Questioning Your Questions
by Joseph Byrne
I tell my activist friends that as a Zen Buddhist I’m encouraged to question authority. But then I go on to say that as a Zen Buddhist I’m also encouraged to question my questioning of authority. I did plenty of both on March 26th, when I took part in a civil disobedience action at the White House to protest the Iraq War.
It was an interfaith event sponsored by Pax Christi and the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), two international religious peace organizations. I was there as a member of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF), which is part of the FOR. We recently started up a local chapter of the BPF in Washington, and I joined up, feeling a need to connect my activist and Buddhist selves. I had also signed the Iraq Pledge of Resistance, pledging to commit civil disobedience if a war started, and was "shopping around" for the right action to fulfill my pledge. Hearing that members of our new BPF chapter were planning to take part, I decided to go to the planning meeting on the eve of the action, to help iron out the scenario. Lafayette Park, across from the White House, has been closed since 9-11-2001 to groups larger than 25, so we would have to be somewhat deceptive to make our protest happen. The plan was to gather in the park in small groups, pretending to be tourists having a picnic. Then, at an appointed time, all the small groups would converge in the center of the park facing the White House. Some would climb the barriers onto Pennsylvania Avenue, and others would create a circle of prayer in the park. We anticipated that the ones going over the barricades would be immediately arrested, the park would be closed, and those remaining in the park would be told to leave, and if they did not, would also be arrested.
At the end of the meeting, I met up with two of my BPF colleagues, Hugh and Sarah, who had come late to the meeting. This is where I had my first decision to make. My first inclination was to be one of those climbing over the barricades, which would pretty much guarantee my arrest. Hugh and Sarah were much more inclined to be with the praying group in the park. Hugh suggested we could come early, do some meditation, and then join the prayer circle. Sarah didn’t understand the reasoning behind climbing the barricades, and was a little uncomfortable with the subterfuge involved with the picnic scenario. I agreed it was less than ideal, but inhabiting the symbolic space of Lafayette Park was important and the park police had made it impossible to make any sort of symbolic statement in that space, which had been a location for non-violent protest for decades. It was right to question authority about this.
But it was also right to question our questioning: Would the symbolic, spiritual statement for peace lose some of its power if we had to resort to deception? I wondered; I still wonder. I also question my own motivations in taking part in such actions. Initially, I wanted to be one of those going over the barriers because I suspected those in the praying circle would not get arrested after all. Why did I have such a strong desire to get arrested? I knew from previous activist experience that I often did what I thought was the right thing for the wrong reasons: I acted out of righteous rage, rather than compassion, or from a sense of personal aggrandizement or ego. I became a Buddhist to deal with this sort of thing—to purify my intentions, to act for the benefit of all beings, avoiding actions which looked like self-sacrifice, but were really axe-grinding, to cultivate compassion rather than poisonous anger, which is one of the roots of war.
I decided to be part of the prayerful action with my Buddhist colleagues, rather than leap the barricades in dramatic fashion, so that I would appear to be "doing something." I remembered a poster back at home of the radical priest Dan Berrigan, which said: "Don’t just do something, stand there." My teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has a similar saying, giving it a Zen spin: "Don’t just do something, sit there." So with my dharma kindred, I sat.
sitting in the sun
The next day was sunny and warm when we arrived in the park. Four of us from the BPF had our meditation circle, following our breath, and the sun and the breeze on our skin, and the sound of pigeons pecking at dried crusts of bread. Finally the time came to come together with the other "picnickers." By the time we formed a circle—about 80 of us—there were already people sitting on Pennsylvania Avenue, on the other side of the barricades, so it had happened without my even noticing. That part of the scenario had gone off without a hitch. Now we waited to see if, as we suspected, the park would be closed and those who remained would be arrested. In the meantime, we sat in the sun and sang peace songs; some folks started passing balls of yarn through the circle, forming a circular web. Someone else passed flowers around, and we all took one. I held on to mine for some time, thinking of the BPF logo, of the Buddha’s hand holding a flower.
While we were sitting, we got a report that some religious leaders, including the Nobel Peace Prize winners Mairead Corrigan McGuire and Jody Williams had been detained on the other side of the park, trying to reach us. Soon, we heard the first megaphone warning from the park police that if we did not leave the park we would be arrested. Some who were not prepared to be arrested slipped out of the yarn web and, with a wave and a smile, left the park. The rest of us kept singing.
Sometime after that we received our second, then our final warning. We braced ourselves for arrest. A police spokesperson came into the park and in a friendly tone suggested, to quicken the processing, we divest ourselves of our property, putting it in plastic zip-lock bags, which would be returned to us when we were released later that day. There was a flurry of activity as everyone emptied their pockets. I sat there the smug, veteran activist, thinking I had prepared myself well: I had no property, not even shoe-laces, which they require you to remove from your shoes. Later, when they were putting on the cuffs, the police discovered my watch, which I totally forgot about. They took it, along with my smugness, away. I gladly let them.
