Buddhists Rally Against Zero Tolerance

Rally crossing Brooklyn Bridge

George W. Bush, in his 2000 presidential bid, popularized the term ‘Compassionate Conservatism,’ ascribing ‘compassion’ to various conservative policies.  The patina of compassion the conservatives of that era brushed their policies with has long since worn away.  We have to ask ourselves, then, does zero tolerance mean zero compassion?  And what is ‘zero compassion’ in relation to immigration law?

When families fleeing violence get handcuffs instead of a handshake, zero tolerance equals zero compassion.  When women and children living under the torment of brutal spousal abuse are sent back to their ‘homes,’ zero tolerance equals zero compassion.  When children are taken from their parents, shipped across the state or clear across the country and put in foster care or, in some cases, cages, zero tolerance equals zero compassion.  

When engaged Buddhists see their government eschewing compassion in the name of ‘justice,’ they stand up and speak out in the name of moral clarity:  Imprisoning people seeking asylum violates our own domestic asylum law as well as international human rights law.  The fact is, asylum seekers have the legal right to seek asylum.  With the administration’s abrogation of those laws, engaged Buddhists of all traditions joined together on June 30th to participate in the Keep Families Together rally protesting the administration’s zero tolerance immigration policy.

Ringing Buddhist chimes

While each of the participants may have had different reasons for showing up, they all agreed on one thing:  It’s the right thing to do.  Bryn Meehan, of New York Insight, served as a Marshal for the march and helped lead people across the Brooklyn Bridge.  “The holocaust poem* (by Martin Niemoller) ‘First they came for the socialists and I did not speak . . . ’ feels frighteningly apropos today. Even if you don’t see the interconnections between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ the suffering is obvious.”

The human suffering is indeed obvious to so many.  Compassion NYC sounded the clarion call to all engaged Buddhists to join the rally to End Family Separation.  Other organizations followed suit, including the newly formed Buddhist Action Coalition, Buddhist Climate Action Network and Buddhist Council of New York, encouraging all Buddhists of conscience to show up en masse.  Members of Village Zendo, Brooklyn Zen Center, Fire Lotus Temple, New York Insight, Zen Center for Contemplative Care and many other sanghas showed up at Foley Square to rally together for moral justice.

Zen priest at rally

Roshi Enkyo O’Hara of Village Zen Center

The world is witness to currents of great migrations, most of which are man made:  climate change, which is pushing climate refugees from oppressive heat and crops that wither in parched land, the scourge of war, sending people fleeing for their very lives, and gang violence, fueled by drug money and weapons trading.  

To make matters worse, the United States’ geopolitical history is one of propping up brutal dictatorships throughout Central America, planting the seeds of assured long-term destabilization.  During the 1980’s the Reagan administration toppled democratically elected governments in Central America, including:

  • Sending right-wing military death squads into El Salvador, killing over 75,000 people, many of them civilians caught in the crossfire
  • Fighting against the democratically elected Sandinista government, leading to the death of over 50,000 people
  • Using Honduras as a base to coordinate military operations against the Nicaraguan government

But that’s not all.  The United States has been meddling in Latin America’s affairs since the late 1700s.  Is it any wonder, then, that Central America suffers from instability when we worked so hard to make it that way?  

Yet our country, like so many other colonial powers, is pushing back against those seeking the relative safety of our nation.  Many see these people as intruders, coming to disrupt our way of life. The truth is, in many ways it was we who disrupted their way of life, and the destabilization we see is the fruit of karma.  It is due to the United States’ foreign policy of overthrowing legitimate governance in Latin America.  It should be no surprise, then, that four of the top ten countries with asylees include Mexico and Central American Nations.

pie chart of top asylum grants

Some may still say, ‘What does this have to do with me?  I didn’t engage in war with Latin America. I’m not even Latin American!’  As Buddhists, however, we understand there is no separate self. Deb Daishi Schwartz, of New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, explains why she felt called upon to join the rally.

“In pop culture today, so much of meditation and mindfulness being offered really has to do with the self and self-improvement, and a separate self.  Traditionally, that’s not what Buddhism is about. It’s really about a set of ethics. Zen in particular is about non-separation, not seeing oneself as separate from anyone else’s suffering or joy, failures or success.”

Group of zen Buddhists at rally

As engaged Buddhists, we can ask ourselves, ‘am I following the precepts of engaged Buddhism?’  The Venerable Thich Nhat Hahn urges, “Do not avoid suffering or close your eyes before suffering. Do not lose awareness of the existence of suffering in the life of the world. Find ways to be with those who are suffering, including personal contact, visits, images and sounds. By such means, awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world.”  Witnessing with equanimity, we remember that seeing the suffering of the world does not mean wallowing in despair, which only fosters passivity.  Instead, one acts.

“It’s so important to respond to this, to stand up and to say ‘No!’” say Deb.  “To do that collectively in the form of a march is really powerful, and very important,” she added.  Meanwhile, the Buddhist contingent made its way towards the Brooklyn Bridge, the crossing of which symbolized a joining of communities in solidarity for justice, with, we hope, enduring compassion.  

Woman holding sign at immigration rally

Deb Daishi Schwartz of NYZCCC


*First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out–

Because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.

Martin Niemöller

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