Many of those who belong to the dominant culture are engulfed by material goods and comforts, whose production and marketing and planned obsolescence are part of the overpowering dynamic driving environmental degradation. But what do we really need to live, beyond sustenance and shelter? What are the consequences of giving free rein to our appetites, which tend to grow as they are fed? What will bring us happiness, and ensure the future of the living earth? These are the questions at the heart of Ajahn Sucitto’s inquiry. To answer them, he reminds us of three timeless principles from the dharma as guidelines in our lives: generosity, integrity, and living simply.
When people are inflamed with reckless passion, overwhelmed by corrupt ambitions, entranced by wrong ideas, rainfall decreases. Food is hard to come by. The crops fail and are mildewed and stunted. Because of this many people perish.
The Buddha (Anguttara-Nikaya 3: 56)
It seems important to bring the subject of the environment into a focus for Dhamma practice. I’d like to present a positive response to the interrelated topics of climate change, mass species extinction, runaway overpopulation, over-production and pollution – but positive news is hard to find. Yes, I do occasionally get a free newspaper called ‘Positive News’ but even on their pages a recent item of good news was that the rate of destruction of the Amazon rainforest had dropped by 20% last year. It’s small encouragement to learn that instead of poisoning, defoliating and desecrating our planet and source of livelihood at 100 mph, the effect of Kyoto and Copenhagen and Rio Earth Summit and so on has been to slow it down to 80mph. But perhaps it’s naïve of me to dream of not destroying our source of oxygen and carbon management at all.
Since the planet is the fundamental source of all material things, as long as humans don’t tackle greed, the Earth has to pay the price.
I expect you’ve read about the melting of the polar icecaps and the predicted flooding of coastal areas; or that the amount of rainforest cut down every year is equivalent to the size of Belgium; or that the mining of the Alberta Tar Sands creates open–cast mines the size of England and Wales that seep their poisons into the local watershed; or that there is a zone in the Pacific the size of Texas (at last reckoning) that is a vast swirl of waste plastic. I wonder what you do with that information. Maybe rather than buy a plastic bottle of water, then throw the empty bottle ‘away’, you consider how that plastic contaminates the sea, and finds its way up the food-chain, from small to large fish and so on up to human consumption – and decide not to buy it. I hope you do that rather than recycle it, because extracting, and refining the oil from which plastic is derived, and then recycling the plastic still uses up energy; also three litres of water are used to obtain one litre of the bottled stuff. I hope you also consider abstaining from eating fish, as the oceans have lost 90% of their fish stock since the 1940s, and there might not be that many left soon. Perhaps like me, you might have wondered ‘Is there any way of stopping this?’ I hope you will have avoided sinking into depression; and also of adopting the philosophical shrug: ‘Well, all things are impermanent, and we all have to die.’ But, having been throuwgh all this and more, I’ve come out of dead statistics and into a life based on kamma and ethics. Whatever the results in the external world, whether it is impermanent or not, through the teachings on kamma, the Buddha encourages us to understand the causes and results of our actions and act responsibly. Furthermore to urge others to do so. So rather than resound gloom and despair, this is a good way to live.
Three Timeless Principles
The basis of Dhamma teaching is right view – the acknowledgement of cause and effect; and the basis of Dhamma-practice is heedfulness, appamāda , paying attention. So a Dhamma practitioner uses resources wisely; he or she reflects that every material thing comes from the earth, not the shop; furthermore that everything thrown away goes back to the earth –the source of food, air and water. And furthermore he or she uplifts and exercise good kamma, the basis for happiness in this life and the foundation for awakening. This centres around three timeless principles – generosity/sharing; morality/integrity; and renunciation/living simply. They’re interconnected: we can share when we trust each other, and trust is established when we live morally. Moreover, the qualities of friendship and contentment that come from living morally and sharing lessens the sense-appetites. Hence living more simply. Taken together, these three factors leads to one’s welfare, the welfare of others and to nibbāna1As the Buddha pointed out at Majjhima-Nikaya 19..
Monasteries (Buddhist or Christian) exemplify this. Depending on the size of the community, you’re likely to see: two washing machines for fifty adults, not twenty, and often it’s been given by someone who was inspired by the monastic example. (Monks at Cittaviveka routinely wash their own requisites by hand and leave the machine for the communal and guest linen). You might see large solid buildings, but take note that these are for communal and public use, especially at a centre like Amaravati that is used by thousands of people every month. Vehicles? A work wagon, and a car in a large monastery serving up to thirty people; both of these at Cittaviveka are over a fifteen years old and kept going through diligent maintenance and care. We were given a minibus, but hold that for the Sangha in UK as a communal means of ferrying large numbers around. And so on. There’s room for improvement, but we’re paying attention and eager to lessen our consumer footprint. But we represent only a small part of the population.
I’m sure that no one intends to damage our precious Earth, but as a species we’re under the confused impression that Nature will cope with our privations or recover from our abuse.
The place of the Sangha has always been to live close to the earth, and at the margins of the society where their example may be witnessed. At Cittaviveka, we’ve planted many thousands of trees at Cittaviveka, installed a large solar panel, use a renewable wood source for heating, and are investigating the feasibility of using Hammer Stream as a means of generating hydro-electricity. Most forest monasteries from New Zealand and Australia through to California are acting in similar ways. A major theme behind the Amaravati Development Project is to conserve energy by building better-insulated buildings. And if you’re looking for ideas on what you might do, or at least bear in mind, then Ajahn Sona’s presentation on YouTube ‘Energy Efficiency at Birken Forest Monastery’ is a useful source.
