Confronting Whiteness and Privilege in Eco-Dharma

“We can’t be environmental activists/advocates without paying attention to inter-dependence and intersectionality between movements.” In this article, Kritee explores how a Buddhist response to our climate crisis necessarily intersects with a Buddhist response to other social justice crises, and therefore calls us to confront whiteness and privilege, and from there to move forward into compassionate action.

Photograph courtesy Max Johnson ©

As a founding board member of Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center (RMERC), the first retreat center in the U.S to use the word “Eco-Dharma” in its name, I have been frequently engaged in discussing “What is Eco-Dharma?”

It is easy to see that Eco-Dharma combines the teachings of Buddhism and/or other contemplative traditions (dharma) with ecological concerns (eco). In his recent writings, David Loy, our Eco-Dharma elder and my fellow founding board member of RMERC, clarifies that for him:

“Three aspects or components of Eco-Dharma stand out: practicing in nature, clarifying the ecological implications of Buddhism, and using that understanding to engage in the eco-activism that our situation requires.”

These three aspects are very meaningful. The issue for me has been that most (white and privileged) people tend to think that “ecological” only means “environmental.” “Ecology” is the scientific discipline that points towards a fundamental interconnectedness of all species as well as all non-living processes and phenomena in any ecosystem; it sees humans as embedded in the cyclical processes of nature. Study of ecology also acknowledges that no species, no individual or even non-living process fulfills just one fixed role in our planetary, local, societal or family ecosystem(s). Human beings and communities have multiple identities, roles and needs which are interdependent on those of others.

“Ecology” is the scientific discipline that points towards a fundamental interconnectedness of all species as well as all non-living processes and phenomena in any ecosystem; it sees humans as embedded in the cyclical processes of nature.

So what does this multiplicity and interdependence have to do with how we define Eco-Dharma? Meditating, especially in a natural environment, will certainly help all interested environmental activists ground their activism, go beyond self-righteousness, fear, anger, and frustration and open up to their own innate courage, wisdom and compassion. I also deeply resonate with David in acknowledging that traditional Buddhist teachings need to shift in response to our current planetary crisis. We have definitely been short-selling dharma by applying it only in our individual or family lives instead of our societal and institutional issues.  What I have been keen to add to the definition of Eco-Dharma is the argument that (and I’m certainly not the first one making it) ‘Eco’ in Eco-Dharma can not be just about environment or nature or what is defined as wilderness.

Even by other names that are currently associated with the interface between spirituality and activism, “Sacred Activism,” “Contemplative Environmentalism,” “Spiritually rooted action,” or the “Great Turning,” it comes down to the same issue: we can’t be environmental activists/advocates without paying attention to inter-dependence and intersectionality between movements  (including the idea of “One Movement” that I have explained elsewhere).

For the purposes of this article, let us first consider this: most native people in this country, from whom Europeans stole the land, and native people elsewhere in the world, did not and do not conceptualize wilderness areas as separate from humans. Wilderness is an interconnected world in which human, plants, animals, rocks, and so on are all spiritually animated. However, in the U.S., the Wilderness Act of 1964 formally defined wilderness as areas “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Like our theft of native land, our distorted definition of wilderness breeds a sense of separation, both from our human sisters and brothers and more-than-human world of plants, animal, microbes, rock- and fire-people.

Second, well over half of this nation’s national parks were founded during Jim Crow. Not too long ago, a Berkeley Master’s student, Michael Starkey, found that Black people worked very hard to create and maintain national parks and other forested areas but when it came to acknowledging Black people and their socio-economic realities at the time, all historians (who were White) neglected their contributions. Starkey found that in wilderness literature spanning decades, nearly all actors—whether positive or negative—are white (no mention of Latinx and Asians either). He posits that we have consciously, wrongfully, imagined wilderness to be created by and for white people! The complexity of the relationships that African-Americans have felt with woods, from inter-dependence to fear, have not been acknowledged.

Added to these types of willful blindness is  the issue that people of color and the poorest in the Global South (whom we sometimes refer to as under-served communities in the dharma world) have historically borne or will bear the brunt of ecological devastation, and are often at the forefront of the most effective spiritually-rooted activism. If one is curious, there is substantial research documenting how the most poisonous and polluted environment exists in the poorest or “lower” caste/race neighborhoods around the world. The privileged among us, including myself, can turn up the air conditioning, but a mother in India or living in reservations in the U.S may have to walk for miles to get a bucket of water!

