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Roshi Joan Halifax

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This Is What Compassion Looks Like: A Buddhist View of Occupy Wall Street

Posted: 10/14/2011 10:50 am

It started 28 days ago, with a ragtag group of people who called themselves "Occupy Wall Street" planting themselves at Liberty Square Plaza (aka Zuccotti Park) in New York City, under the shadows of skyscrapers.

They gathered together to call attention to the disproportionate influence that the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans have over our political and economic system. Using the phrase "We are the 99 percent," they drew a circle of inclusion around the myriad forms of structural violence and suffering that so many of us are experiencing these days.

The Buddha would probably agree with their analysis. Numerous Buddhist texts point out that poverty is not any individual's fate or karma, but rather exists in a web of causes and conditions. The Buddha also noted that the way to build a peaceful society is to ensure equitable distribution of resources.

In a more contemporary rendering of Buddhist teachings, Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh offers this precept: "Do not accumulate wealth whilst millions are hungry. Do not take as the aim of your life, fame, profit, wealth or sensual pleasure. Live simply and share time, energy and material resources with those who are in need." Bernie Glassman Roshi says: Do not foster a mind of poverty in yourself or others.

In less than a month, this gathering in New York has grown into a worldwide movement that has captured the public imagination and vision. This is a leaderless movement, and one that started without any clear demands, and one that is committed to nonviolence. These are exactly the kinds of movements that those with privilege and power have no idea how to contain.

There is a precedent for this kind of social change. The Civil Rights movement, though now almost exclusively identified with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and to a lesser degree, Rosa Parks, was actually comprised of many leaders in multiple locations who gradually self-organized so that the whole became greater than the sum of its parts. And like Occupy Wall Street, the Civil Rights movement grew in its own power based on a common dedication to justice for all.

Some have criticized or ridiculed Occupy Wall Street because it has not formed a list of clear demands for change. Instead, it has relied on a participatory process, even inviting the public at large to weigh in on what issues are of most importance.

What is really remarkable about this movement is that somehow it has raised the process of "how" change happens to being more important than the "what" of change.

The people on the streets in New York are in the process of being the change they wish to see, to use Gandhi's phrase. They have organized to provide health care for each other, to feed each other, to clean up their space together, to deal with difficult situations using creative solutions. They have intentionally refused alignment with any political party in order to keep their message open to the widest audience. They are taking pains to use a collective decision-making process so that the voices of the marginalized are being heard and considered.

In the context of Buddhist teachings and practice, these are all compassionate actions.

It calls to mind the words that Indian author and activist Arundhati Roy spoke at the 2003 World Social Forum:

Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness -- and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we're being brainwashed to believe. The corporate revolution will collapse if we refuse to buy what they are selling -- their ideas, their version of history, their wars, their weapons, their notion of inevitability.


The downfall of any revolution is when it unknowingly replicates what has come before it. Can Occupy Wall Street succeed? It can, if it continues to place generosity and compassion before greed, and to recognize the power of interdependence, causality and selflessness.

This piece was co-authored with Maia Duerr, former executive director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and current director of the Upaya Buddhist Chaplaincy Training Program. See Maia's blog, The Jizo Chronicles, for more Buddhist perspectives on Occupy Wall Street.

 

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