Bringing Shantideva’s Prayer Home at the General Strike in Oakland
November 2, 2011. When I arrived at Frank Ogawa / Oscar Grant Plaza this morning, the day of the General Strike in my home city, Oakland, I couldn’t find the Interfaith Tent. Various faith leaders had been invited for time slots throughout the day; I was supposed to lead a Buddhist meditation at 11 a.m. Almost immediately, two people came up and introduced themselves as parents of a teacher at the Oakland public high school my son attended.
“We’ll follow you,” they said.
“I don’t know where I’m going,” I said.
May I be a protector to those without protection—a leader for those who journey—and a boat, a bridge, a passage—for those desiring the further shore.
My life in Oakland is flashing before my eyes. Over twenty years in Oakland, including eleven years of volunteering in the Oakland public schools, assisting teachers, tutoring, teaching literature, in moldy classrooms in ancient portables that were never meant to be used permanently, in classrooms with windows that wouldn’t open, with broken computers and no textbooks. My life in Oakland, including the huge Oakland-Berkeley hills fire, and my young son’s subsequent trip to the ER room of Children ‘s Hospital when his lungs started shutting down; my life in Oakland, including the riots in downtown Oakland connected to the killing of Oscar Grant. Those had left shattered windows and empty shelves in the small business a couple of doors down from the meditation center where I teach. The business couldn’t sustain the loss and never reopened.
May the pain of every living creature be completely cleared away.
After rambling around the tent- and people-filled Plaza in front of Oakland ‘s City Hall for a few minutes, I found the Interfaith Tent. An old Dharma friend and fellow poet, Kenji Liu, materialized by my side. Other Buddhist friends appeared also, including the kinetic sculptor Therese Lahaie, who gave me a bag of kiwi fruit grown in her East Bay garden. Even though there were several thousand people around us, giving speeches, singing, talking, a small area cleared in front of the Interfaith Tent and people sat down on the straw-strewn ground. I noticed that there seemed to be plenty of time for everything to happen just as it should, and that the Sangha, the community of practitioners of the Dharma, had assembled. I rang the small meditation bell I had brought with me, and half an hour later ended with a recitation of the first verse of Shantideva ‘s Prayer from the Bodhicaryavatara, or Guide to the Bodhisattva ‘s Way of Life, using “the human mic” to bring the words alive.
May the pain of every living creature be completely cleared away.
Only a week ago, violence had erupted between Oakland police and protestors in the area where we were meditating. The OPD had entered the Occupy Oakland encampment before dawn, “cleaning out” the Plaza on the morning of October 25. I had woken that morning and glanced at my email, finding a bulletin from the City of Oakland saying not to come downtown. The East Bay Meditation Center’s carpet was supposed to be cleaned that morning, and I had a date with the cleaners. I drove downtown, cautiously, and was moving some furniture around inside the center when an Oakland policeman knocked on the glass doors of our storefront space. He was holding up a dented, flimsy metal folding chair.
“This belongs to someone from the nursing school, who was giving CPR to someone who needed it,” the policeman said. He was sweating heavily and looked unhappy. “Is this yours?”
“No,” I said. “We ‘re a meditation center.”
The communication device clipped to his shoulder squawked, and he bent his head toward it.
“I have to go,” he said. “Someone is trying to cut and stab himself. I guess I’ll just leave the chair here and hope it gets back to them.” He carefully, almost delicately, leaned the chair against the wall outside our front doors, and ran down Broadway. There were helicopters choppering overhead and the sound of ambulance and police sirens. That was last week.
May I be the doctor and the medicine—and may I be the nurse—for all sick beings in the world—until everyone is healed.
