In the article below, Buddhist scholar David Loy explores the parallels between our individual and collective journey to understand who and what we are, the traps that we fall into the the path to belonging. David recently presented these ideas in a session co-sponsored by One Earth Sangha and GreenFaith on religious relationships to environment hosted by GreenFaith. You can listen to David’s talk and find other religious teachings on the environment here on the GreenFaith site.
As a complex religious tradition, or group of traditions, Buddhism has a lot to say about the natural world. Passages in many Buddhist texts reveal sensitivity to the beauties of nature and respect for its various beings. A good example is the Jataka tales (“birth stories”) that describe the previous lives of the Buddha before he became the Buddha. In many of them he is born as an animal, and in some of the best-known tales the Buddha sacrifices himself for “lower animals,” such as offering his rabbit body to a weak tigress so that she can feed her starving cubs. Such fables challenge the duality usually assumed between humans and “nature”— as if we were not part of nature! They suggest that the welfare of every living being, no matter how insignificant it may seem to us, is spiritually important and deserving of our concern. All beings in the Jatakas are able to feel compassion for others and act selflessly to help ease their suffering. In contrast to a Darwinian “survival of the fittest,” which is often used to justify our abuse of other species, its stories offer a vision of life in which we are all interconnected, parts of the same web of life, and therefore also inter-responsible, responsible for each other.
This compassion is not limited to the animal realm. If we can believe the traditional biographies, the Buddha was born under trees, meditated under trees, experienced his great awakening under trees, often taught under trees, and passed away under trees. Unsurprisingly, he often expressed his gratitude to trees and other plants. Some later Buddhist texts explicitly deny that plants have sentience, but the Pali Canon is more ambiguous. In one sutra, a tree spirit appears to the Buddha in a dream, complaining that its tree had been chopped down by a monk. The next morning the Buddha prohibited sangha members from cutting down trees. Monks and nuns are still forbidden to cut off tree limbs, pick flowers, even pluck green leaves off plants.
Yet great sensitivity to nature is hardly unique to Buddhism. So what special perspective, if any, does Buddhism offer to our understanding of the biosphere, and our relationship to it, at this critical time in history when we are doing our utmost to destroy it?
To answer that question, we have to go back to a more basic question: what is really distinctive about Buddhism? The four noble (or “ennobling”) truths are all about dukkha, and the Buddha emphasized that his only concern was ending dukkha. To end our dukkha, however, we need to understand and experience anatta, our lack of self, which seen from the other side is also our interdependence with all other things.
There are different ways to explain anatta, yet fundamentally it denies our separation from other people and from the rest of the natural world. The psychosocial construction of a separate self in here is at the same time the construction of an “other” out there, that which is different from me. What is special about the Buddhist perspective is its emphasis on the dukkha built into this situation. Basically, the self is dukkha.
One way to express the problem is that the sense of self, being a construct, is always insecure, because inherently ungrounded. It can never secure itself, because there is no-thing that could be secured. The self is more like a process, or a function. The problem with processes, however, is that they are always temporal, necessarily impermanent—but we don’t want to be impermanent, something that is changing all the time. We want to be real! So we keep trying to ground ourselves, often in ways that just make our situation worse. For Buddhism the only true solution lies in realizing our nonduality with “others” and understanding that our own well-being cannot be distinguished from their well-being.
Does this basic insight about the intimate connection between sense of self and dukkha also apply to the sense of separation between ourselves and others? The issue here is whether “separate self = dukkha” also holds true for our biggest collective sense of self: the duality between us as a species, Homo sapiens, and the rest of the biosphere.
If this particular parallel between individual and collective selves holds, there are two important implications. First, our collective sense of separation from the natural world must also be a constant source of collective frustration for us. Secondly, our responses to that alienation, by trying to make our collective species-self more real—in this case, by attempting to secure or “self-ground” ourselves technologically and economically—are actually making things worse.
Western civilization developed out of the interaction between Judeo-Christianity and the culture of classical Greece. Greek culture emphasized our uniqueness by distinguishing the conventions of human society (culture, technology, and so on) from the rhythms of the natural world. What is important about this distinction is the realization that whatever is social convention can be changed: we can reconstruct our own societies and attempt to determine our own collective destiny.
