Contrary to popular perception, traditional Buddhist sanghas have a long-standing practice of engaging in their communities’ social challenges, providing material, emotional, and relational in addition to spiritual support 1Sallie King chronicles Eastern sanghas’ rich history of providing social services in her 2009 book, Socially Engaged Buddhism.. In line with this tradition, sanghas today are undertaking new responsibilities called for by the times, such as responding to climate emergencies and the COVID pandemic. In this inspiring example of social engagement, the President of a Buddhist university in Cambodia has been leading monks and other volunteers to mobilize and distribute relief supplies during the country’s recent devastating floods, which are compounding the harm of the global public health crisis.
As the worst flooding in about a decade inundates large areas of Cambodia, already reeling from the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Southeast Asian country’s Buddhist community has been at the forefront of efforts to reach out to vulnerable communities to offer relief aid and comfort to those most affected.
Cambodia has experienced heavy rains as a result of intense tropical storms since the beginning of the month. As of 21 October, some 156,137 households in 14 provinces across this Southeast Asian nation were reported to have been impacted by flash flooding, which has also unearthed mines and other unexploded war ordnance, as well as damaging or destroying farmland and infrastructure.
Buddhist monk and scholar Venerable Vy Sovechea, president of the Preah Sihanouk Raja Buddhist University, Battambang Branch (SBUBB) is one of the country’s leading socially engaged Buddhists and has been leading relief work in Cambodia at the grassroots level.
Flash flooding has unearthed mines and other unexploded war ordnance, as well as damaging or destroying farmland and infrastructure.
“Although our resources are limited, we have reached 61 families in the past two days and we are going to support 80 more families over the next few days,” Ven. Vy Sovechea told Buddhistdoor Global.
Battambang Province in northwestern Cambodia, the country’s largest rice-producing region, has been among the worst-hit areas in recent weeks, with 66,088 households affected and 4,592 residents displaced due to flash floods.
Cambodia’s National Committee for Disaster Management has reported that flooding has recently worsened in several parts of the country, due to continued heavy rains coupled with dam releases in neighboring Thailand. The flooding has so far affected in more than 483,140 people in 19 of the country’s 25 provinces, with at least 39 people dead. Some 60,000 houses have been damaged, and more than 46,216 people evacuated. In addition, the NCDM said that 232,551 hectares of rice fields and 83,918 hectares of subsidiary crops had been damaged or destroyed, along with numerous roads, bridges, and canals. More rainfall is expected.
“We delivered 20 packages of relief supplies to 20 families in cooperation with the local Catholic community, and we have also received some donations from Khmer American Buddhists in the USA,” noted Ven. Vy Sovechea, who is also a member of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists. “At the same time, we are also continuing to seek donations for SBUBB to further our work.”
The damage from the floods comes as the country has been struggling to cope with the fallout from months of lockdown and restrictions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the number of confirmed infections recorded in this nation of some 14 million people has so far been minimal, the impact on the country’s fragile economy has been deep and far-reaching, affecting many vulnerable communities.
“For the past year, like other countries around the world, Cambodia has been affected by COVID-19, with more than 13,482 schools, from preschool to tertiary levels, closed temporarily since March in order to prevent the spread of the disease in the community,” Ven. Vy Sovechea explained.
“Having seen the widespread suffering, the management team of the SBUBB has appealed to local and international donors, who were able to share their kindness and compassion through humanitarian activities such as fundraising and other social activities,” said Ven. Vy Sovechea. “As a Buddhist entity, the SBUBB has never discriminated based on race, skin color, beliefs, faith, or socio-cultural trends or biases. The SBUBB always cooperates with other faith leaders, such as the Catholic, Muslim, and other ethnic communities in Battambang, working together for social welfare, charitable activities, education, peace-building, the environment, and climate change.”
Buddhism is the official religion of Cambodia, with 96.9 per cent of the population of 14.14 million following Theravada Buddhism, according to data for 2010 from the Washington, DC-based Pew Research Center. Islam (2 per cent), tribal animism (0.5 per cent), and Christianity (0.4 per cent) represent the bulk of the remainder. According to the Ministry of Cults and Religious Affairs, there are 59,516 Buddhist monks and 4,755 monasteries in Cambodia.
