Why sit? There came a time in my own practice when the lofty dreams and abstract ideals that had originally compelled me to move toward the cushion, the sangha, and a tradition of wisdom teachings began to dissolve. I didn’t find nirvana on my cushion. I did, however, find something like it in the middle of the night, surrounded by police, while holding vigil with thousands of people before the gates of a prison. It was the evening of December 12th, 2005. I had traveled with my sangha from Oakland to the foothills of Marin to participate in a talk led by Rev. angel Kyodo williams and Jack Kornfield at Spirit Rock. It was the most racially mixed, densely populated Buddhist gathering I’d ever seen. After the talk, several of us bundled up in hats, scarves, and jackets, our meditation cushions in tow, and headed to San Quentin to protest the state-sanctioned execution of a man named Stanley Tookie Williams.
The evening felt surreal, like midnight might strike and some old tension might break, giving way to the improbable. Maybe a miracle. Picket signs bearing colorful slogans filled the air. The voices of the few capital punishment supporters were subsumed in a sea of Williams’s advocates, drowned out by our calls for his release from death row. We placed meditation cushions on the concrete and sat. We brought stillness into the roar of 5,000.
In the silence I could feel it all, the grief and the rage. Injustice has a flavor, a smell: It chokes the breath and burns the gut. It rises through the body like poison. I couldn’t sit any more. My voice joined the others. At the eleventh hour, phone in hand, I scrolled the news updates in search of the latest, some sign that the fate of the condemned might be stayed. A quote from Governor Schwarzenegger read, “Without an apology and atonement for these senseless and brutal killings, there can be no redemption.” I braced myself. The article read that even though Williams had written a children’s book about the danger of gangs, he didn’t indicate remorse for his crimes because he dedicated his book to the political prisoner George Jackson and the Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton. Tookie was being denied a stay of execution, at least in part, because of his affiliation with so-called enemies of the state. I clasped hands with strangers. We stood as one terrific body of dissent against cold and death, armed with nothing but the fullness of our attention, our witnessing, our whole selves.