Why Bodhisattvas Need to Disrupt the Status Quo

Kritee, a climate scientist, Zen priest, and co-founder of the Boulder Eco-Dharma Sangha, calls on Buddhists to recognize and resist the systems of domination and oppression that underlie the climate crisis. As a community willing to see that change is needed in almost every aspect of society, Kritee compels us to include even ourselves. Indeed, our hesitancy to confront the pattern of domination, in ourselves and in our beloved spiritual leaders, is no small part of what keeps domination in place.  “Business as usual” goes about killing life on Earth on daily basis under the guise of normalcy and the protection of the status quo. What might it look like for us to follow Kritee’s call for thorough disruption and transformation? What might we risk and what is at risk if we don’t? What might support us in following this call together?  

by Kritee (Kanko)

For the past decade, I have been researching the climate impacts of different food production practices, which is important because our global food system contributes more than a third of all human-generated climate pollution. Recently I had the opportunity to present my research to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which brought me—briefly—a sense of empowerment in the face of the climate crisis. But my deeper truth is that I find myself working with intense climate grief.

Buddhists can contribute much more radically to reducing suffering than they have so far.

I’m not alone. A growing number of climate scientists and activists report sleeplessness, anxiety, and even panic attacks. Many are overwhelmed by grief or anger. If I were not engaged in regular meditation and grief practices, as well as strategic actions with an ever-widening circle of ecodharma activists, I know I would be overwhelmed too.

In the past year, I have been in touch with a growing number of fellow dharma teachers who are waking up to the climate crisis and getting involved in climate action. This is due in large part to media attention brought on by youth-led school climate strikes, Sunrise Movement sit-ins, and Extinction Rebellion actions. While this is something to celebrate, I also think Buddhists can contribute much more radically to reducing suffering than they have so far. However, in order to do so effectively, we must bring not only our Buddhist understanding but also a systems-level view.

Dismantling Systems of Separation

Averting a climate catastrophe will require enormous transitions, which raises important questions, such as: who will pay for the transitions? Will these transitions be consistent with democracy? And who will suffer the most if these transitions don’t happen—will it be the poor and the racially marginalized?

A just transition must be democratic, fair, and equitable. We must therefore consider the ethical, moral, and spiritual underpinnings of such a transition and ask how each of us—as well as our sanghas—can assist in practical and concrete ways. We must also be willing to consider changing our own behavior, and that of our sanghas, in order to create a more just and sustainable society.

As bodhisattvas committed to relieving the suffering of all beings, we start by seeing relative reality, or suffering as it is. If we don’t see the depth and extent of suffering, it’s very difficult to take compassionate action.

We must be willing to consider changing our own behavior, and that of our sanghas, in order to create a more just and sustainable society.

At least a quarter of the world’s population is already facing an existential crisis. According to the International Labour Organization, approximately a billion people live on less than two dollars a day. More than two billion people work in informal sectors and have no work contract with their employers. These people and their families struggle every day to make ends meet. One sickness, birth, or death, one leaking roof due to an extreme rainfall event, or one failed crop due to a drought can throw them into crisis. They are already facing what those in the privileged Eurocentric world fear awaits them in the not-too-distant future: illness and death brought on by extreme weather events and forced migration due to a lack of basic resources, including water and food, as well as physical safety. They have done the least to usher in climate crisis, but they will suffer the most as the climate crisis deepens.

We cannot put off dealing with the current existential crisis faced by a quarter of humanity until after we have tackled the climate crisis. We need an integrated approach that makes enormous changes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while also redistributing power and money and avoiding climate apartheid.

How do we do this? A just transition will require working through “systems of separation,” more commonly known as “systems of oppression,” which is another way of saying systems of domination, hierarchy, or superiority. Based on myths and lies, these systems purport that one group is more normal, superior, and/or powerful, and empower it to dominate another set of living beings. For example, patriarchy, class or caste hierarchies, and human domination over animals are all systems of oppression.

Our hearts and minds have grown accustomed to a paradigm in which one human being has control over another. This is our default, and it has infected all parts of our psyche.

Most crucially, white people of European descent have power and supremacy over Black, brown, yellow, and Indigenous people all over the world. Globally speaking, this racial domination and associated neoliberal economic systems have helped primarily white folks to amass enormous wealth, steal land, and enslave people for hundreds of years. This concentration of power and wealth is systematically guarded through militarization, laws, trade deals, and media campaigns.

While we have made progress on some fronts, for the most part we take these systems of domination to be a given. Our hearts and minds have grown accustomed to a paradigm in which one human being has control over another. This is our default, and it has infected all parts of our psyche.

Inner and Outer Liberation

In Buddhism, through meditation and other transformative practices, we aspire to know states of heart–mind that Buddha (the human being) embodied. These states of heart–mind bring us close to reality as it is. When we see the absolute reality as it is, there is no individual human being, no separate entity. There is only interdependent co-arising: I am you; you are me. I am a monarch butterfly that is going extinct, the Black woman whose five generations of family were lynched, and also Hitler and present-day fascists. All is me. Richest and poorest, we inter-are.

It is important to note that while Buddhism has devised many skillful practices to deal with the myth of separation in the consciousness of an individual practitioner, it has only just begun to grapple with systems of oppression. An individual cannot beat a system. To beat one system, it will require another system. Systems of oppression or separation must be replaced by systems of nonseparation or nonduality. The opposite of patriarchy is not matriarchy, where women are more powerful than men, but rather it is one of deep equality and solidarity. We are so used to systems of oppression that we have forgotten how to live in a way that is not separate. The top-down hierarchical systems that are rooted in exploitation and oppression must make way for systems and institutions that are rooted in compassion and sacred care of all beings. This requires more than words and good intentions; it must be backed by actions that redistribute power and wealth to those who are marginalized. Without this, societal healing and a just transition will not be possible.

