Bearing Witness in Austin, Texas
This recounts the experience of me and a group of fellow Engaged Buddhists and reflects on what it takes to be of benefit to Society.
Politics as Usual. We normally think of a political process as dialectical in the West. We advocate the position that is Right, that accords with reality, that is compassionate, that will benefit the most people in the best way, and we oppose the others who advocate a different position, which is, of course, Wrong. Our purpose is …, well, that is where things get murky. I would like to say, our purpose is to make our position, the Right one, the one embraced by a majority and the basis of public policy. But that so rarely happens that we end up seeking more modest victories, like Going on the Record with what is Right, or Causing Vexation those who are Wrong.
I was marginally political before becoming a Buddhist, but found I coped poorly with oppositional situations, such as angry rallies, or talk radio discussions,. I was too prone to anger myself and succumbed in such situations to emotional distress and rational disorientation. I could however manage, as a kind of armchair activist, to keep myself informed, and sometimes to donate funds to worthy causes. For instance, once, in the Reagan years, while I was gainfully employed as a college professor, I funded the trip of a political science student, who also spoke Spanish, to travel to Nicaragua as a delegate for Witness for Peace.
Nonetheless I often felt compelled to go to occasional the political rally when the occasion demanded, for instance, when a new war started. A typical rally, I observed, would involve a series of speakers each of whom was not only experienced in that role, but also Right. Each of these speakers in turn would address the crowd of people who were somewhat Angry and very Right and this crowd would become even more Angry, but perhaps, it seemed to me, a little less Right. Each speaker would (1) explain why we were Right and others were Wrong, then (2) give a personal anecdote to illustrate why we were Right and others were Wrong, and finally (3) get the audience to chant angrily, often with fists pumping in the air, usually something like this:
What Do We Want?
When Do We Want It?
If such a rally were to have a rational purpose at all it would be to convince anyone who was either Wrong or Indifferent to get over it and be Right, like us, right? However since everybody present was generally already Right there was opportunity for little else than making Right people more Angry, so that’s what they would do. Nevertheless quite often a Golden Opportunity would present itself in the form of a counter-demonstration across the street full of people who, though also Angry, were Wrong. This was exactly the missing ingredient that could give the rally a rational purpose, that of convincing the Wrong to embrace what is Right! Of course theirs would be the greater burden: We have the Facts. We have the Compassion. We have the Logic. We are Right. But they would have to Change Their Minds, a Rare and Precious Deed. Clearly the Right would require tact to make use of this Golden Opportunity to convince the Wrong. How do we utilize this Golden Opportunity?
Generally the scenario would play out like this: First, the Right would jeer at the Wrong, so that the Wrong would understand who is Right. However, rather than be convinced by the logic of this, the Wrong would just jeer back and also chant something of their own composition. As if the Wrong had not heard properly, the Right would jeer and chant even more heartily, and sometimes undertake to ridicule the Wrong in specific ways. Still unconvinced, the Wrong would hurl insults back at the Right, so the Right would jack up the volume on their PA, then the Wrong would turn up the knobs on their megaphones. In the end the rally would become a Display of Dueling Decibels, both sides would be irrevocably hardened in their respective positions, and a once Golden Opportunity would be squandered. Anger has no wisdom whatsoever.
On the day of George Bush’s inauguration, on the basis of contested election results in the race with Al Gore and intervention by the conservative Supreme Court, I joined a rally on the South steps of the Capitol Building in Austin, Texas, to protest the validity of the election and therefore of the inauguration. We, once again, were Right, and if we were not angry enough at the beginning, we certainly were by the end. Many of the participants were undoubtedly Gore supporters, but most of the speakers seemed to have opted for Nader, the Green party candidate for president who had garnered 2.74% of the vote, including mine, after declaring both the Republican and Democratic candidates to be tools of the corporate interests. The failure of the electoral process was, of course, Right, and so the speakers explained why the election had become a failure and a sham, recounted their personal reactions to different stages of the electoral process, then led angry chants:
What Do We Want?
When Do We Want It?
