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Nonviolence and engaged living
When I search for an image to describe the core of my spiritual practice, the one that presses up through the others is a memory of the G-20 summit in June 2010. I’m 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 dressed in black jumped on the roof of the car as my son and I turned away and began making our way home.
I lead Centre of Gravity Sangha, a thriving community of yoga and Buddhist practitioners in Toronto formed five years ago with the intention of integrating yoga and Buddhist practice with everyday urban life and social action. The Buddha taught that our actions in the world are an expression of who we are. Karma is not just something that happens to us; it’s the outcome of our choices and their consequences. We must cultivate responsibility for our actions and their consequences—not just at an individual level but also at a social, political, economic, and ecological level. This is the lived experience of karma. The world is so thickly woven that every sphere—social, economic, ecological, psychological—touches every other sphere. When I begin taking care of how I suffer—how I too am greedy, angry, or confused—then I develop my capacity to respond to those same energies in individuals and institutions alike.
Similarly, the yoga practices of waking up the intelligence and sensitivity of the body and breath are designed, as Patanjali suggests in his seminal text, the Yoga Sutras, “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 limbs to my family, my neighborhood, and the earth at large. Yoga is about waking up not just the body but the body politic as well. I see both the Buddha and Patanjali as enlightened beings committed to a life of social and political engagement.
All week leading up to the G-20 summit, where the leaders of the world’s largest economies would meet to discuss the public austerity measures that would follow the private bailout, 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 the police presence and military buildup.
A group of young activists emerged from the enormous gathering of peaceful protesters and broke through small gaps in police lines. Within minutes I saw several of them struck with batons; one lost consciousness and was taken to an alley by some of the practitioners in our community, who administered help. With the streets beginning to resemble a war zone, I realized it was time for my son and me to leave. I was appalled by the seemingly endless instances of police aggression I witnessed against protesters. I also 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.” They were determined to make their voices heard, and the massive state apparatus deployed to silence them only fueled their frustration.
I had always thought of nonviolence as a way of using meditation and bodily awareness to stay disciplined during times of turbulence. Watching the young protesters split from the peaceful march of 20,000 concerned citizens, I couldn’t tell where my allegiance lay. If my commitment to the dharma demands that I place nonharm 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? As Buddhists, do we turn away from the issues at stake when the G-20 meet, or do we embrace those issues and act accordingly? What does it mean to live a nonviolent life today, when business-as-usual entails growing global inequality and accelerating destruction of the natural world? Human bodies are so fragile in the face of tanks, guns, and the momentum of corporate capital. Nonviolence is not an ideological position; it’s got to be a unique response to a specific situation.
Though a commitment to nonviolence has helped me find resilience, generosity, and equanimity in my inner life, the protests in Toronto profoundly challenged my definitions of nonharm. Whenever 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 injustice, 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 while my son and I made our way home, I wondered what I could do and where I stood.
My son, meanwhile, wanted to dress up as a fish. He had wanted to come to the protests because he had heard that water privatization was on the agenda, and he wanted to learn what he could about the issue and speak up for the fish. He loves fish. When a friend, the journalist Naomi Klein, brought him out to a talk on G-20 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 in downtown Toronto? No stance is perfect. If we value the interdependence of all life, and if we see that our bodies are dependent on the health of our rivers and ecosystems, then we must recognize that inaction is not an option, that to be indifferent toward the destruction of the natural world is to be complicit in the violence that makes that destruction possible. A Buddhist commitment to interdependence and ethical living is a call to turn toward the suffering of all sentient life and take action.
After the protests, I went to see the Buddhist teacher and philosopher David Loy. 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 these three poisons. Meditation, he said, helps us attend to our inner anger and hatred. But then we need to act externally when we see that values ingrained in our institutions also give rise to greed, hatred, and delusion. We all have a natural inclination to take action. If nonattachment 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 outcome of spiritual practice.
Interdependence is thick. Our actions matter. If we are all interdependent, then what we think, say, and do ripples out into every sphere. If we vow to serve all creatures, then we also vow to take an active stance in the face of injustice and exploitation.
When my son learns about polluted rivers, he wants to do something. Doing something surely describes the life 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 known as “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 selfcenteredness obstruct the path of service and engagement.
I was shaken to the core by the rows and rows of aggressive police and silenced protesters staring one another down. And behind those police, the tall banking towers of downtown Toronto, 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 call it home.
Michael Stone is the director of Centre of Gravity Sangha in Toronto (centreofgravity.org) and the author of many books, most recently Awake in the World: Teachings from Yoga and Buddhism for Living an Engaged Life.
Image:A G-20 protester in Toronto, Ontario, June 26, 2010, © National Post/Tyler Anderson