There are many examples of the Buddha’s effective and compassionate response within the world, which demonstrate that he taught a path of engagement, not just retreat. When his disciples abandoned a deathly sick monk, the Buddha chastised them and personally ministered to the monk, cleaning up his excrement and sores, exhorting his disciples “whoever would tend me, should tend the sick.” On another occasion he took time to advise the Vajjin tribe on how to administer their state and follow observances that would help them prosper. He advised the political power of the time, the kings and princes, on compassionate and fair conduct and on how to respond to bandits. He taught the paritta chants and advised his disciples to recite them, to help bless the land and ward off obstructions. He showed compassion toward Kisagotami, a woman driven mad by grief due to the death of her child, by helping her see the universality of loss. One of his most extraordinary acts was turning around the grotesque and feared serial killer, Angulimala, a man who had slain ninety-nine people. The Buddha used magical power and the power of persuasion to subdue his violence. Seeing Angulimala had the potential to be awakened, the Buddha reconnected him to his inner goodness, and then took him on as a disciple.
The Buddha also denounced and challenged degrading rituals and practices that involved brutal animal sacrifices, and laid out a training that could be condensed into one simple precept: Do no harm. Even when the karmic momentum of hatred and violence was impossible to stop, the Buddha tried to do whatever he could to halt war. He tried to stop the massacre of his own people, the Sakyans, at the hands of the Kosalan king Vidudabha. Twice, the Buddha met his advancing armies and was able to turn them back, but ultimately Vidudabha would not be stopped and so he marched on Kapilavatthu and massacred most of its inhabitants. While the Buddha was unable to stop this devastating loss of his own people, the important message is that he tried. He did whatever he could to evolve those around him beyond their obsession with purity of birth, status, and nationhood. It’s the same old story today. The egregious stain of racism against those of different skin color, religion, class, nation, or whomever we choose to oppress, has played out again and again through human history. But such views must become part of the past, and not of our future.
In these, and many other examples, we begin to see a picture emerge of our evolutionary task. Just as those entering the Buddhist robes renounce national and class identity, we too can do the same, or at least hold such identities lightly while seeking the betterment of the whole, rather than just that of our nationalistic interests. In religious and spiritual life, it’s not status, power, privilege, or convincing others with our views that counts. It is our ability to purify our own heart from the taints of arrogance, aversion, and covetousness. We will not always be successful in averting conflict, wars, violence, and the mismanagement of resources, but we should try, and as we do, we should practice to maintain inner well-being. If in a position to do so, as the Buddha did, we should do what we can to guide political process and worldly power so it acts ethically and in the most beneficent way for all.
Every moment we move beyond “the walls of the mind,” to reference the Heart Sutra, we contribute to a tipping point that will birth a loved world, rather than one filled with demons.
From the macro level to more personal examples, right action includes taking care of the sick and the vulnerable, helping to redeem the fallen in our societies, the mentally ill and those lost and abandoned. The Buddha left strong and clear examples of working to reduce suffering for all classes of beings, including animals, just as a parent would care for their only child. Even when we can actively do very little, or even nothing, to change a situation, we should still extend loving-kindness and blessing energy through our prayers, meditations, and through the holding of mantras and the offering of sacred chants.
I’ve Heard People Say That climate change is “political” and therefore inappropriate to bring into Dharma gatherings. While many meditation groups and retreats focus on the internal development of the path, it is important not to use that inner focus to justify keeping our head in the sand. Are we not training ourselves to meet reality, not hide from it?
The very premise of a personal “self” that needs liberating is an illusion. There is no separate independent self. We are interwoven with our surrounding environment and the relational field we live within. If we pollute the air so much that we can’t actually breathe anymore, would that not be a concern for us who patiently watch our breath on our meditation cushions? Maybe that’s facetious, but global warming and its underlying causes is not a political issue, it is the most all-encompassing and challenging reality we have ever faced as a human species. Politics, for better or worse, is a major cog in the wheel of change—therefore we need to engage political discourse and bring pressure to bear on politicians, just as the Buddha did.
Climate change is actually a moral issue in that we must maintain a sustainable world for our children and their children. It is also a social justice issue, as those most impacted are predominantly marginalized and improvised communities, whom the world ignores. In the U.S., approximately 68 percent of African-Americans live with- in thirty miles of a coal-fired power plant. Communities of color breathe in nearly 40 percent more polluted air than whites and are three times as likely to suffer an asthma attack. In light of this, many environ- mental organizations that tended to focus more on the natural environment and wild- life increasingly acknowledge the impact on marginalized communities. Ultimately though, global warming is a humane issue. Bhikkhu Bodhi said, “Climate change has a wider and even more critical impact on human life than social and economic issues. The destabilization of the climate affects the very destiny of humanity; its impact extends even beyond human beings to all life on Earth.”
