Monday, November 8, 2010

Oakland Protests, the Paramis, and Creative Practice

The post I offered earlier today was fairly cranky, and the sound byte format probably irritated a few people. That's fine. I think it's interesting to notice how you react to critical statements made about a group or groups you consider yourself a member of. Along these lines, the New York Times reported that protests in Oakland turned violent following the sentencing of a white officer for the killing of an unarmed young black man. Contrast this to the following post, made by Katie Loncke, a member of the Buddhoblogosphere, and who was amongst the arrested during the same protests. Katie took the opportunity to consider the Buddhist paramis, and how they might be applied to a situation as tense and uncertain as a protest about police brutality being broken up by police.

She writes:

I found myself thinking about the Paramis throughout a long Friday night and Saturday, when I was arrested, along with 152 others, for “unlawful assembly”: marching in the streets of Oakland to protest police violence and impunity. I was held in custody for about 20 hours; some people still haven’t been released. (Please consider donating to legal aid for protester defense.)

A concrete detention cell might seem like a strange setting for reflecting on the attributes leading to Buddhahood. A far cry from the bucolic campuses of well-funded meditation centers. On the other hand, many people have famously developed their spiritual practice while incarcerated, or even while being tortured. I’m not saying that every setting is equally optimal for developing every part of dhammic practice. But once you’ve learned some of the basics in a more controlled, safe environment, it’s interesting to see how they can manifest in non-stereotypical situations.

Katie has multiple posts about what happened, as well as a vision she and others out in Oakland have for a radically different way of being together as communities. Even if you don't agree with everything she offers, please go over and take a look at her blog posts. I find both her willingness to be on the front lines, and the dedication to grounding her actions in Buddhist teachings, inspiring.

Some of you might dismiss what Katie is doing as some "activist" appropriation. To which I'd offer the Sutra on The Lion's Roar of Queen Srimala, which is one of the sutras that points to Buddha's social teachings. There's also the Sikkha Sutta, pointing to four different kinds of practitioners in the world. And then there's the Mahanama Sutta, on being a lay practitioner. All of these sutras seem to suggest that involvement in social affairs is compatible with Buddhist practice.

Beyond the social action question, though, is simply the matter of diversity of practice. Once you stick your head under the canopy, it's pretty clear that what Buddha taught 2600 years ago has been taken in many, many directions, and will be taken in many more in the future. I don't consider this a bad thing. It's actually pretty cool. Creativity is, in my view, a hallmark of finding one's way to the heart of the great matter.


Algernon said...

My school leans a bit conservative on social action and creative use of practice forms. Seung Sahn himself seemed a little bit more open minded about it, with two cautions. One was about attaching to a point of view and identifying with an opinion. The other was to be 100% clear, and mercilessly honest, about why one makes the choices they are making. For whom?

Taking that teaching to heart, attending a protest can either be a diversion from practice, or an authentic activity emerging from samadhi.

There are dharma brothers -- including some people close to me in my own school -- who think less of me as a Buddhist over some of my writing and activity. It has been tempting for me to react to this by dismissing them as head-in-the-sand navel gazers. Neither of these conclusions are the truth. Right view is to keep looking.

Petteri Sulonen said...

"Right view is to keep looking."

I think you may have stated something very profound here, Algernon. That's something I could try to live by.

Nathan said...

"It has been tempting for me to react to this by dismissing them as head-in-the-sand navel gazers. Neither of these conclusions are the truth. Right view is to keep looking."

This is a tough one for me. Because what I do see sometimes is people with great privilege saying things like "social action" has no place in Buddhist practice. When you're not faced with very challenging, even life threatening conditions, it's easy to say practice is just doing sitting meditation and studying sutras perhaps.

I honestly don't have any issue with those who are completely or mostly devoted to formal practice, and who aren't "out in the streets" or in the offices of the legislators, or whatever. To me, it's not about one form being better than another. It's more that I feel very strongly that the world is calling for a diversity of practice.


Algernon said...

That is my intuition as well, Nathan. We might both be on to something; or, on the other hand, maybe we're both just assholes. But at least we're together! Wish I could join you at that coffee shop, but it's a bit far.