration distinguishes itself from other mass crowds because it congregates in public to create its function, instead of forming in response to one: in this, it differs from any assembly of workers within their place of work – even when strike action is involved – or from any crowd of spectators. It is an assembly which challenges what is given by the mere fact of its coming together.

This is why it’s easy for these things to go into “us” versus “them”: The demonstration itself implicitly acknowledges that this division already exists at a political level. That’s not particularly un-Buddhist; power relationships, impermanent as they are, are in a certain state at any given moment. But all that said, one still should not try to be a counterparty to another’s “us” versus “them” dualism, even as the demonstration acknowledges that division has been made.

In the early decade, these demonstrations were serious business, what with talk by the government officials intended to chill public debate.

November 11, 2010 at 12:44 pm
(3) Barbara O'Brien says:

Mumon — the quote from Berger doesn’t answer my question. Yes, obviously, the coming together creates a function, and I would say also a kind of identity. The coming together also can have huge psychological and social significance for the participants (see Eric Hoffer). But I don’t personally give a hoo haw about shows of strength for their own sake or joining a mass movement to gratify my emotional needs. I’m asking, what is the demonstration supposed to accomplish? When it’s over and all the trash is swept up and the port-o-potties hauled away, will it have made any difference?

Often they don’t, and I think that’s largely because the participants come to vent, or to “express themselves,” instead of to communicate.

If you look at the great civil rights marches led by Dr. Martin Luther King, you see people who are very dedicated to creating change and disciplining themselves to that end. Look at photos of those marches. Most of the men are in suits; most of the women are in dresses; there are no vulgar signs or goofy costumes. And those marches made a difference. They changed opinions. They created support for racial equality. They communicated something to people around the country who read about them or saw bits of them on television.

Compare/constrast to most anti-war demonstrations, in particular those in recent years. They’re like moving carnivals. Costumes, street theater, giant puppets, guys on stilts dressed as Uncle Sam (there’s always one), lots of cleverness. From 2003 to 2005 I attended several huge ones, in New York and Washington, DC. Lots of fun, no measurable result except to make us all feel that we were doing something. And I think the fault is that these demonstrations did not communicate anything to people outside the demonstration; it was mostly just venting. Of course, it also didn’t help that we rarely got much mass media coverage, no matter how big the demonstration was.

Like the angry guys at Rockefeller Center, shouting about how angry you are is unlikely to change anyone’s mind. Likewise, how clever you are, or how cute you look in a sparkly pink costume.

That’s why I complain that most activist/demonstrators don’t stop to reflect on what they are really doing. They are reacting to a situation, not responding to it. They are venting, not trying to communicate.

November 11, 2010 at 2:58 pm
(4) Yoshiyahu says:

While some of the differences in appearance between early 60s and current protests is just fashion trends, I think you are correct in that the intent behind the gatherings is the big difference. The language is indicative. With the Civil Rights movements, we saw many “Marches” — there was a destination, and people were moving as an orderly group towards that destination. Recent gatherings on both Left and Right involve a real or perceived threat to the status quo (They are taking away our guns/speech/right to abortion/Christianity) and that sort of sentiment doesn’t lend itself to marches.

Another difference, I think, is that the people in the 60s, marching for Civil Rights, knew that they were putting their lives at risk, and they embraced this risk. A corollary is Thích Quảng Đức’s self-immolation.

Perhaps this is simplistic, but it’s probably for the most part true: Look at what you are marching and protesting over. Have you worked in good faith and with compassion with people that you disagree with, and tried to find common ground? Is this really the only option left? Are you willing to die over this issue? If not, marches and rallies and public displays will lack power and authenticity, and are not the right way of addressing the problem.

November 11, 2010 at 5:18 pm
(5) Mumon says:

Some people do demonstrations as guerilla comedy; that’s true. In a similar vein, I agree that the Chicago 7 trial didn’t accomplish anything except that it made one of the most humorous trial transcripts I’ve ever read (though Abbie Hoffman himself wasn’t the instigator of most of the humor). I am a bit reserved though about disdaining all attempts at satire in demonstrations.

As for me, my interpretation of the quote in Berger is another expression of what I might have better expressed in a Buddhist context: it is bearing witness to the fact that a division exists based on the relations and uses of power. Bearing witness is an end in and of itself I’d submit.

As for political efficacy, there are better ways to do those things than demonstrations, so I would say the most effective use for a demonstration is to bear witness.

November 11, 2010 at 8:04 pm
(6) Barbara O'Brien says:

I am a bit reserved though about disdaining all attempts at satire in demonstrations.

It can be good — I was fond of Billionaires for Bush, for example — but most of the time it’s juvenile and self-indulgent.

The point is that people show up to express themselves as individuals, not to take part in an effort to communicate something on behalf of a cause. Big progressive demonstrations tend to turn into “cause fairs” with lots of people there to promote their own pet causes, even when those causes have nothing to do with whatever the demonstration is about. There’s no cohesion; it all ends up being a big, raucous block party, which can be fun to attend but which doesn’t do a blasted thing for the cause. I’ve even seen groups like Code Pink (a repeat offender) refusing to take part in the main demonstration because they can draw more attention to themselves from media/police/the crowd by holding their own “demonstration” a few blocks away. So yes, I’m a bit jaded about demonstrations.

November 12, 2010 at 11:37 am
(7) Pete says:

There are so many big protests in DC that they’re hardly noticed, as I recall even from the 80′s. Regarding the silliness: Civil Rights marches were real and important. Anti-War doesn’t just mean Anti-Right-Wing War, and is too important for such left-wing nonsense festivals. And there are always an angry few to ruin it for the stated cause.

November 12, 2010 at 12:31 pm
(8) Alsu says:

Dear Barbara, I liked the sentence about compassion beeing something you do actively. I live in the poorest city in Germany. No Jobs, homelessness, alcoholism and drug addictions are just a few problems. What worries me the most are the growing numbers of poorly nourished children. Unfortunately, there are far to few activists adressing the problems. For those with money it is simple to close their eyes on those issues. I think good activism is two things: building active help (like creating a community garden to grow vegetables for the kids) and forcing those who do not want to see to look. Yes, it will make them uncomfortable. That is the idea. If we can bring just one person to act, it will be good. There is no “we” and “them” concerning our poor brothers and sisters, there is only “us”. Their suffering is our suffering. I may not be a good buddhist if I cause discomfort for others, but I think the suffering of the poor is more important than the comfort of a privileged few. And standing there quietly will, unfortunately, not change anything.

November 12, 2010 at 1:12 pm
(9) Mila says:

Dear Alsu,

I really appreciated your description of the situation in your city, and your insight that “their suffering is our suffering.” Thank you.

It brought to mind one inspiring example of someone — a woman named Leslie Temple-Thurston — who decided to take action, without even knowing what that would look like, after seeing what was happening in South Africa. The organization that grew out of this — among whose many actions included creating a community garden for school children — is called Seeds Of Light.

November 14, 2010 at 9:29 am
(10) Tekneek says:

I propose that sometimes the act of a “protest” or “demonstration” can serve to show a lot of silent dissenters (people who disagree with the supposed majority view, but fear they would be isolated if they expressed themselves) that there are others who share their views and are not alone. This might empower them to be more willing to challenge commonly-held views in the future. It may not always be about that day, that week, or even that month, but about a longer term goal.

To that end, however, we would do far better to find our influences in Martin Luther King, Jr, who was also influenced greatly by Gandhi, instead of the recent “Tea Party” and ranting and raving at the “Town Hall” meetings from the past year or so.

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