When I search for an image to describe the core of my spiritual practice, the one that presses up through the other narratives of my life is this one: June 26, 2010, carrying my six year old son away from a burning police car in front of a bank tower on Bay Street in downtown Toronto. Three young protesters using “black block tactics” jumped on the roof of the car as my son and I turned away and walked towards the empty street behind us to make our way home.
I lead Centre of Gravity Sangha, a thriving community of Yoga and Buddhist practitioners in Toronto. Our community formed five years ago with the intention of integrating Yoga and Buddhist practice, everyday urban life and social action. When I first read the teachings of the Buddha, I connected with his full engagement in life – not just with internal states of mind, but how he taught that our actions sculpt who we are. Karma is not something that happens to you, it’s the ongoing choices and effects that determine who and what we actually are. We must cultivate an awareness of and responsibility for our actions and their consequences. This is the lived experience of karma. I see both the Buddha and Patanjali (the seminal author of the Yoga-Sutra) as enlightened beings committed to a life of social and political engagement.
If learning to work with anger and greed can teach us how to respond creatively to our inner struggles, can this same skillfulness help us interact with institutional greed and imbalance and global forms of suffering?
All week leading up to the G8 and G20 summits in downtown Toronto, where the leaders of the world’s largest economies would meet to chart the course of global economic development, security forces were fortifying the urban core: two enormous fences were built around the meeting areas, trees were uprooted (the city claimed they could be used as weapons), garbage cans and bus shelters were removed, and military boats cruised the Toronto harbor. Every morning members of our sangha gathered at the fence, surrounded by police, and sat in meditation, following the breath and bearing witness to the vast range of feelings and observations that arose in the face of police presence and military build-up. Early in the week, it was easy to feel fear or anger soften to compassion when policemen would come and ask if we could teach them some meditation because, as one officer from Huntsville said, “these are long days on my feet away from family, eating garbage food.” As the weekend approached and 10,000 police filled the downtown core, sitting meditation became unsafe. Though I wanted to sit with others I decided to spend time researching the issues and biking the city bearing witness.
Although my background is in psychology (I am a psychotherapist in private practice), I always thought of non-violence as a way of using meditation and bodily awareness to stay disciplined during times of turbulence. In my life as a father in the relatively peaceful city of Toronto, most of the violence I have encountered is in my own heart and mind: a temper, old emotions rooted in my childhood, and irritation when my son takes an hour to put on his snowpants. I’ve never had to respond to a group of young people burning a police car in front of a bank, with military helicopters circling overhead, and a son in my arms asking for an explanation.
When the young group of activists broke away from the enormous gathering of peaceful protesters and broke through small gaps in police lines, my first feeling was fear that they would get hurt. Within minutes I saw several of them struck with batons, one of whom lost consciousness and was taken to an alley by some of the practitioners in our community, who administered help. The streets looked like a war zone and I realized it was time for my son and I to leave, even though I was also appalled by the countless instances of police aggression against protesters and wanted to somehow reach the police and the protesters alike and ask everyone to stop. It was too late. And with all my Buddhist training and years of psychological practice, I recognize that some other voice inside me wanted to see the protesters tear the fence down and disrupt the closed-door meetings that $1.2 billion had been spent to “secure.”
Watching the young protesters split from the peaceful march of 20,000 concerned citizens, I couldn’t tell where my allegiances lay. Such a massive gathering of citizens in the face of widespread police repression and hysteria was in itself a victory. But when the peaceful protesters were pushed far away from the fenced-in meetings, it was also clear that there could be no relationship or communication with those inside the meeting, who collectively held the fate of millions in their hands. There was no place for voices calling for justice. We were barred from expressing discontent. Or, as my son asked, “how can you protest a meeting when you aren’t allowed to know what they are meeting about?”
If my commitment to the dharma demands that I place non-harm in body, speech and mind at the core of my actions, then what is my stance on protesters venting their anger at shop windows and police vehicles? When the media jumped on the images of burning police cars, our collective attention was, once again, drawn away from political, social and ecological issues and into the fetishization of violence. But where is the real violence? Do Buddhists turn away from the issues at stake when the G8 and G20 meet, or do we embrace those issues and stand up for what we believe in? There is no overall Buddhist social theory. We can gather that a Buddhist vision of is not about Left or Right but about waking up to all forms of suffering and the interdependence of all things. If we value interdependence, then what is the appropriate response when uranium is mined from native land and sold to India to run Canadian-built nuclear reactors, or depleted uranium from spent fuel rods being turned into weapons and dropped on the people of Iraq and Kosovo, with disastrous long-term health consequences.
Thich Nhat Hanh, one of the most peaceful and engaged Buddhist teachers I know, writes:
“If nonviolence is a stand, then it would be an attack on violence. But the most visible form of violence is revolutionary and liberational violence. So if you stand for nonviolence, you automatically stand against actual revolution and liberation. Quite distressing! ‘No! We are not against revolution or liberation. We are against the other side, the side of the institutions, the side of the oppressors. The violence of the system is much more destructive, much more harmful, although it is well hidden. We call it institutional violence. By calling ourselves nonviolent we are against all violence, but we are first against institutional violence.’”
Both Patanjali and the Buddha taught a path of compassionate action rooted in interdependence and respect for all creatures. Though a commitment to non-violence has helped me find resilience, generosity and equanimity in my inner life, the protests in Toronto challenge my definitions of non-harm in a profound way because if people simply marched in the way they were told, we’d be guilty of indifference or even complicity in deep and widespread institutional violence. With media attention focused overwhelmingly on the violence of the protesters and the police, it become more and more difficult to have meaningful conversations about the politics of the G8 and G20 and the deals being signed behind closed doors. Today when I ask my well informed friends about those meetings, very few can name the agenda or the outcome of those G20 meetings.
