Does our Buddhist practice ‘help the environment’, or are we closing our eyes and hoping for the best?
I’m writing this at a friend’s house in Snowdonia. He got a grant a few years back to plant 5,000 trees and put up a fence to stop the sheep nibbling any that self-seed. Some are now fifteen feet high and alive with blackbirds, pipits and even cuckoos. He points out some spots on the hill behind the house where I might go and meditate.
He has done something I would like to do: plant trees to join up some of the small patches of woodland that remain in our grassy landscape. It seems a very practical response to the environmental crisis. But I live in the East End and I doubt the groundsmen at Victoria Park would appreciate my digging in saplings across the cricket pitch.
I live in Bethnal Green to be near the London Buddhist Centre and its community. But by the standards of some environmental activists, what goes on at the LBC might seem like a navel-gazing indulgence – watching with a peaceful smile while the world burns around us. Do the LBC’s meditation classes, retreats and dharma talks have anything to do with the ecological issues we face, locally or globally?
Unless I can answer this question, there is a danger that the heart will go out of my Buddhist practice. A danger that I will tacitly agree with people who think that Buddhism, aimed at the narrow goal of ‘inner peace’, is an inconsequential hobby for well-meaning people – an escape from the world, and certainly no threat to the forces of environmental degradation.
So, can we be confident that sincere and well-aimed Dharma practice is a fitting response to the ecological crisis? If we can make this link, we will be less prey to despair in the face of a daily diet of destruction; less unhelpfully guilty about the negative impact of our high-carbon lifestyles, while also keen to look at ways of modifying them; and much more empowered to think we can make a difference.
This article is not a list of ways of engaging with environmental issues. It’s about how the Dharma, properly understood and practised, can bring about transformation at levels which in the long run are pivotal to any truly positive change in our collective relationship with nature.
Below I explore how the Dharma reframes the debate by providing a bigger vision; how it encourages more earth-centred perspectives; and how it leads us out of unhelpful abstraction into a more embodied life.
Loosening our visionary belts
I was born into a culture with a humanist worldview, which although positive in many ways, is rooted in a materialistic vision of reality which lends itself nicely to the creed of consumption. We won’t move beyond consumerism until we are free from the confines of that materialistic vision.
We need a bigger perspective, which welcomes the insights of science without cramping the mystery of life, or reducing us to biology, or even psychology. The view that everything is matter subtly erodes our ability to communicate and understand higher emotions and values. We need a perspective that doesn’t see cause and effect in exclusively materialistic terms and which accounts for the ethical dimension of life in a way we can verify in our own experience. Buddhism offers all this, and addresses itself to our deepest sufferings and our highest yearnings.
In my twenties I came upon the visionary writings of the ‘eco-theologian’ Thomas Berry, who had an affinity for Buddhism and who continues to be an inspiring figure for many modern nature writers. In his book The Dream of the Earth, Berry characterises the industrial age as ‘a period of technological entrancement, an altered state of consciousness, a mental fixation that alone can explain how we came to ruin our air and water and soil and to severely damage all our basic life systems under the illusion of “progress”.’ He goes on to say that ‘…during this period the human mind has been placed in the narrowest confines it has experienced since consciousness emerged from its Paleolithic phase.’1
As well as a bigger vision, the Buddhist path teaches a simpler way of life – one that is more alive to beauty, nature and other people, and more aware of how our desire for materialistic salvation makes us vulnerable to the advertiser’s craft. When we’re happier, our credit cards have a softer run of it. We are more aware that what we have is body, breath, life and each other. On retreat and at classes it’s a relief to return to this very human common ground.
Bringing earth-centred views back to life
But what sorts of views in particular would change if we lived by the Buddhist vision? I want to touch on some basic perspectives in Buddhism which lead us into deeper connection with a living world.
Firstly – and Berry’s views reflect this – our mind matters. Every experience we have is preceded by the mind. What we call ‘world’ and what we call ‘mind’ arise in dependence on each other and are inseparable in our experience. The two always go together. This is the principle of dependent arising, which is at the core of Buddhist teaching. The upshot for the environmental debate is that whenever we change our consciousness, we change the earth too.
In environmental debate the human mind is often left out of the picture. This is understandable in an urgent situation. But from a Buddhist point of view, the distinction is fundamental: a certain type of consciousness was a necessary condition in the command to drop napalm on the forests and villages of Vietnam. A certain type of consciousness continues to allow scallop dredgers to wipe out huge areas of marine life in Cardigan Bay for profit.
