One of the persistent hindrances to those who are alarmed about the climate crisis and want to do something about it is uncertainty about where to engage, what will make the most difference. In this article, Anam Thubten describes the broad spectrum of actions available to us, from pro-environment voting to changing our individual energy use and diet. He also notes the obstacles to action—traditional power and economic structures threatened by climate-friendly policies and, at the individual level, a reluctance to change our own comfortable lifestyles. Overcoming these obstacles takes more than “feeling holy with altruism.” It demands expression of an awakened heart through altruistic actions that truly benefit the world at this time of great need.
by Anam Thubten Rinpoche
Resistance to change doesn’t always have to be vocal; remaining silent is a polite way to stop change from happening.
The world is slowly waking up to the fact that climate change is neither a hoax nor a conspiracy theory. This is an important step toward taking action to address this unprecedented calamity. With melting ice fields, drought, forest fires, and the extinction of species, nature is showing us that the Earth is in big trouble, right before our eyes. More and more people are realizing that the danger is real and is hitting us hard. It’s difficult to believe that we still have to argue with some segments of society that this is a manmade problem.
There are a few reasons why some people continue to deny climate change: out of pure ignorance, some bluntly believe that it’s not happening at all, or is not a byproduct of human action; others simply deny it because this unimaginable cataclysm is too big for them to accept, so it’s easier not to pay attention to it. There is also an ulterior motive to such denial: not wanting to change our lifestyles or give up the many modern comforts to which we are addicted. Large corporations and individuals who are amassing fortunes from environmentally harmful practices often engage in activities such as trying to promote pseudo-science, and empowering politicians who obstruct progressive climate-related policies.
One of the genius tricks Mara plays on us is to let us feel holy with altruism, yet not to actually do anything that requires action.
The denial of climate change is not just one single view; it is a mindset that usually tends to deny other important issues, such as human rights, liberty, fairness, gender equality, and racial equality. The environmental movement is a major challenge to many who benefit from traditional power and economic structures. This is why it is still underemphasized and not sufficiently addressed in political as well as religious institutions. There is a major unconscious resistance to fully welcome this movement. Our old consciousness knows that it would have to let go of a lot once the movement is embraced. One conspicuous analogy for this kind of resistance is the American Civil War, when the South went to war with the North in 1861–5. Southerners, whose economy was founded on the practice of slavery, didn’t want to abolish the ownership of humans and preferred to go to war in order to maintain the system that favored them. This might sound like an extreme comparison, but from a psychological point of view it’s a simple truth. But resistance to change doesn’t always have to be vocal; remaining silent is a polite way to stop change from happening.
Time for All of Us to Invoke Bodhicitta
The world is waiting for each of us to leave our comfort zones and undertake a heroic journey to save this beautiful world together.
The environmental movement is not one dimensional; it naturally involves other essential issues, including those mentioned above. This is because the very impulse that gave birth to the movement is an aspiration for the well-being of all of humanity as well as animals and the natural environment. It is a benevolent desire to create a healthier, happier world in which we and our children can enjoy life. Participating in this movement therefore motivates us to bring about awareness toward other social and political issues. The world is in great need of a collective awakening for this noble aspiration. It is time for all of us to invoke bodhicitta, the awakened heart that aspires to benefit all beings, and not only to feel it, but to express it through altruistic actions that truly help this world. One of the genius tricks Mara plays on us is to let us feel holy with altruism, yet not to actually do anything that requires action.
There are many actions that can be taken to help save this planet and the dwindling number of extant species, including ourselves; for example, voting and changing our consumption and dietary habits. A merit of being in the free world is one’s right to vote for leaders who will create new policies, laws, and regulations that will ensure sustainability. It’s important to understand the visions of political candidates and to vote, if one has such a right. Changing our way of life, such as not using fossil fuels and plastics, and not eating certain food products, can have a cumulative positive effect. But all of these acts require effort and might require us to leave our respective comfort zones, which is not always an easy thing to do. All of these actions can be regarded as the way of the bodhisattva, as long as they come from the right motivation.