Not only was there no attempt to convince anyone in the camp of the Wrong, some of whom were conveniently counter-protesting right across the street, but many of the speakers attacked Al Gore and his supporters! “Wait a minute,” thought I, “Probably 80% of the people present are Gore supporters, shouldn’t there at least be some coalition building?” In fact, the very best speaker for this rally, the speaker no one had thought to invite, the speaker who would have gotten the most media attention, perhaps far beyond Austin, far beyond Texas, the perfect voice of concern, would have been … a Bush supporter! Recall that the issue at hand was not Bush or Gore, or Nader, it was the failure of the election process. The whole world knew the electoral process had failed; surely there was at least one Bush supporter in Texas with public speaking abilities who, though he Wrongly voted for Bush, would as an American citizen be Rightly alarmed that American Democracy had been so poorly served. Anger has no wisdom whatsoever.
The Buddha gave a number of teachings to ensure the civility of human discourse. First of all, he discouraged as a rule having fixed Views. Second, he discouraged slander and other forms of harsh or disrespectful speech. Third, he encouraged working with emotions in order to avoid acting or speaking out of greed, anger or delusion and instead to cultivate kindness and compassion as the bases of one’s actions and speech.. Fourth, he provided specific guidelines for avoiding conflict or disharmony, Among these are not bringing up an issue of contention if there is no chance of convincing anyone of your position and waiting until the right time to bring up such an issue. Imagine how productive political discourse would be if all American pundits, talk-show hosts, politicians and rally speakers followed these guidelines of the Buddha.
Death Penalty Vigils. In 1998 the Hill Country Chapter, Texas, Chapter of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship had begun meeting half way between Austin and San Antonio. A group of us soon decided to take up the Death Penalty as an issue. George W. Bush was governor and the number of executions had skyrocketed. I recall that there were 40 executions in 1999, but then the rate began to drop significantly toward the end of 2000 as any new prospectively controversial executions that might provide a campaign issue for the opposing side were postponed. Executions in Texas routinely occurred Wednesdays at 6:00 pm but sometimes there would either be a second execution on the following Thursday or two executions back to back on the Wednesday. For many years there had already been a small rally across from the Governor’s Mansion on Lavaca Street.for every execution, for the most part a group dedicated and very pleasant people who would quietly stand with signs that read, “Moratorium,” or “Unitarians against the Death Penalty,” or “Stop Executions Now,” and so on. For controversial DP cases, for instance, in which the evidence of guilt seemed to be slim, or in which the candidate for execution was mentally retarded or emotionally impaired, or was a minor at the time the murder was committed, the rally would swell with the presence of the Loud and Vocal, one of which always brought a bullhorn to lead the others in chant:
What Do We Want?
When Do We Want It?
But most days the rally was a very quiet, and friendly, staffed largely by these people in polo shirts and printed dresses. Someone would always bring a pile of signs for newcomers.
We Buddhists decided to join the rally, but not to carry signs at all, rather to meditate on each occasion for one hour, from 5:30 to 6:30, straddling the actual time of execution. We lined along the far edge of the sidewalk, under the picture window of the Texas Motor Vehicle Department. Because of the convenient regularity of executions the vigil became a routine part of the weekly meditation schedule for a number of us. Part of the point was that we did not publicly advocate any position or declare ourselves to be Right at all. We just sat. The surprising thing was that it felt so Right just to be there, even though we had no strategy or intention to convince anyone of anything.
The sign-bearers considered us an asset because we seemed to lend so much gravity to the affair. Of course we appreciated the sign-bearers because otherwise no one would have the slightest idea of why we were sitting so quietly in such an odd place. Sometimes the sign-bearers, distracted by conversation, would slowly migrate up the street with their signs and I, who undertook to peek periodically out beyond samadhi for such mishaps, would jump up and bring them back near the meditators. As we sat sometimes we would hear shouts from cars and passers-by, either pro-DP or con: “Right on!” “Kill them all!” “You wouldn’t be here if someone had murdered a loved-one!” A honking horn, I learned, signaled approval for what we were doing.
With no particular intention other than to sit in alignment with our convictions, numerous times we could nevertheless see how our actions made small impacts. One of the sign-bearers told me when we were packing up after one sitting that, as the meditators were absorbed in their samadhi, the Bush family had arrived in their limousine and that soon afterward the Bush daughter had come out to the fence to watch us, until the governor himself had appeared and retrieved her. Later, during the Bush presidential campaign the news media was constantly present outside of the Governor’s Mansion, along with many demonstrators of a variety of persuasions, making it hard for us to maintain our identity as part of the DP contingent. This did however earn us an interview for local T.V. station once when a frustrated reporter could find no more interesting story to cover. And once a reporter for Good Life, a local Austin periodical, composing an article on Engaged Buddhism, once visited our vigil with a staff photographer, who took a brilliant shot: He discovered that by positioning his camera up Lavaca St., where we were sitting, he could get an angle that included all sixteen meditators but also caught the reflection of the stately State Capitol building about two blocks away in the picture window above our heads. A couple of years later Steve McCurry, the famous National Geographic photographer, discovered this picture and, enraptured ,contacted me about reenacting the same shot, until he, in a more sober moment, remembered that it had already been done by the Good Life photographer. Eagerness has no wisdom.
