Monday, 1 September 2008

Environmental Audit and action plan at the London Buddhist Centre

In 2007 the FWBO's London Buddhist Centre celebrated the year of Amoghasiddhi, the Green Buddha of Action and Fearlessness.

As part of this they focussed attention on taking practical action to address environmental issues, exploring how Buddhism teaches us to lead a more simple and less wasteful life, more in harmony with the environment.

Their report, titled 'Environmental Review of the London Buddhist Centre', can be read in full here. Thanks to the LBC for permission to reproduce it.

The report comes from a series of ‘environmental audits’ which were carried out in and around the LBC’s ‘Buddhist Village’, covering many of the businesses and communities that are linked to the LBC as well as the centre itself. It summarises the main findings of those environmental audits – all of which include commitments to action, whether reducing direct environmental impacts, working in partnership with others on environmental issues, or by raising awareness of why and how we can all take action on the environment.

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Thursday, 14 February 2008

Community, Nature and Buddha Nature

Based on a talk by Kamalashila given in the Dharma Parlour, Buddhafield Festival July 2006

What does Buddhism mean by ‘nature’, and does the Buddhist vision of Awakening have anything to do with it? If it does, what is our relationship, as a Sangha, to the Buddhist vision of nature?

I recently became interested in starting some kind of large, land-based community. The idea arose after an eighteen-month retreat in a canvas dome above a Welsh valley. It was the most deeply inspiring time of my life, and three years later, I am still assimilating it. I was alone throughout, and lived simply, burning wood and drawing water from the hillside. I discovered something that thrilled me to the core: that being close to nature enlivens my understanding of Dharma like nothing else does. Now I want to live like that with others. I would like to help create a Dharma based ecological vision for the FWBO.

When I started my retreat, I was not at all interested in ecology. I was in the countryside simply to escape the distraction of other human beings. I expected insights and realisations to arise not from nature, but from meditation. Yes, I would learn how to light fires, tie knots, chop wood, and carry water, but I never thought natural things themselves would give insights into the Dharma. Yet in the event, every single insight came from these things, bestowed by the elements earth, water, fire, wind, space, and awareness. I had many deeply unsettling experiences, and they awakened my whole relationship to nature.

In other talks, I have mentioned the more colourful events that sparked off insights: the night I got totally lost in the fog, and the time I slipped knee deep into my shit pit. However, one experience grew to become a constant companion. I can describe it as a deeper relationship with nature in which the Dharma, the nature of existence, was more visible than usual. This relationship, and the experiences that arose out of it, gradually undermined my habitual pride and rigidity. I experienced an ongoing collapse of my idea of myself, and of the world I thought I lived in. That happened because in that situation, Nature is so uncompromising. If I needed to urinate or get water and firewood, I was forced go outside, whatever the weather or my state of health. I am in my fifties. I began my retreat in December. Over those freezing winter months, whenever I felt very cold or very ill, I longed for the convenience of piped water and mains electricity. I became impatient with practical matters, cursing the need to tie a knot or split logs. Eventually however, my tetchiness and anxiety about the realities around me dissolved. I began feeling at home in it all. I began to love it. I saw increasingly that my resistance to painful experience, the pain itself, and the person experiencing it, were all natural, unfixed realities that could teach me about the Dharma if only I could be open and curious about their nature. I finally came to inhabit my environmental niche, in accordance with my Dharma training. From that point, I came into a creative Dharma relationship with every local plant and animal.

Now it is over, I want to explore this more, with others. I imagine us establishing somewhere large, land based, unkempt, and diverse. It would perhaps be a bit like a mini Buddhafield festival, with writers, artists, hippies, yogis, yoginis, Buddhafield workers, Dharma teachers, activists, ecologists, poets, playwrights, mechanics, accountants, musicians, dogs, cats, and parrots, all living together. This great diversity of living beings would share their lives as single individuals, couples, and families. There could be women’s and men’s communities within the overall community. I suppose most of us would live in converted barns and farmhouses, but I would also like to see trucks, caravans, yurts, and benders.