Sometimes we need a moral model that inspires us to be at our best in the world. The bodhisattva is perhaps the best exemplar that we can all strive to be. A bodhisattva is someone whose noblest impulse is awakened and selflessly works for the benefit of all, while confronting all the tribulations. Everyone has the potential to be a bodhisattva without needing to be a leading light. The world is waiting for each of us to leave our comfort zones and undertake a heroic journey to save this beautiful world together.
Anam Thubten Rinpoche grew up in Tibet and began to practice in the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism at an early age. Rinpoche is the founder and spiritual advisor of the Dharmata Foundation, and teaches internationally. He is also the author of various books in both the Tibetan and English languages, such as The Magic of Awareness and No Self, No Problem. His column for Buddhistdoor, Dharma Gossip, is published bi-monthly.
A Buddhist critique of the media might begin with the role they play in stoking consumer demand and pop culture, perpetuating false consciousness and a commercially-driven society. With a focus on negative and sensational news, they also contribute to the polarization of our society. It has become a sad reality of our time: extreme views abound across the political spectrum, amplified by clamorous partisan media, so diametrically opposed and intractable as to create virtually parallel media universes and views of reality. Buddhistdoor reminds us that there are other voices out there, shining a light on events and stories that may help reduce suffering among those most in need. One Earth Sangha aspires to be one such voice.
by Buddhistdoor Global
It’s 2020, an apt time to polish our lenses and renew our vows to see things as they truly are. As representatives of the media, we at Buddhistdoor Global take on a special responsibility with regards to this vow of clarity. As a Buddhist media platform, we interpret clarity as an antidote to our deep human ignorance. With greater clarity about ourselves and our world comes insight and a reduction of suffering. As such we take the Buddhist quest for right speech as a guiding star in our work to deliver features and news content from around the world to you.
With greater clarity about ourselves and our world comes insight and a reduction of suffering.
In today’s world, polarization has become endemic to both the political sphere and that of the media. Certain news sources have become virtual mouthpieces for political individuals and parties. The result has been a silo effect, in which viewers of one outlet are given a completely different spin on reality from viewers of another outlet. The growing academic response has been to attempt to categorize the various outlets and to urge citizens to make a broad and informed take on the news.
The result, however, has not been an enlightened objectivity with regards to the news, but rather an at-times-paralyzing pessimism with regard to the state of the world. In part this is because news outlets have made use of our human negativity bias: we more easily remember negative news than good news. Therefore, the news media that is chasing viewers and clicks will focus on the negative. “If it bleeds, it leads,” is the old industry wisdom.
Twenty years ago this would have meant a barrage of negative headlines on newspapers and tabloids. When we became burned out on the negativity then, we could simply turn off the TV and avoid newsstands. But today our personal TV and newsstand—our smartphone—almost never leaves our hand or pocket. The result is that we cannot avoid the negativity and perhaps with it the feelings of hopelessness and helplessness.
As the Internet has made access to the media nearly universal and ubiquitous, concerned journalists have seen the need for new paradigms in reporting. We’ve seen the rise of solutions journalism, restorative journalism, and “good news” networks to help ensure that people see the good in the world as well as the suffering and problems, numerous as they might be. But the mere fact that there is much good in the world, which itself is a truth, fails to offer clarity of direction. Are things improving because global poverty is rapidly decreasing and availability of life-saving vaccines are at all-time highs? Or is the world doomed due to ongoing inaction by political leaders to the climate crisis, spreading international instability and rise of nationalist populist politicians?
Journalism Based in Buddhist Ethics
The Buddha pointed out the injustice of the rigid systems of his time and, through his alternative society of the Sangha, offered more just conditions to the world.