This article was originally published on Buddhistdoor. It is reprinted here with permission.
Craig Lewis is a Buddhist journalist and photographer, and Senior Editor for the online Buddhist journal Buddhistdoor Global, with a focus on engaged Buddhism and environmental awareness. His Dharma-inspired photography—which seeks to express the fragility and fundamental impermanence of life and the natural phenomena that surround us, especially in the Vajrayana and Himalayan context—can be seen at newlightdreams.com.
Part of the “Showing up for the Planet” series
In this video teaching, Donald Rothberg draws on his long-time involvement with socially engaged Buddhism, including the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and the Buddhist Alliance for Social Engagement (BASE) that explored social action and meditation in small-group settings in the San Francisco Bay Area from 1990-2005. Donald invites us to embrace a diverse menu of climate actions as meaningful and counsels us to engage with “what makes you come alive.”
This talk was excerpted from Showing Up for the Planet, a daylong program on August 22 hosted by Marin Sangha. Speakers in addition to Donald included Thanissara, James Baraz, Kritee Kanko, Teja Bell, Kristin Barker, and Eve Decker.
View the slide deck from the presentation.
Six Core Practices for Those Showing Up for the Planet
- Regular communion with the earth.
- Building community and a sense of connection, and practicing in this context.
- Being skillful with difficult emotions and thoughts related to the climate emergency.
- Cultivating empathy and compassion, and bringing the empathy across boundaries of country, race, age, class, and political views.
- Staying connected to one’s imagination.
- Finding one’s own form of committed action and staying with it.
We need practices which sustain our vision and our bodies, hearts and minds, and our communities.
Typically the difficult narratives are covering over unacknowledged or unprocessed pain. We need to get beneath the narratives.
I like to talk about empathy more as an intentional practice, than an innate capacity.
These are not just about finding personal balance or meaning. These practices create a new world.
Donald Rothberg, PhD, has practiced Insight Meditation since 1976, and has also received training in Tibetan Dzogchen, Mahamudra practice and the Hakomi approach to body-based psychotherapy. Formerly on the faculties of the University of Kentucky, Kenyon College, and Saybrook Graduate School, he currently writes and teaches classes, groups and retreats on meditation, daily life practice, spirituality and psychology, and socially engaged Buddhism. He is the author of The Engaged Spiritual Life: A Buddhist Approach to Transforming Ourselves and the World and the co-editor of Ken Wilber in Dialogue: Conversations with Leading Transpersonal Thinkers.
Ten thousand years of climate stability may be ending. Yet this world has always been an unstable place. One Earth Sangha is developing new programs for 2021 to support you in a path of growing wisdom, community, and action.
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The emotional toll of isolation, as people stay home and avoid others, has added to the shared pain of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the U.K. enters another lockdown, contributing writer Emma Palmer describes the “boxing in” she experienced during the first wave of the pandemic and two things that are helping her cope—communion with nature and dharma teachings on suffering, impermanence, and emptiness.
Late this past summer I spent a welcome holiday in Shropshire, a land of crags, scarps, and valleys. The geology in this county is, apparently, more diverse than anywhere else of a comparable size in the world: 700 million years of earth history. These lands have given rise to rich mythology; the Long Mynd being compared to a dragon’s spine, the volcano-like Wrekin hill said to be created by a Welsh giant who didn’t like the people of nearby Shrewsbury.
Dukkha has been the flavour of so much of life since March. It’s even multi-layered, like the igneous on top of the red sandstone shaping those Shropshire Hills.
It is a liminal county in that it bridges the man-made border between England and Wales, much disputed over the centuries, as evidenced in the ruins of 32 castles dotted around Offa’s Dyke. Tranquil in the present-day, yet with a quiet tumultuousness of the Church Stretton and Pontesford-Linley fault lines beneath my feet and with tangible reminders of recently warring humans, it was a blissful place to spend a week. The Shropshire Hills aren’t the Rocky Mountains, nor the Alps, but, up close, the inclines are steep and the elements can be full of themselves – the night sky is bright and twinkling, ideal for star-gazing, now fairly rare in the UK.