After the Buddhist meditation session for this morning, the day of the General Strike in Oakland, was done, I saw my friend Sarah Weintraub, the executive director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. We decided to walk around the encampment and ended up standing in a small patch of shade behind what seemed to be the main Occupy stage, across from tables where free food was being served. People waited patiently in line for their lunch. Next to us a man was napping on a plaza bench, and a woman in a brightly colored T-shirt that said “Domestic Workers Unite” on it stood to my left, watching her toddler, who seemed still to be in his footed pajamas, playing around her legs. My friend Shirley Yee, a social justice activist who had co-led a TODOS training for diversity facilitators that I took some years ago walked by with her daughter Kai, who had a fever and was sticking close to her mom’s side. I felt very comfortable occupying the Occupy Oakland space, I noticed. I had memories of being here in Frank Ogawa Plaza, now being called Oscar Grant Plaza, also. When my son graduated from high school in 2007, he had been among a group of public high school students from across the city who had received scholarship awards at a ceremony in this very spot.
Across from us, glass shattered on the pavement. People calmly picked up the broken shards without visible annoyance, and Sarah said, “I think a jar just slipped out of someone ‘s hand.”
“See how everyone’s cooperating to clean it up?” I said. “People are really making an effort to keep everything peaceful and harmonious. And Mayor Quan has kept the police away from the Plaza this time. What I’m noticing about this entire Occupy Wall Street movement is that it’s not only peaceful, it’s bringing out an immense amount of creativity: art and singing and flash mob dancing and blogging and videos. It makes sense. People who are working all the time aren’t making it. People who are unemployed aren’t making it. Young people can’t find jobs, even if they follow all the standard advice and have college degrees. As Aitken Roshi used to love to say, the system stinks. It’s broken, totally broken. And when you take the lid off all of that human feeling, it makes sense that creative expression comes pouring out. Personally, I’ve thought for quite awhile that our spiritual practice is creativity, is the very essence of creativity.”
Sarah looked interested. She ‘s a writer, an experienced social justice activist. And we’ve both logged a considerable number of hours in the Zen meditation halls. I gave myself permission to soliloquize a little.
“Speaking as a mother, the fact that we are aware of the breath means that we breathe, means that we took that first breath when we were born, and being born results from an act of creation. There’s no getting around it. The point of Dharma practice, in my point of view, is creativity! We all know the thousands of habitual thoughts that pour out of our brains. They’re boring. They’re old. But I think that when Shakyamuni Buddha sat down under the bo tree and looked up at the morning star, the reason we hear about it is that he saw something new. And it was amazing!”
“Would you like a rice cake and some peanut butter?” Sarah said, opening her bag.
“Rice cake, no peanut butter,” I said. “Thank you!”
And until they pass away from pain—may I also be the source of life—for all the realms of varied beings—that reach unto the ends of space.
In fact, the General Strike succeeded. Later today the Occupy Oakland crowd grew to 10,000 people or more, who marched from downtown Oakland to the Port of Oakland and stopped it from functioning. “I love Oakland!” notes appeared all over the Facebook pages of the social justice activists in my circle of FB friends, and aerial photographs of the Port takeover, which had also been peaceful. And then, late at night, reports, again, of the police, dressed in riot gear, moving in with tear gas.
“You’ve got to think about values, not abuses,” the 96-year-old, legendary activist Grace Lee Boggs says in her two-part video message to Occupy Wall Street (http://vimeo.com/30514311 and http://vimeo.com/31519206). “You begin with a protest, but you have to move on from there to another stage. You have to begin becoming the solution yourself rather than protesting and challenging the enemy. We need people to be reinventing the institutions of our society… reinventing work… education.… We’re at one of those turning points in society where we need revolution, and revolution means reinventing culture.”
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in two decades of occupying the many spaces I’ve occupied in Oakland, it is far too diverse with too many constantly moving pieces to be reduced to any single description, or formula, or solution. It’s large and sprawling and small and tightly knit in its communities; it’s gritty and dangerous and filled with blooming plants and it’s reassuringly familiar and relaxing; many of its systems are corrupt and dysfunctional and there are kids learning to read and there are quinceañeras and people getting acupuncture and there is depression and rage and joy and boredom and contentment. None of this is unusual, none of this is to be taken for granted, and none of this is far from my meditation practice. The system stinks, and we are all 100% capable of doing better.
Mushim Patricia Ikeda is a Leadership Sangha (board) member and core teacher at the East Bay Meditation Center in downtown Oakland. She teaches meditation retreats for people of color, women, and social justice activists nationally. www.mushim.wordpress.com