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Dharma Teaching and Dharma Values in the Age of Climate Change

An Open Letter from Rob Burbea


Estimated reading time: 37 minutes

Rob Burbea was a generous and prolific teacher of the Dharma. Yet after his excellent book, Seeing that Frees, he wrote very little. On the third anniversary of his death in May of 2020, we are honored to share one such article. In this challenging letter to his teaching and institutional peers, Rob demonstrates his commitment to the Dharma and his courage to name, boldly and yet kindly, what our convert communities often avoid. As a team and as a community, One Earth Sangha owes a great deal to Rob, his insights and his thorough devotion to life.

The following article is from our collection of Cornerstone pieces. You can find them all here.

An Open Letter and Proposal to all who are involved in the Dharma

Dear Friends,

It’s obvious that there is such an abundance and depth of good will in the Dharma world and in those who work in one form or another for the Dharma, and the expression of this goodwill is visible in countless ways large and small. Yet it also seems that in one area in particular – our actual responses to the Global Climate Emergency – we are falling short of what it is possible for us as a community to manifest. And I feel that as a matter of urgency we all need to discuss this issue thoroughly together. My sense is not that we are merely somewhat apathetic, as some might think, but that deep down, we, like most human beings, do care greatly about it, and very much want to address it. Somehow though, that care doesn’t always manifest, get communicated, or get felt even, as fully as it could, and indeed, needs to be.

What exactly happens to stop us? It is clear the responses and reactions of the heart and mind here have become very complex. Probably, and understandably, we have all at times felt a sense of impotence, for example, in the face of this looming crisis, draining energy from both our inner and outer responses to it. But many of the unhelpful and confused movements of mind in relation to this issue may not be so obvious. They may be a good deal more hidden from immediate view. Clarity, integrity and real care then can feel hard to find and sustain.

But if the Dharma is to remain really relevant in the world, a beacon of wisdom and compassion for humanity, it seems to me we all need to understand our responses more fully. And we need to be putting out a different message, modelling something different than we are at present. I feel it behoves all of us to inquire more searchingly into all this, to shine the light of awareness and investigation here, and ask some potentially difficult questions, individually and as a Sangha, and to see if a fuller, deeper, more adequate response is possible from us. To see, ‘what else is possible for us’? That’s what this article is about.

I propose that we need to find a way to overhaul and transform the present system of retreats and Dharma activity to one that contributes significantly less to Climate Change and to the avijja (ignorance) and the mind-sets that contribute to Climate Change, while still ensuring adequate financial viability for both teachers and Centres. And I believe it is actually probable, for a number of reasons, that such a change will more enable students to develop, deepen and thrive as much as possible, in Dharma environments that are potentially more creative, and in Sanghas that provide more possibility for meaningful long-term relationships – between Sangha members and, equally, between Teachers and Students.

I’d be grateful if you would take some time to read and reflect on these critiques, questions and proposals in the article below.


That those of us involved in teaching the Dharma or in the governance in any way of Dharma Centres of different kinds bear a profound responsibility is, I imagine, obvious. What that responsibility entails, its exact nature and its range, is clearly not widely agreed upon at all.

If we purport to teach ‘suffering and the end (or at least the lessening) of suffering’ the messages we put out there, to both the Dharma world and the non-Dharma world, through our teaching and through our choices as individuals, as organisations and as a network of organisations, need to support this claim.

Will it seem absurd that there is (or was!) a belief, a ‘religion’, that talks about ‘compassion’ and ‘insight into suffering’ without connecting it to outer action and commitment to change?

There are some ways of thinking and organizing things at present that seem to have very adverse and limiting effects on a) the biosphere and its ability to sustain a healthy human civilization; and, equally, b) the depth, fullness, and effectiveness of the Dharma being taught and practised. Though the interconnected set of conditions keeping this system and mind-set in place are very complex, I would like to consider briefly both of these effects, and inquire if another way is possible.

The Flying Problem

At present, the way the Dharma scene in general, and much of the Insight Meditation scene in particular, is set up involves and seems to require, invite and support a great deal of travel by air, both by many teachers and also by many yogis. For some, the choices to fly or to support flying, have been, and continue to be, very carefully scrutinised and scrupulously ‘weighed up’, involving much ongoing soul-searching and questioning, and decisions to fly then consciously made. (I will return to this weighing up later.) But the degree of conscious wrestling with this ‘weighing up’ can of course be much less, or wane quickly to the point where flying has become just a kind of habitual way of doing things. And with that, there cannot but be, whether conscious or unconscious or somewhere in between, the ignoring or denial of the consequences of flying in contributing both directly and indirectly to actual suffering in the world. Directly, through the disproportionately high amount of carbon emissions in flying (one return flight from London to Boston emits almost one fifth the total amount of CO2 that the average European is currently responsible for from all activities put together in a year, and short-haul flights are relatively even worse, as most emissions are generated in take-off and landing); and indirectly, by inadvertently perpetuating, and indeed being part of, a normalisation of flying, and a widespread and dominant cultural mind-set of denial, disconnected or unfelt despair, apathy, dis-empowerment, disengagement, and de-politicisation.