It was a relief to have a week off, the first since Christmas. I felt extra fortunate to roam this ancient, mythical place with its ambiguous edges and borders, the land somehow defying human categorisation. In a time when life has changed so quickly, become so categorised, along with its clinical words (‘social distancing’, ‘shielding’, ‘self-isolating’, ‘lockdown’), the relief of following my feet felt profound. Coming from a locked down city, my shoulders dropped as I looked around and realised I was, for once, vastly outnumbered by elder deciduous trees and miles of shrubby hedgerow rather than humans.
The week before holidays I’d been reflecting afresh on the three lakshanas, or ‘marks of existence’, one of my favourite Dharma teachings. Sitting and walking on the ancient rocks, those beloved teachings came to life, somehow made visible. Being perched on Shropshire rocks, which used to form the bottom of the ocean bordering present-day South America, reminds me of the first lakshana: anicca, the truth of impermanence, that nothing—absolutely nothing—is fixed or stable. Whether the changes are the bending and stretching of rock happening over millennia, or the four days it took to furlough all my colleagues in my family’s business at the beginning of lockdown, when I felt the shock of going from being part of a viable work community to sitting alone in a Marie-Celeste-like office. Thanks, anicca.
Then I pondered anatta, the second lakshana—the truth that because everything in the universe changes, so too do humans. Who is it, sitting here, typing, anyway? Who was it wondering at that mythical landscape without borders, in the last rays of the late summer sun? Who is she? I realise I have become a bit ‘boxed in’, a bit automaton at times, amplified perhaps by relating to far flung friends, family, clients via the square screen of my laptop. I was further boxing myself in following covid-19 measures, maybe too religiously, even occasionally forgetting to take a daily walk or touching the earth at our community garden because of a hard-to-pin-down fear of facing people, things—myself. In fairness, a shocking family separation in the early days of the pandemic meant that I have been supporting more, feeling protective—a go-to default in my psychic make-up. Go-betweener and protector, they are useful functions, but—note to self—dismantle rather than fortify the castles within, not unlike the ones I explored on those once contested borders.
The preoccupation with covid-19 reporting means that other news is lost. Rising temperatures in the Arctic have shrunk the ice covering the polar ocean to its second-lowest extent in four decades.
And finally, the third lakshana of dukkha, the truth that life is unsatisfactory—and made more unsatisfactory when I forget the first two lakshanas, acting as though I’m here forever and I’m fixed, definite and reliable. Oops. Dukkha has been the flavour of so much of life since March. It’s even multi-layered, like the igneous on top of the red sandstone shaping those Shropshire Hills. I find myself sometimes judgmentally tutting to myself, sometimes in weeping despair, wondering how on earth we will address the climate emergency. Really take in, to our heart of hearts, the devastation of the sixth extinction crisis so love and grief can continue to lead to action, at a time when we can’t resist stock-piling pasta and toilet roll. It’s not the whole story. In other moments I am bowled over by the ordinary acts of kindness and the strengthening of community in our street.
Dukkha has been highlighted during the pandemic. I remember the days during the ‘first wave’, enjoying the peace of our small garden with so little traffic on the roads and so much birdsong, before the peace was broken by a passing ambulance—we live equidistant from two emergency rooms. The dukkha of systematic inequality is highlighted in who is most detrimentally affected by COVID-19. Following government advice to ‘stay home and save lives’, more of us than ever were online and witnessed the murder of George Floyd—his untimely death touching those who mightn’t have otherwise been touched. Two weeks later here in Bristol the statue of Edward Colston—a wealthy slave trader—was, at long last, mobbed and chucked in the river in #BlackLivesMatter protests, reflecting the potency of our digitally connected and interconnected world.
