Vesak is the most sacred day for millions of people around the world as it commemorates the birth, the attainment of full awakening and passing away of Gautama Buddha more than 2500 years ago. Since 1995, the UN has recognized Vesak with the International Day of Vesak.
As part of this year’s observance, Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi offered reflections and a call to respond based on the application of the Buddha’s diagnosis and remedy for suffering to the collective suffering that is the climate crisis. It is rather remarkable that arguably the premier translators of the Buddhadharma for the West chose to center his remarks not on the classic teachings but on this social-ecological issue as an call to apply those teachings.
The talk was given in the Hall of the General Assembly, with UN representatives of many countries present — not only the traditional Buddhist countries, but Russia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Philippines, and others. There was no representative from the U.S. or from China.
For many of us in 2018, to track the state of equity, justice, and ecological health has been to feel a trembling resonance with collective suffering. Furthermore, we might have experienced some level of astonishment at the parallel reality weirdly conceived and promoted at the highest levels of government. Our experience is understandable as immaturity and reactivity have been enabled in ways that can surprise even the steadiest among us. While these dynamics didn’t just spring into existence this year, they seem to be operating on a new level.
Yet the machinery of distortion is breaking down of its own dysfunction. We are also witnessing a growing maturity replacing our naive infatuation with the powerful megaphone of social media. Layers and layers of collective delusion are revealed and, while difficult, this must be welcomed. Yet we know from our practice that recognizing the mechanics of delusion is critical but only half the battle. Delusions must be caught and uprooted in real-time. Otherwise, on a massive scale, we risk following fake over fact.
Coal ash flows into ponds in Kapubağ. Protesters recently challenged the associated thermal power plant in Yatağan district of Muğla, Turkey.
From heat waves in Europe, wildfires in California, a super-typhoon that struck the Philippines and China, floods in India to hurricanes Florence and Michael in the Southeastern US, dramatic weather events brought their local devastation and provided, for those with the eyes to see, undeniable evidence of a dangerously warming world. On the climate policy front, the challenging predictions and call to action presented in October’s IPCC report, which clarified that time is running out and existing country commitments must be significantly revised to avoid the worst climate change scenarios, was carried into the next round of climate negotiations in late November. COP24 achieved mixed results, barely welcoming the analysis it commissioned but slogging through the dull but critical writing of the rulebook for international cooperation on reductions.
2018 saw durability as well as new energy in our collective response. We celebrate indigenous groups’ victory in stopping Canada’s Kinder Morgan pipeline and welcome the possibility of a truly integrated Green New Deal in the US, one championed by the energized youth of the Sunrise Movement. We might appreciate the sobering clarity of Extinction Rebellion, Kenya’s movement to De-COALize and the particular creative and courageous protests from villagers in Muğla Turkey against their government’s support of coal projects. Meanwhile, the Yellow Vest protests in France provided critical correction to the climate policies that favor the wealthy and we’re becoming more clear about the cumulative impact of our daily choices in diet, home energy and transportation.
For some, the core inquiry deepens: what is the role of the engaged dharma practitioner? What does it mean to bring our awakening practice and the Bodhisattva ideal to such times? If this question seems daunting, you’re in good company!
Furthering the EcoSattva Path
As the situation grows more intense on the outside, we might consider this an invitation to deepen our own practice and strengthen our resolve to embody the teachings as best we can. Finding ways to stay connected without falling into despair or rage, both understandable but unsustainable for the long haul, is crucial. A warming world needs us to root ourselves deeply and, ultimately, remain unflappable. So we can double down on kindness in all its forms, internal, external, present and eternal. It is true insight that understands standing for true justice requires that we make no one our enemy.
In a culture that both celebrates the individual and at the same time subverts our collective impact, it is radical to affirm the relevance of our actions.
In addition, we can know our own agency. In a culture that both celebrates the individual and at the same time subverts our collective impact, it is radical to affirm the relevance of our actions. The Dharma insists that our actions matter, whether by substantially reducing our own carbon footprint, as both a contribution to the collective and co-creating new norms, or by challenging the institutions that systematically exploit people and planet. How does our view change if we fully inhabit the perspective that our actions have a power we cannot perceive, that how we relate to the structures of policy and culture, how we relate to one another and to our own hearts, that this all is of immense import?
Finally, across our movements, among our direct collaborators and those with different strategies, we can perceive Sangha. We can affirm diversity of response as the stuff of indirect collaboration and resilience. In the direction of ecological healing and justice, every action that we and others take can be met with criticism or appreciation. For instance, here’s an interesting review of the Extinction Rebellion movement from five activists. Each takes a view for or against. What if it’s all needed? This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t offer vital perspectives, especially when our strategies unwittingly replicate patriarchy, racism, shadow violence or further desecration of the rest of nature. We can welcome such feedback and commit to unwinding these inculturated patterns. But none of our approaches is complete unto itself nor wholly inclusive. While on this Path, entangled both in deluded systems and our delusions, purity is not to be found.