Conservation isn’t a classical concern – although a standard of frugality is – but as far as the environment goes, things have changed since the Buddha time. The early Buddhist attitude towards Nature was that the forests offered the monks and nuns a suitable place to withdraw to for Dhamma-practice. Secluded from the turmoil and gloss of the social world, these remote places were ideal settings within which to come to terms with life, death and Nature. At that time species extinction and deforestation were not issues. Pollution only occurred in terms of mind. So the attitude of non-violence was both out of empathy for animals and as a guard against bad kamma of violating life: that was Buddhist ecology.
The Cooperative Cosmos
I’m only a Buddhist monk, so what do I know about economics, but I ask: ‘What do we want – a planet that we can live on or an economy that exhausts us as well as the Earth?’
That attitude remained the case until after the Second World War. But in the 1950s the population of the planet, half what it is today, began to grow rapidly. And as it did so, the forests of S E Asia came crashing down, with Thailand alone losing half of its natural forest after the Second World War. So monks like Ajahn Buddhadāsa began speaking up for Nature:
The entire cosmos is a cooperative. The sun, the moon, and the stars live together as a cooperative. The same is true for humans and animals, trees, and the Earth. When we realize that the world is a mutual, interdependent, cooperative enterprise – then we can build a noble environment. If our lives are not based on this truth, then we shall perish.
Since then environmental concern has risen, and there is an ongoing lineage of ‘ecology monks’ in Thailand who work to preserve forests and encourage conservation.
Of course, the Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, exiled and living in the West was also vociferous. He had every right to be. During the Vietnam War, tons of ‘Agent Orange’ (a defoliant that contained an estimated 130 pounds of dioxin) was dumped on his country in order to destroy forest cover and therefore expose the Viet Cong. However there were dire consequences in terms of loss of animal life and human birth defects that continue to this day. (After all, three ounces of dioxin in the water supply of New York City would be enough to wipe out the city’s population.) And on returning to the US, the GIs brought the toxins with them in their bodies. I don’t know much about geo-politics and defending democracy – but if you want to understand interconnectedness and cause and effect, look no further. Come to think of it, didn’t Rachel Carson in Silent Spring way back in 1962 write about the danger of spraying the earth with toxic chemicals? Yet it’s still going on. Someone isn’t paying attention.
Those who do pay attention, and use wise consideration, note that Nature is a closed system: there is no ‘away’ where you can dump stuff, and there’s no other resource for our life. You’re alive as a guest of the planet: so please keep the place clean and leave it in a state in which your children can use it. If you destroy wildlife you damage the system that through producing oxygen and feeding on itself manages the eco-system of the entire planet – and just requires us to allow it do so. This is hardly an esoteric Buddhist teaching. However, as the teachings on kamma point out, we reap the results of our actions both in terms of the mind-set that instigates it, and the body that inherits the physical results. When the motivation is aversion, to get rid of the enemy, the pests, etc., we will surely poison and destroy ourselves.
The Cost of Greed
The kammic consequences of action based on greed are as devastating as those based on war and conflict. Greed is the urge to take more than one needs, an urge that rather than quelling desire propagates and increases it. And since the planet is the fundamental source of all material things, as long as humans don’t tackle greed, the Earth has to pay the price. We could debate over what the average person needs, but the monastic standard of food, clothes, shelter and medicine is a good place to start. Monks and nuns with typical human bodies can get by on that. You might add heating, lighting and a means of transport to that list, but bear in mind that all of these basic requisites, not to mention drinkable water and clean air have to be produced by the Earth. So any need that requires damaging the resource of fertile land, clean water and air is a dangerous one, and should be reduced. However the norm in industrialized societies is to get us to distract our attention, to not consider the mining and the spraying and the oil use that supports transport and imports and plastic everything (plastic comes from oil, right?). Instead we are encouraged to use the resources of the planet to produce gadgets, luxuries and entertainments to compensate for the debilitating effect that the pressure and complexities of modern life have on the human spirit. And above all, the political message is that this will keep the economy growing, and this is a good thing for all of us.
However, the way that the economy is growing is by converting planetary (and human) resources into money. For instance, the food industry is about making money, not about feeding people. A large amount (estimated 30%-50%) of the food that is produced from the Earth is thrown away2See H.R.H The Prince of Wales: ‘Harmony ’ (HarperCollins, 2010). Also see a report by the Institute for Mechanical Engineers – ‘Global Food; Waste Not, Want Not’ (BBC News report Jan 2013 ). Either the vegetables look too lumpy or the apples to speckled for the market, or the stuff passes its sell-by-date and is dumped, or it gets cooked in a restaurant and the diner doesn’t eat it all. But it has produced money. Probably the most extravagant is the meat industry. According to UN-backed statistics, meat production takes up about 70% of arable land and causes 18 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Yet forests are cleared to create pasture for cattle; and even when land is cultivated for vegetables, some 97% of the planet’s soya beans, and 35% of corn produced in the US is used to feed livestock (and 40% of US corn gets converted into ethanol to fuel cars). Also as cattle wouldn’t naturally survive on land like the Prairies, rearing them means depleting the water table – according to the UN something like 1,500 gallons of water are used to produce one pound of meat. Then of course native species that might use the land or prey on the cattle have to be killed. Why should the meat and dairy industry have such rights to use the fertile Earth, in order to make money? (Incidentally, a EU Commission report last year found that switching to a vegan diet would result in twice the carbon emissions savings of switching to an electric car; and lessen the suffering of more than a billion farm animals each year in the UK alone.)