Desire for upward mobility is killing us spiritually. It is like we all know that the tree of this civilization is rotting but we still want to climb to the top!

While we need strategic and well-designed plans to redesign our economies, we also need spiritual and moral leaders who can penetrate hearts and minds. Their job is to embody genuine solidarity, interdependence, and friendship to help people wake up to the harm brought about by systems of domination and to see their complicity in it. Any legal policies involving redistribution of power and money will not be honored without changing the hearts of the oppressor and the oppressed.

Guided by the dharma, Buddhists can help our society disrupt the status quo, but in order to contribute to the transformation of the larger society, we also need to look at ourselves, as well as our sanghas. What do I mean? In an essay titled “Revolutionary Suicide,” African American pastor Lynice Pinkard challenges us as individuals and institutions to understand our own relationship with systems of oppression:

To what extent does any one of us identify with the forces of domination and participate in relations that reinforce domination and the exploitation that goes with it? In what ways and to what extent are we wedded to our own upward mobility, financial security, good reputation, and ability to “win friends and influence people” in positions of power? Or conversely, do we identify (by putting our lives on the line) with efforts to reverse patterns of domination, empower people on the margins (even when we are not on the margins ourselves), and seek healthy, sustainable relations?

She argues that this desire for upward mobility is killing us spiritually. It is like we all know that the tree of this civilization is rotting but we still want to climb to the top!

Living our Compassion

As Buddhists, we have taken vows not to turn away from the suffering of others, whom we come to know as ourselves. When we manifest with the full integrity of what we know to be true, we naturally find ways to help heal our world. Some of my Buddhist friends are actually putting their lives on the line to defend all beings. Even if we are not ready to put our lives on the line, we can ask important questions:

How can we break the status quo systems of domination within our sangha or other communities we inhabit?

Who is in our sangha? If our sangha is not diverse, do we have relationships with Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) outside of our sanghas? Having these relationships often means working through the racial trauma lodged in the bodies of everyone involved. (I highly recommend Resmaa Menakem’s systematic exploration of the trauma suffered by both BIPOC and white people in his seminal book My Grandmother’s Hands.)

Are we more invested in building large Buddhist temples, or are we open to directing the money to building movements and to those on the front lines of systemic change?

Are we divesting from pathways that concentrate power and investing in those that redistribute power? How can we share power? How can we break the status quo systems of domination within our sangha or other communities we inhabit?

Are we making more than the average median income in our society? Why do we want to have a standard of living above that of others in our state or country?

Could we hire the most marginalized in our society? What do we have to learn to be able to hire and retain those individuals?

These are not easy questions. I wrestle with all of them myself and face the fear of letting go of my own privilege, wealth, and assets.

We do not have the luxury of assuming that we can deal with social and ecological issues after enlightenment.

It won’t be easy, but as bodhisattvas in training, we must find the courage and compassion to step up both individually and as a community of practitioners to grapple with these questions. As we do, we might gain greater understanding of the mindset of those destroying our planet. And we might be able to say a much needed NO to too-big-to-fail oil and gas corporations (without “othering” and shaming individuals who work for them).

Given what is already happening, we do not have the luxury of assuming that we can deal with social and ecological issues after enlightenment. As we individually spend time on our cushions to face absolute reality as it is, we must also create awakened systems and beloved communities that can deal with present-day relative reality as it is without perpetuating trauma and harm.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2020 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, and is available on LionsRoar.com.


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

Small Relief in Ongoing Crises

By Katie Benvenuti

At the end of March, Guo Gu, teacher from the Tallahassee Chan Center, founded Dharma Relief with the intention of forming a coalition of Buddhist practitioners, centers, and organizations across lineages to provide emergency relief to healthcare workers most heavily impacted by the outbreak.

Guo and others at Dharma Relief knew that, for a multitude of reasons, supplies have not been leaving China through the usual channels since the coronavirus outbreak began. Relatedly, there has been a critical shortage of medical supplies in hospitals nationwide. Dharma Relief’s plan was to partner with Chinese companies to import surgical masks to healthcare workers fighting COVID-19 on the front lines, and they wanted Buddhist organizations and practitioners across the country to help. On March 30th, Dharma Relief reached out to One Earth Sangha asking if they knew of any hospitals or healthcare workers who needed PPE.

Those with time, energy, and other resources are called to stand with native communities and get behind their demands.

This was at the time of emerging news that indigenous communities were being hit hard by COVID-19, particularly Navajo communities, though others as well. Indigenous communities in the United States are and have been extremely underserved, and as such, they have a higher than average per capita rate of preexisting conditions that can increase COVID-19 mortality.

Through channels from connections in Navajo Nation, One Earth Sangha was able to connect Dharma Relief to Navajo Incident Command, IHS, and eventually to individuals in two hospitals in indigenous communities. Eventually, they were able to supply 10,000 surgical masks between the two hospitals.

This was the very least we could do in this situation. So much more is needed.

If the pattern holds, the hegemony will extract from and then abandon native communities. As a predominantly white spiritual community situated in the dominant culture, we are vulnerable to participation in that very act. Those with time, energy, and other resources are called to stand with native communities and get behind their demands. In particular, white allies can advocate for protection of native lands and waters, indigenous representation, resources for communities, justice, and sovereignty. Ultimately, we do this not for anyone else but rather as if our own well-being is at risk because in fact it is.

When you’re dealing with a non-native population that’s trying to save today’s world and feels urgently about it, they are not recognizing that there’s a problem with the world they are trying to save. They are actually trying to save our dystopia. Our dystopia is one where people don’t relate to us through kinship relationships, reciprocity, accountability, trust and consent. That’s why it’s a concern that when people become more and more urgent, environmental injustice will once again affect indigenous people, people of color and other groups.
Dr. Kyle Powys Whyte, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Community Sustainability and a faculty affiliate of the American Indian & Indigenous Studies and Environmental Science & Policy programs at Michigan State University.

