Over the past ten years, a significant number of Western Dharma institutions have undertaken an explicit effort to confront and counter their participation in white supremacy. Admitting the reality that we as a culture systematically privilege white bodies and white experiences has challenged our sense of nobility and goodness. Yet through tireless effort and against significant resistance, committed Dharma teachers, staff, and volunteers of color along with white advocates have changed not only the racial understanding but the very face of Western Dharma. While this process is still unfolding and much work remains, a significant shift has taken place because the voices of so many harmed by white supremacy in the Dharma demanded to be heard.
What role do these same Dharma institutions have in furthering global ecological violence? Through what means will Western Dharma face its contribution to the implicit supremacy of humans over beings of all other species, over the rest of nature, and all beings yet to be born? Who will speak for all those impacted by ecological destruction now and in the near future? What lessons can our community learn from this confrontation with internalized racial harm? Exactly what must change in both the content of our offerings and how we offer them?
After a long struggle with pancreatic cancer, senior Gaia House teacher Rob Burbea finally transitioned in May of 2020. Rob’s courageous teachings as well as his example have deeply inspired the work of One Earth Sangha and we will miss him terribly. With the energy of a new year before us and with his permission before he died, we offer this challenge, written in 2011, to his fellow Gaia House leaders. As a matter of integrity with the Dharma we purport to love, Rob asks us to fully admit and actively counter every aspect of our institutions’ collusion with the forces of greed and delusion responsible for the destruction of our one Earthly home.
What does it mean to wake up today, in the midst of this modern life?
If ‘waking up’ has something to do with the way we meet life, what is our sense of what an ‘awakened’ (or at least, a ‘more awakened’) meeting with life might involve? What do we imagine it might look like? And in our notion of ‘Meeting Life’, what exactly do we mean when we say ‘Life’?
If climate change is a Human Rights issue, it must then be an ethical issue; and if it is an ethical issue, it must be a Dharma issue.
For modern ‘Life’ (however we construe it) now inevitably includes an awareness of a whole range of uncomfortable but undeniable facts about itself, about our collective situation and how we shape it through our choices and actions. At times of course it can feel tempting to try to avoid this awareness and the questions and emotions it might bring up for us. To live wakefully and authentically, however, we have to endeavour instead to somehow broaden the range and reach of our hearts and our questioning, and with it the compass of what the Dharma means today.
We live together on a planet of now more than 7 billion human beings (and rising), and with all the immense and almost overwhelmingly complex challenges that we (and other species) are facing, we might wonder whether humanity is equipped, practically or philosophically, to meet such unprecedented and elaborately interacting issues as climate change, massive species extinctions, depletion of resources, unsustainable consumerism and runaway economic systems and all the suffering that these already cause and will cause in coming years.
Of course, the responses of the heart and the beauty and necessity of empathy and compassion are all vitally important in relating to all this, but I have explored those aspects at length a number of times elsewhere, and in what follows, I would like to try to emphasise instead the qualities of clarity and unflinching honesty. I hope you can ponder this article within a larger context of necessarily diverse approaches to these themes.
So then, although it’s nearly impossible, because it’s entangled with all the others, let’s try to tug at just one thread of this daunting knot of our times, from a Dharma perspective:
Somehow each of us needs to find our ways to hold such pressing ethical questions so that these questions open us, rather than shut us down.
Though often conceived of as an ‘environmental’ issue, anthropogenic global warming is also probably the biggest Human Rights issue the world has ever faced. For we know, almost with certainty, a stark truth: as a result of global climate destabilisation, alongside the wholesale devastation to other species, many millions, or even billions of (mostly poor) human beings will be confronted with practically unavoidable death and suffering by starvation, water shortage, loss of land and displacement through droughts and flooding, increased disease, extreme weather events and doubtless brutal regional conflicts fuelled by resource scarcities.
Now, if climate change is a Human Rights issue, it must then be an ethical issue; and if it is an ethical issue, it must be a Dharma issue, because the Dharma path is based on ethics (sīla), and should also have as a measure of its fruit the expression of ethical care. (Many of us feel that it would be an ethical issue even if no humans at all were affected but only non-human nature, that the circle of moral consideration needs to expand to include a deep valuing of the natural world, in and of itself. But, for now, we’ll just consider the human-to-human moral questions.)
In a world nightmarishly slow to address the moral and practical challenges of climate change, a sufficiently large segment of humanity must venture beyond spoken platitudes to raise the essential moral questions to a primary place in society’s discourse.
