and other Buddhist practices to save the planet
I doubt that you need to hear more dire predictions about the ongoing destruction of our natural environment in order to be motivated to work to save it. In fact, too many dire predictions can make us throw up our hands in despair. So I’m not going to tell you how many species a day are becoming extinct, or how soon your home will be covered by melted polar ice. You already know it’s too many and too soon.
Lists of practical things we can do for the environment are helpful tools to keep us from wallowing in anger and despair. And we also need help with our deep conviction that we need more stuff and we need it quick. This is where Buddhist teachings can give us succor. If we take Buddha’s advice, we may find we actually want less stuff, and we want it slowly.
The following are five simple—and not so simple—everyday practices to benefit the Earth.
1 First and foremost, cultivate joy This whole save-the-planet project is not about sitting in a cold dark room shivering while you cut your hands up trying to get the metal rings off the tops of the glass bottles for the recycling. You don’t have to do that anymore! You can put the bottles into the bin with the rings still on them. The Metta Sutra says: “May I be easily contented and joyous.” And one of the practices the Buddha called the Four Immeasurables is mudita, sometimes translated as “sympathetic joy.” Your joy is my joy. The more joy we have in our lives, the more likely we are to think Yes! We can keep this planet green! And we can have a good time doing it, too. Also, the less likely we are to find ourselves driving somewhere to buy something shiny and electronic, and then driving somewhere else to buy something sweet and greasy, and then driving home to eat it in front of the TV. So consciously, deliberately, make room for what gives you joy in your daily life.
Every morning, I say, “I vow to be grateful for the precious opportunity of human birth.” And I don’t let myself use the excuse that I don’t have time. It doesn’t take much time to be grateful. It doesn’t take much time to notice the way the shadow of the tree outside the window flickers on my bedroom wall. About two or three seconds. Wow!
In particular, enjoy nature in whatever way you can, and share that joy with others. Put up a bird feeder. Take a child or an elderly person to the park—somebody who couldn’t get there by themselves. Children have less opportunity to run wild in nature than they did when I was a child. Vacant lots and ditches are hard to come by, and where they exist, they are often polluted or unsafe. So take some kids you love to a place they can run around unsupervised, forming their own connection with dirt and twigs and bugs and hollow trees. Next thing you know, they’ll be sitting up in a redwood tree for a couple of years.
2 Stop Shopping! Once I took a vow not to buy anything except food or tools for six months. I allowed myself to get new pens, new printer cartridges for my computer, new light bulbs for the house (energy-efficient fluorescent ones, of course!); but no new clothes, books, or CDs. I rediscovered shirts put aside for the lack of a button, and I took my mending basket with me to meetings. I went to our beloved public library. I was surprised by what a relief it was not to be looking with longing in shop windows or leafing lustfully through catalogs. It’s like when I stop eating sugar—to my surprise, after a while I stop wanting sugar. Those six months changed my habits: I mend more; I use the library more; I cancel the unbidden catalogs. Just for an experiment, try to stop shopping yourself. You’ll be amazed. Zen teacher Reb Anderson says “Stop shopping” is Zen practice in a nutshell. The planet will be better off when we catch on to the idea that more new stuff isn’t what’s going to save us from suffering.
Call the 800 number on the catalog and tell them to take you off the list. It’s easy. And write to Direct Marketing Association, Mail Preference Service, P.O. Box 643, Carmel, NY 10512, asking them to put you on the list of those who don’t want to receive marketing mailings.
Circulate gifts, as was traditional among Native Americans and many other cultures. Give away things you already have as presents instead of buying expensive gifts. Polish up that old necklace. Wash and iron a pretty shirt you never wear anymore, and put it in a box with tissue paper. Knit, crochet, make a quilt, a book of photos, tomato chutney, plum jam. Remember, Buddha’s robe was sewn from scraps of shrouds. I recently participated in a clothing swap organized by my sister, in which friends came together in her living room bringing clothes we didn’t want any more, and went home with other people’s rejects. We laughed a lot and told stories about the clothes, and I acquired a purple Tencel jacket whose beauty is enhanced by the fact that it used to belong to my friend Lisa. The clothes that were not adopted by anybody went to Goodwill.
My mother, in simplifying her life and cutting back on her possessions, has taken up the practice of giving books from her library to her grandchildren for Christmas and birthdays. She chooses well, according to their particular interests: a collection of poetry by Yeats, a book about Chicago architecture, a guide to butterflies or Italian frescoes. Of course not everyone has such a library, but if you look at your possessions with an eye to circulating delight, you may be surprised at what you find.