By Sean Weaver
I have been fortunate enough to experience first-hand the value of compassionate action, in an often adversarial eco-political setting. Such experiences come from my clumsy efforts but are inspired by those who are far more adept, and remind me that it is worth practicing wholesome ideals, even when we are beginners. Like learning to play a musical instrument – with practice we improve.
Spring 1998. Inspired by the dedication and passion of a wonderful group of caring young people, I decided to drop everything and get involved fulltime in the Native Forest Action campaign to stop the logging of lowland forests on the West Coast. I came to this phase of activism as a way to take up my Zen practice off the cushion and headlong into the chaos of ecopolitics.
I was particularly focused on the 9th Buddhist precept at that time – “I take up the way of not indulging in anger” – and especially the way that we can learn to embody the transformation of anger (and its expression as defensiveness) into something much more constructive and powerful. A line from Torei Zenji Bodhisattva’s Vow a teaching rang repeatedly in my ears: … “All the more, we can be especially sympathetic and affectionate with foolish people, particularly someone who becomes a sworn enemy, and persecutes us with abusive language. That very abuse conveys the Buddha’s boundless loving kindness…With our open response to such abuse we completely relinquish ourselves and the most profound and pure faith arises…” Thirsty for an opportunity to try this out, I decided (in early 1999) to attend a public meeting in Reefton organised by logging supporters.
I went there to listen to their views and show that I even shared some of them, such as the right of local people to earn a decent living. I was not afraid of my opponent (partly because I identified with many of their concerns), and in fronting up without a team of supporters I placed myself at their mercy to some extent – by walking into the lion’s den and then climbing into its mouth.
I was not so naïve to think that vested interests would change their views because of me, but also not so naïve to think that the opponent’s camp was devoid of people with an open mind. It was these people that I wanted to meet, listen to, learn from, and share ideas with. I was convinced (and remain so) that by witnessing each other’s humanity we can transform conflict (disconnection) into collaboration (connection).
On route to the meeting I anticipated that there would probably be some conflict and I prepared by reminding myself how I would act if and when this arose.
A sudden silence filled the packed community hall when I arrived. On the stage were the Mayors of the three West Coast Districts, the Chair of the Regional Council, and the local Member of Parliament.
As I walked to an empty seat, the presenter announced who I was, and then read a statement declaring support for the logging, and asked me if I agreed. I replied that he and the audience already knew that I did not agree with the statement, given my frequent appearances in the newspapers and on radio to the contrary. He then asked me to leave the meeting because it was only for people who supported the statement (it was in fact a public meeting as advertised).
I said calmly that I had come to listen to and learn from this community and seek constructive dialogue. A police officer then approached, warning me of arrest if I did not leave. Time to practice what I had come here to do: I took a few deep breaths, noticed the knot of anger in my chest, named it, felt it as a physical sensation striped of any storyline, listened to the sounds of the hall, noticed the colour of the floor, and remembered to stay calm and focused. I allowed myself to be escorted from the hall, head up, calm, and without protest. The meeting resumed.
I listened from the street outside, as the presenter proceeded to lie to the audience by saying I was a terrorist, and claiming that I had promoted terrorism at a public meeting some months before.
Wow. This one came out of left field. But of course, my practice is to be “especially sympathetic and affectionate with someone who becomes a sworn enemy, and who persecutes me with abusive language”. One of my biggest challenges is indignation at being falsely accused. But now quite substantial false accusations in public, and ones that would be declared in the newspapers soon after: what a great place to practice equanimity, acceptance and kindness. To be continued…
Sean Weaver is the founder and host of Ekodo – a professional development life-skills programme for compassionate agents of change. He lives in Wellington, and is a Diamond Sangha student of Arthur Wells. See the Ekodo Facebook group here: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=47683391767