The word “Buddha” means to wake up. More precisely it means to see what is really going on (in other words, “dharma”), and understand that it has always been so. The Occupy Wall Street movementand its 1,000 offshoots worldwide is that kind of awakening. Its overarching theme is inequality: rich and poor, haves and have-nots, just and unjust. It has always been so, but the scale of it varies through time. In the U.S., the objective reality and statistical fact of this economic divide has been brewing since the 1980s (for an excellent historical perspective, see this article by Bill Moyers in The Nation magazine).
But now in times of unemployment and bread-line level deprivation, that reality has broken through the veil of public unknowing, taken form as the Occupy movement and has been transmitted at light speed from city to city courtesy of social media and the web.
Many of my Buddhist friends are sympathetic to this movement, and want to help. Many of them, like me, were themselves youthful demonstrators once, long ago when the issues were civil rights and the Vietnam war. Just as now, that awakening in the 1960s was to perennial truths to which we had up to then been oblivious. “Black people in the South can’t vote! They are oppressed!” Yes, as they had been forever. “This war is unjust. It’s horrible! The innocent die!”–another perennial truth. In those days it was television, rather than the internet, that broadcast these truths into everyone’s living rooms and woke us up.
I was once one of those youthful anti-war protestors, linking hands and facing down riot police armed with batons and guns. We self-righteously referred to the police in those days as “pigs,” ignoring the unwiseness of hurling such insults at a phalanx of heavily armed men. We too were beaten, bloodied, and in a few cases killed. When I look back through the lens of my own youth at today’s protestors and their pithy slogans (“We are the 99%”) I see myself.
However, we Buddhists all need to remember that Gautama was in his time a one-percenter or worse–he was, after all, a prince. He had his own awakening from unknowing (or so the accounts of his life tell) when he walked out of the palace as though for the first time and saw what was really happening — “People are old and poor! People are sick! They die! Look, a monk!” This is an archetypal moment (referred to in Buddhist literature as the “four sightings”); I think it happens in some fashion for each generation–an onrush of awakening that keeps societies from sinking totally into the quicksand of their own corruption.
My Buddhist friends think of conveying well-meaning instructions to today’s Occupiers about non-violence, compassion, and meditation, so they will not become angry in the face of the injustice they see. This is good, but I am not sure that is exactly the right medicine. Maybe it is good that they are angry. Maybe they don’t need meditation instruction just now. Gautama, after all, was not schooled in meditation when he experienced the four sightings. He just opened his eyes, which anyone can do.
Others say the Occupiers need a goal, demands, a program. Perhaps. I’m not sure today’s protestors need anything right now except to be appreciated for the truths they are speaking and the role they are playing at this critical time in the development of human consciousness. They have already discovered what the Buddha taught in his second Noble Truth — that the root cause of our unnecessary suffering is grasping, clinging, selfishness, and greed — often for money, sometimes for emotional or physical safety, nearly always for power. The energy of greed is the prime distorter of human community. The Buddha clearly saw this.
My feeling is that we are seeing the first raw beginnings and baby steps of a giant leap forward, one that will transcend and outgrow whatever form the Occupy movement is currently taking. Let it develop, let it learn what nourishment it needs. If it needs or wants our gray-haired advice — and it may not — then let it ask. I am ready if anyone asks, knowing that my time on the barricades was long ago and that I may not know the answers. If no-one asks, I am content to be watchful, to appreciate, and to allow this fervent historical moment to unfold.
One last note: much later, when I had become a Buddhist teacher, I met a policeman who had been on that police line where I demonstrated in front of the Oakland, California Army Induction Center so long ago. By now he too was a Buddhist. He told me how it was for him back then. “We were scared,” he said. “We didn’t know who you were or what you would do. We didn’t know what weapons you had or whether you would riot. And when you started screaming at us and calling us pigs, we got mad. We weren’t pigs (well, a few of us were brutes, he admitted) we were just people trying to do a job. I understood that you were angry, but I didn’t like being called a pig. I wasn’t a pig.”
The policemen, the firemen, the teachers, the workers everywhere — they are all part of the 99%. And more to the point, this really isn’t just about the 99%, it is about the 100% — in other words, all of us. Who knows what Gautama was like in the years before he walked out of the palace. He may have been a self-satisfied aristocratic twit — until he woke up. People can change. That is the unwritten liner note to the 2nd Noble Truth — the deep truth of human suffering is for everyone, it is about the 100%. For Buddhists, this 100% is not just human beings, but everything living, the air and the clouds, even the whole earth itself.
