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Why Guerrilla Theater? A Behind the Scenes Look at “Who Speaks?”

Planning the Guerrilla Theater

Our recent event “What’s Up With Engaged Buddhism?” started because I was in a total panic.

It was January. I had suddenly stepped in as Acting Director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship while Sarah Weintraub went on temporary disability, trying to get healthy after picking up a number of mysterious illnesses on a fall trip to Colombia to reconnect with her peace work there.

I reached out to elders in the BPF network for any help they could give. David Loy quickly responded, “I’ll be in the Bay Area on May 20. We could do an event while I’m there.”

Donald Rothberg offered, “I can help with that. We could do a talk, perhaps on The Future of Engaged Buddhism.”

“Great,” I said with relief and immense gratitude. “It would be interesting as a dialogue between elders and youth. Let’s figure out details as it gets closer.”

Who Should Speak about The Future of Socially Engaged Buddhism?

I sat with this question for six weeks: Who should speak on a panel about The Future of Socially Engaged Buddhism?

My initial thought was to pull together a panel of some of the biggest names in US socially engaged Buddhism. In addition to David and Donald, we could invite folks like Alan Senauke, Joanna Macy, Joan Halifax, Bernie Glassman, Fleet Maull.

I looked at my list and visualized this panel in my mind. It was an older generation of teachers, strikingly white, more men than women. Is this the future of engaged Buddhism? Where are the young people, those of us who will be living this future? With 40% of Generation Y being people of color, how can BPF possibly be relevant if we don’t center the voices of younger people of color in this dialogue?

In an attempt to diversify, I constructed a panel that included a hybrid of voices: leading teachers on socially engaged Buddhism and people who teach and practice outside of formal lineages. I invited Alka Arora and Katie Loncke, two younger women of color Buddhists to join the panel and balance the backgrounds of Donald Rothberg and David Loy.

But Who Really Speaks?

As Katie joined the BPF team in April, she took the lead on planning this event as one of her first projects. While I had asked “Who will speak on the panel?” Katie asked bigger questions.

“Who speaks at the event?”

With invited panelists, there are a set of people with “proper” credentials and experience who are allowed to speak with authority from the front of the room. Because of racism, sexism, and other forms of domination in the world we live in, the majority of folks who have earned the proper credentials to speak tend to be older white males. In attempting to diversify the event, were we falling into a trap of tokenizing folks by only inviting them to participate if they are willing to play by the already established rules of earning authority through formal education and approval of already established teachers? Can we actually have a diversity of views and experiences, if those who dissent or question the establishment are filtered out or drummed into submission in this system? How can we bring in the voices of everyone in the audience, regardless of credentials? Will some audience members revolt if they come to the event expecting experts to speak?

“Who even shows up to the event to speak?”

If we only reach out to our traditional Buddhist networks, our audience members will represent mainstream Bay Area Buddhists – leaning white, middle class, and Baby Boomer generation. How do we design an event that is interesting to a younger, more diverse generation that might not identify as Buddhist? Who is comfortable with the format of sitting meditation with a dharma talk afterward? Who feels better in other kinds of formats, such as chanting, discussion groups, or participating in a performance?

“Why is speaking the most important way to communicate anyway?”

As Buddhists, we know that speech isn’t the only form of knowing. Our mindfulness practice teaches us that silence can be a greater teacher. Yet we also glorify the dharma talk as a primary way of communicating about Buddhism.

Katie Loncke reprised this question in her talk: “What are other ways we communicate as socially engaged Buddhists that don’t have to do with speech? We communicate through art – like Kenji Liu’s art here tonight. We communicate through the way the room is set up. We communicate through how we serve food, how we garden. As socially engaged Buddhists, is this part of participating in the valuing of mental labor over manual labor?”

Who Speaks? It Depends on the Format

Out of these many questions emerged the idea: what if questions shape the event? Before we can talk about the Future of Engaged Buddhism, we have to ask questions about how this future is constructed and who gets to shape it.

“Probably the most powerful ‘Buddhist’ tool I feel I can offer children is identical to what is called ‘critical thinking’ in modern education – the ability to formulate questions that can open up new areas of thought and being, and the courage to do so. What greater gift can we give, since surely we do not have all the answers?” – Mushim Patricia Ikeda, in Not Turning Away: The Practice of Engaged Buddhism.

Our final format opened up more questions than provided answers. It included surprise guerrilla theater, audience discussion groups, remarks from our panelists that centered on questions, and then a large group discussion that looked at answers. We were graced with the presence of Buddhist activist art by Kenji Liu.