We extend heartfelt gratitude to Dharma Relief, our indigenous partners, contacts at Navajo Incident Command and the Zuni and Navajo hospitals, the front line workers serving those communities, the retired nurses and dharma practitioners who connected us to Incident Command, and our team member who ran point on this, Osa Arkin.

You can donate to the Navajo Nation COVID-19 relief fund here and to the First Nations’ emergency response fund here. Please note that this is not an exhaustive list of places to donate; there are many other indigenous organizations accepting donations, and there are many other ways to get involved. We encourage you to look into local communities in your area who may need support.

Awakening to the Suffering of Animals

Recent stories about coronavirus transmission in meatpacking plants have exposed the impossible choice between livelihood and personal safety faced by their workers. Bhikkhu Bodhi has recently written here about the disproportionate risk that falls on migrant workers and workers of color. Yet when animals themselves are mentioned in pandemic narratives — bats, other wildlife, or domesticated pigs and chickens — it is usually in reference to their role in the transmission of a novel virus, a virus that can take a human life. Described in human-centric terms, animals are dietary staples, exotic ingredients, and occasional reservoirs of catastrophic disease.

Missing from the narrative is the bleak reality of the animal marketplace: sentient beings reduced to objects, bodies taken for human purpose, without restraint, acknowledgement, dignity, or reciprocity, living our their days in horrifying conditions before slaughter. In this article, Thanissara reminds us that cruelty to animals is karmically fraught and charts her own journey to going vegan. No matter how disinclined to see and fully act on this truth we may be, we are intimately connected to these lives.

© skeeze from Pixabay

by Thanissara

My dear friend Andrew Harvey, talking about the multi-dimensional planetary crises we are in, said “If there is one thing that wakes you at night and breaks your heart, then get up the next day and do something about it.”

These days, almost everything is breaking our hearts. Right now, we are reeling with the multiple fallout of the Coronavirus pandemic as the old world disappears fast and a new more sustainable world struggles to be born. While the urgency of climate collapse has been eclipsed temporarily by the Corona tsunami, it has not by any means disappeared. Its impact is here as extreme weather events destabilize communities everywhere, even whole countries, leading to economic stress, increasing mass migrations and wars.

In truth, every single piece of our dismembering world is a heartbreak.

However, if I were to choose one particular heartbreak that haunts me, it has to be the way we treat animals. In particular the billions of animals caught in the truly hellish torture of agro-factory farms and their dystopian, heartless, mechanistic, violent practices. This is very challenging to talk about, because we have such a habit of orientating all experience, all dialogue, around the primacy of our human-centric perspective, to the extent that we often don’t consider the harm we cause other beings.

At a certain point of awakening, one is absolutely answerable for one’s actions, decisions, and intentions.

Invisible in this trade is the fallout for those working the vicious and degrading high-speed machinery of such mass death. At present slaughterhouse workers, mostly vulnerable migrants, the poor, and those highly traumatised, are susceptible to Corona infection. Workers at meat packing plants are experiencing among the highest death rates while having the least protection or economic support. Beside killing day in and day out, they are also daily dodging their own death, sickness and injury while susceptible to acting out the internalization of massive violence, not only on the factory floor, but at home. They are, like the animals being slaughtered, just fodder for vast profits, all for feeding an insatiable palate.

In all actions, we have to explore how we can move toward a lifestyle that is more conscious, while changing habits that perpetuate harm. When it comes to the five great precepts, which essentially offer a training to do no harm to self or other, the invitation of that training is to understand we live in a web of life and in a realm of cause and effect. The Buddha taught that the observance of the precepts offers “immeasurable beings freedom from fear, hostility, oppression.” In the same way, observing the precepts, the Buddha said, we too, in time, will “experience immeasurable freedom from fear, hostility and oppression.”

Steps Toward Compassion

There are many lenses through which to regard our relationship with the animal kingdom. For example, shifting our dependence on dairy and meat for personal health and a sustainable planet. While all good and true, my own journey to a plant-based diet is primarily in response to the terror, extreme pain, and torture of those innocents caught in the machinery of factory farms. Not just in factory farms, but all animals, fish and creatures subjugated to our human dominance, while losing their right to life, control of their bodies, their sexual processes, their family, and freedoms.

© skeeze from Pixabay

I’m sharing here my own reflections. How I think about this issue. I don’t intend to be “preachy” but to share my process into a deeper awakening beyond vegetarianism into giving up eggs, milk, and dairy products. A process I found challenging. For a long time, I was just unaware of the truth of dairy farming. It is really due to the activists, who go underground to film what actually goes on in the dairy and egg industries, that I was able to begin to make the shift. I have the deepest respect for these activists and their extraordinary bravery.

Even so, sometimes I would find myself reaching out in the supermarket for “organic” cheeses or “organic” milk for my English cup of tea, one of my former addictions. So, I can’t honestly say that I just saw one undercover expose and that shifted me irrevocably. I feel some shame to even write this, how it took a longer time for me to renounce a product rooted in such extreme violence.

We now absolutely know that the assumption of our right to dominate nature is fast heralding our possible extinction.

I had excuses. It’s hard getting vegan food traveling and in Southern Africa, where I’ve worked for several decades. Or, it’s “organic”…. Or, we need to have probiotics in yoghurt. Or whatever. There was really no good excuse. Sometimes, I would walk up and down a supermarket aisle, struggling with myself. That pizza looked so good. My brain would disconnect, and my ethics would be muted, and I’d reach into the freezer and pull it out. As a meditator, I could feel the dissonance, but somehow, I still went through the check out.

