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Compassionate Appeals to Our “Leaders” Won’t Transform Society

In the comments section of the first clip in our interview series with Waging Non-Violence editor Nathan Schneider, BFP Co-director Katie Loncke offered the following:

the folks over at Buddha On Strike (who share a lot of super interesting analysis on compassion in economics), summarize their practice of meditating at the Goldman Sachs offices in this way:

“So we go to Goldman every day and meditate and extend compassion, and demand that they extend that same compassion to the billions of people across the world affected by their practices.”

https://vimeo.com/70085881

Of course, sometimes we are working from below even as we address people in power. We can model compassion for people in positions of top-down power. That piece seems really solid in the daily Goldman meditation, holding signs like “Let’s Alleviate Suffering Together.” But where is the mechanism to enforce the “demand”? It’s one thing to compassionately address people in power because we *depend on them to change their ways,* and another thing to organize for change from below — soul force — people power — and *from that stance of pressure and leverage,* manifest our compassion for those defending injustice, protecting the structures that keep injustice flowing.

I think the majority of us recognize that something is way off about the way things are. However, we live in societies built upon highly unjust, top down forms of power. And having lived and breathed this way of being together for so long, it’s difficult to imagine and start to enact something new. We have been trained that a small, select number of people are supposed to hold the lions share of power, and that the we – the regular people – are “given” the rest of the power in the form of voting, writing letters to elected officials, meeting with public officials to air grievances,  and other such minor mechanisms. It’s similar in the corporate world, where public concerns are supposedly addressed by the “market,” and that when changes in individual purchase habits aren’t enough, appeals to government run agencies will deal with the more thorny problems, like massive environmental destruction or heavy labor abuses. These table scraps are touted as grand rewards given by benevolent leaders, when the reality is that even they have their origins in collective struggles throughout history.

The Goldman Sachs protests Katie brings up play right into this. Appealing to what they hope will become a benevolent leadership who changes their ways, and offers the world a good corporate example to emulate. This kind of appealing is essentially ahistorical. It fails to take into account the very addictive grip greed has on the folks at the top of Goldman Sachs, and also how the actions of their company are tied into a globalized power structure that keeps it all going. Even if the head of Goldman Sachs suddenly is struck by one of their signs, and thinks “I’m going to do things differently,” he’s got a whole corporation, plus shareholders, plus a worldwide network of financial concerns tied in with national governments to face. The pressure to keep doing what they’ve been doing is fierce, never mind the fact that it’s damned rare for someone to overcome the conditioning that led them to the top of the heap and have such an epiphany in the first place.

I recently read this excellent article which explores the non-violent Otpur resistance movement in Serbia that spurred on the collapse of the Milosevic government a little over a decade ago. One of the things Otpur focused on was undermining the several layers of supporting cast members and structures below the top of the power pyramid. Instead of appealing to Milosevic or his top officials, they went after local officials, police officers, business folks, and others who in various ways, helped prop up the government, but who also were trapped within a system that mostly used them for the benefit of those above them. Although I don’t think Otpur had a clearly developed vision build on a “power with” model, rather than a power over model, their activist methods suggest a shift in that direction. Seeing those with only a bit more power than them as being most important to influence. What if the Goldman Sachs protestors spent some of their time and energy directly appealing to the average workers in GS? Attempting to break down their compliance with following orders on critical pieces of their work that might make a difference in the lives of so many others? The challenge with multinationals is that they are, indeed, multinational. Which means that campaigns probably need to spread beyond a single country or location, even if it’s the headquarters of the company.

Anyway, bringing it back to us Buddhists, Katie goes on to ask “Have you experienced a tendency in Buddhist circles to talk around power, or hope that the people in power will change their ways without active, strong pressure from below, and systemic overhauls?”

First off, there aren’t enough discussions about power and social issues amongst Buddhists in the first place. Putting that aside, though, what I find is that, at least amongst American convert Buddhist folks, there’s a strong middle class ethos to these conversations. A belief that the government is for the people. That voting and petitioning elected officials is our main form of power. That the whole thing boils down to Democrats or Republicans. That our individual choices, such as choosing to eat organic or not shop at Walmart, are the other main form of power. And that in general, the structures of American society are ok. Maybe not perfect, but talk of radical action, strikes, revolution, building new economies or political mechanisms is rare, if almost nonexistent.