What can a journalism based in Buddhist ethics offer in this time? It can and must acknowledge the suffering of the world, including that which falls under the rubric of injustice. The Buddha famously did this very carefully by undermining the dogma of caste (or class) in his society as well as the rigid place of women, thus opening his spiritual path equally to people from all walks of life. Without saying it in so many words, the Buddha pointed out the injustice of the rigid systems of his time and, through his alternative society of the Sangha, offered more just conditions to the world.
As a media organization, a way of following the Buddha’s example is to seek out those who are disempowered in our society today and offer to serve them. Heather Bryant, a journalist and founder of the collaborative journalism network Facet, noted last month that “We’ve seen news that actually serves the public, and we’ve seen arguably more that serves power instead.” (Nieman Lab)
The newsroom that publishes an accessible and clear explainer of the ballot for an upcoming election is doing the service of journalism. The newsroom that runs the breathless account of winners and losers from a televised debate is participating in the industry’s attention marketplace. The newsrooms that report out a politician’s claims before amplifying them are doing journalism. The newsroom that rapidly retweets false claims are jumping at bait in exchange for attention. (Nieman Lab)
Accessibility and clarity are heralded as journalistic virtues and yet these could just as easily be offered as aspects of the Buddha’s and later Buddhist master’s upaya, or skill in means in communicating the truth. And yet skill can be misused without a fundamental moral direction. In 2008, journalist and professor of media ethics with a focus on global-local (or “glocal”) journalism Douglas McGill summed it up well:
On a social level, suffering in Buddhism is defined as any harshness, violence, and division of the community. A Buddhist journalism would therefore be aimed at helping individuals overcome their personal sufferings, and helping society heal the wounds caused by injustice, hatred, ostracism, and physical violence. Such a defined professional purpose would give the Buddhist journalist a measuring stick for each word and story produced: does it help overcome individual and social suffering? (McGill Report)
The Buddha could not necessarily heal the social conditions of his time, but he could offer a clear alternative. Likewise, we may not be able to eliminate the media bias and extremes in the world at present, but we can offer a home for writers and news articles that offer clarity and a balm to the suffering of the world. This is an alternative, a move against the stream of those media outlets that cater to power of this sort or that. It is an opportunity to seek out those who are suffering, those who may not have a voice but need it.
This article was originally published on Buddhistdoor Global. It is reprinted here with permission.
Kritee, a climate scientist, Zen priest, and co-founder of the Boulder Eco-Dharma Sangha, calls on Buddhists to recognize and resist the systems of domination and oppression that underlie the climate crisis. As a community willing to see that change is needed in almost every aspect of society, Kritee compels us to include even ourselves. Indeed, our hesitancy to confront the pattern of domination, in ourselves and in our beloved spiritual leaders, is no small part of what keeps domination in place. “Business as usual” goes about killing life on Earth on daily basis under the guise of normalcy and the protection of the status quo. What might it look like for us to follow Kritee’s call for thorough disruption and transformation? What might we risk and what is at risk if we don’t? What might support us in following this call together?
by Kritee (Kanko)
For the past decade, I have been researching the climate impacts of different food production practices, which is important because our global food system contributes more than a third of all human-generated climate pollution. Recently I had the opportunity to present my research to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which brought me—briefly—a sense of empowerment in the face of the climate crisis. But my deeper truth is that I find myself working with intense climate grief.
Buddhists can contribute much more radically to reducing suffering than they have so far.
I’m not alone. A growing number of climate scientists and activists report sleeplessness, anxiety, and even panic attacks. Many are overwhelmed by grief or anger. If I were not engaged in regular meditation and grief practices, as well as strategic actions with an ever-widening circle of ecodharma activists, I know I would be overwhelmed too.
In the past year, I have been in touch with a growing number of fellow dharma teachers who are waking up to the climate crisis and getting involved in climate action. This is due in large part to media attention brought on by youth-led school climate strikes, Sunrise Movement sit-ins, and Extinction Rebellion actions. While this is something to celebrate, I also think Buddhists can contribute much more radically to reducing suffering than they have so far. However, in order to do so effectively, we must bring not only our Buddhist understanding but also a systems-level view.