© doorkeepers from Unsplash

Of course, with the price of oil rising and the prospect of Peak Oil seemingly looming, it may well turn out anyway that it is simply not cost effective to have a Dharma scene so reliant on, and indulgent of, flying. Either Dharma centres would be ruined financially or the cost of retreats would preclude any but the most wealthy from attending. Clearly neither is a scenario any of us would be happy about.

A Credible Dharma

And surely it is only a matter of time before this scenario of so much flying to teach or sit retreats comes to be regarded as something ridiculous from an ethical point of view. Even now, an onlooker might be forgiven for sensing a certain lack of integrity in the messages we are putting out. How can one talk about understanding ‘the causes of suffering’, and ignore this? Unnecessary flying is a cause of suffering – plain and simple. (And not just as a future effect. The World Health Organization states that climate change claimed more than 150,000 lives per year in the last 30 years, most of them in poor countries1Cited in Oxfam (2008): The Urgency of Now, and that number is likely to rise dramatically in the coming years and decades.)

Will Buddhism and the Dharma even appear credible or respectable to the wider world as a force and movement for good when it finally becomes obvious to everyone that we humans need to change our behaviour for the welfare of all? In the future, will the Dharma as it is even be regarded as seriously contributing to the alleviation of the suffering of humanity and other species? Or will it seem absurd that there is (or was!) a belief, a ‘religion’, that talks about ‘compassion’ and ‘insight into suffering’ without connecting it to outer action and commitment to change? If, as seems likely according to most Climate scientists, there are times of very challenging global crisis ahead, will Buddhists and Buddhist Teachers and Institutions be looked to as models, exemplars of wisdom and compassion? Or as over-introverted ‘contemplatives’ with nothing really relevant to say or to offer a world in pain and chaos? As the waters slowly rise around us and those less fortunate far-away are losing their homes, their livelihoods and their lives, there is a foreseeable danger that Buddhists come to be regarded as ‘out-of-touch navel-gazers’. And we may come to be judged, along with so many others, of being guilty of ignoring and not adequately responding to what is perhaps the most crucial issue of our time. It’s a difficult question, but: Is the world, on balance, becoming ‘better’ through Buddhism?

Whether it is the impending financial stress on the Dharma system or the loss of ethical credibility and respectability, will we be on the back foot, behind the times, victims of the sea-change (!pun intended), or more visionary, anticipating ahead, at the vanguard, modelling a comprehensive and real compassion and insight that has a fuller integrity?

The Message in the Teaching

If I am a Teacher, what am I teaching, explicitly and implicitly, about the causes of suffering and how to address them? That suffering comes from craving? That it is born of our early childhood wounds from the family? Certainly both are part of the whole truth, and any competent Dharma Teacher will address both in practice and in Teaching, but what might I be missing out? And what are the full implications if I stop there? Have I thought this through thoroughly? (It’s hard not to fall back on a belief in a kind of deterministic karma, for instance.) If I haven’t completely thought this through for myself…, why not? And what am I modelling as a relationship with the investigation into the Second Noble Truth?

The Problem within the Problem

One of the reasons we humans are being so inappropriately slow to adequately address the immense challenges of Global Climate Change, even when supplied with enough information, is that it actually cannot realistically be addressed as a crisis solely through the combination of trying to change our behaviour, either individually or even society-wide, and technological fixes. With world population pushing 7 billion and rising, and most wanting a first-world life-style, there is a formidable juggernaut of underlying momentum fuelling Anthropogenic Climate Change. And it is this that must also be addressed. The technical, political, economic and social transformations necessary to avert runaway global warming are impossible without a profound re-evaluation of our underlying value systems.

I wonder if this is one of the things that makes the Climate Challenge somewhat different than some of the other more celebrated social justice movements of, say, the last century. The primary thrusts of Martin Luther King’s and Gandhi’s non-violent campaigns were demands for a change in laws, conditions and behaviour, and only implicitly and indirectly in the underlying values of the wider society. They were both preaching to mass audiences already convinced of the values underpinning their campaigns. In the case of trying to meet the challenge of the Climate emergency, there is a dominant value-system that has now pervaded the whole world (been ‘globalised’), and at present only a very small minority even of those who would see themselves as wanting something to be done about Climate Change would consider that a world-wide deep shift in values is needed.