We need true Eco-Dharma communities that look at the inner, or psycho-spiritual causes, and the institutional causes (institutional, corporate and political greed) of our ecological predicament.

Last, but not least, there is the issue of the same root cause leading to multiple effects! In the light of ever-growing income inequality, it is not hard to see that at least some of the institutional drivers that militantly keep poor people poor, disenfranchised, and in the most polluted environments, are the same drivers that lead to exploitation and plundering of Mother Earth within and outside this country. The sense of duality and separateness that makes us (both as individuals and institutions) objectify nature,  non-human species and other humans, also makes us materialistic and causes both environmental and social-justice problems.

To fully heal and restore our sense of oneness with nature, we also need to pay attention to our false sense of separation from human beings of other social races/castes and economic classes. Environment doesn’t exist in isolation and we can’t heal it (or our relationship to it) in isolation. We need to collectively revisit how we define nature and how wilderness was created in this country. We need to create earnest inter-dependent communities that understand that different people have different privilege and abilities. The privileged ones (those with more resources and energy) need to actively include voices that have been historically suppressed. We need to question our economic and financial systems that no longer serve the planet and most beings. Most of all we need true Eco-Dharma communities that look at the inner, or psycho-spiritual causes, and the institutional causes (institutional, corporate and political greed) of our ecological predicament. These institutional causes receive very thorough analysis in David’s work.

Unless the framework of Eco-Dharma acknowledges and encompasses all these inter-connections, Eco-Dharma in this country will become white just like wilderness and the mainstream environmental movement became white in the 21st century!  My humble request is that we confront this issue and ask if we will be able to serve well if Eco-Dharma becomes “White.”

My hope is that we can compassionately and skillfully keep facing these questions without blame, guilt, or anger. It won’t be easy and yet the budding Eco-Dharma movement in this country will not become wholesome without our conscious efforts with respect to these issues!


Kritee (dharma name Kanko), is a Zen teacher, scientist, activist, dancer and permaculture designer. She directs and teaches Boundless in Motion Sangha in Boulder in the Rinzai-Obaku Buddhist lineage of Cold Mountain, is a co-founder and executive director of Boulder Eco-Dharma Sangha and co-founding teacher of Earthlovego. Kritee trained as an environmental microbiologist and biogeochemist at Rutgers and Princeton Universities. As a senior scientist in the Global Climate Program at Environmental Defense Fund, she is helping to implement environment and climate-friendly methods of small farming at large scales in Asia with a three-fold goal of poverty alleviation, food security and climate mitigation / adaptation.

Five Practices for Working with the Immense Challenge of Climate Change

“The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increased at record speed last year to hit a level not seen for more than three million years, the UN has warned.”
— The Guardian, October 30, 2017

Immense, enormous, vast, colossal, boundless, overwhelming: even the Webster’s list of synonyms for the word ‘immensity’ seems to acknowledge that a common reaction to large scope and scale is the potential to feel overwhelmed. While our social justice challenges have always been substantial, since human societies came into existence, the scope of climate change challenges we face has gone from potential to real to substantial to vast in just the last 50 years. As followers of the Buddhist Path, we may be accustomed to considering big, boundless, and potentially destabilizing concepts like no-self and groundlessness; how then can we find our path as we acknowledge the immensity of our effects on the planet? Lama Willa Miller offers five practices that can anchor us even in these times of staggering change.

Fire scar on the Northern California landscape. This image, acquired October 21, 2017 by NASA’s ASTER instrument, depicts vegetation in red, while burned areas appear dark gray.

Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria have come and gone, leaving hundreds dead. We’re left facing a dire reality: we live on a warming planet. Homes blown apart. Lives lost. Ecosystems flattened. This is how climate change arrives at our doorstep.

With the destruction comes a wider acceptance of the scientific reality— and a growing motivation to contribute to solutions. But destruction also brings despair, fear about the future, grief, and panic. As we grapple with our new reality, contemplative practice can offer techniques for holding these challenging truths.

Spiritual practices are not alternatives to swift, wise action. They are complementary disciplines to education and activism. Spiritual resources can help us move from desperation to sustainable activism.

How do we get from anger to compassion?

