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A conversation on Buddhism, corporate power, confrontational tactics, and the future of the world with Rainforest Action Network chairman Jim Gollin
Have there been figures in your life who have helped you along the road? Well, yes and no. I don’t really have a teacher or a model—not any one, but bits and pieces from many. I’ve studied with Thich Nhat Hahn, for example. His concept of interbeing was very helpful for me. I remember him holding up a piece of paper, and saying, “What do you see here?” And he said, “I see some clouds and the rain and there’s the tree and wood that the paper is made from.”
With the Boise campaign we used essentially the same analysis. We asked, “How are we going to get Boise to stop cutting old-growth forests?” It was like pulling out that piece of paper and saying, “Okay, I see Kinko’s and Lowe’s and I hear the sound of consumers in a marketing campaign.” It took seeing how everything interconnects like Indra’s net.
Where do you find your core Buddhist experience? I went on treks in the Himalayas and spent months in the villages in Tibet and studied things from Theravada to Vajrayana to Zen. And my preference is Zen, but it’s not about the koans or the Rinzai versus Soto versus whatever. It’s the notion that there’s your cushion: you sit on it, it’s quiet, and it’s all there. That’s all you need, and the rest of it’s gone—whether or not you eat rice or wheat, and whether or not you enjoy the chanting. I like it when it all goes away and it’s quiet. We just have to notice. We just get out of the way and all the answers are already there. And so the more stripped down it can possibly be, the more I like it.
You’re an environmentalist, but you don’t have doom in your eyes. Some people believe in optimism as a necessary condition for action. That’s not my style. I’m much more likely to say, “Are we going to make it as a species without completely screwing it up?” Maybe not, but we have a chance. If that’s a one percent chance, I’m not going to give up. Neither am I going to say, “We’re going to make it.” I think, actually, the odds are against us. If I were rating our chances of survival like an investor in stocks, I’d say we’re going down. But this is not an investment. We only have this one world. We only have this one life. If you’re in the boat and it’s sinking on a stormy ocean, are you going to stop bailing?
I also believe we don’t know very much. It’s our responsibility to know everything we can, to ask questions like “What is life?” and “What is consciousness?” There are so many miracles daily. Deciding we’re not going to survive is presumptuous.
Jonathan Gustin decided early on that an unproductive anger lurked behind much of the environmental and political action he witnessed. '"It's not sustainable," he says, "and frankly, it's not effective to work from a place of hostility." Why not, he thought, act out of compassion instead? The result is Green Sangha, a Buddhism-based but nondenominational grassroots spiritual community committed to environmental action.
"Our practice is to love without boundaries," says Gustin, a Zen lay priest who has been a student of the Advaita Vedanta teacher Adyashanti for the last five years. "As long as we pretend we are separate from the earth, we will always be in a dysfunctional relationship with the planet."
Gustin founded Green Sangha in 2000, in Fairfax, California, when he put up flyers announcing a meeting and "twelve people showed up in my living room." The group has since grown to include ten active chapters throughout the United States. Green Sangha chapters organize their monthly meetings around meditation and building community, with the further goal of bringing the qualities of calmness and lucidity to environmental activism. "Meditation and environmentalism fit like hand and glove," says Gustin.
The group has produced some endearing homespun efforts. In an attempt to raise awareness about deforestation, members of the Fairfax chapter decided to give away packages of toilet paper made from 100 percent recycled fibers along with an action sheet to encourage the recipients to switch to the more sustainable product. In a similar mode, Green Sangha members have given away faucet aerators to encourage water conservation and thousands of energy-efficient fluorescent light bulbs.
While efforts such as the TP giveaway may seem, in Gustin's words, "kind of silly and funny," he also says they have a strong grassroots effect. More importantly, says Gustin, they underscore a central goal of Green Sangha, "ending separation between our Buddhist practice and action."
For more information, contact Green Sangha, P.O. Box 639, Fairfax. California 94978; (415) 459-8610; www.greensangha.org
Image 1: Gone, Isabella Kirkland, 2004, oil paint and alkyd on canvas over wooden panel, 48 × 36 inches, depicts sixty-three species of plants and animals that have gone extinct. © Isabella Kirkland, courtesy of Feature inc, New York City.