I think such a community could develop a dharma philosophy based on collective experience. I imagine that would be lively, controversial in some respects, yet helpful and attractive. Indeed, it ought to attract visitors. People could come and attend retreats, meditate, and explore the Dharma from the point of view of nature and deep ecology. Within the community, we could help one another live harmoniously, raise a livelihood and maybe some children, teach Dharma, and work on ourselves individually. Over the years, Buddhafield have introduced thousands of ecological minded people to the Dharma. If large numbers of us actually lived together, we could take that much further, and develop an approach to Dharma that really explores and co-operates with nature.

My retreat helped me imagine how nature must have informed the Buddha’s own feeling for the Dharma. I even wonder if this understanding is only available to those practising, in some way, in a natural environment. It is a matter of actual connection. Certainly, that kind of sensibility has been in Buddhist teaching right from the beginning. The Buddha chose to live in nature even though, after his Awakening, he could easily have returned to a conventional indoor life and made that his basis for teaching. No one would have thought any the less of him. His decision to remain in the wild indicates that it supported his realisation better. Certainly, after his awakening, the Buddha became as considerate of the needs of non-human beings and plants as his own kind. He taught his disciples how to cultivate love for snakes and other fear-inspiring creatures. His instructions were abundant with examples drawn from practical experience in the wild. And his central teaching of vipashyana is a revelation of the nature of things, of the vastness and profundity of Nature as it is beyond all concepts of space, time, location, and relationship. Yet we can apply this profound revelation right here in the so-called real world, through ethics, love, and helpful activity.

A new, nature-based approach to Dharma will need considerable articulating. As well as living in nature with mindfulness and curiosity, we need to talk about the experience, study others’ writings on it, reflect on it, write, and argue endlessly. Discussion and comparison help us deepen our Dharma relationships. Obviously, we also need to work, and keep our personal practice alive. Nevertheless, relationships are the natural world; nature is an infinite field of inseparable, total relationship. Awakening to reality must involve inquiring into the meaning of relationship. We each have a personal history that is unique, and which we cannot alter. The connections we have made with others are inescapable; we reinforce them with every meeting, thought, and decision. As Dharma followers, we also have inescapable connections with the Buddha, through the tradition of practice that he founded. These connections are all very much alive; as I also discovered on my retreat, our waking mind, and our dreams, are populated by a universe of relationships.

Because ecological awareness is about relationship, the ideal eco-dharma community would include families and sexual partners – and, of course, many single individuals. Obviously, it would also be excellent for monastic or single-sex communities to cultivate an ecological ethos;[1] but a mixed-sex environment reflects the whole of life, and for certain individuals such as myself, offers stirring material for reflection on the nature of things. There are socio-historical arguments for this, too. For approaching forty years, despite the fact that there are many families in the FWBO, almost every FWBO community has been single-sex. Most of us have partners, so why do we prefer living single so much of the time? This obviously has a lot do with the lack of mixed community opportunities, but that itself is rooted in circumstance.
A tradition of single-sex activities has nourished the F/WBO Sangha since the early 70s. Since the Western Buddhist Order is non-monastic, single sex situations have provided our main setting for intensive dharma practice. There the young and unattached, especially, enjoy a safe haven, where they can practise less distracted by the powerful forces of affairs and relationships. However, the system has proved unsustainable in the last decade. Many seasoned practitioners have left their community to live alone or with a partner. Why is this? For one thing, single sex communities are often geared to the needs of newer and younger people, and so can become less rewarding for the more experienced. Moreover, single-sex environments are not automatically friendly places, despite the standard rationale, i.e. that the absence of the opposite sex relaxes emotional inhibitions, particularly in men, thus fostering friendship. That rationale works, in my experience, and I believe it does for many women too. I have personally benefited tremendously from my time in single sex communities and would do most of it all over again. However, long-term experience shows that there is something important missing. Many have had to face the disappointment of realising that their home over the last ten years is actually rather cold and uninspiring. It is difficult to leave when one has invested so much hope and energy, knowing that outside the mainstream Sangha one may encounter stigma, loss of Sangha contact, and isolation. Yet for many, leaving has become a spiritual necessity.