Spiritual practices may not provide concrete climate solutions, but they do have the potential to shift consciousness. Practices and teachings can address how we relate to our grief, despair, and fear. These resources help restructure our understanding of what it means to be human, now, on our home planet.

Here are five tried and true contemplative practices from the Buddhist tradition that can help us hold the truths of climate change, species extinction, and the ecological crisis in our hearts and minds. While this list of practices is not by any means exhaustive, it is a beginning. Even though their roots are ancient, these practices are timely as we encounter the truth of suffering on a global scale.

1) Find a grounding in ethics

Some people see climate change as an ecological issue. Some see it as an economic issue. Some see it as a social issue. But, we know that human actions are at fault. In this sense, climate change is an ethical issue. Our beliefs about justice — the values that we hold most dear— form the bedrock of our actions. These values are largely learned and assimilated from our culture. Each of us — as individuals and from within our communities — can influence the values upheld by our culture.

Climate change is happening because of what we have valued and how we have conceived of our identity as human beings on this planet. The values have come from a dominant industrial ethos. Climate change, therefore, isn’t just a matter of what we can do. It’s a matter of what we should do. Contemplative traditions teach moral reflections on our actions, speech, and thought. The Buddha emphasized ethics, śila, as a fundamental training for his monks. His monastic code of ethics was constructed around the idea of ahimsa, or non-violence. Essentially, the Buddha taught that ethical actions are those arising from a commitment to non-harm, gentleness, and simplicity.

Spiritual practices are not alternatives to swift, wise action. They are complementary disciplines to education and activism. Spiritual resources can help us move from desperation to sustainable activism.

Buddhism and other religious traditions have long identified love and compassion as motivators that drive effective and sustainable action. If we extend śila to our relationship to land, water, natural resources, and animals, then non-harm, gentleness, and simplicity become points of reflection for change-making.

Later Buddhist traditions developed rules of conduct, oriented towards compassion, such as the Bodhisattva precepts. These precepts extend from the idea that bodhicitta, or wise compassion, is the ground of ethical action and speech. We too can ground our activism, social engagement, and resistance in wise compassion. We can make our activism not about what we are working against, but what we are working for. If we place our activism and relationship to the earth squarely among our deepest values and beliefs, we are more likely to turn again and again to the issue — not out of obligation, but out of genuine commitment.

2) Welcome uncertainty

If there is one thing that climate scientists agree on, it is that we don’t know for certain what will happen as the earth warms. Evidence indicates that tipping points and crises cannot be averted. We have no how idea how much we can slow or ameliorate the suffering. We do not even know how long our species — and others — can survive changes that destabilize the conditions necessary for life. We are stepping into the void.

We want to know if our children and grandchildren will be able to visit the shoreline, walk in the forest, breathe clean air, and live in safety. It is human to fear that the world as we know it may be ending. This uncertainty can feel deeply unsettling.

Many of the Buddha’s teachings focus on uncertainty, not as an inconvenience, but as a source of liberation. The Buddha taught that nothing is certain, because nothing transcends impermanence. He called impermanence a “mark of existence— an undeniable truth of what it means to be alive. To encourage his monks and nuns to face their mortality, he sent them to meditate in charnel grounds — open-air cemeteries — where they could witness decaying corpses.

The Buddha was not trying to torture his disciples. He was trying to free them. While awareness of our mortality stirs our deepest fears, it also frees us from the chains of attachment that bind us. The loosening of attachment helps us open to the truth that nothing is certain. Nothing can be taken for granted. This is how we learn to love the truth for what it actually is.

Many of the Buddha’s teachings focus on uncertainty, not as an inconvenience, but as a source of liberation.

There is good reason to embrace the uncertainty of climate change as a liberating practice. The more we fear uncertainty, the more likely we are to avoid thinking about climate change. In fact, our worst enemy might not be climate denial, but rather a subtle, subconscious rejection of climate change, based on our fear of the unknown.

If, however, we embrace the truth of uncertainty, we can develop the courage to stay open and engage with the world. If we can accept the fragility of life on earth, we can invest ourselves in the possibility of collective action.

3) Work with emotions

Along with the discomfort of uncertainty, climate change can evoke many other difficult emotions. Witnessing ecosystem destruction and mass extinction, we respond with grief and sorrow. Encountering denial and global apathy, we experience anger. When we consider our children’s future, we experience trepidation and worry.