The DP vigils continued for a number of years. It seemed that after 9/11, however it was much more difficult to bring people together for this. I was away at Tassajara Monastery for over a year from shortly after 9/11 until April, 2003.After returning I discovered that people’s priorities had changed. Numbers had dwindled, both among the sign-bearers and among the meditators. I rejoined the DP vigils and was, I think, the very last holdout, showing up a couple of times only to meditating by myself. Eventually I also stopped coming.
Walking Meditations for Peace. The early Saturday chapter meetings of the Texas Hill Country Buddhist Peace Fellowship were devoted to readings and discussions, and to planning. Planning consisted of considering a long series of proposals for joint action. Someone suggested that we perform a play to teach some point or other that was Right. That fell flat because of wild variations along the scale of enthusiasm and anticipated stage fright. Someone suggested that we do a public walking meditation. I recall my own skepticism about the usefulness of this; most of us practiced walking meditation in our respective Dharma centers; what would be the point of doing this publicly?
In 1999 the Kosovo conflict erupted in bombing by U.N. forces, presenting an opportunity for our first Walking Meditation. The idea was not to be Right or Wrong but to Bear Witness. I was still uncertain how this would bring the bombing to a halt, but the level of enthusiasm within BPF sufficed to turn me into a participant. A flier was created and distributed, permission was obtained to conduct this event on the South side of the Texas State Capitol Building, invitations were sent to email listservs, large signs were created to announce on-site not the purpose but the topic of the event. The procedure was simple: Participants walked mindfully from the Capitol steps southward, about four abreast, past Texas State troopers and wandering tourists, the latter often startled to see these odd silent people looming from behind over their shoulders, slowly reached the South gate of the Capitol grounds on 11th Street, then formed a big J as the vanguard began to turn around, then a big U then a big backward J, then walked mindfully back to the South steps, altogether taking about 40 minutes.
We were surprised at the great mass of people who showed up for this event; I had no idea who all of them were, not recognizing many from Austin’s Buddhist circles. After a few congratulatory words and starting to break up I talked to a number of unfamiliar people to discover Quakers, Unitarians, Catholics, presumably atheists, and many people who with no previous knowledge of the event had been passing by and thought it looked like a cool idea. Most of all I was astonished how moving it was to be publicly present with so many many people, present with the suffering in Kosovo. I was sold on this heretofore dubious idea.
Bernie Glassman Roshi, an American Zen teacher and engaged Buddhist, often writes and speaks about Bearing Witness, which is what the Death Penalty vigils and public Walking Meditations are about. In his words,
When we bear witness, when we become the situation—homelessness, poverty, illness, violence, death—the right action arises by itself. We don’t have to worry about what to do. We don’t have to figure out solutions ahead of time. Peacemaking is the functioning of bearing witness. Once we listen with our entire body and mind, loving action arises.
Loving action is right action. It’s as simple as giving a hand to someone who stumbles or picking up a child who has fallen on the floor. We take such direct, natural actions every day of our lives without considering them special. And they’re not special. Each is simply the best possible response to that situation in that moment.
I think of Bearing Witness as putting the heart right where it belongs. This is usually not where we want to place it, because it is easier to turn away. Bearing witness is the opposite of denial. In Buddhism you face your own demons and those of the world, and your practice grows from there.
Walking Meditations for Peace became standard fare for the Hill Country Buddhist Peace Fellowship. In 2000 we bore witness to Landmines, in October, 2001 to the invasion of Afghanistan by U.S. troops, in March, 2003 to the invasion of Iraq (with around 350 participants) and in October, 2007 to the Saffron Revolution in Burma. In May, 2003 we participated in an event called the Texas Showdown, in which many peace and social-justice groups joined together in a long march through the streets of Austin and up Congress Avenue to approach the Capitol Building, where a rally was held on the South Steps. The various activist groups maintained their integrity during the march but began to merge and mix and mingle on the Capitol grounds. I expected our group, in silent walking meditation, to also dissolve at that point, but was surprised that the other people on the South side parted very respectfully as we approached and our group of Walking Meditators held its integrity almost up the the South Steps..