Today we take that insight for granted, yet it’s not something that most premodern, traditionally conservative societies would have understood. Without our sense of historical development, they have usually accepted their own social conventions as inevitable because also natural. This often served to justify social arrangements that we now view as unjust, but there is nevertheless a psychological benefit in thinking that way: such societies shared a collective sense of meaning that we have lost today. For them, the meaning of their lives was built into the cosmos and revealed by their religion, which they took for granted. For us, in contrast, the meaning of our lives and our societies has become something that we have to determine for ourselves in a universe whose meaningfulness (if any) is no longer obvious. Even if we choose to be religious, we today must decide between various religious possibilities, which diminishes the spiritual security that religions have traditionally provided. While we have a freedom that premodern societies did not have, we lack their kind of “social security,” which is the basic psychological comfort that comes from knowing one’s place and role in the world.
In other words, part of the rich cultural legacy that the Greeks bequeathed the West—for better and worse—is an increasing anxiety about who we are and what it means to be human. There is a basic tension between such freedom (we decide what to value and what to do) and security (being grounded in something greater, which is taking care of us), and we want both. As soon as one of them is emphasized, we want more of the other. In general, however, the modern history of the West is a story of increasing freedom at the cost of decreasing security, in the sense that loss of faith in God has left us rudderless. Thanks to ever more powerful technologies, it seems like we can accomplish almost anything we want to do—yet we don’t know what our role is. That continues to be a source of great anxiety, not only for us individually but collectively. What sort of world do we want to live in? What kind of society should we have? If we can’t depend on God to tell us, we are thrown back upon ourselves, and our lack of any grounding greater than ourselves is a profound source of suffering. This helps us to understand why our collective sense of separation from the natural world is a continual source of frustration. The stronger our alienation from nature, the greater our anxiety.
Any genuine solution to the ecological crisis must involve something more than technological improvements. If the root of the problem is spiritual, the solution must also have a spiritual dimension.
This brings us to the second implication mentioned earlier: our collective response to this collective dukkha is just making things worse. First, let’s remember how things go wrong individually. We usually respond to the delusion of a separate self by trying to make that sense of self more real—which doesn’t work and can’t work, since there is no such self that can be isolated from its relationships with others. Since we don’t realize this, we tend to get caught up in vicious circles. I never have enough money or power; I’m never famous enough, attractive enough.
When we think about our collective response from this perspective, I think the motivation becomes clear. Lacking the security that comes from knowing one’s place and role in the cosmos, we have been trying to create our own security. Technology, in particular, is our collective attempt to control the conditions of our existence on this earth. We have been trying to remold the earth so that it is completely adapted to serve our purposes, until everything becomes subject to our will, a “resource” that we can use. Ironically, though, this hasn’t been providing the sense of security and meaning that we seek. We have become more anxious, not less. That’s because technology can be a great means, but in itself it’s a poor goal.
Sooner or later, one way or another, we will bump up against the limits of this compulsive but doomed project of endless growth. Since our increasing reliance on technology as the solution to life’s problems is itself a large part of the problem, the ecological crisis does not call for a primarily technological response. Dependence on sophisticated, ever more powerful technologies tends to aggravate our sense of separation from the natural world, whereas any successful solution must involve accepting that we are part of the natural world. That, of course, also means embracing our responsibility for the well-being of the biosphere, because its well-being ultimately cannot be distinguished from our own well-being.
The solution does not lie in “returning to nature.” We cannot return to nature, because we have never left it. That way of describing the natural world is dualistic; it dichotomizes between us and where we are located. The environment is not merely the place where we live and act, for the biosphere is the ground from which and within which we arise. The earth is not only our home, it is our mother. In fact, our relationship is even more intimate, because we can never cut the umbilical cord. The air in my lungs, like the water and food that pass through my mouth, is part of a great system that does not stop with me but continually circulates through me. My life is a dissipative process that depends upon and contributes to that never-ending circulation. Eventually I too will be food for worms.
