When it comes to ecodharma, David Loy wrote the book. (It’s called Ecodharma.) A professor of Buddhist philosophy and a Buddhist teacher in the Sanbo Zen tradition, Loy has been writing and speaking about ecological issues and socially engaged Buddhism for more than three decades.
In 2017, Loy with Insight teacher Johann Robbins and others co-founded the Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center (RMERC) in Boulder County, Colorado. They have since been hosting ecodharma retreats, aimed at reconnecting Buddhists with nature and grounding ecological action in spiritual practice. In the last few years, the ecological crisis has significantly worsened—as wildfires, droughts, hurricanes, floods, and other natural disasters occur with increasing frequency and severity. As a result, ecological issues have received more mainstream attention, and, Loy says, interest in ecodharma has grown, too.
Tricycle recently spoke with Loy about the state of Buddhism and environmentalism and what goes into an ecodharma retreat.
What role have Buddhists played in the environmentalism movement throughout the years?
Buddhism generally, and perhaps Zen in particular, has a built-in sensitivity to nature. But Buddhism has been fairly slow in actually responding to the ecological crisis, despite the concerns of early Western Buddhist pioneers such as Gary Snyder and Joanna Macy. I think that the Buddha, in a number of ways, was more progressive than the institution that developed after he died. Buddhism has survived and thrived because it focused on personal transformation, individual awakening. Asian Buddhism wasn’t much engaged in political or social issues, at least compared with Abrahamic religions, which have a prophetic dimension that introduced concern for social justice very early on. Of course, back in the mid-seventies, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship [a non-sectarian network of Buddhist activists] was formed. But that group has been concerned with a lot of issues, and environmentalism is only one of them.
What do you think is different now? I notice that the more frequent wildfires, hurricanes, and other natural disasters seem to be making the threat more immediate.
Yes, events like the fires and hurricanes are finally beginning to bring it all home, and of course things are just going to get worse. I cannot see a future in which ecodharma doesn’t become more important. And, even as the ecological crisis is the greatest challenge that humankind has ever faced, it’s also the greatest challenge that Buddhism has ever faced. Buddhism developed, evolved, and spread by interacting with new cultures, and just as Buddhism in China interacted with Taoism to make Chan, it may be that Buddhism in our globalized, secular, consumerist world is going to interact with Extinction Rebellion (XR) or similar movements to create something new. Will the bodhisattva become the ecosattva? It’s a pretty exciting time to be a Buddhist.
I’ve spoken with Buddhist members of XR, and they seem to have a sober optimism that recognizes the challenge ahead is incredibly difficult but that we are capable of meeting it.
Frankly, I wouldn’t describe myself as a sober optimist, or a sober pessimist. For Buddhist practitioners there’s something deeper than the duality between them. More important for me is don’t-know mind. We really don’t know how the future is going to turn out, but that certainly doesn’t reduce our responsibility. On the contrary, we’ve got to keep doing the best we can. One Zen teacher said, “Meditate as if your hair is on fire.” Maybe we need to adapt that: “Practice as if the world is on fire.” Because it is! It’s that level of urgency.
Both pessimism and optimism can be evasions of responsibility. With optimism, we tend to think, somebody will figure it out, maybe invent new technologies that will solve the problem, so we needn’t be too worried about what will happen. With pessimism, we think, why waste our time? It’s too late. We’re past the turning point. That’s why don’t-know mind is so important. It encourages us to do the best we can.
But sometimes “don’t know” is misinterpreted as nihilism, or used to equivocate.
I’m reminded of Robert Aitken, one of my teachers, who said, “Our path isn’t about clearing up the mystery, but making the mystery clear.” When we let go of our habitual ways of thinking, planning, and expecting, we open up to the fact that the world is fundamentally mysterious. But that’s not an excuse for trusting that everything will turn out okay in the end. There are things we do know, and things we need to do. In order to act, we have to have a story, some expectations built into our understanding of who we are and what the world is, and how they interact. But we also have to be open to the realization that the future might not work out the way we expect. We don’t really know what’s possible.
So what does that mean for how we live day to day? It means doing the best I can to respond appropriately to the ecological crisis, while not knowing whether anything I do makes any difference whatsoever. This deep commitment, along with non-attachment to results, is at the heart of the bodhisattva path.
At the Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center, you and RMERC director Johann Robbins have been hosting “ecodharma retreats.” Why did you start that program?
In order to respond appropriately to our situation now, some radical changes have to happen, and we need new practices to help them happen. Basically, Buddhists have to connect or reconnect our practice with what’s occurring in the larger world. We’re facing an imminent ecological collapse, along with some enormous social problems. What does all that mean for how we understand and practice Buddhist teachings?
