Time to Stand Up

attack on Buddhist template

In this adaptation of the introduction to her new book Time to Stand Up, Dharma teacher and climate activist Thanissara urges us to move “beyond a personal introversion and quietism” and apply the Buddha’s radical teachings to the collective and systemic violence that is the legacy of centuries of oppression.
attack on Buddhist temple
I would have liked to write something lighter, happier, and more innocent. Instead I ask you to look with me at a burnt and tortured Earth with its polluted rivers, dying oceans, razed forests, devastated wastelands, and litany of extinct species.

However difficult the reality, just as the Buddha encouraged in his teaching of the First Noble Truth of the fact that human beings suffer, it’s always better to face the truth of our precarious situation rather than avoid it. In doing so we can explore the causes of suffering and realize solutions, as in the Second and Third Truths, the simple truth that craving leads to suffering, and when we stop craving our suffering ceases. We can also cultivate resilience while engaging an effective response, as in the Fourth Truth with its Right Action informed by wisdom, insight, mindfulness, focus, compassion, and skillfulness.

Unlike the historical Buddha who brought about radical systemic change within the society in which he lived, the institution of present-day Buddhism tends to be a conservative force which seeks a transcendent, inner path rather than one of outward engagement. While Western Buddhist movements have had a positive impact on our surrounding communities, we haven’t really felt the need to become activists focused on changing the system. If we moved into Engaged Buddhist practice, it was largely ministering in areas that are byproducts of systemic inequality, for example addressing psychological pain. We have yet to come to terms with centuries of injustices that perpetuate systemic suffering and therefore need to be addressed systemically as well as collectively. By necessity, such a reckoning has to move Dharma practice beyond a personal introversion and quietism.

What value is all this meditation and mindfulness if we just sit by and let the world burn?

Everything is now changing very fast. We are awakening into the realization that our personal enlightenment treks and our small, tribal Sangha endeavors are not going to inspire the kind of “game changer” needed to ensure a sustainable planet for future generations. The reality of catastrophic climate change and its underlying causes awakens the need for a deeper understanding of what has led us to where we are. For example, we need to be open to the implications of centuries of European colonialism that decimated First Nations and used people of color as a means of profiteering and extraction of resources. We need to understand the ways in which Buddhism perpetuates misogyny and hatred of women.

Buddhism is being challenged: what can we who call ourselves Buddhists offer from all our practice, in response to a world in crisis? And what value is all this meditation and mindfulness if we just sit by and let the world burn? If we just sit this out, our “equanimity” will become indifference, our focus on personal awakening will be revealed as self-absorption, and our seeking of peaceful, mindful moments will become willful avoidance and denial. Instead, we now have to shift our focus to look at ourselves, our intentions, what our lives have been built on—personally, nationally, and globally—and to revisit Buddhism itself; how we’ve interpreted and embodied it. Is our Dharma practice helping us to be truly and authentically responsive to the times, or are we simply nice people who are not free or empowered enough to really meet a new global paradigm?

Thanissara book titled Time to Stand UpThe Earth’s ecosystems are dying. The impacts of our unsustainable lifestyles are everywhere, every day, and are taking us to the point where human civilization itself is under threat. While solutions are abundant and clear—in essence we have to move to renewable energy and revert to sustainable local models of agriculture—the process of how to get there is less clear. Beside our own difficulty in waking up to hard truths, our societies are fuelled by massive wealth, in the hands of a tiny minority that manipulates mass media and the body politic to keep us in denial and in a trance of endless consumption.

The Buddha was radical both in his social actions and in his challenge to individuals to wake up. As we “take the dust from our eyes” we realize that nothing short of a revolution will ensure a sustainable world for future generations. Generating collective resistance alongside a creative, joyful re-envisioning of change at systemic levels offers a hopeful way forward. As humane and ethical uprisings increase, sitting on the sideline does not honor the Buddha’s example. Instead there has to be a reconfiguration of how we hold and engage Buddhist practice.

