Love Letter to New Activists

As each new protest march helps more people become engaged, it also garners not only backlash from those who favor the status quo, but reasonable and reasoned doubts from long time organizers in social justice, who know what the nitty-gritty of working for specific political goals looks like, and are skeptical about what can be achieved with any one event.

Almost a month out from the People’s Climate March, you may be asking yourself a string of questions, like “What did the march achieve? Are street protests a successful tactic? How do we define success anyway?”

People who study protest movements and creative non-violence  have some answers. To begin with, taking the long view on how to define success and when to look for greater positive response to mass protest may help. Some protest movements that are now held in high regard were not supported by the majority of the public at the time. For example,  the civil rights march on Washington garnered only a 16% favorable opinion of the planned protest in a national Gallup poll, and the Vietnam War protests only had a favorable rate of about 18% of those polled during the demonstrations.[i]

In an article in 2014 talking about the popular perception that the Asian protests of that year, the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong and the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan were not successful because the protestors’ demands were not met, the author, Jolan Hsieh, argues that the long-term, residual effects of such protests lie in their ability to encourage a questioning mindset and to draw people in through participatory learning. Such movements, he suggests, lay the groundwork for re-envisioning and working collectively to develop pathways for social change.[ii]

In Rolling Stone, Sarah Jaffe, author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt, quotes Tobita Chow of Chicago’s People’s Lobby saying that participating in a protest “… expands your sense of freedom about what you’re willing to do and what you’re capable of doing. It has a really liberating effect on people.”[iii]

Participatory learning matters, but while the effects of joining in civil disobedience may be incalculable, certain factors do help predict concrete success in affecting repressive regimes. Erica Chenoweth, Professor and Associate Dean for Research at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, and host of The Rational Insurgent, suggests that these factors include:

  • mass participation (of more than 5% of the population, some suggest)
  • diversity among the protestors
  • a mix of dramatic, higher-risk and lower-risk tactics (think: street marches vs. blue flu), and
  • avoidance of violence.[iv]

Sarah Vekasi, M. Div., well knows what it is to be on the ground organizing for social justice. As a member of the national network of trained facilitators of The Work That Reconnects, created by Joanna Macy, and a long-time engaged environmentalist, Vekasi addresses the importance of a mindful approach to  the path ahead that recalls  the title of Thich Nhat Hanh’s book on walking meditation: The Long Road Turns to Joy.

Photo by Chris Ensey

Dearest new activists:

I love you and I see you. Welcome! We need you, and you do not need to have everything figured out. One step and then another. Please find that seed of outrage and grief and nourish it – this is your need for justice, your love of community, democracy, science, it is your heart yearning for equality and liberation for all, etc., and these seeds are so precious. It is important to let them get nourished with water and sunlight (compassion for self, measured reaction time, breaks, and most of all—willingness to grow).

As someone who has been engaging in community organizing and direct action for over twenty years, I want to let y’all in on a few secrets of how we keep it up. These are fiercely held secrets shared across movements, so listen closely: we have potlucks, music nights, shared story circles, art projects, long walks, sharing circles, and cultural work in all its glory. ❤

There is room for everyone in this time of great unraveling.

We also figure out what our passions are and focus more there. Some of us love spreadsheets and logistics, others love being on the front lines stopping destruction with our bodies, others love writing, others love speaking to the press, while others thrive cooking for large groups and chopping firewood. Some of us enjoy legislative action, others direct action, others building alternative structures and schools, others helping our hearts and minds shift…and we need it all. There is no superior way to engage in change. We waste precious time fighting over which strategy is the most important, or engaging in something we think we should be doing instead of the thing our heart yearns for. The key is to stay connected and work together.

New organizers—make sure there is time for music and getting to know one another at the postcard parties and phone banks. Creating friendship and building trust is what keeps us going. Soon doing resistance work and spending time with your favorite people will be the same thing! Imagine that!
Being a part of active resistance means so many things, including being more vigilant than ever about making time for art, exercise, healthy eating, taking on only so much, finding more friends to share the load, and taking care of your body—this in itself is a revolutionary act.

There is no superior way to engage in change.

Re-remember or learn to meditate, to pray, to make time EVERY DAY for spiritual practice. This can mean anything appropriate for you, but I mean engaging in some form of practice centered on that which is greater than yourself and transcends the mundane, (or sacralizes the mundane). This is another secret to renew yourself every day. Find your passion, explore your intention, engage in action, and acknowledge that the results might outlive all of us. Spiritual practice can help you find that bigness and help you find the courage that is needed for the long haul.

There is room for everyone in this time of great unraveling. Together we can turn the tide into a truly diverse, intersectional great turning. Thank you. I look forward to working with you, and watching this resistance grow and thrive.


[i] Going Too Far: The American Public’s Attitudes toward Protest Movements[ii] The Unseen Effectiveness of Social Movements and Protests[iii] Why Anti-Trump Protests Matter[iv] Creative Nonviolence Can Defeat Repression

Green Vesak: Ebullience and Emergence

How might aspiring EcoSattvas understand our connection to annual Buddhist festival of Vesak? Poet and eco-artist Amelia L. Williams examines different ways to approach Green Vesak in this month following the People’s Climate Mobilization.

“Summer Buddha” Distressed acrylic on wood, ©Brett Barker, Used with permission

“I’m reading Kandinsky, he speaks about green
as the resting point between yellow and blue

the color of tranquility and regeneration.
Surrounded by trees and water, I want

to be writing of peace, want to be moving into that deeper
harmony where earth and sea and sky seep into, into

every pulse of my blood. But I keep thinking
to write of peace right now is to be a tourist.”

