12.8.11 Occupy Wall Street and Zen Practice
Robert Kaizen Gunn
How many of you noticed the sign on our bulletin board as you come in that says ÒOccupy WallÓ with a cute little drawing of a guy sitting on a cushion facing the wall? ItÕs our way of bringing home to our Zen practice the concerns of the Occupy Wall Street movement. As most of you know, a number of us have been meeting recently to discuss how the Occupy Wall Street movement and our Zen practice relate to each other. The group contains a fairly wide range of different points of view and an even wider range of feelings from rage at OWS to rage at Wall Street and the supposed 1%, to sympathy with both.
In the very first meeting, the most common feeling expressed at one point was fearÉ.somewhat undefined, but fear of conflict and violence, fear of chaos, fear of breakdown of the social order; people also expressed the fear in coming to the meeting that they would be put down or dismissed if they expressed anything other than liberal views. Certainly one of the values of our conversations is to give people a safe place to talk about these highly charged issues without assuming or requiring that people think alike.
In our last conversation, we began trying to articulate what, if anything, we want to do either personally, or as a Zendo. The question continues: how are Occupy Wall Street and our Zen practice related? Should we do nothing, continue our usual sitting thing? Should we have programs of study and meditation on the issues, trying to construct a cognitive map of just what is going on with OWS and a map of Zen practice and see whether they overlay each other and what each brings out of the other? Should we get more involved in the demonstrations or become in another way more directly active and political? What has the Occupy movement to do with us and why are we even talking about it?
OccupyWallStreet is an expression of the fact that we recognize the vast dimensions and interrelatedness of all the kinds of suffering that are created by our current global economic/political/social system. This is an awareness that is central to Buddhist thought: all things are connected and nothing can change without the system changing. The main question is, what kind of action/communication can be a catalyst for constructive change without being co-opted into the pre-existing system? This is what OWS has done so far- been the expression of and borne witness to the suffering without falling into a category that can be absorbed and co-opted by the system. We need a cognitive map for understanding the many issues and how they are related. We also discussed how to be present on the protest side in a non-dual compassionate, not Òotherize-ingÓ way, and what would that look like. Additionally, there was a parallel seen between the process of Zen koan study and OWS: both seek to open up the heart/mind to a level of awareness that transcends dualistic, linear logic, thought and words.
To get into the flavor of the discussion, IÕd like to set the context on a personal level by reading an excerpt of an essay by someone who is trying to deal with these issues of justice and peace from an interfaith perspective of both Buddhism and Christianity. A colleague and friend of mine from Union Theological Seminary, Kyeongil Jung, tells of his experience in South Korea. He says,
Both Buddhists and Christians want and work for peace. Yet the ways they work for peace are as different as the contrasting images of the tranquil Bodhi tree and the bloody Cross.
Christians take sides with victims against victimizers while Buddhists are unconditionaly compassionate for both victims and victimizers. Christians, especially liberation theologians, proclaim ÒGodÕs preferential option for the poor and oppressed.Ó This God loves all, but loves victims more than She loves victimizersÉ.
Buddhists are also aware of the necessity of compassion for victims. But, they donÕt take sides with victims against victimizers. Instead they are compassionate for victimizers as well. Loponla, a Tibetan monk, spent 18 years in a Chinese prison. When he was asked by the Dalai Lama if he had felt any danger, he replied, yes, and said that there had been two or three occasions when he felt in real danger, the danger of losing his compassion for the Chinese.
This unconditional compassion is rooted in the Buddhist wisdom of the Three Marks of Existence: dukkah (suffering), anatta (non-self), and anicca (impermanence). Everyone suffers, so do victimizers. There is no independent self. We are all interconnected. We are both victims and victimizers. Everything is impermanent. Evil cannot be permanent. For these reasons, Buddhists donÕt (and canÕt) take sides. If they have to, they take sides with everyone.
Christians take sides because of love. Buddhists donÕt take sides because of wisdom.
He goes on to discuss the necessity of differentiation of suffering in a world that is divided, as has become popular with Occupy Wall Street, between the 1% and the 99%. Jung says, I canÕt be a bystander in the face of suffering and evil. I must be responsible for both victims and victimizers, non-dualistically. He notes that people experience suffering differently. For example, when the poor and the rich have the same disease, the poor with no insurance die helplessly while the rich live long and healthy lives thanks to privileged medical treatment. ThatÕs why Gustavo Gutierrez, a liberation theologian, says the poor are Òthose who die before their time.Ó Liberation theologians differentiate suffering and take sides with those who suffer more against those who suffer less and make others sufferÉthis differentiation of suffering calls for the denunciation of evil, which as Bertolt Brecht says, has its own name and address.
