Recently, I attended a talk given by David Loy entitled “A Buddhist Teaching for Troubled Times”. David very clearly explained how the environmental difficulties we are facing in the modern world relate to Buddhist teachings. Loy has the impressive ability to reveal in plain terms the intracacies of a topic which can be daunting, to say the least. After listening, I was not only convinced of the urgency of the situation we are facing but also of the magnitude of the delusion that keeps most people encapsulated in their private lives, including Buddhists who, like the population at large, seek pleasant feelings over ones that leave a bitter taste in the mouth.
At the end of David’s hour long talk, there was a brief period for questions to be asked but only a few comments were made. I suspect that most questions weren’t actually aired and perhaps not even formulated in the minds of listeners due to the sheer impact of the message. Based on the conversations I had after the meeting broke up, feelings of despair, grief and even resignation were hovering in the shadows of the room.
Where do we go from here? If, as Loy says, even our best efforts to clean up our acts would result in only a miniscule amount of change within the whole picture, how are we to tackle the “Goliath” of big corporations with their impersonal systems that are so imbedded in our society? (Half) jokingly, it was mentioned that if we just didn’t dwell on this topic we could go back to living in joy. But is that really true? Isn’t the “ignorance is bliss” attitude what got us into this mess in the first place?
Even if we are able to generate blissful feelings within ourselves, would that alone be the most compassionate and responsible role we could play? Perhaps for some it is. Unfortunately, those who have the luxury to spend time within conditions that permit deep inner cultivation are the minority. Moreover, I suspect that most meditators are not living off the fruit that falls from a tree into their laps. Instead, they often fly across the country or even abroad to be on retreat, increasing carbon emissions every step of the way. If the role of Buddhism is only to pacify our troubled minds and de-stress our tense bodies so that we can continue to live our lives according to our society’s standards of consumerism, is that really contributing anything of significant value to life on this planet?
Even as I write these words, I know that I am guilty of the very things that I am speaking out against, albeit to much less of a degree than I was before I became aware of the repercussions of some of my actions. And yet, feeling guilty is not only undesirable but also unproductive. Instead of guilt, a better response is to acknowledge our various impacts and search out alternatives. Can I find the peace of mind that I seek elsewhere right here in my local area and ultimately right here in my heart? Can I replace greed (even for pleasant spiritual experiences) with the generosity of sharing what I do have. Can I substitute aversion to my personal imperfections with the acceptance of life's difficulties that we all share. Finally, can I replace the ignorance of causality and the sense of a separate self with joining in cooperative projects with my neighbors whether they are like me or not?
Many of us are eagerly awaiting David’s new book, EcoDharma, that is due out in a week of this writing. I trust that it will pick up where his talk and last book, A New Buddhist Path, ended. We need to know that our engagement with this journey is worth taking even if the end of the process is uncertain. We need more than just information, although that is an essential start. We need to call upon our creativity and courage as a species that is now becoming aware of its unavoidable planetary role. Do we dare to let go of the familiar structures and habits that we have come to rely upon in order to re-invent our way of being in the world? Do we really want to know how we are a part of the disease in order that we can become part of the healing? What is the cost of knowing? Worse yet, what is the cost of not knowing? Let's use these and other questions to keep the conversation alive!