Our awakening journey is no longer a solo, privileged occupation. Instead, we are invited to align across all boundaries held in place by historic inequality, petty prejudice, grudges and ignorance, to instead forge the “beloved community” imagined by the founder of Fellowship for Reconciliation Josiah Royce and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As Buddhists, holding true to the radical edge of the Buddha’s own life, we have much to offer at this time, particularly when we align with faith communities and activists who seek to inform a response that de-escalates our divisive consciousness. If we haven’t begun already, we can start now.

At the end of the day, the essence of the Buddha’s message is “you can do this”. Together, not alone, we can bend the course of history.


Thanissara is Anglo/Irish and originally from London. She was a Buddhist nun for 12 years in the Forest School of Ajahn Chah and has taught meditation internationally the last 25 years. She is co-founder of Dharmagiri, a small meditation center in the Southern Drakensberg in South Africa which also initiates and supports local community engagement projects. Thanissara is author of The Heart of the Bitter Almond Hedge Sutra, and co-author, with Kittisaro, of Listening to the Heart: A Contemplative Journey to Engaged Buddhism. Her most recent book Time To Stand Up: An Engaged Buddhist Manifesto for Our Earth, was released in August 2015 as part of the North Atlantic Books Sacred Activism Series.

7 Comments on “Time to Stand Up

  1. Chas Di Capua is my teacher at the Insight Meditation Circle in Harwich, MA.
    I would very much like to be included in the EcoSattva Training: An Online Course for Aspiring EcoSattva.

  2. Please sit down, if possible, and kindly consider this

    First of all: the purpose of my writing this. I am not writing to start a long polemical debate. I am writing to offer an alternative perspective; readers may be impressed by Thanissara’s remarkable monastic background and think that ‘if someone like her tells us to do this, it must be in accordance with the Buddha’s teachings! It must be the way to be a genuine Buddhist!’ I would like to propose that there are other ways to be genuinely, perhaps even more genuinely, Buddhist; and that readers should exercise caution and compare what they read with the Piṭakas and the authoritative commentaries by Buddhist masters through the ages. Deciding how much time to devote to meditation and how much time to devote to other pursuits may have long lasting effects on one’s happiness and on the happiness of many other sentient beings. It is no trivial matter and should probably be calmly scrutinized: please read Thanissara’s argument, read my objections, and compare which of the two seems to accord with the Buddhist textual traditions and with the advice of living Buddhist masters that you find genuine and impeccable in their learning and meditative accomplishments.

    Formal meditation has become rarer and rarer; fewer and fewer Buddhist practitioners engage in committed, long-term formal practice of Buddhist śamatha and vipaśyanā. With committed, I mean at least a few hours a day. With long-term, I mean for at least a few lifetimes.

    With anything less than that, it is hard to imagine that one’s meditation would bring about any effect, let alone some actual understanding of the nature of things. A few hours versus beginningless saṁsāra; undoing ignorant mental habits that have been formed through countless lifetimes requires discipline and commitment to as many lifetimes of formal practice as it is going to take.

    I don’t think that Buddhist practitioners should feel the urge, let alone the obligation, to ‘stand up’ from their regular practice. Those who are devoted to a political career may apply Buddhist principles in handling policy, and thus have a positive effect on how ecological matters are being tackled. Indeed, the claim that the Buddha was socially ‘radical’ is captious. We have scarcely any reliable idea about the social situation at the time of the Buddha, since any proposed historical reconstruction of South Asian society of the time is highly speculative and based on very limited sources. If on the other hand we wish rely on the Buddhist texts themselves, they portray the Buddha as quite the opposite of a radical. If you wish to continue arguing that the Buddha was a radical, I will be glad to bring a number of Pāli, Sanskrit and Tibetan sources to disprove such a claim. But, you should be rather ready to do the same – it would be absurd to have a discussion as to whether the Buddha was or was not a radical without being able to back it up with precise references to Buddhist sources in their original languages.