A Transmission of Reality

So, I understand this involves an awakening journey. It’s not usually a clear-cut decision, but on the whole, is a process of steps along the way. One day though, the final shift came unexpectedly, like when I was 14 years old, after I read my first book about yoga and immediately became a vegetarian. Eventually, there was a final day when the thread keeping me attached to milk meant for a calf, finally severed. It was within a deep meditative process of entering a more open, liminal, lucid space where depth of inter-being is directly experienced. I felt an intuitive sense, an intelligence much more profound than myself. I felt it as Mother Nature’s prompt and guidance. She made me aware of a sobering reality. This may not be the reality for you, but it is for me.

It was a vision type transmission, a revelation of sorts. I understood that at a certain point of awakening, the implication being the point I was at, one is absolutely answerable for one’s actions, decisions, and intentions. That is true all along of course, but before, there seemed to be some kind of buffer zone, a sort of deeper benevolent allowance of some kind of a “benefit of the doubt,” that gave slack for growing into a more awakened state.

The consequences of our actions are catapulting back to us at blinding speed. So we have to pay attention.

It was clear that the slack, a gift of grace if you like, was finished. I “saw” or felt all the animals whose lives I was implicated in taking. This wasn’t an ordinary state of consciousness, just a deep awareness and understanding. Further, I understood from then on, if any animal suffered, or had their life taken due to my intentional actions, I would be karmically implicated and answerable to them.

From that moment on, I gave up all dairy products and my beloved black and Darjeeling teas, and became vegan. My resolve also deepened to help these innocent beings caught in such a terrible predicament.

Stormclouds of Karma

These days, we are in a much bigger picture, one where all harmful causes are ripening at lightning speed into a karmic maelstrom. We now absolutely know that the assumption of our right to dominate nature and her myriad beings is a root cause for the collapse of our living systems and is fast heralding our possible extinction.

Chan Master Hsuan Hua.
Courtesy of Thanissara.

Master Hsuan Hua, whom I’m grateful to for opening the Kuan Yin Dharmas, said if you want to know why there are wars, listen to the sounds at the slaughterhouse; the sounds, smells, and the agony of it all. He talked of the great dark cloud of karma from the killing of animals, and all the violence involved, that is oppressing the planet.

All is connected in our awakening reality. We are all deeply connected with every living being, plants, all of creation. The period of wilful ignorance, where we could be unconscious for a little bit longer, has ended. Perhaps then, the message to me is now the message to you. The consequences of our actions are catapulting back to us at blinding speed. So we have to pay attention.

To meet this reality is now our task. Every decision and action has consequences. In the midst of such urgency, Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching “we are here to awaken from the illusion of separation” must now be our daily contemplation. A contemplation that is rooted in fierce compassion and expressed as dedicated action founded in harmlessness and service to Mother Nature and her myriad children, whatever form they appear in.

Adapted from a talk given November 7th, 2019 at the Dharma Voices for Animals benefit and Educational Day at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, CA.


Thanissara trained was 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.

No Time to Lose: Listening to Young Voices

In this video, Kirsten Rudestam describes her work bringing people into connection with the “more than human world,” and particularly working with youth on environmental education, deep nature connection, and rites of passage. Underscoring the fears driving an upsurge in youth climate activism, she notes: “These young people are having their future taken away from them. The best way I know to address their pain… is to accompany them and to listen.”

Selected Quotes

What is it to respond to the cries of the world with an open heart?

What emerges in space that feels safe to share, where the listener doesn’t move to fix, to repair or spring into action?

Nature is the best of all teachers.

This teaching is excerpted from No Time to Lose: A Dharma Response to Climate Change, a daylong event hosted in September 2019 by Spirit Rock Insight Meditation Center. Participating teachers included Joanna Macy, Belvie Rooks, Jennifer Berezan, Venerable Anālayo, James Baraz, Thanissara, Tara Brach, Jack Kornfield, and others. View the video from the entire day here.


Kirsten Rudestam is an environmental educator, wilderness guide, and meditation teacher. She has a PhD in Environmental Sociology from the University of California, Santa Cruz where she studied environmental justice and Indigenous water practices. She has fifteen years of experience teaching field-based and classroom-based college courses in environmental studies and sociology, is trained as a vision fast guide through the School of Lost Borders and is a facilitator for Joanna Macy’s Work that Reconnects. Kirsten has been practicing vipassana meditation since 2001. She, Gil Fronsdal, and Susie Harrington are the co-founders and core faculty for the Sati Center Buddhist Eco-Chaplaincy training program. Those interested in joining the program in the future are invited to contact them at moc.l1596847695iamg@1596847695ycnia1596847695lpahc1596847695ocets1596847695ihddu1596847695b1596847695. The second training will begin in July 2021, with applications opening winter of 2020-21.

Climate, Corona, and Collapse

We are likely entering a period where overlapping socio-ecological crises is the new norm, where each places greater pressure, specifically on marginalized communities as well as our individual psyches regardless of social location. While calls for “back to normal” grow louder in some sectors, we must see clearly the layers of destruction embedded in what has passed for “normal.” In response to growing insecurity, Karin Meyers invites us to embrace the timeless narratives of the Dharma, stories that can help us see clearly what is happening, adapt, and maintain resilience.

by Karin Meyers

‘Collapse’ is a scary word. From the Latin prefix col-, meaning ‘together,’ and the verb labi, meaning ‘to slip, slide, or fall,’ it describes a structure falling apart or inward. I hesitated using it in the title of this essay, but the Dharma was not made for tip-toeing around the truth. It was made for these times.1This essay was written on March 31, 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic was not yet at its peak in the United States and before the uprisings catalyzed by the brutal murder of George Floyd. Although the essay speaks to the connections between racism, economic inequality and the climate and ecological crisis, if I were writing it today I would state these connections even more forcefully. I would draw on the black radical tradition, African-American and Indigenous climate activists like Mary Annaïse Heglar and Tara Houska, and analysis of right-wing climate realism (Chaudhary, “We’re Not in this Together”) to argue that black and indigenous liberation as well as broad-scale social and economic justice and equality are not merely priorities, but the essential foundations of a humane climate future. In regard to an engaged Buddhist response, I would echo Dr. Ambedkar’s call that we “Educate, Agitate, and Organize” and join Rev. angel Kyodo williams in her call for a radical dharma of collective liberation.