It is a shame so many people have undergone such conflict, when couples and families could very easily found Dharma practice communities. At first sight, it seems amazing that there are none in the FWBO. However, family and sexual ties do involve strong attachment, and it can take considerable collective experience to manage these within a larger group. There were some spectacular failures in religious communes, for example, in the 80s. Buddhist organisations other than the FWBO, such as Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing, have reportedly found mixed communities harder to establish. Yet it can be done. No doubt it helps when a trusted teacher lives close by; I think of Dhardo Rinpoche, Sangharakshita’s friend and teacher in 1950s, whose community in Kalimpong included a large school for Tibetan refugee children.

It seems clear there is a need, and that various forms of mixed community living will soon be upon us. It is to our advantage that our formative years taught us so much about community dynamics. We are so familiar with that opposition between the ideal of ‘spiritual community’ and the tendency to fall into ordinary ‘group’ patterns. Yes, ideally, each member of a spiritual community consciously works on him or herself. They reflect, meditate, practise the precepts, and thereby come to understand essential truths about themselves. However, in a real life situation, people lose interest in such truths, cease to cultivate meditation and ethical principles, and become insensitive to the thoughts and feelings that are actually motivating their actions. This strengthens the tendency to ‘group’ behaviours, of which there is an infinite variety depending on each individual’s past conditioning. Typical examples are bullying, deference, favouritism, and competition. Behaviours like these arise within a group, when over-dependence on others obscures the general capacity to take initiative in communication. We may be unconsciously relating to a perceived ‘pecking order’. We might be over-compliant, unwittingly afraid of offending some authority, or have an unnoticed tendency to manipulate others who put us in that position. Everyone is subject to group patterns like these; but at least ideally, spiritual community is a space where each person has the freedom to discover them and learn to relate as an individual.

In practice, this is a challenge. In families and sexual partnerships especially, it is not easy to be so free. The attachment we feel towards a lover, parent, or child can enclose us in a kind of bubble. A couple beginning their relationship may look to one another for emotional support in such an exclusive way that they disengage from community life. Or parents, feeling intensely protective of their children, may keep them away from other community members. Group-based feelings are natural enough, yet they can undermine community life: when others react, we can start feeling isolated and unable to share. In our disconnected state of society, where increasing numbers live lonely and die alone, it seems worth our making the effort to form communities of all kinds, including the kind I am advocating. As Sangha members get older, the possibility of sharing with like-minded friends offers a richer quality of life, not to mention the mutual inspiration to practise. The alternative is hardly attractive: people living isolated from the Sangha in old age will easily lose their vision of Dharma. So personally, I would like to live with other Sangha members; I cannot think of a more interesting or more pleasant way to live.
From a practice point of view, I would find a monastic or single-sex community less useful as an object of meditation and reflection. I want to be around some kind of microcosm of society, to see men, women, and children of all ages – animals too - growing up in an ecological Dharma realm, and exploring our connection with the earth. Mahayana Buddhism and Deep Ecology unite around the point that all biological organisms have needs. All beings whatsoever need others to support their existence. The Bodhisattva appreciates this. He or she knows the need of everyone in the web of life, and especially what is needed most of all: enlightenment. Obviously, very few are able to see enlightenment as a need. The majority of humans, not to mention other organisms, have to occupy themselves with far more basic issues. These issues certainly need attending to. Our accumulated neglect of nature, both human and nonhuman, is an unparalleled disaster. It is most unfortunate that we have so naïvely, and appallingly, exploited the earth and its peoples. Yet there is no point descending into despondency. A Buddhist ecological community can educate itself about these needs, practise Dharma, help wherever possible, and avoid doing further damage. For example we can generate as much of our own power as possible. We can eat mainly local, organic food. We can also be more politically active. In short, we can set a much-needed example of how everyone will need to start living in a sustainable future.

Currently, however, despite our Mahayana tradition, the FWBO often seems to reflect the self-interested values of the prevailing industrial growth society. It was typical of a Buddhist that I had virtually no interest in ecology when I started my retreat. Buddhists excuse themselves from such concerns: suffering is the result of karma, we say, so surely the overriding need is to deepen one’s awareness. Yet a very effective way to do so is to give to other beings, and the need of humans, animals, and plants is currently crying out so loud for our attention that it is getting through even to some Buddhists. It does surprise me that, as I write, none of the large FWBO centres in the UK supports the need to supply local, organic food. I understand that an efficient charity runs on a tight budget, and I agree that the economic priority for Buddhists is to spread the Dharma. From a public perspective, however, our style can appear short on compassion. It is quite possible to be both ethical and economic. Buddhafield, for example, always provide organic food on their retreats. They manage it simply because they have committed to organic food a basic ethical priority. Others could easily do the same.