Most of us are quite disconnected from the natural world. Immersing oneself in nature can lead to profound changes. The Buddha and yogis such as Milarepa are obvious examples, but you find this in other traditions too, for example Jesus and Mohammad. There are many instances of spiritual founders who went by themselves into the natural world, experienced something powerful, and then brought back a transformative teaching. Today, the ecological crisis just adds a new dimension. An ecodharma retreat can help us connect our spiritual practice with this new challenge.
What happens at an ecodharma retreat?
We’re still working out what an ecodharma retreat is, but we think we’ve found something that works, although we continue to modify it. One of our main guides has been [scholar, practitioner, and activist] Joanna Macy and her project, the Work That Reconnects. Also, the Ecodharma Centre in the Spanish Pyrenees was a major inspiration for RMERC in general.
Following Joanna Macy’s four-part spiral [coming from gratitude, honoring our pain for the world, seeing with new/ancient eyes, and going forth], we first help people get in touch with the natural world and feel gratitude toward it. We spend as much time outside as possible—from early morning when people can meditate on the deck or in the meadow, to the evening dharma talk around a fire with the stars above.
Then, the crux of the issue becomes getting in touch with our sadness. Everyone who is paying attention is aware that the future look very difficult ecologically. But we don’t know how that will unfold or what we can do about it, so we tend to ignore that realization by focusing on more immediate, short-term issues. We need to face the grief that most of us are repressing or denying. After all, the Buddhist path isn’t about avoiding problems or difficulties! It’s about facing them and being transformed by that experience. The grief by itself can just blow us away, which is why Joanna Macy says we should ground ourselves in gratitude first. We can despair and become nihilistic, so the gratitude practice stabilizes us for this second step. It also helps to do the grief work together. Doing this practice with other people gives us support to feel our own pain.
Afterwards, toward the end of the week, people go out and do a solo retreat, which tends to be very powerful. It works differently with different people, but being by yourself in the natural world can help consolidate or integrate whatever changes have begun. People often return feeling quite empowered. Then we come back together and share our experiences as a way of reentering and reinforcing the community that has been built over the course of the retreat.
Where did you get the idea to include a solo?
It came originally from the wilderness retreats that Johann and I were teaching beforehand. For example, we went down the Green River in Utah, where we’d canoe and meditate together. And toward the end of those retreats, people would have a two-night solo retreat, which was almost always the most powerful part of the trip. For various reasons, Johann and I wanted to shift the focus to ecodharma, to something that would engage more directly with our ecological situation today. Most people like to go outside and meditate in nature, but we wanted to go further. Since we already saw the importance of these solos, we built that into ecodharma practice, as the culmination and opportunity to see how it all comes together.
Do you recommend a particular practice for meditating outside?
Most days our ecodharma retreats include some walking meditation, along one of the trails, and then people find their own place to sit. At the beginning of the retreat we encourage people to do a sensory-awareness practice, which involves letting go of thoughts, feelings, intentions, and so forth, in order to be more aware of their surroundings.
Johann Robbins has been a student of the Shinzen Young [an American meditation teacher who studied in the Vipassana and Shingon traditions], who teaches a practice that involves “feeling in, feeling out, seeing in, seeing out, hearing in, hearing out.” That is one way to cultivate sensory awareness. Soto Zen emphasizes shikantaza, sometimes called silent illumination, which is awareness without focusing on anything in particular. That sort of open practice also works well outside.
What doesn’t work so well in this context is a more internalized meditation, such as just counting your breath or working on Mu [a popular Zen koan]. We encourage people to turn their awareness outward.
When you aren’t practicing in silence, you have dharma talks and some discussion. Do you talk about politics?
No, we don’t do that. There’s definitely a need for planning and organizing, but not during an ecodharma retreat. What we emphasize is getting in touch with what you’re feeling, which we otherwise tend to run away from, sometimes by becoming angry, or thinking “I’ve got to do something right now!” And likewise on the solo, we tell people, “Don’t strategize. Don’t plan. Open up to where you are and what you’re feeling. See what the trees and the insects—or whatever appears—have to offer.”
It’s another, deeper opportunity to open up to don’t-know mind. On solos, too, let’s not pretend that we know what’s going to happen or even what can happen.
People have been talking about the environment for a long time, and often things don’t change. The conversation can feel repetitive or like preaching to the choir. How do you discuss these issues in a way that keeps people engaged?
That’s a big issue. One question for me personally is, how much should I be using Buddhist terminology? In many cases, especially if people are already Buddhist, it helps them connect with what I have to say. But some people have said that it would be better to speak in more general spiritual or psychological terms. This seems to be a case where one size doesn’t fit all, and I try to adjust to my audience when giving dharma talks and workshops.
In addition to such talks and workshops, I’ve written a book that offers a Buddhist perspective on the eco-crisis, and I’m one of the founders of this new ecodharma center—will any of that make any difference? I don’t know, and that’s OK. In fact, it’s joyful! Like I said, our task is to do the best we can. It’s our gift to the earth, and, like every genuine gift, we shouldn’t expect anything in return.