Don’t Just Sit There—Act

When we sit in meditation, we awaken to oneness. Then we take compassionate action. That’s what drives Andy Hoover’s work at the ACLU.

Andy Hoover
20 November 2019
Photo by Cambriae Bates / ACLU-PA

“If you dedicate yourself to a life of compassion, is it possible you still may have to engage in a fight?”

This was the question I posed in May to a newly ordained priest in my Buddhist community. As part of the ordination ceremony, our new clergy engage in dharma combat, when anyone in the sangha can pepper them with questions.

“Yes,” the new priest replied. He then cited the tragic death of Kendrick Castillo, an eighteen-year-old who had died four days earlier engaging a gunman at his school in Colorado. He disrupted the attack and saved an unknown number of lives.

It wasn’t quite the answer I expected—at least not the answer I had in my own head—but it was certainly a relevant answer for our times.

For the last nineteen years, I’ve been engaged in a fight, but one of the nonviolent variety. Since 2000, I have been an active participant in civil rights advocacy in Pennsylvania, first as a volunteer in the death penalty abolition movement and then, starting in 2004, as a staffer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.

Founded in 1920, the ACLU is the leading defender of constitutional rights in the United States. We carry out our mission through legal action, policy advocacy, and by partnering with street-level activists. Our work goes beyond the absolutist positions on free speech and separation of church and state for which we are best known. The ACLU’s work today is advancing constitutional ideals for a twenty-first century America. We’re taking the values embedded in the constitution and using them as a jumping-off point for a wide range of advocacy, including equality for transgender and gender nonconforming people, fairness in how immigrants are treated, and a total rethinking of the criminal justice system.

Not coincidentally, the timeline of my involvement in activism coincides with the time that I’ve been practicing Buddhism. It was exactly nineteen years ago that I first picked up Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind, followed by Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Miracle of Mindfulness, and began to meditate. It was my Buddhist practice that motivated me to take compassionate action.

To be honest, Buddhism did not flip my politics—growing up in the Lutheran church, I had always felt drawn to the Gospels’ teachings of good work. But it gave me a completely new lens for engaging in public action. Rather than taking action because an authority figure said to love our neighbors, which is nice, Buddhism awakened me to the reality that we are all interconnected—all living beings, the earth, the universe in its entirety. Awakening to oneness was a call to practice compassion, because there is no separation between myself, my neighbor, the mom trying to escape poverty and violence in Central America, and the family in Pakistan whose village is being bombed by U.S. drones.

My work for the ACLU is an extension of that view. We cannot possibly help everyone in our finite time here. But we sure try. In the nearly fifteen years I’ve been with the organization, we’ve fought against holding people with mental health disorders in solitary confinement—not once but twice. We won marriage equality for same-sex couples in Pennsylvania a year before it went nationwide. We undermined public trust in the death penalty, eventually convincing our current governor to implement a moratorium on executions. This has now led to a pending case before the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in which the court will consider whether capital punishment is unconstitutional. And those are just some of the victories we’ve won in Pennsylvania; the ACLU has successfully defended people’s rights—often the most marginalized people—all over the country.

The ACLU cannot take full credit for these victories for compassion, of course. There are many organizations and individuals who have struggled to get where we are. And we have a lot more work to do.

Perhaps most importantly, this work has to include the people who are most impacted. It’s well and good for a privileged person like me to help with the work, but I’m not from a disadvantaged community. I haven’t lived that suffering. It’s the people who are most marginalized in a society that is historically dominated by people who look like me who have the real expertise in what it’s like to be disadvantaged and the knowledge of their most pressing needs.

The practices of the Zen Peacemakers, the order of engaged Buddhists founded by Roshi Bernie Glassman, provide me with the steps for opening my heart to people who have different life experiences than my own.

In the Zen Peacemakers’ way, we first practice not knowing—entering a space completely free of preconceived notions or judgments. We then bear witness—keeping our hearts and minds fully open to the person or the experience before us. Only after we do these two practices do we take the third step: compassionate action.

In meditation, we have a practice that quiets the mind, even in the midst of a fight, and allows us to see situations with clarity, as they truly are. Meditation is more than a mere respite; it truly is practice for everyday life. We start on the cushion, observing our thoughts and sitting with them to understand how they are poisoned by our own delusions. We then carry those meditative techniques into daily living so that we can act with greater clarity and compassion.

One of our senior priests said something years ago that I’ve come back to again and again. She said, “Our practice is about awakening to the oneness of all beings. And acting on it.”

So don’t just sit there. Act.

Andy Hoover

Andy Hoover is the director of communications at the ACLU of Pennsylvania and an ordained Buddhist priest at the Blue Mountain Lotus Society in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The views expressed in this piece are his own.