Posted inEcodharma, Other Teachings

Buddhists Must Awaken to the Ecological Crisis, by David Loy, Part 3

July 18, 2016

Buddhism provides a wonderful archetype that can bring individual and social transformation together: the bodhisattva.


Click to read Part 1 and Part 2 of Buddhists Must Awaken.

While much of traditional Buddhism is concerned about transcending (in one way or another) this unsatisfactory world, much of modern Buddhism is about adapting to it better. In the first case, this world is the problem because it is a place of suffering, while in the other, one’s mind is the problem. These are differing perspectives on the path, but they can both have the effect of devaluing social and ecological engagement. In different ways, each is resigned to the way this world is—or seems to be—and therefore is not concerned about reforming it.

It is not surprising, then, that both perspectives offer the same “solution” to the ecological crisis. When our attention is drawn to what is happening—to the fact that our ecosystems are deteriorating quickly and our collective response to this situation remains woefully inadequate—we can sit on our cushions and meditate, or perhaps chant, and after a while we feel better because we have “let go” of our dis-ease about what is happening to the earth.

Fortunately, there is another way to understand the Buddhist path: that it is about deconstructing and reconstructing the self—or, better, the relationship between one’s sense of self and the world. Reconstruction involves changing our motivations, which is the key to understanding the Buddha’s innovative teaching on karma; he emphasized intentions because problems naturally result when we are motivated by greed, ill will, and delusion.

Yet transforming motivations is not sufficient—the root of our problems is a sense of self that needs to be deconstructed. Because the self is a psychological and social construct, a cluster of impermanent processes, it is inherently insecure and anxious insofar as it feels separate from the rest of the world. We usually experience this insecurity as a sense of lack, which nothing external can ever satisfy. Meditation practices can resolve this deep feeling that “something is wrong with me” by revealing our interconnectedness with the world.

These transformations do not involve transcending this world but rather coming to experience it in a different way, just as Nagarjuna’s assertion implies. There is another important implication, which brings us back to the challenge of social and ecological engagement. As we begin to awaken and realize that we are not separate from each other or from the earth, we also begin to see that the ways we live together and relate to our environment also need to be reconstructed in order to become more sustainable and socially just.

Buddhism provides a wonderful archetype that can bring individual and social transformation together: the bodhisattva.

Bodhisattvas have a double practice—as they deconstruct and reconstruct themselves, they also work for social and ecological change. Actually, these are two sides of the same practice. As we start to see through the delusion of our separateness, our deep-rooted, self-preoccupied habits don’t suddenly disappear. We need to develop less self-centered and more compassionate ways of living in the world, but how do we do that? By devoting ourselves to the well-being of others, including the health of the earth’s ecosystems. Such concerns are not distractions from our personal practice but deeper manifestations of it.

Bodhisattvas are able to act in the world with equanimity because they are unattached to the fruits of their actions, which is not the same as detachment from the state of the world. Non-attachment is essential in the face of the inevitable setbacks and frustrations that activism involves, but it does not mean that one is unconcerned about the results of one’s efforts. Given the urgency of the challenges, we work as hard as we can. When our efforts do not bear fruit in the ways that we hoped, we naturally feel some disappointment, but we do not remain stuck there. Non-attachment lets us move forward in the face of despair.

Will our efforts be in vain? Have we already passed ecological tipping-points? We don’t know, yet rather than being overwhelmed by the unknown, bodhisattvas embrace “don’t know mind,” because the task of the bodhisattva is to do the best one can without knowing what the consequences will be.

Given the urgency of the ecological and social challenges that face us today, are we not all called upon to become bodhisattvas?

Written by David Loy, originally appeared in Lions Roar, November 30, 2015

Image: Overseeing, by Geralt,  CC0 Public Domain, from
Featured Image: Iceberg, by Robynm, CC0 Public Domain, from

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