Towards a Social Dharma – Caring for Our Common Home, Our True Body

Along with other U.S. Buddhists, Hozan Alan Senauke, Zen teacher and founder of the Clear View Project, visited the Vatican in June of 2015, meeting with U.S. Catholics and with Pope Francis on the need to clarify and coordinate the wider faith community’s response to the global climate crisis and other social concerns. On the occasion of the release of Laudato si’, the Pope’s powerful encyclical on climate change, Alan invites us to look deeply at the teachings of interdependence and respond to our situation accordingly with a “Social Dharma.”

The Whole Earth is My True Body

Through the streets of Rome and then into the Vatican itself, Buddhists and other faith communities took their message in June of 2015. This banner, created by the Buddhist Peace Fellowship was first unveiled in May in front of the US White House.

Towards a Social Dharma – Caring for Our Common Home, Our True Body

by Hozan Alan Senauke

The Buddha was enlightened under a tree. Sitting under that Bodhi tree on the banks of the Neranjana River, he was taunted by the demon king Mara who did his best to plant seeds of doubt. Mara asked by what right this man Gauthama claimed the seat of enlightenment. The Buddha remained steady in his meditation and simply reached down to touch the Earth. The Earth responded loudly: “I am your witness.” Mara fled and the Buddha continued to practice meditation. The Earth was partner to the Buddha’s work, as she must be our partner and our support.

In late June Pope Francis released his encyclical Laudato Si’/Praised Be, a passionate plea for environmental sanity and social/spiritual transformation. This eloquent document — subtitled On Care for Our Common Home — is addressed to “every person living on this planet,” inviting us all to take part in dialogue and action to protect our future, that of our children, and of all beings.
In the very first paragraph of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis references the lyrical work of his namesake Saint Francis of Assisi. In “Canticle of the Sun” St. Francis reminds us that:

…our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with colored flowers and herbs.”

For many of us Pope Francis is a breath of fresh air: a world religious figure who is not afraid to speak of the plight of the poor and the hazards of a “throwaway culture.” He can speak the truth bluntly, “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth,” and argue wholeheartedly for an “integral ecology” which sees:

…a relationship between nature and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it.

Such understandings and concerns are certainly present within Buddhist traditions going back to the Buddha’s awakening. In recent decades we’ve seen the development of socially engaged Buddhism. But it seems to me we are still lacking a rigorous Buddhist equivalent to the “Social Gospel.”

We need a “Social Dharma” to care for our common home. This Social Dharma must reach across our different cultures and Buddhist traditions. That means to care for our bodies, our communities, and our planet. It means to understand the connections between climate change, poverty, racism, and militarism. All these are threads in the common garment of domination and oppression. To ignore them is to invite the destruction of all we cherish.

Hozan Alan with Pope Francis

The author, Hozan Alan Senauke, with Pope Francis at the Vatican in June of 2015.

Rising in the early 20th Century from the squalor of the industrial revolution, the Social Gospel was a fresh approach to Christ’s message and Christian ethical teachings, which were interpreted in the light of social justice including poverty, racism, child labor, war, crime and much else. While earlier popes had addressed these issues in various ways, none in memory has been as outspoken as Pope Francis, so clear about the inequities of our world and the dangers of our way of life.

Again and again Pope Francis hammers home his Social Gospel in the pages of Laudato Si’:

Social problems must be addressed by community networks and not simply by the sum of individual good deeds. This task will make such tremendous demands of man that he could never achieve it by individual initiative or even by the united effort of men bred in an individualistic way…The ecological conversion needed to bring about lasting change is also a community conversion.

We need a “Social Dharma” to care for our common home…. to care for our bodies, our communities, and our planet.

As Buddhists we can embrace the Integral Ecology of the Pope’s message and place it at the heart of a Social Dharma. Integral Ecology is not Christian or Buddhist but truly human. The core Buddhist teachings and precepts are about our relationship to all beings, not treating anyone or anything as an object for our manipulation.

In the Zen tradition Master Dogen writes, “Understand that the ancient Buddha teaches that your birth is not separate from the mountains, rivers, and earth.” This means that we are responsible to and for the world we live in. Elsewhere, Master Dogen offers these encouraging words:

…Give flowers blooming on the distant mountains to the Tathagata. Offer treasures accumulated in our past lives to living beings…We offer ourselves to ourselves, and we offer others to others.

A gift at has been given to us to sustain, take care of, and share with everyone. The whole earth is my true body. We all stand on the same ground and this ground is unstable. The planet is at risk. Those who are poorest, those with the least access to resources suffer most. But, really, we are all threatened. In the light of interdependent reality, in the circle of giving and receiving we all suffer. So I ask can we let go of harmful things: fear, privilege, and the vain quest for comfort at the expense of others’ lives? In the spirit of Right View can we create a Social Dharma? In words from a fable written by my old teacher Robert Aitken Roshi:

Owl said, “What are Right Views?”
Brown Bear said, “We’re in it together and we don’t have much time.”

So…what shall we do? We don’t have much time.

Many Faiths One Planet

People of faith carry their message into the Vatican and out to the world.


Hozan Alan Senauke is founder of the Clear View Project and Vice-Abbot of Berkeley Zen Center where he has been in residence for thirty years. In June 2015 he participated in a Vatican-sponsored Buddhist-Catholic dialogue in Rome on the subject of “Suffering, Liberation, and Fraternity.”

4 Comments on “Towards a Social Dharma – Caring for Our Common Home, Our True Body

  1. We need to get our hands dirty. Progress will be made if at all, by the (ugh) political process. That’s voting, sending money, working in and supporting organizations…

  2. 1)
    Many times i have heard people talk of saving THE environment — as if it was something outside ourselves. THE — the specific article, the designator, creates a wall between ourselves and that which we our designating.

    Rather, it is OUR environment. We are in it — it is in us. OUR air in our lungs. Our water that quenches OUR thirst. OUR food that sustains us. And OUR toxins that poison us.

    We ware woven together like a cloth. We can not separate ourselves from it, even if we rent our fabric. We are sill one and the same

    Yet like Dongshan — It is now us. We now are not it. We are separate — but we are the same. Interdependent. It is our consciousness.

    We need to remember our practice of our lives, including excluding the definite article when talking about our environment. It’s a matter of consciousness.

    On another thought, before practicing Buddhism, I was a pipe-carrier in the Blackfoot Native American/First Nation tradition. When a tribe (or sangha) gathering was held,
    all who entered were “smudged” with sage, the herb of West, of healer, of pure heart. And when they spoke, each person started speaking first with the phrase “o-k’ne k’soku wa” — in the name of all our relations. When one spoke, one did not speak for oneself, but for the grass, the trees, the river, the four-legged, the two legged, those that swam in the waters, those that flew in the sky, those that crawled in or walked on Mother Earth. All were related….

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