Anger can be a protective energy, a healthy response to that which threatens what we love.

Recently, I was talking to a European graduate student who was writing her thesis on the power of stories to affect climate change. The primary motivator for her work, she told me, has been anger. Understandably, fear and anger often fuel activism. These primal emotions have kept us alive for centuries. They are good short-term motivators when we are in immediate danger. However, fear and anger are poor long-term motivators. Eventually, they result in stress and burnout — the insidious undoing of activists.

So, we need other chronic motivators for our work. In this area, spiritual traditions have much to offer. Buddhism and other religious traditions have long identified love and compassion, for example, as motivators that drive effective and sustainable action. The bodhisattva, a Buddhist archetype of compassion, typifies the possibility that positive and constructive emotions can be the primary fuel for activity. But how do we get from anger to compassion?

Tibetan Buddhism teaches that the states that we most wish to avoid are actually the key to our freedom. Instead of erasing emotions, we can metabolize them. If we take our reactivity into a contemplative space, it is possible to liberate the energy of emotion, transforming it into supple responsiveness.

We might start with an emotion like anger. When anger is heavily fixated on an object, it becomes isolating, contracted, and draining. When we take anger into a contemplative space, we can lighten our focus on the object and the story, turning inward to consider the emotion itself and our part in it.

The bodhisattva, a Buddhist archetype of compassion, typifies the possibility that positive and constructive emotions can be the primary fuel for activity.

When we take responsibility for our own anger, we can find its upside. Anger is not always reprehensible. It can be a protective energy, a healthy response to that which threatens what we love. That insight itself can liberate reactive, contracted anger into its deeper nature, a wiser, more inclusive resolve to act with decisiveness and courage in the interest of love.

In contemplative practice, anger can become an inspiration for empathy. We discover that uncomfortable states, while they belong to us, are not to ours alone. Many others also feel anger, including the people we have “othered.” When we recognize that this is how so many others feel, we can commune with the suffering of others. We redirect our attention from the story stimulating anger to our empathy for all those impacted by climate change — even the deniers. By redirecting our focus from a polarizing narrative to a uniting one, we start building a more sustainable platform for action.

4) Access new wisdom

In discussions about climate change, we seem to primarily access one way of knowing — the intellect. The climate issue is couched in the language of conceptual knowing. This conceptual approach — typified by Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth — is critically important. We need to know what is happening, and why.

However, our response will be much more powerful and resilient if we begin to access other ways of knowing, transforming conceptually-motivated activism into an activism of the heart.

There are two alternative ways of knowing that Buddhist practice and meditation generally rely on: bodily wisdom and non-conceptual wisdom.

Bodily wisdom

To encounter our human body is to encounter the natural world. We tend to forget that we are mammalian primates! The closer we come to the body, the closer we draw to the truth of our own wildness. This connects us to the planetary wildness that we aspire to protect.

While the mind is tugged into the past and future, the body is fully present. The body’s present wakefulness is one of its great wisdoms, and we can easily access that wisdom. It is as close to us as this moment’s inhale and exhale. While we want to stay mindful of creating a sustainable future, we don’t want to do that at the expense of missing our life. The body reminds us that we are here, now, and our presence is our most powerful resource.

Non-conceptual wisdom

Buddhist meditation also introduces us to the life beyond the conceptual mind — non-conceptual ways of knowing. The wider truth is that human experience is not just mental content. While we spend a great deal of time enmeshed in our world of ideas, there is more to the mental-emotional life than what we think and believe. There is a non-conceptual space in which all of this content arises, and that space can be sensed and widened through the experiences of body. In the practice of the Great Perfection, this space is identified as naked awareness, a part of our mind that is just experiencing, prior to forming ideas about our experiences. The space of awareness can be cultivated until it becomes a holding-environment for relative issues such as climate change.

To encounter our human body is to encounter the natural world. … The closer we come to the body, the closer we draw to the truth of our own wildness.

We can make our activism not about what we are working against, but what we are working for.

As we begin to identify with non-conceptual space, we access a non-dual mode of perception. In the non-dual mode of perception, the illusion of separateness is perforated. This illusion of separateness may be one of the root causes of the crisis we are in. When we are caught up in that illusion, it becomes somehow okay that my consumption happens at your expense. If we are to live sustainably, we need to get used to the idea — no, the reality — that we are all intimately connected. Meditation leads us there.

