The word “Buddha” means to wake up. More precisely it means to see what is really going on (in other words, “dharma”), and understand that it has always been so. The Occupy Wall Street movement and its 1,000 offshoots worldwide is that kind of awakening. Its overarching theme is inequality: rich and poor, haves and have-nots, just and unjust. It has always been so, but the scale of it varies through time. In the U.S., the objective reality and statistical fact of this economic divide has been brewing since the 1980s (for an excellent historical perspective, see this article by Bill Moyers in The Nation magazine).
But now in times of unemployment and bread-line level deprivation, that reality has broken through the veil of public unknowing, taken form as the Occupy movement and has been transmitted at light speed from city to city courtesy of social media and the web.
Many of my Buddhist friends are sympathetic to this movement, and want to help. Many of them, like me, were themselves youthful demonstrators once, long ago when the issues were civil rights and the Vietnam war. Just as now, that awakening in the 1960s was to perennial truths to which we had up to then been oblivious. “Black people in the South can’t vote! They are oppressed!” Yes, as they had been forever. “This war is unjust. It’s horrible! The innocent die!”–another perennial truth. In those days it was television, rather than the internet, that broadcast these truths into everyone’s living rooms and woke us up.
I was once one of those youthful anti-war protestors, linking hands and facing down riot police armed with batons and guns. We self-righteously referred to the police in those days as “pigs,” ignoring the unwiseness of hurling such insults at a phalanx of heavily armed men. We too were beaten, bloodied, and in a few cases killed. When I look back through the lens of my own youth at today’s protestors and their pithy slogans (“We are the 99%”) I see myself.
However, we Buddhists all need to remember that Gautama was in his time a one-percenter or worse–he was, after all, a prince. He had his own awakening from unknowing (or so the accounts of his life tell) when he walked out of the palace as though for the first time and saw what was really happening — “People are old and poor! People are sick! They die! Look, a monk!” This is an archetypal moment (referred to in Buddhist literature as the “four sightings”); I think it happens in some fashion for each generation–an onrush of awakening that keeps societies from sinking totally into the quicksand of their own corruption.
My Buddhist friends think of conveying well-meaning instructions to today’s Occupiers about non-violence, compassion, and meditation, so they will not become angry in the face of the injustice they see. This is good, but I am not sure that is exactly the right medicine. Maybe it is good that they are angry. Maybe they don’t need meditation instruction just now. Gautama, after all, was not schooled in meditation when he experienced the four sightings. He just opened his eyes, which anyone can do.
Others say the Occupiers need a goal, demands, a program. Perhaps. I’m not sure today’s protestors need anything right now except to be appreciated for the truths they are speaking and the role they are playing at this critical time in the development of human consciousness. They have already discovered what the Buddha taught in his second Noble Truth — that the root cause of our unnecessary suffering is grasping, clinging, selfishness, and greed — often for money, sometimes for emotional or physical safety, nearly always for power. The energy of greed is the prime distorter of human community. The Buddha clearly saw this.
My feeling is that we are seeing the first raw beginnings and baby steps of a giant leap forward, one that will transcend and outgrow whatever form the Occupy movement is currently taking. Let it develop, let it learn what nourishment it needs. If it needs or wants our gray-haired advice — and it may not — then let it ask. I am ready if anyone asks, knowing that my time on the barricades was long ago and that I may not know the answers. If no-one asks, I am content to be watchful, to appreciate, and to allow this fervent historical moment to unfold.
One last note: much later, when I had become a Buddhist teacher, I met a policeman who had been on that police line where I demonstrated in front of the Oakland, California Army Induction Center so long ago. By now he too was a Buddhist. He told me how it was for him back then. “We were scared,” he said. “We didn’t know who you were or what you would do. We didn’t know what weapons you had or whether you would riot. And when you started screaming at us and calling us pigs, we got mad. We weren’t pigs (well, a few of us were brutes, he admitted) we were just people trying to do a job. I understood that you were angry, but I didn’t like being called a pig. I wasn’t a pig.”
The policemen, the firemen, the teachers, the workers everywhere — they are all part of the 99%. And more to the point, this really isn’t just about the 99%, it is about the 100% — in other words, all of us. Who knows what Gautama was like in the years before he walked out of the palace. He may have been a self-satisfied aristocratic twit — until he woke up. People can change. That is the unwritten liner note to the 2nd Noble Truth — the deep truth of human suffering is for everyone, it is about the 100%. For Buddhists, this 100% is not just human beings, but everything living, the air and the clouds, even the whole earth itself.