You could also examine forestry, fishing and mining in such a way; but the statistics get overwhelming. Moreover, the problem is more widespread: all of our overproduction happens because of the need to make money. Healing, teaching, housing, transport, dying – everything costs money. And if money is the dominant factor then we’re governed by something that has no limits to its appetite and that can consume just about anything and still want more. Its appetite is called ‘the economy’ and seen as the item that must always grow and whose welfare is of paramount importance: a major reason for the USA not signing the Kyoto Protocol on Carbon Emissions was that it would ‘damage the economy.’ The economy moves the money around, but its trend is to move much of it one way – into credit to be controlled by a minority and away from the people who have to exist in debt. Even when it is fed and fretted over, periodically the economy still sickens and crashes; so loans are arranged and austerity measures such as lower welfare, zero rate employment and higher taxes imposed. For the welfare of the economy, human society gets divided into those who have too much and those who don’t have enough; the disadvantaged get angry, and then the fists get waved, and the bottles and tear gas start flying around. I’m only a Buddhist monk, so what do I know about economics, but I ask: ‘What do we want – a planet that we can live on or an economy that exhausts us as well as the Earth?’
Put even more simply, greed kills as surely as hatred.
Clearing Away Delusions
Put simply, greed kills as surely as hatred.
Now there would barely be much point in writing all this if there wasn’t any solution. The Buddha’s instruction, and our ongoing Dhamma practice, is to put an end to greed and hatred. And clearing away delusion is a big part of that: to understand the causes and conditions that prevent us from seeing and tackling our appetites and aversions. Now I’m sure that no one intends to damage our precious Earth, but as a species we’re under the confused impression that Nature will cope with our privations or recover from our abuse. As is becoming more apparent, this is a deep delusion. But the heart of the delusion isn’t any particular people, but in the wrong view of the political and economic systems. The political viewpoint – of being separate nations – pits nation against nation, and ideology against ideology; so we lose touch with our empathy for other humans. And an economy that’s bent on converting everything – and everyone – into a marketable item needs to be wisely moderated by restraint and compassion. This may sound hopelessly idealistic. But political will only get aroused by a sea-change in our attitudes. For instance, a major argument against the abolition of slavery was that such a measure would ruin the economy. Well, after a while the moral conscience of human beings found that to be an inadequate argument; and when that moral conscience translated into political resolve, slavery was abolished.
And the economy rolled on as before. So a viable economy will survive as long as there are humans; it just needs to be governed by wisdom. The view that we have to shift from was elucidated by the eminent Thai scholar monk, Ven. Payutto, in his address to the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago3Published as: A Buddhist Solution for the Twenty-first Century (trans. Bruce Evans). Ven. Payutto is a Chao Khun in the Thai Sangha; his current title is ‘Phra Buddhaghosajahn.’. He outlined three false perceptions from which our social and environmental problems stem:
- The perception that humankind is separate from nature, and that it must control, conquer or manipulate nature according to human desires.
- The perception that fellow humans are not our fellows; the tendency to focus on the differences between us rather than the common ground.
- The perception that happiness is dependent on gaining and keeping an abundance of material possessions.
Completely alone in a world on fire with greed, hatred and delusion, the Buddha decided to teach. Thank goodness he didn’t just shrug and go back to the root of a tree!
And what we have to shift to, through international agreements and networks, is a way of operating that is based on empathy for the world as a whole. After all, one of our regular chants is ‘ I will abide pervading the all-encompassing world with a heart imbued with compassion… ’ and my suggestion is merely that we back up that attitude with some clear thinking. Such as: ethical consumption is an aspect of right livelihood. Remember: What you buy supports that industry. Do you want to support the meat industry? Do you want to support the ongoing use of plastic? Where do you think the plastic came from? And where will it go? What about adopting ‘reduce (consumption), repair and recycle’ as a practice? Because however energy is expended – whether through electricity, Internet use, transport or heating – we are drawing from a finite resource. It could be healthier to share a ride or cycle to work. And for further advice, why not take a look at One Earth Sangha or 350.org? Wisdom is an action, an individual practice based on sharing, generosity and integrity. We need to bring it to bear on how we live in accordance with the Earth’s resources.
The systemic nature of the problem may make it seem that a solution is beyond the reach of any individual, and yet… I reflect on individuals like Wangari Maathai the Kenyan woman who won the Nobel Prize in 2004 for setting up the organization to combat deforestation and promote women’s rights. In her country, women have traditionally had little effective power over the body politic. However by the time she passed away in 2011, Wangari had established the Green Belt Movement that enabled poor women to plant thirty million trees.
Our wise reflection must also bring to mind the example of the Buddha. Completely alone in a world on fire with greed, hatred and delusion, he decided to teach. Thank goodness he didn’t just shrug and go back to the root of a tree! Now as inheritors of his Dhamma, we are advantaged by the precise, pragmatic and progressively uplifting nature of his practice-path. Our lives can be for the welfare of the world; we just need to keep reframing how. Of course, who knows how much we can save of this Earth and our humanity? But we can try; and even that is good kamma: careful consideration and wise action is not beyond any of us in the here and now.