5) Find community

A friend of mine once attended a City Council meeting in her local community and ran into a woman who was repeatedly raising the issue of banning plastic bags. Discouraged, the woman said that she could not seem to earn the respect of the city council. My friend replied: “You don’t need respect. You need a friend. One person is a nut. Two people are a wake-up call. Three people are a movement.”

That friend was the environmentalist and author Kathleen Dean Moore, and her story inspired me. A small, committed group of people can change the world, as Margaret Mead said. Finding a community of activists might not be as daunting as we might think. It can be as simple as finding a few like-minded people and starting a conversation.

In order to gracefully lean into the challenges that we face as a planet, community is critical. But it also does double-duty, laying the foundation for spiritual life. The Buddha’s close attendant Ananda once inquired of his teacher, “Surely the sangha [spiritual community] is half of the holy life?” The Buddha answered, “No, Ananda, do not say such a thing. The sangha is not half of the holy life. It is the whole of the holy life.”

The Buddha felt very strongly about the power of community to support the path to awakening. He lived most of his life in intentional community, and identified sangha as one of the three spiritual refuges, along with the teacher and the dharma.

Now is a good time for the eco-curious in the dharma world. There is a growing community of people who seek both spiritual development and activism. If you are one of those people, now especially, you need not despair. Your people are out there.

Now is a good time for the eco-curious in the dharma world. There is a growing community of people who seek both spiritual development and activism. If you are one of those people, now especially, you need not despair. Your people are out there.

As we are propelled forward by the consequences of a warming planet, it is more important than ever that activists and contemplatives work together. We can benefit from an exchange of technologies. While I have highlighted five spiritual technologies to help contemplate climate change, activists have other tools and perspectives that can assist spiritual communities to take action. Activist communities have resources for education and technologies of peaceful resistance that can help contemplatives enact change.

While we grapple with the effects of climate change, we will need tools of resilience and inner work. As dharma practitioners, we bring essential gifts to the project of healing our world. Our challenge is to bring these gifts to bear and continue their development.

By practicing with ethics, uncertainty, emotion, wisdom, and community, we develop an intimate understanding that being human is about what we think and what we believe — and we deepen our ability to embody our work.

Embodiment sends an indelible message that peace and sustainability can become a lived reality. Even when they are imperfectly realized, we can inspire the sense that our lives have meaning, and that we are living our way into ever-increasing integrity with — and in service to — our beautiful, unfathomable and sacred world.


Five Practices to Help Accept the Immense Challenge of Climate Change originally appeared in Lion’s Roar, Oct 20, 2017 and is reprinted here with permission.

Lama Willa B. Miller is the founder of Natural Dharma Fellowship in Cambridge, Massachusetts and Wonderwell Mountain Refuge in Springfield, New Hampshire. She is on faculty with One Earth Sangha’s EcoSattva Training and is a member of the Council on the Uncertain Human Future.

A Plea For the Animals

A recent article on the Dharma Voice for Animals website points out that the common invocation of the metta meditation, “May all being be happy…may all being be free from suffering” refers to ALL beings. The DVA piece goes on to note, “We are taught that suffering is suffering, regardless of its manifestation.” In his plea for animals, Matthieu Ricard is quick to point out that asking us to extend our compassion is not to offer a rebuke; views about animals embedded in many cultures can make it hard to shift our perspective. In focusing on our interdependence with all beings, Ricard taps into the eco-dharma foundation for making that shift.

Some people are born with a natural tendency to be compassionate. From an early age, they show spontaneous kindness toward those around them, including animals. This was not the case for me. I was born into a Breton family, and until I was fourteen years old I often used to go fishing. I also remember when I was very young my friends from the local school and I once grilled ants by focusing the sun’s rays on them with a magnifying glass. Looking back, I am ashamed of this, but it upsets me even more that such behavior struck me as normal.

When I was five, my father took me to see the bullfights in Mexico. It was a celebration. The music was exciting. Everybody seemed to feel this was a great occasion, that all of this was wonderful. Why didn’t I leave in tears? Was it a lack of compassion, of education, of imagination?

We live in an essentially interdependent world where the fate of each being, of whatever kind, is intimately linked to that of all the others. So what I am suggesting here is not concern for animals only but concern for animals also.