If you’re doing ok under certain conditions, it’s harder to advocate and pressure for something radically different. If you’re at the top and thriving (materially anyway) under certain conditions, it’s highly unlikely you’ll advocate and pressure for something radically different.

So, it really shouldn’t be a surprise that many Buddhist efforts here in the states are about reform. Or basic charity to support those being most screwed over by the current systems.

In fact, I think the historical Buddha’s story might be a hindrance for us in this regard. Specifically, hearing about this man who was living at the top of the pyramid, who chooses to abandon his wealth and power in search of the truth about this life. It can give the impression that if we show the corporate and political leaders of today enough of the misery being produced as a result of their decisions that they’ll have something of a wake up moment. Something strong enough to make them choose to abandon their ways and forge a better path forward. It’s not that folks are going around equating the Buddha with the CEO of Goldman Sachs. It’s more that because we view everyone as having buddhanature, there can be a sort of equivalency that goes along with that in our actions. A thinking that says the same approaches will work with anyone.

Beyond that, though, and returning to the beginning of this article, is the point that most of us have lived and breathed this way of being together for decades. It takes a lot of work to imagine something different. To unearth examples, either historically or happening now, of something different. And then to push forth with efforts in that new direction.

What folks like Buddha on Strike are doing is a start. And actions like the Goldman Sachs demonstration have the potential to shift in such a direction if they reconsider who they are aiming for, and what additional tactics might be needed to bring about the transformation they desire.

What do you think?

 

*Photo Buddha On Strike founder Max Zahn meditating outside of Goldman Sachs. 

 

 

 

 

Comments (13)

  • Mushim

    I personally do not advocate for what I call the “sitting plus” model of socially-engaged Buddhist activism, which is a model that was often put forward by the Buddhist Peace Fellowship in the more distant past through writing and photographic images. This model consists of identifying an activist issue, and then adding sitting meditation and taking photographs of it and writing about it. As far as I can see, the underlying belief embedded in this model is that for humans who are participating in systems deemed to be harmful to see other humans doing silent Buddhist sitting meditation in front of their organization’s gates or doors may produce an effect that can contribute to systemic change in a way that the sitters deem positive.
    If people wish to engage in these types of actions, I of course am not opposed to it in any way. Being a peaceful presence and witness can be a good thing in some situations. However, with giant, multi-national corporations and institutions, “compassionate appeals” are, in my opinion, ineffective.
    The Buddhist teachings say that compassion is incomplete without wisdom and wisdom is incomplete without compassion. I don’t know the answers to the huge abuses of power and the inequities that exist today in the world. I think we need to gather all the wisdom and all the data that we can in order to use our energy and our resources most efficiently.
    And, I do think that the 12 Steps of Kingian Nonviolence are good to study, as well as the history of Kingian Nonviolence in the U.S. The most effective tactics did not seem to involve people showing up and silently praying for compassion in front of segregated lunch counters, for instance. Once the point of direct action was reached (and there was a process to get to that point), there was a well-coordinated series of actions intended to create direct confrontation and engagement, committed by people who had been trained to remain nonviolent when yelled at, spat upon, and physically attacked.
    It is certainly possible that the hearts of leaders of huge, exploitative organizations might be moved by seeing people peacefully sitting meditation, and signs about compassion. My question is, how probable is it? What’s the very best use of our time, our energy, our money?

  • Richard Modiano

    Like you so accurately stated above Nathan, most US convert Buddhists implicitly believe in the ruling ideology’s narrative which places the blame for social and economic iniquities not on the global capitalist system as such, but on secondary and contingent deviations like overly lax legal
    regulations, the corruption of big financial institutions, personal greed and ambition, etc. Against this tendency, one should insist on the key question: what is the “flaw” in the system as such that makes possible these iniquities?

  • Richard Modiano

    “It is certainly possible that the hearts of leaders of huge, exploitative organizations might be moved by seeing people peacefully sitting meditation, and signs about compassion. My question is, how probable is it?”

