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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

Comments (33)

  • Beth

    Mushim,
    Thanks for writing this beautiful piece. Since I could not go, it was wonderful to get the flavor of the day from this perspective. – Beth

  • Nona Olivia

    Lovely and incisive. Thank you. Many blessings to you and your practice.

  • Roberta Werdinger

    Thank you, Mushim! I love the linking of making art and Buddhist practice, acknowledging the unlimited potentials of our own minds(s). Bowing to you…

  • Mushim

    Beth and Nona, thank you for your support of Occupy Oakland and the spiritual practice that is visibly and invisibly part of the movement!

  • Mushim

    You’re welcome, Roberta. Let’s keep making art and pushing the envelope — as you say, the potential is unlimited.

  • Francie Kendall

    Thank you, Mushim, for this wonderful portrait of November 2nd and of Oakland herself, all framed by this most beautiful and powerful prayer.

    I hope you are very well.

    Sending love,
    Francie

  • Mushim

    Yes, Oakland is beautiful and strong! I am well, Francie, and hope you are also.

  • Jiko

    Mushim, thank you for your vivid account. I felt I was there, among the mothers with children, feeling the energy of the movement, hoping for peace and change and a better system for all. Creativity. Change. Meditation. Lifetime after lifetime, we keep at it.

    Thank you for leading the meditation. That part is often forgotten.

    In gassho…

  • Mushim

    Jiko, thank you for this reminder that we do this activity lifetime after lifetime, moving peacefully forward with all beings.
    In gassho to you,
    Mushim

  • Maia Duerr

    Mushim, thank you for writing this, and for showing up so beautifully for Oakland, in so many ways over so many years.

    This is a wonderful piece of writing — would it be okay if we reprinted it in the Upaya weekly e-newsletter?

    [and I owe you an email!]

    palms together,
    Maia (Zenyu)

  • Mushim

    Thanks for your kind words, Maia. Sure, no problem with reprinting this as long as you get permission from Turning Wheel Media, I guess. I don’t know if there are any digital printing courtesies involved here. Considering that you were exec. dir. of BPF, I would think that gives you a free pass but it never hurts to ask. Co-editors of TW Media, as you know, are Jacks and Everett.

  • Ann Gleig

    Dear Mushim,

    Thank you for providing what I read as an essentially nondual interpretation of the events unfolding in Oakland. Your reflection charts breakdown and breakthrough in a way that is both realistic and optimistic and one that manages to move beyond oppositions of us and them without losing sight of institutional and individual responsibility. And all this interlaced and framed with Shantideva–your writing performs the very creativity is speaks about and I hope it gets a wide audience. Can I post this link on facebook? Will certainly try.
    Much love and gratitude as ever,
    Ann

  • Mushim

    The nondual gate, like the Port of Oakland, is large and there’s a lot of cargo that goes in and out. Thanks, Ann! To post this on Facebook, you can copy the URL and paste it into your status box on your FB page.

  • Maia Duerr

    Funny, I think of myself more as past associate editor of TW than I do as past executive director! According to the submission guidelines the copyright returns to the author when it’s published, so I’m guessing that would be the same here…

    But Jacks and Everett, if you see this request, let me know your take on it.

  • Mushim

    Since I own the copyright, I’d be happy to see this essay reprinted in your e-newsletter, Maia. Thank you.

  • Bob Hochwalt

    As others have said — beautifully written and very evocative. Towards the end of your piece,, you quote from Grace Lee. She speaks of a necessary revolution, a revolution which includes re-inventing our public institutions and our national culture. I think this is the crux of the matter. What needs to be done. Now, how can we achieve it? We don’t have unlimited time. The population of the world with frighteningly consistency is continuing to accelerate. The finite resources of the planet are being consumed faster and faster. And standing in our way is – THE SYSTEM. Entrenched, with control over the mass media, and almost unlimited power and money. Realistically, I don’t see how it can be done. Yes, we can do whatever we can do and that will have to do. Buddhism teaches change, the one constant. And impermanence. I hope it’s impermanence especially for THE SYSTEM, NOT for the planetary system — at least for now.

  • Mushim

    Bob, we know that what you are calling “THE SYSTEM” is impermanent, just as everything else is, but that doesn’t mean it will be replaced by anything that works better for more people in our lifetimes, as you point out. I personally staunchly believe in the corollary to Right Effort (“not too tight, not too loose”) here: in order to “reinvent culture,” to use Grace Lee Boggs’s words, I need to strike a balance between doing what I can to overtly work for systemic change on one hand, and living a life of the spiritual culture that resonates with my values on the other hand. There are areas of overlap, but by “living a life of spiritual culture” I also mean planning things like the afternoon tea party that Josh and I recently threw for two friends who are brothers to one another. One is two and a half and the other is three and a half. Their dad said that they went home and gave their mom an almost moment-by-moment account of everything that happened. When I think of their happy faces, I smile.

  • Patrick McMahon

    Mushim, the most moving passage of your account had to do with that sweating cop trying to return the chair. Reminded me of the piece I wrote just having come back from the occupation of the Port.

