Dan Leighton

I have been impressed while reading about others’ lives at the good efforts at social justice so many have made since ‘68. As part of our common legacy, I want to share a little about my own sporadic efforts since my arrest in April ‘68 to remain faithful to something important that we all expressed in those actions.

In 67-68 I was a freshman in the College. In the two years or so in high school before I arrived, I had been very actively involved in anti-Vietnam War organizing in Pittsburgh. I was initially inspired by Pacifist and Quaker ideas, but increasingly through reading Marx, Lenin, and many other leftist writings popular then, as well as contacts with left activists in Pittsburgh. As soon as I arrived at Columbia I began attending SDS meetings regularly. I was among those who committed Civil Disobedience at Dow Chemical’s offices downtown when they were recruiting at Columbia in March ‘68. The night before the April 23 demonstration that led to the building take-over, I was passing out SDS leaflets in the College dorms. I spent the first night in Hamilton Hall before we white folks were asked to leave, and helped break in to Low Library, though left with many others the first day. I eventually was arrested in Fayerweather. Others have written about the building occupation and strike, and I don’t feel I have much to add, except that I’m proud of what we did. As Bob Dylan says, “I’m not sorry we fought, I only wish we’d won,” though I do believe that our actions had a variety of significant constructive effects.

I want to mention another aspect of campus life that year, alluded to in some previous accounts, which was the prevalence of psychedelics. Along with anti-war activities, I was assiduous that year in exploring these realms. In retrospect, I would say that aside from my distress at the actions of our government in Vietnam (and otherwise), I was also deeply searching for experience of deeper reality beyond the obvious vapidity of most American society, a concern I have sustained in my main life work as a teacher of Zen Buddhist meditation. I did not bother attending Grayson Kirk’s Memorial ceremony after Dr. King’s murder (a couple weeks before the occupation). When Mark Rudd denounced the travesty and walked out, he happened to walk over to the Furnald Dorm, where he saw me in the lobby, tripping my head off. Mark quickly recognized and appreciated my state, and told me of his walk-out, which I in turn deeply appreciated and congratulated him for.

In fall ’68 I did participate in a few demonstrations, but I no longer felt much possibility of productive activity. I have never forgotten the insights of Marxism into the corruption of consumerist society, and the lessons about the web of corporate rule gleaned at Columbia through our strike experiences but also in writings for example by Michael Klare (then and still). My abiding mistrust of the N.Y. Times (more recently validated by their support of Bush’s Iraq invasion and censoring the story of his wiretapping etc.), goes back to learning how their misreporting of a mere 70 outside agitators in the buildings (they missed a 0) was affected by their publishers’ positions on the Columbia Trustees.

I deeply respected those of you who went into the Weather Underground, and sympathized with your outrage. But I felt that the rage involved then in continuing activism was unsustainable and corrosive, at least for me personally, and that this approach was not ultimately helpful. By the end of spring ’69 I withdrew from the College, encouraged by a 1-Y deferment, as I recall.

I want to speak of my return to activism in the early 80s and during the past decade, while briefly filling in a bit of my other activities. After hitchhiking around New England and out West, and a winter working at a New York bookstore, in Autumn 1970 I had the chance to travel in Japan, and ended up spending three months studying Buddhist statuary, rock gardens, and art at temples in the ancient capitals of Kyoto and Nara. I was deeply impressed, but did not know how to be involved. After another aborted academic stint in Pittsburgh (creative writing and glassblowing), I ended up living back in Morningside Heights beginning of ’73 and worked in film throughout the rest of the decade, mostly as a documentary film editor. This included PBS and Bill Moyers Journal, and later (late eighties) I helped edit a documentary about Leonard Peltier and the struggles at Wounded Knee in the 70s. But I also worked in TV News a fair amount, including NBC and ABC News in New York, and then in San Francisco after I relocated there mid-78. Despite my already-mentioned cynicism about the mass media, that was still in the aftermath of Woodward-Bernstein, and the idea of investigative reporting was somewhat alive and even practiced by a few reporters. But I also amply witnessed how the news could be managed and distorted, the foreshadowing of the current mass media as a propaganda apparatus of which Goebbels could not have dreamed.

Meanwhile, four years after returning from Japan, I met a Japanese Soto Zen priest on the Upper West Side, and began everyday meditation practice. Related Buddhist study brought me back to Columbia and its excellent East Asian Department, and I officially received a B.A. ten years after high school. In mid-78 I relocated to San Francisco with my then-wife, a Barnard classmate, in part because of my interest in the San Francisco Zen Center (as well as her acceptance into Law School there). By the end of ‘79 (after divorce) I gave up film work and went to work full-time for SFZC’s highly successful Tassajara Bakery in S.F. In mid-80s I spent three years at Tassajara Zen Monastery deep in the remote mountains east of Big Sur, and was ordained a Zen priest in ‘86.

In the early 80s, before going to the monastery, I had resumed political work, first in support of the Diablo Canyon anti-nuclear power actions. I then participated in the Livermore Action Group [LAG] actions at the Livermore nuclear weapons lab in the S.F. Bay area, and in the Vandenberg Air Force Base anti-MX missile demonstrations, arrested three times for civil disobedience. This was around the time of the inception of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship [BPF] with which I was involved, and I joined in LAG affinity groups including other Buddhists.