Have we become caught up in the general cultural ‘cognitive dissonance’ regarding Climate Change?

As Buddhists, and particularly if one is a Teacher, it can be easy to assume that one is ‘in the business of lessening suffering in the world’ because one is endeavouring to address its root causes – greed, aversion and delusion –in accordance with the Buddha’s Teachings. But how much tangible and significant effect is this really having, on balance, in reducing greed etc.…in the world? And are we, as Teachers and Buddhists, unwittingly actually causing more suffering in the world, on balance, through our actions, what messages we do and do not put out, and what we model?

Certainly if my own greed has not decreased through my Dharma practice enough to prevent me choosing to fly to go on vacation even, despite awareness of its destructive effects on the Climate and thus on humanity too, how real can my assumed contribution to lessening greed, and so suffering in the world, be?

© Alois Grundner from Pixabay

What values have we taken on from the dominant culture without even fully realizing? What assumptions from the prevalent Zeitgeist are we resting on? These, of course, are the sorts of views it’s difficult to realize are views. One is so habituated to them, one takes them for granted, and, after all, everyone seems to see and assume similarly. And what values am I then broadcasting to others, through my Teaching and through my choices?

We really need to ask these questions, not least to keep the Dharma really alive and authentic. Have we become caught up in the general cultural ‘cognitive dissonance’ regarding Climate Change? Are we, through our own confusion, giving students confused and confusing messages? How full is our mindfulness and are we in a kind of denial?

One Possible Shadow of the Dharma

We are all probably familiar with the important and widely acknowledged concept of ‘spiritual bypassing’ – using meditation and spirituality to ignore and avoid the difficult areas of our humanity and psychology that one would rather not feel or deal with. But as practitioners there is also the possibility of falling into what might be termed ‘the psychomyopic fallacy’ or ‘psychocentric denial’. This is a mind-set or set of incompletely investigated views and assumptions, often semi-conscious or only dimly-articulated (though not always), that, is characterised by:
excessive focus on one’s own spiritual and psychological ‘process’, and
a tendency to ascribe the causes of suffering almost exclusively to either purely intra-psychic factors or to sets of patterns originating in childhood trauma and family dynamics.

Its effect is to render one to some degree more oblivious to:
social and environmental distress and destruction in the world,
its causes (socially, environmentally, politically and psychologically), and even,
the impacts, in the present, of these environmental conditions on one’s own being.

Like Narcissus staring endlessly, transfixed and besotted with his own reflection in the pond, one simply deems other sufferings ‘not as important’. Thus it is often characterised by: a lack of emotion about the wider social and environmental suffering, and
a lack of interest in exploring those kinds of suffering and causes of suffering in oneself and others.

Of course it will then also be characterised by:
not really doing much to try to address these kinds of suffering.

One remains unmindful of this state of denial, and unaware of the pain, disconnection and profound dis-ease wrought by the way we as a species are treating the planet and each other. Moreover this condition is not always immediately obvious to others from the outside, because a person may be very open, ‘soft’, connected and caring with respect to certain emotions (and their implicit underlying ideas), and yet simultaneously utterly disconnected, uninterested and in denial with respect to a whole range and nexus of other emotions and perceptions.

[Of course, the obverse exists too, manifesting, for example, in the activist who is very well-informed about the issue(s) and clearly has a lot of emotion (though often mostly anger), yet seems unable to contact or allow too many other emotional states, and may well be projecting old anger from childhood and their personal past out onto society and ‘the system’ etc.…]

Questions and Conversations

So what is your response to all this? Recent psychological research2See, for example, the wide-ranging survey of studies discussed in Hamilton, C. (2010): Requiem For A Species – Why We Resist The Truth About Climate Change. London: Earthscan has begun to investigate and document the complex, and indeed, cunning ways that the minds of human beings can and do perpetuate a state of denial and disengagement when faced with the overwhelming scientific consensus of evidence of Anthropogenic Climate Change. And, alas, it is humbling to admit that it seems we as Buddhist meditators and Dharma Teachers, teachers of mindfulness, investigation and compassion are not immune to these psychological defence mechanisms with their ultimately risky and unhelpful strategies of denial. Our practices do not seem so far to have made us much more invulnerable to the multiple snares and subtle seductions of Mara here.

Talking Together about The Elephant

We have to talk about this issue. And we have to actually do something about it. If we, as Teachers or as the wider Sangha cannot, or will not, even have this discussion, what does that say about us, and about the state of the Dharma?