    Buddhist practitioners can speak in favor of ecological concerns when given a chance – but in fact, they are protecting the environment every time they take refuge, every time they practice the Brahmavihāras, and every time they practice śamatha and vipaśyanā. These mental activities have long-term positive effects on the environment where we live. To retort that these effects cannot be proven by modern scientific means is to discard the Buddha’s teachings in their entirety, by favoring an incompatible epistemic outlook that destroys the very basis of Buddhist practice.

    More importantly, the extent and manner of a Buddhist practitioner’s engagement with activities outside of meditation is already well-outlined in the teachings on good conduct (śīla). This usually includes 5 precepts for lay people and many more for the ordained. The five precepts themselves are sometimes explained more extensively to clarify the nature and necessary extent of a Buddhist practitioner engagement with daily activities outside of formal meditation, in ways that are the opposite of banal and which have far-reaching ramifications. Good conduct is indeed the main area of application of mindfulness and the basis for the development of more advanced meditative states. I personally feel that the Buddha and the great Buddhist masters of the past have offered sufficient indications of what, and how much, to do between meditative sessions. I do not find Thanissara’s writing to be in harmony with their advice, nor more reasonable: I am thus bound to discard her well-meaning suggestions.

    It is quite possible, or even probable, that running about “to help” with a distracted, confused and egotistic mind just creates more problems for everyone involved. I will therefore decline this invitation to change the backbone of a twenty-five century old tradition, as I find it slightly patronizing (unintentionally, I guess) and perhaps not so well informed. That said – I appreciate the intent to save the planet, and wish you all success in that endeavor. Buddhist practitioners are doing the same thing each and every time they sit in formal meditations sessions: if more people were to attain śamatha or master the Brahmavihāras, I am confident that present day ecological problems would be reduced.

    In brief: anumodanā for Thanissara’s benevolent intentions, but some skepticism about her claims about the nature and current state of the Buddhist teachings.

    • Well, I live in the U.S.A.
      I work 8 hours a day 5 days a week and have to ride a bus leaving 1 and a half hours before starting everyday to work and get off at 8:00 p.m..
      I two week days off work. The temple I’m affiliated with only meets on the weekend’s in the morning.
      Should I drive my car to a week night meditation for 40 minutes in traffic or stay in my apartment to meditate?
      Besides donating money, recycling? What can I do here?
      How, not why, is everything SO far away?
      Here is the thing.
      Many Buddhists are feel un-empowered because they are not given any authority to teach Dhamma (or Dharma) unlike other faiths that compel their followers to “go out”.
      In fact, many teachers warn against it.
      Furthermore, anytime a self proclaimed teacher pops up no matter their intention they get talked down.
      Yet, somehow lay Dhamma practitioners are to self empower to rally and engage the world in crisis?

  3. Hi Thanissara,
    Great article! I think all of what you are saying is very enlightened, it is a problem I’ve been encountering in Western Buddhism, where they focus too much on the mind/ego (peace of mind), and end up getting nowhere. There are so many amazing books and teachers who are not being reached in the West and it is a crying shame, really. My favorite is Zen Master Seung Sahn, who clarified the purpose of Buddhism for me, and the function of the Bodhisattva – helping to save all Sentient beings, finding our correct function and situation in this messy world. Most Buddhists’ thinking now a days seem to be along the lines of – if the temple was on fire, they are to meditate on it and think it was “meant to” be, burn. Not bad, not good, but stupid. When there is water in front of you, use it to put out the fire, you don’t meditate on it, drink it, walk away or pour it on the ground – which is essentially what a lot of Buddhists are doing.

    Please do not be discouraged by ignorant people posting on the site. Clearly the people who commented above have little idea of what they are talking about – the Buddha was a rebel, fought against the caste system in India at the time and created female Sanghas, which did not exist. And @Michael Hernandez – a lot of Westerners know nothing about the purpose or core of Buddhism, read the comment above you – I think that says a lot about the ignorance in the understanding of Buddhism. That is why a lot of Buddhists are reluctant to pass the torch, if that kind of thinking is what is being passed around, better not to speak.

