“If I seem to take part in politics, it is only because politics encircles us today like the coil of a snake from which one cannot get out, no matter how much one tries. I wish therefore to wrestle with the snake.” –– Mahatma Gandhi
I was privileged to be able to take part in the recent Eco-Dharma Conference this August at the Wonderwell Retreat Center. It was an extraordinary experience to be with a group of fifty practicing Buddhists, who were gathered together to learn and to share information and perspectives on the current planetary crisis.
The retreat evolved informally and quite naturally within the shape of the Four Noble Truths: first we looked at the truth of the collective suffering of and on the earth; secondly, we saw the roots of this suffering in insatiable desire, fear and ignorance; thirdly, we had a shift in view and saw that the alleviation of this suffering is possible, and that we can engage in this work towards this end without being overwhelmed; and fourthly, we heard the stories of the path, the work people are doing, the lifestyles people are living, and the open-hearted, nonjudgmental approach so familiar in our tradition. There are no real enemies in these times of global crisis; we are all in this together.
For the first days, we did what Buddhists do well: pay attention and understand the truth of the degree of the suffering that is currently happening for our earth. An expert in the study of climate change, Kritti, a Zen priest as well as a geochemist and microbiologist with the Environmental Defense Fund, gave us the science of climate change. A lively, committed and passionate young woman, Kritti had tears in her eyes as she told us of a finding earlier this summer: there is a large crater in the Eastern Russia steppes filled with and created by toxic liquid methane gas escaping from the broken down earth crust. “This was predicted,” she said, “but we didn’t think it would happen so soon.”
Kritti and others on a panel that followed assured us that we have enough information now to act, and we know what to do. We must watch our minds and resist the tendencies to move away from this truth. We looked at the cultural and personal sources of denial; and we remembered how the mind tries to escape from the uncomfortable truth often because of the fear of being overwhelmed. We forget that the sadness that arises in the face of “seeing clearly” can provide both the motivation and the courage for action.
“Sorrow is an arrival… Sorrow is better than fear… For fear impoverishes always but sorrow may sometimes enrich.” Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country.
The conference focus continued on into the depth and complexity of the causes of suffering. A panel presentation on Eco-Justice explored how personal and corporate greed opens wide the issues of racism, classicism, feminism, and war and peace. Small group meetings gave us a way to express and connect around our grief.
After this sharing, a remarkable short documentary, “Overview,” eased us towards the third truth and a shift in perspective: “Peace is possible.” Photos of the earth from space along with interviews with astronauts, scientists and philosophers, including the Buddhist teacher David Loy, inspired a direct sense of our interconnectedness as well as a visceral understanding of the beauty and fragility of the earth. What we do on this planet has an impact, and we are all potential stewards of the earth. Made by the Planetary Collective, this documentary and the discussion with its producer brought a much-needed sense of space and possibility to the conference’s atmosphere.
The following day, Bhikkhu Bodhi, one of the most esteemed Buddhist scholars in the world and activist founder of the Buddhist Global Relief Organization, gave a brilliant talk on the effects of climate change within the formal context of the Four Noble Truths. The brightness of his mind as well as the joy and compassion in his heart shone through. We do what we do towards the alleviation of suffering, internally and externally, because it is the honest and true way to live. His talk has been recorded, and we plan to show it in the sangha when it becomes available.
Bhikkhu Bodhi and engaged Buddhist spokesman David Loy both encouraged us to broaden our perspective on how Buddhism might contribute to global action. In our personal practice, seeing the role of desire and attachment, aversion and hatred, and delusion helps us be free from unskillful habits. The same constructs exist in society; these too need to be attended to and be recreated, just as we are recreating our individual lives. Clear seeing and wise action in the world simply represent a further stage of our practice. The equanimity and evenness of heart that we establish in our personal lives is essential to social action: these qualities enable us to act with clear understanding and without attachment to the fruits of our action.
The final days of the conference were filled with formal and informal presentations about the work that people are currently doing to support the health of the planet and the many beings inhabiting it. Colin Beaven, known as “the no impact man,” presented his experiments in reducing consumption under the title “How Environmental Crises Point the Way to Human Happiness.” He made a strong case for the return to joy and human connection that can come with having less. A panel presentation titled Courage and Fearlessness had people from environmental and political action groups speaking on their work. Afterwards, many, many individuals spoke of what they are doing. The tone of the group was heartening and uplifting.
Four other local Buddhists were at the conference, including Keith Chrisman and Karen Summer from VIMS. We are planning to have some local programming as a way to live the work of the conference forward. You will be hearing more about both public events and smaller gatherings within the VIMS sangha. Meanwhile, there is an interesting article by Bikkhu Bodhi called “A Challenge to Buddhists” and a YouTube video of him on a panel with Joanna Macy and Pannavati Karuna speaking on Engaged Buddhism.
I am particularly inspired by his advocating social action in that he was for so many years an almost sequestered monk, engaged in translating ancient texts in Asia. When he returned to this country, he seemed to wake up to the suffering of the world and has undertaken important global action. At the same time he is a funny, gentle, kind, curious, energetic, light and serious, very engaged, happy person.
Bhikkhu Bodhi spoke of bhaya, a word in the Pali language, which subjectively means fear. Objectively it means danger or peril, and it is the root of samvega, a word which means urgency, and which is often translated as “the motivation and the energy for practice.” This Eco-Dharma Conference definitely instilled in all of us attending a very strong samvega for personal and global practice as well as a palpable joy and re-commitment to compassion. We are all in this together; no one is safe unless we all are.
“…And then I realized that that blue line, that really thin, royal blue line, was Earth’s atmosphere, and that was all there was of it. And it’s so clear from that perspective how fragile our existence is. It makes you appreciate how important it is to take care of that atmosphere.” –– Sally Ride, from the space shuttle Challenger, 1982
This essay and all other Dhamma Reflections have been written by Doreen Schweizer.