I stand at the gate of Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant to join a Sacred Sites Peace Walk for a Nuclear Free World. At California’s Avila Beach, the Pacific Ocean lulls gently, dotted with small boats on this October early Saturday morning. The only clues that we are at the gate of a nuclear power plant are a barbwire fence, ‘No Trespassing’ signs, a guard house and a blue line, about a foot wide, painted on the asphalt. Twelve concrete and steel casks holding spent fuel rods of radioactive waste are tucked far out of sight. Even the sign, “Diablo Power Plant,” is deceptive. No mention of nuclear power; its presence is as invisible as the radiation that is currently leaking from Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan.
The purpose of this peace walk is to make visible both the radioactive danger that lies hidden in these hills, and the deeper history of the land. This plant was built on a Chumash sacred site where for over 9,000 years the Chumash tribe lived and buried its dead. Development of other kinds—malls, highways, hotels—has ravaged other burial grounds throughout the state, disturbing the bones of tribal ancestors.
What is the relationship between nuclear power plants, Native American burial grounds and Buddhism? Indigenous people and many Buddhists share a belief with modern science and deep ecologists that the Earth, and all that is on it, is one interrelated system. Putting our very survival at risk, radioactive nuclear waste connects us all profoundly, far beyond the present generation. In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, “We should awaken to the fact, to the truth, that we inter-are.”
This is not my first time standing at the gate of Diablo. In 1981, I was arrested with thousands protesting the opening of the plant, built just two and a half miles from the active Hosgri Earthquake Fault. As we stepped across the blue line then, we reached out our arms, placed our palms towards the power plant, and sang lustily, “Stop, in the Name of Love!”
Now, thirty years later, I stand here again, this time in a circle of sixty walkers. Several antinuclear activists have flown in from Japan for the walk. Native American walkers from as far away as New York City join representatives of the Mothers for Peace, other U.S. antinuclear activists, and Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhists. One family carries a baby in a backpack and another in a stroller. A young Japanese woman in brightly striped leggings holds a hand-made banner that reads: “Peace Walk for a Nuclear-Free World.”
Our walk will take us from San Luis Obispo, on the California coast, to Segorea Te, a sacred Ohlone village and burial site in the Glen Cove neighborhood of Vallejo. Three-hundred miles in sixteen days. Segorea Te, occupied last spring and summer by the Native American community for over 100 days, is a symbol of victory in the movement to preserve native sacred lands. In July 2011, an historic agreement was reached to protect the site from development as a city park, through a cultural easement given to tribal people.
For the first time I meet Jun-San, the legendary Japanese Buddhist nun from the Nipponzan Myohoji tradition, who has walked thousands of miles for peace and the protection of Mother Earth, often in solidarity with Native American communities. A cluster of Native American men surround a huge drum and begin a booming rhythm to welcome us to this land, home of the Chumash people.
A tall purple flag proclaims Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo in bold Japanese characters. This chant, said to hold the meaning of The Lotus Sutra, will sustain the march for the next sixteen days. As Jun-San and two monks strike their ping-pong-paddle-shaped drums and chant the first syllables, “Na Mu…,” we are each given a folded origami peace crane and a pinch of tobacco. With the first syllable of the chant I feel my heart center expand and my chest heave. Tears fall for the great tragedy nuclear development has brought to the Earth and her inhabitants. I stand close to two Nipponzan monks, listening intently to the words of the chant, and joining them after a few rounds. Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo. Jun-San has said, “If you want to know what the words of the chant mean, please practice the chant.”
One by one, beginning with the Native American elders, we walk to the barbwire fence to place our offerings of tobacco and peace cranes. I kneel, praying that more beings wake up to the dangers of nuclear waste.
Johnella La Rose, of Shoshone/Bannock/Ute tribal heritage and a leader of the Shellmound Peace Walk, steps forward and lays out firm guidelines for safety on the walk. She advises us to stay together, to keep track of each other, and to be alert to instructions from monitors in bright orange vests, carrying traffic flags.