Ann Fisher-Wirth  from Dream Cabinet


When I heard poet Ann Fisher-Wirth reading these lines from her poem Dream Cabinet during National Poetry Month in April, I thought they perfectly captured the struggle that I feel celebrating the regenerative traditions of spring, including the major Buddhist holiday of Vesak, given the losses that our assault on healthy ecosystems has brought, is bringing, will bring. In the salon format of the poet’s presentation, she responded to her interviewer with the following counterpoint, which I liked so well I wrote it down: “Still, you don’t do the world any good if you can’t reach for ebullience.”

Vesak is the major Buddhist holiday.[1] Celebrated on the day of the full moon in May, which in 2017 ranges from May 10th  to May 11th, depending on your location on Earth, this holiday marks the Buddha’s birth, the day he attained enlightenment, and the day of his death.

As Tara Brach notes in her dharma talk Oh Nobly Born, “What links these events is the radical and powerful message of all Buddhist teachings: We each have the potential to realize and live from an awakened heart and mind.” The symbols embedded in the stories of these three events relay the Four Noble Truths and teach us that we are all nobly born —that we all have the ability to wake up and see things as they are.

What links these events is the radical and powerful message of all Buddhist teachings: We each have the potential to realize and live from an awakened heart and mind.

How can we mark this day in a way that rings true, as part of a global community of practitioners who care deeply about, and wish to act on behalf of, our living earth? Brach recounts the story of the Buddha’s life and his efforts to end suffering by seeking knowledge and adopting asceticism; when these did not succeed, he finally “resolved to become still, and to open to the mystery of his own heart and mind.”

The lens of Green Vesak provides EcoSattvas one way to approach opening to the mystery. In 2016, the Global Buddhist Climate Change Collective (GBCCC), a diverse group of leaders from different Buddhist traditions, wrote Green Vesak – Compassionate Climate Action.

Green Vesak gives special attention to how the Buddha’s signal teachings help us recognize and act upon our interconnectedness with all beings. The Green Vesak statement notes that:

Vesak is an opportunity for Buddhist sanghas to come together, affirming our root connection from the Buddha and to create deeper relationships across traditions. Together we can raise awareness on climate change, recognizing that a greater ecological awareness and awakening of consciousness is needed. As Buddhists we must appreciate all that we have in common and turn our pluralism and diversity into strength for greater Buddhist climate action, and changing our lifestyles and expectations to protect our planet.

The recent gathering of Buddhists from many traditions at the People’s Climate Mobilization in Washington DC gave us a chance to deepen a pan-Buddhist commitment to act in the face of climate change. It was a joy and privilege to be there walking behind the “Embody Fierce Compassion” banners of One Earth Sangha. I recalled, in the wilting heat, the exuberant greenery of a rainy day just the week before, which I wrote about for my poem-a-day group:


We squish about in the boggy parts down by the creek. Palustrine

wetland, I tell my rain-walk companions, meaning simply, marshy,

yet conjuring palaces—plashy, lustrous, and lush as this explosion

of skunk cabbage, a swath of extravagant, almost unnatural green,

band of brightness edging the spicebush and scattered fringetrees

now dangling their white blossoms like recently-tossed confetti.

Underfoot: swamp violet, star chickweed, Jack-in-the-pulpit unfurl,

and the star-shaped, puffy seed heads of Carex intumescens

bladder sedge, pale yellow among tufts of lanceolate leaves.

Constant in all this flux, running cedar and princess pine, each

a vast plant network, linked underground, grow companionably

side-by-side in this shrub swamp ecotone. An hour in drizzle and mist,

teased by the chipping note of the hidden Louisiana water thrush,

is our tincture—as if a Luna moth enfolded us in powdered wings.

Like a medicinal tincture, a little dose of green can keep a person going for days. Many have noted how trees play an important symbolic role in the stories surrounding the birth, enlightenment, and death of Gautama Buddha, from the flowering tree near Lumbini his mother touched just before his birth, to the Bodhi tree under which he reached enlightenment, to the twin trees that bloomed out of season, as he died. Indeed, modern science is starting to find biochemical evidence for what we’ve always felt to be true: being with and among trees renews us in inexpressible ways.[2]

As Brach explains, “the symbolism of the World Tree is that it stands at the center of the cosmos and is a common feature in many myths of salvation and freedom. It’s the place where divine energies pour into the world and where humans encounter the absolute—pure awareness.” (Oh Nobly Born)


At the foot of the World Tree this Green Vesak, we still have to ask and answer the question Michael Pollan posits in an essay entitled “Why Bother?” Given what we know, he acknowledges, it’s reasonable to worry that if we go ahead and “bother” to inconvenience ourselves, even go so far as to make personal sacrifices, stop using plastic and stop eating beef and bicycle to work, someone on the other side of the planet or right next door will undo all we’ve done with their own patterns of consumption. Pollan points out, “there are so many stories we can tell ourselves to justify doing nothing, but perhaps the most insidious is that, whatever we manage to do, it will be too little, too late.”

“Buddha, Clementine” Thread on silk/cotton, © Brett Barker, Used with permission

To counter this insidious story, Pollan has one “just do it” suggestion: grow a few vegetables. In a little window box, in a planter on an urban balcony, in your yard. He then goes on to explore a number of reasons why this one act of personal choice is more than “just” virtuous, including that it is one path to “heal the split between what you think and what you do, to commingle your identities as consumer and producer and citizen.”

It is too easy to fall into despair, and while we know that recycling and putting in LED bulbs are not enough, they are a place to start. But we also know we need to act on a broader scale and with more daring. What does that look like? How can we emerge from the personal into wider and wider circles of action? It happens that Pollan’s essay is embedded in a volume dedicated to answering those questions. In Drawdown, published in April 2017, project lead and editor Paul Hawken provides dozens of broad-scale actions and strategies  that that show the interplay of personal and systemic approaches to EcoSattva action.

We know we need to act on a broader scale and with more daring. What does that look like? How can we start? How do we continue?