In the Buddha’s teaching on the Four Truths, we are exhorted to do something about our suffering. In the same way, we need to do something in response to collective suffering.
While there are a lot of things we can “do,” it’s also important to explore the quality of awareness that informs our “doing.” A shift from an oil-based economy to renewable energy is going to be a long struggle, so we need to pace ourselves and avoid getting caught up in overwhelm, defeatism, anger, and burnout. For this an inner practice is essential. If we are only orientated outwardly, toward the injustices of the world, we will be continually activated by the thousand daily cuts to sanity and humanity. When that becomes too much, we collapse and shut down.
Resourcing ourselves inwardly, not only through meditation and spiritual practice, but also through an ability to hone good- ness, beauty, creativity, art, music, authentic friendship, and humor, is essential for a long-term strategy. Buddhism tends not to produce martyrs, but aims to optimize skillful strategies that also take into account the protection and care of the individual.
The essence of a more aware approach, is how do we avoid generating the fundamental split of “us” and “them”? All of our lifestyles contribute to global warming. We both generate climate change and are victimized by it. Author, feminist, and social activist bell hooks, who is also a Buddhist practitioner, speaks to this in her book Writing Beyond Race: Living Theory and Practice.
Dualistic thinking, which is at the core of dominator thinking, teaches people that there is always the oppressed and the oppressor, a victim and a victimizer. Hence there is always someone to blame. Moving past the ideology of blame to a politics of account- ability is a difficult move to make in a society where almost all political organizing, whether conservative or radical, has been structured around the binary of good guys and bad guys. Accountability is a much more complex issue.
Accountability is a more expansive concept because it opens a field of possibility wherein we are all compelled to move beyond blame to see where our responsibility lies. Seeing clearly that we live within a dominator culture of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, I am compelled to locate where my responsibility lies. In some circumstances I am more likely to be victimized by an aspect of that system, in other circumstances I am in a position to be a victimizer. If I only lay claim to those aspects of the system where I define myself as the oppressed and someone else as my oppressor, then I continually fail to see the larger picture. Any effort I might make to challenge domination is likely to fail if I am not looking accurately at the circumstances that create suffering, and thus seeing the larger picture.
When we create false divisions, we subtly contribute to the crisis we are trying to avert. The moment we create an “us” and “them,” we contribute to the underlying divisions that generate climate crisis, which ultimately is a crisis of consciousness. We are in the midst of a revolution of sorts, which is primarily an energy revolution. It is clear that we need to shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy. However, the deeper revolution is a radical shift from dualistic consciousness to living the reality of deep interconnectedness. This is where Buddhist wisdom can offer a profound context to support all other activism initiatives. Every moment we move beyond “the walls of the mind,” to reference the Heart Sutra, we contribute to a tipping point that will birth a loved world, rather than one filled with demons. This doesn’t mean that we don’t hold skillful psychological boundaries, or that we accept anyone or anything without question, or that we can’t critique and challenge. It also doesn’t mean that we don’t acknowledge historical differences around race and gender, which have created oppressive social systems, or that we can’t clearly identify the forces that work to undermine a sane response to climate change. It does mean, however, that while being discerning, realistic, resistant and challenging, we also attune to the reality of our mutual interdependence.
The reality of a unified field of consciousness is our deeper truth. When we tune into this, when we listen to that truth, we will move in harmony with the Dharma, it will guide us. We will learn to be more mindful of our thoughts, investigating how they continually generate “me” and “other.” Even at that level, we can explore holding the sense of our self and the other in a more global, loving awareness, so both are held as part of a totality. I remember once visiting Ram Dass at his island hermitage, where during our conversation he reached out and stroked the wall, saying, “Even this is me, I love this also.” He didn’t mean “me” as a self-identity, but how all is within our awareness. This perspective, he said, is our final frontier. It is the journey from mind to heart.
As We Develop Inclusive Awareness, it begins to advise the driver of action, which is intention. The Buddha said, “Mind is the forerunner of things. If one speaks or acts with unwholesome mind, suffering follows just as the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart. Mind is the forerunner of things, if one speaks or acts with pure mind, joy follows just as one’s shadow that never leaves.”