    Even if some leader was moved by the sight of people sitting peacefully, a CEO can’t dissolve the corporation that he or she works for, though I suppose he or she could somehow sabotage it or expose its defalcations. Otherwise one is bound by the constraints of the institution he or she serves.

  • nathan

    It seems to me like the meditation plus approach could be useful in a broader array of strategies and techniques. In fact, it may be a good “entry point” for those who aren’t ready for, or are afraid of, doing most escalated work, where dealing with law enforcement repression and other potential hostilities is much more likely. I’d like to think that groups like Buddha on Strike could be allies in larger campaigns, and perhaps if they spent more time analyzing power and social movements historically, might expand the work they’re doing.

    I say this in part because public meditation with signage is almost a default Buddhist response. It’s expected in other words. And I think it’s worth honoring that folks are taking a step into action, and applying the teachings in some manner as well.

    The critiques are needed, which is why I posted this, and also why I agree with the concerns/insights of Katie, Mushim, and Richard here.

    And … perhaps the meditation plus approach can be evolved into something much more likely to have an impact.

  • Mushim

    Richard, you make a good point about the constraints of leadership. I believe that is 90%+ true — and then occasionally there are whistle blowers in high places, such as Enron’s Sherron Watkins: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sherron_Watkins

    When I watched the “Enron” documentary some years ago, I was greatly impressed with the interview footage with Sherron Watkins and her account of how she first “followed the rules” by sending internal memos about financial irregularities and then, when these produced no positive results, she undertook to do the right thing and expose the corrupt practices at Enron.

  • Mushim

    Nathan, I really appreciate your gently inclusive *and* keenly incisive communications style — it is rare to find the two qualities in one person.

    I agree with you that the MPA (meditation plus approach) to socially engaged Buddhist direct action can be an entry point for some people. You are entirely right. And, I think it’s important that there be education around not seeing the sitting/signage actions as being “more spiritual” or “more Buddhist” than, say, Buddhists doing social activism while not wearing distinctive clothing and not doing meditation. With some meditation-centered convert Buddhists in the U.S., I have noticed there can be a distressing tendency to see silent sitting as being superior to other Buddhist practices, such as chanting and bowing, which can strike some people as looking “religious” in a way that is distasteful or somehow looks “too Asian.”

    I feel that the basic most important thing we’re all pointing to is: what are the actions that will simultaneously align with Buddhist values and at the same time produce the highest degree of positive transformative impact? In other words, can there be a set of coordinated strategies that will amplify the actions and efforts of individuals and smaller groups?

  • nathan

    “With some meditation-centered convert Buddhists in the U.S., I have noticed there can be a distressing tendency to see silent sitting as being superior to other Buddhist practices, such as chanting and bowing, which can strike some people as looking “religious” in a way that is distasteful or somehow looks “too Asian.”” Yes, this is definitely an issue. I see plenty of it in my own sangha, somehow despite the fact that we have chanting, bowing, and other forms in addition to seated meditation. Even though the teachings emphasize the emptiness of forms, and also promote a reverence for all of it, still zazen is elevated above all. Which is problematic.

    “In other words, can there be a set of coordinated strategies that will amplify the actions and efforts of individuals and smaller groups?”

    This, to me, is the way forward. Coordinated strategies offered by a variety of smaller groups aiming in a similar direction. And I think that can happen. It seems to me that the biggest hurdle is getting all these different groups to work together enough to aim in a similar direction. The desire for everyone to do the same thing, and think exactly the same way, is damned fierce. A formidable opponent you might say.