The book is one result of a multi-year project to find existing, proven, scalable strategies that draw down carbon dioxide levels. The actions range from educating girls, to promoting bicycle infrastructure, to some that were new to me, such as afforestation and biochar. In a dharma and Green Vesak context, we can frame these as actions or strategies, as skillful means rather than as solutions. Hawken recognizes this, and the transformative nature of the project ahead of us, pointing out that while we might be tempted:

…to believe that global warming is something happening to us—that we are victims of a fate that was determined by actions that precede us. If we change the preposition, and consider that global warming is happening for us—an atmospheric transformation that inspires us to change and reimagine everything we make and do—we begin to live in a different world.

Project  Drawdown recognizes that many of the most effective responses to our climate crises are already in use and are not necessarily complex or technological; it also demonstrates that effective strategies entail systemic changes that will necessarily increase social justice. This fits in with the Buddha’s message that we already have within us the ability to awaken from the trance of denial. This Green Vesak we can both sit with and truly feel anguish over the reality of the climate crisis, stay open to the pain, and to the flux of change, and experience the necessary and healing joy of greenness as expressed by that most ebullient of poets, e. e. cummings:

if up’s the word; and a world grows greener
minute by second and most by more—
if death is the loser and life is the winner
(and beggars are rich but misers are poor)
—let’s touch the sky:

with a to and a fro

(and a here there where) and away we go

[1] The United Nations added Vesak to its calendar of celebrations and observations in 1999, and each year, the International Day of Vesak is hosted by a different country. This year the host country is Sri Lanka. A pronunciation guide for Vesak: the “e” can be short or long, the “a” can be long or a schwa (Ve-sək), and the stress can fall on either syllable.

[2] Rx: 50 mg Nature: Ad Lib and How Walking in the Woods Benefits Your Health

Amelia L. Williams, PhD, Assistant Editor with One Earth Sangha, is a poet, medical writer, and eco-artist involved in actions to protest the proposed fracked-gas Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Amelia recently reviewed the book Permaculture and Climate Change Adaptation for Communities Magazine. Author of Walking Wildwood Trail: Poems and Photographs, her most recent eco-art projects are “Triage,” and “Spooked.”

Changing Directions

The People’s Climate Mobilization is just one week away. If you can find a way to join us, either in Washington D.C., or at a local sister march in your area, please do. Many caring and concerned ecosattvas, of course, will not be able to show up in that way because they are showing up in other ways: caring for children and elders, working for their families, engaged in local environmental and social justice efforts. As Bhikkhu Bodhi notes in this stirring call to action, those of us who march do so for those who cannot, here in the US and all over the globe. We march to demonstrate to our leaders and to our fellow citizens of the planet we share that it is time to change directions and respond with compassion to our climate crisis.

Brown pelicans flying over oil on the water in Barataria Bay. LA, USA. Flight provider Southwings. © J Henry Fair

Changing Directions Before It’s Too Late

By Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi

Suppose I was a bus driver driving a busload of people along an unfamiliar route and at a certain point my GPS device showed me that I was heading toward a precipice. As a responsible driver, I would not assume that the device is mistaken or argue that the accuracy of such devices is a matter of debate. As I got close to the edge of the abyss, I would not jiggle the steering wheel, much less step on the gas pedal. Rather, I would turn away and head in a different direction.

Yet, expand this picture to a global scale, and it shows us exactly what we’re doing. The climate crisis is probably the gravest danger that humanity has ever faced, the precipice toward which we are heading, yet those in the driver’s seat are doing just what the reckless bus driver does. They’re insisting that the great majority of climate scientists are mistaken; they’re claiming there is still a debate about the causes of climate change; they’re attacking investigators who seek to hold offenders accountable; and they’re stepping on the gas pedal with policies that will push carbon emissions to perilous heights. If they continue to have their way, they’ll drive the bus of humankind over the edge to a fate we can hardly envisage.

What makes climate change so insidious—and reinforces the tendency to denial—is the fact that it occurs incrementally, beneath the threshold of perception.

As a Buddhist monk and scholar, I try to view the climate crisis through the lens of the Buddha’s teaching, which emphasizes the pivotal role of the human mind in generating both suffering and well-being. Using this lens, I see our leaders’ dismissive attitude toward the crisis as stemming from the combined influence of two deeply entrenched mental dispositions, ignorance and craving. Ignorance is the blatant, willful, and even spiteful rejection of reality, the denial of unpalatable truths that threaten our sense of our own invulnerability. Craving is the voracious grasping after ever more wealth, status, and power, a thirst that can never be satisfied, a stubborn refusal to see that wealth and power will be worthless on a dying planet.

Ridgeline of waste heaps. Rio Tinto Mine, Huelva Province, Spain. Sulfide ore mine waste, including the piles of finely-ground mill tailings shown here, can contain levels of metals and acidity that prevent or retard the growth of plants that could otherwise stabilize the material and prevent erosion. This ridge of fine ore mill tailings piles was deposited in a liquid slurry via long flexible hoses, or “launders.” © J Henry Fair

What makes climate change so insidious—and reinforces the tendency to denial—is the fact that it occurs incrementally, beneath the threshold of perception. The immediate effects strike virulently only on occasion and in limited areas—a drought here, wildfires there, floods in this country or a heat wave in that one. Spared the global picture of the effects in their totality, we can convince ourselves that the extreme events we hear about are merely disconnected vagaries of the weather. And thus we go on blithely with our ordinary lives, thinking we can do so forever.

Yet, while we drift along so complacently, climate change hovers over us like an ominous cloud, posing both an existential threat and a moral reproach. It’s an existential threat because, when its full consequences are unleashed, everyone will be affected. The climate enfolds everyone everywhere, and thus there is no spot on earth to which one can escape. Human existence itself is in the crosshairs, and if we don’t change course, we may well bring the entire project of human civilization crashing down to a pitiful end.