To guide action, it is important to cultivate informed, conscious intention. Information is power. Being informed about climate change increases clarity, which, once we work through our impotence and overwhelm, hones a more fearless intention. The vast majority of scientific evidence makes clear that the necessary “game changer” for a sustainable future planet has to include a dramatic shift in our car- bon output. According to environmental activist Bill McKibben, and his 350.org organization, we have about 565 gigatons of “carbon budget” left before we tip over into increasingly terrifying territory. Meanwhile, the fossil fuel corporations have about 2,795 gigatons, five times the safe amount, in their reserves. “They plan to burn it all,” McKibben says, “unless we rise up to stop them.” At the projected use of about thirty-nine gigatons a year, we don’t have many years to turn this around to stay below the “safer” levels of two degrees Celsius. Even at two degrees we can expect horrific consequences, but after that, as we go over budget and heat increases, we enter a serious tip- ping point of three to four degrees, at which time New York goes underwater, coral reefs completely die, and Italy, Spain, and Greece become desert-like. If we rise to over five to six degrees, then we’re looking at extinction. It is staggering to engage the very real possibility that we have set the causes, not only for the collapse of our current civilization, but also for the collapse of a livable biosphere and environment. Knowing this adds urgency to our intentionality.
However shocking this is, though, there is always room for hope. Things can and do change, and sometimes they do so with quantum speed. It’s not always clear when a tipping point is reached in any social justice movement, but certainly once it does, new ideas spread like wildfire. Now Twitter, Facebook, crowdsourcing, viral memes, and smart phones change public perspective, making available, around the globe, previously hidden information with microsecond rapidity. As this happens, we are exposed to news and insights about all sorts of issues; dialogue, opinions, and views are debated, shared, and sometimes hotly contested. We can read and post on issues that touch us, and learn about those we are not yet aware of. It is a dynamic level of engagement, one that is sometimes raw, unfettered, sometimes shambolic and wacky, often informative, but mostly democratic and alive.
As mainstream media outlets become increasingly controlled by corporate agendas, and so are unable to offer a true and unbiased perspective, more people turn to the Internet to get an authentic barometer to check on our turbulent times. All of this amounts to a different kind of emergent power: people power. An example is the many kinds of uprisings, demonstrations, and marches we’ve seen over the last few years. It is this kind of grassroots emergence, where true democratic power is expressed, that will inevitably shape our future.
While We Might All Be Part of the cause of catastrophic climate change, we are also part of the solution. We are the revolution. Already we are seeing governments responding around the world. Germany has set a stunning example and become the world’s first major renewable energy economy; in 2014, it set a new record, gen- erating 74 percent of its power needs from renewable energy. The Congo and Uganda have committed to restoring thirty million hectares of damaged forest, and Iceland and Costa Rica are committed to being entirely fossil-fuel-free economies. Most countries are now setting ambitious goals that invest in renewables, cap the use of fossil fuels, and restore wilderness areas that act as carbon sinks, such as forests. At the UN Climate Change Summit in September 2014, which was supported by the People’s Climate March in New York, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon joined the march and received commitments from more than a hundred countries to undertake climate action!
When I attended Al Gore’s Climate Reality Leadership training in Johannesburg in March 20I4—along with about eight hundred delegates from more than seventy countries, speaking more than sixty languages—I was encouraged that, as someone who has studied the science of climate change, Gore was hopeful that humanity will overcome this mighty challenge. I too am hopeful that we will turn our situa- tion around. However, it’s not certain. We should not be misled by our human hubris and assume we will secure our future, that in some magical way we deserve to be here on this magnificent planet and that it is our inborn right to always use her resources. No, this is not the case. We have to be humble and see we have serious work to do, in order to shift our cataclysmic situation. If we don’t engage to the extent we can—and beyond—then we will have a different curriculum, which is to let go as graciously as possible while helping the planet itself survive beyond our presence. This will be our final act of love.
As we hold hope for positive change, it’s important to bear in mind that any large-scale shift to a more equitable social, economic, and sustainable environmental system is a process. Even if large amounts of information are shared at quantum speed, the actual processing of that information and its translation into real change on the ground takes time. Since late 1994, I have lived and continue to work in rural South Africa along with my husband and Dharma partner, Kittisaro. During this time we helped initiate, fund-raise and support a number of response projects to the AIDS pandemic, which we were at the heart of, living in rural KwaZulu Natal.
We witnessed a sharp learning curve in a country that went through ten years of government-sanctioned denial and pharmaceutical lockdown on HIV medications, making them hugely expensive and inaccessible. As organizations like the ‘Treatment Action Campaign’ took these monolithic institutions to court, over and over again, winning each case, and as NGOs and anti-apartheid organizations transformed into AIDS activist movements, eventually the country shifted to supporting proactive and affordable treatment. I remember that when in the heart of the denial, when crazy theories, stigma, and fear were rampant; it was hard to really imagine things would change. Now it’s hard to remember how stuck and scary those times were.
Intention becomes potent when there is hope, but hope has to be tempered by a patience that we’re in it for the long run…I find this very helpful, because this kind of perspective takes the angst out of activism, allowing us to trust the process itself.