Might we instead foster vibrant collaborations, where necessary challenge rest on fundamental support? Perhaps we need new questions that can guide us with compassion when responding to each other’s callings, inquiries into the assumptions about humanity (e.g., buddha nature), attachment to view (e.g., emptiness as espoused in the Heart Sutra) and the guard-rails of ethics (e.g., five precepts). While all might need improvement, it is a wide and generous view that recognizes and welcomes every form of engagement as part of the Earth’s immune system while not giving into “anything goes.” Where our analysis and strategies might differ, we can nonetheless learn from and be inspired by one another.
Connecting and Deepening
In the realm of politics, organizing and a changing climate, 2019 will surely offer both more promise and more peril. While the night still has us long and to herself, we might pause in the silence, go deep and go dark, only to listen. In the quiet and guided by the Dharma, we might receive fresh wisdom about our Path, refine or deepen our aspiration and motivation. We can help ourselves and one another continue this journey, learn what it means in such times to be a practitioner, a devoted and whole human being.
As we at One Earth Sangha look forward to 2019, we are excited and inspired by the need to foster a Buddhist response to our global situation. With your support, we intend to deepen our commitment to the development and sharing of EcoDharma and offer new ways to access the EcoSattva Training. We hope to go further in 2019 to help you find one another and nourish your connections. We invite you to support our work and look forward to continuing this Path with you!
For sometime now, I have loved the winter solstice. In these long nights, there are risks to be sure. Caution is warranted for we can slide into the depths and become hopelessly disoriented. Yet in this place of darkness, where we all spend fully half our lives, priceless gifts are to be found. Surprising courage, authentic forgiveness, every mystery and all true beginnings—these have their home in the dark. In the absence of harsh light, things lose the shape we project upon them and, if we can manage our fear and allow ourselves to be guided, this dissolution can open up the vision, perk the ear and awaken the sensitivities. How we see, hear, and touch can be altered for all the bright days that follow.
It was in the darkness several winters ago that I yielded to depression as a strong teacher. Defying the relentless call to productivity, I finally let the night have me. I gave way, not to the self-recriminating thoughts that often accompany the dark mood, but rather the call to go in and down and silent, to close my eyes and to listen. In this surrender was perhaps the trust of the renunciate who gives up not what she wants but finally gives in to the want for something deeper and truer that all the wants of daily life cannot touch. Finally available for the teaching, that winter dark revealed my narrow view of love, a view born of wounding, as something scarce, the stuff of proving and earning and re-proving and re-earning and giving only in order to receive. I had been reducing love to a transaction, making self, other, and cosmos tragically small. The truth of love was only hinted at but even in that hint it was revealed as far more: endless, self-generating, and delightfully unfathomable. A precious gift of understanding, this teaching was at once profoundly personal and yet not personal at all.
This past Friday night, on the winter solstice, as Earth’s northern hemisphere tilted into the darkest dark, the Cold Moon, fully lit by sun, held the outpost of night like an angel. It seemed to be inviting us to turn towards all that is difficult this winter, to let surface all that the light suppresses. For those that have the eyes to see, the delusion of the American story is giving way. The story of unrealized ideals with their shadow side of patriarchy and racism, of objectification, exploitation and ruination claiming people and planet, this story is hardening into a brittle shell and dissolving from within. But in the night, flags, names and borders reveal their empty nature and we who are Americans, who are Democrats, Republicans, Resistance, Antifa, and Tea Party—we have no country.
In the night, winter rain falls on the embers of wildfires whose ultimate causes are layers deep and still denied by most. The world of insects plummets nearly unnoticed in the soil beneath our feet. And when darkness overcomes, we fall to suicide at increasing and alarming rates. Meanwhile our beautiful and energetic responses, movements and countermovements, encounter their own limits, reveal their inner conflicts, going neither as deep nor as far as feels so necessary. Perhaps only the endless night can be trusted to account for all that has been and will yet be lost to how we cling to, hide in, and flee from our pain-ridden confusion. At the same time, I am nourished, thoroughly, by the certainty that innumerable hearts here on Earth are wide enough to hold this lament.
You darkness from which I come,
I love you more than all the fires
that fence out the world,
for the fire makes a circle
so that no one sees you anymore.
But darkness holds it all:
the shape and the flame,
the animal and myself,
how it holds them,
all powers, all sight —
and it is possible: its great strength
is breaking into my body.
I believe in the night.
