When the Tree Stops Bearing Fruit

In this article, Gil Fronsdal brings us back to the basics, describing why the practice of Buddhism leads directly to care for the planet and all beings, since “greed, hate, or delusion underlie all large scale human destruction of the environment.” Our individual dharma practice, compassion for the earth, and engagement on climate issues all inspire and inform one another, leading us onward.

Photo by Aimee Ray

Caring for the Earth as Buddhist Practice

By Gil Fronsdal

Buddhism teaches that personal practice and safeguarding our environment are closely connected. This is because both of these endeavors ask us to overcome the forces of greed, hate, and delusion. The intimate relationship between the world and ourselves means that when we properly care for ourselves we will care for the world, and when we do what’s best for the world, we benefit ourselves.

After his awakening, which took place as he sat outdoors underneath a tree, the Buddha continued to live and meditate in forests throughout his life. He explained that he did this for his own benefit and out of compassion for future generations. Because nature is a tremendous support for the path of liberation, the Buddha instructed his followers to meditate in nature.

Practicing mindfulness outdoors in nature cultivates a greater appreciation of the natural world. Building on this appreciation, a healthy respect for nature can come from understanding how dependent our lives are on the natural environment and how easily human activity can damage this support system. When the Buddha was alive, human impact on the natural world was evident mainly on a small, local scale. Today, the evidence of this interconnectedness is global—for instance, the greenhouse gases released through human activity in some parts of the world affect climates across the planet.

There’s an ancient Buddhist tale that tells of a mythic tree whose vast canopy provides shade and whose abundant fruit can be harvested freely by anyone. But when a greedy person stuffs himself with fruit and then breaks off one of the branches, the tree stops bearing fruit.

As practitioners on this path, it doesn’t make sense to ignore what we can personally do by relying on others to take responsibility for our environment. Instead we view our own actions as significant.

Another early Buddhist myth depicts an ideal world of abundance and ease that progressively falls into decay in response to the deteriorating ethics of the people who live there. The decline begins as people become greedy and continues with the gradual appearance of arrogance, lust, laziness, theft, lying, and violence.

These ancient myths no longer feel fanciful—they quite accurately represent our modern world. Rainforests have been clear-cut and the land can no longer support people living there. In some parts of the world the soil and water have become polluted with pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals, sickening nearby residents. The air in metropolitan areas is filled with smog, and children who breathe this pollution have higher rates of asthma and autism.

If we look closely, we can see that greed, hate, or delusion underlies all large scale human destruction of the environment. Greed drives exploitation of our natural resources, hate destroys vast lands through the ravages of war, and delusion perpetuates environmental harm when we don’t understand the impact our actions have on the natural world.

Of these forces, delusion (and its partner, indifference) is perhaps the most widespread and thus the most destructive. Even those of us with the best intentions can be blind to the effects our actions have, especially when the repercussions are out of sight, removed in space or time. For instance, large dams built in order to improve people’s lives have destroyed the watershed that sustained the very communities they were meant to serve. Cutting trees in the Himalayas in order to care for one’s family can have disastrous consequences when hundreds of thousands of people do the same thing. When farmers in Sumatra set fires to clear land, they neither know nor care much about the record air pollution that falls on Singapore as a result. One person thinks that his or her driving contributes a negligible amount of pollution, without considering what happens when that contribution is combined with the millions of cars driving in the same region. In the California Bay Area, for example, the smog from its 5 million cars kills trees in the Sierra Mountains, far out of sight of Bay Area residents.

Contributing to the well-being of all of life can give joy and provide deeper meaning to our actions.

Buddhism emphasizes the impact our individual actions have on our lives and the world around us, and it follows from this perspective that caring for the natural world begins with each of us. As practitioners on this path, it doesn’t make sense to ignore what we can personally do by relying on others to take responsibility for our environment. Instead we view our own actions as significant. Because of the staggering number of people now living on the earth—7 billion—the combined actions of many can either preserve vast ecosystems, or destroy them. If we fall into passive acquiescence in the face of environmental destruction, we give up our individual “response–ability”—our ability to respond.