Once you see what it is all about, you really want to be very very careful about what you do and say. You can have no intention to live life at the expense of any other creature. One does not feel that one’s life is so much more important than anyone else’s. One begins to feel the freedom and the lightness in that harmony with nature rather than the heaviness of exploitation of nature for personal gain.
This article was originally published on ajahnsucitto.org. It is reprinted here with permission.
References [ + ]
|1.||↩||As the Buddha pointed out at Majjhima-Nikaya 19.|
|2.||↩||See H.R.H The Prince of Wales: ‘Harmony ’ (HarperCollins, 2010). Also see a report by the Institute for Mechanical Engineers – ‘Global Food; Waste Not, Want Not’ (BBC News report Jan 2013|
|3.||↩||Published as: A Buddhist Solution for the Twenty-first Century (trans. Bruce Evans). Ven. Payutto is a Chao Khun in the Thai Sangha; his current title is ‘Phra Buddhaghosajahn.’|
Where do we look for solace and inspiration as natural and political disasters unfold around us? The dharma is our basic refuge, a deep and rich source of wisdom and practices to help keep us steady. Our closest communities are another essential source of support, “islands of sanity in a sea of chaos.” So, too, we can be inspired by heroic acts, people standing up to defend and protect themselves from exploitation and injustice.
In this video, as she packs her car to be ready to evacuate from the fires in northern California, Thanissara recalls the powerful impact of the solidarity and bravery she experienced as part of the Standing Rock protests in 2016. This historic act of resistance brought together Indigenous Nations from all over North America, First Nations peoples from South America and New Zealand, and other allies, including over two thousand military veterans, to stand with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in defending their sacred water. The spirit of Standing Rock continues to sustain her as the world grows more uncertain around us.
A transcript of this video can be found on Thanissara’s blog.
This talk was excerpted from Showing Up for the Planet, a daylong program on August 22 hosted by Marin Sangha. Speakers in addition to Thanissara included James Baraz, Kritee, Donald Rothberg, Teja Bell, Kristin Barker, and Eve Decker.
I’m aware I’m now breathing in incinerated trees, foliage, creatures, small animals, maybe large ones too, redwoods, buildings, structures, cars, maybe even some people.
At Standing Rock, the heart was stripped down to its essential rawness. In place of socialisation strategies, what arose was strength of authenticity, of sharing, of camaraderie, and a wonder at the resilience of human beings rising up.
The lines are drawn, internally and externally, and the fight for nature, for existence in all its astonishing diversity, is on. The question is what will our response and contribution be?
Thanissara trained as a monastic in the Ajahn Chah Forest Tradition for 12 years. She’s led retreats since 1988, and co-founded Dharmagiri in South Africa and Sacred Mountain Sangha based in California. She has an MA in Mindfulness-Based Psychotherapy from the UK, and is author of several books, including Time to Stand Up: An Engaged Buddhist Manifesto for Our Earth — The Buddha’s Life and Message through Feminine Eyes.
Awakening to our intimate relationship with nature means connecting with both its loving and angry expressions, its capacity to nurture and sustain us and its destructive power. In this article, Bodihivata Dharmashanti, a photographer, writer, and longtime student of Zen master Thích Nhất Hạnh, reflects on his encounter with a stark image of resilience in the natural world, and how bringing the earth into his daily practice helps navigate life’s vicissitudes. He offers two of those practices to us.
Every teacher and intellectual talks about everything in the cosmos being one, and every spiritual philosophy has a tenet about the fact that everything is interdependent. We can grasp this intellectually, but to acquire it as an experience, we need to be out there, with our senses open and aware to what is happening around us, and to us, directly.
I shot this photo on Captiva Island, Florida, right after the terrible hurricane Charley devastated the island in 2012. In the early morning, after my arrival, I did something I often do and went for a walk on the beach. I was met with devastation of biblical proportions. There were broken trees all over the beach, along with large pieces of driftwood washed ashore by the huge waves.
The greatest truths are untouchable but felt. We are Nature and Nature is us.
I was alone and walking slowly, absorbing every detail. Looking back towards the land, I noticed a very tall and skinny palm tree still standing, slowly swinging in the gentle breeze of the aftermath, almost as though waving me to come closer. I sat down in a comfortable position, on top of my duffel bag, and just was; nothing else to do. I felt the breeze touching my face and bringing me the taste of the ocean.
I took a deep breath, following it from the tip of my nostrils, down into my lungs. I then held it for a moment and felt the energy being flashed throughout my entire body, as if I was inside one of my arteries, traveling with my blood from the top of my head all the way to my toes. Then, while I exhaled, I felt a sense of total relaxation.
I brought my eyes to the palm without looking at all the debris and signs of the devastating storm around it. I just looked at the tree and I was captured and mesmerized, as if suddenly in love because she survived.
I was paying attention to her shape and I noticed she had a long slender body, like me, and a head full of palm leaves resembling my wild hair. Ha! What she exhales I inhale, and what I exhale she inhales. I could not be alive without her pumping all this oxygen towards me. We really are brother and sister, I thought.
I took two more deep breaths, but this time, instead of following them in my body, I imagined following them in the body of the palm tree, from the top leaves all the way down the trunk to her roots, which I couldn’t see but I could sense. I was aware of how the tree was relaxing too; and was now gently swaying in the breeze, without any effort.
