April 09, 2012

Occupy Sravasti

How Buddhism Inspires Me to Occupy

This guest blog post comes our way from Joshua Eaton, an editor, writer and translator. Eaton holds an M Div in Buddhist Studies from Harvard University. His most recent piece for tricycle.com is "Making Buddhism accessible to working-class people."

Occupy Sravasti: How Buddhism Inspires Me to Occupy

By Joshua Eaton

Such a senseless manifestation
Who is monstrously greedy
And amasses riches insatiably
Is called the poorest of all.

Your Majesty, you levy harsh taxes
And punish the innocent for no reason.
Infatuated with your sovereignty,
You never heed
The future effects of your actions.

While you enjoy power in this world,
You do not protect your subjects,
And have no pity
For the poor and suffering.

When I first read these words I was blown away. It was the fall of 2009 and I was in the middle of  researching my master's thesis on Buddhism and social justice. I found them in a little-known text called the Scripture Requested by Surata, where they form part of a long address by the saint Surata to the unjust and greedy king of Sravasti. They spoke to my deep desire for a stridently engaged Buddhism in a way nothing had ever done before. Surata was my new patron saint.

His story begins one morning when he stumbles on the most unlikely of objects: a golden bell made at the beginning of the eon, a bell worth more than all the world. A crowd gathers quickly. Being a saint, Surata declares that he will give his bell to the poorest person in Sravasti. The oldest man in the city—who is also its poorest citizen, as is often the case today—steps forward to claim his prize. However, Surata turns the man away. Surata proceeds to barge straight into the royal treasury—crowd in tow—and offer the bell to the fabulously wealthy King Prasenajit instead. Everyone is, of course, baffled. Surata explains his bizarre behavior by issuing the scathing indictment of royal greed and corruption that so inspired me when I first read it in 2009.

What I couldn't have known then is how timely Surata would become. On 17 September 2011, Occupy Wall Street set up a permanent encampment in Zuccotti Park (aka, Liberty Plaza), right next to Wall Street. This singular act set off a movement that spread like wildfire across financial districts from Oakland to Oslo. Now, after a brutal nationwide crackdown that erased most of the encampments and a long winter lull, the Occupy movement is starting to show green shoots. We recently saw scores of protesters arrested as they attempted to re-occupy Zuccotti Park, which made the front page of the New York Times’ online version. Meanwhile other occupations across the country are laying plans for new encampments, Occupy Boston is leading the charge for a nationwide day of action against public transit cuts on April 4, and everyone is gearing up for International Workers’ Day on May 1. The time is ripe for an American Spring.

Occupy's initial, meteoric rise came with a flurry of criticism from all quarters. Some of this criticism—over its lack of organization, its break with established community organizations, its demographic makeup, its lack of clearly defined goals—is healthy and constructive. However, much of the criticism has focused on Occupy's tone and tactics rather than on these more substantive issues. This is understandable to a certain extent. After all, Occupy has taken over public parks where people ordinarily go for lunch or take their children on the weekends. It has gnarled traffic by taking over bridges and marching in the streets during rush hour. It has brought out legions of young protesters in Guy Fawkes masks to chant "We are the 99%," refusing to give in to those who call this slogan divisive. Despite its remarkable nonviolence, the movement is uncompromising, audacious, and often downright rude. 

If I'm honest, I'll admit there are times when I'm put off by all this. It goes against my working-class southern upbringing, which taught me to be scrupulously polite and to keep my head down. Sometimes I worry that it also goes against something much more precious. Buddhism values calmness, non-attachment, and compassion. This is a far cry from "We are the 99%" or "Banks got bailed out; we got sold out." There is always a nagging fear in the back of my mind that aggressively confronting greedy corporations, corrupt governments, and repressive security agencies might keep me from cultivating love, kindness, and compassion for the flesh-and-blood people who staff these systems of violence. I worry that in fighting a dragon I may become one. I worry that I cannot be a good occupier while also being a good Buddhist.

But what then of Surata? After all, a treasury is more than just a warehouse for gold; it's also a center of political and economic power. The greedy king would have felt secure there—surrounded by his wealth, fawned over by his advisers, hidden by thick walls, guarded by men with weapons and the constant threat of lethal force. Those following Surata would have been precisely the kinds of people the king wanted to avoid (and precisely the kinds of people our own society either warehouses or ignores): destitute, foul, emaciated, diseased, schizophrenic, elderly. By entering the treasury Surata violated the king's physical and emotional security. Not only that, but Surata also violated the authority and integrity of the State. It wasn’t just a threat to the king’s person, but to the very institutions of society, to law and order and national security. When Surata barged into the treasury it was unbelievably kind, but there was hardly anything polite about it.

Neither were many of the social movements I idolize nearly as genteel as I’d like to imagine. The marches, boycotts, and sit-ins that marked the Civil Rights Movement may have been nonviolent, but they were also meant to disrupt the ordinary patterns of day-to-day life. People couldn’t go out to lunch with friends because the lunch counter was blocked by a sit-in; or their hours were cut because none of the black people in town were riding the bus they drove for a living; or they were inconvenienced in a thousand other ways big and small. In fact, Martin Luther King Jr. often referred to nonviolence as “creative maladjustment,” with the idea that those who practiced it must be maladjusted to society’s injustices. And we know that maladjustment always creates friction.

Just as King shows me that nonviolence can still be razor-sharp, Surata shows me that Buddhism can be precious without being precious. This doesn’t mean that I’ve abandoned my ideals of love and compassion, or that I don’t ever question my actions to make sure they remain nonviolent. But King and Surata reassure me whenever I’m tempted to abandon forceful action altogether for an approach with more sweetness and light. They show me how being kind and being polite are different, and often opposite. It’s a lesson I’ll need to carry with me as the Occupy movement reemerges for the spring; we have appointments to keep at more than one treasury.