The denunciation of evil is problematic for Buddhists who are critical of the dualistic view of good and evil. But from the point of view of the oppressed, the compassion of Buddhism and the preferential love of Christianity would not be so different; to try to ÒcorrectÓ oppressors, out of compassion, triggers a confrontation from the oppressors against those who try to correct them. Jung syas perhaps confrontation might be the Fourth Mark of Existence.
Another reason why Buddhists donÕt take sides is because they are concerned about the danger of divisive confrontation, which might cause hatred and violence. That is, in the process of taking sides, anger is generated and it is easily escalated into hatred and violenceÉ.Many social activists confess the problems of anger, hatred and violence in their actions. I myself also have a traumatic memory of being violent when I was a Marxist activist in my twenties. I can never forget the day when my anger escalated into hatred and violence.
That day, I heard that one of my activist friends was just brutally arrested by the police. I rushed to the police station, and many followed me. We asked the police to release him immediately. In the process, violence broke out. In the midst of the violent conflict, suddenly, a police officer drew his gun and pointed it at me. It was so strange. I donÕtÕ know why, but I felt as if I was in a soundless world. It was so calm and still. Perhaps, it was a pure anger that was stronger than fear of death. After a short while, I shouted at him with hatred in my voice. ÒShoot me! Kill me!Ó I wanted to die. I would have died if my friends did not get me out of the situation. Since then, I became aware of my anger, hatred and violence.
The most painful memory of those days is that I hated not only the oppressors but also my fellow activists when they had different strategies of liberation. In this revolutionary situation, the hegemonic struggle among activist groups was so violent that he scar still remains. John Makranksy is right that Òself-righteous hatred itself is part of the dynamic of evil.Ó I imitated evil as I resisted it. I started my activism out of compassion for the victims, but ended up with hatred and violence against the victimizers and, more painfully, against myself.
This is when I started practicing Buddhist meditationÉ.But the problem is that the more I become compassionate the less I become angry with those who commit injustice. Then, my will to confront injustice is not confrontation but indifference to the suffering of people. If my compassion for victimizers weakens my confrontation against them, I believe, my compassion for them will also be weakened.
[excerpts from A Buddhist-Christian Story of Peace and Justice, Keongil Jung. Unpublished manuscript]
We are left with a problem that is bigger than Buddhist/Christian differences. It is a human problem. How can we be present to suffering in a way that not only alleviates an individualÕs pain, but liberates all people from violent and violence-causing systems? How can we be catalysts for justice and peace without turning into the tyrants we are trying to humanize? What does our Zen practice have to say about making peace, righting injustice to save all sentient beings?
Liberation is the goal of Buddhists every bit as much as it is for Americans, every bit as much as it is for people everywhere. Taigen Dan Leighton, in his new book, Zen Questions, puts it this way:
The American ideal of democracy, of liberty and justice for all, particularly resonates with the teaching of Universal Vehicle Buddhism, or Mahayana, of which Zen is a part. Early Buddhism promoted the ideal of personal liberation: if one purified oneÕs own attachments and were free from desires, that would be liberation. The Buddhism evolved and the universal vehicle developed. But it still includes this sense of personal liberation, which requires study of our own perceptions and what arises in our own body and mind just sitting on our cushions. We study this closely, continuingly vigilant right now. Thereby we come to see how we concoct this process of alienation from the world, estranging ourselves by solidifying our sense of self and other, and we study this process closely. This is the intimate work of eternal vigilance and freedom from fundamental ignorance, the underlying confusion that Buddha spoke of as he awakened.
The universal vehicle goes further to see that we cannot be truly liberated if others down the road are suffering. It is not just a matter of clearing up your own psyche and then you will be happy and free, with everything resolved. We see that others around us actually affect us and that ultimately we are completely connected with them. It must be liberty and justice for all, or, we might say, justice and liberation for everyone.
Benjamin Franklin said, ÒWe must all hang together, else we shall all hang separately.Ó He saw that all the colonies had to come together and stand together for their liberty. Similarly, Buddhist practitioners come together to sit upright, facing the whole universe, facing the fact that we create suffering by imagining ourselves separate from someone else. We have imagined we are hanging separately.
