Bringing the Dharma to Environmentalism
ACTION: Skillful Means
So how can Buddhists act out compassion and clarity in the natural world? “Action” or fruition is the impact we have, the steps we take and the difference they make for others.
Abbot John Daido Loori, Roshi, named his Mountains and Rivers Order after Master Dogen’s mystical concept of Zen and life. The Zen Mountain Monastery that he founded in New York’s Catskill Mountains has designated eighty percent of its 230 acres of forest preserve “forever wild”—never to be developed, manicured or managed. This commitment underscores a belief that the community, or sangha, is one of all sentient and insentient beings. The monastery worked for years to prevent big-business development on pristine Catskill land, furthering the goal of integrated land use and conservation, and manifesting a Buddhist approach to activism that is both compassionate and mindful.
The work of Snyder, Macy and Daido Roshi are examples of how the Buddhist view of interdependence and the practice of insight and compassion lead to environmental action. The relationship is in fact reciprocal—dharma brings us to an authentic caring for the Earth and at the same time the pain and the sacredness of Earth bring us to the dharma, fueling and deepening our practice.
As we confront the reality of climate change, biodiversity loss, and the many other environmental indicators that are crashing in our time, we should look to the resilience, equanimity, presence and insight that Buddhist practice can teach. Indeed, loss itself is a time-honored gateway; it encourages a shift from anxiety and attachment to the pursuit of a new spiritual awareness. Beyond helping us cope with environmental loss, the contemplative wisdom and skillfulness that Buddhism cultivates could hold the key to reversing the losses.
At the Garrison Institute, a retreat center in New York, the Initiative on Transformational Ecology works to apply contemplative skills to help reframe and solve intractable human-caused environmental problems. The more entrenched or anxiety-producing the problem, the greater the need for contemplative wisdom to help us out of self-defeating mindsets and into transformative solutions. If we could beat back climate change and other acute environmental threats with more of the same conventional approaches—science, legislation and litigation—we probably would have done it by now. But if we can cultivate clarity, compassion and skillful means in our own lives and actions, our social paradigm will shift, and our environmental future along with it.
As time passes and the climate changes, the dharma wheel also turns. Buddhism has continually reinvented itself as it spread from culture to culture, first in Asia and now around the world. In the 1960s and ‘70s Western practitioners were preoccupied with renouncing the fixations of their society, and this often included a withdrawal from social action. In retrospect we can say that Buddhism needed this time to develop and find its own place in the American context. Surely in 2009 Buddhism has matured and diversified to the point that it may return to the world through skillfully engaging in the burning issues of the day. Addressing climate change and other looming environmental threats, with their potential to create suffering on a planetary scale, is a natural and vital next step for Western Buddhism and Buddhists.
David I. Rome, formerly student and secretary to Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, is a teacher of Deep Listening and Senior Fellow of the Garrison Institute.