Why practice means protest: a personal refection by Yogaratna
Wellcome Collection: Tibet’s Secret Temple exhibition: 28 February
Buddhist activism is a strange thing. We walked slowly through the dimly-lit collection of esoteric Tibetan Buddhist artefacts, in single file, chanting om mani padme hum. Our strange behaviour attracted a lot of attention, and we handed out many leaflets as we went along. We reached the Wellcome Collection foyer outside, stood in a line, unfurled a banner, and stood in silence. Then we chanted a text – rejoicing in the excellent work the Wellcome Trust does, but pointing out that extracting fossil fuels is exacerbating climate change, and calling on the Trust to end its investments in fossil fuel corporations. We stood in silence for a while, repeated the chant, stood in silence, and bowed to signify the end of the action. Then we talked with anyone wanting to talk.
This all felt a little surreal, even absurd – partly because we were chanting the text in a sort of Christian-sounding plainsong – I doubt if there’s a traditional Buddhist form for such a situation! Also because to me it really did feel like a Buddhist devotional ritual, focusing on the ideal of compassion for suffering, but theatrical too – we were tacitly inviting people to look at us, and many even clapped when we finished.
Why bother? What has climate change activism to do with the Dharma? Well, I do believe that traditional forms of Dharma practice are excellent responses to climate change – because surely many of humanity’s negative impacts on the Earth ultimately derive from greed, hatred and delusion. For example, I see it as very much part of my personal ethical practice to take my needs into account, trying to live simply, and seeking to reduce my carbon footprint. The Dharma encourages us to take responsibility for our mental states and actions, to be ethical and kindly to all beings – and these qualities are crucial in responding to climate change, and the suffering it is already causing. Buddhists can practise this through all sorts of choices at personal and institutional levels. Building spiritual community, trying to practise and maybe teach the Dharma, are radical and powerful responses to the world’s problems.
But Buddhists are also citizens. Meaning simply that we are intimately connected to all human beings through economic and political realities, right down to the air we breathe, the water we drink, the resources we use. Personally, I think the global political situation is very serious – a sort of greedy market fundamentalism has come to be so dominant in the world that it is being presented as if it’s some kind of inevitable law of nature. But it’s not! It’s just one of very many forms of social organisation that the human species has come up with. But it works very much to accelerate climate change, against the wellbeing of the natural world we depend upon, and against compassionate human relating.
So what’s the point of holding up a banner, saying things, and handing out leaflets? Isn’t it hopeless? Aren’t we doomed? Well, I suppose a tough kind of answer might be that Buddhist ethics isn’t about practising only if the best outcome is guaranteed. But personally, I find it’s good to not think about the future too much, to be as fearless as I can; and anyway, the future is always different from what I thought it was going to be – often very different.
History shows many examples of what had seemed an impossible utopian dream becoming reality; such as votes for women. Things are changing. Many ordinary people are thinking that the situation is serious, and that there’s a need for a lot of us to get involved in some form of activism. So I think part of the effect of a simple action like ours at the Wellcome Collection is that it inspires ourselves, and maybe others, to speak out more. Dissent breaks the silence, the unspoken and seemingly-monolithic agreement that things can only be this way – and that is a powerful thing. Corporations fear it, which is why they dominate the mainstream media, in the UK at least.
I know that things are very complex. Corporations aren’t wholly bad, nor are people. It seems to me impossible to favour anything, to say anything, without simplifying and to that extent falsifying. But to not take a line on some things sometimes, means everything is allowed, nothing can be opposed. And if one does take a position on something, there is the danger of people disagreeing with you, getting angry with you – there’s even the possibility of being mistaken! But a tendency I see in myself, and I think in many Buddhists I know, is to see the complexity, to endlessly see the other side’s point of view – and to accept too much without challenging.
In the end, for me, activism is about authenticity and happiness. As a Buddhist, I’d feel very uncomfortable if I was in a situation where something I regarded as dodgy was going on, but I didn’t try to engage with it. Speaking out nowadays, when the political-corporate establishment wants ethics to be an optional private pastime for consumers, feels like a very Buddhist thing to do. To me it feels very natural to be concerned about politics, economics, racial injustice and climate change – because they involve so much suffering. To fuse Buddhist practice with activism and peaceful protest makes me feel more alive, authentic, and happy.