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5 Fresh Ways You Can Sit To Change Shit

In storefronts, on street corners, outside voting booths or the doors of Goldman Sachs, we’ve seen Buddhists bring their half-lotus some unlikely places in the name of social engagement. Political sits “work” because juxtaposing an outward posture of (perceived) peace with strong political demands or direct action can shake up expectations and send a powerful message — while also reminding us to attend to inner liberation even as we fight for justice.

Here are 5 radical ways we could, in the words of The Interdependence Project, “Sit Down To Rise Up.”

1. Bodhisattva Blockade

The photo at right shows the day, September 1st, 1978, when a man was run over by a train shipping weapons to the contra wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador. A train that he was attempting to blockade.

“As he sat in half-lotus, Brian Willson was hit and dragged beneath the train. He sustained a serious head injury. His legs were severed from his body. Miraculously, he lived,” writes the Zen priest Maylie Scott.

Later Scott joined a cohort of blockaders called Nuremburg Action, which included a crew from the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, to take up the fight after Willson’s near-fatal injury, occupying the same spot on the tracks where he went under. For years protesters continued these ritualized actions, arrested again and again, returning over and over to the same site to block trains. Maylie, ordained as a priest at the Berkeley Zen Center, wrote a poem about it, too.

Guided Meditation On The Tracks

Blackbirds squealing on the chain-link fence.
Let us appreciate the ground
that supports us, the breath
that sustains us, the wind
on our faces, the sun
on our backs.

Let us know how this place extends.
How the quick missile spreads dirt,
and flesh. The soft and hard places
where the bullets lodge. The profits,
the jobs provided, the services lost,
the taxes we pay, the governments
we bring down and those we bring to power.

We are here because we know
the facts of interbeing
do not leave us alone.

They have brought us to this ground
where blood has been spilt,
that allows us to sit, that holds
our confusion, our collusion,
and failure of intention.
This place where weapons trucks
and trains carry death each day.
Where nothing is disowned;
where, in this moment, we are whole.


2. Sit-Lie Defiance

Sit-lie laws are just what they sound like: laws against sitting or lying on the ground in public places.

While some merchants lobby for these ordinances in an effort to clear their storefront areas of “loiterers,” many social justice groups denounce them as an attempt to push poor people out of sight — not to mention a frightening criminalization of the use of public space.

“‘If they enforce the law the way it’s written, people will think they live in a police state,’ says Alan Schlosser, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California” (in USA Today.)

If you’re a Buddhist who believes that “sidewalks are for people,” and there’s a sit-lie measure on the ballot in your area, you can put those sitting- and lying-down meditation skills to use for direct action.


3. Encampment Defense Adhiṭṭhāna

In the tradition of “we shall not be moved,” meditators can contribute our adhiṭṭhāna (strong determination) to compassionate confrontations when police try to break up an Occupy encampment, anti-tar-sands tree sit, or other physical community of politicized people.

As Pancho Ramos-Stierle demonstrated during a raid of the Occupy Oakland camp, sitting still amidst a storm of police can dramatize courage in the face of state repression in a way that appeals to mainstream sensibilities (though bold, loud resistance — or silent escape — also have their time and place, depending on one’s circumstances).

And as this happy camper of the Tar Sands Blockade shows, hanging out in a tree sit creates an airborne community of direct-action earth defenders.


4. Sit-Down Strike

To pull this one off, you have to be part of an organized workforce ready for an indefinite strike. In which case — we salute you! Feel free to strike sitting, walking, lying down, or in any other posture suitable for waging class struggle while developing awareness of the Three Marks of Existence. Hell yes.

5. Lockdown Lotus

Whether immobilizing nefarious, earth-destroying machines or barring the entrance to City Hall, locking down can gum up the works for a little while and send an unmistakable warning to the target: expect direct interference.

Lockdowns have been a common tactic in the Tar Sands Blockade and resistance to the Keystone XL Pipeline, as well as a tool for recent demonstrations in solidarity with hunger-striking prisoners of California. I’d love to see and hear about more Buddhists following suit!

What are other creative ways to sit for a (social) change? Would love to hear your ideas in comments!


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Comments (10)

  • Bob

    Great Article! Thanks for publishing. I enjoyed the pictures. I have been a Buddhist since 1997 and participation in non violent direct action protest is important to me.

  • Bob

    I just read the title ‘sit to change shit’, Clever!

  • Katie Loncke

    Thanks Bob, glad you enjoyed it! Would love to hear more about the nv direct actions you’ve participated in!