Dismantling Systems of Separation
Averting a climate catastrophe will require enormous transitions, which raises important questions, such as: who will pay for the transitions? Will these transitions be consistent with democracy? And who will suffer the most if these transitions don’t happen—will it be the poor and the racially marginalized?
A just transition must be democratic, fair, and equitable. We must therefore consider the ethical, moral, and spiritual underpinnings of such a transition and ask how each of us—as well as our sanghas—can assist in practical and concrete ways. We must also be willing to consider changing our own behavior, and that of our sanghas, in order to create a more just and sustainable society.
As bodhisattvas committed to relieving the suffering of all beings, we start by seeing relative reality, or suffering as it is. If we don’t see the depth and extent of suffering, it’s very difficult to take compassionate action.
We must be willing to consider changing our own behavior, and that of our sanghas, in order to create a more just and sustainable society.
At least a quarter of the world’s population is already facing an existential crisis. According to the International Labour Organization, approximately a billion people live on less than two dollars a day. More than two billion people work in informal sectors and have no work contract with their employers. These people and their families struggle every day to make ends meet. One sickness, birth, or death, one leaking roof due to an extreme rainfall event, or one failed crop due to a drought can throw them into crisis. They are already facing what those in the privileged Eurocentric world fear awaits them in the not-too-distant future: illness and death brought on by extreme weather events and forced migration due to a lack of basic resources, including water and food, as well as physical safety. They have done the least to usher in climate crisis, but they will suffer the most as the climate crisis deepens.
We cannot put off dealing with the current existential crisis faced by a quarter of humanity until after we have tackled the climate crisis. We need an integrated approach that makes enormous changes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while also redistributing power and money and avoiding climate apartheid.
How do we do this? A just transition will require working through “systems of separation,” more commonly known as “systems of oppression,” which is another way of saying systems of domination, hierarchy, or superiority. Based on myths and lies, these systems purport that one group is more normal, superior, and/or powerful, and empower it to dominate another set of living beings. For example, patriarchy, class or caste hierarchies, and human domination over animals are all systems of oppression.
Our hearts and minds have grown accustomed to a paradigm in which one human being has control over another. This is our default, and it has infected all parts of our psyche.
Most crucially, white people of European descent have power and supremacy over Black, brown, yellow, and Indigenous people all over the world. Globally speaking, this racial domination and associated neoliberal economic systems have helped primarily white folks to amass enormous wealth, steal land, and enslave people for hundreds of years. This concentration of power and wealth is systematically guarded through militarization, laws, trade deals, and media campaigns.
While we have made progress on some fronts, for the most part we take these systems of domination to be a given. Our hearts and minds have grown accustomed to a paradigm in which one human being has control over another. This is our default, and it has infected all parts of our psyche.
Inner and Outer Liberation
In Buddhism, through meditation and other transformative practices, we aspire to know states of heart–mind that Buddha (the human being) embodied. These states of heart–mind bring us close to reality as it is. When we see the absolute reality as it is, there is no individual human being, no separate entity. There is only interdependent co-arising: I am you; you are me. I am a monarch butterfly that is going extinct, the Black woman whose five generations of family were lynched, and also Hitler and present-day fascists. All is me. Richest and poorest, we inter-are.
It is important to note that while Buddhism has devised many skillful practices to deal with the myth of separation in the consciousness of an individual practitioner, it has only just begun to grapple with systems of oppression. An individual cannot beat a system. To beat one system, it will require another system. Systems of oppression or separation must be replaced by systems of nonseparation or nonduality. The opposite of patriarchy is not matriarchy, where women are more powerful than men, but rather it is one of deep equality and solidarity. We are so used to systems of oppression that we have forgotten how to live in a way that is not separate. The top-down hierarchical systems that are rooted in exploitation and oppression must make way for systems and institutions that are rooted in compassion and sacred care of all beings. This requires more than words and good intentions; it must be backed by actions that redistribute power and wealth to those who are marginalized. Without this, societal healing and a just transition will not be possible.