If a situation, action, event or experience is ‘normalised’ because everyone is doing it and very few question it, it is easy to be unmindful of the feelings, emotions, thoughts and assumptions that go with it, and so of course, harder to investigate and inquire into them. If we were in a wider Sangha context where people almost never flew because of Anthropogenic Climate Change, or where it was very much alive as a topic of discourse and discussion, this alone would lead to an inevitable increase in most people’s mindfulness and investigation of the whole issue. So we have to ask another difficult question: Is the Dharma culture presently perpetuating a collective and individual denial in regard to life-style effects on global suffering?

I myself, on a couple of occasions, have encountered the so-called ‘Spinach Tart Phenomenon’, even among groups of Teachers. (The ‘Spinach Tart Phenomenon’ was first reported, it is said, by someone at a dinner party who, mid-meal, made a comment about their concerns about Climate Change, only to be met with an uncomfortable silence by all at the table, until another guest ‘rescued’ the situation by commenting how wonderful the spinach tart was, to the obvious relief of nearly all present, collectively and summarily drowning the subject with their eagerly echoed murmurs of gastronomic praise.) And that was regarding Climate Change, let alone the subject of whether we should fly…

Questioning our Responses

There is no doubt that our reactions as human beings to this situation are complex. Recent sociological and psychological research3See, for example, the numerous studies discussed in Crompton, T. and Kasser, T (2009): Meeting Environmental Challenges: The Role Of Human Identity. WWF-UK has revealed that, mostly, people do not respond to the issue of Climate Change based rationally on the information they are receiving, but rather choose a kind of ‘package deal’ based on their pre-existing value systems coupled with the life-style wishes and ‘identity-style’ wishes they might have for themselves. This is sad, but again, there is a genuine question whether we, as Dharma Teachers and Dharma Institutions, have escaped this tangle of delusion?

If we, as Teachers or as the wider Sangha cannot, or will not, even have this discussion, what does that say about us, and about the state of the Dharma?

Recently I heard of several teachers who, when asked about the impact of their frequent flying, replied that they had “decided not to think about all that.” Some of us may claim or try to reason that, because we had ‘long’ periods of renunciation in the past, that balances out our life-style choices and carbon footprint now. But a moment’s investigation will quickly reveal that the arithmetic just doesn’t balance. As stated earlier, one transatlantic return flight has the carbon emissions equivalent to roughly one fifth of total emissions for a whole year for a current average European lifestyle. And this current average is pretty universally accepted as having to come down drastically (typical targets are to a maximum of one fifth of present emissions) to even have a hope of adequately avoiding catastrophic and extensive devastation from Global Climate Destabilisation. Clearly then, even with just one such flight a year, I will quickly use up my ‘renunciation carbon credit’ in a few short years, or less, depending on how late we decide to delay making serious reductions in greenhouse emissions – in itself, an extremely dangerous collective gamble. (This ‘strategy of denial’, by the way, is a classic example of a kind of well-documented psychological defence mechanism, ‘the bargaining response’, one of a number of maladaptive responses to differing sorts of impending loss that psychologists have enumerated in recent years4See, for instance, Randall, R (Sept 2009): Loss and Climate Change: The Cost of Parallel Narratives. Ecopsychology. Here, the losses dimly sensed as looming would be the environmental ones and the losses of perceived ‘personal freedom’ and teaching opportunities that go with flying. In some cases, there will be sensed also the potential loss of opportunities to travel and to visit distant friends and acquaintances that flying to teach can also provide.) I also heard of a Teacher a while ago who, when asked by a yogi in an interview about their attitude and thinking regarding flying so much, simply refused to discuss it. Others, when asked in other contexts, reported that they simply had not been thinking about it.

Difficult Questions:
If any of these is my response, how exactly will I justify it?
How much real wrestling with the issue has there been, honestly?
How much has it been on the radar of my conscience?

© Rudy and Peter Skitterians from Pixabay

‘Who will untangle this tangle’?

Yet even a cursory look at the planetary situation regarding Climate Change and the intricate and far-flung web of conditions that cause it will reveal that individually lowering our carbon footprint, while necessary and laudable, will be essentially ineffectual in adequately addressing the gravity of the global predicament. Unless there are deep and far-ranging essential changes in the policies of governments and corporations, and concomitant major shifts in the dominant, and now globalised, culture of consumerism, the prospect of catastrophic runaway Climate Change, and all that that means for human civilization and for other species, is inevitable.

The scale and complexity of it all is difficult. Simply by being alive today, we are all implicated in this situation of contributing to Climate Change, and this, as much as the whole situation and even a limited awareness of its intricate causal web, will give rise to difficult and conflicting feelings, that will be hard to bear and hard to confront and to question. None of us is perfect and none has the perfect answer. But we have to feel, we have to be aware, and we have to inquire.

