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Occupy & Arab Spring

Why should engaged Buddhists get involved?

by Chris Wilson, Board Chair of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship

Some mainstream commentators have begun to describe the Occupy Wall Street movement as the American result of the Arab Spring. Is that a fair description? We believe it is.

The willingness of Arab demonstrators to die for democracy caused thoughtful people in all democratic societies to pause and reflect on how far their own governments have strayed from democratic ideals.

On this latter question, it appears that Americans harbor serious doubts about the legitimacy of our democracy. In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, the respected pollster Stanley Greenberg reported that Americans are already convinced that the influence of money in politics has badly undermined our democracy.

His most disturbing conclusion is that Americans think all movements calling for corrective legislation are doomed from the outset. This is because Americans believe legislators respond only to the powerful moneyed interests that fund their campaigns, and that no reforms that threaten those interests will ever be passed.

Sadly, Greenberg’s research suggests that lack of faith in the legislative process currently also dooms calls for the public financing of campaigns. Ironically, this leaves the American public in the same position as the Egyptian public — having no recourse other than to make clear we regard our current government as illegitimate.

Pundits who say that Occupy protestors must quickly unite behind two or three core demands have failed to understand this dynamic. The demonstrators are NOT petitioning Congress for redress. They don’t trust Congress and it’s “pay for play” system of lobbyists and campaign contributions. Like the Egyptians, they are demanding that the government acknowledge that the existing system is rotten and needs a serious makeover.

Occupy Wall Street simply demands an end to growing income disparity and to the undue influence the big banks have over both of our political parties. Like the Egyptian demonstrators, they hope their support will grow to a point that the ruling political parties can no longer ignore them. At that point, the political elite itself begins to offer concessions in a desperate effort to restore its credibility, an act that effectively proves the demonstrators’ case.

What role should socially engaged Buddhists play in this nascent movement? They should support it. In fact, BPF members in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Tampa and elsewhere have already joined protests in their cities.

Our endorsement is based on our agreement that the influence of money in politics is blocking many of the social justice and environmental goals that BPF promotes. It is also based on the fact that Occupy Wall Street has made nonviolence one of its primary commitments and thus far has kept that commitment.

And what about charges by Republicans that the movement is promoting “class warfare”? The answer is that protesting the role of big money in politics is not warfare. Rather, it is self-defense by the majority of Americans against the daily economic suffering caused by a broken system.

Hopefully, what Buddhists will contribute is the wisdom that comes from practice in dealing with the strong emotion of anger, channeling it as a source of energy for positive purposes and compassionate action (Thich Nhat Hanh).

Buddhists will help the movement stay positive because they understand the importance of maintaining an attitude of “not knowing” (Zen Peacemaker Order), also known as “Beginner’s Mind” (Shunryu Suzuki Roshi), or “The Power of an Open Question” (Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel). Applied thoroughly, this practice will prevent tagging any group as “the enemy” on whom to take revenge. It is not revenge we seek; what we seek is the relief of suffering through the restraint of greed, hatred, and ignorance.

Buddhists can help guarantee that the movement will produce solutions that include everyone with respect and compassion. After all, treating everyone with respect and compassion is the very definition of a legitimate democracy.

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