Questions for Buddhists, Answers from a Non-Buddhist

Posted on October 16, 2019

Matthew Remski, a yoga teacher and author who has just written a book about power abuse in yoga circles, posted a list of questions to Buddhists involved in Extinction Rebellion, in response to this viral post from Satya Robyn on FB. Satya Robyn is a Buddhist poet and a psychotherapist. She took part in the XR London Rebellion last week. Her post with title “Here’s to the police” was written on October 9. She got arrested on October 10. Satya’s post received 9.7K reactions, 2.4K comments and 5.9K shares.

Here are the questions from Matthew Remski’s post, with my answers.

  1. How can you be sure that you are not using Buddhism and its techniques to spiritually bypass the reality of the crisis you say you are confronting?

Short answer: we can never be sure we are aligned with reality, in our thinking, and in our actions. There can be no certainty that we have it right and there are no guarantees that our “techniques” for dealing with reality are foolproof. What could such a guarantee look like?

There are all kinds of Buddhists and there are many varieties of Buddhism. It is not so clear what is meant by “the techniques of Buddhism.” I don’t call myself a Buddhist, but I am a longtime student of Thich Nhat Hanh, who is a Buddhist. I am not a Buddhist because I never took the Buddhist precepts. But as a non-Buddhist one can still learn a lot from Buddhism. The most important technique I have learnt from Thich Nhat Hanh is the technique of looking deeply in order to see the true nature of things. It is a miracle that human beings can do that. Thich Nhat Hanh calls that The Miracle of Mindfulness. If we look deeply, what we see is interconnection, the fact that this is because that is, the interbeing of all things. The technique of deep looking is the exact opposite of spiritual bypass, which I understand to be the use of spirituality to close our eyes for the true nature of things.

  1. How will you protect young people from using Buddhism and its techniques, or their devotion to charismatic Buddhist teachers, to mythologize or dissociate from the consequences of being arresting, being kettled, being subjected to police brutality?

Again, it is not so clear to me what is meant by “Buddhism and its techniques.” Personally, I am not devoted to charismatic leaders, although I admit that teachers like Thich Nhat Hanh, Tara Brach, Pema Chödrön have charisma. Thich Nhat Hanh has deeply impressed me with his crystal clear writing style, with his beautiful poetry, with his vision of Engaged Buddhism, and with his efforts in applying the dharma for furthering social, political, environmental and economic justice. We are all free to choose our teachers and the responsibility to choose wisely rests with us. Sadly, I cannot protect anyone from the painful consequences of unwise choices.

  1. How will you show that meditation and mindfulness do not in fact serve state repression by extracting voluntary compliance?

Meditation and mindfulness are techniques for looking deeply. Any powerful technique can be abused. If I train as a martial artist, this will make me formidable in combat and there is a danger I will abuse my skills. Any increase in power comes with an increase in responsibility. Same with meditation and mindfulness training.

Again, we can look at Buddhists we admire and avoid Buddhists that do not inspire us. Has meditation and mindfulness made Thich Nhat Hanh compliant or more yielding to state repression? I should think it has not. During the Vietnam War, he and his community of monks and nuns had to decide what to do when the villages around them were being bombed. They decided that they could not simply continue to sit and meditate in their monastery. Instead, they went out into the streets to help the people who had been hurt. And they found out that they very much needed their meditation practice to be able to do this. They decided to help people and to do so in mindfulness.

  1. How will you address the implicit racism of being white and presenting the majority white policing presence as being on your side in a shared perspective? By pretending that all violence is equal, or equally expressed? By pretending that the state is reducible to individuals who share your middle-class values? How will you honour and serve POC activists who have been brutalized by the police — not just in London but throughout the privileged world? How does your Buddhism respect them?

Hmm, it is difficult where to start with this. First of all, Buddhism is not white or Western, for the Buddha was not a white Western male. Of course, the police is not on our side (the side of XR). Nobody is pretending that they are. Of course, not all violence is equal or equally expressed. Nobody is pretending that it is. Of course, the state is not reducible to individuals. It does not follow from Buddhism that it is.

From Thich Nhat Hanh I have learned to look deeply into the interconnectedness of things. We have not made ourselves. The police officers that are brutalizing people and are profiling people of colour have not made themselves either. They are trained to act like this by a system that has taught them to suppress their humanity. But they are still human beings. In order to see that they are our brothers and sisters we have to look inside ourselves and we have to get in touch with the seeds of inhumanity that also exist in us. We are not quite as different from them as we would like to think.

I sense a lot of anger in these questions. And I am at a loss how to address that. We all have to live with our limitations. We have not made ourselves. Our skin colour, our talents, our place of birth, our opportunities for education, it was all given to us. I have been particularly lucky in my upbringing in a peaceful country, in my education, in my encounters with inspiring teachers. I was brought up as a Roman Catholic, and I got my secondary education at a Roman Catholic boarding school. Nobody abused me. The priests who educated me instilled an appreciation for philosophy in me and introduced me to the writings of Søren Kierkegaard and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Later on, I had the good fortune to go to university, and to find fulfilling work as an academic. I am aware of my privilege, but my privilege does not make me feel ashamed. Instead, it fills me with gratitude and with a deep desire to share what I have learned.

  1. How will you address the internalized misogyny and patriarchalism of the dynamics represented here, in which all protesters are gendered female and seen to gracefully comply with kind but authoritarian men who give out blankets to some and steal food from others? How will you show that your Buddhism does not perform a kind of public trauma bonding with the police?

I do not quite understand what is meant by “the internalized misogyny and patriarchalism of the dynamics represented here”, but I have a sense that this labeling of what is going on in XR protests in the UK is unhelpful. The XR rebels are of both genders, the police officers that are trying to prevent or stop the rebellion are of both genders.

Again, I sense a lot of anger behind the way these questions are phrased, as if they were written down in a fit of rage provoked by reading about Satya’s personal experiences during the London Rebellion. Satya was spotting glimpses of kindness in her interactions with some members of the police. I have no reason to doubt her account as a faithful rendering of her experience. Her narrative does not enrage me. I am aware that other people have had different experiences. Public trauma bonding, what is called the Stockholm Syndrome, happens when victims taken hostage by terrorists take on the viewpoint of their oppressors. I very much doubt that this was what was going on in London last week.