At the same time, climate change reminds us that, as we put off taking necessary action, we are darkening our moral record, committing a travesty of justice at multiple levels. At home, climate disruptions tend to strike poor communities—largely people of color—more severely than they hit the rich in their more secure enclaves. On a planetary scale, the disparities are even worse. Over the past few centuries, the industrialized countries—primarily the U.S. and Western Europe—have won their wealth by burning fossil fuels, yet it’s the people in the poorest countries—in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and the Pacific island nations—that are paying the heaviest price. And it is these people again that will face the harshest penalties in the future when whole regions turn barren, famine and starvation descend, and social disruption invites political chaos.

The climate enfolds everyone everywhere, and thus there is no spot on earth to which one can escape.

If we’re to avoid such a fate, we must drastically reduce our carbon emissions and hasten the transition to a clean-energy economy powered by renewable sources of energy. This must be done with utmost urgency. What we need is nothing short of a full-scale climate mobilization, as complete as the war effort launched during World War II. This will require changes not only  in our practices but in our attitudes. We will have to transform a culture of extraction, exploitation, and endless consumption into one that prizes reverence for the earth, respect for other peoples, and gratitude for the resplendent bounties of nature.

To deal successfully with climate change, we must draw from sources of wisdom and compassion lying deep within ourselves. Wisdom is the voice that tells us to take the blinders off and see things as they are—in this case, to acknowledge the truth that climate change is real, that human activity is behind it, and that the chief culprit is an economic system propelled by the quest for short-term profits. Compassion is the quality that makes our hearts tremble at the suffering of others and moves us to act, to ensure that billions of people around the world are spared the misery and desperation that a hostile climate would inflict on them.

…it’s the people in the poorest countries…that will face the harshest penalties in the future…

By a tragic twist of fate, just at this critical juncture when fresh initiatives are required so urgently, our country has handed the reins of power to a president whose administration is doing exactly the opposite of what we need. We’ve installed at the command center a team that denies the hard truths of science, scorns the advice of informed policy experts, and does everything it can to pump new life into the fossil fuel industries. In effect, we’ve appointed a bus driver who is driving the bus of humanity ever closer to the cliff.

What we need is nothing short of a full-scale climate mobilization, as complete as the war effort launched during World War II. This will require changes not only  in our practices but in our attitudes.

On April 29th, along with hundreds of environmentally concerned fellow Buddhists from New York, I will be going to Washington to join the People’s Climate Mobilization. I will be marching not only on behalf of people here in the U.S. but on behalf of people all around the world, especially those whose voices will never reach our leaders. I will be marching to demand an ambitious climate policy, one that meets the severity of the crisis. I will be marching on behalf of truth, to insist that we cannot close our ears to the warnings of our best scientists. I will be marching on behalf of a new clean-energy economy, one that is respectful of natural limits and can uplift people everywhere. I will be marching to show our government that America must live up to its highest ideals, that we must serve the rest of the world as a model of wise, conscientious, and compassionate leadership. In short, I will be asking our leaders to turn the bus around and lead us all into a safe and sustainable future.

Learn more and join the Buddhist presence at the People’s Climate Mobilization.

Originally published in Common Dreams. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi is an American Buddhist monk and translator of Pali Buddhist texts. He is also the founding chair of Buddhist Global Relief, an organization dedicated to helping communities worldwide afflicted with chronic hunger and malnutrition. He is based at Chuang Yen Monastery in Carmel, New York. He was appointed president of the Buddhist Publication Society (in Sri Lanka) in 1988. Ven. Bodhi has many important publications to his credit, either as author, translator, or editor, including the Buddha — A Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya (co-translated with Ven. Bhikkhu Nanamoli (1995), The Connected Discourses of the Buddha — a New Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya (2000), and In the Buddha’s Words (2005).

The Path of the Spiritual Warriorship

What does it mean to follow the path of spiritual warriorship or to be an ecosattva? These ways of conceiving the journey to show compassion for all beings are founded in ancient traditions that offer wisdom for our current crises. On the occasion of the Tibetan New Year, celebrated February 27, 2017, the leadership council of the Shambhala Community issued a statement that has resonance for all Buddhist traditions and for all aspiring spiritual warriors and ecosattvas. The address was recently shared in The Arrow: A Journal of Wakeful Society, Culture & Politics.

Donated by Max Johnson ©

By the Kalapa Council of Shambhala

A New Year’s Statement from the Kalapa Council of Shambhala

The essence of warriorship, or the essence of human bravery, is refusing to give up on anyone or anything. We can never say that we are simply falling to pieces or that anyone else is, and we can never say that about the world either. Within our lifetime there will be great problems in the world, but let us make sure that within our lifetime no disasters happen. We can prevent them. It is up to us. We can save the world from destruction, to begin with. That is why Shambhala vision exists. It is a centuries-old idea: by serving this world, we can save it. But saving the world is not enough. We have to work to build an enlightened human society as well. – Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

Obstacles and challenges may arise, but they do not reduce the enlightened qualities we have at our disposal. – Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche

As the tumultuous Year of the Monkey draws to a close and the Year of the Bird approaches, with its possibility of discipline and integrity, we on the Kalapa Council feel that it is a good moment to reflect on our time and its relevance for Shambhala vision.

This has been a period marked with displacement, violence, racism, misogyny, political fragmentation, increased threats to the ecosystem, and intensifying nationalisms. It is also a period of tremendous heart and possibility. We feel that it is important for you to know that members of the Kalapa Council are deeply aware and concerned, and are working to rouse our community to the creative and potent manifestation that is the very reason for our existence.

As the world seems to grow darker and great challenges are upon us, we must, as a lineage of warriors committed to establishing enlightened society, sense what is happening and respond with skill. Our confidence, now more than ever, is that every human being, and society itself, are fundamentally good, wise, and strong. As Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche said, preventing disasters and saving the world is not enough; we must work to build an enlightened human society, and we have the enlightened qualities to do this. Arising from kindness, vision, wisdom, and loyalty, this is a creative process that fulfills a human life.