Desire for upward mobility is killing us spiritually. It is like we all know that the tree of this civilization is rotting but we still want to climb to the top!
While we need strategic and well-designed plans to redesign our economies, we also need spiritual and moral leaders who can penetrate hearts and minds. Their job is to embody genuine solidarity, interdependence, and friendship to help people wake up to the harm brought about by systems of domination and to see their complicity in it. Any legal policies involving redistribution of power and money will not be honored without changing the hearts of the oppressor and the oppressed.
Guided by the dharma, Buddhists can help our society disrupt the status quo, but in order to contribute to the transformation of the larger society, we also need to look at ourselves, as well as our sanghas. What do I mean? In an essay titled “Revolutionary Suicide,” African American pastor Lynice Pinkard challenges us as individuals and institutions to understand our own relationship with systems of oppression:
To what extent does any one of us identify with the forces of domination and participate in relations that reinforce domination and the exploitation that goes with it? In what ways and to what extent are we wedded to our own upward mobility, financial security, good reputation, and ability to “win friends and influence people” in positions of power? Or conversely, do we identify (by putting our lives on the line) with efforts to reverse patterns of domination, empower people on the margins (even when we are not on the margins ourselves), and seek healthy, sustainable relations?
She argues that this desire for upward mobility is killing us spiritually. It is like we all know that the tree of this civilization is rotting but we still want to climb to the top!
Living our Compassion
As Buddhists, we have taken vows not to turn away from the suffering of others, whom we come to know as ourselves. When we manifest with the full integrity of what we know to be true, we naturally find ways to help heal our world. Some of my Buddhist friends are actually putting their lives on the line to defend all beings. Even if we are not ready to put our lives on the line, we can ask important questions:
How can we break the status quo systems of domination within our sangha or other communities we inhabit?
Who is in our sangha? If our sangha is not diverse, do we have relationships with Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) outside of our sanghas? Having these relationships often means working through the racial trauma lodged in the bodies of everyone involved. (I highly recommend Resmaa Menakem’s systematic exploration of the trauma suffered by both BIPOC and white people in his seminal book My Grandmother’s Hands.)
Are we more invested in building large Buddhist temples, or are we open to directing the money to building movements and to those on the front lines of systemic change?
Are we divesting from pathways that concentrate power and investing in those that redistribute power? How can we share power? How can we break the status quo systems of domination within our sangha or other communities we inhabit?
Are we making more than the average median income in our society? Why do we want to have a standard of living above that of others in our state or country?
Could we hire the most marginalized in our society? What do we have to learn to be able to hire and retain those individuals?
These are not easy questions. I wrestle with all of them myself and face the fear of letting go of my own privilege, wealth, and assets.
We do not have the luxury of assuming that we can deal with social and ecological issues after enlightenment.
It won’t be easy, but as bodhisattvas in training, we must find the courage and compassion to step up both individually and as a community of practitioners to grapple with these questions. As we do, we might gain greater understanding of the mindset of those destroying our planet. And we might be able to say a much needed NO to too-big-to-fail oil and gas corporations (without “othering” and shaming individuals who work for them).
Given what is already happening, we do not have the luxury of assuming that we can deal with social and ecological issues after enlightenment. As we individually spend time on our cushions to face absolute reality as it is, we must also create awakened systems and beloved communities that can deal with present-day relative reality as it is without perpetuating trauma and harm.
This article was originally published in the Spring 2020 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, and is available on LionsRoar.com.