At the age of twenty I had the great good fortune of meeting Tibetan spiritual masters, who from that time on have inspired every moment of my existence. The central point of their teachings has been the royal way of love and universal compassion. Although for a long time I had not been able to put myself in others’ places, by training with the masters, I learned altruistic love, doing the best I could to open my mind and heart to the plights of others. I trained myself in compassion, and I reflected on the human condition and the condition of animals as well.

It is far from my intention to rebuke people who in one way or another cause animals to suffer. They often do it without thinking, as I myself used to do. It truly is difficult to make the connection between the latest consumer items, including food and medicines that sometimes save our lives, and the suffering that is usually involved in their fabrication. Cultural traditions also play a major role in our perceptions of animals, our companions on this planet. Some societies have developed collective patterns of thought that encourage the view that animals exist to serve humans, although the outlook of other traditions has long been that every being, human or nonhuman, must be respected.

Certainly there is so much suffering among human beings that one could spend one’s whole life just alleviating a tiny fraction of it. Despite that, however, concern for the fate of the 7.7 million other species of animals that inhabit this planet is neither unrealistic nor misguided, because most of the time there is no need to choose between the well-being of humans and the well-being of animals. We live in an essentially interdependent world where the fate of each being, of whatever kind, is intimately linked to that of all the others. So what I am suggesting here is not concern for animals only but concern for animals also.

In spite of the sense of wonder the animal kingdom inspires in us, we are responsible for an ongoing massacre of animals on a scale unequaled in the history of humankind.

Such an approach does not involve humanizing animals or animalizing humans; rather, it is a matter of extending benevolence and kindness to all. Reaching out in this way is more about taking a responsible attitude toward all that is around us than about making choices concerning what we should do with the limited resources we possess for action in the world.

In spite of the sense of wonder the animal kingdom inspires in us, we are responsible for an ongoing massacre of animals on a scale unequaled in the history of humankind. Every year, sixty billion land animals and a thousand billion marine animals are killed for our consumption. Moreover, this mass killing and its corollary—the excessive consumption of meat in the wealthy countries—is madness on a global scale. It perpetuates hunger in the world, increases the world’s ecological imbalances, and is even harmful to human health.

We continue to live in ignorance concerning the harm we inflict on animals—very few of us have ever visited an industrial breeding site or a slaughterhouse. We maintain a kind of moral schizophrenia that has us lavishly pampering our pets and at the same time planting our forks in the pigs that have been sent to the slaughter by the millions, even though they are in no way less conscious, less sensitive to pain, or less intelligent than our cats and dogs.

Starting with the era of the ancestors we share with other animal species, little by little, by a long series of steps and minimal changes, we arrived at the stage of Homo sapiens. In the course of this slow evolution, there was no “magical moment” that would justify our conferring on ourselves a special nature that makes us fundamentally different from the many species of hominids that preceded us. Nothing occurred in the evolutionary process that would justify our claim to a right of total supremacy over the animals.

The most striking quality that humans and animals have in common is the capacity to experience suffering. Why do we still blind ourselves, now at the beginning of the twenty-first century, to the immeasurable suffering that we inflict on animals, knowing that a great part of the pain that we cause them is neither necessary nor unavoidable? Certainly we should know that there is no moral justification for inflicting needless pain and death on any being.


A Plea for the Animals originally appeared in Lion’s Roar, Jan 17, 2017 and is reprinted here with permission.


Matthieu Ricard

Matthieu Ricard is a Buddhist monk who had a promising career in cellular genetics before leaving France thirty-five years ago to study Buddhism in the Himalayas. He is an author, translator, and has been a participant in scientific research on the effects that meditation has on the brain. Ricard’s work is held high regard in intellectual circles in Europe, and two books he co-authored, The Monk and the Philosopher and The Quantum and the Lotus, are best-sellers in France. He lives in Tibet and Nepal.

Thriving Like Gorse: The Ulex Project

Ecodharma organizations generally seek to bring ecological and climate activism to Buddhists, encouraging the recognition that, as Guhyapati says in the following article, “It’s a mistake to think of the development of consciousness as [only] a personal matter…The interplay of radical ecology and dharma points to both a profound cognitive shift and significant social reconfiguration.” The Ecodharma Centre in the Catalan Pyrenees has been providing Dharma-inspired activist training for many years and now is launching a new initiative, called the Ulex Project, to reframe their approach in secular terms, with the goal of extending its relevance and impact.

photo from Pond’s Place

by Guhyapati

Throughout a meandering two and a half thousand-year history, Buddhism has re-shaped itself, again and again. Its forms have evolved as the basic truths and methodologies of dharma have been applied to distinct societies and changing circumstances. The gilded baroque feudalism of Buddhism in Tibet; the austere aesthetic and lean existential comedy of Chan; the contrasting strands of formal Theravadin institutionalism and the shamanic aura of the forest renunciate; these all reveal the evolutionary vitality of a tradition that has enriched itself through creative engagement with cultural diversity.