So intention becomes potent when there is hope, but hope has to be tempered by a patience that we’re in it for the long run. We need to understand that embodying the ideas of today takes time. Results don’t always come overnight. Sister Abegail Ntleko, who lives near Dharmagiri, the meditation center we founded in KwaZulu, received an Unsung Hero award from His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 2009. She told us that he encouraged all those present, about ninety heroes from all over the world, not to overly focus on results in their life- time—instead we do what we can for those who come after. I find this very helpful, because this kind of perspective takes the angst out of activism, allowing us to trust the process itself. Trust is important, as we can’t control what is going to happen. We don’t know what is going to happen, or even if what we do will have any impact. Instead, we are learning to move from a different focus. We do what we can to achieve optimum results, but do not attach to having things go in a particular fashion. In this way we maintain the inner freedom needed for maximum effect.
Besides realism, urgency, hope, patience, and trust, our intentionality has to be informed by wisdom. Having lots of information doesn’t necessarily translate into wisdom. We live in an age in which a phenomenal amount of information is communicated every day. In contrast, at the time of the Buddha, nothing was written down. Instead, teachings were remembered through recitation, where the focus was on the transformation of heart, which initiated many into what is called “stream entry”: a shift from filtering and interpreting the world through the cognitive process, to a direct connection with the living Dharma. It wasn’t just the information the Buddha imparted but “opening the eye of Dharma.” Over and over, his transmission radically changed lives. Wisdom can do this. It can transform people in a way that facts and information can’t.
Finally, the bedrock of intention for skillful action is compassion. Without the spark of compassion that motivated the Buddha to teach, we would not have the great body of work we call Buddhism. Compassion is essential because it takes us beyond self- centeredness, and inspires a range from small acts of kindness to fearless heroism in the face of the impossible. If we are to save ourselves, it is because the force of compassion will take us beyond ourselves in order to act on behalf of all.
The Buddha Demonstrated Through his insight and action our own potential. We can do this. We can realize his awakening as our truth too. We can know, in small and profound ways, what he understood on the night of his enlightenment: that the world isn’t “out there” and there isn’t a separate and independent self “in here.” “Me”, “you”, “world” is a co-arising dynamic of interconnection. Within the web of life, every discrete life form is its own center of subjectivity, which is feeling, aware, sensitive, and moves, like us, toward the desire for fulfillment and wellbeing. Visionary artist Alex Grey uses his paintings to express the reality of indivisible consciousness at the heart of everything. Some paintings have multiple eyes that convey the listening awareness everywhere, an awareness that is the same as ours.
The contemporary saint Anandamayi Ma expresses it like this: “As you love your own body, so regard everyone as equal to your own body. When the Supreme Experience supervenes, everyone’s service is revealed as one’s own service. Call it a bird, an insect, an animal or a man, call it by any name you please, one serves one’s own Self in every one of them.”’
Jack Kornfield, a contemporary renowned Buddhist teacher, tells this story, which gives a very real sense of how a sudden shift into a global awareness, beyond the identification with our personal self, changes everything:
My friend Salam, a Palestinian journalist and activist, passed through the gate of suffering when brutally beaten in Israeli prisons. This kind of suffering happens on every side in war. When I first met Salam in San Francisco, he was being honored for his hospice service. I asked him what brought him to this work. “One time I died,” Salam told me. Kicked by a guard, he lay on the floor of the jail with blood coming out of his mouth, and his consciousness floated out of his body. Suddenly, he felt so peaceful—a kind of bliss—as he saw he wasn’t that body. “I was so much more: I was the boot and the guard, the goat calling outside the walls of the police station. I was all of it,” Salam told me. “When I got out of jail, I couldn’t take sides anymore. I married a Jewish woman and had Jewish-Palestinian children. That is my answer.” Salam explains, “Now I sit with people who are dying because they are afraid and I can hold their hands and reassure them that it’s perfectly safe.”
The experience of extreme intensity can initiate profound awakening into the benevolent nature of reality. We would not wish for great suffering or dangerous situations, but when they appear there is opportunity and potential. The opportunity is always to understand that ultimately love is both the highest truth and our deepest nature. At this moment of our evolutionary journey, as we face the most terrible challenge yet, we need to hold faith to this love.
Everything terrible is something that needs our love.
—Rainer Maria Rilke
Thanissara is a teacher at the Insight Meditation Society and Spirit Rock Meditation Center. She practiced in the Thai Forest Tradition of Ajahn Chah for 12 years as a Buddhist nun before returning to lay life.
From Time to Stand Up: An Engaged Buddhist Manifesto for Our Earth. Copyright ©2015 by Thanissara. Reprinted by permission of North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California. All rights reserved.