“ . . . I realized that there is no difference between Buddhism and nonviolence. Nonviolence is the practice of compassion in all circumstances. As Buddhists that is just the way we live . . .”
—Maylie Scott, Berkeley Zen Center
Since February 1988, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship has been sponsoring mornings of mindfulness at the Concord Naval Weapons Station, just East of San Francisco. This is part of a twenty-four-hour-a-day vigil that is kept by members of Nuremburg Actions, an organization dedicated to upholding the Nuremberg Principles formulated in 1950 at the request of the United Nations. On September 1, 1987, Brian Willson, a Vietnam veteran, was run over by a munitions train as he sat on the tracks in protest of U.S. military involvement in Central America. Willson suffered severe bodily injuries including the loss of both his legs. Since then, people have gathered at the tracks to protest the shipment of weapons, and explore the roots of violence in themselves and in society.
The tracks, where the weapons are transported from the station to the docks at nearby Port Chicago, cross a pasture lined country highway just outside of the town of Clyde, California. The Buddhist Peace Fellowship mornings there are quite simple. We meet at 10 a.m. on the third Sunday of each month to practice walking, sitting, a lovingkindness (metta) meditation and close with a sharing circle where people can speak if they choose to.
Freedom of Information Act requests reveal that CNWS has shipped to El Salvador demolition bombs which have destroyed hundreds of villages, fuse extenders which cause shrapnel to fly in all directions, white phosphorus rockets which burn through flesh, and ammunition for General Electric machine guns that fire one hundred bullets per second from helicopter gunships. This information was taken from a U.S. Department of Defense invoice that referred to the Government of El Salvador as the purchaser of these weapons. It was an itemized invoice, breaking down the cost per warhead, per fuse extender, etc. with the cost of this shipment alone totaling $6 million.
Because we live in a highly technological society, one that hasn’t experienced a war within its borders in recent history, it is easy to lose touch with the disastrous effects of war. I feel a need to develop my awareness to include the consequences brought by these weapons. The Buddha taught that we exist interdependently with all of life, that there is no such thing as a separate self and that all beings have the right to happiness. These teachings have moved me to include social action as a part of my spiritual practice. For me, going to Concord is no different than experiencing the painful feelings while sitting in meditation. Being at the tracks brings me to the edge of some very uncomfortable states of mind. I sometimes experience fear or anger toward the violence that I’m confronting in the weapons, the counter-demonstrators and my own potential violence.
I’ve heard many stories from people who have gone to Central America to bear witness to the oppression and destruction occurring there. Joe Gorin, former board member of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and vipassana student, has been in Central America for the past two years. Joe, currently living in Nicaragua, sends letters back to the U.S. regularly that describe what life is like in many parts of Central America. The contrast to the way we live is a painful one; the tragedy of war is so apparent in Central America. Although it is uncertain whether munitions are being sent from Concord to Nicaragua, it is certain that U.S. funds are supporting the Contras; escalating the civil war between them and the Sandinistas. In his most recent letter from Nicaragua Joe writes:
The truck that had given me a ride turned off the road to El Triunfo, leaving me about twenty-five kilometers shy of my destination. As I got off the truck I ran into several acquaintances of mine from Jacinto Baca, a village I often visit.
“How’s everything been around here lately?”
“Tranquilo. Things are quiet.” This is good news. But as the conversation develops, I learn that things are “tranquilo” except that a friend of mine’s son was kidnapped in Jacinto Baca ten days ago. Tranquilo, except that a few hours ago, five kilometers from where we are standing, on the road from Las Miradas to Jacinto Baca, a Ministry of Construction vehicle was ambushed and burned, and the driver was kidnapped. Tranquilo except for a burnt schoolhouse in San Antonio. Except for the murder of a father and his seven-year-old daughter in El Amparo. Except, except, except. But things are, in fact, relatively tranquilo. The shooting has quieted down these past few months due to the cease fire. Major attacks and combats do not happen with the frequency with which they happened before the cease fire. . .
