Western Dharma has only recently begun to acknowledge that anger can contain necessary wisdom, that it can be an expression of wholeness and a call to right-action. Does grief have its own unique and powerful awakening potential? Versus a mental-emotional state to be transformed, can we recognize extended grief as an especially persistent teacher?
In this moving presentation, Belvie Rooks shares with us her exploration of the Dharma of immense and intersecting griefs. She draws on Thích Nhất Hạnh’s prediction of a collective Buddha, on her grandmother’s generosity and wisdom, and on the poetry of Alice Walker in this talk on reconciling the irreconcilable.
I’d been on a journey of intersecting griefs. I was grieving the loss of the very hopeful possibilities that Dr. King had faith in.
But for such a time as this that you were born—to take responsibility for the whole.
The very act of planting a tree is an act of commitment to a future. Trees grow.
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.
Belvie Rooks incorporates meditation and stillness as part of her youth/elder, intergenerational wisdom circles. Co-founder of “Growing a Global Heart” along with her late husband, Poet Dedan Gills, she has engaged in ceremonial tree plantings along the Trans-Atlantic Slave Route in West Africa and the Underground Railroad in the United States and Canada.
Her new book, I Give You the SPRINGTIME of My Blushing Heart: A Poetic Love Song is co-authored with Dedan. SPRINGTIME is a poetic memoir dealing with love, grief, loss, and transcendence. She and Dedan are also featured contributors in The Power of Love: A Transformed Heart Changes the World, edited by Fran Grace PhD. Her essays are included in a number of anthologies including My Soul Is a Witness: African American Women’s Spirituality, Ecological and Social Healing: Multicultural Women’s Voices, and Global Chorus: 365 Voices on the Future of the Planet, with an introduction by Jane Goodall. She is a Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award winner as Senior Editor of Paris Connection: African American Artists in Paris.
By Kristin Barker
Over the past week, my home town of Washington DC has been embroiled in protests against the brutal murder of George Floyd by members of the Minneapolis Police Department and the militarized response from the Trump Administration to those protests. I have found these events alternately horrifying and humbling, encouraging and disheartening, frightening and inspiring. As a Dharma practitioner, I am leaning heavily on my practice to stay close to my own heart to manage these complex emotions, looking through the lens of our tradition to understand my place in all that is unfolding.
While we need justice for George Floyd, a justice far from guaranteed, the long road to authentic reform requires so much more.
As I joined the protests at the White House, I found solace in the community, relishing the opportunity to listen to black voices teach the crowd, to follow their lead in moving around our city and stopping periodically to kneel in silence. Yet I admit the question on my mind, like many, was whether this level of investment, particularly from the white contingent, would continue after the collective attention moved on with the next news cycle. While we need justice for George Floyd, a justice far from guaranteed, the long road to authentic reform requires so much more. For the healing of humanity and the viability of our world, white supremacy must be eradicated in all of its cultural and institutional forms. In the peaceful version of the story, that is principally the work of white people for only we can eradicate our own delusion. In the violent version, we are overcome.
Six years after the eerily similar murder of Michael Brown and, in March of this year, Manuel Ellis, police officers whose job is to protect and serve are squeezing the life out of black men. Should these recent cases be given full credence and these horrific deaths be redressed with convictions across the board, if our criminal justice system remains corrupt, indeed if any form of institutionalized white supremacy remains, we will find ourselves in new versions of these tragedies again and again and again. The challenge of eradicating the dehumanizing and terrifyingly resilient force of white supremacy from our institutions, from our relationships, and from our own hearts is difficult to overstate. Yet that work is an integral part of our work to protect and repair the Earth for the collective mind that disrespects, dishonors, and cuts down trees does the same to black bodies. We must remove our consent from and all forms of desecration.
In a recent conversation, mindfulness leader Travis Spencer likened the supremacy of whiteness that is embedded in our criminal justice system and so other institutions to the crabgrass in the yard. You can yank and tear at clump after clump for days on end but unless and until you remove it all, uproot every last fiber, above and below, crabgrass will reliably reemerge. Yet there’s no other way to reclaim your garden. That work is hard and frequently painful. It takes time, commitment, vigilance and a willingness to turn over so much soil that the yard afterwards will likely be unrecognizable. But the yard that remains will be fecund, capable of hosting a healthy and whole life community.
Viewed another way, white supremacy is a recurring wave pattern that moves through time and changing shape as it goes, sliding easily around obstacles. Human minds, especially those that think themselves white,1Ta-Nehisi Coates’s coined this description for white-identified people in Between the World and Me are the substance of this pattern and its wave action sweeps us up along the way. Born into the inherited phenomenon and passively inducted, these minds then unconsciously manifest its distorted view. Human bodies, especially but not only those whose skin is black, receive the impact of wave after wave after wave.