Many of us can make the choice to consume fewer natural resources and to act out of compassion for the earth. Doing so doesn’t have to diminish the quality of our lives; it can increase it. We can choose to see reducing our carbon footprint not as an act of deprivation, but as an opportunity to gain the spiritual benefits of a simpler lifestyle. If the natural world is to be our teacher, as Buddhism suggests, maybe we can learn more by walking in a forest or a local park than by speeding by on the highway; perhaps we’re closer to the heart’s freedom when we sit undistracted in nature than when we’re plugged into our various electronic devices.

In each of our lives we’re presented with myriad opportunities to make small and large changes to reduce the negative impact we have on the natural world. When we make these changes as part of a spiritual practice, they support our spiritual growth. Contributing to the well-being of all of life can give joy and provide deeper meaning to our actions.

Still, as individuals we can’t make sweeping changes all by ourselves. Political action is needed to ensure that we all work together for sustainable usage of our natural resources. It takes public policies and laws to ensure that we all share in creating mass transit systems, reducing pollution, and protecting open spaces. History has shown that governmental action is needed as a safeguard against the nearsighted systems within which commercial and industrial interests often operate. Only governments have the ability to negotiate environmental agreements across many states and between nations.

… Buddhism doesn’t discourage political engagement. What it does discourage is divisive, hostile, and exclusively self-serving efforts at making political change.

So where does that leave us as Buddhist practitioners? When Buddhist practice is applied to our political efforts, generosity can be our motivation, goodwill and compassion our guide, and learning can replace our quick judgments. Guided by these wholesome qualities, political action can be passionate, energetic, and effective. Some people mistakenly believe that Buddhism, with its emphasis on equanimity, is incompatible with political action. But Buddhism doesn’t discourage political engagement. What it does discourage is divisive, hostile, and exclusively self-serving efforts at making political change.

There’s no doubt that human activity now challenges the health of our natural world more than at any other time in history. Unfortunately the damage to our environment has been increasing every year. If we are to reverse this trend, all but the poorest of us need to make changes in our lifestyle and patterns of consumption. Buddhism provides a way to embrace these changes as part of a path to freedom, peace, and compassion. Our ability to respond to these challenges is also our ability for spiritual growth. We can improve the quality of our environment while we deepen the capacity of our hearts.

Caring for the Earth as Buddhist Practice was originally published at Insightmeditationcenter.org


Gil Fronsdal is the founder and co-teacher for the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, California; he has been teaching since 1990. He has practiced Zen and Vipassana in the U.S. and Asia since 1975. He was a Theravada monk in Burma in 1985, and in 1989 began training with Jack Kornfield to be a Vipassana teacher. Gil teaches at Spirit Rock Meditation Center where he is part of its Teachers Council. He also serves on the SF Zen Center Elders’ Council. He is the author of The Issue at Hand, essays on mindfulness practice; A Monastery Within; a book on the five hindrances called Unhindered; and the translator of The Dhammapada, published by Shambhala Publications.

Climate Change is Making us Crazy: Interview with Norman Fischer

In writing about the basic principles of ecopsychology (a term he coined in 1992), scholar Theodore Rozak points out that traditional psychology and psychotherapy have examined “every form of dysfunctional family and social relations, but ‘dysfunctional environmental relations’ does not exist even as a concept.” Rozak is one of the founders of the discipline that recognizes that there is a “…synergistic relation between personal health and well-being and the health and well-being of our home, the Earth.”[ii] From his point of view, depletion of the rain forest, climate change and ecological crises arising from human activity represent a form of collective insanity, a social pathology. While the word “crazy” is overused and ofttimes without sensitivity to ableism, we might make the case for a kind of disconnection from reality indicated by our collective self and world-destructive behaviors. In this interview, originally published in the National Observer, Zen teacher and former Abbott of the San Francisco Zen Center, Norman Fischer examines what Buddhist principles and practices, including a “big sky” practice, can offer when we are affected by the unfolding craziness of climate change.

Photo by Martin Duggan

To get things started, what does a Zen teacher have to offer on the subject of global warming?