Any genuine solution to the ecological crisis must involve something more than technological improvements. If the root of the problem is spiritual, the solution must also have a spiritual dimension. And again, this does not mean a return to premodern religious conviction, which is impossible for us today. Buddhism shows another way, which de-emphasizes the role of dogma and ritual. The Buddhist approach is quite pragmatic. The goal of the Buddhist path is wisdom in service of personal and social transformation. When we meditate, for example, we are not transforming ourselves. We are being transformed. Quiet, focused concentration enables something else to work in us and through us, something other than one’s usual ego-self. This opens us up and liberates a deeper grounding within ourselves. Our lack of self is what enables this process; it frees us from the compulsion to secure ourselves within the world. We do not need to become more real by becoming wealthy, or famous, or powerful, or beautiful. We are able to realize our nonduality with the world because we are freed from such fixations.
Although living beings are numberless, the bodhisattva vows to save them all. He or she assumes the grandest possible role, on a path that can never come to an end. Although such a commitment is not compulsory, it follows naturally from realizing that none of those beings is separate from oneself. We discover the meaning we seek in the ongoing, long-term task of repairing the rupture between us and Mother Earth, our natural ground. That healing will transform us as much as the biosphere.
David R. Loy is a professor, writer, and Zen teacher in the Sanbo kyodan tradition of Japanese Zen Buddhism. His books include A Great Awakening: Buddhist Social Theory and The World is Made of Stories. This article was adapted from Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution by David R. Loy © 2008. Reprinted with permission from the author.
For those of us living in the “modern” world, it is so easy to feel disconnected as we sit in our separate cubicles, drive home in our separate cars and walk into our separate homes. But, as a provocative new film reminds us, we really have only one home, and we don’t live in it, but we are of it – we are planetary.
Next week, on Earth Day, the film Planetary will be screened world-wide at 75 theaters. It can also be streamed online, including here at One Earth Sangha. Invite your friends and, for USD $12.99, take in this amazing film. The filmmakers have even arranged for a small donation to One Earth Sangha for everyone who streams the film from our site.
Planetary is the work of friends from Brighton in the United Kingdom who were first dazzled by the truth of interconnectedness in their teenage years. Fifteen years later, after discovering the Dharma and studying Tibetan Buddhism at the School for Oriental and African studies in London, their dream of transmitting these ideas to a broader audience through film is about to be realized.
Planetary is a visual meditation on our Earth and her people with stunning images taking from the International Space Station and locations throughout the globe. The teachings interconnectedness are offered through some of the leading wisdom teachers of our time including Dharma teachers like Joanna Macy, David Loy, Rev angel Kyodo williams and Roshi Joan Halifax, as well as the first film appearance by HH the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa.
Although the teachings of the film should resonate strongly with mindfulness and Buddhist practitioners, it is also a wake-up call to our community. With the truth of our interconnectedness to each other and Earth so evident in science and the Dharma, are we as Buddhists appropriately and fully engaged in the transformation to a more life-sustaining approach to civilization? If not us, then who?
One Earth Sangha proudly co-sponsored the East Coast Premiere of Planetary on March 28th in Washington, DC. In the coming months, we will explore ways to use this film as a doorway to practice for our network. Stay tuned!
And consider further exploring your own appropriate response to the climate crisis and other ecological threats through One Earth Sangha’s upcoming EcoSattva Training. Come join us and let’s face this together!
Climate change …
Global warming …
Biggest party in human history.
by Lou Leonard, Co-Founder at One Earth Sangha and Vice President at World Wildlife Fund
This week I’ve spent most of my time talking with reporters, radio stations and folks on social media about Earth Hour — an event begun by World Wildlife Fund nine years ago to raise awareness about climate change. Earth Hour arrives at 8:30 pm tonight (March 28) local time when businesses, iconic landmarks and a whole bunch of regular folks turn off their lights for one hour – Earth Hour – as a call for climate action and a signal that they are standing in solidarity with people all over the world as we face the climate threat. Like New Year’s Eve celebrations, it moves across the planet like a wave.