A Buddhist community will be looked to as an example in its attitude to nature, at a time when contemporary living is looking like a project to get us as far away from nature as possible. In the west, in our comfortable homes, we have come to feel that nature hardly touches us. Our technology has given us a sense that we are somehow more powerful than nature, even beyond it. This seems very self-absorbed; one only has to consider the effect of natural disasters like hurricanes and epidemics to see that nature is bigger, beyond all bounds, than humanity. American ecologist Frank Egler also famously expresses this fact: “Ecosystems are more complex than we think—they may be more complex than we can think.”

Why, though, is life getting increasingly artificial? Why is it that we want it so – as it seems, in many ways, that we do? By what process did we get to this point, with such strong feelings of need for whatever is the latest, fastest, and most stylish? Our very effective technological development has brought us extraordinary convenience, efficiency, and safety, and that has no doubt disconnected us, in various ways, from our roots in natural reality. That disconnection, especially our loss of feeling, does seem partially responsible for our abuse of the natural world. However, in our justifications for that abuse, we also seem influenced by the inherited monotheistic view that nature is evil, something to master and rise above. Christianity’s two-thousand-year suppression of pagan values, and its dictum that nature is a god-given resource for exclusively human use, seems, in retrospect, to have caused unbelievable suffering. In a society seeking freedom from all that, Buddhism becomes attractive in that it makes no separation between humanity, nature, and God. All humans are potentially God; god-like qualities are natural; and nature is simply reality. Nothing, not even God, is considered to be outside nature. Nor are Buddhas, who simply have their own particular ‘Buddha’ nature, i.e. the general quality and dynamic of Awakening.

However, western Buddhists, including some FWBO folk, say that nature is something one transcends on the Buddhist path. That could appear, wrongly, to support the ‘nature is bad’ view. At the core of what the Buddha taught was ‘that which is beyond the world’, which he realised through vipashyana or insight. The Pali word is lokuttara, which Sangharakshita has translated as ‘The Transcendental’. One enters the Transcendental at the point of insight. It would be easy to mistake this crucial transition as transcendence of nature – however, in Buddhist terms, what one transcends through insight is identification with samsara, the endless round of birth and death. One cannot, in fact, transcend nature. Nature is something bigger; nature itself transcends samsara. The Transcendental itself is natural.

Lokuttara means the transcendence of concept. It involves cutting through dualistic awareness to realise the ever-present nondual nature of awareness, ‘Buddha Nature’. Thus, enlightenment is not something outside nature, but like everything, has its own very particular nature. Nature is not only season and cycle, death and rebirth, flowering and dying. It is also capable of other manifestations, as for example the ‘spiral path’ of 24 causal links, the Buddha’s description of the process of awakening as a natural process, which I will attempt briefly to summarise. Initially (and at a stroke summarising the first twelve, cyclical nidana links) one realises not only that one feels dissatisfied with our unquestioned, baffling existence, but also that it must be possible to discover its nature and find satisfaction. On bringing sustained awareness to that dissatisfaction by practising ethics, meditation and wisdom, there arises a special kind of interest, joy and happiness. Then, when reflecting on the nature of reality, this emotional expansion provides the individuality, the mental space, and the concentration of being necessary to seed and sustain experiences of insight. As these build up, and one enters the full, transformative experience of insight, one awakens fully to the nature of reality. This awakening is not ‘beyond’ nature. It is the discovery of real nature, big nature, the reality that is always there behind the hard shell of our concepts. Reality is, of course, simply reality, and never our idea of it. However, we spend most of our time totally identified with our ideas of it, with all the attendant ego-protecting emotions. We see these emotions and concepts as real. However, reality is what is revealed when the delusion collapses, and wisdom arises. It is called by such names as Dharmakaya, Dharmadhatu, Tathata, and Buddha Nature.