—Rainer Maria Rilke
So let us open the night shutter. Let in this winter dark. It is here for the taking and wants to be known by us. With humility and guided by deep wisdom, let the harsh shapes of our surroundings and stories and names go soft. Let their essence be revealed as empty. Let the silence and the indistinguishable have their space. Become quiet and receptive to their gifts. After all, if we don’t let our hardened concepts fall away, how can we hope to generate anything that is truly responsive and actually helpful?
Every winter, in our own way, we can follow the steps of Siddhartha whose fearsome and exquisite dance with the dark gave the world this endless gift of Dharma. It was in the night that Siddhartha became the Buddha.
In this intensely personal piece, Thanissara reflects on the events of 2018 and the unprecedented challenges to humanity they represent. She invites us to perceive their deep roots in the domination mindset and how we can, out of sheer necessity, respond with a fierce clarity of heart. With the sense of the devotional, she concludes with an impassioned poem calling for “hope beyond hope.”
A Brutal Year Ends
as Extinction Rebellion Rises
This year has been brutal. Specifically because it heralded a drastic state-shift, a tipping point and planetary crossing over thresholds that should not be passed. We have stumbled from the hope of sustainability to a deeply painful reality of rapid environmental dismemberment.
We’ve seen the shredding of democratic principles and processes, we’ve been horrified by a rise in fascism, dragging its ghosts from the 1930’s/40’s, and have been appalled and enraged as billionaires flaunt and force their lethal agendas, regardless of the cost. But most devastating is the eco destruction we can no longer escape or delegate to future times. In a blink of an eye, we suddenly crossed from the assumption of human civilisation’s unbridled bright future to the dawning realisation of our probable demise.
The daily restoration of a clear, clean heart can mount a challenge free of hate and division.
This psychological shock and unremitting assault is shattering. Our overly stressed deregulated nervous systems struggle to cope. On the one hand we experience a plethora of hot reactivity and outrage, on the other a frozen stupefied, bargaining disassociation. As the ground beneath dissolves with such velocity, it feels impossible to grapple with the enormity of the threat we face.
Part of me is doing every day tasks, shop, cook, get through emails, scheduling, turning up for teaching engagements, meetings, zoom calls, planning, trying not to use plastic, buying recycled Christmas cards, while the other half is screaming as I run down the high street, through supermarket aisles (in my imagination), shouting “Wake the F#!K up people.” In my everyday (real) transactions, I lean in to figure if others are also screaming inside.
This leapfrog into our encroaching dystopia, as it stalks our night dreams, rampages through the our day world, and tears apart our fragile cohesion, has made it hard to hold normal life together. I’ve found myself dragging, sometimes strangely lost, taking hours to do a simple task as my mind swirls searching for a some kind of secure landing, some kind of sense.
Everyday, I get stuck to the latest twists and turns while resolving to unstick myself. But it’s hard to avert ones gaze as rapid ice-cap-melt cascades into rising oceans, as catastrophic floods turn cities into black mould, and as an inferno raced 15 miles in 10 minutes levelling a small town, ironically called Paradise, just a few hours north of us.
With 60% of wild life gone, insects vanishing apace, daily despotic legislation poisoning yet another river, ocean, waterway, or killing some other kind of wildlife, or stealing more indigenous land, the true magnitude of our human ignorance is desolating. When the blue macaw parrot that inspired “Rio” was declared extinct this week, and when the crowning apocalyptic IPCC Report stated “we have 12 years” or go the way of that parrot, our hearts broke all over again.
Such bad news filled with sorrow, anguish and extraordinary trepidation at the colossal challenges ahead. Yet, underneath is also a calm, steady determination building apace each day. A clarity forged as pieces of the puzzle that form the systems we live within are unflinchingly dissected in our daily reads and viewing. We understand that the Wizard of Oz, pulling all those crazy-making levers, has been outed. Our fast learning curve is into the roots of our calamity. We have to get the vastness, depth, and fullness of the truth that our economic, social, religious, and political systems, built on imperialism, unregulated capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy have to be rapidly deconstructed for anything or anyone to survive.
So, is there any good news? Well, there’s no happy Hollywood ending here. Instead, this is a clarion call to the depth of our souls. It’s the moment to listen carefully into our spirit, to what is actually important here, and what stirs at the most profound level of our being. What is felt it in our bones. For that we have to adopt a fearlessness, a great courage that breaks through our timidity, the “should’s” and “should not” in order to re-prioritise and align with the sweeping changes needed.
So we have not come here to beg the world leaders to care for our future. They have ignored us in the past and they will ignore us again. We have come here to let them know that change is coming whether they like it or not. That people will rise to the challenge. And since our leaders are behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago.
— Greta Thunberg.