The spirit of those ancient Shropshire hills, those starry nights and the early autumn mist covering the valley’s floors, stay with me as I carry on ‘unboxing’, trying to stay open to everything that is changing. Where do we go as we un-lockdown, in this strange twilight of infection rates climbing, and the quiet dread of waiting for the death rates to climb, too? The preoccupation with covid-19 reporting means that other news is lost. Rising temperatures in the Arctic have shrunk the ice covering the polar ocean to its second-lowest extent in four decades. In a very not-in-the-moment way, I find myself drifting ahead, a year, three years, 10 years, 50 years from now. As we learn to live longer-term alongside covid-19—keen to multiply itself, as are we—what do I/we learn about how we relate to ourselves and others? Will the sudden life changes make me more flexible, more adaptable, or more fearful of surrendering me-making? Thinking of the Arctic, of George Floyd, so many others, how will we/I remember the importance of the lives of all that lives, human and other-than-human and more-than-human life, beyond the fallacy of me and mine, the illusion of separation and permanence? What am I learning about Dharma practice? How do I keep on engaging, keep on stepping down from my meditation cushion with each new breath?
As I re-engage with life in the four walls of a busy city, I find myself spontaneously bringing the elements to mind as I gather to sit. I’m not doing a full-blown version of the traditional Tibetan practice of recollecting the six elements as I have in the past, yet I find it helpful to bring each of the elements to mind: earth, water, fire, air, space, consciousness. I sense each one—its nature and textures—within and far beyond me, whether that’s imagining the solidity of the earthy ridge of Wenlock Edge, back in the Shropshire Hills, and then sensing the strength of my earthy bones, contrasting with their flesh covering. This earth, and water, and fire, and air, and space, and consciousness, it is not me, it is not mine. Recalling and reflecting on the elements I uncover a simple peace and a boundless love. Peace in the poignant knowledge of the fleetingness of life in this skin, and noticing that even 700 million year old rocks are still moving and shaping.
Emma Palmer is a relational body psychotherapist, ecopsychologist, supervisor and facilitator. She’s been a practising, registered therapist since 2003 and is based in Bristol, UK. Emma encountered Buddhism in 1995 and was ordained in the Triratna Buddhist Order from 2005-2016. She has since taken the precepts in the Soto Zen tradition and has led and/or supported retreats in the UK at Taraloka and Gaia House, Ecodharma in Spain, and is a long-distance supporter of the Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Center in Colorado. In 2012 Mantra Books published her first book, Meditating with Character, and she has since published numerous papers and three further books: Other than Mother, Bodywise and #MeToo: Counsellors and Psychotherapists Speak about Sexual Violence and Abuse. She’s felt extraordinarily appreciative of practice during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In this video teaching, David Loy draws on his recent book EcoDharma: Buddhist Teachings for the Ecological Crisis to offer a Buddhist perspective on responding to the climate emergency that can help us face issues of social and political divide and upheaval as well. All of these daunting challenges call for bodhisattvas, or ecosattvas, who have a “two-sided practice”—committed to inner transformation and thus able to maintain equanimity in the face of uncertainty, while also ready to engage in compassionate social action.
This recording is from a seminar hosted by the Network of Buddhist Organizations (UK).
Probably the most important teaching of Buddhism in relationship to our present situation—it’s what I would call the ecosattva path.
‘Sentient beings are numberless. I vow to save them all.’ Wow. We are vowing to fulfill an unfulfillable vow, is that weird or what? Since it can’t be fulfilled, what it’s calling for is a reorientation in our lives.
I hope whatever you do, you do it with community.
Hope and despair are dualities. I don’t think it’s hope and despair that motivate bodhisattvas. I think it’s something deeper.
We don’t know if what we do is important, but it seems very important for us to do it.
Our ecological efforts are our gift to the earth.
David Robert Loy is a professor, writer, and teacher in the Sanbo tradition of Japanese Zen Buddhism. A student of Yamada Koun and Robert Aitken, he was authorized to teach in 1988 and leads retreats and workshops nationally and internationally. He is author of EcoDharma: Buddhist Teachings for the Ecological Crisis and A New Buddhist Path: Enlightenment, Evolution, and Ethics in the Modern World, and he is co-editor of A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency. He is also director and vice-president of the Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center.