COVID-19 is offering us a critical opportunity to reflect on just how ill-prepared we are as a society to face the multiple crises of climate change and ecological degradation.

Collapse seems an appropriate word for a moment in which we find ourselves collectively slipping, sliding, falling towards a future that seems considerably less certain than any of us would have imagined a few weeks ago. As the coronavirus rips through our individual and collective bodies, many of us have become more acutely aware not only of the basic fragility of human life, and our own vulnerability to old age, sickness and death, but also of the precariousness and gross moral inequities of the social, economic, and political structures we have empowered and entrusted to protect and support that life. It’s hard to say at this point whether these structures are already collapsing or just dangerously close, but it is clear that they are woefully inadequate to meet the current crisis.

As much as we might prefer to learn these lessons in some other way or on some other timeline, COVID-19 is offering us a critical opportunity to reflect on just how ill-prepared we are as a society to face the multiple crises expected to increase in intensity and frequency as a result of climate change and ecological degradation. Pandemic disease is one of these. Over the last few years, we’ve already become familiar with some of the others: extreme weather events, droughts and water shortages, sea level rise, coastal and inland flooding, crop failures, soil erosion, forest fires, dramatic shifts in plant and animal ranges, insect infestations, and mass extinction of plant and animal life. As these crises intensify, food and water insecurity, internal displacement and mass human migration will present serious threats to peace and security as well as to freedom and democracy. This is why climate change is commonly understood to be a “threat multiplier.”

Before COVID-19, many scientists argued, we had less than ten years to transition our economy away from fossil fuels, radically reduce and redistribute consumption of energy and resources, and reinvent nearly every aspect of modern life, in order to keep warming within the “acceptable” range of 1.5-2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. While the impacts of a 1.5 degree warming will be severe, a 2 degree warming will be considerably worse (IPCC 2018). Currently we are on track for warming of 3-4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, with the newer models putting that at 5 degrees and up to 10 in some regions of the globe (Vince 2019). This means that COVID-19 is not a temporary, one-off crisis, but more like a dress rehearsal for a series of environmental crises that will put even greater pressure on our social, economic and political structures. As Dharma practitioners we cannot afford to turn away from these hard truths and what they will entail in terms of human suffering.

Some of us believe that the Dharma is apolitical; that it is about sitting on a cushion and tending to our own inner states and individual actions. But this view of the Dharma ignores the fact that the world we experience is shaped by our collective actions (i.e., our collective karma)–as well as by our inaction. The COVID-19 pandemic is revealing in tragic detail just how dangerous it is to continue to cede our world to an ideology (“neoliberalism”) that confuses the unfettered accumulation of private wealth with “freedom” and societal wellbeing. Systematic prioritization of short-term profit for the few over the long-term welfare of the many (by our dominant political institutions) has led, among other things, to the erosion of our social safety nets, gross economic inequality, economic instability, the devaluation of scientific and other expertise, unreliable supply chains, depletion of medical stockpiles, mass incarceration, and a failing healthcare system—all of which will result in maximizing suffering and minimizing resilience in the face of COVID-19 and any future crisis. It is these same forces of greed, fueled by the delusion of infinite economic growth and coupled with gross moral indifference, that are accelerating our trajectory toward ecological collapse, at this very moment when we need to be slamming on the brakes.

However long our current period of physical distancing and the acute wave of the pandemic, one thing is clear: we will not be returning to “normal” after it is over. The economic, social, and psychological impacts will be with us for years, and will radically alter our political and cultural landscape—one way or another. As scary as this may feel, we need to remember that the normal to which we might long to return was barely livable for many of us, and was driving us all to disaster.

We are seeing how quickly things can fall apart, but also how quickly we can adapt; we are seeing what is essential and what we can do without.

The current disruption of “business as usual” may be the last chance we have to avert the worst-case climate scenarios, begin to restore critical portions of our rapidly deteriorating ecosystems, and correct the gross moral inequities enshrined in our social, economic, and political arrangements. As COVID-19 exposes the fragility of these arrangements, people are reexamining their relationships with each other and the Earth. Personal, cultural, and social values are shifting and new political alliances are being forged. We are seeing how quickly things can fall apart, but also how quickly we can adapt; we are seeing what is essential and what we can do without. Claims that it is too expensive or too radical to take care of each other and the Earth are losing credibility. In short, there is an opening for real transformation, but it will take tremendous creativity and courage to ensure that this is for the good. The powers that be are already on the move, taking advantage of the current crisis to increase their hold on financial and political power at the expense of other people, other species, and the ecosystems that support us all.2For a history of this “disaster capitalism” strategy, see Klein 2007.

As Dharma practitioners, it is time for us to wake up and take responsibility for the world we live in. We must decide whether we will contribute to its destruction through complacency or actively work to build a Dharmic society: a society that supports the flourishing of the Dharma by turning toward hard truths about our social and material conditions, caring for all individuals–especially the most vulnerable–and working to protect and restore the Earth.

What can we do now?

First and foremost, we can draw on our resources as Dharma practitioners to process difficult emotions, let go of fixed ideas about how things will turn out, and cultivate wholesome states that will contribute to our own wellbeing and provide support to others–no matter how things turn out. But this is not enough.

COVID-19 is teaching us how our own health is intimately connected to the health of others in our communities, all people around the world, animals, and the Earth.