So… if, as individual Dharma Teachers or Practitioners we are not bothering too much to lower our personal carbon footprint, our ‘personal contribution to Anthropogenic Climate Change’, are we actively lobbying for serious political change? It seems that the answer is: ‘probably not’. Or are we teaching and encouraging students to lobby for such major political re-evaluation? Again, it seems ‘probably not’. So what then are we doing? If I am an ‘Anthropogenic Climate Change Denier’ or an ‘Agnostic’, how much time and trouble have I actually taken to research the scientific literature (and the various sources of funding of climate scientists of differing opinions) before reaching my position of denier or agnostic? If I simply say ‘I don’t care’, how will I justify that, to myself and to others? And if I fall back on a position that says “I actually don’t see teaching the Dharma as in the service of alleviating suffering,” how do I see it?(!), and is it still the Dharma then?

Disengagement, de-politicisation, and the Dharma

As mentioned earlier, the juggernaut of conditions impelling Climate Change has the dominant value system as its base. This value system and its assumptions feed consumer culture, in its inner manifestations, for instance as the desire for ‘more’, more pleasure, comfort, convenience; and in its outer manifestations, for instance, in the assumptions of the global economic system. And this dominant economic and consumer culture of course feeds back in turn to cajole, bully and influence the underlying values of human beings, in a thousand ways, but most glaringly in the deliberate and freely admitted manipulation of values that are standard and endemic in modern marketing strategies. As is often the case with personal suffering, suffering on this scale involves multiple vicious feedback loops.

So that, for instance, the feedback loop just referred to above is also part of feeding, in the larger society, a widespread disengagement, dis-empowerment and de-politicisation with respect to Climate Change, and to many of the wider economic, political, social and life-style factors that contribute to it. Together all this seems to hold humanity spellbound, locked into continuing to contribute to it, even in the face of the bald and sobering truth. There are other factors too contributing to this disengagement, dis-empowerment and de-politicisation. Certainly, for example, globalisation, the profound rise in power of corporations and giant financial institutions, and the related decline in democratic efficacy and transparency are significant factors. As is the erosion of a sense of ‘common endeavour’ in societies that the ascent of consumerism causes5See Jackson, T. (2009): Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a finite Planet. Earthscan. All of these are inextricably woven together in fact, as either a cause or an effect (or both) of an economic system hooked on the idea of ‘growth’6See both Jackson (2009) op. cit. and Hamilton (2009) op. cit. for penetrating discussions of the far-reaching and wide-ranging consequences of a rigid belief in the doctrine of the necessity of economic growth. (Jackson’s book also explores possible alternative economic structures.); and all these, and more, contribute to this more general disengagement and de-politicisation.

But, as James Hillman, a leading psychoanalytic thinker, has pointed out for the field of contemporary psychotherapy7See, for example, Hillman, J. and Ventura, M. (1992): We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy – And the World’s Getting Worse. San Francisco, Harper, one may also wonder if, at present, the Dharma and its related ‘sub-disciplines’ (for instance, the psychotherapeutic approaches and assumptions many of us draw on in our work with students, either explicitly or implicitly and sometimes without even realizing), feed this disengagement and de-politicisation too, partly as a result of the ‘psychocentric denial’ discussed earlier.

Whether we like it or not, even our de-politicisation is a political stance and even our non-actions are action with effects.

And while our minds and intentions may be de-politicised and disengaged, everything we do or don’t do, all the choices, actions and life-styles that spring from our minds have their far-reaching effects of course, and, as such, are in reality both political and engaged. Whether we like it or not, even our de-politicisation is a political stance and even our non-actions are action with effects. It could well be argued that we as Teachers need to end the prevalent de-politicisation of the Dharma and of most current psychotherapeutic approaches, that we have a responsibility to teach the necessity too of the heart’s active caring about the wider causes of suffering in the world.

© Nick Tsinonis from Unsplash

Teaching what wants to be heard

It’s wonderful to see that the Dharma is growing in the West and becoming more popular, and that ‘mindfulness’, for instance, is becoming a mainstream idea. But of course this may have other consequences too. In the UK, it’s interesting to observe that as the Churches generally seem to be losing their widespread support, it seems that gradually more priests and other leaders within the Church are becoming emboldened to be more radical in their voice of concern for social and environmental justice. It’s as if they no longer have to try and keep ‘the congregation’ on board because ‘the congregation’ has dwindled significantly, and the Churches have become almost a fringe movement, freeing the message to be more radical, much as Jesus was radical in his message and did not care for his widespread ‘popularity’. And I sometimes wonder – is the opposite movement happening in the Dharma world? As it becomes more popular, more ‘mainstream’, is it becoming less radical, less challenging, less ‘upsetting’ to greed, aversion and delusion? And is this perhaps in part because the demographic of Dharma practitioners has slowly shifted over the years, becoming more ‘mainstream’? Might it be the case that, very easily, there has been and continues to be, consciously or unconsciously, a kind of ‘slide’ in the Teaching – to cater to the wants of the mainstream culture, and not to upset those sensibilities, views, desires and aversions (which are often seen as ‘needs’)? I would say the Dharma will always be radical in its position relative to mainstream values, and indeed that it has an obligation to be so.

