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Activism Is Dharma

This morning I broke a 24-hour fast with a bowl of chocolate and macadamia granola. I was carrying out the fast alongside at least 60 other climate activists in support of my friend Emma. Emma has been imprisoned for climate activism and was on day 15 of her hunger strike. She is asking the government to commit to insulating Britain’s homes, which would make a big contribution to reducing our country’s carbon emissions.

Alongside Emma and the other imprisoned activists, food was on my mind pretty constantly. The biggest surprise was the ease with which I withstood the physical sensations of fasting—hunger and a very slight headache—and the relative difficulty of handling the psychological effects. My brain pulled out all the stops to try to make me eat: “Nobody would know if you just ate a cracker right now!” it whispered to me. “This is pointless anyway, just start eating again!” “You DESERVE dinner!” I began to notice how dependent I am on food as a means of reward, distraction, and comfort. I also discovered that if I didn’t eat, these psychological cravings would pass and I survived.

Overall, I feel grateful for the opportunity to experiment with fasting, and glad to have made this offering to Emma and to the Earth. I wasn’t surprised that it was a learning opportunity, as all of my activism so far has doubled as a way of connecting with the Dharma. During my year-long vigil, I learned that I didn’t have to panic when my body felt cold, and that I can make long-term commitments and follow them through. During my arrests, I learned how it is to be utterly dependent on others and how freeing it is to make my own decisions about what skillful action looks like, regardless of what the law says. During my time in XR Buddhists, I have learned a lot about my strengths and weaknesses, and I have discovered how much more helpful it is to put energy into projects that suit me rather than doing the things I feel I ought to do.

I am currently training with Bright Dawn, a Buddhist organization founded by Reverend Gyomay Kubose. This group offers a practice called “Dharma Glimpses,” in which students write a short piece about something that has happened in their lives and how this connected them to the Dharma. I love reading other people’s Dharma Glimpses because they are so varied yet relatable: ordinary people—whatever that means—talking about the ordinary things that happen to them. Sometimes I enjoy battling with dense Dharma texts or classical koans, and I find much wisdom in this struggle. But there is sometimes a gap between what I learn and how I live my life. Dharma Glimpses close this gap by challenging us to think about what we are actually learning from the Buddhadharma and from things-as-they-are. They ask us to write about what difference this wisdom is actually making as we live our everyday lives.

What good is Buddhism, or any religion, if it doesn’t change us? I would say the same for protests. If we are not approaching our activism with an open mind and an open heart, with creativity and with a willingness to learn, then how can it be effective? People are influenced when they can see that a call for change is coming from a place in us that is fresh and alive. When I am offering activism from this place, it’s a complicated thing. It often involves stepping just outside of my comfort zone, or some element of sacrifice, or some deep emotion. It often includes doubt—is this the best thing to be doing? Might I even be making things worse? It often involves an intimacy with different parts of myself, with my colleagues alongside me, and with the Earth herself. Activism, when motivated by love, is a spiritual practice. Activism is Dharma.

My Pure Land Buddhist roots remind me frequently that I am a foolish being of wayward passions. My actions will always consist of a mixture of altruism and selfishness. I need to keep a constant eye on the parts of me that enjoy being praised a little bit too much; the parts that want to punish me; the parts of me that are overloaded with guilt or shame. Despite all that, I trust that I am generally heading in the right direction. I listen out for prompts and guidance from the Buddha, and I stay open to learning. One step, and then another.

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XR Buddhists
Bright Dawn

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