Kritee (dharma name Kanko), is a Zen teacher, scientist, activist, dancer and permaculture designer. She directs and teaches Boundless in Motion Sangha in Boulder in the Rinzai-Obaku Buddhist lineage of Cold Mountain, is a co-founder and executive director of Boulder Eco-Dharma Sangha and co-founding teacher of Earthlovego. Kritee trained as an environmental microbiologist and biogeochemist at Rutgers and Princeton Universities. As a senior scientist in the Global Climate Program at Environmental Defense Fund, she is helping to implement environment and climate-friendly methods of small farming at large scales in Asia with a three-fold goal of poverty alleviation, food security and climate mitigation / adaptation.
By Katie Benvenuti
At the end of March, Guo Gu, teacher from the Tallahassee Chan Center, founded Dharma Relief with the intention of forming a coalition of Buddhist practitioners, centers, and organizations across lineages to provide emergency relief to healthcare workers most heavily impacted by the outbreak.
Guo and others at Dharma Relief knew that, for a multitude of reasons, supplies have not been leaving China through the usual channels since the coronavirus outbreak began. Relatedly, there has been a critical shortage of medical supplies in hospitals nationwide. Dharma Relief’s plan was to partner with Chinese companies to import surgical masks to healthcare workers fighting COVID-19 on the front lines, and they wanted Buddhist organizations and practitioners across the country to help. On March 30th, Dharma Relief reached out to One Earth Sangha asking if they knew of any hospitals or healthcare workers who needed PPE.
Those with time, energy, and other resources are called to stand with native communities and get behind their demands.
This was at the time of emerging news that indigenous communities were being hit hard by COVID-19, particularly Navajo communities, though others as well. Indigenous communities in the United States are and have been extremely underserved, and as such, they have a higher than average per capita rate of preexisting conditions that can increase COVID-19 mortality.
Through channels from connections in Navajo Nation, One Earth Sangha was able to connect Dharma Relief to Navajo Incident Command, IHS, and eventually to individuals in two hospitals in indigenous communities. Eventually, they were able to supply 10,000 surgical masks between the two hospitals.
This was the very least we could do in this situation. So much more is needed.
If the pattern holds, the hegemony will extract from and then abandon native communities. As a predominantly white spiritual community situated in the dominant culture, we are vulnerable to participation in that very act. Those with time, energy, and other resources are called to stand with native communities and get behind their demands. In particular, white allies can advocate for protection of native lands and waters, indigenous representation, resources for communities, justice, and sovereignty. Ultimately, we do this not for anyone else but rather as if our own well-being is at risk because in fact it is.
When you’re dealing with a non-native population that’s trying to save today’s world and feels urgently about it, they are not recognizing that there’s a problem with the world they are trying to save. They are actually trying to save our dystopia. Our dystopia is one where people don’t relate to us through kinship relationships, reciprocity, accountability, trust and consent. That’s why it’s a concern that when people become more and more urgent, environmental injustice will once again affect indigenous people, people of color and other groups.
Dr. Kyle Powys Whyte, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Community Sustainability and a faculty affiliate of the American Indian & Indigenous Studies and Environmental Science & Policy programs at Michigan State University.
We extend heartfelt gratitude to Dharma Relief, our indigenous partners, contacts at Navajo Incident Command and the Zuni and Navajo hospitals, the front line workers serving those communities, the retired nurses and dharma practitioners who connected us to Incident Command, and our team member who ran point on this, Osa Arkin.
You can donate to the Navajo Nation COVID-19 relief fund here and to the First Nations’ emergency response fund here. Please note that this is not an exhaustive list of places to donate; there are many other indigenous organizations accepting donations, and there are many other ways to get involved. We encourage you to look into local communities in your area who may need support.
Recent stories about coronavirus transmission in meatpacking plants have exposed the impossible choice between livelihood and personal safety faced by their workers. Bhikkhu Bodhi has recently written here about the disproportionate risk that falls on migrant workers and workers of color. Yet when animals themselves are mentioned in pandemic narratives — bats, other wildlife, or domesticated pigs and chickens — it is usually in reference to their role in the transmission of a novel virus, a virus that can take a human life. Described in human-centric terms, animals are dietary staples, exotic ingredients, and occasional reservoirs of catastrophic disease.