We should perhaps pause here already, as it can be hard not to feel turned off considering all this. Talk of such enormous human and non-human misery, such irretrievable loss, the powerlessness and inertia we feel and witness can feel burdensome and oppressive. And in the West, ‘morality’ can often bring with it a habitually and historically associated sense of heaviness and repression, or possibly even guilt, which is rarely helpful. Naturally we may rather want to hear and think about things that make us feel good. “Where is the joy?” we might ask, from lives that might feel already burdened with busyness, complexity and demands. “Can’t someone talk about this in a way that inspires?” But maybe, given the perhaps unparalleled complexity, diversity and obscurity of the psychology underneath our collective inertia and inadequate responses to the climate emergency, the task of inner transformation will call for, and call forth, a whole spectrum of voices and emotional pitches and timbres, and some of them simply won’t be joyful or easy. We can learn, though, to simply include it all in what we ask the heart to hold, what we train the mind to contemplate.
A few years ago, in a stab to remove talk of crisis from contemporary environmentalism, someone made the interesting point that Martin Luther King Jr., in the ethical struggle of the Civil Rights movement, inspired by raising his dream as a vision. He did not proclaim “I have a nightmare”; that wouldn’t have fired the imagination. But, as James Gustav Speth wrote in response, ‘he did not need to say it. [African-Americans in the 1960s] were living a nightmare. They needed a dream. But we, I fear, are living a dream. We need to be reminded of the nightmare ahead.’ What does it mean to wake up from this dream?
Whatever our reaction to hearing or reading about the environmental situation and its moral aspects, somehow each of us needs to find his or her ways to hold such pressing ethical questions so that these questions open us, rather than shut us down. How will you and I keep truly alive in our own hearts and minds and in the Dharma community an open investigation into what sīla means for us in this modern age?
We cannot trace a direct one-to-one causal connection between, say, that flight I took, and a particular person’s misery and hunger through drought. But we do know that there is a connection.
It seems a crucial first step that we do. Because if climate change is fundamentally an ethical issue, and so a Dharma issue, I wonder further if it behoves me, as a Dharma teacher, to demonstrate moral leadership here in one way or another. Reflecting on what forms that might take, two paths immediately suggest themselves as indispensable. Firstly, what I say, write and teach must speak deeply to the sīla aspects of these issues. Surely, from somewhere, somehow, the fires of ethical concern must be lit. In a world nightmarishly slow to address the moral and practical challenges of climate change, a sufficiently large segment of humanity must venture beyond spoken platitudes to raise the essential moral questions to a primary place in society’s discourse. And secondly, I have to express more than words that sound good. In order to be real, ethics need to materialise, to be made manifest in behaviour as well as speech. We may need care here, however: to be too rigidly prescriptive in terms of behaviour tends to make many people feel understandably nervous and deprived of a degree of freedom. Unskilful rigidity tends to inspire little support, or, at worst, may even end up provoking a defiant backlash. If we let go, though, of such inflexible ‘rules’, we must still find ethics to guide us, and what these might be is still open for our exploration.
To live wakefully and authentically, we have to endeavour to somehow broaden the range and reach of our hearts and our questioning, and with it the compass of what the Dharma means today.
Most Buddhists may want to look to the teachings of the Buddha for direction. But the Buddha did not live and teach in a fossil-fuel-based, industrially globalized world of 7 billion people with an awareness of the disastrous cumulative effects of their actions on countless present and future lives. The moral precepts he taught, beautiful and vital as they are, were commensurate with the nature of his society at the time, and simply may not be, as they stand, complete enough, wide enough for our age. We may need to look elsewhere for additional guidance.
The Dalai Lama recently met with scientists, philosophers and religious leaders from around the world at the Mind and Life Conference convened to discuss the global environmental crisis. He stated his opinion that religions, including Buddhism, East and West, have become “part of the status quo, part of the problem, and need to become instead part of the solution.” Recognising that the multiple environmental crises have many of their roots in unquestioned economic thinking and untrammelled consumerism, he went on to say that Buddhism and other religions “need to challenge greed and consumerism in the world much more deeply, and need to start contemplating and addressing larger socio-economic and environmental issues in their teaching.”
Perhaps we fear we may miss out relative to others, or lose our standing or status.