Now is the time to manifest the beauty, gentleness, and kindness of our tender human hearts in social forms. The world is longing for such examples.

Here are some immediate possibilities to manifest enlightened society today:

We warriors must see that our practices, path, and teachings are meant for this time. Discovering the unshakable mind of meditative awareness, learning to be comfortable with uncertainty, not hiding from the broken heart of sadness, and raising powerful windhorse are all methods to face our dark age. We can be sad, alive, vibrant, fearless, and inspired—no matter what. The Shambhala teachings are the spiritual-activist’s skillful means to be fully human and to respond to the needs of the world. It is time to rely more fully on their power.

We warriors must stand up against and steadfastly resist divisive acts that prey upon vulnerable, oppressed, or minority communities. We aspire for our centers and households to be safe and welcoming refuges for all, regardless of religious or national background, gender identification, race, sexual orientation, or political affiliation. Now is the time to do the hard personal and collective work needed to create a culture that is so rooted in the basic goodness of all that prejudice and bias may dissolve completely.

We warriors must take seriously our responsibility to protect the earth. It is a time to face the reality of ecological destruction and climate change with open eyes. We aspire for Shambhala centers and programs to look at their ecological impact, attend to where we source food and energy, and be mindful of our waste. We aspire to be a force for sustainability, to divest from carbon and other forms of pollution, and to prevent the destruction of species and habitats. Now is the time to create a society with sustainable practices rooted in a felt-experience of drala and sacred world.

We warriors must acknowledge both the possibilities and the limits of existing political, economic, and media systems. We aspire for Shambhala to use and develop creative means and sacred forms of conflict resolution and political deliberation, to experiment with new economic models, and to work with the power of language and symbolism with skillful compassion. Now is the time to create a society that unites the sacred and secular, expressing wisdom and goodness in our political, economic, and communicative forms.

We warriors must be vigilant activists for peace. We aspire for Shambhala to engage conflict with the mind of meditation, to create safe spaces for open and genuine conversations and deep listening, and to boldly carry these insights and capacities into our wider communities. Now is the time to manifest the beauty, gentleness, and kindness of our tender human hearts in social forms. The world is longing for such examples.

We warriors must take seriously our responsibility to protect the earth. It is a time to face the reality of ecological destruction and climate change with open eyes.

We warriors must understand that the work to establish, maintain, and support our community and households is the very cultural heart of Shambhala. What may appear to be an “inward facing” effort to just keep our centers going is a brave act of cultural creation in a world that tends to undervalue community. Now is the time to strengthen community and the fabric of our everyday relationships by deepening our conversations and coming together for all our celebrations, group practices and cultural gatherings. It is time to slow down, and to support and be available to one another beyond scheduled programs.

With all of the above, we start where we are, with the opportunities to practice enlightened society in our centers, programs, events, and households. Let each hub of our global community be a living laboratory to cultivate and express human goodness in all aspects of our lives together. Start today, with your home, your center and your city. Aspire to free yourself of habitual busy-ness, self-hatred, assumptions, and judgments to come to the heart of why your Shambhala community exists.

Despite the obstacles and challenges, in fact because of the challenges, it is time to wield our warriorship, magical practices, and powerful community. It is a time to be creative and intelligent. It is a time to see the inseparability of our deepest contemplative experiences and the creation of a good society. Our meditative peace, space, and brilliance are wellsprings of our windhorse to establish Shambhala on earth.

We, the Kalapa Council of Shambhala, look forward to exploring with our leadership and community how to unlock the basic goodness of society. We are stronger together as we rouse ourselves to delight in humanity, to celebrate and trust our hearts, and to never give up on this world. We can thrive in the dark ages by increasing our laughter and sense of humor, by nourishing ourselves with deep practice and loving community, and by fearlessly engaging. We express our confidence with the warrior’s action of manifesting Shambhala on earth.

From the vast view of heaven, all is good: flowing in perfect patterns beyond concept. From the practicality of earth, the time is good for wise and compassionate manifestation. For the broken-hearted human warriors between heaven and earth, this is our good moment.

Yours in the Great Eastern Sun Vision,

The Kalapa Council

Mitchell Levy, Josh Silberstein, Adam Lobel, Jesse Grimes, Jane Arthur, Robert Reichner, Wendy Friedman, Connie Brock, Christoph Schönherr, David Brown, and Alex Halpern

Beyond “Small is Beautiful:” Buddhism and the Economics of Climate Change

In pursuit of climate justice it can be easytoo easy—to grasp onto the idea that corporations are the “Other.” How can Buddhist practice inform the way we think about the economy and economic systems? If our economic systems impact global systems, and thus help spur climate change, surely we need to reform them?  In this article, economist and dharma teacher Julie Nelson suggests that we start by examining pervasive myths about the  “essential” nature of economic systems.

Phosphate fertilizer manufacturing in Florida. © J Henry Fair/

By Julie A. Nelson

Many Buddhists—as well as many non-Buddhists!—have raised concern and alarm about the climate crisis and other crises facing our society and our world.  Clearly, we need to take urgent action.  As Buddhists, we have a pressing moral obligation to do what we can to relieve the suffering of all beings on the planet, both now and in the future. Our hearts yearn to make things better.

And clearly much of the climate change disaster is caused by economic activity. If you graph carbon dioxide emissions and industrial output over a long period of time, the two graphs look pretty much identical. The development of large scale, fossil-fuel burning industries was accompanied, in Western societies, by the rise of large corporations, global markets, and a rising emphasis on consumption as a source of well-being. Great wealth has been created, but this wealth has been very unequally distributed, and has often come at the cost of environmental and social sustainability.

We urgently need to change how our economies work—But how?