Those of us who are able (in terms of health, time, financial and emotional resources, and so on) have a moral obligation to direct our energies toward cultivating the knowledge, skills, and networks we will need to build resilient communities capable of meeting the next crisis—independent of governmental aid. At the same time, we need to work together to build coalitions (e.g., with other faith and activist groups—including with those with whom we disagree) and find creative ways (see Albert Einstein Institute, “198 Methods of Non-Violent Action”) to put pressure on those in power to restore the social safety net and reverse the course on climate change.

This work will look different for each of us, but an important part of it will be shaping narratives about the meaning and lessons of COVID-19 in ways that support a Dharmic vision of the world. In a time when we are all groping to make sense of what is happening, the stories we tell ourselves and each other will play a powerful role in healing our individual and collective trauma and inspiring action.

I offer first drafts of some of the stories we might tell.

Stories of “planetary health” and interbeing

Over the past half-century, the Buddhist concept of dependent arising has been developed and adapted to convey an ecological vision and ethic. This is perhaps best captured in Thích Nhất Hạnh’s concept of interbeing, featured here (though not named) in the Buddhist Declaration on Climate Change, “The Time to Act is Now,” published ahead of the 2015 Paris conference:

Our ecological emergency is a larger version of the perennial human predicament. Both as individuals and as a species, we suffer from a sense of self that feels disconnected not only from other people but from the Earth itself. As Thích Nhất Hạnh has said, ‘We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.’ We need to wake up and realize that the Earth is our mother as well as our home— and in this case the umbilical cord binding us to her cannot be severed. When the Earth becomes sick, we become sick, because we are part of her.” (Loy, Bodhi & Stanley 2015)3Also see the Global Buddhist Climate Change Collective, “Buddhist Climate Change Statement to World Leaders” (2015) and Loy 2019.

Like other ecological philosophies, this conception of interbeing weaves scientific perspectives together with our emotional and spiritual experience as embodied beings and invites us to consider the ethical demands this puts on us. This is not the way classical Buddhist texts or traditions talk about dependent arising (McMahan 2008, chapter 6), but that does not mean it is an inauthentic expression of the Dharma. It is simply an unfolding of the Dharma in response to a form of collective suffering the Buddha did not experience. (Recall that the Dharma is not dependent on discovery or articulation by a Buddha.)

To help make sense of the COVID-19 crisis and how it is revealing a brokenness in our relationship to each other and the Earth, we can frame it in the context of the interbeing of human and “planetary health.” Planetary health is a new interdisciplinary field that seeks to understand human health as intimately connected to the health of the Earth’s ecosystems (Dunk et al. 2019), and advocates for the expansion of medical ethics to include our relationship with the Earth as well as to future generations (Goldberg and Patz 2015).

Deforestation in Chester, CA.
© roya ann miller from Unsplash

Although there is no direct connection between COVID-19 and climate change, the way the pandemic originated and has been transmitted is directly connected to how we live in relation to the Earth (and each other). Novel animal-born (zoonotic) viruses like it, to which we have not had time to develop immunity, spillover into the human population as a result of the destruction of natural habitats, industrial animal agriculture, trade in wild animals, over-crowded “wet markets,” and protein scarcity. Recent viral pandemics–the 1918 ‘Spanish flu’ (H1N1), HIV/AIDS, ‘swine flu’ (another strain of H1N1), and Ebola, as well as coronaviruses (SARS and MERS)—are all suspected to originate from such poor ecological practices (see Quammen 2013 & Carrington 2020).

Once such a virus spills over into the human population, population density and the speed and frequency at which we move our bodies and commodities across the Earth (combined with our preparedness–or lack thereof) help it spread (Ehrlich 2020). Loss of biodiversity also plays a critical role in the origination and spread of disease insofar as healthy, intact and complex ecosystems provide a natural immunity to disease compared to depleted and simplified ecosystems, which tend to promote disease (Vidal 2020). Healthy ecosystems are also richer and more abundant in nutrition.

Although COVID-19 and other recent viral pandemics are not directly related to climate change, warming temperatures play a major role in the spread of other zoonotic diseases, especially those transferred through insect vectors (e.g., Lyme, West Nile, Zika, Eastern equine encephalitis). Warming temperatures also contribute to the spread of disease as a result of mass animal migration (owing to contact between species with no previous contact and ecological disequilibrium), release of pathogens through the melting of arctic ice and permafrost, and disturbances to the internal equilibrium of animal bodies—such that formerly benign bacteria, parasites, fungi, or viruses turn pathogenic (Wells 2019, “Plagues of Warming”). As temperatures rise, we can also expect to see an increase in permanent disability and death due to heat stress and heat stroke.

Degradation of nutrients due to industrial farming and pollution also contribute to epidemics of non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, kidney disease, and a variety of respiratory and mental illnesses (Salas et al 2019). Air pollution alone kills seven million of us every year and impairs our ability to think (Gibbens 2018), while the production, use, and waste of fossil fuel-based plastics pose distinct risks to nearly every system in the human body (Azoulay et al 2019). Such ill-health makes us all vulnerable—especially in a crisis, but is disproportionately visited on the poor, people of color, indigenous communities, and the global south—the people least responsible for the climate and ecological crisis.

COVID-19 offers an opportunity to reflect upon how scaling back privileged lifestyles and redistributing resources is not only moral, but also likely to be far less painful for everyone than the social and economic instability that will result from continued ecological destruction combined with inequity.

From the perspective of the interbeing of human and planetary health, COVID-19 is teaching us how our own health is intimately connected to the health of others in our communities, all people around the world, animals, and the Earth. It is teaching us the wisdom of slowing down and engaging in smaller scale, local and regenerative agriculture– not only in order to reduce the spillover and spread of disease and help heal the Earth, but to ensure access to food when national and global supply chains are disrupted. In other words, COVID-19 is teaching us the importance of building resilience in our social and natural ecosystems (Lerch 2017). In regard to our practice of the Dharma, it may be recommending a shift from a focus on self-care and personal transformation to a focus on community and ecological resilience—especially in our practice as sanghas.

