Extinction Rebellion as spiritual practice: some thoughtsOn Wed, 20 November, 2019 - 15:41
“You do not have to say anything. But, it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence.”
The policeman seemed fair but firm, or firm but fair. Not hostile, perhaps very faintly puzzled. Civil, but watching me closely and watchful of boundaries. Humane, but not over-friendly. Tired.
There I was, a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order, wearing my kesa, sat meditating on Horseferry Road, about 100 metres from MI5, which is almost next-door to where I’d started my Home Office career back in 1990. Being arrested for conspiring to cause a public nuisance, amongst other things.
How had I come to this? I’m a very polite kind of person, and I hate getting in people’s way — so what was I doing, supporting people blocking a road?
Many people see a similar basic picture, even across the political spectrum, which goes something like this. Climate breaking down, biodiversity crashing, huge global (and local) inequalities, economic and political injustices, and systemic racism. A perfect storm, with too much suffering already happening, and a huge amount more on its way very soon. We urgently need to change the way we live, to stay within what our planet can actually sustain, to share resources far more fairly, and to generally have much more compassionate societies.
But what to do about this, and especially from a Buddhist point of view? One Buddhist response to social problems is to say that we need to start with ourselves. By trying to practise Buddhism, we change ourselves and grow spiritually, and this will have effect in the world. Also, teaching Buddhism and promoting awareness of the teachings will have a positive influence on society.
Some Buddhists would go further and quote the parable of the burning house (from the Lotus Sutra). The house is burning and about to fall down, lots of children playing in the house, intent on their toys, ignoring any attempts to get them to leave. In this urgent situation, an adult pretends to the children that he has particularly beautiful toys outside the house — the children are tempted to come out and are saved. This can be seen as a metaphor for skilful means: attracting people to the deeper fulfilment of spiritual practice, away from the burning house of mundane pleasures and concerns. But it can also be seen in a more basic sense. A small compromise on complete ethical purity (in this case a white lie) may be justified in order to prevent a major tragedy.
I think both senses are relevant to how Buddhists can engage with Extinction Rebellion’s use of disruption and the possibility of people getting arrested. It’s not great to block a road and delay good people getting to work, for example. But these are tactics, skilful means appropriate to a desperate situation. For thirty years or more, campaigners have pushed for meaningful progress in relation to climate breakdown, devastation of the natural world, and global justice issues. There have been some successes, but overall their tactics have had little impact. Disruption to business as usual can be like skilfully raising one’s voice, when one just isn’t being heard. There are many ways of engaging creatively — nonviolent civil disobedience/risking arrest is just one amongst many possibilities. The idea is not to ‘other’ or demonise any class of people, but to open up real dialogue about what needs to change.
Grandmothers, rabbis, young people, doctors, ex-police, shop workers, nurses — when people of all kinds and from all kinds of backgrounds are ready to put their energy into campaigning and even ready to risk arrest, this does affect people and inspire respect. Sure, disruption can irritate people a lot, but it can also get some real thinking and talking going. The tactic of nonviolent civil disobedience was completely central to the success of the suffragettes in the UK, the civil rights movement in the USA, and many other movements for social change that we now regard as unquestionably justified — and which were often to some extent unpopular in their own time. Academic research suggests that only 3.5% of a country’s population needs to be actively engaged for real social change to happen. If enough people get involved, especially globally, then even the corporations will have to listen.
One last point about disruption. I believe that we humans have a duty to look after each other. And, despite all the extreme injustices and imperfections — we do in many ways look after each other much of the time. In a way it’s fair enough for people to criticise and get annoyed with XR protestors holding up the traffic — but what are those critics doing about climate breakdown? How are they living out their responsibility to be good global citizens? XR’s disruption is raising the alarm about a threat to us all, saying to society as a whole: ‘here is something we all need to urgently work on’.
Some would argue that Buddhists shouldn’t do activism, because the Buddha wasn’t an activist. Well, it’s correct that the Buddha didn’t glue himself to the doors of any global fossil fuel corporations. But I would suggest that he was profoundly disruptive. He seems to have been arguing with Brahmins at every opportunity, he questioned animal sacrifice and he questioned the caste system. Surely if he was alive today he would need serious 24-hour protection. But that makes me think of one of his most disruptive moments — his encounter with Angulimala, the ruthless and prolific serial killer, so prolific that he was devastating whole villages.
In one version of the story, the Buddha has heard about Angulimala, and seeks him out in order to convert him. And when Angulimala tries to attack him, the Buddha just carries on walking and uses supernatural powers to make it impossible for Angulimala to reach him, no matter how hard he tries. I wonder if the reality behind this story is that the Buddha was completely fearless and full of metta, when threatened with violence, and this (in this case!) had the effect of completely disorienting, and eventually re-orienting, his attacker. Angulimala actually renounces violence and becomes a follower of the Buddha.
Now, my point in quoting this story is that, although it may not be immediately obvious to people living in wealthy countries, there is a great deal of violence (and racism) in ‘business as usual’, in the economic systems that sustain us. Just to take one tiny, illustrative example. Many of the tinned tomatoes that we eat in the UK are grown and picked in Spain, by seasonal workers from Africa, who work for tiny amounts of money, in terrible conditions. Formally, they are hired workers, but in reality they are living like slaves. To the extent that we really do challenge business as usual, its violent nature actually becomes more obvious. It resists, and at some point it will start to hit back. But, I believe that the more we can bring fearlessness and even love to our activism, the more of a converting effect we will have.
Coming back to me sitting in Horseferry Road on Tuesday 15 October: the day after XR’s roadblock in the City of London (right by the Bank of England), and the first day of the police ban on public protests in London. I’m white, middle class. I’ve nothing to fear from the police, who treat me respectfully and considerately. I get to meet some inspiring and lovely people who are also being arrested. To be honest, I enjoyed my seven hours in a police cell — I spent the whole time reflecting on my experience, didn’t even look at the book I had with me.
But whilst I was stood by the police van, waiting to be taken away, the slightly frail-looking older woman standing next to me (a grandmother, I later found out), who had also been arrested, started weeping — just for a minute or two. Not surprisingly, tears came to my eyes. And, not surprisingly, I saw tears come to the eyes of the woman’s arresting officer — a man who was almost comically bigger and stronger than her. Now, I’m not out to whitewash the police. I’m sure they have been guilty of all kinds of racism and abuses of power, and I believe they need to take responsibility for their actions, as we all do. My point is that they are human beings, with human feelings. XR can be seen as many different ways of trying to connect as many people as possible, as much as possible, on the basis of our shared humanity. So, on that basis, I see some hope in those shared tears.
Deliberately breaking the law is a serious thing to do. I would strongly encourage anyone thinking about risking arrest through non-violent civil disobedience to make themselves very informed about likely legal consequences, and to think carefully about how their action might affect their career, and whole life, in all kinds of ways.