I was impressed with the LAG nonviolence policy of doing civil disobedience while engaging all persons, including police, nuclear workers, etc. with respect, and felt I could completely participate. The attitude of demonizing individuals, e.g. calling the police “pigs,” had come to feel ultimately counter-productive and inaccurate. While individuals who commit atrocities (e.g., those who ordered the massive war crimes in Iraq) should be held accountable, I think the deeper problem has more to do with our national karma including the dynamics of class conditions and patterns of societal organization stained by slavery, racism, and the U.S. legacy of stealing the land from native peoples. The individual politicians involved are less important now than the systemic control of power by weapons and energy corporations, and the pervasive encultured patterns of thinking that support militarism and acceptance of corporate rule. I now believe real change will only come when there is a “mass movement” of citizens aware of these deeper and wider realities.

In the late 80s I began translating and academic work that has led to my writing a number of books of Zen translations and commentaries. I also worked with Joanna Macy’s Nuclear Guardianship Project, opposing nuclear power and envisioning sane guardianship of our nuclear waste that will be deadly for tens of thousands of years. In the early 90s when I returned to Kyoto for two years of translation of Zen Master Dogen (13th cent.) and Zen training with Japanese teachers, I also spoke about nuclear waste issues to Japanese groups.

After returning to the Bay Area, I began 15 years of teaching Buddhist Studies at the Berkeley Graduate Theological Union, and also started to lead a collection of small meditation groups, work I continue now with a group here in Chicago after relocating beginning of 2007 (see: ). I received Dharma transmission (Zen teaching authorization) in 2000. In my meditation groups, along with giving meditation instruction and sharing ancient Buddhist spiritual teachings, I try to speak regularly about the ethical responsibility to be aware and respond to causes of suffering in our own society, including the impact of our government, mega-corporations, etc.

During the lead-up to the Bush-Cheney invasion of Iraq in early 2003, I spoke at one of the massive, 300,000 person ANSWER anti-war demonstrations in San Francisco, and also helped organize a significant presence (a couple hundred or so) of Buddhist meditators at the rallies, working along with BPF and my old Columbia friend, fellow Zen teacher, and 68 strike alumni, Alan Senauke. I committed CD again a couple times after the invasion. And during the long devastation of Iraq and destruction of the Constitution since, I have worked with World Can’t Wait, including speaking at a couple of their large demonstrations.

In late 2005 I felt Mario Savio rolling in his grave. I learned that John Yoo, a key founder of the massive Bush-Cheney torture program whose torture memos have been in the news again recently, was a tenured faculty member at the U.C. Berkeley Boalt Hall Law School, and yet even in Berkeley nobody seemed to care or comment. Throughout the 2006 school year, as a faculty member at the related GTU, I initiated and managed a weekly Torture teach-in and vigil outside the Law School, co-sponsored by BPF, WCW, AFSC, ACLU, Global Exchange, and CodePink, with discussions of torture, the Geneva Conventions, the Patriot Act, Habeas Corpus, Guantanamo, and Abu Ghraib. The teach-ins started with my friend Dan Ellsberg, whom I had met when I included him in a book I wrote about bodhisattvas and their modern expression. Other featured speakers included Salvadoran torture survivor and activist Carlos Mauricio; Father Louis Vitale, veteran of School of the Americas protests and prison time; Joanna Macy; ACLU representatives; a Human Rights law professor from an S.F. school who had graduated first in class from Boalt Hall; and one lone prof from Boalt Hall (along with BPF representatives including Alan Senauke and myself). Some Teach-in participants wore orange jump suits and black hoods. The response from Berkeley students was sparse, certainly compared to our experience 40 years ago. And the Boalt Hall faculty, numbers of whom I spoke with, were very reticent to speak publicly about torture and seem to criticize their colleague John Yoo. Some Boalt Hall students did participate, and we at least brought attention to torture and Yoo’s role.

Now in Chicago, along with leading a meditation group and teaching East Asian religion and culture to undergrads at Loyola Univ., I am connecting with activists here (working most directly with the local BPF), who for example has helped organize forums on the dangers of war on Iran. I will lastly mention a vigil I am leading the Saturday right before the Columbia ‘68 reunion in Richmond, VA, where I guest teach at a Zen group annually. Held at the site of the auction houses that were the center of the U.S. slave trade in the first half of the nineteenth century, this will be a meditation vigil to witness to the legacy of slavery. Any of you in the area are welcome, see: .

I look forward to our 40th reunion, and our re-examination and celebration of the events of ‘68. But as terrible as the Vietnam war and the forces of racist repression were then, the Iraq occupation and U.S. current foreign policy, as well as the class repression and attack on the poor and middle class here now seem much more dangerous. At the same time that things seem much worse now, in some ways we perhaps have advantages over the ’68 situation. Two thirds of the American people are against the Iraq occupation, and we are still here, with our experience since the 60s. As a Buddhist, I believe that awareness is transformative. Nobody knows how to stop the occupation or change our current corporate rule. But given our collective experience, I come to our reunion hoping for ideas and inspiration about how to help respond to the present situation, and already have received that from reading others’ stories.

- by Dan Leighton
^ Back to Top |
© 2017 | RSS | Sitemap