For the invasion of Afghanistan there was an anti-war rally scheduled the same day at a park in Austin, so we intentionally scheduled our walking meditation to take place about 1 1/2 hours later. One of the other BPFers, Pamela, and I also made arrangements to get on the speaker list at the anti-war rally. About 500 people present heard the usual line up of angry speakers, who also led chanting:
What Do We Want?
When Do We Want It?
When it was our turn, Pamela read a statement that Thich Nhat Hanh had made about the war, then I announced our walking meditation for later that afternoon and invited people to participate. Local T.V. news showed up at the Walking Meditation, along with about 150 participants. After the walking meditation an angelic young woman walked up to me and said, “I was at the anti-war rally. Could you Buddhists please come to more demonstrations like that? You are so peaceful. Everyone else is so angry I don’t really like to go to these rallies, but feel I have to.” We discovered that evening that the local T.V. had a long, very respectful piece on our walking meditation, whereas the anti-war rally got a disapproving mention.
Living on the Streets. In July, 2005 I found myself living on the street, with eleven other Buddhists, participants in a Street Retreat, a combination of meditation retreat and outdoor living, as homeless people, living with Austin’s untouchables. Organized by a member of the Austin Shambhala Center, and under the direction of Fleet Maull, a disciple of Bernie Glassman, who had flown in from Boulder. we undertook to be utterly homeless for five days, according to precise instructions to bring nothing but a backpack and a water bottle, I.D., but no money, and not to bathe or shave for two days prior to the retreat, nor during the retreat. At regular intervals during each day of the retreat we would gather as a group for meditation and check-in about our experiences. We would also find a place to sleep at night together, but not in a homeless shelter, which would take a bed away from someone who might need it, but rather outdoors, which in Austin meant illegally, due to “camping” ordinances. Outside of scheduled times we divided into pairs for daily activities, so that the women participants, luckily exactly half of us, would not be so vulnerable. During unscheduled time we would find something to eat, panhandle if we wanted, gab with other homeless people, hang out at the library, sleep under a tree, watch the Colorado River flow past, or whatever suited our fancy. My partner was named June and she had come from Kentucky to join us.
Food for the homeless, we discovered, is abundant in Austin, with many the soup kitchens: The downtown Salvation Army is big and crowded, but has a time when only families with children are admitted. Caritas is a well-run nonprofit that provides a variety of services for the destitute and nearly destitute, and the closest to gourmet-level food available in an Austin soup kitchen. I already knew Caritas because a Silent Work Practice team from the Austin Zen Center had, for a couple of years volunteered once a week to offer incense then deep clean their kitchen, the food from which I now enjoyed as a non-paying customer. The church-run soup kitchens, such as the Trinity House, often obligated us to witness a short service and sermon, but were always very respectful of the clientele. Some organizations offered handouts from trucks. Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH), which receives some money from the City, provides showers and beds, of which we were however not by rule allowed to avail ourselves, and clothing, which we would have required only for the long run. ARCH did, however, provided coffee each morning, which we found useful, as well as a place to sit and read the newspaper. We would generally not enter these establishments as a group, in order to maintain anonymity. The most difficult issue we faced every day was where to sleep. We discovered remote places in parks and once on an vacant lot,
Walking in the Texas Summer heat dominated our days. But there is a wonderful simplicity that can feel quite liberating, unless maybe if you get sick. There is no responsibility outside of finding where to eat and sleep. It is surprising how little you need. Before this retreat I was concerned about two things with respect to comfort: What do I use for a pillow when I sleep? What do I use for a cushion (zafu) when I sit in meditation? Some others in our party had suffered more substantial anxieties than this, but this is all I could think of to worry about. These two similar concerns had a common solution: Shoes, two of which were readily available on my feet. Stacking my shoes gave the desired height for sitting, and wrapping them in my shirt at night produced a pillow without the discomfort of chafed ear or a shoe lace in my nose. In spite of the simplicity of life on the street you do not lose your taste for the finer things in life: One day we discovered a stack of collapsed discarded boxes; it was an enormous luxury to sleep on cardboard that night. Fortunately no police ever discovered our sleeping places, and we’re not telling, in case we need them again some day. In Austin the police are known to goad sleepers from slumber who then simply slip off sluggishly to get catch their quota of Z’s elsewhere.