Liberation comes through eternal vigilance. Zazen sitting, standing, lying, down, protesting, cleaning the kitchen and doing the laundry. When we vow to save all sentient beings, we are talking about liberation. However much we may say that Buddhist liberation is from illusions and delusions, e must recognize and identifyÑwe must name those illusions and delusions for what they are: they are not individual illusions or personal idiosyncratic delusionsÑmost all of the specific illusions and delusions we suffer from are embedded in our culture and constitute an unquestioned ideology. Consumerism is the #1 American delusion and Christmas- more than Channukah or Kwanzai, because of Santa ClausÑis its high peak season, where people go crazy buying things they cannot afford to prove that they love someone whom they have neglected all year long and the more expensive the gift, the presumed greater the love. Not only do we say we vow to save all sentient beings and forego entry into nirvana until all sentient beings are liberated: liberation is from the collective, the societal and ideological myths by which the society and culture lives, and these myths are the containers of the rationale, the blinders, the psychological denial of the shell game on the basis of which power gets concentrated in the 1% at the expense of the 99%. But, make no mistake: most of the 99% (which is you and me) still live by the collective delusions that fuel systems of suffering. It is in this sense that we can say the personal is political and the political is personal.
How do we save all sentient beings? How do we establish justice? Dan Leighton reminds us:
One of my favorite American Dharma utterances, ÒThe price of liberation is eternal vigilance,Ó is from Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence. JeffersonÕs rendition is, ÒThe price of liberty is eternal vigilance.ÓÉbut ongoing vigilance is also critical for Buddhist liberationÉ.When the Buddha was liberated it did not mean that he could check out and go back to the palace, live a life of privilege, and take it easy. And when American Zen students get some taste of Buddhist liberation, it does not mean they are finished and should go home and become unaware couch potatoes; or, for that matter, that they should stay in the zendo, close their yes, and doze off to become zafu potatoes.
Both liberty and liberation require maintaining ongoing vigilance. Whether for freedom from social oppression or from personal oppression, freedom from corrupt corporations running our government or from our own corrupted psyches, the price of liberation is eternal vigilance. Awakened wisdom and compassion apply to our efforts to bring awareness and forgiveness to the confusion, fear, and sorrow inside our own conditioned skin bagÉ.Bodhisattva precepts and compassion further require our attention to our society and the environment at large, remaining open to hear and respond as beneficially as possible to the suffering of the world and all beings.
Buddhists donÕt take sides against victimizers or oppressors, because we see the depth dimension of the systems that create both the victims and the victimizers and we aim to bring light, clarity to the delusions that capture all of us into the endless cycles of suffering. Until those illusions are cut off within us and others, there will only be a change in the name and address of the victimizers.
There is no one way to work for justice and peace, but our experience of zazen on the cushion humbles us with the realization that there is no ÒotherÓ, that we are subject to and participate in the same deluded beliefs, actions and systems as those we would call victimizers, and thus, when we sit, we sit not only for ourselves, but for all sentient beings.
Occupy Wall Street is not so much an idea as a sensibility, like the hand reaching for the pillow in the middle of the night. OWS is a quintessential Buddhist happening: it notes the end of hierarchy as the dominant mode of organizing people; it is replaced by a systems approach as the primary mode of cognition and organization. With no separate self, it is the ultimate manifestation of a movement begun in the 1960Õs with the death of God as an Òother,Ó separate from other creations, and was manifested in the civil rights, feminist and gay liberations. It was, across the board, the horizontalization of authority, true democracy in which every voice was included without reference to status, race, beliefs, money or power, a radical insistence on inclusion and listening to each personÕs voice and point of view.
It is an elevation of compassion as the highest expression of wisdom, for without compassion, ultimately nothing works. As such, it is the ultimate expression of the nature of bodhisattvas who declare they will not cross over until everyone can cross over. There is no such thing as collateral damage: no structure works unless it includes all sentient beings, and all beings are sentient.
Our practice of zazen is a way of constantly attending to our inner propensity to divide everything into self/other, and seeing through all such propensities to the compassionate inclusion of all beings as part of the one Self (the Gaia hypothesis).
(Those who occupy the wall) at all times practice complete awesome presence; thus they are active buddhas.
There has never been a gap in active buddhasÕ transformative work. This being so, there is complete dropping of self and other, outstanding in coming and going.
Rejoice! Although your skin bag was born far from the sages, and although this moment is distant from the sages, you have encountered the transforming guidance of the spreading sky that can still be heardÉ.It is the spreading sky alone that cuts apart the tangle of twining vines amid the winds.
Thus, dharma expounds Buddha, dharma practices Buddha, dharma verifies Buddha. Buddha expounds dharma, Buddha practices Buddha, Buddha makes Buddha. This is all the awesome presence of active buddhas. Throughout heaven and earth, throughout past and present, what they have attained is not insignificant, what they have clarified is not to be utilized casually.
Dogen Zenji, ÒAwesome Presence of Active Buddhas,Ó
Shobogenzo, Fascicle 24, trans. Kaz Tanahashi