On the anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center, we bring the story of how one Buddhist chose to respond by challenging the consciences of those whose business is to promote the sale of weapons war.
9/11 changed everything. We all knew that — the only question was, how? The US government’s “war on terrorism” was swiftly launched and a deep conviction arose in me that this was not the way to go. In their fervor our leaders, especially America’s, seemed utterly oblivious of the simple truth that violence breeds violence. Their response seemed opportunistic and vindictive, Bush’s rhetoric duplicitous and deeply worrying, our leaders seemed uninterested in peacemaking. To me, and perhaps many others, the words of the poet Godfrey Rust rang true: “The moral high ground is just a pile of smoking rubble.”
Soon after that fateful day I left my office in Birmingham and embarked on an itinerant life, a wandering Buddhist teacher-organizer affiliated to Buddhafield, a collective that holds outdoor retreats and festivals under canvas in the West of England. I wanted to dedicate myself to exploring new approaches to practicing and spreading Dharma and — as the so-called “war on terror” broadened — to deepening my own involvement in social and political issues. This led me to i quest for “acts of power”: public actions demonstrating what I stood for which I could perform wholeheartedly as a Buddhist.
I’ve had many years of doing Buddhist “retreats” and I felt it was now time for some “advances”
It has become increasingly imperative for me to engage with the world as well as with my mind; to take direct action, while continuing to work on myself and being a good citizen in a general way. I’ve had many years of doing Buddhist “retreats” and I felt it was now time for some “advances.” But alongside this came unease about aligning myself with many conventional forms of protest — the noise and negativity of angry demonstrations, the violence implicit in sabotage and occupation, the wildly different agendas of other activists.
How to act directly, as a Buddhist, without compromise, without compromise, without undermining the positive in society? I knew well that greed, hatred and ignorance were rampant in the world — I also knew they were flourishing in my own mind, and I had to change that just is much as anyone else’s. I knew that polarization and demonization helped no one and never led to constructive communication, however satisfying it might feel in the moment. I also realized the issues were complex, that I was relatively ignorant and in no position to state categorically what was right. I only knew that the “war on terror” was not it.
Out of all this, and out of a series of events over a remarkable summer, came the beginnings of a way forward. This way promised to be a new and powerful approach to practice and protest, marrying inner and outer, demonstrating alternatives with minimum polarization, speaking directly to our innermost conscience, cutting through the endless arguments — a way forward that nonetheless takes courage and determination.
We call it “Meditate to Liberate.” It is the brainchild of John Curtin, a veteran animal-rights campaigner who has seen protestors at their most violent, and who has been drawn increasingly to Buddhism, despite his criticisms of many Buddhists for their passivity in the social sphere. 0n the second anniversary of 9/11 there was a large arms fair in London’s Docklands — 15,000 delegates gathering to trade weapons, including cluster bombs and torture equipment. It was time to act.
We boarded the train and swiftly seated ourselves in silent meditation in front of each doorway up and down the carriage
Attending a protesters’ briefing, we learned that many delegates would arrive by local train and that this was the best way to get close to them. We immediately knew what to do. On the day, after some nerve-wracking training in arrest procedures, we dressed in our blue meditation shirts or robes, bought all-day travel passes, boarded the train and, as it pulled out, swiftly seated ourselves in silent meditation in front of each doorway up and down the carriage. The exit was not blocked but anyone leaving had to brush past our silent forms. Pinned to Our chests were large badges reading: I AM A BUDDHIST AND I AM OPPOSED TO THE ARMS TRADE. Others in our group had leaflets to hand to interested passengers, and another, in a loud voice, invited all present to reflect oil the death and suffering that would result from the fair.
As we sat there, hearts pounding, we found our meditations clear and strong, much habitual discursiveness stripped away by the raw immediacy of the situation. Strong feelings arose: fear, anger, elation sadness, all to be calmly, mindfully witnessed and absorbed. Around us we felt people come and go, overheard the occasional comments and, as we stopped at Custom House, venue of the “arms fair,” felt a great swish past us as most passengers alighted to do their deals. We sat on for one more station, arose a little stiffly, and caught the next train back.
We did this again and again throughout the day. in the streets around we could hear crowds of demonstrators held back by lines of police. We broke for lunch and overlapped with many of them in a local Christian café. The arms fair continued — none of us could stop it. But, by the time we went home, we’d had an intense day of meditation practice, and done our level best to prick the delegates’ consciences. I am confident this type of action is both powerful and in harmony with the spirit of Buddhism. And it may just contribute to ending the “war on terror.”