    PEACE AND PROTECTION FOR THE COPS
    What captivated me about the march on the Port the sheer beauty and power and humor of youth. I haven’t been around it since I was young myself, and seeing it from the distance of a generation, I’m blown out. But it was more than a generation, it felt like eons, and I transported to Homeric times, to a peaceful but impassioned Trojan War where gods and humans mixed it up: all that drama, sexiness, camaraderie, sense of mission, an edge of danger. Dazzled, I wandered around, anonymous in the dark amidst the drums and dancing, the waves of excitement as one text message after another came over the ubiquitous smart phones and was relayed via an ingenious form of vocal communication involving messages from all points being relayed throughout the crowd–no center to anything, and yet a collective mind. But the night was wearing on, I was neither young or beautiful, needed to harbor my energy for my next morning in the workaday world, and I had a long walk ahead of me to the nearest public transportation. On my way, walking down a freeway eerily absent of cars shut down for the occupation, I came upon a huddle of cops, all in their twenties, thirties, scared and isolated, they seemed to me, a street gang hanging out for mutual safety. Saddened, I hesitated, then gave way to an impulse. Approaching, I greeted them with, “And how are you gentlemen tonight? “Don’t get too close,” the nearest said, one hand raised before him at chest height as though to ward me off, protect his heart, the other on his gun. Suddenly I was aware that there was an outside to the circle that I’d been moving in for the last few hours. I didn’t know quite what to say, feeling that I’d violated the social contract. Don’t get too close. I walked on, bewildered where shortly before I’d been dazzled. A dozen steps down the road I realized in brief hindsight that I could have said, “Why Officer, you don’t need to be afraid of me.” I almost turned back but, rightly or wrongly, stopped myself with the thought that he had no reason believe this old guy with grizzled mug and wrinkled brow, just because he said what he did? No, no penetration of this barrier by saying. Somehow by presence. I have more to learn, I can see, about occupying the whole, no inside, no outside, no young, no old, no cops, no revolutionaries, no protest, no workaday world. After all these years, I’m still practicing, still far from attaining–but trying, trying out a way of peace and protection for ALL beings.

  • Mushim

    Thanks, Patrick. Yeah, Buddhist Peace Fellowship is calling for “the 100%” leaving no one on the “outside.” Thank you for sharing this beautiful piece of writing.

  • young whan

    Mushim,
    Thanks for the beautiful expression of the day!
    It is also an inspiration that we can figure out how to work together to make our world better. 100% of us.

  • Mushim

    Young Whan, I consider the work you do as an educator, working with youth in Oakland, to be one of the most important parts of Occupy Oakland. The love and mindful empowerment you convey to your students is a shining light.

  • Sarah

    Wonderful, Mushim! Thank you for your company that day and your insights about Oakland, Occupy, and creativity, and practice, and more! I’m proud to be mentioned in cameo, with rice cakes! The revolution’s gotta eat! Love, Sarah

  • Mushim

    Thanks, Sarah. Maybe the revolution will be gluten free and organic!

  • Wendy

    Thank you, Mushim. I love your description of that day – it captures the heart of this movement (and of our city) so beautifully. This heart and spirit of our city, and our voices, sang so magnificently that day…thank you for keeping this image alive and strong, so our hope will never die.

  • Billbb

    Mushim, this is lovely.

    Out of the rot, compost and new life.

    Out of the chaos, new direction.

    We’re blessed to have you envisioning passage to a further shore!

    Love in deed!

  • Mushim

    Wendy, I’m loving how each Occupy movement takes on the unique character of the city it represents, and how Occupy Oakland “looks” so much like the Oakland I’ve known for so long in the different areas of public activity in which I participate. Oakland has so much history, so much diversity, so much heart and soul, tragedy and spirit, I don’t want to live anywhere else.

  • Mushim

    Bill, the Occupy Oakland flash mob dance to the tune “I Will Survive” has a fabulous line about how we can “compost capitalism collectively”! I get little Buddhist quotes from Dharmacrafts and this morning’s was about chaos, from the teachings of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche: “We realize that chaotic situations must not be rejected. Nor must we regard them as regressive, as a return to confusion. We must respect whatever happens to our state of mind. Chaos should be regarded as extremely good news.” So, here’s to compost, chaos, new direction, and new life!

  • Belinda Griswold

    Made me so homesick for my beloved Oakland – city of great creativity always! What a sweet portrait of that day for those of us far away.

  • Mushim

    Thank you, Belinda! You should see some of the new murals that have been painted on walls downtown; they are gorgeous. Yes, Oakland is always bursting with creativity in multiple dimensions. I love it here!

  • Vanessa

    Thank you Mushim! I don’t know where I’m going either, and am glad to know your presence and this gift along the way.

  • Mushim

    Vanessa, the feeling is mutual. You are one of our movement poets! Thank you for bringing so much heart and soul and poetry to Occupy Oakland.

  • Jacks

    what a great way of looking at things Mushim! I love Trungpa Rinpoche’s comment about chaos being regarded as extremely good news. That is so helpful right now, both in thinking about the occupy movement and in thinking about my own life!

  • Mushim

    Jacks, it was Zen Buddhist practice that put a big, big dent into my aversion to chaos. I was office manager in the Michigan temple where I did my original training and the building was being renovated. I wasn’t on the construction crew, and one day I left my second floor office and went to the bank. When I came back, a huge wall had been demolished and I had to climb to my workspace up stairs with a wall with no banister on one side, and empty space, no hand rail on the other side. Things like that happened all the time. Of course, what was a chaotic shock to me was what was planned and executed, methodically, by the carpenter monks.

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