It’s abundantly clear that we can’t go on with “business as usual.” People and other sentient beings are already feeling the disruptive effects of a set of historical and social developments that, as a whole, have taken far too little account of the effects of our production and consumption on the rest of nature. We urgently need to change how our economies work. But how?

What’s Wrong With the “Replacement Economy” Approach?

One popular idea these days, and including among Buddhist social activists, is what I’ll call the “replacement economy” approach. You can find this spelled out clearly in such writings as David Loy’s chapter, “The Three Poisons, Institutionalized” in Money Sex War Karma, And in Joel Magnuson’s book Mindful Economics. Language suggesting a similar analysis crops up in Ken Jones’ The New Social Face of Buddhism, in the 2002 edited volume, Mindfulness in the Marketplace, and in many other recent works. E.F. Schumacher’s 1973 book Small is Beautiful, was a generative work for Buddhist economic critique, focusing on issues of scale. Today the slogan might be updated to “local is beautiful.”

In the “replacement economy” approach, our environmental and other ills are seen as the inevitable outcomes of values, principles, and institutions that are of the very nature of our current economic system. For example, the problems are said to be caused by market values, profit-maximization, global corporations, consumerism, and a growth imperative—all assumed to be inherent in capitalist or market economic systems. Clearly, then, in order to stop the suffering, a  dismantling of the old system is prescribed. It is said that we need to create a brand new replacement.

This new economy, it is reasoned, must be based on values, principles, and institutions that are radically different from—in fact, diametrically opposed to—those that characterize the old system. It should be based on values of compassion and cooperation, the principle of mindful interdependence, the principle of sufficiency, and on institutions that will be, for the most part small, local, democratic, and non-profit. Nothing less than a wholesale change of people’s hearts and the structure of the economy, politics, and society, it is claimed, will do.

The proposal for a replacement economy is neither good economics nor good Buddhism

I would like to offer a different perspective. I’m afraid that, from my viewpoint as an economist and as a student of Zen, I find this proposal to be neither good economics nor good Buddhism. Concerning economics, rather than being truly radical, it actually buys into some very old stories about “the nature of” our current economic system. Concerning Buddhism, it is at odds with what I’ve come to feel are some very basic and very important insights of Buddhism about ourselves and the world.

First, economics. I initially began studying economics, as an undergraduate, with the idea that an understanding of it might help me do something about global poverty and hunger.

What I was taught, in college and grad school, was consistent with how those who look to replace our economic system characterize the “old economy.” That is, people in our current economy are driven by self-interest. Firms are entities whose essence is to maximize profits. Individuals maximize satisfaction from consumption. Markets are arms-length and impersonal “mechanisms.” I also had to learn a lot of math, since it is taken for granted that understanding the “mechanisms” and “drives” of the economy requires physics-like techniques of analysis.

But perhaps what drew me further into the study of economics was the same thing that later drew me to Zen: a tendency to entertain doubt, trying to look afresh at the world with a “don’t know mind.”

And so I became curious about how economists figured out that self-interest, competition profit-maximization and so on were the fundamental laws and principles underlying economic activity. All that I, or anyone else, can directly observe are specific, concrete, historically contingent, emergent realities—as Buddhists should know. So how did economists get a handle on the invisible, intangible, essential, persistent nature that underlies these phenomena? In general, we economists don’t like to talk about where our assumptions come from. My explorations took me into many areas, from contemporary corporate law, to the history and philosophy of science. And what I discovered is that economists made this stuff up. Really.

In Zen practice, we are encouraged over and over to be intimate with what is actually in front of us, and to develop a healthy suspicion about the stories we endlessly create on top of what we see. The whole concept of the inherent nature of our current system lies squarely in the realm of story.

Let’s just look at one example: the common belief that corporations must maximize profits.

The common belief that profit-maximization is mandated by law is simply wrong. Corporate charters state the purpose of business as running a business, and you won’t find a word about profits or returns to shareholders in them. Nor do shareholders regularly force corporate executives to act in their interests, by bringing lawsuits against them, as is sometimes asserted. The courts regularly apply the “business judgment rule” that pretty much leaves decision-making to the executives. For a good explanation of these points, see legal scholar Lynn Stout’s book The Shareholder Value Myth. Nor, in many cases, does intense market competition, in goods markets or capital markets, force companies to pursue every last dollar of profits. Large parts of the economy are dominated by relatively few firms, and many firms fund expansion from retained earnings, leaving them with a much wider degree of choice than you might expect.

The idea that firms are always running after the last dollar of profits was also not derived from observation of actual businesses.  Some corporations are more oriented towards innovation, or expansion, or maximizing CEO compensation. Others focus on preserving a tradition, serving a community, or providing a beneficial, quality product. Still others are rather a mess and don’t seem to effectively pursue any goal at all.

Economists  invented the notion of profit-maximization. Why?

In Zen practice, we are encouraged over and over to be intimate with what is actually in front of us, and to develop a healthy suspicion about the stories we endlessly create on top of what we see. The whole concept of the inherent nature of our current system lies squarely in the realm of story.

Economists have always wanted to be more like high-status physicists, than like lower-status sociologists. The dogma of “profit maximization” allows us to analyze “the firm” as though it were an autonomous entity that finds the highest point on its mathematical profit function. This is much easier than dealing with corporations as complex social organizations involving many different people working together. It avoids noticing that their leaders and workers may have a multiplicity of goals. It avoids having to recognize that businesses have unique cultures and histories.

And why has economists’ fanciful theory had such staying power? I think part of the explanation, especially for the image’s popularity, has to do with power. The standard story, and its obfuscating cloak of mathematics, can be used to justify greed and silence opposition. But there’s another layer—a gendered layer—to the explanation as well. What economists chose to notice in economic activity was elements of competition, self-interest, autonomy, rationality, precision, and mechanism. What was ignored? All the equally present elements of cooperation, other-interest, connection, emotion, complexity, and sociality. Notice that that the former have an aura of masculinity and toughness about them, while the latter seem more soft, more feminine. In a sexist culture, they are easily dismissed as of lesser importance.