Outside of Dharmasala, India, the home of H.H. the Dalai Lama, Toronto is the largest community of exiled Tibetans. When you ask young Tibetans what they think of H.H. the Dalai Lama they will speak with great reverence, and most of the store windows in the west end of the city have photos of His Holiness smiling. But off the record, many of the young people questions whether strict non-violence can really bring about change in Tibet. A culture is slowly being extinguished, and while it’s true that hatred is not settled with hatred, we are justified in asking, as one Tibetan asked me rhetorically, “when is it time to take a stand and make sure nobody takes away your home or ruins your land?”
Throughout history, when people are silenced or denied the means of genuine dialogue or participation, anger arises. If we can understand anger as a natural response to imbalance and oppression, we can see how anger is healthy. It is only when actions taken out of anger have the intention to cause harm that anger becomes unhealthy. If a marginalized group uses violence to bring attention to a cause, and if that cause confronts institutional violence, then what? As the rain clouds grew heavy over the clashes that June afternoon, and as over 1,000 protesters were arbitrarily rounded up and arrested as my son and I made our way home, I wondered what I could do and where I stood. My son wanted to dress up as a fish.
My son wanted to come to the protests because he heard that water privatization was on the table and he wanted to do what he could to learn about the issue and speak up for the fish. He loves fish. When he saw rows upon rows of police and hovering military helicopters he realized that there was no way of protesting or even learning about issues. (He did think the helicopters were really cool, especially Obama’s green chopper, which landed in a tight corridor between two tall buildings.) When our friend, journalist Naomi Klein, brought him out to a talk on G20 issues on the first day of the summit, he took it as a chance to tell people that water and fish need help.
What action was skillful that day? Writer Pasha Malla speaks about the sheer number of people who protested that day: “Simply to isolate and punish the violence of G20 protests in this way is to deny the unpunished violence done in our name to the natural environment, to the poor, to people affected by our military and corporate excursions all over the world.”
If we value the interdependence of all life, and if we see that our body is dependent on the health of our rivers and ecosystems, then we must recognize that to be silent and indifferent is to be complicit with corporate violence. Even if corporations or countries have laudable ideals, often their accountability to ecological well-being does not come into play. There is no ledger sheet for ecological debt in our economic calculations.
After the protests I went to see Buddhist teacher and philosopher David Loy to talk about what happened. He reminded me that it’s not enough to focus on our inner greed, anger and ill-will; we also need to uproot the institutionalized forms of the three poisons. Meditation, he said, helps take care of the inner anger and hatred. But then what? We need to take action when we see that values ingrained in our institutions give rise to greed and delusion as well. Days later, at the first annual symposium for socially engaged Buddhism, held in Montague, Mass., Zen practitioner Bernie Glassman described the whole universe as one body where if the left hand gets cut, the right hand comes in to serve. We all have a natural inclination to take action. If non-attachment boils down to not clinging to self-centered views, and if this applies equally to individuals and nations, we can see how serving others becomes the primary intent of spiritual practice.
If we are all interdependent (Thich Nhat Hanh calls this “interbeing”), then what we think, say and do has an effect in every sphere. Interdependence is thick. Our actions matter. If we vow to serve all creatures, then we also vow to take an active stance in the face of injustice and exploitation.
No stance is perfect. With every step of that afternoon G20 March, my viewpoint changed. Bearing witness to the invisible effects of industry and inequality is painful and sometimes overwhelming. When my son learns about polluted rivers, he wants to do something. Doing something was a core value of the Buddha, who continually crisscrossed India, teaching in every emerging city in the Indo-Gangetic plain. What did he teach about politics? In his sermon called “The City,” he taught that every action has an effect and that each moment we engage the body, mind and heart in an effort to serve, we cultivate a flourishing city. Craving and self-centeredness obstruct the Buddhist path of service and engagement.
When tens of thousands of people march in the streets and create a wave of media attention, it’s not the event on that specific day that makes a difference. No one unique event makes a difference. It’s the organizing, the discussions, the education, and the unrehearsed ripples of that event that begin creating change. When the Buddha created a politically involved community he did so by turning his politic inwardly. It’s not that there is suffering “out there,” he taught, but “I am suffering.” When I begin taking care of how I suffer – how I too am greedy and angry – then I begin to understand same energies in others, even those patterns in institutions. When I marched on the streets of Toronto, I didn’t think I was making a difference but rather that I was actively participating in one part of a much larger movement that was waking up our society and also helping me realize where my values lie. I need the reminder.
The yoga practices of waking up the intelligence and sensitivity of the body and breath are, Patanjali suggests in his Yoga-Sutra, designed “to allow one to see that the body and the universe are indivisible.” If I vow to serve every corner of life, I begin to see that service begins in this body and spreads out from my kidneys to my family, neighborhood and the earth at large. Yoga is about waking up not just the body, but the body politic as well.
Though my primary responsibility as a father that day was to support and foster my son’s curiosity, I also had to step in when things got dangerous, and take him away from the burning police car, the tear gas, and the broken glass. The car-burners are expressing their passion — and how do I do the same, where are my boundaries, how aggressively will I sacrifice peace for spectacle and resist aggression given my training and disposition?
I have been shaken to the core by the images of rows and rows of aggressive police and silenced protesters staring one another down. And behind those police, the tall banking towers and behind those towers the gleaming Lake Ontario, where my son and I would swim at the end of the day, thinking of the fish that called it home.