In other words, no action which degrades the earth, or is fruitful for the earth, comes out of nowhere. Of course many of the conditions which bring about observable effects on the earth have nothing to do with any human volition. A certain type of consciousness is not required for a volcano to erupt or the earth to be hit by an asteroid.
Secondly, it is not only human beings that are conscious subjects. The attitude that everything non-human, maybe with the exception of a few larger mammals, is an only an object, is narrow and destructive. Thomas Berry again: ‘The earth community is not a collection of objects but a communion of subjects.’2
This insight is a premise of ‘deep ecology’: everything exists from its own side and expresses consciousness in its own unique way. We need to see through the dangerous delusion that the earth is structured around our needs and desires. Objectifying someone or something is a convenient basis on which to harm or kill them. It is harder to abuse something you are aware of as a feeling subject – if you are aware, for instance, of tuna fish in their non-canned format.
Sangharakshita, the founder of the Triratna Buddhist Community, once said that unless we see the universe as basically alive, our Buddhist practice is impossible. Even in Buddhist circles it is arguable we have hardly begun our journey towards re-animating the world in this way. Animism is seen as primitive and long gone. But unless we re-discover a nature ‘alive with many voices’3, we carry on what Berry calls the ‘technological wonderland’ experiment to its ironic endgame: a wasteland.
Thirdly, nothing is private or sealed off. Have we developed a bizarre belief, perhaps due to the dominance of brain science, that our minds, or we ourselves, are separate from the world around us, ghosts in a machine body?
Dharma practice is not something I can do in the privacy of ‘my mind’ for inner peace, even if I would like to. As the Buddhist environmentalist Akuppa says: ‘human society is as complex and chaotic as any ecosystem. We may think that our behaviour, conversations and transactions are our own private business, but in aggregate they are constantly bringing about changes in ways we don’t even suspect.’4
Buddhist practice develops our feel for interconnection by encouraging us to notice how our actions have consequences for us and others, and by helping us beyond limiting self-views – ‘I’m no good,’ or ‘It’s always going to be like this’ – and habits of meanness or ill-will which keep our circles small. We can’t think our way to interconnectedness. It’s what happens when energy is freed and our vision of life expands.
Eventually we might feel the damming of a river as the damming of something in us. I believe we half-feel like this already, but we have lost our sensitivity to it. I may feel disconnected from nature, but on reflection this is surely a strange idea. I am fully connected to nature all the time. As Carl Jung says: ‘The psyche is not any more inside us, than the sea is inside the fish.’
If in doubt, plant a tree
We don’t of course need to perfect our views or become a Buddha before following through on our inspiration to plant a tree, or join a campaign or start composting. Our motives and views can be changed through the positive action we take. Certainly, we should be wary of armchair Buddhism. But it inspires me if I can recognise that when we bring any good quality into our lives, we are bringing it into the world. The best type of environmental action (and the best type of meditation) will include this perspective, which is founded on the inseparability of what we think of as the inner and outer worlds.
By starting to live from all these perspectives, by building them into our institutions, and teaching them; by living more communally and on a basis of non-acquisitive values; and by planning our environmental activism on the basis of an understanding of how our states of mind affect our actions and their results, we add a lot to the wider debate. It may even be that some forms of activism become untenable for us when we notice they express and entrench unhelpful views. We will need to devise new ways of connecting with overt environmental issues.
If we are deeply receptive to the Dharma we will realise that even the words ‘environment’ and ‘ecology’ are a bit alienating. Ecology is a branch of science, like biology, and not something we experience. Similarly, ‘the environment’ is suggestive of something which is ‘over there’ or around us, but quite separate from me ‘in here’. The discourse of modern environmentalism risks perpetuating the very abstraction of us from nature that lies at the root of the problem.
Buddhist teaching always points us back to our direct experience. The body is key to this direct awareness because it is a natural condition, not created by us, and through body awareness in particular the mind is coaxed away from proliferation and fantasy towards its natural state: the place of feeling, imagination and beauty. When we are self-obsessing, stressed out, or dealing in abstractions, how can we have a positive impact on the wider life around us?
Of course no-one can say for sure if mankind will succeed in averting the worst predicted outcomes of climate change – hunger, war, displacement, ecosystem collapse and species extinction. Speculating too much on that question won’t help. As Buddhists we should be ready to develop positive mental states, including fearlessness, even if things look very bad indeed. But I believe that if we are sincerely engaged in Buddhist practice, we are sincerely engaged in life. Our practice, especially in its collective aspect, will have benefits beyond what we can conceive.