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Reflecting on a Year of Occupy

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Day 31 at Occupy Wall Street (photo by David Shankbone)

This week marked the year anniversary of the Occupy Movement (aka “Occupy Wall Street”). I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s transpired this past year —

… from the heady days in September and October when it seemed like this was the vehicle to ride to social transformation…

…through the long, hard winter when some of our fragile alliances began to crumble…

…into spring and summer of this year as the movement grappled with finding new ways to connect and express itself.

To be honest, the first couple of weeks of Occupy, I was pretty skeptical and my skepticism was reinforced when I’d stop by local demonstrations here in my hometown of Santa Fe and found few people who could articulate why they were there other than, “I’m just mad… about everything!”

But the more I followed what was happening, and as I got involved myself, I could see something special was transpiring. I wrote about what I was seeing and feeling in this piece, “This is What Compassion Looks Like,” co-authored along with Roshi Joan Halifax. An excerpt:

Some have criticized or ridiculed Occupy Wall Street because it has not formed a list of clear demands for change. Instead, it has relied on a participatory, emergent process, even inviting the public at large to weigh in on what issues are of most importance.

What is really remarkable about this movement is that somehow it has raised the process of “how” change happens to being more important than the “what” of change.

The people on the streets in New York are in the process of being the change they wish to see, to use Gandhi’s phrase. They have organized to provide health care for each other, to feed each other, to clean up their space together, to deal with difficult situations using creative solutions. They have intentionally refused alignment with any political party in order to keep their message open to the widest audience. They are taking pains to use a collective decision-making process so that the voices of the marginalized are being heard and considered.

At the end of October, I went to Boston to spend a few days with the Occupy community there, and particularly with the nascent Protest Chaplains — about whom I ended up writing a whole thesis as part of my chaplaincy training at Upaya Zen Center.

Then during the winter, things got harder (as things so often seem to do during that season). Here in Santa Fe, I began to spend a little more time at the encampment (but nowhere near as much as some of my comrades, I want to be quick to acknowledge that). We sat around the outside campfire together as the weather got colder, made green chile stew together, and shivered inside the tent as we held GA’s and tried to listen to each other even as disagreements arose.

Sadly, fractures started to appear in the solidarity that had seemed so strong at the start, as many of us quickly discovered that Occupy did not magically remove all the issues and -ism’s that we carried before it all started. Racism, sexism, classism, able-ism, and more reared their ugly heads in spite of our best intentions. Maybe one of the big lessons of Occupy is how much more work we still have to do in this area.

Even so, there have been some shining moments and some glimpses of the “beloved community” (in Rev. Martin Luther King Jr’s words) and the “better world that we know in our hearts is possible” (a phrase from Charles Eisenstein).

One story that especially stood out to me this past year was one you might have missed. In late November, in Atlanta, two drivers who were dispatched by Chase Bank to collect furniture in order to facilitate a foreclosure that would have sent an elderly Black woman out of her home resisted orders. When they got to the woman’s house and saw who she was — a frail 103-year-old woman — they simply refused to carry out their job. As did the county sheriff’s deputies who were sent to enforce the eviction order. (You can see the story here.)

I found this act of resistance incredibly encouraging… ordinary Americans standing up for each other, across lines of gender, race, and age. This may or may not have happened ‘because’ of Occupy, but it surely made the news because the context had been created for this story to be important, for the narrative of corporate exploitation to be heard.

It also seemed that Buddhists found many points of convergence in Occupy, perhaps more than in any other movement or “protest” in recent history. In October last year, I collected a batch of articles written up to that point by dharma practitioners in this post.

I don’t have a whole lot of big analysis to offer here, and I have no idea where this movement will go next. But for all its faults… Occupy is really no other than us. We are human, we have flaws, we have much to learn and practice with. The movement — in whatever state it is in now and will evolve into — is simply a reflection of that.

I want to end with these words from my friend (and awesome graphic designer) Anoki Casey, who has been very involved in Occupy in his hometown of San Diego, and does a wonderful job of setting Occupy in a dharma context:

The thing that is beautiful about the Occupy Movement from a Dharmic standpoint is that this is an example of instinctive compassionate action incarnate in the human being… these people are divorcing themselves from their bodies, their projected delusions, their self-centered dreams, and their ingrained need to appease their neighbors’ status quo to fight for those who can’t or wont… who they may never, ever meet.

They are beaten down by weeks and months of hard work, new community building, dismantling archaic beliefs, unresponded efforts, and police baton just so that others can benefit from what the world really has to offer: Freedom to Be. Right here, right now… not lost in the fear of the someone else’s future or the dread from an unlearned from past.

