Buddhist teachings on emptiness challenge us to think about broad-based social movements as an unfolding process, as that which has deep roots in history, and which has no certainty of outcomes, no guarantee of arriving at a projected utopian future. We can understand social movements as open-ended processes of continuous change and evolution, ennobling us to confront every new era as a challenge to work out our quest for collective awakening. —Shaun Bartone
I’m on my way this weekend to the Act on Climate March in Quebec City on Saturday, April 11. For the last two months, the heartland of Canada, Ontario and Quebec, has been embroiled in university strikes and anti-austerity protests. Students and faculty are striking at York University and U of Toronto, protesting higher tuition for students and low-wages for contract faculty. Anti-austerify marches and protests have flared up in Montreal and Quebec City. Meanwhile in Europe, anti-austerity marches are flaring up in cities across Europe, in Greece and Spain. Just two weeks ago, in Frankfurt, Germany, citizens took to the streets in a mass demonstration against the opening of new bank headquarters in the financial district. The Frankfurt protest was called “Blockupy”, signalling a reprise of the Occupy movement of 2011. The Act on Climate march in Quebec City comes on the heels of the anti-austeriy marches, what activists have called a reprise of the “Maple Spring” of 2012, the Quebec student movement. The anti-austerity marches, and the Act on Climate March, aim to foment a broad social movement of not only students, but labour, civil rights groups and environmental activists. All over the world we are seeing the convergence of multiple social movements that up until this decade were silos of activism. They have realized immense strength and power from working together for common aims of restructuring society from the ground up.
When the Occupy movement launched in September 2011, it put out to the world it’s statement: “We Have One Demand.” But in the ensuing weeks, it was never articulated, at least as a public statement of the aims of the entire movement, exactly what that “one demand” was. What emerged over the weeks that followed, in Occupy movements all over the US, Canada and Europe, was a plethora of demands that were concerned with, broadly, the massive inequality between the wealthy elites and the rest of the population, ie. the 1% and the 99%. It vocalized outrage at the housing and mortgage crisis, the bank bailouts, rising unemployment and student debt, labour exploitation and low wages, global warming and the destruction of the environment, the usurping of democratic processes by corporate control, the militarization of the police, endless war, the criminalization of people of colour and the poor, and the massive growth of the prison system, among many other concerns. Though The One Demand was never officially specified, what poured forth was a cornucopia of demands affecting a multitude of conditions across society.
As Roshi Joan Halifax wrote in “This is What Compassion Looks Like“, the Occupy movement, in it’s reticence to delineate a specific set of demands, shifted the movement’s focus from policy to process: “What is really remarkable about this movement is that somehow it has raised the process of “how” change happens to being more important than the “what” of change.” It was the process of democracy, horizontal power sharing and decision-making, public discussion and debate, and simply publicly congregating for the purpose of political and social collaboration, that was even more crucial than specific policy demands. Actor Sean Penn, in an interview in 2011, said the message that the Occupy Movement articulated, in the face of the increasing police brutality and the criminalization of political speech under the Patriot Act, was this: “We are not afraid.”
Many other engaged Buddhists have written on the Occupy Movement, including Ethan Nichtern and Michael Stone, Bernie Gassman and Buddhist Peace Fellowship. Bernie Gassman called called Occupy “an awakening to the interconnectedness of life.” Arundhati Roy prefigured the praxis of the Occupy movement in her statement at the 2003 World Social Forum:
Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness — and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we’re being brainwashed to believe. The corporate revolution will collapse if we refuse to buy what they are selling — their ideas, their version of history, their wars, their weapons, their notion of inevitability.
Interestingly, the one Buddhist teaching that all of these Buddhist commentators did not elicit was the Buddhist teaching on emptiness. The One Demand of the Occupy movement was not a specifically defined policy or demand, but an open assertion: ________? Fill in the blank. The demands of the Occupy were too numerous to be limited to one specific policy, too broadly sweeping and all encompassing to be limited to one specific world-view. Instead, what it vocalized was a perfect rendition of the Buddhist dharma of emptiness: emptiness as that which Stephen Batchelor called in Buddhism Without Beliefs, an unfolding process. The One Demand did not put forth a specific list of demands, but an open space for all the demands of the people to be spoken, sung, danced, shouted, written, visualized, dreamed up, performed, and endlessly expanded, revised and elaborated. From this open space, from this fecund emptiness poured forth all that the people, the 99%, could possibly desire to express, verbally, emotionally, physically, in body and in spirit.
One might object that this comparison of The One Demand to the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness perhaps trivializes the message. But I believe what it points to is the possibility of future movements that will encompass the broadest range of concerns affecting the largest and most diverse populations, indeed all living species, which must include not only lists of demands and carefully articulated policies, but processes of self-organization, interdependence, connectedness, compassion and mutual liberation. As such, it points to the role that engaged Buddhism could play in shaping and directing this rolling mass movement to restructure every facet of society in forms that are just, egalitarian, communitarian and ecologically sound.
Buddhism’s teachings on emptiness challenges us to think about broad-based social movements as an unfolding process, as that which has deep roots in history, and which has no certainty of outcomes, no guarantee of arriving at a projected utopian future. We can understand social movements as open-ended processes of continuous change and evolution, ennobling us to confront every new era as a challenge to work out our quest for collective awakening.
As Joan Halifax states, the open process of the Occupy movement, as a movement of organic solidarity and community, was its true brilliance:
The people on the streets in New York are in the process of being the change they wish to see, to use Gandhi’s phrase. They have organized to provide health care for each other, to feed each other, to clean up their space together, to deal with difficult situations using creative solutions. They have intentionally refused alignment with any political party in order to keep their message open to the widest audience. They are taking pains to use a collective decision-making process so that the voices of the marginalized are being heard and considered.
In the following two videos, Bikhu Bodhi gives a thoroughgoing analysis of the roots and purpose of the Occupy movement, and Buddhist teachings that support and expand that purpose:
Bikhu Bodhi; “A Buddhist Perspective on Occupy Wall Street” – part 2″: Buddhist Teachings relevant to the Occupy Movement
“A Buddhist Perspective on Occupy Wall Street” – part 1″: the social history of the Occupy Movement
—by the Editor, Shaun Bartone