We humans have known about climate change for a while now; at least since the first IPCC report in 1990. To the Dalai Lama’s statement we could add that this knowing exactly how we are causing devastating climate change and our concomitant lack of appropriate responses to curtail emissions are, from a Buddhist point of view, almost classical examples of the work of delusion and greed, two of the root afflictions that Dharma teaching and practice is supposed to uproot. Shouldn’t we then expect modern Dharma to be vigorously and emphatically addressing these manifestations of delusion and greed in ourselves and in our societies, and particularly the ways they fuel the almost incalculable present and future suffering of global warming? The Dalai Lama is effectively saying he does not see much substantial evidence of this yet within Buddhism, and he feels it needs to change.
Our modern Dharma must include environmental ethics as equally as any other of the traditional ethical guidelines. My hope is that these can become integrally woven into the vision that we have of what the Dharma is and involves. Just as most practitioners might expect, say, ethics around sexuality to be manifest in a ‘Dharma life’ and certainly a teacher’s life, so we might also expect environmental ethics, kindness and care to have comparable importance. And their absence from any ‘Enlightenment’ or ‘path of wakefulness and kindness’ would similarly call into question for us, on a gut level, the authenticity, reality and fullness of that ‘Enlightenment’, that ‘wakefulness’ and that ‘kindness’.
It seems harder to enthuse over pending sacrifices. We need, however, to be able to be moved to action in the absence of the emotion of enthusiasm.
Visibility matters here. The perception of all those who come to, or even consider coming to, Gaia House matters. As in other areas of modern moral concern in our culture, it is important to communicate a moral message loud and clear – to be transparently and visibly diverse, for instance, and not institutionally racist or institutionally sexist. Gaia House has done remarkably well in recent years in terms of the carbon footprint of the building itself, and this crucial work is to be celebrated. Great credit is due to all those involved. Now the Gaia House teachers would also like to get involved. Hopefully, as mentioned, we can begin to communicate widely this message of environmental ethics (and the associated Human Rights ethics) and their centrality in the Dharma. In addition, and as a very modest start, we have made a number of small requests to the Gaia House Trust, recognising at the same time that in the longer term a bigger shift in the way teachers and teachings are offered internationally may well be needed. We know that on their own these measures hardly represent a significant shift, but, without knowing exactly what the next steps might involve or require, we hope this will be a genuine beginning.
We also recognise that the vague hope that from somewhere there will arrive for us a technological fix to rather effortlessly remove the whole problem is an illusion and a part of the dreaming, the being asleep. Waking up will involve sacrifices for everyone. And this may be difficult. We, and indeed the network of Dharma centres, have long been accustomed to having relatively easy access to a great deal of all kinds of things (and not just obviously material things), and somehow we, like most people, expect this abundance to continue. As individuals, and as institutions like retreat centres, we must admit that we might have the same reluctance that can be witnessed at the inter-national level to give up and have less when we might not see others doing the same. Perhaps we fear we may miss out relative to others, or lose our standing or status.
Of course, it can be a lot more uplifting and attractive to talk of community projects that we can feel enthusiastic about, e.g. the installation of the biomass boiler, and this is hugely important psychologically (and obviously practically). But it’s also true that the biomass boiler involves no loss at all for anyone. It seems harder to enthuse over pending sacrifices. We need, however, to be able to be moved to action in the absence of the emotion of enthusiasm. There are anyway other potential sources and channels for our enthusiasm: in re-visioning together how Gaia House operates within the system of international Dharma teaching for instance, in spirited protest at Government policies, and perhaps, even, in civil disobedience.
In the midst of almost certainly the defining issue of our time, and as we move together towards a very uncertain future, what do, what will contemporary Dharma teachings counsel, model and express?
Bringing all this into the scope of what Dharma practice means may not be easy or comfortable for any of us. It can be difficult and unsettling when one dwells on these ethical questions. We might realize how many of the decisions that we make, individually, collectively, or institutionally as a retreat centre, are effectively, in part, statements of valuing some things over others. How many tonnes of personal carbon emissions, above what I need to survive (what are termed ‘luxury emissions’), can I justify, even if it’s ‘for the Dharma’, knowing that any extra I emit might mean a future human being will not have even enough to survive (‘subsistence emissions’)? We need to be clear and honest here what we are deciding and implying matters more than the lives of certain others. Of course this is not a simple ethical problem. We cannot trace a direct one-to-one causal connection between, say, that flight I took, and a particular person’s misery and hunger through drought. But we do know that there is a connection. And just because ethical problems like this may feel dishearteningly complex and unfamiliar, that does not mean that we shouldn’t try to feel or think our way through them. Because what could I say to convince this future person that I am making a morally right choice? The fact that they are not yet born or are still too young, far away or poor to know or complain can take some of the stark discomfort of it away, but it still exists as a moral dilemma given what we now know. Reflecting on the ways we do things from the perspective of caring for future human beings can feel uncomfortable to say the least, and such contemplations may not be completely welcome inclusions into my practice, especially if I have come to meditation and the Dharma understandably seeking inner simplification and the calming of agitation. These pressing questions are not simple, however, and it may well be that a degree of agitation accompanies earnest and engaged inquiry and reflects a healthy ethical sensitivity.