The founding of the Ecodharma Centre in 2007 was an exploration of the forms Buddhism might take in response to the historical conditions we now live in. We see this as a period of social and ecological crisis. Tensions of social inequality, together with the irrationalities of a growth-based economy colliding with ecological limits, mark an unprecedented point of disruption.

Buddhism has re-shaped itself, again and again…Its forms …reveal the evolutionary vitality of a tradition that has enriched itself through creative engagement with cultural diversity.

Sensing, as Antonio Gramsci had in the 1930’s, that “the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot yet be born…,” we asked: How can the Dharma help us to live meaningfully amidst the dying of the old system – and how can it help us to midwife the new? Ecodharma is a response to these questions.

When we coined the term “ecodharma,” we wanted to imply something more than a form of Green Buddhism, simply folding environmental concern into the dharma life. We wanted Ecodharma to embody (as we expressed it in the centre’s strap line) an exploration of “Radical Ecology – Radical Dharma.”

With the idea of ‘radical dharma’ we point towards the heart of Buddhism. Practicing with a globalized perspective and historical awareness, it is possible to examine the many forms Buddhism has taken and ask questions about the core significance of these traditions. Recognizing that the dharma is not delimited by any of the cultural or philosophical forms it has taken, we can define it as any practices which enable people to develop and realize the potential of wisdom and compassion represented in the Buddhist ideal of enlightenment.

Radical dharma doesn’t assume that Buddhism has a monopoly on truth. Instead, it enables us to draw on diverse disciplines and fields of learning—both religious and secular, scientific and poetic—evaluating their relevance in terms of their capacity to liberate our potential for wisdom and compassion.

Radical dharma doesn’t assume that Buddhism has a monopoly on truth.

Our understanding of ‘radical ecology’ draws on intertwining strands in the ecology movement. From Deep Ecology we acknowledge the importance of cultivating an “ecological consciousness.” Through deep ecological and nature connection practices, we can learn to recognzse ourselves as part of the web of life and free ourselves from anthropocentric conceit. But such practices can stall in romanticism and narcissism, unless complemented by an understanding of the social relations of inequality and domination, such as class, gender and race. So, along with Social Ecologists and Ecofeminists, we apply a robust critique of social structures and the ways they intersect with exploitative relationships between humanity and nature. Consequently, we believe it is crucial to channel an ecological sensibility into concrete social and political action. And, along with many others, we see in ecological thinking the basis of a paradigm shift, the seeds of new ways of understanding the world in terms of relationships and systems.

The greatest gifts Buddhism offers are tried and tested methods for realizing the creative potential of consciousness. Through psychological integration, emotional literacy, and experience of the depth and richness of mind, we can discover resources and insights of immeasurable value. Much of our work at Ecodharma applies these dharma-based methodologies to support individuals to realize that potential. But a radical ecological approach, a truly holistic approach, also attends to the complex interplay of the psychological and personal with the cultural, socio-economic, and political dimensions of life.

…deep ecological and nature connection practices…can stall in romanticism and narcissism, unless complemented by an understanding of the social relations of inequality and domination, such as class, gender and race.

It’s a mistake to think of the development of consciousness as a personal matter. The cognitive complexity we enjoy is both an evolutionary and a cultural accomplishment. As the British thinker, John Gray says:

Human individuals are not natural data, such as pebbles or apples, but are artefacts of social life, cultural and historical achievements: they are, in short, exfoliations of the common life itself.[i]

With this perspective, it becomes conceited to think in terms of personal development alone. The well-being of society, the eco-sphere, and ourselves are interlinked. The interplay of radical ecology and dharma points to both a profound cognitive shift and significant social reconfiguration. Ecodharma points to the inseparability of transforming both self and the world.