It is also worth noticing that the core theories of the discipline have treated the economic contributions of the natural environment in a way that is exactly parallel to its treatment of women’s traditional unpaid work of maintaining a home and caring for children, the sick and the elderly. Natural resources just “show up” on the scene when needed for production, require no maintenance, and disappear when no longer needed. Issues of resource depletion,  degradation, or waste disposal do not appear in the core theory. Workers, likewise just show up and disappear. The traditional work of women in raising children, maintaining workers, and caring for the elderly do not appear in the core theory. Both natural and caring processes have been assumed to go on infinitely, effortlessly, and silently, in the background.

Profit Maximization and Other Popular Myths

“Profit maximization” is not the only idea invented by economists. Let me just briefly mention a few more mythical creations. A “free market” has never existed, and could never exist. Markets are totally entwined with government and other forms of social regulation. Neoliberal or “market fundamentalist” doctrines are, in practice, mostly ideological smoke screens for power grabs. “Imperatives to grow” are also a fiction, whether we are talking about individual firms or larger economies. Episodes of non-expansion or contraction are common occurrences, and do not necessarily lead to collapse. The degree of “consumerist” values displayed in capitalist societies is historically and culturally variable. For example, “planned obsolescence” didn’t become common until well into the 20th century. (If you’re my age, you can remember when the useful life of a telephone could be measured in decades.) There are, in fact, many “capitalisms,” depending on where and when you look, not just one. Cooperation and trust, not just “self-interest and competition,” are essential to any economic system. If you can’t cooperate with your suppliers or coworkers, how can you ever create anything? If you can’t trust who you’re dealing with, how can you ever make a market transaction? Is greed the first thing on your mind when arranging your child’s daycare? A regard for ethics is absolutely required for sustained business and market functioning. Modern capitalist economies have probably functioned as well as they have, so far, only to the extent that many people in their daily lives have not bought into the “greed is good” mentality. I’ve explored these myths and their consequences in Economics for Humans.

Cooperation and trust, not just “self-interest and competition,” are essential to any economic system.

So, to recap my first point, I think the “replacement economy” approach, that prescribes replacing the current economy (characterized by bad principles) with a new economy (characterized by good principles), has gotten its facts wrong. It has made a category error, or fallen into the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” It has taken abstract ideas about what “the economy” is (as invented by economists), and confused them with the actual current economy.

If we fully recognize this category error, we should change the way we talk about our economy. You have probably seen the  terms “corporatization” and “market values,” used as shorthand for the abstract values of narrow financial interest, greed, shallowness, treating people as objects, and general evilness. Yet, when we look deeper, we see that these values are not intrinsic to markets and corporations. Nor, by the way, are they unknown in non-profit, governmental, and cooperative organizations.

When Corporations Behave Like Rats

So I would advocate shortening “corporatization” to “ratization” when we are referring to dehumanizing, perverse actions. Corporations can (and sometimes do) also choose otherwise. Acting like a rat is a choice, not a mandate. And instead of calling greed a “market value,” we could call it a “rat value.” Not every market transaction is motivated by greed. Acting like a rat is an choice, not a mandate. And not only should we protest the ratization of businesses, we should protest the ratization of nonprofits—including universities—as well.

Furthermore, if we don’t move away from the fallacy of confusing abstract values with actual phenomena, I’m afraid that we actually encourage ratization! Assuming that corporations must act like rats gives corporate leaders an ethical free pass, if they want one: “the system made me do it.” It is also becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. When the fallacy is repeated over and over, in economics classrooms, in the media, and even in Buddhist social activist writing, it encourages people to believe that greedy, opportunistic behavior is not only acceptable in business, but expected. If we then see more rat-like behavior, the blame is partly on us.

Now, you might come up with a counterargument, pointing to any of the very many (distressingly) true stories of abusive and oppressive corporate behavior. These, you might say, prove that corporations have a fundamentally negative effect on the world.  But if this is your approach, you might want to reflect on how you would defend Buddhism to a hard core secularist. Your secularist friend can trot out endless stories about abusive and oppressive actions by religious groups, from the medieval Christian Crusades to the contemporary Islamic State—and not forgetting the recent anti-Hindu, Buddhist-monk-supported, violence in Myanmar. Your friend says that these incidents prove that religion is a fundamentally negative influence on the world. How can you reply, except to say that your friend doesn’t see the whole picture?

Why the Replacement Economy Model is Contrary to Buddhist Principles

What about Buddhism and the “replacement economy” model? I believe that that model is not, actually, very consistent with Buddhism’s tenets and values.

Buddhism tells us that ignorance—sometimes translated as “certainty”—is one of the three poisons that adds to suffering. It advises us to keep doubting, keep looking at things with a “don’t know” mind. We can take up the economy as a koan, and perhaps relax some of our prior beliefs.

Buddhism tells us that one of the basic marks of existence is non-self, or that all phenomena lack any essential nature. Yet the “replacement economy” story is firmly based on a set of beliefs about the “essential nature of capitalism.” Releasing those beliefs allows us to recognize that our current economy is emergent and ever-changing—just like everything else.

Try as we might to resist it, the “replacement economy” model tempts us towards another of the three poisons, anger. It is very difficult not to be consumed by anger, when observing, for example, ExxonMobil’s disinformation campaign about the contribution of fossil fuels to climate change. It’s very easy to see ExxonMobil as motivated by greed, and our own anger as righteous. Yet we are told that we also have beginningless greed, that anger is a poison, and that “us versus them” thinking arises from a deep delusion of separation. Perhaps we can soften around some of this if we recognize that the impetus to positive change can come from both inside and outside of organizations. When we engage in activism such as letter-writing campaigns, boycotts, and shareholder resolutions—as we should—we could recognize that if change happens it is likely because we’ve had allies inside all along. If we tend to see the people “inside the system”—and especially “corporate elites”—as no more than weak, deluded, role-playing robots, we deny them their humanity.