We don’t know exactly what will be asked of us as teachers or as a retreat centre in the coming months and years, but if we are too quick to refuse to consider certain possibilities, changes, and sacrifices that would make a difference, we might also need to inquire a little more searchingly, lest we be then not too far from President Bush Sr. ‘explaining’ the US refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol by stating that “The American Way of Life is not up for negotiation.”
We do not want the Dharma and Gaia House to mimic the wider failure of governing bodies to change anything really significant, so we ask for your feedback, ideas and support. In the midst of almost certainly the defining issue of our time, and as we move together towards a very uncertain future, what do, what will contemporary Dharma teachings counsel, model and express?
Rob Burbea (1965-2020) was a senior teacher at Gaia House and for ten years served as its resident teacher. Rob is author of the uniquely influential book, Seeing that Frees: Meditations on Emptiness and Dependent Arising. In the last several years of his life before succumbing to pancreatic cancer in 2020, Rob dedicated much of his time and energy to conceiving, developing, and establishing a new body of teachings that he called “Soulmaking Dharma.” The sangha-led organization, The Hermes Amāra Foundation, now serves to preserve and develop Rob’s vast Dharma teaching legacy.
To support your practice here at the end of the year, we share two prayers by Tibetan Buddhist masters. The first of these can be found here, and the second follows below.
This aspirational prayer was written by Sangye Dorje on the tenth day of the second lunar month of the Fire Pig year at the insistence of Dungse Kunzang Jigme Namgyal, who presented a ‘good day’ offering scarf. May it be auspicious!
Sugatas and bodhisattvas of the ten directions,
Turn your enlightened intention towards us!
May all sentient beings tormented by this present age
Of the five virulent degenerations,
Know that they possess a treasure that can alleviate
The various portents of decay in the physical world and its inhabitants
Due to the ripening of their wrong intentions and actions—
A treasure grounded in the renunciation of harmful actions
And the cultivation of altruistic actions,
Granting all the spiritual and temporal wellbeing one could desire.
This is the supreme wish-fulfilling gem of good heart
Associated with all supreme spiritual practices.
Endowed with this (good heart),
May all beings cultivate love and compassion for one another,
Without hatred, and without fighting or quarreling.
May they enjoy the glorious resources of happiness—
All they could possibly desire,
And swiftly attain the level of conclusive omniscience!
This prayer was originally published on Ecobuddhism.org. It is reprinted here with permission.
Chatral Sangye Dorje Rinpoche was a Dzogchen master and a reclusive yogi known for his great realization and strict discipline. Rinpoche was one of the few living disciples of Khenpo Ngawang Pelzang and was widely regarded as one of the most highly realized Dzogchen practitioners. At the age of 15, he left his home to study and practice with Buddhist masters in Tibet, Bhutan, and beyond. He remained a wandering yogi until his death in 2015.
To support your practice here at the end of the year, we share two prayers by Tibetan Buddhist masters. The first of these follows below, and the second can be found here.
At the persistence of Monlam Gyatso (Dr John Stanley), a scientist from Ireland, who is an actual student of the previous Kyabje Dudjom Rinpoche, I, Sangye Pema Zhepa, who has been given the name Dudjom Tulku, composed this aspirational prayer on the 26th of March, 2007. May virtue prevail!
Homage to the spiritual teacher of sages and gods1The Buddha,
Whose Buddha-mind renounced deceitfulness many aeons before,
Who one-pointedly loves living beings with kindness and compassion,
And who attained the supreme level of accomplishment through the direct path!
O Compassionate Teacher,
You who have manifested the abiding nature of all that can be known,
Through pristine cognition that perceives without obscuration or corruption,
Skilled in teaching the disposition of dependently arisen phenomena –
Turn your enlightened intention towards this very time!