    Passivity is a common problem that a lot of people find with Buddhism in the west – in Asia i think it’s less of a problem as Buddhists follow the way of the Bodhisattva. Buddhists are pillars of the community, they run orphanages, help those in need in their community, and in Korea during times of war, there were monks who went to defend the country to preserve the culture (though probably not the best idea but it wasn’t uncommon). Monks in Korea, China and Japan went on to create wonderful things for their country – in Korea they literally helped create the Korean language and set up other systems in the country – changing their country for the better.

    Every year I feel Buddhism is becoming very watered down – almost to the level of self help books from life coaches (which are influenced by self help books built on watered down Buddhist concepts ha!). The modern world still has yet to awaken to the true purpose of Buddhism – to wake up, see the world on fire, and help those around us. The Buddha didn’t simply walk off when he reached enlightenment, he knew his function and took action to help all sentient beings. I think at the end of the day – despite what any text claims to say about Buddhism or claim to be from the Buddha’s mouth, the Buddha’s actions speak louder than words.

  4. Mattia Salvini, I respectfully disagree with your comments. The essence of Buddhism (so said a monk, quoted by One Earth Sangha) is an appropriate response. So, with strong mindfulness, we see extreme climate chaos in the news on a nightly basis. Wisdom compels us to inquire into this, “what is my role?” “Is there way that I could, with love and compassion, try to reverse the momentum of this crisis both personally and collectively?” To ignore the global climate crisis, to say “running about ‘to help’ with a distracted, confused mind just creates more problems,” is not an appropriate response, to say the least!

    And perhaps we’re not meditating 4 hours a day, but that doesn’t by any means imply that we’re “confused and distracted.” Realizing our interdependence and solidarity with all beings, realizing our love for this beautiful, diverse planet we call home, the compassionate response is to ACT; in whatever skillful, helpful way we can. And acting of course includes a meditation practice, but is not limited to it. And time off the matt and cushion, that too is practice, if approached with clarity and compassion.

    As I was reading your comments, I assume you are a male. ?? As I was reading your comments, it felt like yours were the condescending ones.

    • Thank you for your reply. I have not claimed that ‘time off the mat and cushion’ does not constitute practice – on the contrary – and I wonder what gave you that impression: in fact, I have even discussed how the Buddhist tradition treats the post-meditative states. What I find condescending is asking Buddhist practitioners to engage in specific forms of social actions, suggesting that they will be the “most appropriate response” in a somewhat universally applicable fashion (to use the words you quoted while defining the essence of Buddhism, without necessarily endorsing that characterization). My own words were meant to be polemical, not condescending, and I believe that the amount of effort I made to write a somewhat precise characterization of my position, grounded in recognizable Buddhist sources, allows me to say that, very minimally, I have been respectful of my readers by assuming them to be intelligent, attentive, and familiar with the Buddhist tradition.

      Just to be clear, my point is not that Thanissara puts value in things which are not valuable (i.e. actively protecting the environment, which is a noble endeavor), but rather that she puts too little value in the Buddhist activities that other Buddhists are rather convinced to be the ‘most appropriate response’. If she is convinced that it is best for her to join an environmentalist campaign, it may be wonderful, and yet it is less wonderful when she portrays those who will not join as betraying the Buddha’s intent. To be more precise, I am convinced that it is inaccurate.

      As to my gender, I will keep you guessing, as I feel that productive discussion focuses on the topic rather than on the person; it evaluates the interlocutor’s argument, not the interlocutor’s presumed character or intentions. Just like I will avoid any evaluation of yourself as a human being (assuming the best of intentions in my interlocutors), I will also avoid discussing about myself.

      I do hope that this clarifies the extent and context of my counter-criticism.

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