Myles Horton[ii] founded the Highlander Education Centre, which played a key training role in the Labour and Civil Rights Movements. In a conversation with the radical educator Paulo Freire, Horton related observations he made during a time at Highlander when focus was placed on self-development, at the expense of the social and organizational development. Horton describes the time as a period “where people thought that consciousness was limited to their own conscious, something inside themselves. I guess some people thought it would start there and spread to society, but most of it kind of dead-ended there, as far as I could find out.” He says, “if it starts [on the inside] it stays there.”

…we believe it is crucial to channel an ecological sensibility into concrete social and political action. And, along with many others, we see in ecological thinking the basis of a paradigm shift, the seeds of new ways of understanding the world in terms of relationships and systems.

Getting stuck on the inside is a developmental dead-end which has become a serious risk for people adopting Buddhist practices today. Decades of neoliberal dogma have contributed to social atomization and increased individualism in many places. This neoliberal legacy compounds individualistic and uncritical application of Buddhist practice that emphasizes inner work and the transformation of personal consciousness. Such an approach can become a vicious cycle, entrenching an alienated sense of self and failing to honor our embeddedness in the social and ecological. In turn, an individualized approach to the dharma reproduces the socially dysfunctional and ecologically damaging tendencies of our times.

It was the genius of Mahayana Buddhism to eschew any sense of merely personal salvation. The Mahayana ideal of the Bodhisattva places uncompromising solidarity with all of life at the heart of spiritual practice – grounding it in action to support the flourishing and liberation of all. It’s a beautiful ideal that integrates compassionate identification with all beings with the wisdom that we are not ultimately separate from them.

Inspired by this vision, Ecodharma offers tools for radical personal transformation, rooted in an altruistic motivation that seeks concrete expression through social engagement. From this we’ve derived an approach to training that integrates the personal transformation with the ecological and political. The approach takes the form of three strands of training.

Firstly, nature connection and ecological learning which supports the emergence of ecological consciousness. These courses apply wilderness immersion and learning from natural living systems.

The Mahayana ideal of the Bodhisattva places uncompromising solidarity with all of life at the heart of spiritual practice – grounding it in action to support the flourishing and liberation of all.

Secondly, our Engaged Buddhist Trainings apply an explicitly Buddhist approach, to empower people and groups to effectively respond to the social and ecological challenges of our times. We support people to draw on the nourishment that meditation can offer—resourcing emotional resilience. The clarity, cognitive vitality, and insights from such practices help people to keep their analysis and strategizing fresh and creative. And ethical training provides a crucial basis for effective and sustained collaboration.

The third strand draws on the learning we’ve gained from our Engaged Buddhist Training, but reframes it in secular language to support a wide range of activist work. It is this third strand that forms the basis of the Ulex Project, our latest initiative.

We took the name from the Latin for the plant known in English as gorse. Ulex is a thorny-evergreen flowering plant, well known from the northern coast of Scotland to the edges of the Mediterranean Sea. It grows well under challenging conditions and is an excellent successionary plant—a species that contributes to the healing of land that has been damaged, preparing the way for returning health and biodiversity.

We see the work of the Ulex Project as analogous to this. Through trainings for activists, change makers, and organizations, we seek to enrich the conditions that enable social movements to thrive. We’ve carried over the ecological and holistic approach from Ecodharma to develop trainings that help build capacity for social justice and ecological integrity at the level of the individual, the group, and society.

Buddhism today takes many forms. Ecodharma is one attempt to stay true to the radically transformative potential the dharma offers. And whilst aspects of it may not look like Buddhism, we think it is more radically dharmic for that. Our work supports people to understand themselves as inter-connected—and it offers the skills needed to express that understanding through action in solidarity with life.

[i] John Gray, Gray’s Anatomy p325

[ii] We Make the Road by Walking, Conversations on Education and Social Change, Myles Horton and Paulo Freire, 1990.


Guyapati

Guhyapati is the founder of the ecodharma centre in the Catalan Pyrenees, which combines a retreat and education centre with post-capitalist community living. Thirty years of Dharma practice and social activism, together with an astute sense of group dynamics, inform his facilitation of participatory and holistic learning. He was ordained in the Triratna Buddhist Order in 1994. In recent years he has given much of his time to the development of trainings focused on engaged Buddhism and sustainable activism. His love of the mountains finds expression in guiding wilderness immersion retreats and teaching radical ecology.

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.