…humanity’s greatest challenge ever is also Buddhism’s greatest challenge ever.
An excerpt from Ecodharma: Buddhist Teachings for the Ecological Crisis, by David Loy
Buddhist teachings do not tell us what to do in response to the ecological crisis, but they have a lot to say about how to do it. Gautama Buddha lived about 2,400 years ago in what is now northeast India. Over the next millennium Buddhism spread to most of Asia, interacting with local cultures, assuming a variety of forms. None of those Buddhisms was modern, or global, or confronted an ecological catastrophe that threatened civilizational collapse and perhaps even human extinction. The Buddha said that what he taught was dukkha (suffering in the broadest sense) and how to end it, but the dukkha caused by an eco-crisis was never addressed—because the issue never came up.
This means that humanity’s greatest challenge ever is also Buddhism’s greatest challenge ever. Previous chapters have explored how Buddhist teachings can help us understand our situation today, but, given its history, it is not surprising that Buddhism can’t advise us on what specifically to do about it. In fact, perhaps the biggest danger for Buddhism today is the conviction that premodern versions of Buddhist teaching and practice remain sufficient, especially the belief that the path is all about pursuing our own personal liberation from this mess. Fortunately, Buddhist emphasis on impermanence and insubstantiality encourages a more creative response. Our concern to bring Buddhist principles to bear on the collective types of dukkha that challenge us today is how we remain true to the tradition today.
According to a “Dharma Teachers Collaborative Statement about Climate Disruption” drafted by thirty Dharma teachers around the world, three kinds of action are required: personal, communal, and systemic. Personally, we must curb our consumerism and become more frugal in use of resources, including energy. Collectively, we need to dialogue with friends, neighbors, and our broader communities on the gravity of our situation, which can lead to coordinated action. This is especially relevant to Buddhist organizations. Of the three jewels, it seems to me that Western Buddhists have a lot of Buddha (teachers) and Dharma (teachings), but are often deficient in Sangha (communities).
At Dharma centers we listen to talks by teachers and perhaps meet one-on-one briefly with the teacher, but otherwise focus tends to be on group meditation in silence, with maybe a little informal conversation over tea at the end. That’s not enough to develop the kind of community bonds that will be even more essential in the future. When more difficult times come, the most important thing will not be whatever food we may have stored in the basement, but whether we are a part of a loving community whose members are prepared to be there for each other. Western Buddhism hasn’t focused on this because we still understand the path as the individual pursuit of individual awakening—which fits nicely, of course, into the individualism of modern Western culture, especially in the United States.
The third kind of action the Collaborative Statement calls for is structural: we must work toward more sustainable alternatives to the institutions that are responsible for the policies devastating the earth:
Above all we must replace profligate political, social, and economic systems with new paradigms more conducive to human flourishing and to harmony between humanity and the earth. In this we should not be afraid to engage politically, thinking we will thereby be ‘tainting’ our spiritual practice. If change is going to occur at all, we have to stand up against the powerful fossil fuel interests that infiltrate the halls of power; we have to put pressure on our elected representatives to follow the call of moral integrity and the trail of science, not the call of the CEOs and the trail of dogma.
Although Buddhist teachings do not say much about evil per se, the “three poisons” (or three fires) of greed, ill will, and delusion are sometimes described as the three roots of evil. When what I do is motivated by any or all of them (and the three tend to reinforce each other, of course), my actions are unwholesome and tend to result in suffering. That is an important insight about how our individual motivations and intentions function, but it has broader implications, because the three poisons also function collectively. Today we not only have much more powerful technologies than in the Buddha’s time, we also have more powerful institutions, which operate according to their own logic and motivations—in effect, they take on a life of their own. Buddhist emphasis on motivation therefore provides a distinctive perspective on some of our most important social problems and social structures. The ecological crisis continues to worsen because our present economic system institutionalizes greed, our militarism institutionalizes ill will, and the corporate media institutionalize the political and consumerist delusions that support the other two.
The challenge is enormous; there is so much to do. What should we focus on?
The members of our local ecodharma group in Boulder, Colorado, are engaged in a variety of responses. When my partner and I bought a new home, one sangha member helped us reduce our carbon footprint, because he knows a lot about energy audits, solar panels, and electric cars. Another member, a former banker, is on the board of Citizen’s Climate Lobby and regularly lobbies in Washington for a carbon tax. I’m a member of 350.org, presently working to persuade the trustees of my alma mater to divest from fossil fuel stocks. Some members of the group also participated in a sit-in in front of a local bank that was financing an oil pipeline. Which of these actions is an appropriate response to the eco-crisis?
I would say all of them—and many more, including some perhaps unknown now but which will become important in the years to come. And which of them is “Buddhist,” in the sense of being compatible with Buddhist teachings and practice? Again, I would say all of them—and many more. In particular, I suspect that nonviolent direct action (civil disobedience) will sooner or later become important, perhaps necessary—and that too is consistent with Buddhist teaching and practice.
That does not mean “anything goes” from a Buddhist perspective. Our ends, no matter how noble, do not justify any means, because Buddhism challenges the distinction between them. Its main contributions to our social and ecological engagement are the guidelines that the Theravada and Mahayana traditions offer. Although those principles have usually been understood in personal terms, as applicable to individual practice and awakening, the wisdom they embody is readily applied to the more collective types of engaged practice and social transformation that are needed today. Within Theravada, the five precepts (and Thich Nhat Hanh’s engaged version of them) and the four “spiritual abodes” (brahmaviharas) are most relevant. The Mahayana tradition highlights the bodhisattva path, including the six perfections, and—perhaps the most important of all—the principle of acting without attachment to the results.
David Loy is a professor, writer, and Zen teacher in the Sanbo Zen tradition. His many essays and books have been translated into numerous languages. His articles appear regularly in the pages of major journals such as Tikkun and Buddhist magazines including Tricycle, Turning Wheel, Shambhala Sun and Buddhadharma, as well as in a variety of scholarly journals. Many of his writings, as well as audio and video talks and interviews, are available on the web.
David is especially concerned about social and ecological issues and believes that there is an important parallel between what Buddhism says about our personal predicament and our collective predicament today in relation to the rest of the biosphere. David Loy is one of the founding members of the new Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center, near Boulder, Colorado. Please visit the website at rockymountainecodharmaretreat.org for more information.