“Well, probably not much, but it does occur to me that climate change isn’t really a technical or scientific problem. The technical, scientific part of the problem is already understood: we know how to improve things if only we had the will to do it. It’s a problem of human beings thinking and behaving in a way that’s guaranteed to compound our problems.

“We’re all freaked out about our collective future. The feeling many of us now have, that we don’t necessarily have a bright future, is new. For the last few hundred years we took it for granted that things would always be improving over the generations. It became part of who we are, what we expect of ourselves. Before that though, human beings thought they were in kind of a steady state; that each generation would be more or less the same as the last.

“But somewhere along the line people got the idea that life could be, and would be better. And now we’ve lost that idea and I think it’s probably making us crazy. Especially with climate change being the reason and all these unknowns that we can’t predict. It’s scary: we really don’t know what’s going to happen (not that we ever did) and we seem pretty sure whatever it is will be bad. It’s frightening, almost like a child’s nightmare. Spooky stuff in the dark.”

You know people who are in deep despair over global warming?

“Therapists’ offices around the world are full of people who are traumatized by reading the newspaper. Bad social problems and climate change seem almost to be the same thing. People feel scared and powerless. It’s beyond having identifiable bad guys we can get rid of.

“But as I said, we actually don’t know what is going to happen. If we are in despair it is because we are assuming a lot of stuff that may or may not be the case. We think we are smart enough to know what’s going to happen in the future. No one knows what happens in the future.”

But climate scientists are telling us that really bad things are going to happen.

“Big changes are coming, yes. But we can’t know exactly what they are or what life will feel like when they come.

“There’s a Zen saying: knowing is an exaggeration and not-knowing is stupidity. So yes, we know something but we don’t really know the most important things. And there’s a more profound kind of not-knowing: knowing that everything I know is subject to revision. Maybe what I know today will prove to be wrong tomorrow. Maybe something totally unexpected will happen. Whatever I know is provisional and limited.

….of course we work for positive change — we have to have hope. Hope is wisdom. The wisdom to realize that the next moment is always unknown.

“To practice not-knowing in this way doesn’t deny our very real problems. At this moment, it seems pretty clear that we need to change our fossil fuel energy system to a clean energy system. It seems pretty clear that our economic system as is can’t work for the future. And all this it’s a huge project, no two ways about that.”

So, we avoid despair by acknowledging what you call ‘not-knowing’ about the future. But it’s not fatalism either? We still work for positive change and hold out hope for the future?

“Not fatalism! And of course we work for positive change — we have to have hope. Hope is wisdom. The wisdom to realize that the next moment is always unknown. Bad things can happen but good things can happen. I don’t know. I can’t know. Life is not subject to my limited knowing. It isn’t subject to my specifications for the future, but the future always comes.

“There’s always a next moment, an unknown moment. And that moment is inherently hopeful. Hope is built into time. If you don’t know that then, yes, you could feel despair. People can actually die of despair — die of “a broken heart,” as we used to say a few generations ago. It happens. Some hope is necessary.”

Do you find these ideas about hope and ‘not-knowing’ actually help people who come to you in a state of despair about climate change?

“Let me tell you a story about a friend of mine. He was becoming increasingly upset about climate denial. It became a real mental health problem. His situation got worse and worse until during one conversation something just popped into my mind: ‘this is not about climate change.’ Everything he was saying was true, but I was suddenly certain his feelings were not actually about climate change, though he believed they were.

“So I told him that and he got really angry. He thought I was acting like another climate denier. At that time (during the George W. Bush administration) there were lots of climate deniers, which was one thing that was driving him crazy. So, he got mad at me. But eventually he came back and said, ‘You’re right. This is about me aging and what I’m going to lose. I care about climate change a lot, but the pain of what I’m feeling isn’t about climate change.’ To this day, he cares about climate change and he’s active about climate change, but he’s no longer in despair.

“I’m convinced this is true for a lot of us. The facts about climate change are true and they are serious and devastating. A certain amount of dismay makes sense. But when we have dark and despairing feelings, it’s about ourselves. It’s about mortality. It’s about our own lack of control over the world we live in. It’s our disappointment, our guilt.

In political discourse….there’s really no place for hatred or the demonizing of enemies. There’s plenty of room for disagreement with the understanding that we all share the same heart and the same legacy.

