Occupying the Neighbor’hood
Following meditation, each morning I make my bows to the Three Treasures of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. When I come to Sangha, I think, if I think at all, of my neighbors, those to whom I extend whatever wisdom and compassion I’ve garnered from the Buddha Way and who teach me what the Way is on the street. What I give out and what I get back fully engages me with the world. In fact, this apparently narrow sphere of operations has become my very field of Engaged Buddhism. As I leave my backyard meditation hut and advance into the word of activity, it greets me on my front doorstep. After decades of living in and around Dharma centers, practicing in the company of my Dharma brothers and sisters, I’m happily transplanted to Rose Drive (a real enough street although for confidentiality I’ve changed the name), a one-block community of some 70 homes, located in an East Oakland suburb and bordering the territory of one of the highest homicide rates in the nation. Thankfully, here we enjoy an oasis of relative peace, all credit due to generations of vigilance, tradition and the cohesion of a community characterized by diversity on all counts: age, ethnicity, place of origin, socioeconomics, education, sexual orientation and religion. As a Buddhist, not to mention a Buddhist of European descent, I’m a distinct minority, but that hardly enters into my neighborhood persona, known—the same as for any of us—more for what I do than for what I believe. I sit in my hut in silence, unknown and unseen, as it should be. Active in the neighborhood, member of the board and contributor to the newsletter, as an aspiring Bodhisattva I’ve been fully employed within the manageable scope of the neighborhood—that is, up until Occupy Wall Street and our own local Occupy Oakland, has made me not so sure my employment is as full as it could be .
I’m sure as ever that our round of activities throughout the year—a neighborhood watch group, progressive dinners, a winter holiday program that invites in the larger community of Oakland, disaster preparedness, a directory, a newsletter——promote in their own modest ways the peace and protection, if not of all beings, then of a select number of them, a number whose faces and names I can keep in mind. But fulfilled as I personally am by what’s near at hand, it’s not clear to me, borrowing on the vocabulary of the occupy movement, what it means to fully occupy one’s neighborhood: not only to live in it and make the living as good as can be but to bring it more into the greater world beyond our bounds, a world in need of what we’re fortunate enough to have. In the last year the movement has brought front and center the complex truth that the ills of society are pervasive, interconnected and infect us all—or at least the 99% of us. That includes 100% of us on the block and we’re beginning to feel the fragility of our sanctuary. Foreclosures are cropping up, leaving vacancies in our cohesion. Police forces are being cut, local schools shut down, parolees from California’s overcrowded prisons dumped off just blocks away. Gradually our buffer against what’s going on around us is deteriorating. Being active in the neighborhood is a great deal in itself, but I’m thinking that perhaps there’s a greater deal possible: for us to pitch in at the seasonal workdays of our local school, make our voice as an association heard at city council meetings, participate in the crime prevention councils going on in adjoining neighborhoods.
And yet I’m not convinced that I, or we collectively, have the energy and time to up the ante from preservation of a local peace to peace and protection for all. Whether or not I’m operating out of prudence or a failure of heart, I’m daunted to have the conversation—yet—with most of my neighbors, for whom not rocking the boat, as low as it is in the water, is the thing. A conversation with the Buddha Sangha is easier to imagine, and so, with support from the editors of our newly published on-line version of Turning Wheel, I’m stepping up to pilot the Occupy Neighborhood blog. My intention is that while exploring possibilities of neighborhood as a field of engaged Buddhism, we get a sense for where one block ends and another begins. With that perspective, I trust we’ll return, a touch more informed and enlightened, to our blocks and villages, towns and cities: great or small, ours to occupy.
So then, my neighbor of the sangha’hood, just how do we do it?
Photo by The Fayj