And though I have felt strongly committed it, and touched deeply by the beauty of its spirit, what it stands for and what it makes possible, I have recently been wondering if it is also not inconceivable that one of the many factors that may unwittingly support such a slide is the dana system, as radical and profoundly heart-opening in its potential as it is. Though counter-cultural at its core, it might at times subtly foster situations where, because of financial pressures or incentives, Teachers, consciously or unconsciously, may end up saying what is easier for most yogis to hear, less challenging, more popular, or at least shaping their message with those tendencies.

I am not sure if this is the case, but I feel we must all ask ourselves if it’s possible it creeps in at times. It actually saddens me to even consider an end to the dana system, and I don’t know if it’s the right thing at this point, but I do think we need to be open to questioning it and the totality of its effects. What is probably more significant than the dana arrangement anyway is the fact that, for most, it might simply feel too hard and uncomfortable to tell a group of 50 or 100 people what they don’t want to hear, to risk not being liked, even if one were clear in oneself.

A possible ‘Win-Win’ Scenario?

If we all put our minds to it together, it is surely possible to set up a general and widespread system where both teachers and retreatants actually travelled much less by air and in general, and that this would impact the possibilities within Dharma Teaching in a number of positive ways. It would mean that Teachers had more continuous contact with their (more local) Sanghas and Students, allowing the possibility of a notion and expectation of ‘development of the teaching and practice’, both in depth and in breadth, to become standard. It may, in so doing, enable the opportunity for teachers and teachings to become more creative than otherwise. (One would simply have to come up with new material!) It would also foster a shift to a model where more long-term, and thus deeper, relationships between Students and Teachers are the norm, with all the potential benefits that would come with that.

In some ways, the dominant model that we have right now evolved understandably from a sort of ‘missionary mode’ that went with the initial movement of the Dharma into the West, particularly from the 1970s. And of course, so much tremendous good came from that. But for the most part, we have moved beyond those needs now. There are a few countries that are still in a ‘birthing’ process, but we need to think about how to help establish them as soon as possible in an ‘independence of flying foreign teachers’.

‘Variety’? Or the gifts of Continuity?

At present, I wonder if the prevalence of the common approach may breed certain attitudes and expectations on the part of yogis and Teachers. Many retreat centres and even sitting groups have come to expect a rotating menu of variety of teachers (and, hopefully ‘celebrity’!) in their annual programme of retreats and teachings. Indeed, have we, for instance at Gaia House, come to regard the attraction of a variety of international, and hopefully ‘famous’, teachers a measure of the success of the institution? There seem to be a number of drawbacks to this:

First, of course, as already stated, it involves a lot of unnecessary travelling by air, with all the consequences and implications already discussed. Personally, I used to try to weigh up whether the benefits from my flying to teach and serve the Dharma outweighed the negative effects of flying. But more recently I started to ask myself (and now others): What, really, is the point of someone travelling hundreds, or even thousands, of miles to say something that would not have been said that differently by someone who lives just down the road?

None of us is perfect and none has the perfect answer. But we have to feel, we have to be aware, and we have to inquire.

Some teachers, I know, will consider their offering to be more ‘unique’ or ‘original’, and so more ‘needed’ than others, and so attempt to justify their frequent flying in that way. (If so, please explain how that is to all of us at a Teacher Meeting!) I would actually question whether such a self-perception is true in almost every case. If you think that it is so, perhaps you should take some more time to explore a more wide-ranging selection of the Dharma Talks and writings that are available on the web these days, or the books in print. There is a very good chance that someone is delivering a similar message not too far from your travel destination! And indeed with the advent of so much possibility on the web, and so much available on CD, is your actual physical presence there really necessary? Won’t people ‘get it’ from a book or a CD or a web-cast or through Skype? (The large and thriving Sangha of London Insight Meditation has been experimenting very successfully with Skype Teaching in recent years, as have other non-Insight Meditation Sanghas.) Of course, if there is a very particular way of working with very unusual practices that very few others know how to teach and that require a lot of careful back-and-forth direct interaction between Teacher and Student, one could argue the case. But we may also have to simply let go of trying to have it all. And that may not be easy, even for those for whom ‘letting go’ is a central practice and teaching in their life.