The police were grateful to be dealing with soft-spoken, gentle activists, many of them elderly and some of them priests and nuns, and joked with us from the beginning. We were grateful for not being man-handled. There was a time, as a young firebrand, when I would have been outraged by such bonhomie between police and protesters. But I’d long since come to the position that the police were just doing their job and weren’t the problem we were addressing. We had come to make a symbolic statement, and we had made it. In fact, we needed the cooperation of the police to make that statement.
I was arrested in turn, handcuffs put around my wrists, and was taken aside to have a Polaroid picture taken of me standing next to my arresting officer. I saw the picture later and found it amusing: There I was, Lafayette Park in the background, my head shaven and wearing the brown coat of my Buddhist order, a bright smile on my face, while my hulking arresting officer stood by my side with a no-nonsense look on his face. This had turned into a very strange picnic indeed! After standing around for a few more minutes, we were "invited" to sit on park benches, and offered water. We waited for our police van, watching the storm clouds gathering above the park.
blooming tulip trees, starlings,
Eventually our police van arrived, just moments ahead of the winds and rain. I had good company on my side of the van: There was a young Georgetown student, Eric; Hugh, my BPF colleague; and Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, the famed Catholic peace bishop and one-time president of Pax Christi. Bishop Gumbleton talked about his trips to Iraq, the terrible conditions the people there had been living under for twelve years, and his work to end the sanctions that, according to United Nations figures, were responsible for the death of half a million people, and half that number children. He also spoke about his "flock" in Detroit, many of whom were Iraqi immigrants: he wasn’t just acting from personal convictions about peace; he was representing his people.
When we finally arrived at the police station, we were made to wait in the police van for some time. Then we were moved to a van that had women on one side of a grate and men on the other. I greeted a nun I used to work with at the Quixote Center, and a man, for whom I was building a web page. I chatted with him, but not about business. I sat there chafing in my plastic handcuffs, wanting to be taken inside and have them cut off, then processed, then released, then home to dinner and a hot bath. Eventually my arresting officer came to claim his own, which was me and six others, #201-207. We were brought inside. The officer obviously wanted to get us processed so that he could go home.
The holding cell was another metal box, with a metal sink, toilet, and bench, and nothing else. There were four of us in my cell. My experience in holding cells, after being arrested at big demonstrations, has generally been pleasant. You usually have an opportunity to converse with other demonstrators, to hear their stories, how they came to be in that jail cell, and such journeys are invariably fascinating.
There is a drawback to this holding cell camaraderie, however. Sometimes it feels a little bit like coffee-clutching, without the coffee. Being comfortably ensconced with kindred activists, trading stories, it’s easy to forget why you’re there, namely to protest the tremendous pain and suffering being inflicted in Iraq. Some Iraqis, I’m sure, would love to trade places with us; those standing in the ashes of their home would gladly except a warm cell with running water; those cowering under the bombs would be happy to be out of harm’s way, even if it meant they were prisoners. It’s also easy to forget the other people who normally inhabit those cells, who are not protected, as we were, by their class and the color of their skin, who are passed like cargo from one circle of hell to another, deeper into the maw of the U.S. prison-industrial complex.
When I was finally alone, I took advantage of the silence and solitude to do some chanting. I’d been doing this since the war started, devoting myself to chanting daily for peace. I would chant to Avalokiteshvara, bodhisattva of infinite compassion, then do a form of tonglen, taking in the suffering of all those in Iraq, including U.S. and British soldiers, and releasing peace and well-being. I chanted until the guard finally came and opened the door, saying "204?" Yes, I said, 204. Still chanting in my head, I followed him out.
waiting to hear my number,
The processing went fairly quickly. After fingerprinting us, they brought our little group into a small antechamber and gave us back our property. When everyone in our group had their property, the door was opened. Ah, sweet liberty! I breathed in the fresh air, flecked with rain, and smiled. When we approached the gate we could see the road, with the Anacostia River beyond it, and the Navy Yard on the other side, with a big decommissioned battleship stretched along the bank. Then we saw through the gloom a white van slowly approaching. When we got close enough we saw the welcome face of Art Laffin, one of the local Catholic Workers, behind the windshield. We climbed into the warm, dry van, happy to be out of jail and out of the rain. He offered us some biscuits.
released — to the dark,
My temptation always is to sum it all up, as if life, real life, can be summed up. I continue to have questions, and reasons to question my questioning. Will we stop this war, prevent the next one? I don’t know. I do know that creating a peaceful world will take a while. The bodhisattva forswears enlightenment—and certainty—until all beings, from the lowliest paramecium to the most enlightened Buddha, are saved from suffering. The bodhisattva knows this is not likely to happen anytime soon. We bring the light where we can, without excoriating the darkness, for it has things to teach us too. In the words of the great Socialist orator and activist, Eugene Debs: "While there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free."