One would think that because she had such a slender, tall trunk, she would have easily snapped in the hurricane force winds but, in fact, it was exactly her shape that allowed her to bend and not snap. I visualized her, in my mind, in the middle of the storm, bending over, to allow the wind to pass through. I then allowed my breath to become normal and made a little smile on my face, while still looking at the palm tree; at this point I was the tree.
‘Please take what happened as if you were given a second chance at life. Don’t waste it.’
I transported this image to a moment of difficulty in my life, when I, too, was faced with a hurricane-force challenge, and how I reacted to it.
My mind suddenly lit up with fireworks of details of when, two years earlier, I almost died of a ruptured brain aneurysm, was in a coma for eight weeks and in the hospital for six months. Everything was very immediate and what I remembered most were the emotions; like the confusion of waking up in a strange room, having no idea where I was or why I was there, and then seeing my wonderful wife Sheri who brought me up to speed on what had happened. I was alive! Six months later, prior to my discharge, my brain surgeon visited me, one last time, and told me, “Please take what happened as if you were given a second chance at life. Don’t waste it.”
I noticed big, white, fluffy clouds galloping in the sky towards the East and this image shook me back to the present moment and the wonderful experience I just shared with the palm tree. I realized it was an act of love. I truly felt in love with the palm tree, and it left me with a wonderful feeling of joy and fulfillment that washed upon my whole being. How beautiful.
Today, I have revisited those events in my meditations during the lockdown from the pandemic of Covid-19. This time, I express love to the whole of Mother Nature every morning, when I walk down to the park and sit in front of the Hudson River to meditate. The circumstances are different and I am different, but the emotions are quite similar. The breaths I take are still made of the oxygen the trees generously offer to me and, through the river breeze, I taste the saltiness of the Atlantic. It is sheer joy, every time. I have learned to hold on to it during the day, like a windbreaker I would wear as protection from the weather. Now I am wearing a gentle smile, borne of joy. It is the joy of being alive, to be in love with Mother Nature.
The greatest truths are untouchable but felt. We are Nature and Nature is us.
- While holding the image of the palm tree in your mind, transport yourself to a moment of difficulty in your life when you were faced with a hurricane force challenge, and how you reacted to it. Bring to mind as many details as you can remember, particularly the emotions you experienced. Were you able to bend and allow the challenge to pass, or did it break you into pieces? Whatever happened, pay attention to the similarity of your situation to that of the palm tree. Are you convinced you will handle the next challenge differently because of what the palm tree taught you?
- Next time you are outdoors, find a spot that attracts you. It could be a magnificent view, a cool breeze on a hot summer day, a wonderful orchestra of birds gifting you with their symphony, or a great tree. Sit down for a while and look around. You can observe not only with your eyes, but with your skin, feel the breeze; with your ears, listen to the beautiful sounds surrounding you. Or open your mouth to taste the flavors of the early morning. If your object of attention is a tree, take a moment to enter the being of the tree. Contemplate that what you exhale, the tree is inhaling, and what the tree is exhaling, you are inhaling.
This article draws on Bodhivata Dharmashanti’s upcoming book entitled Emails to myself – Suggestions for a Good Life. The photograph, “Attemlap,” is from the Zen Landscape Portraits collection “Drifters”© shot by Bodhivata on Captiva Island in 2002.
Born in Paris in 1959, Claudio Basso has had an impressive volume of fashion-photography work published across four continents and has been a dedicated Buddhist practitioner since 1981 in the Order of Interbeing. By early 2000 Claudio legally adopted his Buddhist name Bodhivata Dharmashanti, given to him by his root teacher, the Zen Master Thích Nhất Hạnh. Following a near-death medical experience in 2008, Bodhivata decided to pull out of the fashion frenzy and dedicate his talent to describe his spiritual connection to Mother Nature. His following work in Zen Landscape Portraiture has been widely recognized by the public and noted art collectors. He is the author of three books: Being the Flow (co-authored with Bodhipaksa), Being Peace; and Being Happiness. He is currently writing his fourth book, entitled Emails to Myself – Suggestions for a Good Life. Bodhivata lives in New York City.
The crescendo of life-threatening upheaval in this year of our lives continues apace, as the US enters an uncertain and anxiety-producing election season with ramifications for the world. As we organize to get out the vote, perhaps like never before, its easy to get caught in worry. What do the polls mean? What fate awaits us? How will we cope with an unwanted result?
In this interview from nearly a decade ago by the now-retired website Ecobuddhism.org, Ajarn Sulak Sivaraksa reflects on the deep roots of the climate crisis, in Western values that have separated us from nature, deified consumerism, and encouraged violence. He applauds civil disobedience in confronting the social structures that maintain these values.
Most notable is his challenge to activists in the interest of their cause, a call to be mindful of our relationship to immediate results of our work. We risk disillusionment and despair if we hinge our well-being on any specific outcome. Instead, we may better serve our world by rooting our response in our practice, supporting one another, and simply doing whatever seems to be the next right thing.
Ecobuddhism: In your book, “The Wisdom of Sustainability”, you describe consumerism as a “demonic religion”. Consumerism is one of the main drivers of the climate crisis. Why and how can it be described from a Buddhist point of view as a demonic religion?
Greed and hatred go together. People want more and more, and if they don’t get it, violence takes place. But underneath everything is delusion.