Without even knowing the names Thich Nhat Hanh, Maha Ghosananda, Thich Quan Duc, Avalokiteshvara they are taking charge of leading the charge to remove the barriers between race, affluence, education, and creed to lay waste to a deception “that life is bad, life is evil, life is hopeless”.

As every blossoming Buddhist enters their first temple to find out what more life has to offer under the thin wraps than the dreary despair we’re fed, these activists—these hearts—are taking responsibility for the realization that “Life is Unsatisfactory” and working toward releasing the bonds of desperate craving to look the other way… sometime working to wrest that concept from the corporate hands that hold it the hardest and harshest, and realizing this nightmare can be “let go” for a better life for all.

Working together as a community toward focusing on their goal of equality and hope (Right View); letting go of the lie and committing to that struggle for all (Right Intention) changing the nation’s language and their own language to build new bonds and new bridges (Right Speech); creating a fresh way to work with others to discover new avenues toward the future (Right Action); leaving and condemning “me-first” methods of work that hurt and fester destruction between people (Right Livelihood); constantly, daily doing what is needed to open up their fellow people’s minds toward this better world (Right Effort); and taking the time to reflect and learn from their actions and efforts with others in committees, meetings, GAs, and themselves (Right Mindfulness) in order to keep their eyes somewhat passionately but positively on the prize that a “Better World is Possible” (Right Concentration).

Occupy drives home the Buddha’s lessons that Greed, Anger, and Delusion are the poisons that keep degenerating this world… and that innately, we each have the possibility to save every being from this repetitious, Samsaric cycle. It may not fit snuggly in a quiet Zennie temple, but as the Buddha’s gift to us is intoned through Osho’s words “My doctrine is not a doctrine but just a vision. I have not given you any set rules, I have not given you a system.” the fluidity, the vivacity, the creativity, and the possibility of his lessons shine through to me every time I hear “Occupy!” echoing down a street.


I’d love to hear your thoughts on Occupy and dharma as we move into Year 2. Please share in the comments below.

The Protest Chaplains (Part 4): Conclusion and What It Means to Be a Revolutionary Chaplain

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This is the fourth and final installment from my thesis for the Upaya Buddhist Chaplaincy Program. In the first post, I covered the context and background of the Protest Chaplains as well as the Occupy Wall Street Movement. In the second post, I shared the findings from my interviews with four of the chaplains. In the third post, I explored five lessons distilled from studying the Protest Chaplains.

This last post is the conclusion to my thesis. Most of it is devoted to a long quote from one of the original Protest Chaplains, Marisa Egerstrom. I was so taken by her words that I felt it was important to give voice to the whole quote.

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Protest Chaplains: Five Lessons for Social Change (Part 3)

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This is the third installment from my thesis for the Upaya Buddhist Chaplaincy Program. In the first post, I covered the context and background of the Protest Chaplains as well as the Occupy Wall Street Movement. In the second post, I shared the findings from interviews with some of the chaplains.

In this excerpt, I explore five lessons that I distilled from studying the Protest Chaplains.

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Protest Chaplains: “It’s All About Love” (Part 2)

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Robin Lutjohan

This is the second installment from my thesis for the Upaya Buddhist Chaplaincy Program. In the first post, I covered the context and background of the Protest Chaplains as well as the Occupy Wall Street Movement. In this section, I share the findings from interviews with four chaplains.

A) The Creation Story

The group of 10 students from Harvard Divinity School (HDS) that was to become the Protest Chaplains was present at Occupy Wall Street from day one. I asked Dave Woessner to tell me how it all got started. This is the story he shared with me:

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The Protest Chaplains: A new paradigm in chaplaincy during a time of social transformation (Part 1)

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I’ve been absent for a while from the Jizo Chronicles… my focus over the past two months has been on completing the Upaya Buddhist Chaplaincy Program (that’s been my journey over the past two years). Two weeks ago, I presented my thesis and then graduated and received lay ordination as a chaplain on March 11th.

I thought you might enjoy learning about what I’ve been spending my time on over the past few months, so over the next several posts I am publishing my thesis–which I believe is very relevant to socially engaged dharma.

At the end of October, I traveled to Boston to interview four of the Protest Chaplains who were present on the first day of OWS in New York City (September 17, 2011). All four were from Harvard Divinity School. I also spent time at the Occupy Boston campsite as a participant-observer (that’s my anthropology background coming out!). All this material informed my thesis.