Talk of ‘collapsing delusion’ could give an impression that this Reality or Nature is not especially positive; yet on the contrary, it is positive beyond belief. The Buddha taught not only that nature is without an essence, that it is impermanent and insubstantial, but also that that is something good, something amazing. He taught that life is unsatisfactory only when we grasp it as permanent and substantial. Real nature only shows itself when we let go ideas and constructions of that kind. Even the notion of causes and conditions turns out ultimately to be our construction. The rich simplicity of reality is what has always been there beyond the constructions. Because we do not recognise it, we cannot help but continue constructing and reconstructing our reality. That may be a heaven, it may be a hell, but whatever our experience, is not truly real unless we have woken up and recognised its nature. For once you spot it, reality is the most attractive object, the sexiest thing, the most intriguing and fascinating thing, in the universe. You have to learn to recognise it, but if you see it even just once, that will be the end of all hesitation. Once you see it, reality will have you hooked.

Buddhist tradition expresses this ‘hooker’ aspect of the Dharma in a number of different ways. Some Bodhisattvas actually hold hooks, for example. However, the enlightened being who most of all exemplifies this quality is Kurukulle. Kurukulle is a red dakini, a female Buddha. In terms of myth, dakinis live in cremation grounds; they live around clattering bones. They turn up at the awe-inspiring crossroads between life and death, manifest in the critical situation, where our practice suddenly goes deeper than ever before. Dakinis often appear, in a visionary way, to practitioners like us, at crucial points in our spiritual lives. And all dakinis have a special connection with Prajnaparamita, the mother of enlightenment experience, the perfection of wisdom. They are concerned with the collapse of ego, with the terrifying moment of spiritual death and the brilliant and colourful life that is then born. For these reasons, dakinis are sometimes called ‘mothers’, though perhaps they function more as a midwife.

There is a male dakini form called a daka, but the female form is far more common. This may be because to our minds, pleasure connects more naturally with the feminine. Whether or not it is true that girls just want to have fun, dakini symbolism certainly evokes the pleasure of enlightenment. Dakini dancing expresses the blissful enjoyment of perfect wisdom. They stretch themselves out, shockingly free, in the sky of the liberated mind. Their appearance is often also terrifying, but they are clearly enjoying themselves, often in a very sexually open and explicit manner. They are naked, totally exposed, and they love displaying themselves. Being real is immensely pleasurable, it seems, and they do not want to hide it.

The dakini Kurukulle is all of this, but she is also especially concerned with love and attraction. She is of course young and very beautiful, and her complexion is a deep rosy red. She is flushed, she is aroused, and indeed, she is very, very excited. For example, the sadhana text I know describes her as having erect nipples. To express the feeling even more, she is holding a flowery bow and arrow just like Cupid. This is because her enlightened activity is to cause people to fall in love. Of course, I mean to fall in love with the Dharma, go for refuge to the truth of awakening. Though it does seem that one may also invoke Kurukulle for arousing ordinary sexual love, so the question arises: what do we want, Dharma Sutra, or Kama Sutra? Yet we should not answer too quickly, since there is an important of connection between the two kinds of love. What Kurukulle does essentially is to focus our strongest desires. She is concerned with what we really, really, want, more than anything else in the world. Essentially, she knows that in our hearts, what we are dying to do is fall in love with Dharma practice, or even for our practice to be a kind of lovemaking.

That might sound a little exaggerated, but it points to the big issue with Dharma practice: motivation. Each of us has problems with not wanting to do it that much, with being a bit limp and half hearted, with not being in the mood tonight. However, if we could fall in love with reality, with big nature, there would be no problem of motivation at all. We would not wish to do anything else; we would be at it all the time. We would continually be meditating and reflecting on the Dharma. This is what we really, really want, in our heart of hearts. Yet desire needs an initial spark, and that is why Kurukulle holds the flowery bow and arrow in her hands, and spends her time firing love arrows into the hearts of all beings.

I mention Kurukulle because she expresses in such a delightful form the positive nature of ultimate reality. We can sometimes be rather nauseated by (the notion of) ultimate reality, repelled by (the notion of) spiritual death, browned off by all the difficulties of practice – for example by the way spiritual insight seems to ruin people’s lives and change a person permanently (making some lose interest in pubs, occasionally even in football). However, when we can really let go our constructions and habitual concepts about life and who or what we are, the reality we let go into is intensely delightful and fulfilling. Not surprisingly, one experiences the nature of reality – big nature – as the resolution of the unsatisfactoriness that characterises samsara. The reality that is all there ever has been, but which we hide by our clinging to concepts, is far from being some abstract nothing, some ‘emptiness’, to use that misleading term: it is something amazing.