Centuries of systemic conditioning and false narratives have to be abandoned. We have to strip down the layers to stand present, open, and real in the face of this great evolutionary initiation. We should not follow authorities just because they have positions of power, but tune instead into the voices that emerge from truth, from the unexpected. Such a voice, sounding clear over the waffling response of Cop24, is Sweden’s 15 year old Greta Thunberg
Voices from People of Colour, Indigenous, and women newly elected in Congress. From youth crashing into the halls of power asking for a Green New Deal . Voices at the heart of the chaos in France protesting the vast inequities spawned by decades of neoliberalism and predator capitalism that turned humans into fodder and consumers for profit. The voices of the long enduring unsung heroes of Indigenous peoples who by-rights and by the depth of ingrained wisdom must be vaulted and respected as guides at this time. And from the land of my birth, the galvanising force of Extinction Rebellion moving like wildfire across the globe, sparking inspiration and the allegiance of hundreds of groups, and counting.
So where do you and I land in all this? Here we are, in the midst of a colossal global and civilisational transition from the era of oil, which is not only burning up the planet but is a deeply false and failing economy. With France imploding and yellow jackets showing up beyond its borders, with Egypt banning the sale of yellow jackets, and with Britain wobbling in the vortex of an arrogant elite cannibalising its own. As Russia, the USA, and Saudi Arabia go rogue on climate action and Australia remains silent, it is clear this is not going to be a nicely negotiated, peaceful transition. It’s going to be a slogging match, a devastation for parts of the globe, one already forewarned by Syria, Yemen, Puerto Rico, displaced migrants and the Pacific Islands disappearing under the ocean. So how do we find our way in all this?
For myself, self care and resilience has to be primary. This is going to be a long haul. Let’s try and stay well, balanced, loving. The tending to close relationships, family, is also primary, we need beloved partners and true friends. The reaching out to build community, alliances, networking, sharing. All that is implied.
The daily restoration of a clear, clean heart that can mount a challenge free of hate and division. The daily surrendering of pettiness and grudges. A forgiving heart that cleaves to love over and over. Practices that reclaim the sacred, that establish mindfulness, that free and nurture the body. Choices made, food eaten, products used, and actions taken that understand consequences and renounce harm.
As all this swirls in my being as we race toward the end of this calamitous year and as everything is devolving into tangles of complexity and impossibility. However, the heart itself speaks in simple terms. It has its own true voice if we care to listen. When you hear its prompting, trust it. Follow the guidance. Relish its undaunted, diamond-like clarity. Know that it knows all is resident within its conscious awareness. In the swirl of shadows and the ranting cries of our dismembering times, there is a mystic thread, a trail to follow through the jungle of confusion.
When you follow that thread, you will not tie yourself to the waning light of unreal hopes that come crashing down. Instead, you will claim your full empowered truth that rises to shine its undying light on your pathway forward. You may stumble, but you will know, in the passionate, disciplined, focused, flamenco-like dance that the heart is, you will know how to be. You will know where to go. And you will know when to leap.
HOPE Beyond HOPE
Between this thought and the next
hope awaits its constant song
that angels murmur within our longing.
They breathe a shinning into our uncertain pathway
their voices lilting high over fields of desolation
“We are the holders of your dreams,
the whispering seed
planted in all cells.
The remainder of your journey
through the darkest of all times.”
But when hope vanishes
and things that can’t be hoped for
disturb our waking night.
in that ripe hour
distant bells summon
our hallowed ascension
with jaws soft and hands open,
prayer turns to a new dimension.
The movement beyond city voices
a gentle wind that blows so quietly
a silent singing from this turning earth
a calm knowing of your life’s worth.
Our timeless core unfolding
the easy swing of an opening gate
as the terror of separation
fades with an early bird song.
It is a dream only, of the fevered night.
This deep sleep of remembering
reveals a knowing
within each breath
that keeps a holy world gathered
within spheres of our communion.
Here we always are
moving in the ancient stillness
with fluid steps
tracking a silent song
through the halls of our creation.
This timeless breath with you my love.
It’s been a long, cold, lonely night.
Garden of the Midnight Rosary – Poems by Thanissara, 2002.
Thanissara, from London, was a Buddhist nun for 12 years and teaches meditation retreats with her partner Kittisaro since 1992. Together they founded Dharmagiri Sacred Mountain Retreat in 2000 in South Africa and co-authored Listening to the Heart, A Contemplative Guide to Engaged Buddhism. She is also author of Time To Stand Up, A Buddhist Manifesto for Our Earth, and several poetry books. Thanissara and Kittisaro recently launched Sacred Mountain Sangha, a California based Non Profit that hosts the Dharmapala Training, a two year, seven module training. This piece was originally published on Thanissara’s blog.