We head out at a fast clip, walking single file along the shoulder of the narrow road. From near the back of the long line, I see the purple banner leading the way. It feels good to be moving as one body. I breathe the chant into my heart, exhaling a sense of unity with the other walkers as a light breeze riffles the flags and banners.
On the day of Occupy Oakland’s General Strike, we follow the purple banner down 14th Street, chanting. Crowds move aside as we arrive at bustling Frank Ogawa Plaza.
Jun-San selects an area under a huge Live Oak and sits still and erect. Seamlessly, the drumming passes from the Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhists to Native Americans, and back again. Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo, over and over.
Our grounded presence attracts fellow demonstrators from Occupy Oakland. Many stop to take our photographs and our flyers. I feel the synchronicity of our cause with the Occupy Movement, whose themes evoke for me Buddhist teachings on dependent co-arising. The suffering of the poorest of the 99% is directly linked to the excess of the 1%. If I have too much, someone else will have too little. Sitting under the oak, with a diverse crowd swirling past, I feel our group holding these values.
That evening Reverend Kathryn Schreiber welcomes the walkers with a ritual foot washing and foot massage at her United Church of Christ Hayward Parish. Kathryn has modeled this ceremony after the New Testament description of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet before the Last Supper. In little plastic tubs we bathe tired, sore feet that have walked for over a week. Gilberto, from Cuba, places his sturdy feet in my warm, sudsy water. Massaging lotion into his ankles, I learn he has an injury that makes walking a painful challenge, yet he has walked all over the world for peace.
Linda, who has walked from San Luis Obispo, places her feet in the soothing warm water and bursts into tears of gratitude. “I think this must be heaven!” she says. Minister Kathryn washes and massages Jun-San’s tiny feet. Jun-San allows me to massage her shoulders. Her wiry left arm and shoulder have been holding a drum aloft for mile after mile.
I feel a sense of holiness in the tiny, low-lit office where we offer the foot massages. As a bodyworker, I feel grateful that my skills can bring comfort to these walkers who have endured such an arduous journey. I am fascinated with the paths that human feet have taken, the stories that feet can tell.
On the last day of the walk, I join over one hundred walkers and runners on the south side of the Carquinez Bridge. Native American drummers gather around the ceremonial drum and call in spiritual energy for the final leg of the journey. Under a stunning blue sky, distance runners lead the way, jogging across the bridge. The drumbeat passes to the Nipponzan Myohoji and the familiar Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo rings out.
Seeing the brilliant purple flag waving far ahead, I remember the beginning of the walk, and I wonder how the Native Americans are feeling about finally arriving at Segorea Te.
As we process through a working class neighborhood, and then a sprawling suburban neighborhood, expectation mingles with fatigue. At last we are overlooking Sogorea Te. Just as on the first day of the walk, we find ourselves peering through a wire fence. Ahead I hear loud voices, anger and sorrow, shouting.
I had expected to see an undisturbed landscape. Instead, at the edge of the cove, we are shocked to see three bulldozers standing idle, at rest on the weekend. Large swaths of vegetation have been stripped away by the giant machines. Bay laurel and eucalyptus trees have been obliterated, yanked out by the roots. The landmark agreement to protect ancestral remains has been broken.
Solemnly, we each step through a hole in the wire, brushing against fragrant fennel. Native drums lead us. Haunting Native American chanting rings out, as if the earth is wailing. As a white Euro-American, I feel deep sorrow that once again an agreement has been defiled.
We gather for the final circle. Jun-San moves to the center, kneels and touches her forehead to the bare earth. “Walks Far Woman,” as the Lakota have dubbed her, thanks the walkers and supporters and calls forth the fifteen who have walked the entire 300-mile route.
A group of Native American men carry the huge drum into the center of the circle and start a vigorous beat, accompanied by resonant chanting. The drumming calls us back to the intention for the walk. Grief turns into determination to continue the struggle to protect Segorea Te. As the men drum, a young Ohlone boy stands behind them, drumming the air.