Image: from the Flickr photostream of albill

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justinstoned's picture

Thanks for the great post comrade.

alang7mc's picture

Please see http://the99spring.com/ for on-line and in-person training in "how to Occupy".

gribneal's picture

I have much admiration for Joshua Eaton and those mostly young people who are involved in the Occupy movement. Joshua has written an elegant and dignified blog. Wall Street and Washington are synonymous; protest one and you protest all.

sallyotter's picture

The role of government in the US is as an advocate for the people, not for business. History leading up to the Great Depression shows the need for government regulation of business. Business's obligation to stockholders is to make money for them. There has to be some outside restraint. Regulations were put into place by the Roosevelt administration only to be eroded over time with the results of the "bubbles" that occurred.

I see none of Buddhism's philosophy in Wall Street; I see Greed, Pride, Arrogance. Loving Kindness, Compassion? Not so much. Where's the Middle Road?

As a practicing Buddhist, I believe that It's my obligation to "speak the truth to power". My challenge has been to do this without anger, with compassion. I'm learning.

Dominic Gomez's picture

One can't blame just Wall St. for our country's woes. It's our karma as a nation. That's what needs to change. When people are victims of their lower life conditions (hell, hunger, animality) they cannot but behave in ways harmful to themselves and others. It arises from ignorance of their and others buddha nature. The solution is to fulfill our roles as bodhisattvas and teach our fellow Americans the Law (Dharma).

Will.Rowe's picture

You are correct: I fear for this country. For myself I do not fear. I know of the harm done by totalitarianism/socialism, and do not desire for our citizens to be harmed by it. I accept that conflict will be inevitable between those who want government imposing its will over us and those who desire freedom. This is a political stance. To submit to Tyranny is to perpetuate it and to condemn future generations to it.
Personally, I try and treat each person, regardless of their beliefs, with respect and compassion. Often I may fail, being human. I agree being guided by wisdom and compassion is most especially the correct path. Peace to you.

Will.Rowe's picture

George Washington said it nicely: "Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master". I think pretending otherwise is delusional. It would be asking us to forget history. Remember the totalitarian USSR, Communist China, NAZI Germany, etc. While government has a role in defense and governing, we must not relinquish our rights, whether through government taking over our healthcare or putting us under constant surveillance, as with Britain.

Governments rarely return our rights except through revolution. Remember too that the government always has more power than business since they can regulate, pass laws, impose fines, and even imprison improper conduct by businessmen. No cooperation has such power.

As for corporations, many if not most most Americans are stockholders. It is what has aided in the US becoming a great nation. Is there greed involved? Sometimes there is since the human element is always present. But there is also much good done by helping to raise the standard of living for so many middle class Americans. Also big businesses give much money toward charities.

So for all of the anti-capitalists railing against our way of life, I must ask you what form of government exactly do you desire? Communism killed 100 million and enslaved and tortured as many, more than both world wars. European socialism ignores our basic Bill of Rights as its government looks more and more like 1984. To dream is fine, but one must awaken and see life as it is, imperfect as it may be.

Tharpa Pema's picture

I think you are afraid, Will Rowe--as I am. Will we use our fear to help or to harm ourselves and each other? Each of us must decide for ourselves, moment-by-moment. If we are fortunate, we may sometimes be guided by wisdom and inclusive compassion rather than fear.

Will.Rowe's picture

Every time I see these occupiers, I cannot help but wonder why are they not protesting at the source of the bailout—the government? Do they really not know that it was Congress and President Obama, and to some extent his processor President Bush, who bailed out big business? To add insult to injury, then President Obama tried to get the tax payers to pay for this bailout by raising our taxes through the elimination of our tax breaks under President Bush.
So why are the occupiers protesting at businesses? Many, like me, suspect that they are simply anti- capitalists, or Marxists. Or perhaps some are helping divert attention away from the real culprit—the president, especially in an election year. Whether ignorance, anti-capitalism, or partisan politics, none of these agendas have inspired anything but revulsion, pity, or humor toward this movement. As for the people in this quixotic venture, we love you and hope you find your way.

n.cuccia's picture

Your lack of understanding reveals, like many unsatisfied pursuers of money (remember your Economics promises you that you will never be happy.. your satisfaction point cannot be met) the sense of greed that pervades the 1%that promotes as moral. You be the judge, live with your choice but don't kid yourself by your apparent misjudgement displayed in your last sentence. Be courageous, live with your craving for money, more, more, more...Please remember , you are not entitled, different, morally superior, the chosen but "we love (you) and hope you find (or possible can buy) your way."

Dominic Gomez's picture

That a "satisfaction point cannot be met" is precisely the second noble truth. Buddhism posits a middle way wherein the 99% and the 1% can co-exist.

Tharpa Pema's picture

Wall Street has become a symbol of greed; the U.S. government has become a symbol of bureaucratic incompetence. Incompetent governments supposedly still care about the general public, whereas the greedy supposedly do not.

Many people who are more concerned about helping the needy than fattening the rich think that one function of government is to protect the poor from the depredations of the greedy.

I think these are grossly oversimplified stereotypes.

The government sometimes acts as a counterweight to big money, but just as often caters to the racketeers of wealth.

Sometimes big-money people genuinely care about "the people" but believe that "the people" are more effectively served through private business efforts.

Also, some people worry that if the government becomes too powerful relative to other centers of power in our country, it will result in a totalitarian state.

I see kernels of truth in all these views. I fantasize a lot about living in a society where a critical mass of people care enough about all our citizens that we are able to set aside such false polarities between parties and views. I'd like to see us let go our death grip on concepts and ideologies, and focus more on actively understanding and helping one another.

What a dreamer!