Missing from the narrative is the bleak reality of the animal marketplace: sentient beings reduced to objects, bodies taken for human purpose, without restraint, acknowledgement, dignity, or reciprocity, living our their days in horrifying conditions before slaughter. In this article, Thanissara reminds us that cruelty to animals is karmically fraught and charts her own journey to going vegan. No matter how disinclined to see and fully act on this truth we may be, we are intimately connected to these lives.
My dear friend Andrew Harvey, talking about the multi-dimensional planetary crises we are in, said “If there is one thing that wakes you at night and breaks your heart, then get up the next day and do something about it.”
These days, almost everything is breaking our hearts. Right now, we are reeling with the multiple fallout of the Coronavirus pandemic as the old world disappears fast and a new more sustainable world struggles to be born. While the urgency of climate collapse has been eclipsed temporarily by the Corona tsunami, it has not by any means disappeared. Its impact is here as extreme weather events destabilize communities everywhere, even whole countries, leading to economic stress, increasing mass migrations and wars.
In truth, every single piece of our dismembering world is a heartbreak.
However, if I were to choose one particular heartbreak that haunts me, it has to be the way we treat animals. In particular the billions of animals caught in the truly hellish torture of agro-factory farms and their dystopian, heartless, mechanistic, violent practices. This is very challenging to talk about, because we have such a habit of orientating all experience, all dialogue, around the primacy of our human-centric perspective, to the extent that we often don’t consider the harm we cause other beings.
At a certain point of awakening, one is absolutely answerable for one’s actions, decisions, and intentions.
Invisible in this trade is the fallout for those working the vicious and degrading high-speed machinery of such mass death. At present slaughterhouse workers, mostly vulnerable migrants, the poor, and those highly traumatised, are susceptible to Corona infection. Workers at meat packing plants are experiencing among the highest death rates while having the least protection or economic support. Beside killing day in and day out, they are also daily dodging their own death, sickness and injury while susceptible to acting out the internalization of massive violence, not only on the factory floor, but at home. They are, like the animals being slaughtered, just fodder for vast profits, all for feeding an insatiable palate.
In all actions, we have to explore how we can move toward a lifestyle that is more conscious, while changing habits that perpetuate harm. When it comes to the five great precepts, which essentially offer a training to do no harm to self or other, the invitation of that training is to understand we live in a web of life and in a realm of cause and effect. The Buddha taught that the observance of the precepts offers “immeasurable beings freedom from fear, hostility, oppression.” In the same way, observing the precepts, the Buddha said, we too, in time, will “experience immeasurable freedom from fear, hostility and oppression.”
Steps Toward Compassion
There are many lenses through which to regard our relationship with the animal kingdom. For example, shifting our dependence on dairy and meat for personal health and a sustainable planet. While all good and true, my own journey to a plant-based diet is primarily in response to the terror, extreme pain, and torture of those innocents caught in the machinery of factory farms. Not just in factory farms, but all animals, fish and creatures subjugated to our human dominance, while losing their right to life, control of their bodies, their sexual processes, their family, and freedoms.
I’m sharing here my own reflections. How I think about this issue. I don’t intend to be “preachy” but to share my process into a deeper awakening beyond vegetarianism into giving up eggs, milk, and dairy products. A process I found challenging. For a long time, I was just unaware of the truth of dairy farming. It is really due to the activists, who go underground to film what actually goes on in the dairy and egg industries, that I was able to begin to make the shift. I have the deepest respect for these activists and their extraordinary bravery.
Even so, sometimes I would find myself reaching out in the supermarket for “organic” cheeses or “organic” milk for my English cup of tea, one of my former addictions. So, I can’t honestly say that I just saw one undercover expose and that shifted me irrevocably. I feel some shame to even write this, how it took a longer time for me to renounce a product rooted in such extreme violence.
