Exploring New Terrain

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Engagement and exploration

One contemporary exemplar of this path is the Dalai Lama. Since his daring flight from Tibet in 1959 (a literal crossing of unfamiliar terrain), he has become a world statesman and spiritual leader on a scale unprecedented in Buddhist history.

In response to China's brutal occupation of Tibet, he has consistently embodied the Buddhist precept of nonviolence—a highly unconventional stance in the realm of realpolitik. His conviction that "violent oppressors are also worthy of compassion" challenges the gut reactions of Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. Through his extensive travels and public appearances, he acquaints people with a Buddhist vision of a desirable society. In matters large and small, the Dalai Lama stirs controversy. When his face appeared on billboards and magazine back covers in an ad for Apple computers, the Tibetan cause may have been aided at the expense of Buddhism's critique of consumerism.

The greening of Buddhist communities illustrates innovative engagement on a group level. At the Green Gulch Zen Center, north of San Francisco, residents use water according to how much is actually available from local sources, thereby achieving water self-sufficiency. Other centers are experimenting with land stewardship, outdoor backpacking retreats, and ceremonies that acknowledge the presence of nonhuman neighbors. Will the successors to monasteries be "ecosteries"? A Samye Ling retreat center being built off the west coast of Scotland implements an energy-efficient design that will integrate water, crops, and waste.

To propose a radically different, but not inherently unworkable, set of values is therefore not utopian after all, but a highly practical—indeed, indispensable—prerequisite to meaningful social and political change. No greater or more successful utopians than the founding fathers of the American republic ever walked the face of the earth, and what they did can be done again. William Ophuls

Nevada Nuclear Test Site

In the spring of 1994, nonviolent protesters organized an unusual demonstration in one of the most contaminated places on the planet. About sixty people gathered at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site, under the auspices of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, to protest the nuclear explosions conducted at the site until recently; to grieve for the damage done to humans, wildlife, and the Earth; and to commemorate the Buddha's birthday on April 8. This was new terrain indeed, and the attempts to promote disarmament both outwardly and inwardly had an improvisational quality. At one point during walking meditation, the single-file line went right up to a barrier under the surveillance of five men in uniform. The barrier was actually a cattle guard, spaced iron bars at ground level. Anyone who stepped on it would be arrested. Around the demonstrators, the wind kicked up dust (radioactive dust?), mocking all such boundaries. Hardly pausing, many walked silently across the barrier.

If you had been participating in the demonstration at the Nevada Test Site, would you have walked across the cattle guard and risked arrest? Why or why not? (Among the NTS demonstrators, both options were respected.)