Joanna Macy—celebrated scholar of Buddhism and systems thinking, environmental activist, and beloved dharma elder—turns 93 today.
For over half a century, Macy has worked tirelessly in service of personal and planetary transformation, interweaving the Buddha’s teachings with community work and activism. Perhaps best known for her work on despair, Macy encourages us to venture bravely into the heart of our own suffering to rediscover our deep love for the world.
And she hasn’t stopped yet. Last week, Macy joined Tricycle’s Buddhism and Ecology Summit to lead a virtual talk, “The Dharma and Destiny of a Planet People” (you can watch the recording here). In the talk, Macy discusses her personal journey of “falling in love with the dharma,” the ideal of the Shambhala warrior, the power of “active hope,” and the importance of poetic consciousness in a time of collapse.
In honor of Macy’s 93rd solar return, we’re revisiting her words today. Below, find a collection of passages from her recent talk. May her words inspire you to unearth your own potential for awakening within these potent times, and as one summit participant said to Macy, “May we all age so gracefully while doing the work you have started!”
Letting Love Work Through Us
As we work together, as we use these tools, each other, and the resources of the dharma and of other faith traditions as well… Our brothers and sisters of all faith traditions–we work with them. And we work with them because the path we’re on—with all the destruction that is happening around our climate, and the toxicity, the loss of species, the mass extinctions and everything, all of that is something we can transform together. And going in the very midst of it, as we do this, we are finding a way through. That preposition is very powerful in the way we see things. Because we can let our love for humanity, our love for our living planet, and our compassion for each other and the dharma itself, work through us. We can let that which we love and prize work through us, like grace. And that’s the great turning, which is promising to us.
A Time to Grow
If I had ever known [beforehand] that we’d be faced by this terrible situation for our planet, I would want to be there. I wouldn’t want to miss it. I know you weren’t probably expecting to hear that, but that’s my main feeling. It doesn’t mean that I think I have an answer. I think it’s very important to feel baffled and overwhelmed. But this is my world. I love it deeply. It’s a living planet. It’s got an incredible history. And I wouldn’t ever want to miss this, what we’re facing now. I think part of that is due to all I’ve learned about evolution and systems thinking… We’re becoming what we will become. And I’ve been particularly helped by the dharma, as well as all faith traditions that keep us faithful to life. The anatman teaching, the idea of no separate permanent self, has been central for me.
As we come to the limits of how our training and our self-definitions have enclosed us and blocked us, we’re going to find that we’re growing new capacities. I feel from my own experience that a more intense love for life and a readiness to risk everything for the sake of life will be born to us. Powers of valor, self-discipline, and passionate attention to life itself will be born in us in new ways. So, don’t isolate yourself and don’t subscribe to thinking like, Of course it looks bleak. It always looks bleak before you have to grow something—a new capacity. This is a birthing time as well as a dying time. Forces and capacities are ready to birth inside each one of us if we keep our spunk and courage.
Acting with Hope and Deep Intention
I’ve taken an inspirational tone because I think we need that. We have to remember that hope is what you want to happen, not what you see is likely to happen. The word hope doesn’t exist in the Buddha’s scriptures. But what exists is the idea that what you choose is what comes to be. Not what you think is going to happen, but deep intention. Resolve. Once you’re ready to desire and act with virya—an earnestness for it—you don’t need to hold your finger in the wind and see which way the wind’s blowing. Don’t look that way. Look at what you want for a living planet. Give yourself to that. And be so grateful that you have a chance to do that.
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