As we contemplate the interbeing of human and planetary health, we have much to learn from the insights of modern environmental science and medicine (and the softer sciences such as sociology, social psychology, and economics), but this need not entail that we accept the philosophical materialism that informs culturally dominant conceptions of science (i.e., “scientific materialism”). Materialism and Buddhism are diametrically opposed. While materialism understands the world as ultimately composed of physical properties and processes that exist independently of our experience, and takes consciousness to be an illusory or real byproduct (an epiphenomenon or emergent property) of these processes, virtually all Buddhist traditions prioritize the reality and primacy of consciousness and understand the world (loka) to be shaped through our actions (karma). In other words, despite differences in how Buddhist traditions conceive of the relationship between mind, action and world, they generally agree that our relationship to the world is co-creative and ethically significant (e.g., see Anālayo 2019 on the Cakkavatti Sutta DN 26). Materialism has no such ethical vision and underlies the ecologically pernicious conception of the Earth as a heap of “resources” to be extracted for profit (as well as the socially pernicious idea that human beings are likewise resources—for the extraction of labor and wealth, i.e., “workers” and “consumers”).

Although Buddhism is not compatible with materialism, historically it has accommodated a broad variety of traditional and animist views. As we develop an ethic based on the interbeing of human and planetary health, we might consider the value of re-sacralizing our relationship with the Earth by drawing on indigenous wisdom and ritual. In our stories of interbeing, for example, we might not only speak of the Earth as a living being and as “mother,” as in the Buddhist declaration quoted above, but also speak of (or address) a variety of other-than-human beings, including ecosystems, as if they were persons with whom we have reciprocal ethical relationships. This way of speaking carries a moral imperative and is part of the logic supporting recent initiatives to grant legal rights to rivers (Riederer 2018), and to make “ecocide” a crime akin to genocide (Lennard 2019).

Stories of a Dharmic society

As we undergo this period of rapid cultural change and collective trauma, how we talk about our relationships to each other may have a lasting impact on our social psyche. This is why, for example, so many of us (Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike) are resisting using the Orwellian-sounding phrase “social distancing” to describe the highly pro-social practice of physical distancing that is likely to define our lives for some time to come. Acceptable substitutes might be “physical distancing” or “distance socializing”—akin to “distance learning” already in our lexicon. (As suggested above, other words we might consider revising include “worker” and “consumer”—what do these mean for a world in which a third of us may be unemployed and there is an existential imperative to radically reduce consumption? “Lockdown” with its associations to the racist carceral state is also troubling.)

As we experience the best and worst of what humanity has to offer over the coming months, and struggle to make sense of it, it will also be important to consider what kinds of qualities and values our stories promote. Stories about the creative ways people are finding to support each other’s emotional and physical health while physically separated, stories that celebrate acts of kindness and generosity, and stories that acknowledge suffering help support Dharmic qualities of generosity and compassion. Even when the subject is difficult, they are uplifting and brighten the heart-and-mind.

One of the things that finally “activated” me in regard to the climate and ecological crisis was my realization that there is just no freedom to be had in turning away from the truth of how dire the situation really is.

Promoting Dharmic qualities may be more challenging when we need to tell stories about the darker sides of human behavior. Fortunately, Buddhist traditions offer some relevant advice. Both Theravāda and Mahāyāna Buddhism encourage us to celebrate wholesome actions, and to take responsibility for our own unwholesome actions, but advise that we regard others as not in control of their unwholesome actions (e.g., Buddhaghosa 2010, chapter IX discussion of loving kindness and Śāntideva 2008, chapter 6 discussion of patience). This may seem a bit counter-intuitive, but it makes sense when we consider that (in contrast to some theological traditions), Buddhism is not centrally concerned with moral responsibility, with who is to blame or who is deserving of punishment, but rather with what we can do to become free from suffering.

By praising wholesome actions in others we encourage wholesome, freedom-promoting states in others as well as ourselves, and empower ourselves to take such actions (which we are advised to recognize and enjoy but not get puffed up over). When we take responsibility for our unwholesome actions by seeking to understand the unwholesome states that led to them, we are empowered to abandon these freedom-inhibiting states. When it comes to the unwholesome actions of others, however, imagining these to result from causes and conditions beyond the individual’s control empowers us to respond to these actions with compassion rather than anger. This contributes to our own freedom as well as to societal harmony, which helps promote Dharmic qualities in all individuals.

Street art in Ahvaz, Iran.
© Ashkan Forouzani from Unsplash

Tracing harmful actions to impersonal causes can also help us diagnose the structural conditions that promote suffering—a hallmark of some versions of socially engaged Buddhism. To take a relatively mild example, consider the hoarding of toilet paper. When we see such behavior we may be tempted to blame it on the selfishness of the individual, or the basic delusion of self-grasping. However, this individualizes and spiritualizes what is primarily a social problem.4A similar logic underlies critiques of the corporate marketing of mindfulness with the insidious message that if you are unhappy it isn’t because of the fundamental brokenness of our social compact, but because you can’t manage your internal states. See Purser 2019. It overlooks the fact that while we all have a tendency toward self-grasping, societal structures can help ameliorate or intensify this tendency. In other words, hoarding is not the inevitable result of an irredeemable human nature, but the predictable result of living in a society in which the individual is made solely responsible for procuring the basic requisites of life (food, clothing, shelter, and medicine), and forced to compete with others to do so. Such behavior is further compounded by a system that is structurally opposed to long-term planning and preparedness due to institutionalized greed, hatred, and delusion.

