Last month, powerful images of people meditating amidst police violence during the waves of Occupy protests caught widespread attention.
The fact that practitioners of meditation or Buddhism would be drawn to the rallies is not a non-sequitur. In fact, the message of Occupy is one based in the dharma, “we’re all in this together.” The challenge to the 1% is a challenge to individualism and an affirmation of our interconnectedness. It also rings as a challenge for many Buddhists about what it means to apply the dharma in engaged practice. What many have come to realize is that interconnectedness means fight.
When I was fifteen years old I was in my ninth year of Catholic school. I had internalized Catholic social teaching based upon “treat others as you would like to be treated” as well as my parents’ lessons that taught me to share with others. However, as we reached the age to begin preparation for college and thus career track, the messages subtly shifted. During that coming of age we also became more aware of the dynamics of the world; of poverty and discrimination. In the modern segregation of the middle class suburb where I was raised, we began to realize that the adults in our lives didn’t necessarily practice our childhood lessons; that the circle of compassion we were taught to extend only extended so far.
That year, at the same time that I learned about Sister Diana Ortiz in El Salvador, I was handed Living Buddha Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hanh. Sr. Diana Ortiz was a nun who was tortured by men who took orders, by her account, from a blond haired man with an American accent. It was later revealed that he was trained by the US government at a military base called the School of the Americas. The news was a shock to my well-educated but sheltered system. How could I not only be unaware this was happening but unaware that it was happening in my name? As I grappled to reassemble my reality, Thich Nhat Hanh’s words laid a path of understanding for my next uncertain steps.
I took refuge in the dharma and opened myself to the reality that there is no division between self and other. As Chogyam Trungpa writes, the heart of a spiritual warrior is a sorrowful one because it is in touch with the conditions of the world. I came to understand that my happiness and sorrow are made of your happiness and sorrow and that has specific meaning in the times we live in.
These teachings remixed with Archbishop Romero of El Salvador saying “It is unjust to have more than one needs when others have not enough.” And Howard Zinn writing “you can’t be neutral on a moving train.” As someone who benefits from the racial, economic, and gender inequalities that exist, interconnectedness meant taking on the situations of others as my own. While suffering is universal, oppression is specific. To truly embody interconnectedness, it means going beyond Dr. King’s famous words that “An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and to accept an injustice anywhere as an injustice everywhere. Like a gossamer web, wherever there are holes, the whole is weakened.
Sanghas and Social Responsibility.
However, what seemed like a natural progression to me wasn’t reflected in the sanghas I approached. Whereas my budding Buddhism was steeped with Catholic social teaching’s preferential option for the poor and the Beatitudes prophesy that the first shall come last and the last shall come first, the majority of sanghas I sought out attempted to swipe away society’s very real stratifications as illusion. Instead of non-attachment being cause for us to be willing to let go of the material security our families or our careers had afforded, it became a reason to not engage in the cause of the marginalized. The righteous hot anger I felt at witnessing people sleeping in doorsteps, families being evicted from their homes, or law enforcement hassling youth of color was confused with rage and seen as unenlightened.
The sites of a teaching that had attracted me as a mindful way to be in a mindless world seemed too similar to the safe harbors suburbanites drew around themselves as they locked their doors as they drove into the city, a barrier to the suffering of the world, not an immersion in it. I found places of consciousness without conscience. The deep and heartfelt challenge to my own way of living that bounded out from the pages of Buddhist texts I read was rarely to be found among those who I sat alongside on zafus.
The Golden Rule: Sacred Reciprocity.
To internalize interconnectedness means being compelled to act. We take action on a daily basis to advocate for ourselves in our own lives and we daily witness others being treated in ways that, if it were directed at ourselves, would not be tolerated. What would you do if it were you facing eviction, real hunger, dangerous working conditions, or worse? Would sitting and prayer be the only recourse you call upon? If there’s more that you would do for yourself, than we are called to do more for others. To inverse the concept of how to treat others, we could also say “Do not tolerate for others what you would not also tolerate for yourself.”
There is a beautiful alignment between the dharma and some political slogans like “No one is free while others are oppressed.” In today’s world, can we accept that there is no individual enlightenment without collective liberation? And that liberation is both spiritual and material. As Dr. King said, “peace is not only the absence of violence but the presence of justice.”
If “everyone in the sangha speaks for the Buddha, speaking for him not just by their words but by the way they act and the way they treat people,” what would our actions show beyond being mild-mannered and conflict avoidant? What do our lives speak not just as individuals but as part of the collective, the whole? It is a worthwhile question because injustices are not an individual experience. They are a collective wound. Thus, healing those wounds takes place through a process of collective struggle.
If we are to embody the belief that we are one, it means walking in the sacred reciprocity of being there for each other. It means working and caring for the well-being of not just those who we know and love but those unknown and unloved by us. It means challenging ourselves to continually expand our circle of compassion and to take action as if the cause of those most marginalized was our own, because it is. It means accepting that interconnectedness means fight.