For some people, like Joe Gorin, the motivation to end this war leads them to live and work in Central America. Others are working here in the U.S. to stop the war at the source—trying to stop the weapons from ever being shipped. In October I met with David Hartsough, cofounder of Nuremburg Actions–Concord and long time peace activist. Having been involved since its inception, David gave an overview of the sustained vigil and protest which is now in its seventeenth month. What follows are excerpts from what he said:
David Hartsough: Brian Willson called me on his first night home from his Spring 1987 trip to Nicaragua. He was feeling the pain of what he had seen in Central America. We spoke of our need to find a new way in the United States of resisting the insanity of what was happening in Central America—to develop a resistance through which we were not just talking or demonstrating once every few months, but were putting our lives where our words were. Since our first visit to the tracks, it seemed like a very powerful place to speak with our lives. This was a place where, by our silence, we could say, “It’s okay, government: Just keep doing what you’re doing,” or by our actions say, “You have to stop. This is not what we want America to stand for in the world.” We decided not to consider our actions as acts of civil disobedience, because we did not see them as breaking any law. We were trying to uphold the law—both God’s law and international law.
To create an example of what a sustained action was, we planned to have an ongoing protest at the site for ten days, hoping other people would be moved to join us. As it turned out, we have been here for seventeen months. Over the past fourteen months, the Navy hasn’t been able to move a single train without forcibly removing people, arresting them, or running them over.
I just came back from Central America, and everywhere I went people had heard about what we were doing at the tracks. In the midst of all the violence, pain and suffering that they are experiencing, there is a ray of hope because there are people in North America who understand their pain and are willing to speak with their lives to try to stop it. We are trying to say to our brothers and sisters in Central America what it really means to feel that we are all brothers and sisters in the world. We tend to feel cut off somehow if people speak a different language, if they are a different color, if they live somewhere else or if our government tells us that they are subversives.
Brian believes that our lives are worth no more and their lives are worth no less. If there is hope for humanity, then a lot more of us have to understand this—not just intellectually but in our hearts. The day that Brian was run over by the train was by far the most horrible experience of my life. The Navy had an ambulance at the site, but refused to take Brian to the hospital. Despite all this, the people involved in the protest, and there were about fifty of us that day, responded by and large nonviolently. In the midst of violence being inflicted on us we were saying that we cannot allow the killing to continue.
I feel that the spirit of nonviolence is very deep here at Concord. It has transformed people, including some people on the base. There has been at least one marine who refused orders to have anything to do with keeping us off the tracks, and two former truck drivers who carried munitions quit their jobs for reasons of conscience. Near the tracks on Highway 4, a marine on a motorcycle had a head-on collision and one of the protesters gave him CPR. The headlines in the local newspaper read, “Protester Saves Marine’s Life.” I think at that time a lot of people began to understand that we are trying to save peoples’ lives in Central America, and that we are also interested in saving peoples’ lives here.
Recently there have been many articles written about Brian Willson and the sustained vigil at the tracks. The Weapons Station has not been something that people across the country could easily avoid. At least for a moment it stirred in many of us a question of what our responsibility is in preventing weapons from being shipped from places like Concord to other countries. Partly as a result of an article she read, Maylie Scott, Zen priest and president of the Berkeley Zen Center, was moved to take action. Last November I interviewed Maylie at her home in Berkeley, California.
Carole Melkonian: How did you first got involved in Nuremburg Actions–Concord?
Maylie Scott: I was on the East Coast when Brian Willson was hit by the munitions train, so I didn’t hear about it until I got back to the Bay Area. Initially, it upset me a lot, then I put it out of my mind. In October, 1987 there was a moving article about Brian in Image Magazine. It affected me deeply. The writer of the article was at the tracks the day Brian was run over. He said that the expression on Brian’s face, when Brian realized that the train was not going to stop and he was not going to get up, was one of not knowing. I was very moved by that. I was scheduled to give a Saturday morning talk at the Zen Center and wanted to address the question, “What do we rely on?” or “What do we fall back on?” It seemed to me to be the bottom line of what we rely on, that ability to sit cross legged not knowing.
I drove out to the weapons station with a friend on a morning when a munitions train was running. Seeing the train and the protesters touched something in me. I realized there was a lot for me to learn. That was in December, 1987.
CM: Do you go to the tracks regularly?
