Wednesday, September 26, 2007

How Would Buddha Protest?

Dear Friends,

For those of you who are dharma sisters/brothers, or simply interested in how a person reconciles their spiritual principles with vehement and direct action for peace, here are a few reflections. I am learning as I go, and when I found myself questioning an action I participated in in DC (was it truly loving in its intention? did it add to divisiveness and anger in the world?) I would remind myself that I went to DC to RISK, to LEARN, and to GROW (as well as to change the world!). So if there were mistakes, they were in the interest of developing more skill and awareness and wisdom about moral and skillful action in an empire running amuck. So I practiced forgiveness toward myself when I felt residual guilt or confusion about how I participated.

The question of "what would Buddha do?" - or in my case, it presented more as "What would Thich Nhat Hanh or Sister Chan Kong do?" haunted me throughout my days and nights with Code Pink. Disrupting the Heritage Foundation panel was probably the hardest and most controversial (in my own mind) action I was part of. Clearly it engendered anger, and increased hostility toward Code Pink (and by extension the Peace movement). The Buddhadharma does not point one toward confrontative actions that could be considered harmful to others. So what's a western female activist to do?

OK, here's what came to me over time. My spiritual heroes and mentors: Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Thay and Sister Kong, and the Dalai Llama, provide incredible models of wise and skillful and strategic action in the face of almost unimaginable oppression, violence and power imbalance. Each of them were operating in a particular time and place, a cultural context, and their actions and approaches were coherent with that community and time. They skillfully challenged the predominant system without going so far outside it that they were marginalized and disempowered.

My job- our job as engaged practitioners- is not to completely IMITATE the form of their actions, but to diligently and honestly seek within our OWN cultural context (in my case, not just American empire, but modern feminism and western Buddhism) for what makes sense in this place and time and circumstance. For me, the underlying principles are my true guidelines: is my action/speech motivated by hatred , blame, or any attitude dismissive of another human being? The FORM of the action may not look loving and peaceful, but one cannot always speak truth to power without setting off reactions of anger and hostility. Should one refrain from speaking or acting against injustice because it might engender anger and hostility? Of course not! Is practice always quiet, gentle, serious, non-confrontative? (As I write the monks are marching- and being beaten- in Burma. May they be well and safe!)

Is singing funny, ironic, satirical songs in public, directed at policies and policy makers who are, in their delusion, doing incalculable damage to the planet and her people, is that non-Buddhist? Is not love, joy, fun, fierce compassion, and truth, at the heart of the singing and the actions. In my heart- YES!

How to assess what is skillful? Code Pink can look downright annoying sometimes (Jon Stewart's unfortunate assessment "You're not helping" is probably shared by many). But when so many more subdued and conciliatory or diplomatic means seem to get sucked into a vortex of governmental oblivion (from voting to protesting to traditional lobbying- which feels like ineffective business-as-usual forms- so perhaps loud, colorful, humorous, challenging action IS the skillful means needed. Again, my heat guided me to NOT participate in some disruptions, for example a Senate Judiciary hearing on the FISA wiretapping laws- headed by Rep. Conyers whom I respect, and attended by Jerry Nadler (NY), both of whom gave stinging and cogent short speeches about civil liberties and the need to protect our privacy rights at all costs.

Skillful means, one of the Boddhisatva's vows, can include a wide array of techniques and approaches, and part of the skill, I'm thinking, is being attuned to the moment and the cultural context (and of course one's own heart and what feels right). Just as Buddhism takes root in many different cultures and changes in form as it adapts, skillful means looks different in different cultures. Thich Nhat Hanh always taught that we need not put on a brown robe and learn to chant in Pali to be a Buddhist- in fact, he encouraged westerners to find the western form for dharma, a contemporary and culturally coherent expression. Otherwise we are just adopting a museum/preservation approach to the dharma, attaching to a cultural form and mistaking it for the essence. This makes it a religion, an entity with forms and rituals and icons which we preserve and adopt, but it doesn't necessarily make it a living breathing practice. As the Buddha said "Don't look at my finger pointing, look at the moon".

It has been very liberating for me to discover these thoughts and questions. To realize that MY practice need not be an imitation of a Vietnamese male monk, or an African-American male minister. They are invaluable teachers and models, but my responsibility is not to imitate them so much as to re-imagine and re-embody the principles THEY embodied, to fit my body and spirit and condition. I feel stirring inside me the sense of courage and hope that this engenders. I am responsible for creating and living by my best understanding of skillful means, wise speech, wise action.

One further personal reflection- I'm a minister's daughter, raised to be very "good", not make waves, not trouble the community. So it is all too easy for me to misinterpret kindness as niceness, peace as passivity, compassion as "don't hurt anyone's feelings." So my experiences in DC with Code Pink really stretched me outside that box and challenged that confusion. I am deeply grateful to have had this opportunity to bring my practice into the hurly burly and see myself act and speak and sing in ways that were not "nice", but were, to the best of my current ability, rooted in genuine compassion and love for humanity, our planet, and yes, even this country.

I am interested in your thoughts and responses.


At September 28, 2007 at 3:14 PM , Blogger Unknown said...


I am just catching up with your blog. It is moving and wonderful to read your stories and hear about the difference you made in Washington D.C. I especially appreciate those times when you raised your voice in song- even when you were the only one to start out- and led people to a peaceful centering. Over and over that message comes through- you helped people sing and center. And that I suspect is the Buddha in you. Music so focuses us in the moment- even as it seems to stretch that moment into our past and future. Thank you for doing this, thank you for writing about it, thank you for risking your song- again and again.

Still working for peace,
Catherine Foote

At October 1, 2007 at 12:50 PM , Blogger Bohdan Leonid Shmorhay said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At October 10, 2007 at 1:37 PM , Blogger Bonnie Rose said...

I'm glad I found this. I've been more and more troubled by Code Pink ever since they sat in their bright pink shirts behind Valerie Plame, someone I had been looking forward to hearing speak for a long long time and I felt they ruined. Democracy Now takes a very favorable look at Code Pink and shows alot of their protests, but they make me cringe more and more each time. I just wonder, are they doing something that will really help anything, or are they just creating a big drama for themselves to star in so they can delude themselves into thinking they're making a difference? I know the motivation is pure, but does that really matter in the real world?

So thank you for sharing you inner struggle with this. I'd love to hear more of your thoughts about it.

At June 23, 2010 at 6:12 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...



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