Now when the elements of the physical world and its inhabitants have degenerated
Due to bad habits born of greed and aversion, with regard to mundane prosperity,
And through the production of various man-made chemical substances,
The time has come for you to love us even more with your compassion!
At this juncture when the world and its inhabitants near dissolution,
As life forms, snow mountains and continents are degraded
By the excavation and ravaging of elemental resources,
By the polluting fumes of some electricity generation technologies,
And by various contagious diseases, harmful to living beings,
We pray with fervent devotion
To the Lake-born Lord, sole refuge of this degenerate age,
To Avalokitesvara, most sublime being of compassion,
To Tara, Mother of the Conquerors, who protects from the eight fears,
And to all the ocean-like hosts of the Three Roots and oath-bound protectors:
Do not renege on your compassionate pledges to protect us
(Just by calling your faces to mind)
From disharmony, degradation and the like,
Caused by engaging in negative actions!
Grant your blessings that the world might enjoy the glory of peace and happiness
And that all living beings might swiftly and without obstruction
Accomplish all their aspirations that accord with the sacred teachings, just as they wish!
This prayer was originally published on Ecobuddhism.org. It is reprinted here with permission.
Dudjom Rinpoche III is a Buddhist practitioner and teacher. He presides over the Dudjom Tersar, a treasury of powerful methods for developing compassion and wisdom amidst the turmoil of our world. Born in 1990, he practiced intensively in Tibet and Nepal through 2018, primarily under the direction of Chatral Sangye Dorje. In 2019 he made his first trip to Spain, Switzerland, France, and Russia, and he took leadership of a Dudjom center in Valencia, Spain.
As the year comes to a close, we bear witness to an immense loss of life and persistent uncertainty as to what the future holds. Whether directly experienced or sensed from afar, we can open to the truth of this suffering, pausing and honoring what is here. In this reflection, Buddhist writer Sarah C. Beasley asks us to come even closer, exploring the ways that difficulty and ease, darkness and light, suffering and joy, mutually define and enrich the other. What is possible when we resist neither and instead choose intimacy with this ever-changing experience?
Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness. — Anne Frank
What is the source of your inner light? What brings you peace, calm, joy, connection? What drives out the suffering? The answers may be vastly different for each of us. I’ve never forgotten the Buddhist teaching about comparing suffering. As sentient beings, we each suffer in our own way; we cannot compare our own suffering to that of another, for it is measured within our own context. Because context varies so widely from one individual to the next and one culture to the next, we cannot say that an aging woman’s fear of wrinkles is less painful to her than the loss of a man’s limb in warfare is to him. We all suffer from fear, loss, and grief in ways both subtle and gross.
Light and darkness are symbiotic. One gives canvas to the other’s expression. In the Tao, in the Dharma, in yin and yang, neither is the villain or the savior.
Whether it is fear of persecution or deep anxiety about experiencing the effects of climate change, most people around the world range from feeling unsettled to truly suffering. Those in the Northern Hemisphere are moving from the warmth and brightness of late summer and fall and into the darker, shorter days of winter. Even in the Southern Hemisphere, many people are experiencing an inner winter dictated by the confines of quarantine or social isolation brought on by COVID-19, as well as social unrest in many places. Eco-anxiety is very real for many people living in coastal regions or on plains with drought and crop loss, and in forests consumed by wildfires. How can a person possibly experience and express so much grief by themselves? Is meeting with a therapist online really soothing? Is a walk alone in nature enough? How do we process feelings on such a vast scale, such as fearing that our grandchildren might not have clean air, water, or soil? One therapist-in-training shared:
I strongly concur with Francis Weller and Malidoma Somé in their notion that processing grief, in particular the grief associated with the changes that our society, our species, all species, and our planet are going through, is a communal experience. It is far too big for one person to hold by themselves.
Paul Montgomery1Paraphrased from a Facebook post with permission, November 2020.
In my own experience, I must share with others and spend time almost every day in nature, to breathe out my anxiety, sadness, and rage about everything beyond my control. I have to move my limbs through walking, dancing, shaking, or swimming in the elements and my environment. I need the community of people, animals, plants, skies, winds, planets, and stars to hold the fullness and overwhelm of all that I feel. Like the early days of reciting Nembutsu with my Shin Pureland teacher, I entrust myself to the greater context of the world to hold all I cannot possibly hold myself, by offering my embodied experience to the universe. This keeps my heart from truly breaking and relieves the pressure my body-mind feels from trying to encompass uncontainable thoughts and emotions.