Sulak Sivaraksa: From the Buddhist point of view, the three root causes of suffering are greed, hatred and delusion. Consumerism promotes greed. Greed now dominates global society, through advertising in the media and because transnational corporations are in control. It is linked with hatred and violence. Violence is on the whole controlled by politicians, but more politicians are now under the control of transnational corporations. So greed is now in control of hatred.
Greed and hatred go together. People want more and more, and if they don’t get it, violence takes place. But underneath everything is delusion. People on the whole don’t know who they are – they aspire for more power, money and luxury, whatever. These are the three root causes of our suffering.
I think we Buddhists should not simply preach. We should concretize it. That’s why I keep saying consumerism is an expression of greed. Most governments—even democracies, not to mention dictatorships—promote hatred. But deep down it is delusion. Delusion is directly linked with mainstream education, which teaches people how to be clever, and promotes greed and hatred. Mainstream education never teaches people to know who they are. They don’t teach how to breathe properly—the basis is always “cogito ergo sum”—one-dimensional thinking.
If people are taught to breathe properly and mindfully, we can tackle greed, hatred and delusion. That’s why His Holiness the Dalai Lama is such an important example. He is a simple monk who gets up every morning, breathing properly. You can see his wisdom and compassion shining. At the same time he realizes that is not enough. It is a good foundation, but we must learn from science too, and bring it together with wisdom and compassion. Scientific know-how without proper breathing, wisdom & compassion, becomes a servant of transnational corporations and governments. We must come together now to change ourselves—and also change this world.
The more you promote violence in the media, the more people feel insufficient. Hence consumerism: they will buy this and buy that in order to get happiness. They never do get it, but they carry on aspiring for it. Violence is a threat. It creates fear in a population. People hope that by acquiring something, they will overcome the threat. But you can never overcome a general state of insecurity.
False Selves, Fictional Persons
EB: Social psychologist Clive Hamilton wrote a powerful book called “Requiem for a Species”. He describes the “consumer self”—a false self that is continually dissatisfied and seeks to establish its identity through buying more goods. Cycles of dissatisfaction, anxiety and debt are created as it tries to acquire more elements of consumer identity. Meanwhile, the judicial position of transnational corporations now gives them legal rights of “personhood”.
SS: To be protected.
EB: When corporate behaviours are examined using psychiatric criteria, we discover an institution with some kind of psychopathic personality.
SS: That’s right.
EB: Some people say “We must not condemn corporations, because there are also human beings working there.” Yet if the institution of the corporation is a psychopathic institution, its CEOs serve an ideology that has no empathy. Can we Buddhists afford to be sentimental about this?
We must fully do our best—not out of self-concern, but for the next seven generations, and for all species.
SS: No, but if our condemnation comes out of anger, that will not help. We would do better to understand and de-structure these corporations. My main concern is social structure that is unjust and violent. Corporations are the biggest and most powerful examples.
Most churches, and even the Buddhist Sangha, also have structures that are violent. We cannot ignore that issue. We may talk of “the future of Buddhism”, but if we don’t tackle social structure, it is mere chatter. To tackle this issue seriously, we have to learn who we are. We re-structure ourselves first, so that we don’t campaign for ego, for victory or for Buddhism.
Humility, compassion and wisdom are necessary to tackle social structures that are violent and unjust. With that in mind, we do need social scientists, anthropologists and mainstream scientists to come together. That is the new possibility. We have to push ahead with it.
EB: So Buddhist analysis in your view has to prioritize understanding of cultural and structural violence—which are less easy to discern than violent colonialism, because they hide themselves in a kind of mental fog. In order to discern the fog, one has to de-structure it within oneself.
Humility, compassion and wisdom are necessary to tackle social structures that are violent and unjust.
SS: Precisely. And let’s remember, Gandhi’s success was also his failure. He used truth and nonviolence against oppressors outside India – the British empire. But he never used Satyagraha (the power of truth and nonviolence) against the unjust social structure within India—the four varnas (Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra castes).
Ambedkar (who led thousands of the Dalit “untouchable” people to Buddhism) was great because he emerged from beneath the four varnas. Unless that system is tackled, India will remain un-liberated. 60 years after independence, the social structure is still awful. They got rid of one imperialism, but now they blindly follow American neo-imperialism. The suffering of India’s poor carries on and on.
This is why more and more so-called “untouchable” people become Buddhist. I am happy to talk with them. I say “You became Buddhists, that’s great. But if you still hate the Brahmins, that doesn’t help. You must learn to cultivate compassion and wisdom, and how to change the social structure—rather than hating the Brahmin oppressor.
Never Too Late to Change
EB: In America now we see a non-violent struggle confronting the corruption of the political process by Big Oil corporations.
If people are taught to breathe properly and mindfully, we can tackle greed, hatred and delusion.
SS: That’s great. More and more people are awakening there, and even breathing more correctly! They are learning to question smartness and arrogance. We remain young at heart if we learn to be humble, breathe properly and honour others. I see much in America to be hopeful about. It is a country that has done dreadful things in the last 100 years or so, but it’s not too late to change.
I was involved with the creation of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship there. Many wonderful Americans have become Buddhist. Most are well-to-do and white, and they may not have embraced lifestyle changes that fully reflect the Four Noble Truths. But I think there are real developments. It is a matter of urgency, after all. The world may be irreversibly damaged by climate change during this decade.
EB: The great danger identified by James Hansen and colleagues (at NASA) is that unless there is a sufficiently rapid change in the energy system—unless we successfully turn back the power of the fossil fuel industry—humanity will lose control of the process. That brings us back to the “demonic” nature of consumerism and corporations.
