Saturday, October 12, 2013

Put your signs down


Amazing, what you can find on the interwebs.

Taking a break from worky things today, I was surfing the web and did a search for anti-war speeches in recent times.  A reference to a peculiar speech by someone with a very unusual (and very familiar) name came up, and one or two clicks later I was confounded to be watching myself -- ten years ago -- on C-Span.

Oh yeah.  That day.

April 13, 2003.  One month after our invasion of Iraq had begun, I was part of a coalition that organized several large anti-war rallies, including this one that closed Hollywood Boulevard and filled it with thousands of people.

Since you can't embed clips from C-Span, I'll share a link below.  But first, let me tell the story of this speech.

The attacks of September 11 took place about three weeks after I arrived in Los Angeles to be abbot of Dharma Zen Center.  In response to attacks on muslims and sikhs and anyone with brown skin, several faith leaders banded together to create safe spaces and promote understanding and dialogue among religions and this turned into Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace.  Reverend Kusala of the International Buddhist Meditation Center involved me along with other Buddhist representatives, although he did not remain active with the group.  As the United States initiated war with Afghanistan and began to threaten Iraq in reaction to September 11, ICUJP began addressing itself to government, criticizing militarism and violence from a multi-faith perspective 

One of the issues I found myself addressing repeatedly while working with ICUJP was activist burnout and anger.  It was something I had seen in the early 1990s when I was active in New York City, and was seeing it again now.  (And I would see it all over again with Occupy Las Cruces.)   I wanted to offer some Buddhist teachings and technique about utilizing the energy behind anger, without being consumed by it.  I set up non-denominational meditation workshops, and incorporated meditation into some of our large rallies.  Someone from the Shambhala Center partnered with me to give meditation instruction to 900 people on Santa Monica Beach before an anti-war rally there.

It was not a message everyone welcomed.  A lot of people wanted to focus on changing the world outside of themselves, and felt that they and their anger and their opinions were just fine, thank you -- even when they got frustrated, began feuding with one another, and many gave up on activism altogether because of their own unexamined suffering.

Leading up to this rally on April 13, the coalition of anti-war groups was beginning to fray.  There was friction with A.N.S.W.E.R.'s leadership and other coalition members.  ICUJP's gentler, more contemplative message clashed with some of the more militant voices.  There was also a generational gap going on that left some of the older and more experienced organizers shaking their heads.  Let's just say the speakers at this rally were a very diverse group.

One of the few ICUJP leaders who really cared for me and my concern for the spiritual health of peace activists was George Regas of the All Saints Church in Pasadena.  He asked me to speak at this rally and from what I understand he negotiated with the organizers to give me a slot.

It is our practice in the Kwan Um School of Zen not to script dharma talks or do much preparation for them.  We like extemporaneous talks.  I treated this like a dharma talk and didn't prepare.  And then I was in front of several thousand people with no speech prepared.  For a moment, I felt like I was in really big trouble.  But I just did what you do for a dharma talk: take a breath, look at people's faces, and just tell the truth as best you can.

Over the next few minutes, I got everybody to put their signs down for a minute and join me in silent meditation, and then I talked about anger and rage, how frustrating our predicament was in the face of the Iraq war, and urged them to practice some silent deep breathing every day so they could keep going and never give up -- and let the process transform them.

Some people loved it.  Some people hated it.  George Regas, for his part, hugged me and said, "That IS the point!" It was a rare moment when zen practice and concern for politics and the affairs of the world came together in a clear and explicit way.  My zen friends, to this day, including some of my closest dharma siblings and teachers, feel I am lost in the worldly weeds, and making karma by concerning myself with political matters; and likewise many of my political friends feel that spiritual contemplation is at best a distraction, and at worst a co-optation of political struggle.

And hey, I got to respond to both those camps.  On national television, no less.

This emptiness is not inaction.  This emptiness is attention and love and compassion that lives inside each and every one of us...
Yeah, 30-year old self, that's not too bad.  I only regret two things as I watch this speech today.  One, I sound like Kermit the Frog.  Two, I forgot to attribute my quotation of Maha Ghosananda.  He's the one who said those words about a peaceful heart leading to a peaceful world.  Blathering on, I forgot to say his name.  Oh well.  Ten years too late.

Here is the speech, if you want to watch.  Click here

1 comment:

Nathan said...

"My zen friends, to this day, including some of my closest dharma siblings and teachers, feel I am lost in the worldly weeds, and making karma by concerning myself with political matters; and likewise many of my political friends feel that spiritual contemplation is at best a distraction, and at worst a co-optation of political struggle."

This is one of the koans for folks like us.

Way to go getting a little bit of Buddha on C-span!