Back in 2007, when Earth Hour began as one hour in one city (Sydney, Australia), we had no idea what would happen next. But by 2009, Earth Hour was a rocking, global party. Candlelight dinners in Paris with the Eiffel Tower dark, laughing children in Cape Town dancing under the stars, a ‘dark’ chocolate party at Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco with the Golden Gate Bridge dim in the background. This year people in over 175 countries, 7000 cities, as well as almost any iconic landmark you can think of are coming together to send a signal to the world that action on climate change is a priority.
This year, Earth Hour comes at a more critical time than ever. Just as the lights are going out on the Bird’s Nest in Beijing and the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, governments in those cities and in every countries on Earth are developing national carbon pollution targets to contribute to a new international agreement in Paris in December. The signal that we send tonight can show our leaders that we are watching and we want them to be bold. Through Earth Hour we can break down false barriers and division and begin to act Planetary. Doing so, we can model for our governments that kind of agreement needed in Paris – one that supports and encourages greater cooperation and action, rather than finger pointing and conservative commitments.
As Earth Hour has grown over the years, many were dumbfounded that a climate action could inspire such unbridled joy. As Dharma practitioners we shouldn’t be. As the Zen koan teaches, “the sickness is the medicine.” When we stop running from our fears and face them, magic happens and interconnection reveals itself.
Climate change is the great teacher of our interdependence, with each other and Earth. Think of it this way: The coal dug up in Virginia and burned in Ohio, heats the atmosphere, which melts the Himalayan glaciers. That water floods villages in Nepal before reaching the sea which raises ocean levels and floods the largest naval base in the world – back in Virginia. On the solution side, interconnection has helped drive an unbelievable reduction in the cost of clean energy and its related rapid growth. The policies supporting solar in Germany and the United States helped drive the solar manufacturing industry in China, which lowered prices further, which deepened solar purchases in the United States, India and elsewhere.
We are all connected; no one person, no one country can face this threat or solve it alone. Cognitively this can still feel scary at times, rather than joyful. “Will we succeed? Can the change come fast enough?” But being present and awake, letting go into the truth of our interconnection, unfailingly leads to greater ease and more often than not joy. Even climate joy, as we come out of our protected skin and rely on each other to move into this uncertain and exciting future.
Another wondrous truth: from this place of connectedness and joy, action comes. For Earth Hour this means using the Hour to let yourself discover what you want to do next. From the small steps of signing up for an energy audit to reduce waste, cost and carbon or finally looking into that green energy program your utility offers. Or somewhat bigger steps like rooftop solar panels for your home (I haven’t paid for electricity since mine went on the roof last year) or looking into an electric car. But most importantly, becoming a force to break the climate silence, the social taboo around speaking about climate change. When we wisely speak from a place of love, we can disarm awkward conversations and expel the emotional barriers to discussing climate action.
Get started at www.worldwildlife.org/EarthHour. Tweet at a few remaining landmarks to encourage them to participate (Freedom Tower anyone?) And during the day, tune in to watch Earth Hour Live and revel in watching the children’s faces in Uganda, India and Italy as the lights go out and the party starts. And when the lights come back on, take the next step.
So this night, March 28 at 8:30 pm, wherever you are, join in, lean in and let go. Your climate joy is waiting.
Interfaith groups are coming together at noon on Valintine’s Day for prayer for the healing of the earth. Deep in our tradition is the Metta Prayer, the heart-felt wish for well-being. Heather Lyn Mann, an ordained member of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing, has graciously offered this for the occasion.
It’s Valentine’s Season and time to express love to our beloveds. Let’s not forget about someone most special–Mother Earth—because she is the giver of life and sustainer of everything we know and hold dear. We can make a gift to her, in celebration of the holiday, and deliver it through mindful meditation. Let our expression of love transcend sentimentality and idiocy and come from a place of awareness of our deep union—an intimate and profound understanding of Interbeing. Only with this insight can we embrace Mother Earth’s suffering as a mirror to our individual and societal pain.
As you sit calmly in mindful contemplation, offer these words in silence to Mother Earth and her children.
May I wake to Earth’s energy as my heat.
May I wake to Earth’s ocean as my tears.
May I wake to Earth’s wind as my breath.
May I wake to Earth’s landscape as my body.