There will be Loss…

To share a little from my personal situation: There are a number of students who come regularly to Gaia House from all over the world to practice under my guidance of whom I am very fond, who are very dear to me, and there will be a grief in the ending of that form of relating to them. There is a loss here. We should not pretend that, just because we are Dharma Teachers, we will not have feelings about the various losses involved in a transition to a new model. There will probably be a lot of very understandable feelings for all those involved in the wider Sangha. There may well be grief, for both Teacher and Student, at the loss of immediate and frequent connection in relationships that have become deeply meaningful, usually to both, over years; there may be fears over the possibility of financial loss and loss of some degree of accustomed (or projected) standard of living; and certainly those responsible for the fiscal health of Dharma institutions may also have such fears; there may even be, for some, a fear or discomfort at the prospective loss of certain identities that have formed around travelling so much here and there as a sought-after Dharma Teacher; there may also be fear of loss of the identities that, though we may not like to admit it, have become woven into the consumer culture, whereby we define, ‘express’ and feel ourselves dependent on various aspects of what we consume, and on the life-styles we have become accustomed to. (This is complex, and, I think, a good deal more subtle than it might at first seem8See Jackson (2009) op. cit..) And it is quite likely that, at times, there will also be emotions of despair, overwhelm, confusion, guilt, frustration, anger etc… We may well need to support each other in working through these feelings.

… but also Gain

And of course, there will be obvious felt benefits to a decrease in flying. If it’s long-distance, flying and jet lag are simply tiring!

And at least financially, there is no reason why a new way of doing things need be inferior. But to make it work, everyone will have to be on board – Institutions, Retreat Centres and Teachers rethinking and re-working their whole programmes to make it sustainable and viable for everyone. And we must put a similar message out to the yogis. Why not? It may involve a temporary dip in income for some teachers or institutions, but even that is not necessarily the case, and in many cases, even if it were, it could be ridden-out if it is short-lived. In addition, it may be that, with less of a culture of ‘expectation of variety’, there will be less of a pressure on Teachers to be ‘popular’, and less of the concomitant financial pressure through the dana system that might go with that.

© Stefan from Pixabay

Second, the general mode of doing things at present creates a situation where yogis may well end up hearing pretty much the same thing from slightly different faces (and accents) over and over again, for years. As such, their practice and understanding may well tend not to deepen as much as it might were the same teacher to be present more consistently, and with the opportunity to weave something different to support the growth of the yogis’ practice and understanding. For those of you who are parents – how would you feel if your children went to school and heard the same lessons over and over for years, their classes in tenth grade being near duplicates of their classes in second grade? Might you not think there was something infuriating and perhaps even a little obscene about it? Even stranger is the way that the yogis have sometimes come to want and expect to hear the same basic teachings again and again – “You can never hear it too many times.” There are noticeable ways (and not just in the explicit teaching) that the diet given can sometimes feed the demand and the expectation, and so the whole thing becomes self-perpetuating to some extent. It’s not any one’s fault of course, it’s merely the way that the system has ended up for the most part. But why is that okay in the Dharma, when it wouldn’t be okay in any other sphere of life? I realise that this may for some feel part of a much larger discussion about ‘progress’ in Dharma practice, but, at the very least, I don’t think any one would deny that more ongoing contact between Teacher and Students, is more fertile ground for all kinds of wonderful and promising possibilities.

Thirdly, collectively flying less will, if it is managed well and possibly in co-ordination with a re-thinking of teacher ‘deployment’, promote and support stronger local Sanghas to emerge and thrive, similarly bringing the promise of many creative possibilities and many benefits for everyone.

Taking Steps

So, again, the question: what are we actually going to do about it? We could all work together to conceive of and create a different way of doing things. Can you envision it? A network of structures where it’s very rare for Teachers or yogis to fly to a retreat, and where there are ample opportunities for everyone to hear Teachings and to practice and explore the Dharma widely and deeply and with ongoing support from each other and from closer relationships with Teachers; and for Teachers to teach in a creative, fulfilling and financially secure and sustainable way. We could figure out the practicalities involved in such an evolution. It won’t necessarily be simple or easy, but there are already precedents that are relatively close to such a model e.g. CIMC in Cambridge, Massachusetts, so in some instances and locations the transition may not be all that difficult to achieve. But arguably it will, on the whole, be a big shift and will clearly, it seems to me, require a great deal of thought. And some aspects may need a lot more discussion and creative thinking e.g. whether a change to the dana system is, in fact, necessary or a helpful support to the overall re-visioning.