And if we think that “they” are uniquely motivated by greed, and we are not, we deny our own humanity.  Greed, we learn in practicing Zen Buddhism, can come in all sorts of varieties, with the greed for money only being the least subtle one.

If you are like me, you not only want climate change to stop, you want child abuse, unemployment, sexism, racism, war, the arms trade, and nuclear weapons to go away. I have long struggled, within myself, with a sense of personal failure that I have not been able to make any of this go away. And this is tightly linked to a sense of heroic over-responsibility that I should be able to do so. So it came as a great revelation to me when, during zazen practice, I realized that my desire to “be good” is, itself, another variant of greed. It’s not that I simply aspire to do good actions, I have extra desires—demands, really—that I pile on top of that aspiration: “I want to feel good about myself,” “I want to be virtuous,” and “I want to be free of guilt.” When I have my desire to feel good about myself front and center, when I’m trying hard to preserve my identity as a good person, it  really gets in the way.  The requirement that I try to put on the universe—“Be such that I can be good!”—separates me from it.

Keeping our eyes on that imagined “good economy,” created by “us, the good folks,” can cause us to overlook what we can do, and need to do, here and now.

So, while our hearts yearn to make things better, I think we need to be very careful about how we go about acting on this, and keep our actions well-informed by Buddhist insights. The “replacement economy” vision of a “new economy” based purely on principles of sufficiency and cooperation, strikes me, I’m afraid, as more of a harmful distraction, than an inspiration. Much as we would love to imagine that we could live in an economy that is infinitely sustainable, equitable, and oriented to true well-being, it seems to me that this aspiration comes perilously close to denying the Three Marks of Existence. We want a “new economy” with a good essential nature, though we have been told that all phenomena lack any essential nature (anattaa). We put our hopes on a idealized end to suffering, when our Buddhist teachings tell us that suffering (dukkha) is ever-present. We may envision society enjoying the “replacement economy” as a sort of end point or culmination of human social justice endeavors, while Buddhism teaches us about the inescapability of impermanence and change (anicca). Keeping our eyes on that imagined “good economy,” created by “us, the good folks,” can cause us to overlook what we can do, and need to do, here and now.

I am also doubtful about its pragmatic possibilities, because so much of the plan seems to me to depend on a faith in the inherently redemptive power of small-scale, non-profit, and/or spiritually-directed institutions. I am afraid that I do not believe that any sort of institution—business, government, non-profit, local enterprise, community, family, or, alas, even a Buddhist sangha—has an essential “nature” that makes it automatically serve good ends. The newspapers every day carry stories of domestic violence. Sanghas are far from immune to scandals over money and sex. The three poisons are everywhere.

Buddhist teaching tells us that suffering and impermanence are fundamental marks of existence.  Recognizing these marks doesn’t at all mean that we sit on our hands and don’t do anything. But I think we want to look twice at a plan that is built around imagining an existence without them.

So what can we do? I came to Zen hoping that it would make me happy, and good, and certain about my decisions, forever…and it has not quite worked out that way. But Zen practice is gracing me with something much better. I am developing a way in which I, without becoming somebody else, can live in this world, without demanding that it become something else. I suggest we look into doing this together.

Image courtesy J. Henry Fair. Learn more about Fair’s surprising photographs of industrial pollution in our One Earth Sangha Artist Profile.

Facing climate change, I suggest, is a situation in which we have no hope of feeling good about ourselves. We have no hope of creating an ideal society. Right here is where we are, and only by facing into this reality can we respond.

I believe we should aspire to make things better, but not be too rigid about the specifics, or too greedy about having things go our way. I’ve learned to be suspicious of the thought, “If only people would listen to me and do things my way, things would be great!”

How to Act for Systemic and Structural Changes

We need changes in our hearts. And then we need to take these out into the world. While we do not need to swap our “old economy” for a diametrically opposed “new economy,” this doesn’t mean that we don’t need “systemic” and “structural” changes. But they  need to be at a different level. Within any nation, community or organization are systems and structures that shape the flows of information, the values, the decisions, and the patterns of activity. This is where we can take action.

Corporations need to develop systems that gather information about the environmental and community impact of their actions, and structure themselves so that responsible decision-making can be based on this information. National governments need to create regulatory structures, and systems of taxation, that move us away from fossil fuels and planned obsolescence, and towards sustainability. We need to restructure our cities, farms, energy generation, and transportation structures, transforming how we consume and how we commute. As individuals, we need to act from wherever we are to make these changes happen.

Take the Economy as a Koan

In conclusion, there seems to be widespread certainty out there about the principles and laws that (presumably) drive our current economy. My invitation here is to take the economy as a koan, and inquire more deeply into what is, in fact, in front of us. When we do, I believe we can recognize that economies, markets, and corporations, like human individuals, or like any other institutions, have no essential nature. They arise contingently, historically, and in deep interdependence. I believe that this recognition opens many possibilities for wise, compassionate, pragmatic, and deeply engaged action, in the messy and painful world here-and-now.

(A video of this talk is available at Buddhism, Climate Change, and Economics: Video)

Based on a talk given at Harvard Divinity School, sponsored by the Religions and the Practice of Peace Initiative, on Feb. 18, 2016.

Julie A. Nelson is a Professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts Boston; a Senior Research Fellow with the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University; and a Dharma teacher in the Boundless Way Zen school. Dr. Nelson is the author of Economics for Humans, as well as many other books and articles on gender, ethics, economics, and ecology. Her work has been published in journals ranging from the American Economic Review and Econometrica to Ecological Economics, Ethics & the Environment, and the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. She lives in a cooperative household in Arlington, is the mother of two grown children, and an avid dancer.