  • Marie Lloyd

    So what would I want if I were a First Nations group under sudden attack by police because a fracking company wanted to rip up my unceded territory and was losing $60,000 per day while my peaceful native blockade was in place?
    I would want publicity, petitions, an email of support. I’d want immediate practical support.
    This happened two or so days ago to the Elsipogtog people in New Brunswick, Canada. So I did this: publicity, donation, email / facebook support.
    In addition there was a rally in Toronto, Ontario, the next day led by First Nations against a tar sands pipeline coming from Alberta, home of my country’s concerted effort to destroy our planetary home. I and friends from No Tar Sands Pipeline In Kingston went to the rally,
    Two years ago, following 350.org’s action and led by First Nations in our nation’s capital, Ottawa, Ontario, I underwent civil disobedience arrest. And developed a very good relationship with the police who arrested me, one of whom explained that he rides his bike to work. Aren’t you kind of glad I got off the cushion that day?
    In what way was this not practice–do I have to be in a certain position, is a cushion mandatory at all times for practice to unfold? Why do I even have to use a word like “compassion”? Emerson once said,”What you are speaks so loudly I cannot hear what you are saying.” Nice one, Ralph Waldo. Let me try hard to fulfil that one.

  • Travis Donoho

    I agree that the “witnessing” tactic of public sitting can be an effective tactic in specific situations, but too often engaged Buddhists adopt it as a strategy as a means of avoiding conflict. For example, the Austin chapter of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship conducted public sittings during the hour of each execution on the sidewalk across from the governor’s mansion for four years, sometimes attracting more than a dozen Buddhists on their zafus and zabutons on a downtown street. I was a participant in dozens of these sittings, which I believed to be an effective tactic in light of Texans’ overwhelming support of the death penalty, but in retrospect, I wonder.l We were joined by Quakers, Catholics, and secular activists holding anti-death penalty signs, may of whom were active in the Texas Coalition Against the Death Penalty. I got the sense that many of these other activists circulated petitions and lobbied their legislators, like water slowly wearing away a stone, whereas we Buddhists just sat, probably because getting our hands dirty with practical politics reeked of “confllct” and was too time-consuming.

  • Mushim

    Thank you, Travis, that is exactly what I’m talking about! I doubt that any Christian social justice activist I know would think that showing up at a strategic spot in order to draw attention to a specific issue, and praying in a special physical position, using a certain kind of cushion, then going home, would be sufficient in and of itself.

    And, at the same time, I wish to acknowledge that there are socially engaged Buddhists that circulate petitions, engage with legislators, and do various types of neighborhood-based grassroots organizing without calling attention to their faith base. In my way of thinking, groups doing sitting meditation as bearing witness would hopefully use the meditation time to feel the impact of the injustice they are witnessing, strengthen their resolve to take action, and then mindfully take action as their conscience and wisdom dictates.

  • Nathan G. Thompson

    “In my way of thinking, groups doing sitting meditation as bearing witness would hopefully use the meditation time to feel the impact of the injustice they are witnessing, strengthen their resolve to take action, and then mindfully take action as their conscience and wisdom dictates.”

    This seems to be the critical step missing from a lot of these witness actions. Back when the Iraq war started (again), members of our zen center did public sitting in a park nearly. Being in the middle of downtown, it was very visible. However, I don’t think there was ever any collective effort to lobby elected officials, educate the public about the costs of war (monetary and otherwise), or anything else.

    And I think this lack of anything else is part of the reason why it didn’t last. Just sitting there, the despair and sadness and anger of seeing war continue full force kept arising. But beyond letting it go over and over there wasn’t anything else to keep folks engaged. Furthermore, I can’t recall any specific support coming from the zen center either, although I wasn’t in the “inner circle” back then, so perhaps there was something going on behind the scenes. Regardless, it was sort of an independent activity, and kept that way I think as not to “offend” anyone. Occasionally, the sit would be mentioned at our services, but that’s about it.

    There seem to be so many tangles that make it hard to actually get “teeth” behind these actions.

  • Nathan G. Thompson

    “In what way was this not practice–do I have to be in a certain position, is a cushion mandatory at all times for practice to unfold? Why do I even have to use a word like “compassion”?” I hear you Marie. A lot of us seem to get caught up in forms and words, thinking it’s got to be a certain way, or look a certain way. Even when the teachings counsel us over and over that this isn’t the case.

  • Mushim

    Here is a prime example of an ecumenical, faith-based organization in Oakland that doesn’t “look spiritual” or “look religious,” and that does powerful activist work: http://www.oaklandcommunity.org/about-oco/the-oco-story/

    But you probably don’t get to meditate if you go to their meetings. :-)

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