Buddhist practitioner Jim Gollin has chaired the controversial environmental group Rainforest Action Network (RAN) for the last five years. During his tenure, RAN, which is dedicated to protecting old-growth forests and their ecosystems, has reached highly innovative deals with a number of major corporations, including Home Depot, the world’s largest lumber supplier, and Citigroup, the world’s largest financial institution. In both of these cases, RAN used confrontational tactics to open a dialogue that ended with cooperative written agreements: In 1999 Home Depot decided that it will not sell old-growth products, and in 2004 Citigroup agreed that it will not finance the destruction of old growth anywhere in the world. These are groundbreaking achievements, particularly for a small group with an annual budget of just over $2 million.
At forty-six, Gollin has been practicing Buddhism since 1978, focusing on Zen. He was one of the first Westerners to work in a Tokyo securities firm, before setting up his own investment firm in New York. I caught up with Gollin at his home in northern San Diego County. In his hillside office and then over sushi in Rancho Santa Fe, we explored how one of the most prominent green Buddhists in America squares Buddhist practice with environmental activism.
James Soshin Thornton
How does Buddhism inspire your life and work? It affects everything, but it’s not something I’m generally conscious of. I have to think about it to realize it. My worldview has evolved and changed through my experience with Buddhism; therefore there’s nothing I see that isn’t affected by it, but I don’t have a Buddhist checklist that I go through in the morning.
When did you discover Buddhism? I took a course on Buddhism in my sophomore year at Princeton, and I was very much taken with it. It seemed to me that Buddhism wasn’t a religion as I understood religion. It was one very wise man and other wise people through time describing “what is”—more like physics. The metaphor of Indra’s net—that everything is connected to and reflects everything else—has been particularly effective for me, especially in my environmental activism and human rights work. Such work is essentially confrontational: there’s an us and a them. There is a tendency, especially in our culture, to exterminate the other side. To win we must destroy them, their idea, their ideology, discredit it entirely. Compare this with the Buddhist approach, wherein we are all linked. When one shines, we all shine, and when one is occluded, we’re all occluded. This interconnected type of thinking does not come automatically, certainly not in our culture, so we must continually remind ourselves of it. The Rainforest Action Network is highly confrontational.
How does a Buddhist find himself comfortable using confrontation? There’s a story about a guy with a mule. He couldn’t get the mule to move. His friend says, “You’ve just got to whisper ‘Move’ in his ear and he’ll move.” So the first guy whispers into the mule’s ear. Nothing. He says louder, “Move!” Nothing. Eventually the friend says, “Here, I’ll show you.” He takes a two-by-four and whacks the mule on the head. Then he whispers, “Move” into the mule’s ear, and the mule moves. The first guy is shocked by the violence. “What was that about?” “Well,” says the friend, “first you have to get his attention.”
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