We now absolutely know that the assumption of our right to dominate nature is fast heralding our possible extinction.
I had excuses. It’s hard getting vegan food traveling and in Southern Africa, where I’ve worked for several decades. Or, it’s “organic”…. Or, we need to have probiotics in yoghurt. Or whatever. There was really no good excuse. Sometimes, I would walk up and down a supermarket aisle, struggling with myself. That pizza looked so good. My brain would disconnect, and my ethics would be muted, and I’d reach into the freezer and pull it out. As a meditator, I could feel the dissonance, but somehow, I still went through the check out.
A Transmission of Reality
So, I understand this involves an awakening journey. It’s not usually a clear-cut decision, but on the whole, is a process of steps along the way. One day though, the final shift came unexpectedly, like when I was 14 years old, after I read my first book about yoga and immediately became a vegetarian. Eventually, there was a final day when the thread keeping me attached to milk meant for a calf, finally severed. It was within a deep meditative process of entering a more open, liminal, lucid space where depth of inter-being is directly experienced. I felt an intuitive sense, an intelligence much more profound than myself. I felt it as Mother Nature’s prompt and guidance. She made me aware of a sobering reality. This may not be the reality for you, but it is for me.
It was a vision type transmission, a revelation of sorts. I understood that at a certain point of awakening, the implication being the point I was at, one is absolutely answerable for one’s actions, decisions, and intentions. That is true all along of course, but before, there seemed to be some kind of buffer zone, a sort of deeper benevolent allowance of some kind of a “benefit of the doubt,” that gave slack for growing into a more awakened state.
The consequences of our actions are catapulting back to us at blinding speed. So we have to pay attention.
It was clear that the slack, a gift of grace if you like, was finished. I “saw” or felt all the animals whose lives I was implicated in taking. This wasn’t an ordinary state of consciousness, just a deep awareness and understanding. Further, I understood from then on, if any animal suffered, or had their life taken due to my intentional actions, I would be karmically implicated and answerable to them.
From that moment on, I gave up all dairy products and my beloved black and Darjeeling teas, and became vegan. My resolve also deepened to help these innocent beings caught in such a terrible predicament.
Stormclouds of Karma
These days, we are in a much bigger picture, one where all harmful causes are ripening at lightning speed into a karmic maelstrom. We now absolutely know that the assumption of our right to dominate nature and her myriad beings is a root cause for the collapse of our living systems and is fast heralding our possible extinction.
Master Hsuan Hua, whom I’m grateful to for opening the Kuan Yin Dharmas, said if you want to know why there are wars, listen to the sounds at the slaughterhouse; the sounds, smells, and the agony of it all. He talked of the great dark cloud of karma from the killing of animals, and all the violence involved, that is oppressing the planet.
All is connected in our awakening reality. We are all deeply connected with every living being, plants, all of creation. The period of wilful ignorance, where we could be unconscious for a little bit longer, has ended. Perhaps then, the message to me is now the message to you. The consequences of our actions are catapulting back to us at blinding speed. So we have to pay attention.
To meet this reality is now our task. Every decision and action has consequences. In the midst of such urgency, Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching “we are here to awaken from the illusion of separation” must now be our daily contemplation. A contemplation that is rooted in fierce compassion and expressed as dedicated action founded in harmlessness and service to Mother Nature and her myriad children, whatever form they appear in.
Adapted from a talk given November 7th, 2019 at the Dharma Voices for Animals benefit and Educational Day at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, CA.
Thanissara trained was a monastic in the Ajahn Chah Forest Tradition for 12 years. She’s led retreats since 1988, and co-founded Dharmagiri in South Africa and Sacred Mountain Sangha based in California. She has an MA in Mindfulness-Based Psychotherapy from the UK, and is author of several books, including Time to Stand Up: An Engaged Buddhist Manifesto for Our Earth — The Buddha’s Life and Message through Feminine Eyes.