EB: Simon Baron-Cohen at Cambridge University has identified an empathy circuit of 10 interconnected regions in the human brain. It is underactive in psychopathic individuals who commit acts of cruelty. Such a person does not feel the normal, involuntary human reaction of empathy for others’ feelings. A genetic lesion affects the empathy circuit. We instinctively call unfeeling cruelty “evil”. Baron-Cohen defines it on a neurological-genetic level. “Evil” is the “zero-empathy negative” state.
Now what happens when fossil fuels create the greatest profits in human economic history, but are controlled by zero-empathy negative institutions? In 1995, evolutionary geneticist Edward Wilson asked “Is Humanity Suicidal?” Sixteen years later, carbon emissions are out of control and extreme weather events have become “normal”.
SS: We have been uprooted from our own culture. 150 years ago when we opened the country, westerners complained that they could not ride horses, so we built new roads. Now we have so many roads and cars that the natural drainage (of Bangkok) has been lost.
We have abandoned our traditional respect for Mother Earth, Mother River and Father Mountain. Now we see them only as material to be consumed, turned into money and subject to technology. We have to pull ourselves back to our roots, while at the same time being open to new scientific knowledge. We must change ourselves and society fundamentally, through non-violent action.
To be mindful one must cultivate inner peace. But we must also have kalyanamitra, good friends who have good ideas, with whom we can dialogue. They need not only be Buddhists, they could be Christians or atheists. This isn’t a matter of numbers. A few friends can achieve a lot with technological know-how, commitment, less egoism, more compassion and wisdom.
Time is short and pressing. But with groups of people like this, we may pull through. Even if we don’t pull through, we will have done our best. We must fully do our best—not out of self-concern, but for the next seven generations, and for all species.
We all have Buddha nature. It is my conviction we can pull through. I strongly support creative civil disobedience. It is wonderful! We have to use all kinds of tactics. We have to learn to be non-violent. We have to learn to be mindful.
Do the best you can, but don’t expect to win.
This article was originally published on Ecobuddhism.org on December 11, 2011. It is reprinted here with permission.
Sulak Sivaraksa is a Buddhist spiritual leader and humanitarian best known for his social criticism and grassroots organizing that uses spiritual models to advocate for sustainable change to better the lives of poor, rural Thais. For his activism and writings, he has been exiled from Thailand (1976-77 and 1991-94), jailed four times, and been accused of defaming the Thai monarchy. Born in Thailand in 1933, he studied law in the United Kingdom. Returning to Thailand in 1961, he taught at Chulalongkorn University, founded the Social Science Review (Sangkhomsaat Paritat), and initiated social and ecological organizations such as the Spirit in Education Movement (SEM), and the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB). Sivaraksa has been a visiting professor at UC Berkeley, the University of Hawaii, and Cornell, and he was awarded the Right Livelihood Award (1995), the UNPO Human Rights Award (1998), the Millennium Gandhi Award (2001), and the Niwano Peace Prize (2011).
Joanna Macy has previously spoken about “four R’s” of the Deep Adaptation movement: the four core values of resilience, relinquishment, restoration, and reconciliation that can help us find the seeds of new beginnings in the breakdown of industrial growth society. In this article, she continues to document the Great Unraveling, likening it to entering the bardo—the frightening transitional state of consciousness between death and re-birth so vividly portrayed in Tibetan Buddhism. The worsening wildfires, hurricanes, COVID outbreaks, and police violence certainly evoke the intensity and uncertainty of the bardo. But as always, she faces, and encourages us to face, our “cruel social and ecological realities” with courage and an unflinching gaze, while continuing to work towards the Great Turning to a life-sustaining civilization.
Joanna further explored these themes in a talk during Upaya Zen Center’s daylong program in June. Thanks to Upaya’s generosity, we share a video of this talk at the end of this article.
This article was originally published by Emergence Magazine and is republished here with permission.
We are in a space without a map. With the likelihood of economic collapse and climate catastrophe looming, it feels like we are on shifting ground, where old habits and old scenarios no longer apply. In Tibetan Buddhism, such a space or gap between known worlds is called a bardo. It is frightening. It is also a place of potential transformation.
As you enter the bardo, there facing you is the Buddha Akshobhya. His element is Water. He is holding a mirror, for his gift is Mirror Wisdom, reflecting everything just as it is. And the teaching of Akshobhya’s mirror is this: Do not look away. Do not avert your gaze. Do not turn aside. This teaching clearly calls for radical attention and total acceptance.
I remember my Tibetan teachers telling me that bodhicitta is like a flame in the heart, and often I can feel it there.
For the last forty years, I’ve been growing a form of experiential group work called the Work That Reconnects. It is a framework for personal and social change in the face of overwhelming crises—a way of transforming despair and apathy into collaborative action. Like the Mirror Wisdom of Akshobhya, the Work That Reconnects helps people tell the truth about what they see and feel is happening to our world. It also helps them find the motivation, tools, and resources for taking part in our collective self-healing.
Three Stories of the World
When we come together for this work, at the outset we discern three stories or versions of reality that are shaping our world so that we can see them more clearly and choose which one we want to get behind. The first narrative we identify is “Business as Usual,” by which we mean the growth economy, or global corporate capitalism. We hear this marching order from virtually every voice in government, publicly traded corporations, the military, and corporate-controlled media.