Part 1, posted here, offers background on the concept of “Protest Chaplain” as well as the Occupy Wall Street Movement. If any of you would like the entire thesis as a Word document, let me know and I’m happy to share it with you. May it be of benefit.

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Why I’m Involved in the Occupy Movement

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On the Occupy Santa Fe panel with Tania Chavez, Ryan Hinson, and Robert McCormick

This past week, I was invited to be on a panel (along with three other people) at our local Unitarian Universalist Church and to speak about my perspective on the Occupy Movement.

Here are the questions that we were invited to address:

  • If you have a history of activism, talk a little about that first.
  • What brought you to the Occupy generally and Occupy Santa Fe in particular
  • What have been your primary roles in Occupy Santa Fe
  • What are your greatest hopes for Occupy
  • What are your greatest concerns about Occupy
  • Where do you think the Occupy movement is headed

If you’re still on the fence about this movement, I encourage you to read on.

One of my big messages to the audience at the UU church was: get involved. I can think of no reason why anyone who has an income of less than $100,000 a year would not benefit from investing your time and energy in this movement in order to help midwife a systemic shift from greed and competition toward generosity and cooperation.

And even if you are one of the folks who is blessed with a higher income, I strongly believe that you will benefit as well. How truly happy can any of us be when we live in a society that has as much economic injustice and disparity as ours does? This movement will not really succeed until 99% becomes 100%.

Make no mistake – this work is as much internal as it is external. This, to me, is the intersection with socially engaged Buddhism. Think of the world in terms of the three poisons: greed, hatred, and delusion. The Occupy Movement is all about addressing the harm caused by corporate greed — but this is not separate from addressing the seeds of greed that live within each of us. There’s a lot more to say about that, of course, but I’ll save that for another post.

So, here’s what I offered to the UU panel this week:

If you have a history of activism, talk a little about that first.

First, I have to say that I’m not particularly fond of the term “activist.” I think it has a way of excluding people who might be inspired to take action, but think of “activists” as a different kind of people who wear Birkenstocks and patchouli. I think a better term is “people who care.” Because ultimately, I think all of us care about the world we live in and probably want to make it better for ourselves and our loved ones.

Having said that, my own path to becoming a more caring person started when I was in my 20s and I worked as a mental health counselor in New Haven, CT. I witnessed how many of my clients were suffering not only because of their psychiatric challenges, but often more so because of the system they had to live in… a lack of affordable housing, abysmal medical and psychological care for those who had no resources, social stigma.

Over and over, I saw my clients ending up back in state mental hospitals – not so much because of their illness, but because it was simply too difficult to survive in that environment.

I went on to get a graduate degree in anthropology and that helped me to understand the situation I had witnessed from a more systemic perspective. I began to see how structural violence unfolds and plays out in our economic system, our health care system, and other locations. So often in our culture, individual people get blamed – for not working hard enough, for not being tough enough, it goes on and on. When you look at a whole system, you realize it’s bigger than any one person and that these systems do have an effect on the way we live our life. That’s not to remove individual responsibility entirely, but it’s not the whole story.

I became very involved in social change work in Buddhist communities and I worked at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, a national nonprofit based in the SF Bay Area, for many years. I was part of the movement to end the war in Iraq and was arrested for civil disobedience at the start of the war, in March 2003.

What brought you to the Occupy generally and Occupy Santa Fe in particular?

Like many of us, I think, I have had a deep sense that something was wrong in the country, and in the world, for many years now. For me, that’s taken the form of addressing the rampant militarism in our country, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and also trying to address diversity issues and educate myself about how racism, classism, and other kinds of oppression play out in our lives. But my activism has felt very fragmented because I felt like all of these were just part of the problem, and somehow we weren’t coming at the thing in a holistic way.

When the Occupy movement came along, it took me a couple of weeks or so to fall in love with it, but I finally did because my sense was that something in this movement was connecting all the dots. You could sense it when you watched the people in Zucotti Park as they held meetings and struggled valiantly with being a true participatory democracy.

I believe the Occupy movement has the potential to link people together across diverse groups, because all of us are being so dramatically impacted by one thing: corporate greed (and if we trace the source of this back even further, we begin to see how pervasive are the destructive effects of colonization).

What have been your primary roles in Occupy Santa Fe?

I’ve been to several GA meetings and participated in several of the actions and marches in October. I’ve also been helping to reach out to faith communities in Santa Fe and get them involved, as part of the Outreach and Inclusivity working group. I’m a firm believer that the most effective social change movements have spiritual and religious leaders supporting them at their core, and so that’s where I feel I can most effectively plug in. Last month I took a trip to Boston to visit the Occupy site there and to learn more about all that they’ve been doing to cultivate the faith and spirituality dimension of this movement (including the “Protest Chaplains”).

