This past week has been a celebration of the life of John Lewis, whose legacy as a stirrer of “good trouble” is an inspiration to all who feel powerless to end suffering in its many manifestations. So let’s honor him by exploring the nature of peaceful empowerment.
Historically, we can see a connection of the influence of Buddhism on all non-violent movements in the past two centuries. Henry David Thoreau studied Asian spiritual traditions and lived very much in the manner of a Theravada forest monk, noticing the patterns of his thoughts as he practiced living alone in nature in Concord, MA. His essay “Civil Disobedience” was a reaction to slavery and defined the proper role of any person of conscience regarding injustice. That essay influenced the abolitionist movement and the women’s suffrage movement. Later it inspired Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., who in turned inspired many other movements, including the United Farmworkers, whose 340-mile march from Delano to Sacramento, California in 1966 was a demonstration of the peaceful power of people strengthened by the shared belief that “sí se puede” — “yes, it can be done” or simply “yes we can.”
When people come together peacefully to end suffering, power shifts. We have been seeing that peaceful power in the Black Lives Matter marches. And we have seen how public opinion shifts by such actions, how hearts open and insight arises.
We have also seen how eruptions of violence knock public perception back into fear and negativity. Shutting down and turning away, people may not be able to discern between peaceful protest and the manipulations of propagators of fear wanting to stir up bad trouble.
While we were in class this week, we missed the funeral of John Lewis, but we celebrated him in our own way. And after class, I watched some of it, especially the moving speech by Obama. Here it is, if you missed it.
When Obama ran for office in 2008, his campaign slogan “Yes we can!” drew from that same lineage of collective empowerment through peaceful means. The same inspired energy that brought about the abolition of slavery, and attained voting rights, workers’ rights, civil rights, India’s independence, and much more, could indeed manage, against all odds, to peacefully elect a young Black president with the seemingly unsellable name of Barack Hussein Obama. Feel free to pause for a moment to enjoy the memory of that day if you did indeed enjoy it. Where were you? How did you feel?
I was at a watch party at the home of dear friends and the celebration was the most jubilant I had ever experienced. In the middle of it all, I got a phone call from one of my sons, a Black man who never thought he’d see the day. Such a joyful moment wanted sharing.
Now, take a moment to remember how after Obama was elected, that “Yes we can!” slogan disappeared as many supporters felt the objective had been reached and it was now up to the new president to get things done. Given all the challenges that met him as he took office, it’s amazing what Obama and his administration accomplished. But many of his supporters felt he’d caved on important issues and wasn’t doing enough. Instead of remembering the ‘we’ in “Yes we can!” they turned their backs, grumbling and disillusioned that yet another politician had failed them.
This is exactly where there is a disconnect in our democracy.
The “Yes we can!” falls away, and elected officials are expected to face the corrupt forces of greed, hatred, and delusion alone. Citizenship in a democracy, if it is to be a real democracy, is not a voting day job, it’s an EVERYday job. If we want our elected officials to use the power we gave them to keep their campaign promises, they need to hear from us! Otherwise, they are only hearing from the lobbyists constantly buzzing in their ears, promising to keep them in office if only… How difficult it must be to keep reminding themselves who they work for, and maybe why they agreed to run for office in the first place. Our job as citizens is to be sure they remember! Stay in touch! Remember the ‘we’ in “Yes we can!”
For those of us who are fortunate to feel well represented, we could send thank you notes. Remember how a few kind words about what a good job you are doing make you feel. I know I appreciate hearing from my students and readers! Our officials are human, too.
What does all this have to do with Buddhism?
First, had the Buddha lived in a democracy, he would no doubt have said that peaceful civic engagement is part of the Noble Eightfold Path as expressions of Wise Action and Wise Speech. He would remind us that we must walk the talk, and not just out on the streets but in the polling booth, making sure every citizen can do the same. Voting rights are being eroded in democracies all over the world, and definitely in the United States.
If you are a U.S. citizen, make sure you are registered to vote, and remind your friends and family to do so. It’s also an opportune time to request vote-by-mail status to assure safe voting during the pandemic. If you re-register, be sure to use the same name. And keep your signature consistent! Ballots are being tossed for such discrepancies.
Second, we can develop a sangha sensibility. In Buddhism the sangha is the community of fellow practitioners and enlightened teachers who support our practice and growth. Being mindful that this is a sacred word that we don’t want to homogenize or compromise, we could bring the wise intention and supportive sense of sangha into every communal relationship, recognizing our shared purpose with our neighbors, workmates, family, friends, schools, and government at all levels, and our community of all beings with whom we share this precious planet. The spirit of real democracy is assuring that all members of the community are seen and heard. For as long as our country has existed, whole swaths of our population have not been seen or heard by those in power and their fellow citizens.
Why? One reason is the addictive and destructive mental pattern of the glorifying a sense of separate self, losing any sense of interconnection. The US often presents itself as the poster child for “rugged individualism”.* So it may seem un-American to remind ourselves that there is no separate self, that we’re all in this together–all beings everywhere, that we either survive together or we all suffer the consequences. The rugged individualist is a myth fostered by those who feel disconnected and insecure, who are caught up in the tangle of greed, aversion and delusion. So painful! May they be well. May they be at ease. May they be peaceful. May they find the joy of being fully present and aware of their intrinsic interconnection. May they know the truth: When the going gets tough, the tough get together and figure out a solution. That’s always been the case, and we can see it in our country’s history. It is in community that we thrive.
Third, Gautama Buddha who lived around 500 BCE is not the only buddha. It is said that buddhas arise when needed. You might be feeling that given our worldwide crisis, we could use one about now. But here’s an interesting idea from Thich Nhat Hanh: “The next Buddha may take the form of a sangha, a community practicing understanding and lovingkindness.”
COVID-19 has made it clear that we are a deeply-interconnected world community. Those who feel separate even now might want to take a moment to consider what their patterns of thought and emotion are causing for themselves and all of us. And those who are looking for a savior of some sort to ride in and solve all our problems might want to consider that we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
Awakening is on the rise in the hearts and minds of people of goodwill. I don’t think it’s an accident that the term ‘woke’ is a part of the larger culture — whether it means exactly what traditional Buddhists mean by it. COVID has tossed all the sticks up in the air — all the non-functioning systems and erroneous assumptions — giving us a way to see everything anew from different angles, and for many of us a lot of time to look and ponder. With full attention and compassion, I believe in the distinct possibility that the greater community can awaken to our inseparable nature. We do this not just to make our individual lives more tolerable, though it does, but to co-create a world of compassionate joy for all beings.
*If you’re interested in how the myth of rugged individualism was enhanced in the social consciousness, read the biography Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser.