By now I think most everyone’s finally heard about the “Occupy” movement, and various permutations of “the people are revolting” have already been used (do a quick search and you’ll see what I mean). The “Occupiers” have been ignored, derided and laughed at, infiltrated by spies and opportunistic criminals, and accused of being unwitting tools of George Soros. Even those who applaud their actions have criticized their lack of leadership, agenda, list of demands, coherency, etc. In some places, protesters have been attacked by police (either on orders from higher-ups, or because they are unclear on the concept of the Constitutional right to peaceful assembly), and many arrests have been made. So, what does a Buddha make of all this?
Let’s consider the life of Nichiren. Born into 13th century feudal Japan to a low caste family, he grew up wondering why, in a country whose dominant religion was the highly regarded teaching of Buddhism, was so much suffering? After entering a monastery at the age of twelve (the only hope of education for a boy in his position, even if he hadn’t been so inclined), he also began to wonder why, with only one “official” Buddha, there were so many sects of Buddhism? Surely there had to be one teaching that was superior to all the others; to discover which one it was, he proceeded to go to temples from each of the Buddhist sects and study what they had to offer. It took him years.
As Nichiren pursued his studies, the feudal system was working fairly well…for a small group of people. The lords had their vast landholdings and their retinues, and those who were fortunate enough to be of use to the lords were employed to service them in various capacities. The leading Buddhist sects supported the government and enjoyed its protection in return. The general populace had to be content with prayers (if they could afford to make an offering) and the hope of being reborn to better circumstances in a “pure land” somewhere in the west. Meanwhile there was drought, famine, disease, the fear of Mongol invasion, and of course, the mind-numbing and soul-destroying knowledge that one had little hope of moving much (if any) beyond the station to which he had been born. Women for the most part were utterly dependent upon men for every aspect of their existence.
His studies finally completed, Nichiren came to the realization that there was indeed a superior teaching: the Lotus Sutra. He determined that the reason why there was so much suffering was the country’s attachment to earlier, provisional, and erroneous Buddhist teachings. He called for a meeting of the priests from the leading schools, and proceeded to publicly refute them. The outrage was such that he had to run for his life. He then wrote to the government’s most powerful ruler, pointing out that not only was this the cause of the country’s current troubles but predicting more to come. The response? Exile. Persecution, including murderous attacks on himself and his followers. Attempted government execution, followed by another exile to a remote island where people were routinely sent to die. Nichiren, however, survived. Eventually, after everything he predicted came to pass, the ruling clan made him what they probably thought was an offer he couldn’t refuse. He could come back; he would be pardoned, and he would be supplied with a temple of his own. All he had to do was stop causing trouble…and remember who his real friends were…
Nichiren, of course, did nothing of the sort. He had taken to heart the lesson of the Lotus Sutra: that all people possessed the capacity for enlightenment in their present form, not just a few; that this could be attained in one’s present lifetime (not in some “pure land” elsewhere); and that the sutra’s truths would be spread in the future not by saints or sages or priests, but by the common people. Having done his part to remonstrate with government leaders, and having established a simple universal practice encompassing the essence of the Lotus Sutra, he spent the rest of his life spreading this teaching and encouraging his followers to do so as well.
Eventually the feudal system collapsed, as it later did in Europe (not as an immediate result of the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381; though considered a failure at the time, it later came to be regarded as the beginning of the end of feudalism). Throughout history there have been many such uprisings, and regardless of their initial success or failure at the time, change always comes eventually. One definition of a Buddha is “one who endures”. Does this mean that we should sit back, waiting for it to happen? Accept that the power hungry, like the poor, are always with us? Take the view that as long if we are not personally suffering, that there is no reason for us to rise? Buddhism resoundingly says NO. To be Buddhist means to stand up against injustice, to speak out against evil, and to have compassion for those who are suffering. To do otherwise is to abandon one’s faith in favor of some lesser teaching. One might as well believe in the divine right of kings…
There is a limit to how much oppression people can stand. The people will always rise. The “one percenters” who sneer as they sip their champagne, their supporters who claim there’s nothing wrong with the system (it’s just that people made bad choices!) and especially the police who are brutalizing the protesters, are on the wrong side of history, once again. If the Occupy movement has done nothing else, it’s opened our eyes and sparked a national discourse. Should it collapse, it will be up to all of us to carry out the change. The real revolution that leads to lasting change always starts within, when we transform ourselves into persons of compassion and courage who are not afraid to speak out. We can no longer stand by and ignore the perversion of democracy. Attention must be paid.