What are your greatest hopes for Occupy?
What are your greatest concerns about Occupy?
Where do you think the Occupy movement is headed?

My greatest hope for Occupy is, on one level, that there can be some economic justice achieved and that we can right some of the wrongs that have happened over the past two decades. It is simply wrong, for example, that a CEO like Charles Prince of Citigroup has had absolutely no consequences for overseeing massive and intentional securities fraud. It is wrong that corporations like Bank of America are able to use so many tax loopholes.

But on a deeper level, I think Occupy can be much more than that.

I really see Occupy as a laboratory for our future society. I love what one person said to me. She said she thinks of the word “demonstration” quite literally – that we are demonstrating an alternative way to live on the planet. Another way to think of it is through the profound words from Mahatma Gandhi: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

And so that’s what is going on as we watch the Occupy campsites figure out ways to take care of all the people who live there, to make sure everyone has food and healthcare, to create sacred spaces for people to come together even if they may not agree on everything.

Some have critiqued the movement for not having made clear demands. There actually is a clearly articulated platform that names what is wrong with the current system and puts forth some alternatives. But maybe even more importantly, we need to realize that the change we are envisioning may not be possible within the current system. Charles Eisenstein writes about this eloquently in his piece, Occupy Wall Street: No Demand is Big Enough.

We have no idea where this dimension of Occupy is going, and in a lot of ways it’s the most tricky thing that we’re doing, because we all carry our old baggage with us, both psychological and collectively.

And that’s really my greatest concern, especially in relationship to Occupy here in Santa Fe. We’d be fooling ourselves if we didn’t see how the Occupy site here and our group is a microcosm of our community. We are dealing with all the same divisive issues that our community as a whole deals with – homelessness, addiction, divisions between those who have lots of money and those who don’t, racism, and more.

So how well we are able to navigate through those divisions with love and kindness (and to be keenly aware of our own tendencies toward greed, anger, and delusion) will make the difference in the success of this Movement.

If I have one big hope for OSF and the Occupy Movement at large, I think it’s best summed up in this quote that comes from Francisco “Pancho” Ramos Stierle, the young man who was recently arrested while meditating at the Occupy/De-colonize Oakland site:

“Our victory is not about putting the right kind of people in power,
but putting the right kind of power in people.”


So those are my current thoughts about the Occupy Movement. How about you?

Bodhisattvas of Great Strength…

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Photo from Oakland Tribune

 During the short aeons of swords,

 They meditate on love,

 Introducing to nonviolence

 Hundreds of millions of living beings.

 In the middle of great battles

 They remain impartial to both sides;

 For bodhisattvas of great strength

 Delight in reconciliation of conflict.

 In order to help the living beings,

 They voluntarily descend into

 The hells which are attached

 To all the inconceivable buddha-fields.

—Vimalakirti Sutra

Photo taken in Oakland, CA, Nov 14, 2011; Francisco “Pancho” Ramos-Stierle and friends, sitting in meditation in front of the City Hall, prior to being arrested.

An Open Letter from Buddhist and Yoga Teachers and Leaders in Support of the Occupy Movement

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Well, folks, I’ve been occupied by the Occupy movement lately and haven’t devoted much time to posting on Jizo. I am so grateful that Michael Stone and Ethan Nichtern took the initiative to write a powerful letter connecting the dots between yoga and dharma practice and the Occupy movement.  Here’s an excerpt:

This movement has given voice to a near-universal frustration with the economic and political disenfranchisement of so many. It offers a needed counterbalance to a system that saps the life energy of the overwhelming majority –– the so-called 99% –– generating vast profits for a tiny handful, without maximizing the true potential for widespread wealth creation in our society. While our practice challenges us to cultivate compassion for 100% of human beings without villifying an “enemy,” our practice also calls on us to challenge a system that causes such clear harm and imbalance.

We share in the thoughtful calls to address massive unemployment, climate change, the erosion of social safety nets, decaying infrastructures, social and education programs, and workers’ wages, rights, and benefits.

I was honored to be invited to sign the letter, along with other dharma practitioners I respect and love such as Roshi Joan Halifax, Sharon Salzberg, Acharya Fleet Maull, Rev. angel Kyodo williams, Sarah Weintraub, and more.

You can read the complete letter here:

And I’ll be back with more good stuff soon. May you and all beings be free from suffering.

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