What does it mean to be “green” and “Buddhist?” The Green Buddha is traditionally the Laughing Buddha, bringer of prosperity and mirth. His iconic image can be found everywhere from curio shelves to a 1950s film about art theft. But in this age of environmental loss and degradation, “green” and “Buddhist” together should come to mean something new, something about the imperative to face the loss and work to protect the future. The connection between environmental activism and Buddhist practice exists, though it is not always easy to draw.

Certainly Buddhists are concerned with ethics and right action. Thich Nhat Hanh and others espouse “engaged Buddhism” and Mahayana Buddhists take a vow to save all sentient beings. But these practices may not equate neatly with a vow to conserve “nature” as it is presently understood within the environmental movement. As the Dalai Lama points out, when Buddhists speak of “nature” they mean the nature of reality, i.e., emptiness.

And where can we find “green” in the practice of non-attachment? Isn’t the point of Buddhist practice to sit and cultivate present moment awareness rather than try to recuperate past losses or chase future goals? What does the dharma tell us we should do or how we should practice in an era of acute environmental threats?

One traditional Buddhist formula divides the dharma into “view, practice and action.” The first two—the “view” and “practice”—clearly support enlightened environmentalism. But “action,” in the sense of committed involvement to political and social issues, is not so clearly aligned with Buddhist tradition. To shed some light on how mindful practice can bring about environmental change, consider how three contemporary teachers apply the view, practice and action of the dharma to environmentalism.

VIEW: Interdependence

What view does a Buddhist take of the world and his or her place in it? “View” refers to our basic understanding of the nature of reality. If we believe ourselves to be separate or superior to the natural environment, then we will be inclined to exploit nature. But if we understand the nature of reality as interdependent and co-arising, as taught by the Buddha, we are more likely to appreciate our human place as just one zone of experience, albeit an auspicious one, within a much vaster system. Zen-inspired poet Gary Snyder expresses this interdependence with flair in his riff on the US Pledge of Allegiance:

    I pledge allegiance to the soil
        of Turtle Island
    and to the beings who thereon dwell
        one ecosystem
        in diversity
        under the sun
    With joyful interpenetration for all.

More seriously, Snyder writes of the Buddhist view of the natural world as sacred:

“Sacred refers to that which helps us (not only human beings) out of our little selves into the whole mountains-and-rivers mandala universe. Inspiration, exaltation, and insight do not end when one steps outside the doors of a church.”

PRACTICE: Clarity and Compassion

How does a modern Buddhist practice this view of the world and our interdependence within it? “Practice” is the essence of the Buddhist path, with it we find dedication and discipline in training our minds and hearts to transcend primitive beliefs and self-centered passions. In our engagement with the world, whether as social activists or in the daily round of our lives, clarity and compassion cultivated through practice can act as our guides.

As a Buddhist author and workshop leader Joanna Macy employs Buddhist practices to heal her participants’ broken relationships with the natural world. These practices aim to show us that “more” is not necessarily “better,” that we are interconnected with our environment, and that in healing ourselves we will understand the fundamental need to heal the planet.

“Compassion literally means to feel with, to suffer with,” says Macy. “Everyone is capable of compassion, and yet everyone tends to avoid it because it’s uncomfortable. And the avoidance produces psychic numbing—resistance to experiencing our pain for the world and other beings.”

Right action in the world depends on penetrating veils of ignorance—“psychic numbing”—by practicing clarity and compassion in order to see clearly the world’s pain and respond to it with generosity, patience and exertion.

ACTION: Skillful Means

So how can Buddhists act out compassion and clarity in the natural world? “Action” or fruition is the impact we have, the steps we take and the difference they make for others.

Abbot John Daido Loori, Roshi, named his Mountains and Rivers Order after Master Dogen’s mystical concept of Zen and life. The Zen Mountain Monastery that he founded in New York’s Catskill Mountains has designated eighty percent of its 230 acres of forest preserve “forever wild”—never to be developed, manicured or managed. This commitment underscores a belief that the community, or sangha, is one of all sentient and insentient beings. The monastery worked for years to prevent big-business development on pristine Catskill land, furthering the goal of integrated land use and conservation, and manifesting a Buddhist approach to activism that is both compassionate and mindful.

The work of Snyder, Macy and Daido Roshi are examples of how the Buddhist view of interdependence and the practice of insight and compassion lead to environmental action. The relationship is in fact reciprocal—dharma brings us to an authentic caring for the Earth and at the same time the pain and the sacredness of Earth bring us to the dharma, fueling and deepening our practice.

As we confront the reality of climate change, biodiversity loss, and the many other environmental indicators that are crashing in our time, we should look to the resilience, equanimity, presence and insight that Buddhist practice can teach. Indeed, loss itself is a time-honored gateway; it encourages a shift from anxiety and attachment to the pursuit of a new spiritual awareness. Beyond helping us cope with environmental loss, the contemplative wisdom and skillfulness that Buddhism cultivates could hold the key to reversing the losses.

At the Garrison Institute, a retreat center in New York, the Initiative on Transformational Ecology works to apply contemplative skills to help reframe and solve intractable human-caused environmental problems. The more entrenched or anxiety-producing the problem, the greater the need for contemplative wisdom to help us out of self-defeating mindsets and into transformative solutions. If we could beat back climate change and other acute environmental threats with more of the same conventional approaches—science, legislation and litigation—we probably would have done it by now. But if we can cultivate clarity, compassion and skillful means in our own lives and actions, our social paradigm will shift, and our environmental future along with it.

As time passes and the climate changes, the dharma wheel also turns. Buddhism has continually reinvented itself as it spread from culture to culture, first in Asia and now around the world. In the 1960s and ‘70s Western practitioners were preoccupied with renouncing the fixations of their society, and this often included a withdrawal from social action. In retrospect we can say that Buddhism needed this time to develop and find its own place in the American context. Surely in 2009 Buddhism has matured and diversified to the point that it may return to the world through skillfully engaging in the burning issues of the day. Addressing climate change and other looming environmental threats, with their potential to create suffering on a planetary scale, is a natural and vital next step for Western Buddhism and Buddhists.

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