From the frontlines of the G8/G20 summit, Michael Stone reflects on nonviolence and engaged living. The third in a three-part series.
My son wanted to come to the protests because he heard that water privatization was on the table and he wanted to do what he could to learn about the issue and speak up for the fish. He loves fish. When he saw rows upon rows of police and hovering military helicopters he realized that there was no way of protesting or even learning about issues. (He did think the helicopters were really cool, especially Obama’s green chopper, which landed in a tight corridor between two tall buildings.) When our friend, journalist Naomi Klein, brought him out to a talk on G20 issues on the first day of the summit, he took it as a chance to tell people that water and fish need help.
What action was skillful that day? Writer Pasha Malla speaks about the sheer number of people who protested: “Simply to isolate and punish the violence of G20 protests in this way is to deny the unpunished violence done in our name to the natural environment, to the poor, to people affected by our military and corporate excursions all over the world.”
If we value the interdependence of all life, and if we see that our body is dependent on the health of our rivers and ecosystems, then we must recognize that to be silent and indifferent is to be complicit with corporate violence. Even if corporations or countries have laudable ideals, often their accountability to ecological well-being does not come into play. There is no ledger sheet for ecological debt in our economic calculations.
After the protests I went to see Buddhist teacher and philosopher David Loy to talk about what happened. He reminded me that it’s not enough to focus on our inner greed, anger and ill-will – we also need to uproot the institutionalized forms of the three poisons. Meditation, he said, helps take care of the inner anger and hatred. But then what? We need to take action when we see that values ingrained in our institutions give rise to greed and delusion as well.
Days later, at the first annual symposium for socially engaged Buddhism, held in Montague, Mass., Zen practitioner Bernie Glassman described the whole universe as one body where if the left hand gets cut, the right hand comes in to serve. We all have a natural inclination to take action. If non-attachment boils down to not clinging to self-centered views, and if this applies equally to individuals and nations, we can see how serving others becomes the primary intent of spiritual practice.
If we are all interdependent (Thich Nhat Hanh calls this “interbeing”), then what we think, say and do has an effect in every sphere. Interdependence is thick. Our actions matter. If we vow to serve all creatures, then we also vow to take an active stance in the face of injustice and exploitation.
No stance is perfect. With every step of that afternoon G20 March, my viewpoint changed. Bearing witness to the invisible effects of industry and inequality is painful and sometimes overwhelming. When my son learns about polluted rivers, he wants to do something. Doing something was a core value of the Buddha, who continually crisscrossed India, teaching in every emerging city in the Indo-Gangetic plain. What did he teach about politics? In his sermon called “The City,” he taught that every action has an effect and that each moment we engage the body, mind and heart in an effort to serve, we cultivate a flourishing city. Craving and self-centeredness obstruct the Buddhist path of service and engagement.
The yoga practices of waking up the intelligence and sensitivity of the body and breath are, Patanjali suggest in his Yoga-Sutra, designed “to allow one to see that the body and the universe are indivisible.” If I vow to serve every corner of life, I begin to see that service begins in this body and spreads out from my kidneys to my family, neighborhood and the earth at large. Yoga is about waking up not just the body, but the body politic as well.
Though my primary responsibility as a father that day was to support and foster my son’s curiosity, I also had to step in when things got dangerous, and take him away from the burning police car, the tear gas, and the broken glass. The car-burners are expressing their passion – and how do I do the same, where are my boundaries, how aggressively will I sacrifice peace for spectacle and resist aggression given my training and disposition?
I have been shaken to the core by the images of rows and rows of aggressive police and silenced protesters staring one another down. And behind those police, the tall banking towers and behind those towers the gleaming Lake Ontario, where my son and I would swim at the end of the day, thinking of the fish that called it home.
Michael Stone is the director of Centre of Gravity Sangha in Toronto and the author of many books, most recently Awake in the World: Teachings from Yoga and Buddhism for Living an Engaged Life (Shambhala Publications, 2011). Find Michael at www.centreofgravity.org