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Occupy Wall Street: A Buddhist View by Roshi Joan Halifax

October 16, 2011

It started 28 days ago, with a ragtag group of people who called themselves “Occupy Wall Street” planting themselves at Liberty Square Plaza (aka Zuccotti Park) in New York City, under the shadows of skyscrapers.

They gathered together to call attention to the disproportionate influence that the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans have over our political and economic system. Using the phrase “We are the 99 percent,” they drew a circle of inclusion around the myriad forms of structural violence and suffering that so many of us are experiencing these days.

The Buddha would probably agree with their analysis. Numerous Buddhist texts point out that poverty is not any individual’s fate or karma, but rather exists in a web of causes and conditions. The Buddha also noted that the way to build a peaceful society is to ensure equitable distribution of resources.

In a more contemporary rendering of Buddhist teachings, Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh offers this precept: “Do not accumulate wealth whilst millions are hungry. Do not take as the aim of your life, fame, profit, wealth or sensual pleasure. Live simply and share time, energy and material resources with those who are in need.” Bernie Glassman Roshi says: Do not foster a mind of poverty in yourself or others.

In less than a month, this gathering in New York has grown into a worldwide movement that has captured the public imagination and vision. This is a leaderless movement, and one that started without any clear demands, and one that is committed to nonviolence. These are exactly the kinds of movements that those with privilege and power have no idea how to contain.

There is a precedent for this kind of social change. The Civil Rights movement, though now almost exclusively identified with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and to a lesser degree, Rosa Parks, was actually comprised of many leaders in multiple locations who gradually self-organized so that the whole became greater than the sum of its parts. And like Occupy Wall Street, the Civil Rights movement grew in its own power based on a common dedication to justice for all.

Some have criticized or ridiculed Occupy Wall Street because it has not formed a list of clear demands for change. Instead, it has relied on a participatory process, even inviting the public at large to weigh in on what issues are of most importance.

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.

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 context of Buddhist teachings and practice, these are all compassionate actions.

It calls to mind the words that Indian author and activist Arundhati Roy spoke 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.

The downfall of any revolution is when it unknowingly replicates what has come before it. Can Occupy Wall Street succeed? It can, if it continues to place generosity and compassion before greed, and to recognize the power of interdependence, causality and selflessness.

Roshi Joan Halifax is the Abbot of the Upaya Zen Center in New Mexico, USA. This piece was co-authored with    Maia Duerr, former executive director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and current director of the Upaya Buddhist Chaplaincy Training Program. See Maia’s blog, The Jizo Chronicles, for more Buddhist perspectives on Occupy Wall Street.

Reposted from The Huffington Post, October 14, 2011

4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 16, 2011 11:29 am

    I am pleased you have reproduced this article from Roshi Joan Halifax and Maia Duerr from the Jizo Chronicles. I have also received a mailing from the Buddhist Peace fellowship supporting #OWS. Insight is necessary to understand the world we live in, to discern the truth from the lies, and to recognise the reality of the suffering in daily life caused by the “1%”. At this time in history I believe encouraging Buddhists to use their insight to be engaged helps create compassion and relieve the suffering. There are times when compassion on the cushion is not enough, is this one of those times?

  2. October 22, 2011 11:34 pm

    Hi there, Green Papaya friends! And thank you for linking to this article. What’s going on in the U.S. is very exciting right now. I wonder — is Occupy happening in Chiang Mai or elsewhere in Thailand?

    By the way, I was in CM in January and sat with all of you one evening… hope to be back one day!


  3. November 16, 2011 8:43 pm

    What appears to be a road to compassion potentially contains the seeds of divisiveness, ager, jealousy and destructive attitudes. I say potentially because each of us can choose to walk the good road of real compassion. There was another who advocated the equal distribution of wealth, but his call has ended in numerous models of totalitarianism and oppression. Carl Marx’s edict, “From each according to his ability, to each according to their need,” became transformed by the Soviet style, centralized governments where nobody ultimately benefited. All, except the apparatchiks, became equally impoverished. The “from each” part became violent and oppressive against another group in turn. It seems to be the nature of the these kinds of movements, that profess a compassionate distribution of wealth, that everyone ends up suffering because the incentive to produce wealth is voided by the disincentive to not allow the kind of wealth accumulation that fosters abundant production. And that is the crux of the problem with the good intentions of “occupy Wall Street. “While there are individuals who are motivated to help the disenfranchised, the sick and homeless (no doubt) the nature of our society is not inclined to foster compassionate attitudes on the part of the so-called 1%. Though I must say that I have known quite a few 1 per centers who are very giving of time energy and money to the less fortunate. So, how do we transform the minds and hearts of the 1% without the destructiveness of armed revolution, anger, rage, sorrow, hatred, fear and all the rest? How do we, as compassionate Buddhists, move the human beings of the corporate oligarchy to an equal sense of responsibility for the rest of the 99% without bullets, totalitarianism, and the rest, and without creating an equal reaction of hatred and divisiveness on the part of the holders of wealth? While Joan Halifax, Bernie Glassman, Tich Nhat Han and Buddha himself can summarize the glaze of a utopian, Buddhist society based on compassion the getting there is another matter. I for one am not interested in violent revolution because of what it begets. You can’t be liberated for long by sticking your finger in the eye of your oppressor. The first step is bring peace and compassion to the perceived enemy while not giving up on your goal of justice and equality, but not being a doormat either. The second step is to root out the divisiveness and poisons in your own mind and heart so that you don’t just end up being another rock thrower and screaming hater. These are not easy issues and I don’t suggest that you just go home and give up…far from it. But I am personally concerned for those who take up the cause that they don’t become just more debris on a pile of negative history.

  4. December 4, 2011 9:04 am

    What is encouraging about OWS? For years, since the Bush ascension to the Presidency in an election that was certainly stolen, many of us have been wondering when the American people would wake up. Then came September 11th, 2001, which was certainly planned as an excuse to wage war on the resource rich Asian countries. Patriot Act, erosion of civil liberties, stock market manipulation, real estate bubble clearly engineered by the bankers, and war war and more war. Many people had the “Audacity” or the desperation to think that the Democrats or specifically Obama could or would turn things around. It hasn’t turned out that way. And all the time, I was wondering, what can turn this around? The Lotus Sutra has a chapter called Bodhisattvas Springing Out of the Earth. Maybe we could say, a lotus springing out of the mud. Or we can just say, that bursting out of “don’t know mind”, OWS had emerged.

    When the wooden man begins to sing, the stone woman gets up to dance. One hand clapping makes a sound heard around the world.

    We really don’t know where this is heading. That’s OK, Not knowing is a good thing. What we do know, is that things are way off track. It is as if the old Daoist sages are speaking to us. Things are so out of balance, that there has to be a return to the norm. That norm is decency and justice and wisdom and compassion and equity.

    What the rulers have missed, is a total misunderstanding of the truth of No self. They imagine themselves to be real and at the center of things. One even had the temerity to say that “We create Reality”, not appreciating the infinitude of causes and conditions that they do not control. They also do not understand the law of Impermanence, that their system is failing and, as desperately as they try, they are not in control.

    Whether or not OWS succeeds in reestablishing a sense of balance and harmony is not clear. We really don’t know. But the important thing is, is that thousands of people are listening to their heart, and acting out of that integrity. We shall see how this truly epic and worldwide struggle plays out, resulting in a truly higher state of planetary consciousness, or in total annihilation, whether things just muddle along. The important thing is to be present with the Present Truth and act on that, as we each must do in our own way.

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