We’ve been so busy and distracted in our different versions of the rat race that we haven’t been able to pay attention to our actual situation.
The second is called “The Great Unraveling”: an ongoing collapse of living structures. This is what happens when ecological, biological, and social systems are commodified through an industrial growth society or “business as usual” frame. I like the term “unraveling,” because systems don’t just fall over dead, they fray, progressively losing their coherence, integrity, and memory.
The third story is the central adventure of our time: the transition to a life-sustaining society. The magnitude and scope of this transition—which is well underway when we know where to look—is comparable to the agricultural revolution some ten thousand years ago and the industrial revolution a few centuries back. Contemporary social thinkers have various names for it, such as the ecological or sustainability revolution; in the Work That Reconnects we call it the Great Turning. Simply put, our aim with this process of naming and deep recognition of what is happening to our world is to survive the first two stories and to keep bringing more and more people and resources into the third story. Through this work, we can choose to align with business as usual, the unraveling of living systems, or the creation of a life-sustaining society.
Thinking the Unthinkable
Over the last couple of years, a number of us involved in this work have recognized that, given the pace of the Great Unraveling, we are heading toward economic and, indeed, civilizational collapse. Our thinking was aided by the Deep Adaptation work of Jem Bendell, which seeks to prepare for—and live with—societal breakdown. I’d also like to acknowledge the earlier contributions in French-speaking Europe of Pablo Servigne and Raphael Stevens—whose prescient work focuses on collapse and transition and is only just now coming out in English.
Globally as well as in the US, many of us are discovering a new solidarity in our determination to move beyond the sick racism we’ve inherited.
Since the present world economy has been unable to cut greenhouse gas emissions by even the slightest fraction of a degree, it now seems obvious that we cannot avoid climate catastrophe. Many of us had assumed that the Great Turning could forestall such disintegration, but now we have come to recognize the Great Turning as a process and a commitment to help us survive the breakdown of the industrialized growth economy. The motivation and skills we gain by engaging in the Work That Reconnects provide the guidance, solidarity, and trust needed to make our way through this inevitable breakdown.
There are many dimensions to this work that address the psychological and spiritual issues of the time, and I have found a fruitful resonance between Buddhist thought and postmodern science: much of the Work That Reconnects has been informed by Buddhist teachings. I now think of the Great Turning as somewhat like bodhicitta, the intention to serve all beings. This is the mind state of the bodhisattva—the being who, in their great compassion, delays nirvana in order to address the world’s suffering. I remember my Tibetan teachers telling me that bodhicitta is like a flame in the heart, and often I can feel it there.
It can seem pretty clear now who is holding up Akshobhya’s mirror—it is COVID-19. The coronavirus has come upon us fast. We knew nothing of it just a short while ago. First it made us pause so we could take in what the mirror is reflecting. We’ve been so busy and distracted in our different versions of the rat race that we haven’t been able to pay attention to our actual situation. We had to cease our rushing about in order to see who, what, and where we are.
A Great Unveiling
COVID-19 reminds us that apocalypse—in its ancient meaning—connotes revelation and unveiling. And what has it unveiled? A pandemic so contagious that it immediately revealed our failed health care system and our utter interdependence. The need to prioritize the collective nature of our well-being dramatically rose to the surface, especially within our country, which is the most hyper-individualized country in the world. As Malcolm X put it, “When we change the ‘I’ for the ‘We,’ even Illness becomes Wellness.”
The patterns of contagion then cast a spotlight on what we most need to see: nursing homes, where old people are warehoused; the meatpacking industry, so dangerous to the crowded workers, so cruel to the animals, so costly to the climate; prisons, where millions are locked away, now becoming petri dishes of contamination; the fault lines of racial inequality in our society, now laid bare in the pandemic’s disproportionate impacts on Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities. Sixty percent of the cases are African-American—thanks to pre-existing conditions fostered by inequities in health care and environmental racism.
The bardo represents a place where the unknown, even the inconceivable, can happen and where we who enter are profoundly changed.
On top of that, the killing of George Floyd has not only revealed the racism and brutality of our police culture, but aroused unparalleled protests, sweeping the country and calling for the defunding and even abolition of police departments and unions.
Globally as well as in the US, many of us are discovering a new solidarity in our determination to move beyond the sick racism we’ve inherited. In this Uprising, I am inspired by the courage, creativity, and perseverance of those engaging in public demonstrations, who are influencing many civil servants to take action—members of city councils, agencies, and even police departments. It is no wonder that the bardo represents a place where the unknown, even the inconceivable, can happen and where we who enter are profoundly changed.
When we dare to face the cruel social and ecological realities we have been accustomed to, courage is born and powers within us are liberated to reimagine and even, perhaps one day, rebuild a world.
Do not look away. Do not avert your gaze. Do not turn aside.
Upaya Zen Center’s daylong program on June 21, AWAKENED ACTION: Women Leaders Speak to Race, Poverty, Climate, and the Pandemic featured a talk by Joanna speaking to these themes. We invite you to explore and support the full set of talks and resources here.
Joanna Macy, PhD is a scholar of Buddhism, systems theory and deep ecology. A respected voice in the movements for peace, justice and ecology, she gives trainings worldwide for eco-warriors and activists for global justice. As the root teacher of the Work That Reconnects, she has created a ground-breaking theoretical framework for personal and social change. Her books include World as Lover, World as Self and Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World.