Instead of telling stories that condemn individuals for the desperate actions this situation compels, we might tell stories that question the nature of our present social compact (Isn’t the point of a society to ensure the welfare and safety of all its members? Isn’t a society that has the means but fails to do so grossly immoral?). We can also tell stories that help us imagine how it might be otherwise. One of the stories people were telling each other this past week was about the time a student asked the anthropologist Margaret Mead what, in her view, was the first sign of civilization. The student wondered if this might be pottery, a particular kind of tool, or evidence of agriculture. Mead shook her head and held up a human femur that had been broken and healed over. She explained that this was the first sign of a civilized society because caring for a person while they healed from such an injury would have required cooperation, tenderness, and selflessness.5This story was making the rounds on social media last week and appeared in an essay in The Guardian (Blumenfeld 2020). I couldn’t track down the original telling beyond an extended quote in Brand and Yancey 1993, 274-275. This sounds like a Dharmic society to me.6Bodhi 2016, Buddhist Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony provides some of the basic principles. Also relevant at this time is Anālayo 2016, Mindfully Facing Disease and Death, which addresses caretaking of the sick specifically in chapter IV.

Stories of renunciation

The Earth simply cannot continue to support the lifestyles of industrial nations in the global north.

Many of the stories Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike have been telling about the COVID-19 crisis have concerned renunciation and the ways in which the sudden transformation of our lives has forced us to reconsider what is essential. This creates an opening in our collective consciousness to imagine how we might be able to adapt to the changes necessary to reverse the course on climate—changes that now seem considerably more gradual and less drastic by comparison. Forced renunciation has also created an opening to imagine a different kind of economy: one based on the security of social, psychological, and ecological wellbeing instead of on uncontrolled greed and the delusion of perpetual growth.

As COVID-19 forces a radical moral reckoning with the unequal distribution of suffering in our society, as well as with how gross social and economic inequality and injustice are antagonistic to our collective resilience, there is also an opening to tell more truthful stories about how addressing the climate and ecological crisis will require redistribution of wealth and resources within nations as well as between the global north and south. Study after study has shown that between population growth and consumption rates, the Earth simply cannot continue to support the lifestyles of industrial nations in the global north. Even if renewable energy and a doubling of efficiency in our use of resources helps reverse the course on climate change, we will soon (by 2050) reach the limits of the resources needed to produce these technologies if we do not scale back consumption and redistribute resources (Hickel 2018). COVID-19 offers an opportunity to reflect upon how scaling back privileged lifestyles and redistributing resources is not only moral, but also likely to be far less painful for everyone than the social and economic instability that will result from continued ecological destruction combined with inequity.

Stories of freedom and letting go

These stories of planetary health and interbeing, Dharmic society, and renunciation are just some of the stories we might tell ourselves and others as we try to make sense of our experience with COVID-19 and work to bring about a more Dharmic world. However, the most important stories will concern freedom and letting go, the basic story of the Dharma.

One of the things that finally “activated” me in regard to the climate and ecological crisis was my realization that there is just no freedom to be had in turning away from the truth of how dire the situation really is. Any time I tried to put it out of my mind or excuse myself from taking action, it was because of one or more of the three poisons was at work. There was greed in not wanting to kill my mood, apathy in closing my heart to suffering, and delusion in pretending things are different than they really are. In other words, trying to “spiritually bypass” the particular suffering of this time, a suffering that I too am feeling in the form of separation (from myself, other beings, the Earth), was not going to work.

Joanna Macy has often said, “The most radical thing any of us can do at this time is to be fully present to what is happening in the world.” I think that is true. The strange thing is that while there is no freedom to be had in turning away from our collective suffering, freedom is not contingent on the ultimate success of our efforts to remove it. Freedom is found in renunciation: renouncing those delusions and attachments that block us from tending to the world, and also the delusion and attachment that creates a fixed idea of how it will all turn out. In sum, in the midst of great instability, uncertainty and suffering, we gotta try like crazy while also letting go. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the Dharma was made for these times.

This article was originally published by the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. It is reprinted here with permission.


Karin Meyers has taught Buddhist Studies at several colleges and universities in the US and abroad, and will be joining Mangalam Research Institute in Berkeley as acting Academic Director in the summer of 2020. Her scholarly work focuses on bringing Buddhist and comparative religious perspectives to bear on basic questions about the constitution of our world, knowledge, and ethics. She also speaks to Buddhist sanghas, college students, and activists about how the accelerating ecological crisis calls for a deepening and evolution of socially engaged forms of Buddhist practice.

References   [ + ]

1. This essay was written on March 31, 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic was not yet at its peak in the United States and before the uprisings catalyzed by the brutal murder of George Floyd. Although the essay speaks to the connections between racism, economic inequality and the climate and ecological crisis, if I were writing it today I would state these connections even more forcefully. I would draw on the black radical tradition, African-American and Indigenous climate activists like Mary Annaïse Heglar and Tara Houska, and analysis of right-wing climate realism (Chaudhary, “We’re Not in this Together”) to argue that black and indigenous liberation as well as broad-scale social and economic justice and equality are not merely priorities, but the essential foundations of a humane climate future. In regard to an engaged Buddhist response, I would echo Dr. Ambedkar’s call that we “Educate, Agitate, and Organize” and join Rev. angel Kyodo williams in her call for a radical dharma of collective liberation.
2. For a history of this “disaster capitalism” strategy, see Klein 2007.
3. Also see the Global Buddhist Climate Change Collective, “Buddhist Climate Change Statement to World Leaders” (2015) and Loy 2019.
4. A similar logic underlies critiques of the corporate marketing of mindfulness with the insidious message that if you are unhappy it isn’t because of the fundamental brokenness of our social compact, but because you can’t manage your internal states. See Purser 2019.
5. This story was making the rounds on social media last week and appeared in an essay in The Guardian (Blumenfeld 2020). I couldn’t track down the original telling beyond an extended quote in Brand and Yancey 1993, 274-275.
6. Bodhi 2016, Buddhist Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony provides some of the basic principles. Also relevant at this time is Anālayo 2016, Mindfully Facing Disease and Death, which addresses caretaking of the sick specifically in chapter IV.