Occupy Sravasti: How Buddhism Inspired Me to Occupy
“Such a senseless manifestation
Who is monstrously greedy
And amasses riches insatiably
Is called the poorest of all.
Your Majesty, you levy harsh taxes
And punish the innocent for no reason.
Infatuated with your sovereignty,
You never heed
The future effects of your actions.
While you enjoy power in this world,
You do not protect your subjects,
And have no pity
For the poor and suffering.”
When I first read these words I was blown away. It was the fall of 2009 and I was in the middle of researching my master’s thesis on Buddhism and social justice. I found them in a little-known text called the Scripture Requested by Surata, where they form part of a long address by the saint Surata to the unjust and greedy king of Sravasti. They spoke to my deep desire for a stridently engaged Buddhism in a way nothing had ever done before. Surata was my new patron saint.
His story begins one morning when he stumbles on the most unlikely of objects: a golden bell made at the beginning of the eon, a bell worth more than all the world. A crowd gathers quickly. Being a saint, Surata declares that he will give his bell to the poorest person in Sravasti. The oldest man in the city—who is also its poorest citizen, as is often the case today—steps forward to claim his prize.
However, Surata turns the man away. Surata proceeds to barge straight into the royal treasury—crowd in tow—and offer the bell to the fabulously wealthy King Prasenajit instead. Everyone is, of course, baffled. Surata explains his bizarre behavior by issuing the scathing indictment of royal greed and corruption that so inspired me when I first read it in 2009.
What I couldn’t have known then is how timely Surata would become. On September 17, 2011, Occupy Wall Street set up a permanent encampment in Zuccotti Park (a.k.a. Liberty Plaza), right next to Wall Street. This singular act set off a movement that spread like wildfire across financial districts from Oakland to Oslo. Now, after a brutal nationwide crackdown that erased most of the encampments and a long winter lull, the Occupy movement is starting to show green shoots.
Since the camps were evicted, scores of protesters have been arrested as they attempted to re-occupy Zuccotti Park, which made the front page of The New York Times’ online version. Meanwhile other occupations across the country are laying plans for new encampments, Occupy Boston led a nationwide day of action against public transit cuts on April 4, and thousands of occupiers across the world poured into the streets for International Workers’ Day on May 1. Québec and Mexico have both erupted in protest, and we may yet see an American Spring.
Occupy’s initial, meteoric rise came with a flurry of criticism from all quarters. Some of this criticism—over its lack of organization, its break with established community organizations, its demographic makeup, its lack of clearly defined goals—is healthy and constructive. However, much of the criticism has focused on Occupy’s tone and tactics rather than on these more substantive issues. This is understandable to a certain extent. After all, Occupy has taken over public parks where people ordinarily go for lunch or take their children on the weekends.
It has gnarled traffic by taking over bridges and marching in the streets during rush hour. It has brought out legions of young protesters in Guy Fawkes masks to chant “We are the 99%,” refusing to give in to those who call this slogan divisive. Despite its remarkable nonviolence, the movement is uncompromising, audacious and often downright rude.
If I’m honest, I’ll admit there are times when I’m put off by all this. It goes against my working-class Southern upbringing, which taught me to be scrupulously polite and to keep my head down. Sometimes I worry that it also goes against something much more precious. Buddhism values calmness, non-attachment, and compassion. This is a far cry from “We are the 99%” or “Banks got bailed out; we got sold out.” There is always a nagging fear in the back of my mind that aggressively confronting greedy corporations, corrupt governments and repressive security agencies might keep me from cultivating love, kindness, and compassion for the flesh-and-blood people who staff these systems of violence.
But what then of Surata? After all, a treasury is more than just a warehouse for gold; it’s also a center of political and economic power. The greedy king would have felt secure there—surrounded by his wealth, fawned over by his advisers, hidden by thick walls, guarded by men with weapons and the constant threat of lethal force. Those following Surata would have been precisely the kinds of people the king wanted to avoid (and precisely the kinds of people our own society either warehouses or ignores): destitute, foul, emaciated, diseased, schizophrenic, elderly. By entering the treasury, Surata violated the king’s physical and emotional security. Not only that, but Surata also violated the authority and integrity of the State. It wasn’t just a threat to the king’s person, but to the very institutions of society, to law and order and national security. When Surata barged into the treasury it was unbelievably kind, but there was hardly anything polite about it.
Neither were many of the social movements I idolize nearly as genteel as I’d like to imagine. The marches, boycotts, and sit-ins that marked the Civil Rights Movement may have been nonviolent, but they were also meant to disrupt the ordinary patterns of day-to-day life.
People couldn’t go out to lunch with friends because the lunch counter was blocked by a sit-in; or their hours were cut because none of the black people in town were riding the bus they drove for a living; or they were inconvenienced in a thousand other ways big and small. In fact, Martin Luther King Jr. often referred to nonviolence as “creative maladjustment,” with the idea that those who practiced it must be maladjusted to society’s injustices. And we know that maladjustment always creates friction.
Just as King shows me that nonviolence can still be razor-sharp, Surata shows me that Buddhism can be precious without being precious. This doesn’t mean that I’ve abandoned my ideals of love and compassion, or that I don’t ever question my actions to make sure they remain nonviolent. But King and Surata reassure me whenever I’m tempted to abandon forceful action altogether for an approach with more sweetness and light. They show me how being kind and being polite are different, and often opposite. It’s a lesson I’ll need to carry with me as the movement against neoliberalism and austerity continues; we have appointments to keep at more than one treasury.