You can yank and tear at clump after clump for days on end but unless and until you remove it all, uproot every last fiber, above and below, crabgrass will reliably reemerge. Yet there’s no other way to reclaim your garden.
What we know about the physics of waves holds true here. The only thing that can neutralize a wave is another wave, one with sufficient amplitude moving in precisely the opposite direction. This counter wave, one that exactly counters ignorance with seasoned wisdom, hatred with universal compassion, and cowardice with sustained courage, will cancel and even overtake the original wave. Its potential is the inclusive healing for all. Together, summoning all the wisdom, energy and courage already underway and at our disposal, we must engage in the sometimes confusing and complicated work of collaborative action. We must remove our energy from the first wave and join, even become, this counter-wave.
The environmental movement has long denied and is only recently coming to terms with its own forms of institutional racism. From the displacement of indigenous people for the creation of conservation parks, to a lack of diversity in environmental organizations, to the struggle over anti-racist demands in Extinction Rebellion’s call to action, the sense of a noble cause provides consistent cover for marginalization of people of color. Likewise, western Dharma has only recently begun to address the racism embedded in its its lack of racially diverse leadership, conflict-averse culture, and avoidance of social issues as “political.” Spiritual practice becomes spiritual bypass when it prefers the absolute over the relative, when it tends to transcend difficultly versus confronting and transforming it, when it sits in lotus instead of slogging through the mud.2As Thích Nhất Hạnh famously summarized the unpleasant effort required to transform the mind’s delusions as, “no mud; no lotus.” As an organization with a mission of awakening our ecological nature, we as One Earth Sangha are doubly positioned to play out these subtle phenomena. Despite all of our operational and programmatic efforts, efforts that may have some beneficial outcome, we remain a white-led and largely white-staffed organization. This isn’t about how we are seen but how we see, for in our composition we lack critical perspective, diverse embodied experiences of the Earth, and essential wisdom for healing. We must always be willing to confront ourselves, the crabgrass in our own garden, how the wave of white domination draws us in, and how we contribute to its energy.
The Dharma clarifies that our minds are conditioned. As white people, we must be open to the possibility that we have been trained into delusion about ourselves and people of other races and then see for ourselves again and again if and how this is so. Not easy. How do we confront a wave headed straight for us and not get swept away? By diving in. By understanding the true history of how racism manifests, as well as the daily experiences of black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC), our worldview will shift. We will see and act anew, finding it not only easy but natural to follow BIPOC leadership, to monitor the tendency to distract or defend, to abandon our own contributions to the crabgrass and the wave, to agitate for specific policy change, to renounce ill-gotten power and resources, and all the while to compassionately support our white siblings in this journey.
As a white practitioner in America and leader of this organization, my unending task is to counter this patterning, internally and externally, with the support of Dharma. I have come to understand that, rooted in ignorance, white supremacy is at its core organized, codified, racialized clinging. Like all clinging, it co-arises with a separative consciousness, a contracted sense of self that unconsciously dehumanizes. Like all clinging, it leads directly to suffering. The implication is that this grip that begins in my heart can, if supported by courage, compassion, and careful investigation, release. In its wake and with the support of others, I hope to find the courage and clarity to pull out the next patch of crabgrass, to renounce all that hinders healing, and perhaps to even contribute to the counter-wave.
No matter our race, this is a necessary aspect of all of our work on climate and ecological destruction, for the pummeling of the Earth is sourced from the same delusion of separateness. In our path to come into right relationship with Earth and all her beings, we must lovingly and courageously confront our own minds, one another, and all of the cultural and structural forms that codify objectification of people and planet. This is the simultaneous healing of our hearts and our world.
May we understand and transform racial habits of harm.
May we remember that we belong to each other.
May we grow in our awareness that what we do can help or hinder racial well-being.
May our thoughts and actions reflect the world we want to live in and leave behind.
May we heal the seed of separation inherited from our ancestors in gratitude for this life.
May all beings without exception benefit from our growing awareness.
May our thoughts and actions be ceremonies of well-being for all races.
May we honor being diverse racial beings among the human race, and beyond race.
May we meet the racial crisis of the world with as much wisdom as we can muster.
— Closing prayer from Ruth King’s Mindful of Race.
Kristin Barker is the director and co-founder of One Earth Sangha.
References [ + ]
|1.||↩||Ta-Nehisi Coates’s coined this description for white-identified people in Between the World and Me|
|2.||↩||As Thích Nhất Hạnh famously summarized the unpleasant effort required to transform the mind’s delusions as, “no mud; no lotus.”|
Inspired by and trained in the work of Joanna Macy, Sarah Vekasi was an early pioneer in the field of eco-chaplaincy while a student at Naropa University in 2005. In her definition, eco-chaplaincy expands the field of chaplaincy by addressing the spiritual implications of ecological crisis through a combination of the four primary roles of a chaplain: theological, pastoral, healing, and change agency. Vekasi later moved to Southern Appalachia to work as an eco-chaplain helping environmental and rural community groups organize to end mountain top removal and save their homes and watersheds.
