I can’t remember whether we travelled by bus or in Joe’s silver diesel Rabbit. I don’t recall where we slept, ate, or how long we stayed, but my first visit to New York City left an unmistakable mark on my life. It was June 1982, and the United Nations was holding its Second Special Session on Disarmament there. I was among a healthy contingent of peace activists that had travelled from Toronto to mark the occasion. I remember happily selling peace buttons for U.S. rather than Canadian $$ at the massive march through the City. Most of all, I was thrilled with the concert in Central Park. It was hot and sunny and my feet hurt, but I wandered though all of the vendors’ stalls and tried to get up close to the stage. I had of course never seen so many people in one place before – officially a million and probably more. I bought everyone in my family t-shirts with a range of encouraging statements and images, such as “choose peace, so that you and your children may live”. I came home an inspired internationalist, having soaked in the energy of so many people gathering to create a new kind of world, even though that particular shared experience was, necessarily, fleeting.
All this came flooding back to me today as I read a statement fixed behind glass on a wooden notice board which was set at the edge of a field at the top of a big wooded hill in a tiny little place called Leverett, Massachusetts.
The statement said that at that Special Session in New York, Mayors for Peace was born. Mayor Takeshi Araki of Hiroshima proposed an idea to have cities work across borders in solidarity with one another towards the same aim: the abolition of nuclear weapons around the world. As of today, January 1, 2012, there are 5, 111 cities in 153 regions and countries that have declared their support for the campaign for a nuclear free world by 2020.
Let me back up slightly. My partner and I have a little house beside the water in Franklin county, Massachusetts. We live in Ottawa, Ontario, but as he works in Amherst, we also need a little place for him to lay his head while he is down here. We had heard about the Peace Pagoda from neighbours, and today being New Year’s Day, we decided on an excursion. After getting lost at Rattlesnake Gutter road (I’m not kidding), we stopped twice for directions, found the parking lot and began the short walk up hill to the Pagoda and Temple.
The Pagoda is like a giant white lotus sitting in a large clearing. Beside it is an almost-finished Japanese Buddhist temple – the fruits of 25 years of volunteer labour by the community. We walked around the Pagoda and sat for a while, peacefully, in the Temple. It was glorious. The temple is unheated, but the light streamed through the windows and we sat on cushions provided by the monks and nuns. We weren’t at all cold.
Years ago, a community of activist Buddhists formed here in response to the vision of The Most Verable Nichidatsu Fujii, who witnessed the the effects of the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Accounts vary but there are perhaps 80 such Pagodas now in existence around the world. Each calls people to work together for a nuclear-free future. The Peace Pagoda in Leverett is the first one to be built in North America.
Oddly enough, I’m not surprised that the Peace Pagoda is located here. There’s long been some kind of energy drawing healers and seekers of intentional community to this region, which people here fondly call “the Valley”. The Pioneer Valley is a space running along both sides of the Connecticut River through Massachusetts. It was colonized a long time ago, dating from the early 1600s. There are very tragic histories of genocide here during which the First Peoples were devastated by settlers and their armies and, although I’m only an occasional visitor here, I have not been able to avoid that sense of connection between that time and this. It’s as if there is still a spirit shadow calling over these small hill towns, twisty back roads and rocky forests. It’s a kind of insistent impulse for healing and atonement which seems to be resurrected in quiet places.
Today, my experience at the Pagoda helped me move from my own personal reflections on loss and death to a place of social healing. It was also a welcome expression of an alternative mode of “doing” and “being” in international relations (IR). I expect to have things to say about IR theory in this blog, but for today it was enough to experience this manifestation of an idea, the embodied reflection, and the anti-market material basis of this project. It is there simply as a voluntary effort, as intention, as possibility, as offering and as community. In its simplicity and complexity, it is the antithesis of high politics and IR-as-usual – and that certainly is worth of contemplation.
Post-script: As I write this evening, I’m filled with the sound of my favourite song from the march in New York: “Freedom doesn’t come like a bird on the wing/ Doesn’t come down like the falling rain. / Freedom, Freedom is a hard earned thing. You’ve got to / Work for it. Fight for it. Day and Night for it/ And every generation’s got to win it again”. I don’t have a link for that song. I may have to record it myself.