“Somehow, we justify our feelings and fail to take responsibility for them by pawning them off on climate change. If I’m freaked out, I ought to take that on as my own problem. Otherwise we go down the road of increased despair and hysteria, and then we won’t be able to take positive action.”

What would it mean to ‘take responsibility’ for our feelings about climate change?

“I think you need a religious — or anyway — some kind of larger, wider, perspective. When you have a religious perspective, you develop the capacity to fully take in suffering, to minister to it and see beyond it. You see a bigger picture. It’s related to what I was saying about hope: you see the hopefulness inherent in life, regardless of what happens.

“The religious perspective sees that this world is much bigger than it appears to be. What happens is more than it seems to be. And that “more” is not entirely knowable to human beings. I’m not saying that everybody has to belong to a religion or have spirituality, but I’m saying that everybody has to engage in imaginative practices of some sort for the purposes of cultivating what’s needed to get through these times. Facts and direct actions are crucial of course, but they are not enough.”

Can you make this more concrete? What’s your own spiritual practice?

“The centerpiece of Zen practice is Zazen — just sitting down in the middle of this present moment. In Zen we say that to sit in meditation is not meditation, it’s sitting in the present moment of being alive and discovering what that is.

“So we sit down in this unknowable and ineffable present moment. When we do that we are going to question all our assumptions. From the point of view of our ordinary assumptions, nothing could be more useless than sitting down and doing nothing. The whole idea of Zen sitting is already exploding every assumption about what we are, what time is, what imagination is, what’s worthwhile about life.

“Zen practice is wonderfully immediate. It requires no faith, no ideology. It’s possible that all forms of spirituality and all forms of art come down to this: a human being in the present moment, confronting reality without an agenda or an idea.”

How about advice for someone not ready to take on a serious Zen practice?

“Try the practice of ‘sky gazing.’ Try an experiment for a week, either on a schedule or randomly interrupting yourself. Go outside and look at the sky. Literally just look at the sky and see what you feel in your body and what thoughts come into your mind and how your eye focuses on what it’s looking at in the sky. And practice that for five minutes once or twice a day. Do it for a week and see what happens. That would be pretty easy to do.

….everybody has to engage in imaginative practices of some sort for the purposes of cultivating what’s needed to get through these times. Facts and direct actions are crucial of course, but they are not enough.

“Or maybe just breathe — take three conscious breaths as many times a day as you can remember to do it. And notice your thoughts, you feelings, your state of mind at that moment. See how that changes your point of view.

“These are simple examples of contemplative practices — something you do on your own to bring yourself back to yourself. It’s also important that people are willing to share their lives and be in dialogue with one another. It’s a great thing when people talk about their inner lives with some depth and some trust in one another. I think this too is a big part of what we need.”

And how does this carry into working on issues like climate change out in the world?

“Spirituality is politics. That’s what religion is: caring beyond oneself; recognizing that one’s self is beyond one’s self, and that love and concern for one’s self beyond one’s self is an absolute necessity. I actually think that the weakness of left politics is that it’s only grounded in facts and ideas, not in the heart and the soul. This makes it less convincing to many people.

“If you have a spirituality that is grounded in concern and love for others you realize that politics is important. Politics is people interacting with one another over how we live together. We need this! We need to express ourselves to one another. All politics is supposed to be an expression of what we most deeply cherish.

“In political discourse, you are making a case and you’re not hating anybody. There’s really no place for hatred or the demonizing of enemies. There’s plenty of room for disagreement with the understanding that we all share the same heart and the same legacy. If you appear to me to be a selfish monster, that’s because my eye isn’t seeing deeply enough and your heart is not open enough to its own inmost desires.

“There’s nobody to hate and no reason to hate. How about that for a starting point for political activity?”

Reprinted with permission from The National Observer

Norman Fischer is a poet, author and former Abbott of the San Francisco Zen Center. He is a strong advocate for inter-religious dialogue and the founding teacher of the Everyday Zen Foundation.

[i] “What is Ecopsychology,” posted at www.ecobuddhism.org

[ii] Definition from the website of the International Community for Ecopsychology.

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).