Do We Scare Off People with our Spiritual Activism?
Kingian Nonviolence trainer Kazu Haga talks spiritual roots – both of Kingian nonviolence and his own. Together we explore when it’s useful to show up as spiritual activists, and when we can take advice from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, who tailored his language differently when he was at a political march or in the pulpit. This is the third in our interview series together (see also #1 and #2). ~ Dawn
DAWN HANEY, Turning Wheel Media: In Buddhist communities people often look to the Civil Rights Movement, particularly Dr. King’s work around this sort of very spiritually informed activism. It’s very inspiring to folks, even though it comes more out of a Christian context than a Buddhist context. How does the current form of the [Kingian nonviolence] training relate to those spiritual roots? And more generally, how do you see spirituality informing our movements?
KAZU HAGA, East Point Peace Academy: Well the Kingian nonviolence training itself I wouldn’t say is grounded in a spiritual tradition. When you look at Dr. King’s work, and when you read his speeches, there’s a big difference from the language he uses when he was at marches and rallies and demonstrations versus when you read his sermons. One thing I think he was really good at was recognizing the audience that he was trying to reach out to, framing things in a way that captures people. And I think oftentimes when you use language that’s specific to a certain tradition you lose part of the audience. I think he was really good at, when he was at rallies and demonstrations, using language that broadens his base. Similarly, the Kingian nonviolence training, even though King was a minister, and was the son of a minister, and a grandson of a minister, really frames the discussion and philosophy in ways that don’t turn people off.
At the same time, I really do feel like whether you want to call it spirituality, or faith, or whatever you want to call it, I think the philosophy of nonviolence in general really speaks to the core values of who we are as human beings …. Dr. Lafayette [one of the co-founders of Kingian nonviolence trainings] always says that nonviolence is about bringing the best out of human beings, or the very best in people. I think that speaks to us at that deeper core in people, and faith in people, and a faith in humanity that even if you don’t necessarily have a religious or spiritual tradition, it speaks to people on a deeper level than just intellectual workshops or political workshops.
Some people may be scared off by the word “spiritual,” but I do feel that it’s grounded in something deep and something that we all have just in our core as human beings.
DAWN HANEY: I think that particularly coming to political work as a Buddhist, not being part of the dominant spiritual narrative of the U.S., we’ve really struggled with that. If you front with Buddhist language, or even “Buddhist” in the name, people are like, “I’m not so sure about who you are, or what you’re about.” We’ve been playing with that, sometimes showing up to political action events and seeing what is it like when we front with “Buddhist Peace Fellowship” versus being a little more quiet and subtle about that. Sometimes it’s strategic to have faith-based leaders speaking out around politics, and sometimes it’s important to downplay that to speak to a larger base.
KAZU HAGA: I think there are some core teachings and philosophies and practices in Buddhism that can cut across any sort of religious divide.
DAWN HANEY: You said that early on in your life that you’d done a pilgrimage?
KAZU HAGA: My introduction into any sort of political or social justice work was when I was 17; I was living in Massachusetts at the time. I dropped out of high school and I wasn’t living a very productive life at all.
I heard about this Japanese Buddhist oracle, Nipponzan Myohoji, which was a small offshoot of the Nichiren Sect. It’s this radical bunch of monks and nuns really committed to social justice. They were going to walk from Massachusetts to New Orleans, and eventually down the coast of Africa to retrace the slave route, and talk about the legacy that slavery left behind, and begin the process of healing and reconciling from that history. I heard about this walk three days before it started and I was 17 years old, and had never done anything like it but it piqued my interest and so I decided to go on it just for the first week. I essentially didn’t come home for a year and a half after that.
I walked to New Orleans with this group and one of the nuns of that order took me under her wing a little bit and invited me to go to Nepal with her. I ended up overseas for a year studying in their temple in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka and studying their philosophies of non-violence and their commitments to social justice.
That was my introduction to all of this work. I lived a monks life for a year and a half.
Kazu Haga is a nonviolence trainer and founder of the East Point Peace Academy in Oakland, California. East Point Peace Academy envisions a world where historic conflicts are fully reconciled and where new conflict arises solely as an opportunity for deeper growth. Where the depth of human relations are so high that it allows each individual to attain their fullest human potential. Kazu works in prisons, jails, schools and communities to build a powerful, nonviolent movement of peace warriors.
Kazu’s strength comes from his commitment to peace work since the age of 17, when he embarked on a 1.5-year journey across the US and South Asia, studying nonviolence while living in temples with a Buddhist order committed to peace and justice. He reflects “I believe that those working for peace need to have the same levels of commitment, training, strategy and discipline that the military invests into war. The military trains its leaders at WestPoint. EastPoint will serve as a counter to that.” Contact Kazu at firstname.lastname@example.org