I have been attending the Tricycle magazine’s online ‘Buddhism and Ecology Summit’ this week and am feeling surprisingly inspired. I say ‘surprisingly’ because it’s so easy to get discouraged, isn’t it? It’s so easy to turn away, to think that whatever we do doesn’t matter, or to feel so overwhelmed we fall into anxiety or despair.
If we pay attention to the news, we’re bombarded with all that’s wrong and receive very little news of all the good that is being done every day by so many people. There are 15,000 registered environmental organizations in the US alone! That’s a lot of committed groups of people. Why do we not know that? It’s simply not what the media find compelling enough to share. But knowing even that little fact is heartening, isn’t it?
Here we are 52 years after the first Earth Day and we live in a world where solar panels, electric cars, recycling, composting, energy-efficient building, and so much more are normal. The countries of the world are in agreement over the necessity and the urgency, even if the leaders have political difficulty in fulfilling commitments. We may not be where we want to be, but we’re certainly more conscious, and many of us are more conscientious about lessening our negative impact on the earth and all species.
So what has Buddhism got to do with the environment? The Buddha’s wise teachings can help us approach our challenges in a way that will keep us from succumbing to despair or giving up. Let’s start with the Heartspace Meditation I offered in the last post. Through accessing the felt sense of being alive and radiating from the powerful heart space, we can heal ourselves, and then we can expand out, sense our intrinsic interconnection to all life, and radiate lovingkindness to all beings.
Central to Buddhism is Annata, the recognition that there is no separate self. All life is intrinsically interconnected. Science knows this, but so many of us do not. Why? Because what’s been handed down to us generation after generation is the idea that humans have dominion over nature and should tame it, to see all that is not human (or not privileged white male humans) as resources to be used.
Because I teach a women’s sangha, I’ll add here that central to our challenge is the heritage of being encouraged by society to see ourselves as objects, to focus on polishing ourselves up to be attractive so that we can land a mate. This pathetic hand-me-down has been recognized but not completely discarded. Each woman is unique in the way she deals with this heritage, and there is no one right way. But I encourage my students to let go of any sense of perfecting themselves in any way. Stop looking at ourselves from the outside, concerned with other people’s opinions. Instead, radiate from the heart, access inner wisdom, and be the powerful force for good in the world that we each have the capacity to be in whatever form is natural for us.
We have so many amazing admirable women and girls to inspire us, but I am reminded of a sangha sister of mine at Spirit Rock. Back in the day, Barbara George was the founder of Women’s Energy Matters and she worked to assure that Marin and other communities had access to clean energy. Every Friday morning she arrived in class, exhausted from battling with the powers that be, to find inner peace and a sense of interconnection to help her return to her important tasks. If ever I doubt that one person can make a big difference in the well-being of the earth, I only have to think of Barbara. May she rest in peace. Today we take for granted all the community choice aggregates that have become available, letting us use clean energy even if we aren’t eligible for independent solar or wind power.
As we can see looking back over the past decades, things change. Impermanence is a constant, and understanding it helps us to appreciate what is and allow for the fleeting nature of all life, even our own and the lives of those we love. But change is not always aging and loss. It’s also the springing forth of flowers and newborns. It’s also the arising and falling away of ideas. If an idea is important, we need to tend to it and not take it for granted. Nothing in nature, in the law, or in the realm of public opinion is ever permanent. If we are to protect this precious fragile planet, we need to continually reset our wise intention and back it up with wise effort, so that our words and actions are beneficial, all aspects of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path.
The Three Poisons
Greed, aversion, and delusion, what the Buddha called The Three Poisons, something all humans are susceptible to, have been thoroughly indulged and institutionalized for thousands of years to adamantly insist that we are separate from the rest of nature. That creates a sense of isolation and helplessness, or locks us into a mindset of conquest and competition that has driven us to this precarious state.
So you can see that there are lots of Buddhist concepts that help us cope with the climate crisis, but whether we come from a Buddhist perspective or from indigenous people’s wisdom teachings, or from studying the science, we can celebrate the reality of the intrinsic interconnection of all life. And if we disregard that connection, we destroy the delicate balance of systems that have sustained us all.
It is not too late for us to have the insight of no separate self and to act upon it, because it is that understanding that enables us to stay engaged in addressing the challenges of climate change. It fosters a sense of compassion and the ability to be with suffering in order to transform it.
Sometimes when the subject of the environment comes up, the conversation slips into class warfare. Not everyone can afford an electric car or owns a home to put solar panels on. But we can infuse our discussions with wise speech, full of respect and compassion. understanding that we are all in different situations with different ways of living our commitment to the earth and all life. There is no room for shaming. Every effort is a cause for celebration, not judging, feeling left out, or put down. It is counterproductive and draws from the same mode of thinking that got us into this mess.
We are more powerful when we pull together. The Buddhist word ‘sangha’, traditionally a community of monastics who have taken the precepts of non-harming, can be more broadly used as a community of diverse people. who share a loving ethical commitment. The global environmental movement is a sangha. And it is through being wholehearted, deeply respectful, fully present, and fully cognizant of our interconnection with all life, that the collaboration becomes a joyful celebration of life.
What about hope?
While some leading Buddhist environmental activists modify the word hope to make it more meaningful, in fact, Buddhism points to the way hope takes us out of the power of this present moment. It sends us into thinking of the future where our imagination is just as likely to plunge us into despair. Why? Because we don’t know! And where we don’t know something we often fill the vacuum with fear which weaves veils filled with catastrophic imagery. But if we tap into our sense of interconnection, access our inner wisdom and our radiant heart filled with compassion for all life, our actions at this moment will be as wise as possible and we will be going in the wisest direction.
Many young people have fallen into anxiety and despair. They have become discouraged and disempowered to do anything about it. They may even believe that humans don’t belong here, that we are ‘pests’ that should be eradicated. But we humans are not the enemy of nature; we are part of nature. The rest of the species, earthlings all, have just been waiting for us to wake up and join the party! The birds twittering in the trees, the squirrels chasing each other around, the plants setting down roots and reaching toward the light. All so joyous! This too is life! We just need to come home to our senses! Come into an awareness of the elements that make up our bodies and all nature. Appreciate the awesomeness of nature in all its ever-changing manifestations. And deeply know we are nature too.
And when we do fall into anxiety or despair, can we not make an enemy of it, but hold ourselves with compassion? We can acknowledge suffering, our own and that of others, and be present with it. This is what the Buddha called Dukkha, and it too is part of life. Our tears nourish growth like the rain nourishes the earth. They allow us to come home to the heart space and renew our understanding and our commitment.
My great gratitude to this inspiring week of lectures and panels offered by Tricycle Magazine.
Happy Earth Day, Earth Week, Earth every day always!