When Ringu Tulku Rinpoche was asked how to deal with the enormity of what we as a society may be facing, his simple answer impressed me deeply. If you do your best and the situation is turned around then that is good and there will be good fruits of those actions. But, he said, if you do your best and the situation is not turned around then that is still good and there will still be good fruits of those actions. We will never know if it is enough. Motivation and intention are everything. The outcome is out of our hands.
Colin Moore2A Light in the Dark (Zen Moments)
This lesson reminds me very closely of the deep wisdom in the Jewish teaching: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now, love mercy now, walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”3From the Talmud.
Through body, speech, and mind, we never lack for ways to be of service and help reduce the suffering of beings and care for our dear planet.
Light and darkness are symbiotic. One gives canvas to the other’s expression. In the Tao, in the Dharma, in yin and yang, neither is the villain or the savior. But if their interrelation is well understood through experience, darkness can be metabolized into a light that heals oneself and others, and the very Earth herself.
Without [grief] we would not know the heartening quality of compassion, could not experience the full breadth of love, the surprise of joy, we could not celebrate the sheer beauty of the world. Grief fosters each of these capabilities, deepening them by bringing gravity to the moment. Grief is the dark color that adds depth to the canvas, providing contrast texture. Without these tones, our lives would be flat and uninteresting. It is a necessary encounter, in turn, that enables these vital qualities to hold us in times of loss.
Francis Weller (The Wild Edge of Sorrow, 2015)
And then there is the light we cannot yet see—and to access the realm in which it dwells takes a leap of faith. I often find a way in through poetry, reciting an ode to goodness, truth, or beauty—the proverbial crack where the light gets in, reminding me of my own true nature and the buddha-nature in all beings and experiences, which is there beyond my perception.
Cultivating hopefulness is a discipline we must enact with energy and focus. Human society supplies us with daily opportunities to choose either despair or hope, and we choose where to focus our energy and attention. It is a real-time Dharma practice to engage with minor and major suffering all around us and to decide to step into the light of awareness, kindness, and assistance in all the ways we can. Through body, speech, and mind, we never lack for ways to be of service and help reduce the suffering of beings and care for our dear planet. We can be specks of light ourselves in a canvas so dark one cannot see. Together we then begin to light the way.
When it is dark enough, you can see the stars. — Ralph Waldo Emerson
This article was originally published on Buddhistdoor. It is reprinted here with permission.
Sarah C. Beasley (Sera Kunzang Lhamo), Nautilus Gold award-winning author of Kindness for All Creatures: Buddhist Advice for Compassionate Animal Care (Shambhala 2019), has been a Nyingma practitioner since 2000. Sarah is a Certified Teacher, and an experienced writer and artist, with an MA in Educational Leadership and a BA in Studio Art. Sarah spent six years in traditional retreat under the guidance of Lama Tharchin Rinpoche and Thinley Norbu Rinpoche. With a lifelong passion for wilderness, she has summited Mt. Kenya and Mt. Baker, among other peaks. Her book and other works can be seen at www.sarahcbeasley.com.
The food ethic most commonly associated with Buddhism is adoption of vegetarianism or veganism to avoid harm to animals. Indeed, industrial meat production inflicts vast harm both to animals and human workers—see, for example, Whose Lives Matter? and Awakening to the Suffering of Animals.
Writer and educator John Harvey Negru points out another domain of concern and action. Current industrial food production and distribution systems, plant-based or otherwise, are major contributors to food waste and ecological degradation. Furthermore, the pandemic has revealed the fragility of this entire industry, disrupting global supply chains leading to widespread food insecurity, especially among the most vulnerable. In this article, Negru invites us to envision a food system that is healthy, resilient, and just.
Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet. — Albert Einstein
You may think that veg equals virtue. Sadly, it’s not that simple; the true story is much more nuanced, as noted in “Why Salad Is So Overrated,” Tamar Haspel’s article from The Washington Post, 23 August 2015.
Fruits, vegetables, and condiments have been the basis for some of humanity’s worst crimes: imperial spice wars of colonization; slavery on sugar plantations; and the establishment of banana republic dictatorships, to name just a few.