In the past decade, various eco-chaplaincy trainings and initiatives have formed around the country. The program at the Sati Center for Buddhist Studies described here by authors Kirsten Rudestam, Gil Fronsdal and Susie Harrington offers basic Buddhist training in the wisdom and skill needed to be a Buddhist Environmental Chaplain, i.e., those who work to establish people in a healthy, compassionate, and mutually supportive relationship with the natural world.
by Kirsten Rudestam, Gil Fronsdal and Susie Harrington
It has become increasingly difficult to ignore the increasing decimation of ecological systems and species, the dire prognoses of climate scientists, and the daily updates on the exploitation of the earth and its peoples. How do we cope with, navigate and experience the losses of local and global species and ecologies? How do we respond to the more-than-human suffering and losses of these times? How do we understand the relationship between ecological breakdown and social injustice? How do we skillfully navigate and care for one another as our earth ecologies respond to the increasing impact of global climate change? What are the tools for establishing healthy, compassionate, and mutually supportive relationships with each other and with the more-than-human world?
Chaplaincy is sacred work in that it can involve touching and caring for the deepest, most personal and most valuable areas of people’s lives.
The teachings of Buddhism and the practice of mindfulness can strengthen our capacity to respond skillfully to the above questions. Attending open-heartedly to the present moment, a core teaching of the Buddha, can be considered an act of great courage. In doing so, we increase our willingness and capacity to be with suffering and to respond not with aversion or denial but with compassion and wisdom. Western Buddhism has a long history of engaged practice in the West; while most notable in the tradition of Zen Buddhist practitioner Thích Nhất Hạnh, students and teachers of various traditions have found that the insights of impermanence and interconnection help inspire and fuel an inclination to attend to wisely to contemporary cases of injustice and inequality.
Eco-Chaplaincy: Expanding the Circle of Care
As noted by Wendy Johnson in a recent article in Tricycle, the origins of Christian chaplaincy go back to Saint Martin in 4th century France; chaplains in the tradition of Saint Martin are “people of faith performing religious duties in a secular situation, creating chapels of refuge in the heart of the world.“ The growing field of eco-chaplaincy in turn reflects the increasing awareness that our care and attention must extend beyond the human. Sarah Vekasi, a student and practitioner of Joanna Macy’s Work that Reconnects, described and defined the work of an eco-chaplain in the early 2000s as a form of secular and inter-religious spiritual support for social and environmental justice activists and other individuals and communities experiencing grief, despair, and confusion in the wake of environmental and social injustices. Since then, eco-chaplaincy trainings, offerings and initiatives have been forming around the country, from the work of the Chaplaincy Institute and Reverend Lauren Van Ham, to Upaya Zen Center’s Eco-Chaplaincy training, and to our Buddhist Eco-Chaplaincy training program offered through the Sati Center for Buddhist Studies.
Where there is suffering, the eco-chaplain is interested in healing; where there is joy and love, the eco-chaplain helps celebrate.
The Sati Center’s Buddhist Eco-Chaplaincy year-long training program is a pioneering endeavor which places Buddhist practice and Dharma values at the heart of caring for the more-than-human world, for our self and others in relation to this world, and for the sufferings, joys, and degrees of inner freedom we can all have in relation to it. Our training program offers experience-based activities and contemplative practices that deepen individuals’ own relationships with nature as well as provide them with skills to be spiritual caregivers, knowledge to better understand contemporary environmental and social justice issues, and tools to help others (re)connect with nature and face contemporary environmental crises with wisdom and compassion. We anticipate that participants will walk away from this program with skills and practices they can offer to their community, a greater sense of personal connection with the natural world, insights into the interdependent existence and interconnection of all life, a supportive eco-dharma sangha, and increased ability to turn towards difficulty with wisdom and compassion.
During our inaugural program, launched in July 2019, participants are given materials every month in a variety of forms (written, video, audio) to inspire, provoke, and engage our practice, our minds, and our hearts in deeper connection with the natural world and to explore our responses to the climate emergency. Through a variety of guest teachers, inquiries and exercises, we engage with the natural world as refuge, guide, teacher, and companion from childhood to the present day. As one participant shared, “We explore ourselves and each other as colleagues, integrating these experiences and learnings with the practice of chaplaincy skills (deep listening, the making of ceremony, and prayer). Curious to see how being an EcoChaplain will eventually manifest in our lives, we also see that embracing uncertainty and dwelling in possibility are also part of the practice.”