MS: Yes. I go once a week. For me the important points are the aspects of witnessing. Just being there feels so restoring, so healing. It is a wonderful place to practice kind speech. It is not easy for me to confront direct hostility, to keep to soft arguments without flinching or retreating. I can easily support the protesters, but it is another thing to practice kind speech while dealing with someone who is very angry. I find myself retreating again and again, and remembering afterwards what I could have said.
CM: I’ve heard you mention an idea which you call shared vulnerability. You related the sense of vulnerability that people feel during an action at the tracks to what people feel when sitting in meditation, possibly during a retreat. Could you speak a little more about that?
MS: I think it is a gift to be able to be vulnerable with other people. Our experience of vulnerability is usually so solitary. We fear something, and we fear there will be some danger if we let other people know. A very powerful aspect of the actions at Concord is that we are all obviously vulnerable together. Of course in zazen (sitting meditation), we are vulnerable alone in the same room. It is a bit different.
CM: You’ve been brought to jail a few times for participating in actions. What has your experience been like in jail?
MS: I learn a lot of things. I imagined that I would have interesting conversations with people in jail. The trouble is, in the holding unit, you just get ground down. You are in a small room with the television on all the time. These great conversations, they just don’t happen.
What happens for me is often I come in feeling kind of elated from the excitement of the action and arrest. Then there is this real sadness about human existence. It is sad to see the women there, most of whom are in and out of jail. They live such chaotic lives. There is a heavy samsaric aspect of existence in jail.
Twice I spent the night in jail. I ended up getting more and more tired until finally I was willing to lie on the carpeted floor. The carpet has an interesting smell of dirty feet and insecticides. You just get tired enough until you are willing to sleep on this stinky carpet. It has a sesshin (intensive Zen meditation retreat) effect. Little by little you give everything up. You give up your idea of not being a prisoner. You give up your unwillingness to put your head on the carpet.
CM: I would guess some people would stop doing actions as a result of an experience like this.
MS: That’s possible, but it’s more likely to increase a person’s commitment to continue doing actions.
CM: And what keeps you going out to the tracks?
MS: When I start something it’s very hard for me to stop (laughter). I used to think of myself as a Buddhist, and that nonviolence was a different ideology. It is just within the last couple of months that I realized that there is no difference between Buddhism and nonviolence. Nonviolence is the practice of compassion in all circumstances. As Buddhists that is just the way we live. Nonviolence is the Ten Precepts. So, what a great place to practice! That is why I don’t stop going.
Buddhists tend to talk so much about what we are doing in the zendo (meditation hall), and not do it in the world. We often get comfortable together in our Buddhist groups. I am tired of talking so much, I’d rather be doing something. The more I study Buddhism the more I know that my way is to be socially engaged.
Writing this article keeps bringing me back to the Buddhist concept of dependent co-arising, that all of life exists interdependently like a vast net excluding nothing. It is easy to develop a polarity between “us” and the counter-demonstrators or “us” and the manufacturers of the weapons, when in actuality this polarity is the root cause of war. Philosophically, dependent co-arising is a concept that one can easily embrace.
In his last letter Joe Gorin writes,
While I feel great joy in my work, I also suffer greatly. The shooting war, which causes family disruption, death and destruction, is only a part of the larger war. The weapons of this larger war are hunger, hopelessness, illness and ignorance. Part of my response to the daily suffering that surrounds me is to work for change. Another part of my response is to share that suffering. As I take on some of this pain, I have had to begin to wrestle with a harsh judgmental aspect of myself. It becomes easy to be unforgiving and to curse the evils that I see in others without attending to the corresponding aspect of my own being. I am probably afflicted by the Judeo-Christian tendency to take good and evil entirely too seriously and to see them as extremes, clearly distinct from each other, rather than seeing them as co-existing, co-arising realities that are intimately wrapped up in each other.
Keeping an open heart is perhaps my greatest challenge in being in the den of such intense pain. It is very difficult to continue reaffirming and resacralizing life when my gut level feeling is that I would like to blow somebody’s head off . . . We are struggling with powerful forces that have unlimited wealth, and we are struggling with our own greed and egoism. Such opponents won’t disappear by wishing them away.