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Buddhadharma : Spring 2012
SPRING 2 0 1 2 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY 57 extraordinary about the movement in general and in rela- tionship to the history of political engagement in Buddhism. It seemed to be doing exactly what Buddhists have always done, which is to bear witness. Occupy was saying: Hey, there’s a serious problem here; people are really suffering, and we need to pay attention to that. That was about as pure a Buddhist message as I could imagine. On that basis, I put the question to the community. At the meeting, some people had what I thought was an important concern—that we not engage in the kind of us-and-them and sometimes aggressive or violent rhetoric that was occurring in some places. We decided we would participate in Occupy Santa Fe once a week. There was no coercion or obligation, and whoever wanted to come would show up for an hour on Wednesday mornings, bringing warm clothes and groceries to share. We’d just sit—no banner, no tent, no literature—meditating on tarps on the ground, and when we left, we’d haul out some garbage. DAVID LOY: It strikes me that you and the other members who came were not only participating in the movement, but influ- encing it. Your meditation practice was undoubtedly having an impact on the way Occupy was developing. Buddhism does have something to offer in that situation in its emphasis on nonviolence and avoiding abusive rhetoric. BUDDHADHARMA: Some sanghas have forums, usually online, where people have presented strong political views with an implicit sense that there’s prior agreement with them by the rest of the sangha. JOAN SUTHERLAND: The important question is, what is the cul- ture of your community? If persuading people politically is congruent with that culture, okay, but if people are being relax within the practice and study of the buddhadharma, there needs to be some political cohesion. I would regard it as a sign of maturity if a sangha were able to open up dialogue among people who have widely divergent views because of their own backgrounds, facilitated by someone who’s skilled in issues of power and privilege as they play out in the United States. JOAN SUTHERLAND: As well as the skill, there’s also the intention. When we went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, although most of the people in our sangha would have been against those wars, I wanted to be absolutely sure that no military person would ever feel uncomfortable sitting with us. It wasn’t a for- mal thing but rather an intention to keep things open. One of the results is that when people have had different views about things, we’ve been able to talk about it. Whatever conclusion we come to, everybody gets to be heard and listened to and nobody is either overtly or covertly silenced. BUDDHADHARMA: If taking political stances and acting politi- cally are a natural outgrowth of one’s dharmic aspirations, interconnectedness, and generosity, what kind of actions would you consider to be skillful? Is it skillful to join in a protest movement such as Occupy, for example, in the name of Buddhism or a particular Buddhist organization? Is going to Occupy events and having a banner there saying such and such a center supports Occupy skillful and helpful? DAVID LOY: The more groups, religious and otherwise, that join in such demonstrations, the more effective they would be in showing breadth of support. So from that side, I don’t see a problem. The issue arises if one is going to represent a par- ticular sangha or not, and how does one decide that? Would the Buddhist teacher make that decision? Would it be a demo- cratic process on the part of the group, requiring a 51-percent vote? I don’t know that the Buddhist teachings themselves give any simple answer. Looking back to the first sangha, which has been described as the first democracy, suggests that any decisions of this sort would be made by a democratic process rather than an autocratic decision on the part of the teacher or some group of people at the top. JOAN SUTHERLAND: We just went through this process in Santa Fe, and for us it was very important that we had a meeting where everybody had a chance to say what they wanted. BUDDHADHARMA: How did it emerge as something that you or the sangha wanted to address? JOAN SUTHERLAND: Initially the impulse came from me, because I felt very strongly about wanting to support the Occupy movement. In the beginning, I felt there was something When we went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, although most of the people in our sangha would have been against those wars, I wanted to be absolutely sure that no military person would ever feel uncomfortable sitting with us. When people have had different views we’ve been able to talk about it. —Joan Sutherland