A Sacred Response to Suffering
Chaplaincy is sacred work in that it can involve touching and caring for the deepest, most personal and most valuable areas of people’s lives. Eco-chaplaincy adds to this a focus on the sacred or profound interconnectedness people have with the earth. Where there is suffering, the eco-chaplain is interested in healing; where there is joy and love, the eco-chaplain helps celebrate; where there is alienation, the eco-chaplain fosters belonging; where there is injustice the eco-chaplain promotes justice and reconciliation, and where there is the possibility of doing good, the eco-chaplain promotes the greatest good for all involved. Training in eco-chaplaincy is more than acquiring knowledge and skills in this new field. As we face increasing uncertainty and environmental losses, we are asked to delve into the depths and breadths of our spiritual lives and face these times with compassion, integrity, unconditionality and clear seeing. Eco-chaplaincy is one avenue within which to practice and cultivate these capacities and to respond with care and wisdom to the suffering of our world.
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.l1596847871iamg@1596847871ycnia1596847871lpahc1596847871ocets1596847871ihddu1596847871b1596847871. The second training will begin in July 2021, with applications opening winter of 2020-21.
Gil Fronsdal has practiced Zen and vipassana since 1975 and has a Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies from Stanford. Trained by Jack Kornfield, he is the founder and primary teacher of the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, California and is also a husband and father. He is the author of The Issue at Hand, co-editor of Teachings of the Buddha, editor of Voices From Spirit Rock, and has published an acclaimed new translation of The Dhammapada.
Susie Harrington teaches meditation nationwide and is the guiding teacher for Desert Dharma, which serves many communities in the Southwest near her home in Moab, Utah. She has trained in the Insight tradition since 1989, and in 2005 was invited into teaching by Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, and Guy Armstrong. She was an outdoor professional for over 30 years, including years as a river guide, mountaineering guide, and backcountry ranger, and now finds her greatest delight in sharing her love of the dharma and the natural world.
In this second evocative meditation by One Earth Sangha guiding teachers, Lama Willa Miller expresses both awe for the power of the coronavirus to disrupt our lives, leaving us “dancing with uncertainty,” and appreciation for its teaching. “Goddess of uncertainty, you grind my plans to dust, throwing me back into the now.” In case you missed it, see part one of this series by Thanissara.
by Lama Willa Miller
This morning, walking from my house in Boston to a local park, I rounded a corner at the top of the street to a mother pushing her daughter in a stroller. One delicate hand drew the mask up.
She approached and we shared a tell: eyes meeting, creases, a slight nod.
I’m sorry. Feeling you, me, us. The unsaid floats a silent trail behind us, intertwining as we pass. The rising in my throat just short of tears, a tenderness that visits like an angel.
In the park a morning dove coos slow sonnets. Trees sway against a sky soft as silk. Warm air surrounds, whispering redemption. This earth’s rejoicing cannot be missed. To hear it is a secret pleasure.
In the world of humans, uncertainty dances. It flits in the shadows of the white pines at the crest of the park’s highest hill. It shines in the eyes of parents around the pond watching their children play. They seem to play and laugh as always. Almost.
Everyone in the park breathes uncertainty together, in and out, the respiration of truth. In and out. These are the days of sheltering in place. The days of asking deep questions. The days of no plans, no future.
Uncertainty, I must confess your presence unsettles me, like a dark goddess. Yet how can I not bow down?
You remind me of my grasping. When my hand reaches, there is just light and emptiness. This fist closes on nothing and I lose all balance. Daily.
Uncertainty, may I sing to you? You turn me towards the truth, the one we spend our days avoiding. The future is a fiction. No one has ever traveled there and come back saying this is how it is.
You reveal the obvious, our lives were lived asleep.
Goddess of uncertainty, you grind my plans to dust, throwing me back into the now. Rich and true territory this, where sounds radiate and colors sing. May I listen long enough for my heart to bloom and then to break with tenderness.
Dark goddess, you shatter the illusion of separateness. Two apart cannot stand, can no longer survive in a world where everything leans. Yours is a love song of interbeing.
Uncertainty, you take me deeper, shaking loose the conceptual mind. It cannot thrive in your air, where nothing has ever been known, is not known now and never will be known. The Great Not Knowing is your lover, where the wisdom lives. May I trust the freefall. Teach me to be groundless. Teach me not to know.
Dark Mother, you unite us. Now no one can escape your gaze. Your fierce teachings bind us all as creatures of the earth. The winged, scaled, clawed, hoofed and tailed, one family. Roaring songs of truth, please remind me always from wild I come and to wild I will return.
Willa is the Founder and Spiritual Director of Natural Dharma Fellowship in Boston, MA and its retreat center Wonderwell Mountain Refuge in Springfield, NH. She is Visiting Lecturer in Buddhist Ministry at Harvard Divinity School. As a writer and editor, her work has been published in Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, Buddhadharma, and the Tibet Journal. Willa’s teaching interests include compassion, non-dual embodiment and contemplative care.