This past Sunday June 14, I sat crosslegged in front of San Francisco’s City Hall, letting the words of the poet Langston Hughes flow over me, a vast and powerful river connecting me to the historical dimension, to my ancestors and the many peoples of many races who built this country. My heart trembling with the recognition that “America was never America” for Langston Hughes and so many other black, brown, red, yellow, and white bodies, caught in the suffering of anti-blackness, racism, discrimination, economic poverty and exploitation.
I was there as part of a movement called Sit.Walk.Listen, arising out of the compassion and planning of my dear sangha sibling Ivan. Days after the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ivan organized the first of what is now a series of public demonstrations in honor and support of black lives. Sangha friends in Wake Up San Francisco rallied to support him and the mission of bringing “collective awakening” and healing to the streets of San Francisco. Our vision of public protest as forum for peace-building has manifested in the grassroots movement Sit.Walk.Listen, an ongoing space for sitting, walking, and listening in public space (just as it sounds!).
On Sunday, I sat as a co-organizer of Sit.Walk.Listen, alongside Ivan and so many of my sangha siblings – Chris, Suan, Stephen, Sophie. I am trying to answer the Buddha’s call to wise action, arising out of clear seeing and an open heart. I commit anew to the mindfulness trainings, aspiring to reverence for life, mindful speech, and deep listening. I am not the perfect organizer, but if not me, who? If not our sangha, who will organize? If not our generation, who will take the steps towards justice?
Protest is the nature of my love.
I take heart in Thay’s words after 9/11, where he urged Americans to create televised listening circles for public discourse and healing. Thay explained that only when we can see our suffering and the suffering of our neighbors can we meet the suffering of those that have caused us harm. Sit.Walk.Listen arises out of Thay’s call to listening.
On Sunday, 150 of us from all walks of life chose to show up for sitting, walking, and listening to our friends, neighbors, and strangers. We were an incredibly diverse group, a mix of Buddhist practitioners from different traditions, all races and backgrounds. We have chosen to spend our Sunday morning, streets still empty from shelter-in-place, to hold the suffering of black lives in our awareness.
I include in my awareness the racism that not so long ago incarcerated Japanese-Americans on this soil, cloaked in a presidential order that justified stripping Americans of their property, sending them to desert camps to live in horse stables. I include the racism that removed indigenous peoples from this land, only granting them full American citizenship in 1924.
I sit, walk, and listen as an American citizen of Japanese and Chinese ancestry. As a daughter of a father whose parents fled communist China, of a mother whose Japanese-American ancestors were once seen as enemy aliens in their homeland. As a person with light-skin privilege, with the security of knowing that I do not fear police invading my home, arresting my brothers, assaulting or killing my family. I sit, walk, and listen knowing that I am not separate from this ongoing suffering of black and brown bodies, that this suffering is my inheritance as a human being. That it is my suffering too.
I hold the dual truths of Martin Luther King’s “long arc bending towards justice” and the immediacy of the present moment. I see my own impatience and frustration with the slow progress towards racial equity and justice, my fear that it will not come in my lifetime. Holding my fear and longing, I remember Thay’s words: “The best way to take care of the future is to take care of the present moment. What else can you do?”
I sit, walk, and listen aware of the suffering of black and brown lives and my own commitment to the bodhisattva path. Each step in the present moment can be a step towards justice, love, and healing. There is no future out there, it must start right here and now. On this gravel plaza in the heart of San Francisco, in this heart of mine. This is it.
I end with the words of my co-organizer Ivan quoting the band, Rage Against the Machine:
It has to start somewhere
It has to start sometime
What better place than here?
What better time than now?