May my heat open prairie seeds.
May my tears fill rain clouds.
May my breath give flight to Frigate Birds.
May my body be an island of refuge.
May you wake to Earth’s energy as your heat.
May you wake to Earth’s ocean as your tears.
May you wake to Earth’s wind as your breath.
May you wake to Earth’s landscape as your body.
May your heat open prairie seeds.
May your tears fill rain clouds.
May your breath give flight to Frigate Birds.
May your body be an island of refuge.
May Mother Earth depend on our heat for her energy.
May Mother Earth depend on our tears for her ocean.
May Mother Earth depend on our breath for her wind.
May Mother Earth depend on our body for her landscape .
May Mother Earth open prairie seeds.
May Mother Earth fill rain clouds.
May Mother Earth give flight to Frigate Birds.
May Mother Earth have islands of refuge.
Beloved Mother, wake us—your children—to suffering we cause.
Beloved Mother, help us help all beings recover from carbon dioxide overdose.
Beloved Mother, continue nourishing life as it evolves and arrives each day.
Beloved Mother, be happy and free on your journey through space.
You can learn more about Heather Lyn Mann, her teachings and retreats here on her website.
In the heart practice below, Sister Jewel from the Order of Interbeing offers a way to hold the inherent complexities of awakening to climate change. We invite you to use this as a contemplation for your personal meditation and to practice it together with those you consider your sangha.
This summer, I was sitting quietly at the edge of a field, and it suddenly hit me that throughout my 40 years I have inadvertently been contributing to our planetary crisis, just by being part of this society. It was very sobering to reflect on all the items I have consumed from birth—food, water, electricity, heating, air conditioning, clothing, possessions, media, transportation, and more—and the reality that so many of these things were produced, used, and disposed of in ways harmful to the environment. I had never before seen my role in our ecological crisis so personally and concretely.
Yet I am also continuously struck by how much possibility exists for transformation of our species and our planet at this moment of crisis. As convincingly argued by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone in Active Hope, we do have the means to turn away from our destructive course, and many people all over the world—including you, the reader!—are already manifesting just and sustainable ways of life with great courage and innovation.
I offer this guided meditation as a practice for awakening to both the crisis and the great potential for transformation.
—Sr. Jewel, January 2015
Breathing in, I open to my feelings in response to the climate crisis.
Breathing out, I allow these feelings to be here, whatever they are.
In: Opening to my feelings
Out: Allowing my feelings
Breathing in, I tenderly hold the suffering in me in response to the climate crisis.
Breathing out, I tenderly hold the collective suffering, including that of the earth.
In: Holding suffering in me
Out: Holding suffering of others
Breathing in, I am aware of the many animal and plant species now threatened with extinction.
Breathing out, I am aware of the growing threat to human health and safety.
In: Species threatened with extinction
Out: Humans also threatened
Breathing in, I look deeply to see how I have contributed to our global crisis.
Breathing out, I see the individual and collective ignorance at the root of this destruction.
In: My contribution to the crisis
Out: Ignorance at its root
Breathing in, I allow myself to feel sorrow and regret for my own harm and the collective harm .
Breathing out, I ask the Great Mother Earth and the Buddha in me for forgiveness and understanding.
In: Embracing my regret
Out: Forgiveness and understanding
Breathing in, I know I am also part of the solution, and I can contribute to sustainability and social justice.
Breathing out, I see the individual and collective awakening happening all over the world.
In: I can contribute to healing
Out: Collective awakening is happening
Breathing in, I open to what I truly, deeply long for in my own life and in the world.
Breathing out, I commit to making concrete steps in my daily life to manifest this reality.
In: Touching deep aspiration
Out: Concrete, daily steps to realize it
Sister Jewel (Chan Chau Nghiem) grew up in the US and Kenya, in an intentional community that practiced simple living and engaged in village development projects worldwide. She remembers contests with the other children on who could use the least amount of water for bathing. She was ordained as a nun by Thich Nhat Hanh in 1999. She will spend the first half of 2015 teaching mindfulness courses at Schumacher College in the UK, an environmental college for graduate students, and then lead mindfulness retreats in Europe and the US.