  • Bob

    Well, I live in St Paul MN. I am involved in a few different things. I am an ally to a Workers center that focuses on migrant labor. I help with doing childcare and transportation for workers. As well as doing street medic during actions, hunger strikes. The Group is called Centro Trabajadores Unidos en La Lucha and it is inspired the amazing Coalition for Imokalee Workers. Also I have helped with Rainforest Action Network in the campaign to stop the devastation of Indonesian rainforests – Specifically by targeting the Cargill corporation which is based here. I volunteer at a radical bookstore called Boneshaker.
    I try to do some meditation or mindfulness practice everyday.
    To tell you the truth I have drifted away from Sangha as I find social and environmental justice work is more inspiring and a stronger basis for personal connections than meditation by itself. Though I still love meditation

  • Katie Loncke

    Coalition of Immokalee Workers, yes! Fire. One of my friends who’s a Buddhist some participatory action research with them for her grad school program. On point.

    Would love to know more about the actions or tactics that folks have used in the Workers Center… here in Oakland I help out with a group of undocumented workers trying to organize against the mass firings resulting from I-9 audits, but the choices for action are so limited… there was a hunger strike at one point, but it was pretty ineffective. Seems like stuff at the Mexico border is really heating up though, in terms of undocumented peoples’ direct action. Just yesterday(?) a group of people blocked a deportation bus for five hours.

    Sounds like you are up to all kinds of rad stuff! And it’s interesting that you’re working in both environmental and labor worlds — sometimes seems difficult to bridge those, except through individuals with our individual interests.

    I’m curious if you see your personal meditation practice having any effect on you as a revolutionary and organizer? Day-to-day or over time?

    Thanks for sharing!

  • Bob

    Hi Katie,
    Thanks for hosting this site, I appreciate it. I know I fall into the trap of expressing criticism online more harshly than I would face to face. Apologies if I come off like a jerk. I do feel betrayed as Buddhism / mindfulness has been integrated so readily into the capitalist power structure without offering much hope of meaningful change (but lots of hope for cheap theatrical change). To me the spiritual and the justice issues were always related. There aren’t many places to vent regarding that disappointment, BPF is one.

    There are some pretty huge ways that my meditation is part of my activism. The biggest is just that it helps me get out of the way and find the right words or actions when handling a delicate situation. Recently I have been supporting immigrants through activities like child care while the parents are in activist meetings for instance. There are many barriers to seeing and being with people. Especially people who have gone through god knows what to get here and live extremely marginal existences in the USA. The pictures from the deportation blockade are extremely moving. When I stand in the streets with grassroots democracy activists like that my heart cracks open and I choke back tears. That is why I find the cynicism toward radical politics which I have encountered so many times amongst Anglo Buddhists such a massive joy kill. The idea that social justice is something we find in our hearts and NOT in the streets alongside other people is just dualism and ignorance. My proposal for a new Buddhist chant, rendered in the style of a protest chant is as follows… This Extreme emphasis on inward facing subjectivity has got to to go, Hey Hey Ho Ho.

    I have also been challenging myself to meet my edge, even confronting others if necessary. For example I recently attended a party hosted by Cargill Corporation – A massive Rainforest destroyer. I wasn’t exactly an invited guest. I went there as part of a RAN campaign with the intent of challenging Cargill about their role in promoting slavery, child labor, and environmental destruction. These victims of extreme economic exploitation in poor countries have few means of communicating with the Americans who sit on top of the economic pyramid, I don’t have that restriction. I’ll let you know that I’m a bit of a wimp, so this type of confrontational business doesn’t come naturally to me. The critical piece which allowed me to do it was maintaining a sense of respect toward the Cargill employees – while also not trying to be their friends. If I succumbed to hating them I would have never done it.

    So these are some ways I see activism and meditation intersecting for me.

  • david

    I think its a bad idea to sit in front of a train or heavy equipment, which even if the operator wanted to stop it would take 100 to 1000 meters to stop.

  • nathan

    Bob, I really appreciated your comment here. Especially this “The critical piece which allowed me to do it was maintaining a sense of respect toward the Cargill employees – while also not trying to be their friends.”

  • Mary

    Thanks so much for all of the comments…I needed to hear all of your opinions—especially those from the opinionated political radical who sometimes posts harshly—I am cut from the same cloth, my friend, and struggle with my passion and my judgement one day at a time—we are works in progress—imperfectly perfect—but we stopped the Viet Nam war with our passion, and we can use it to do the work ahead of us…I am grateful that we are a coat of many colors, and as long as we can continue to see our similarities more often than our differences, we may just have a chance to tip the critical balance in our favor before our number is up on this planet…it is critical work, and so tempting to want to judge, control, and have an attachment to the outcome for me—a real trap leading to negativity that attracts the same to me and my world-I am accountable for every thought, word, action so today i choose to send you love and strength for your journey—whatever that is—M—

© 2017 Buddhist Peace Fellowship

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