Jesus Saves! (Buddha Recycles)
From Martin Luther to Martin Luther King, Archbishop Tutu and the liberation theologists, the Holy Spirit flows fast in activist veins.
The protest of the Protestants began as a leafleting campaign attacking the Vatican think-tank at the centre of a transnational extortion racket, dictating how rulers and ruled should conduct their affairs. Today we have the IMF and the Fiscal Gospel, and a new Inquisition to guard our souls from economic heresy, but the missionary may not rest. My mission lead me to Buddhafield Festival, with faith in my wellies to keep out the mud, and in the Holy Name of Yaweh to keep me from heresy. Thus I came unto the Buddhists, and the mud was deep indeed.
I was challenged as I distributed the OT, which is always encouraging. “Would thou wert cold or hot,” laments the Revelator of Patmos. Someone arguing for an unfettered free market is already engaged, and invites a question:
is the “invisible hand” really at work? Or is it the incorporated claw of another entity bailing out and fiddling rates, dragging us into debt and damnation?
Some “wert hot” about Occupy, either involved or sympathetic. Buddhafield, which began 17 years ago as a meeting of Buddhism and activism, hosted off-grid solutions, urban foragers and co-operatives activists, but there were also face-painting and skillful flirting sessions, ecstatic dance workshops, masseurs and healers, sun-saluting yoginis, singers of bajhans, readers of omens and bones. It could feel like young Prince Gautama’s palace, where the wilting flowers of the gardens were cut at night to spare him the sight of decay in the morning. Beautiful Amazonian beadwork was on sale, but without information about the new Brazilian forestry code or the catastrophic Belo Monte dam. There were plenty of solar panels and a hardcore baby shit-scraping recycling team, but no rabble rising about fracking or land grabs, green-wahsing, GM crops and oil spills. I was cut off from my daily fare of doom, the music of the hooves of the horsemen of the Apocalypse.
The graven images of Buddhist iconography sit calmly, cultivating non-attachment, and Buddhists make a virtue of silence. What other festival stops the music at 11pm, and does not serve vodka? In truth, Occupy camps would have benefited from such mindfulness, but is there a middle way between the extremes?
The second Noble Truth is that the origin of suffering is desire. This is also the first ignoble truth of advertising, and the engine that turns the wheel of capitalism as well as samsara.
Unchecked greed, ambition, and consumption are extremely urgent matters for me, since I used to live in the Amazon, and watched the trucks pass by laden with segments of giant trees, and drove for hours along roads with only the occasional Brazil nut tree and a scattering of cows upon the scorched rainforest. I also had the good fortune to live on the coast of Fukushima, a quiet and idyllic prefecture of Japan, before it became a nuclear disaster zone. Beloved friends, restaurateurs who treated me to sushi every week, today source their fish beyond their poisoned harbour. They live in fear of an aftershock further cracking the reactor, which may not be secured for decades. Japan’s reactors were all turned off when Fukushima melted. Last month the first two were turned back on.
At Buddhafield, however, as everywhere, there are plenty who care not a heathen hoot. “The End is Nigh!” and “the Kingdom of Heaven is at Hand!” are sentiments that cry out for exclamation marks, but where might a missionary find a corresponding sense of urgency in Buddhist scripture?
The third Noble Truth is that there is liberation, and perhaps some were seeking just that in a muddy field in Summerset. Many looked suspiciously at my newspaper, or froze at the mention of an idea – occupying, protesting, financial crime. One literally shuddered at the word “London.” But the Buddha’s journey to liberation began when he left his sheltered rose garden, to see the truths of sickness, old age, death and poverty outside the palace gates.
The Japanese are famously stoic even amongst Buddhists, but amongst them a new generation are taking to the streets en masse against nuclear power. Buddhists do demonstrate, and spectacularly, as in 1963, when a petrol drenched Vietnamese Buddhist burned silently in lotus for ten minutes before rolling backwards dead. The president he opposed was deposed, and as dead as the monk four months later. The Arab Spring also began with a self-immolation. “Would thou wert cold or hot?” These roasting Muslims and Buddhists respond in Fahrenheit.
“So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot,” continues the Revelator of Patmos, “I WILL SPEW THEE OUT OF MY MOUTH”. Of course, this was not really a spewing type of gathering, and disinterest is far more serious outside the Buddhist community, but how do we get people fired up without spewing?
The Fourth Noble Truth is about liberation through the eightfold path, and the causal web which generates suffering. This includes ethical livelihood, cultivation of discernment and consistent effort towards one’s goals, all relevant to Occupiers, but the virtue of right speech is of paramount importance, particularly now, as we engage with outreach as well as outrage.
A Buddhist teacher explained the four facets of rights speech when we occupied the Dharma Parlour for a session about what Buddhism could offer to activists.
Firstly, one must speak the truth, which is why we gathered at St. Paul’s in the first place. To do so in compliance with the second principle, however, to abstain from slander, becomes more difficult. 99% versus 1% rhetoric can become a blame game, and if Occupy is to survive the waterfall on the horizon to float amidst the debris of big society, we can’t afford to be bellicose or fractious, as the left so often is, under the strain of competing ideologies and personalities.
The third principle is to speak in ways that are pleasant to hear. As Occupy diversifies and we take autonomy and consensus into our lives and workplaces, we need to find ways to engage with others. Festival outreach, indy journalism, nomadic occupations and school visits are all underway, and all call for a refined vocabulary. Theatrical protests and billboard subversions communicate better than angry slogans, and in marches and actions, words with police and staff can be harmonious. Kindly words and non-aggression make wheeling a protest shaped like a 16.5 meter wind turbine into the Tate smoother.
Finally, one should abstain from idle chatter that lacks purpose or depth. Amongst ourselves at General Assembly or in a public address, the issues are important, and no-one wants to hear you babbling self-indulgent nonsense.
I took these concepts on a long paper round on the final morning, trying to plot the middle way between urgency and calm, speaking the truth but avoiding harshness. Among the many points of resonance between Occupy and Buddhism, is one of the six realms of samasara, the Asura realm driven by competion and paranoia, where boastful and territorial gods seethe with jealousy. This inner reality is reflected ever more clearly as finance spreads into every realm of Life Inc.
“Always desiring to be superior to others, having no patience for inferiors and belittling strangers; like a hawk, flying high above and looking down on others, and yet outwardly displaying justice, worship, wisdom, and faith – this is raising up the lowest order of good and walking the way of the Asuras.”
Note: Thanks to Alex Charnley for the Rev image