If we do not take good care to really inquire into all this, to ‘step up’ to it all, if our self-scrutiny is incomplete, our mindfulness, metta and investigation cannot but be incomplete, mediocre…. A mediocre Dharma.

As possible first steps, the Boards, Teachers, Trustees, Directors and Staff of Dharma Centres need to actually bring this up at meetings as a potential vision, put it on the meeting agendas, and discuss practical steps to begin to realize such a vision, or another suitable way forward.

Similarly, it needs to be brought up as an urgent item for discussion in Teacher Meetings of all kinds – to discuss both the practical possibilities and challenges, and the Dharma aspects; and, to share and process together our individual emotional responses both to Climate Change and to the transformations that adequately responding to Climate Change will require of us, as in the vision suggested here.

A Working (Cyber) Group consisting of Teachers and Retreat Centre Directors representing as many Centres as possible and interested others should be set up to look at the potential implementation of new models in this age of Climate Change.

At the same time, it is also possible, and probably necessary, that change begins to be implemented unilaterally, by individual centres rethinking their programming and their messages to yogis. So each centre will need to set up its own working group or designate someone to co-ordinate and begin to implement a different vision.

An online forum open to all, to further and deepen the discussion of everything the complex challenge of Climate Change raises – regarding the Dharma and also the practicalities of possible new visions.

In addition to the issue of flying, each Centre could form its own Greening Group to keep alive its own ‘Green Charter’, an ongoing exploration of lessening its adverse environmental impact in all kinds of areas.

Anything else you can think of that would be helpful – please e-mail:

Why would we not re-vision our response and the way we do things? Why would we not rise to this? We must, and we can. We would then be taking better care of the planet, the human and the other species, the Dharma, the yogis, the teachers, and the futures of all of these. Please – let’s not have limits to our mindfulness and inquiry. To how fully we live the Teachings and all that they imply. Let’s raise the standard. Lets raise the game. Is the Dharma not about waking up? If we do not take good care to really inquire into all this, to ‘step up’ to it all, if our self-scrutiny is incomplete, our mindfulness, metta and investigation cannot but be incomplete, mediocre…. A mediocre Dharma. Let’s help to establish a Dharma of more comprehensive and unshirking integrity. Let’s grow up together. And let’s be part of a solution.

Yours imploringly and inquisitively,
Rob Burbea,
Resident Teacher, Gaia House,
Co-founder of SanghaSeva,
April 2011

(My heartfelt thanks and appreciation to Chris Cullen, Kirsten Kratz and Rachel Davies for their very thoughtful and helpful feedback and suggestions in preparing this paper.)


  • 1
    Cited in Oxfam (2008): The Urgency of Now
  • 2
    See, for example, the wide-ranging survey of studies discussed in Hamilton, C. (2010): Requiem For A Species – Why We Resist The Truth About Climate Change. London: Earthscan
  • 3
    See, for example, the numerous studies discussed in Crompton, T. and Kasser, T (2009): Meeting Environmental Challenges: The Role Of Human Identity. WWF-UK
  • 4
    See, for instance, Randall, R (Sept 2009): Loss and Climate Change: The Cost of Parallel Narratives. Ecopsychology
  • 5
    See Jackson, T. (2009): Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a finite Planet. Earthscan
  • 6
    See both Jackson (2009) op. cit. and Hamilton (2009) op. cit. for penetrating discussions of the far-reaching and wide-ranging consequences of a rigid belief in the doctrine of the necessity of economic growth. (Jackson’s book also explores possible alternative economic structures.)
  • 7
    See, for example, Hillman, J. and Ventura, M. (1992): We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy – And the World’s Getting Worse. San Francisco, Harper
  • 8
    See Jackson (2009) op. cit.
Picture of Rob Burbea

Rob Burbea

Rob Burbea (1965-2020) was Gaia House’s much-loved resident teacher for 10 years from 2005 - 2015, when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. During his time at Gaia House, Rob wrote Seeing That Frees: Meditations on Emptiness and Dependent Arising – an important and influential work that continues to shape and open the meditative exploration of many. Emerging from this deep experiential understanding of emptiness, Rob dedicated much of his time and energy during the last years of his life to conceiving, developing, and establishing a new body of teachings that he called ‘A Soulmaking Dharma’. Before his death, Rob initiated The Hermes Amāra Foundation (HAF), a sangha-led organisation that is being established to preserve and develop Rob's vast Dharma teaching legacy. Rob was also a guiding teacher of Freely Given Retreats; a co-founder of SanghaSeva, an organisation exploring the Dharma through international service work; and a co-initiator of DANCE, the Dharma Action Network for Climate Engagement.
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