What can Zen Buddhism teach us about the art of effective activism – by Tammy Martens

I found an article in the Huffington Post (February 17, 2017) that I have returned to so many times in the past few weeks. The article is called “What can Zen Buddhism teach us about the art of effective activism in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency?”

Here are some ideas that were shared:

“Nonviolence is not a set of techniques that you can learn with your intellect. Nonviolent action arises from the compassion, lucidity and understanding you have within” (Thich Nhat Hanh). Drawing from his own experience in seeking an end to the Vietnam War, Nhat Hanh writes that activists must learn to look after themselves if they are to be effective: “If we don’t maintain a balance between our work and the nourishment we need, we won’t be very successful. The practice of walking meditation, mindful breathing, allowing our body and mind to rest, and getting in touch with the refreshing and healing elements inside and around us is crucial for our survival.”

Sister Peace (Buddhist nun living at Plum Village monastery in France), who previously worked in the office of the mayor of Washington, says action must be inspired by a deep-rooted sense of love. “If we can be strong in ourselves, then we could offer a resistance that is nonviolent,” she said. “But that means that we ourselves are at a place where we can have that recognition and we can offer that to another. And that is a great, great source of love and having the other feel they’re being recognized and listened to and embraced.”

Phap Dung (Buddhist monk) points to the Buddhist teaching of interdependence: that people we perceive as our greatest enemies can be our greatest teachers, because they show aspects of ourselves that we find unpalatable and give us the chance to heal. “We have the wrong perception that we are separate from the other,” he said. “So in a way Trump is a product of a certain way of being in this world so it is very easy to have him as a scapegoat. But if we look closely, we have elements of Trump in us and it is helpful to have time to reflect on that.”

The article also includes helpful wisdom from James Gordon who also develops this idea of finding Trump within ourselves. He wrote a comment piece in The Guardian, arguing that “Trump’s grand and vulgar self-absorption is inviting all of us to examine our own selfishness. His ignorance calls us to attend to our own blind spots. The fears that he stokes and the isolation he promotes goad us to be braver, more generous.”

Finally the article reminded the readers of the Civil Rights Movement and that made me think of the pledge of non-violence that people made to the movement. The pledge was referred to as “The 10 Commandments.” These are things we can be actively doing today.

“I hereby pledge myself—my person and body—to the nonviolent movement, therefore I will keep the following ten commandments!”

1. MEDITATE daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.

2. REMEMBER always that the nonviolent movement in Birmingham seeks justice and reconciliation—not victory.

3. WALK and TALK in the manner of love, for God is love.

4. PRAY daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free.

5. SACRIFICE personal wishes in order that all men might be free.

6. OBSERVE with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.

7. SEEK to perform regular service for others and for the world.

8. REFRAIN from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart.

9. STRIVE to be in good spiritual and bodily health.

10. FOLLOW the directions of the movement and of the captain on a demonstration.

All of these words/ideas bring hope to what we can do in the face of the struggles we face in all of the arenas of our lives. I’m staying hopeful. I hope you are too.