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How to Be a Buddhist Protester

On Monday, May 25th, George Floyd died after a police officer held his knee on the back of his neck for more than 8 minutes.  Floyd was handcuffed at the time, and he was simultaneously being restrained by several other officers.

In the days after his death, protests have erupted in 17 states; resulting in mass arrests, property damage, and calls for peace from local officials.  In the wake of these events, many Buddhists are struggling with how to respond. 

The truth of the matter is protests are not pretty.  There is a lot of hurt and emotion at these events that spill out in strange, sometimes violent ways.  People get tear-gassed or shoved by police and counterprotesters.  Slogans are shouted that aren't in keeping with Right Speech.  And there is a real risk of bodily harm that comes with participation.

However, the more I practice, the more I realize that protest is as much a part of Buddhist training as meditation.  After all, how can I chant in praise of Kannon if I don't use my body to bring her compassion into the world?  How can I bow to the Buddha on my altar if I don't protect the Buddha who's handcuffed in the street?

So, I've created a list of things Buddhists can do to assist in the fight for social justice while still adhering to an ethos of compassion and nonviolence:


Verbal/ Emotional Support-  Right Speech is an important tenet of the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism.  One would be surprised how far a kind word can go.  Simply telling someone, "Hello, thanks for being here," can brighten their day tremendously.  And if someone is injured, we can remind them to take slow, deep breaths (to slow their heart rate) while thanking them for their hard work.  This helps them remain calm while medics treat them.

Material Support-  Making an offering of food and medicine is a time-honored tradition in Buddhism.  And one of the easiest ways to help during a protest is to provide material support to the medics/ organizers on the ground.  These people are generally working-class citizens; buying materials out of their own pockets.  So, supply shortages are common.

Find out where the drop-off point is for food/ medical supplies and get the word out to friends and family.  Police will often block off the streets surrounding an action, so be prepared to load up a backpack, and hike the last few blocks to make a donation.

One thing I did recently, was to load up my own backpack with water and granola bars and hand them out directly to protesters during an action.  In the heat of the moment, people forget to tend to their bodily needs, so making food and water easily available (e.g. just reach in my backpack and grab some) is important.

Bodily Protection- Buddhism teaches that there is no separation between the relative and the absolute worlds.  Thus, we must protect our bodily health in the same way that we protect our spiritual health.

The first step in providing bodily protection during a protest is to ensure that our own bodies are safe.  It's important that we keep ourselves well-fed, hydrated, and get plenty of sleep the night before.  There is a reason that Loving-Kindness meditations always start with ourselves and then extend to other people.  If our own bodies are suffering, we'll have a hard time protecting someone else's body.

Next, it's important to know where medical triages have been set up.  We can verbally tell people where they are, and if we're physically able, we can carry people there or guide them by the hand.  Often times, people get disoriented after being tear-gassed or shot with a rubber bullet, so we'll need to be their eyes and ears for a short time.

Finally, we can get trained in First-Aid and CPR to assist people who suffer injuries.  Classes are often offered at local libraries and hospitals.

Bearing Witness-  This is a spiritual practice that was first made popular by Zen teacher, Bernie Glassman.  It consists of looking towards the suffering of the world instead of turning away from it.  When we do this we develop empathy for the people that suffer along with finding creative solutions to real-world problems.

As Buddhist protesters, the most simple way to bear witness is by showing up at a protest.  In the same way that our presence in the meditation hall strengthens the practice of everyone there, our presence at a protest provides strength and encouragement to people fighting for social change.

Also, we can document everything that we see.  Many times, there are conflicting stories as to what happened during a direct action (e.g. why did the police start using tear gas), and having a cell phone video of the event helps to keep everyone honest.

Finally, we can act as legal observers.  This goes hand in hand with the previous point about taking cell phone videos of events.  Record any arrests that take place, and make the footage available to event organizers and anyone who is volunteering legal services.  Also, if someone is arrested, get their first and last name so bail can be arranged.

Cleaning Up-  Unfortunately, property damage and littering sometimes occur during protests.  The day after an action we can help ease tensions by cleaning up any trash/ debris around march routes and rally sites.

Our nation is in a moment of extreme turmoil.  And it can be tempting to hide away in our temples and meditation centers; using teaches about the absolute to justify our inaction.  However, if we look at the life of Buddha, it becomes clear that he was an active participant in the maintaining of his community; acting as a peacekeeper, settling political disputes, and teaching the Dharma to anyone who cared to learn.

As practitioners of the Way, it's incumbent on us to follow his example, and work to save all sentient beings from suffering.

Namu Amida Butsu


If you enjoyed this essay, you'll love my book!




How to Be a Buddhist Protester

Comments

  1. Thank you Alex. Thoughtful and measured and mindful. Truly helpful too.

    ReplyDelete

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