Salad vegetables are pitifully low in nutrition. A head of iceberg lettuce has the same water content as a plastic liter bottle of water (96 per cent water, 4 per cent solid container) and is only marginally more nutritious. In that sense, lettuce is simply a frightfully expensive vehicle to transport refrigerated water from farm to table. That is not the only problem. Lettuce has a couple of unenviable top rankings in the food world. For starters, it’s the top source of food waste (vegetable division), becoming more than one billion pounds of uneaten salad every year. And it’s also the chief culprit for foodborne illnesses. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, green leafies accounted for 22 per cent of all foodborne illnesses from 1998–2008.
Fruits, vegetables, and condiments have been the basis for some of humanity’s worst crimes: imperial spice wars of colonization; slavery on sugar plantations; and the establishment of banana republic dictatorships, to name just a few. Chocolate and vanilla come at a bittersweet cost in terms of child labor, habitat destruction, and the diversion of infrastructure resources. And don’t get me started on palm oil! Closer to home, here in the US, we’ve seen how “imported” temporary farm workers have been subjected to unsafe living conditions that promote the spread of COVID-19, and impeded in their need for healthcare.
The intersection of climate change and food production is everywhere around us if we are mindful of it.
Sugar? Tobacco? Poppies? Cocaine? Hardly virtuous vegetables. Potato chips? Hardly a nutritious staple. Konjac? Why do we need konjac?
Cut flowers? Growing them typically takes huge concentrations of pesticides and 30 times more water than agricultural crops. Refrigerating and transporting them requires massive amounts of energy, since they are mostly shipped by air. That also creates a lot of carbon-dioxide pollution. Kenya produces 33 per cent of the world’s cut flowers, while the Netherlands, the world’s largest flower-producing country, uses six times more energy per flower to heat and light its greenhouses. A single rose consumes enough energy to drive your car five kilometers.
The Illusion of Food Choice
There have been 7,500 apple cultivars recognized around the world. A hundred years ago, more than 700 of them were grown commercially in North America. Now we are down to fewer than 50. My local supermarket has about six types, designed to accommodate the constraints of the supply chain. While some activists are striving to preserve heirloom seed varieties, the dominant paradigm is a push toward monoculture.
Bananas are the fourth-largest crop in the world. When a fungal plague all but wiped out the world’s dominant Gros Michel banana cultivar in the 1950s, growers switched to Cavendish bananas because they were resistant to the fungus. Almost all the world’s bananas are descended from that original plant. Now, scientists are worried that the evolving fungus might wipe out the Cavendish cultivar too.
We also know that a loss of our bee pollinators will spell the end of many fruits, nuts, and vegetables we take for granted, and we know that bee populations are facing unprecedented challenges. Imprudent use of neonicotoid pesticides may not be the only cause, but that should not stop us from banning them—as has been done in Europe.
The pandemic has compounded existing problems exponentially, giving many of us our first visceral introduction to food insecurity.
Walking into a modern supermarket, it is hard to imagine hunger. The aisles are filled with a staggering array of products: more than 45,000 on average. For any particular type of food, there are literally dozens of choices. Of course, many of these are merely variations on basic ingredients; packaged for maximum market segmentation, they offer the illusion of choice. Outside that deva realm, in marginalized communities, food deserts offer unhealthy edible products, but little else.
Supply chain disruptions from the novel coronavirus have involved not just meat-packing plants, toilet paper, and hand sanitizer. Farmers are destroying all manner of crops because they cannot get them to market. In other words, it’s not just that we have too much and are wasteful; it means that many essential structures in our societies are under great strain. Empty gaps on store shelves are now the new normal and there’s no V-shaped recovery in the offing. We are seeing something more akin to a K-shaped recovery, where a small group of folks do very well, while many more face a growing crisis. So let’s expand our vision from ingredients to the larger systemic issues.
We throw away 40 per cent of all the food we produce, and that includes the energy it takes to grow it, package it, ship it, refrigerate it, and display it. If food waste were a country, it would be the world’s third-largest carbon polluter.
At the onset of the pandemic, the authorities repeatedly told us not to panic because there was lots of food in the system. Nevertheless, we’ve seen staggering images of thousands of people lining up for food handouts from armies of volunteers. They aren’t lining up for truffles and broccolini. The pandemic has compounded existing problems exponentially, giving many of us our first visceral introduction to food insecurity. Last year, one in six people in North America faced hunger every day. For households with children, it was one in five. For disadvantaged communities, it was one in three! Now, the pandemic has pushed tens of millions more North Americans into their ranks. Time to rethink and de-centralize our food production and distribution model!