Why multiple formats? No one of them is perfect. Each format allows for some kinds of speech, and closes down the possibility for others. We got to experience for ourselves: What forms of speech do we find comfort in? What speech makes us uncomfortable? The guerrilla theater opening in particular was designed to interrupt the expected panel format, an interruption that creates space for us to ask questions about how format and social norms allow some of us to speak with ease while others must fight to be heard.

For some participants, the switching of formats was hard to follow. Katie Loncke was the first speakers after a period of discussion. We hadn’t communicated clearly enough that this section would be more formal remarks rather than open discussion. We were sitting in a circle, which appeared to invite open sharing.

As Katie began posing her series of questions, a participant sitting next to her wanted to interject his thoughts. We got to witness an impromptu scene of “Who Speaks?” You can watch this for yourself in the video of Katie’s talk. How do we feel when she is interrupted? Does it feel like a replay of the opening guerilla theater piece, with a white man taking the mic away from a woman of color? Do we dismiss his statements quickly because they are inappropriately timed? Do we want him to take the mic because he is an audience member who has been given minimal authority to speak and is trying to reassert space for dissenting opinions? Do we feel embarrassed on his behalf that he hadn’t tracked this change in format? Is there a clear victim in this scene, one who is clearly silenced while the other asserts power?

Power, Authority, & Who Speaks for Movements

As a new leader at Buddhist Peace Fellowship, I have too often questioned my own authority to speak about socially engaged Buddhism. I’m not a teacher. I haven’t read enough. I haven’t written enough. No one knows me. If my title at BPF is not enough to bestow authority, how can others we need in our movement step into their authority as socially engaged Buddhists?

As Buddhists, we place a lot of value in the authority of our teachers. We can get obsessed with lineages, and many traditions have formal ceremonies for bestowing new people with the authority to teach. Yet the Buddha also admonishes, “Don’t blindly believe what I say …. Find out for yourself what is true and virtuous.”

David Loy spoke to this in his remarks, “If we say Buddhists are against hierarchy, that’s true, but it’s only a half truth. Yes, we all have the same Buddha nature. But it’s also true that in our sanghas, there’s a distinction made between teachers, between people who are more advanced in their spiritual practice than others.”

At our event, we held both of these truths. We all have the same Buddha nature and can access its wisdom. Yet we also value the wisdom of teachers whose practice, study, and reflection have much to teach us about accessing this wisdom. In the guerrilla theater section, we also held both the wisdom of knowing something in our head, and the wisdom of feeling it in the body. We will need to access all of this wisdom – and more – if we are to face the immense challenges of our times.

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[Top Photo: The Guerrilla Theater team makes final plans for the May 20th event “What’s Up with Engaged Buddhism? Part 1: Who Speaks?”]

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Comments (5)

  • Richard Modiano

    It’s worth noting that in Jodo Shinshu the teacher is someone who is more informed about the Buddhadharma than others and has learned how to carry out rituals but is otherwise no more spiritually advanced than any other person of shinjin. Also, the kaikyoshi serves in his or her position at the pleasure of the sangha. Shinran Shonin called this “ondobo ondogyo” fellow travelers – fellow seekers.

  • Mushim

    Richard, I greatly appreciate your clarification of the role of the teacher in Jodo Shinshu. I have been immeasurably enriched by my friendships with Rev. Kenneth Kenshin Tanaka, Rev. Ryo Imamura, Rev. Ron Kobata, Rev. Harry Gyokyo Bridge, and Rev. Noriaki Fujimori, who are all BCA ministers and teachers. Several of them have been very involved with Buddhist Peace Fellowship over the years. And I personally think that the emphasis on remaining humble and on faith in Amida are immensely healing elements I have learned from my Shin Buddhist friends and my Shin Buddhist grandma. The concept of “ondobo ondogyo” fellow travelers – fellow seekers — is beautiful and empowering. Thank you.

  • Dawn

    Thanks for this Richard – the idea of fellow traveler / fellow seeker is part of what I’m excited to explore more.

    Just this afternoon, I read Larry Yang’s latest article “Dharma is Culture” on Huffington Post:

    He makes an interesting point that “respect for elders” evolved into Chinese Buddhist practice over 700 years as Buddhism met and became transformed by Chinese culture.

    It’s an interesting place of reflection – how do different Buddhist traditions relate to power and authority? As these traditions take root in the West, how are these ideas of power and authority within different traditions further transformed?

  • Christopher Bowers

    Its great to see the question of power and privilege being talked about in Buddhist circles. I’d like to see an article called “Who Listens?”. I think those of us in a privileged power, be it because of a leadership position, our gender, our race, etc… would do well by other to listen more than we speak. And since I as a white male was socialized to see power be more equated with speaking than with listening, this can be challenging! But I feel that deep, non-defensive listening is a form of communication that can point us the way towards being accountable to those with less privilege or power. Thanks for this article!

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