The demographics of the homeless is quite different from what I suspected. By and large their collegiality surprised me; they look out for one another, they looked out for us, helping us find where we wanted to go or updating us on who is offering food where. A substantial portion of the homeless have only been on the streets only for a week or two, from which I quickly interpolated that a substantial portion are in that condition only temporarily. The usual story is that circumstances conspired to keep them from paying rent, often due to loss of room mate or partner or job. A substantial portion of the homeless has substance abuse or emotional issues and have been on the streets for years. These often report that they have found a secret place to sleep where no one will bother them, but would never reveal it to us. There is also a brisk market for drugs and even guns among the long-term homeless. A small portion of the homeless seem to thrive; they like the freedom the carefree simplicity of the streets and are often well-adjusted, friendly, helpful people. They are like monks, but without the respect of a wider society, communing with like-minded homeless and with nature, writing poems and talking philosophy. The greater portion of the homeless feel humiliated and distressed by their circumstances, particularly the newly homeless and the homeless parents and their children. Children on the streets are the most heartbreaking.
A surprisingly small portion of the homeless actively panhandles. Generally there is no need to, because the streets provide what you need, just as monks traditionally never need to touch money. Sometimes small cravings arise, like for a cold drink or coffee, and must induce one to seek spare change. Of course many homeless live with a constant craving for alcohol or cigarettes, which I speculate is responsible for most panhandling. Some may even be saving up to get back into their apartments. Nevertheless, our leader, Fleet, asked us all to spend at least a couple of hours panhandling, as a kind of “home”-work assignment.
The demographics of the potential donors to panhandlers is quite different from what I expected. A surprisingly substantial portion were very nice but happened to have no money, sometimes apologizing profusely. Another portion when approached with a cordial “Spare Change?” just refused to acknowledge our presence, or simply said “No!” or “Get a job!” without establishing eye contact. After two hours I finally received my only donation, from a young man who looked like a software programmer and must have been particularly skilled as this, for he quickly and silently produced and handed me 35¢, not only without looking toward me, but without even turning his head even slightly in my direction. Two blocks later I targeted a little foreign-looking man in a business suit who was walking toward me, but before I could speak he asked me for spare change! He didn’t fit into any recognizable demographic that I had heretofore discovered, but I gave him my hard-earned 35¢ anyway. I’ve often wondered since then if I had in that little man experienced a highly innovative, and perhaps even lucrative, defense against panhandlers. I had been too taken aback to ask.
The Street Retreat has been described as a “plunge” experience, one in which all you familiar coordinates and comforts are knocked out from under you and you plunge into space. Of course for us it was much less of a plunge than for those who found themselves plunged involuntarily into homelessness; we could go home in five days. Even in that short time I was surprised to find myself seeing the world through homeless eyes. Idly standing on street corners, gabbing or waiting with no sense of hurry to rendezvous with others, I found myself wondering where all of these cars were going so fast, and why. We seemed to live in slow motion while the rest of the world buzzed around us, so senselessly.
Bearing Witness. Public Walking Meditation, Meditating Vigils, Street Retreats are practices for the patient. They do not in themselves end distant wars, the death penalty or homelessness, but then neither does anything else. They set the conditions, the mindset, the consciousness, in which compassionate action arises naturally when other conditions provide the opportunity. Through Bearing Witness you prepare yourself to receive such opportunities. You also inspire others to take on the same mindset. The focus is in Bearing Witness is on reorienting the mind, not on the actions themselves, but then the mind is the hard part.
All of Buddhist practice is like this. It can be said that Buddhist practice aims at the perfection of human character in its three aspects of Virtue, Wisdom and Equanimity. Bearing Witness primarily addresses Wisdom, but extends it by attuning the mind to a social world that can easily escape our notice in the meditation hall. Virtue, Wisdom and Equanimity do not in themselves change the world, but are wonderful qualities for engaging the world. Their holder also inspire others to develop these qualities. Buddhist practice prepares the mind in ways that provide escalating benefit to the world as opportunities for benefit arise. When the actions arise they are naturally civil, with no anger or animosity at all. Buddhism produces something akin to saints. Bearing Witness has the capacity to take them the rest of the way. And saints give hope to an insane world.