Occupy Meditation: Angel Soto, 32, of Staten Island, meditates at the Occupy Wall Street protests in Zuccotti Park, Sunday, Nov. 6 in New York. Now entering their seventh week, the protests have continued to attract demonstrators young and old across different income classes and cultural backgrounds.
Occupy Banks: Members of the Los Angeles Police Department guard the Bank of America plaza while members of Occupy LA meditate in downtown Los Angeles on Nov. 17 in Los Angeles. The protest was part of a ‘Day of Action’ marking the two-month anniversary of the movement that started in New York as Occupy Wall Street.
Occupy Oakland: Protestors meditate as a line of police wait to move in at the Occupy Oakland encampment on Nov. 14, 2011, in Oakland, Calif. In the wake of violent confrontations with police, vandalism and the recent shooting near the encampment, Oakland mayor Jean Quan and city administrators issued eviction notices to protesters at the Occupy Oakland encampment.
Occupy Oakland: A protestor meditates as police move in to arrest him at the Occupy Oakland encampment on Nov. 14 in Oakland, Calif. In the wake of violent confrontations with police, vandalism and the recent shooting near the encampment, Oakland mayor Jean Quan and city administrators issued eviction notices to protesters at the Occupy Oakland encampment.
Occupy Flash Meditation: Protesters affiliated with Occupy Wall Street meditate during a “flash meditation mob” in Zuccotti Park on Nov. 2 in New York City. Earlier in the day veterans groups featuring current and former members of the United States military marched in support of Occupy Wall Street and to pay homage to Scott Olsen, a former Marine and Iraq War vet who sustained a skull fracture after he was injured by police at an Occupy Oakland protest.
Occupy Coexistence: Demonstrators with Occupy Wall Street as they continue their protest at Zuccotti Park in New York on Nov. 8. The demonstrators are protesting bank bailouts, foreclosures and high unemployment.
Occupy Mass Meditation: Supporters of the Occupy London Stock Exchange protest take part in a mass meditation on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, Thursday, Oct. 27, 2011. The senior St. Paul’s Cathedral priest who welcomed anti-capitalist demonstrators to camp outside the London landmark resigned Thursday, saying he feared moves to evict the protesters could end in violence. Other senior clergy and politicians urged the campers to leave peacefully, as the cathedral announced it would reopen to the public Friday after a weeklong closure triggered by the demonstrators’ tents.
Occupy Oakland: Protesters meditate at Frank Ogawa Plaza, Wednesday, Oct. 26 in Oakland, Calif. Police and anti-Wall Street protesters have clashed in Oakland in the past two days in the plaza in front of the city hall where protesters have been camped for the past two weeks.
Occupy SF: A man meditates as another reads as they participate in an Occupy San Francisco rally Tuesday, Oct. 18, in San Francisco. Anti-Wall Street demonstrators in San Francisco are rebuilding their encampment one day after police took down their site and arrested five people.
Occupy Wall Street: People with the Occupy Wall Street protest in Zuccotti Park form a circle and meditate Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2011 in New York. The Occupy Wall Street protests started Sept. 17 with a few dozen demonstrators who tried to pitch tents in front of the New York Stock Exchange. Since then, hundreds have set up camp nearby in Zuccotti Park and have become increasingly organized, lining up medical aid and legal help and printing their own newspaper.
Occupy the NOW
Occupy LSX: Supporters of the Occupy London Stock Exchange protest take part in a mass meditation on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, Thursday, Oct. 27. The senior St. Paul’s Cathedral priest who welcomed anti-capitalist demonstrators to camp outside the London landmark resigned Thursday, saying he feared moves to evict the protesters could end in violence. Other senior clergy and politicians urged the campers to leave peacefully, as the cathedral announced it would reopen to the public Friday after a weeklong closure triggered by the demonstrators’ tents.
Lewis Richmond is a Buddhist writer and teacher, and the author of the upcoming Aging as a Spiritual Practice, to be published Spring, 2012. Lewis leads a Zen meditation group, Vimala Sangha, and teaches at workshops and retreats throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. He has published three books, including the national bestseller Work as a Spiritual Practice. Lewis also leads a discussion on aging as a spiritual practice at Tricycle magazine’s online community site.