Food waste is a huge issue. We throw away 40 per cent of all the food we produce, and that includes the energy it takes to grow it, package it, ship it, refrigerate it, and display it. If food waste were a country, it would be the world’s third-largest carbon polluter. In North America, that translates into more than 20 billion pounds (9.1 billion kilograms) of food each year. Fixing even that problem alone would be a huge win.
Food Security as a Practice
But let’s go further. The Buddha’s message was very clear: do no harm. Monastics are to depend on food donations. Lay practitioners should seek livelihoods based on compassion rather than accumulation or domination. What does that look like in terms of our modern, globally interdependent civilization?
There are many opportunities to deepen one’s practice around food security within the context of Buddhist organizations.
In olden times, Buddhist monasteries were supported by the farming communities around them. In Zen monasteries, daily physical work (samu) was part of practice, but it was not typically agricultural labour. Now the tables are turned. For modern-day Buddhist centers, samu could include community outreach food security initiatives. Those could be urban farming, volunteering at a local food bank, running a “pay-what-you-can” vegetarian meal program, a school lunch program, helping neighbors plant Victory gardens, or many other things.
As I write this, the Buddhist Global Relief organization is promoting a series of Walks for Hunger that will run through October and November.
For Buddhist practitioners, becoming involved in policy debate is a political decision at one remove from direct action, but it is an essential aspect of the big social justice picture. Large Buddhist charities such as Buddhist Global Relief, Tzu Chi Compassion Buddhist Relief, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, and Karuna, have food programs as part of their mandate. Many temples and organizations that support orphanages and the like in Asia also fund food programs. So there are many opportunities to deepen one’s practice around food security within the context of Buddhist organizations.
In my humble opinion, supporting local initiatives is critically important at this time. Consider the potential impact of bringing a Buddhist perspective to other broad-based interfaith and secular organizations focused on progressive social policies such as food security in your own community! In many respects, your sweat equity will bear more fruit than miles logged, financial contributions, thoughts and prayers.
So much of our economy is tied to food, and not just at the bistro down the street; food is inextricably part of the travel economy, from airlines to hotels to tourist destinations to cruises. Those industries are going to be on a ventilator for several years. Many of them may die. It’s a critical juncture in our history, much more immediate than the climate/extinction crisis (which isn’t going away, by the way, just because we’re distracted). We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to redirect our resources to a more sustainable, equitable food security solution than the “normal” of even a year ago.
Since the cataclysmic economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, the silver lining is that we have seen deep societal problems that were previously ignored.
The intersection of climate change and food production is everywhere around us if we are mindful of it. From raging forest fires destroying California’s elite Napa Valley wineries, or willful slash-and-burn tactics to turn the Amazon rainforest into a giant beef pasture, to droughts and floods, it should be clear that we can’t simply call for decarbonization of our economy and divestment from fossil fuel unless we embrace a new regenerative ecology model that focuses more on personal sufficiency and public luxury, rather than personal luxury at the expense of public sufficiency.
This is a deeply researched and hugely important issue, for which I discovered many more resources than I could possibly fit into the section below. However, since the cataclysmic economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, the silver lining is that we have seen deep societal problems that were previously ignored. We have a clean slate to try new ways of growing and sharing food, that most essential component of a healthy society. Let’s not waste it.
This article was originally published on Buddhistdoor. It is reprinted here with permission.
John Harvey Negru is publisher at The Sumeru Press, Canada’s largest independent Buddhist book publisher, and author most recently of Bodhisattva 4.0: A Primer for Engaged Buddhists. The book comprises 108 short introductions to the ethical issues inherent in emerging technologies, environmental crises, and a sustainable future, from a Buddhist perspective, supplemented by 500+ resources for further study and networking. He has been involved in many Buddhist community development projects and environmental causes over the past 50 years, and has been a technological design educator for more than 25 years.
Krznaric, Roman. 2020. The Good Ancestor: How to Think Long-Term in a Short-Term World. New York: The Experiment.
Laidlaw, Stuart. 2003. Secret Ingredients: The Brave New World of Industrial Farming. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.
Toensmeir, Eric and Jonathan Bates. 2013. Paradise Lot: Two Plant Geeks, One-Tenth of an Acre, and the Making of an Edible Garden Oasis in the City. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.