One of the Mahayana Sutras compares this Nature to honey. Reality is like some honey that is available to us all the time. We could lick it, taste it, and enjoy it at any time – if only we could see it! Unfortunately, we do not see any honey at all, because it is covered with furiously buzzing bees. That is all we see. We never think, even for a moment, that there might be something enjoyable there. It just looks busy, scary, and dangerous. The buzzing bees represent our strong attachment to concepts about our reality: all our tightly held attachment to a hard-shell personality and a fixed, artificial, little world. The actual reality, the peaceful and delightful dakini dancing reality, is only revealed when we un-stick ourselves from these habitual concepts and emotions. Only when we let them fly away does the buzzing stop and we can start enjoying the sweet honey, the sweet love of Dharma that was there, unrecognised, all the time.

Kamalashila is currently on a four-month retreat at Ecodharma, Guhyapati's mountain retreat centre in Spain. He plans to move there in the autumn of 2008.
[1] This seems to be the kind of community the Buddha himself preferred, though he sometimes lived alone or with one other person. Since the scriptures make occasional references to female wanderers, it may be worth investigating the possibility that the Buddha’s Sangha was not as exclusively single-sex as portrayed by the monastic oral tradition.

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Monday, 4 February 2008

Climate Change: towards a Buddhist response

by Akasati


One hot August day at Buddhafield a couple of years ago, on a site with very little shade, we temporarily lost our water supply. It was the start of a retreat and we were expecting some 30 women to arrive. As the afternoon wore on I realised that we were down to our last few litres. What if someone arrived, hot and sweaty, picked up the container and emptied it over themselves, not realising that there was no more? I felt stirrings of fear – a primeval recognition that life can’t exist without water for long, especially under hot sun. Eventually our water supply was restored; nobody died. But I learned two things - the preciousness of water and the extent to which we take it for granted.

This experience has informed a more visceral response when I read about one of the most universal concerns about climate change – that as temperatures become more extreme, the water supplies of millions of people will be increasingly in jeopardy and that the major wars of this century are predicted to be about water, not oil. Receding glaciers and mountain snows mean reduced melt waters, those spring torrents which form so many of the planet’s rivers, great and small. Raised sea levels can lead to inundation with salt water of the natural underground water stores from which much of our fresh water is drawn. When I imagine whole communities finding themselves without water, fought off by neighbours who are themselves defending scanty and diminishing supplies, I begin to get some feeling for the suffering likely to result from climate change.


I do not find this an easy subject to write about. I am not an expert, just someone who has been reading around the subject and discussing it with others. I do not want to communicate gloom and doom. Neither do I want to shrink from the truth as I understand it. I hope that my readers will not feel ‘got at’ or that I am adopting a preaching tone or being overly political. This is not intended to be an exhaustive treatment of the subject. I welcome feedback and debate.

There has been much in the media recently about this subject and in this article I assume some basis of knowledge. I include a list of resources and suggested reading at the end, for the benefit of anyone who would like to be better informed.

Suffice to say that there is far greater consensus amongst the scientific community, which has been held for substantially longer, than the media would have us believe. Scientific organisations have issued repeated calls for action. The most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, agreed by hundreds of scientists across the world, states, in typically cautious scientific language, that human activity is ‘very likely’ to be responsible for most of the observed warming in recent decades. This effectively means that the link between global average temperature and human-produced greenhouse gasses from the burning of fossil fuels is no longer open to dispute by individuals and by government bodies. There is now no doubt that our energy-hungry lifestyles are directly linked to drought, forest fires, rising sea levels, unprecedented species extinction and the extreme weather that is becoming more common. Our addiction to oil, manifesting as travel, consumer goods, exotic foods, steadily increasing heating levels in our leaky buildings and so on, is causing suffering on an increasingly widespread level.

Alongside this ever-increasing energy use since the industrial revolution, the other major backdrop is the destruction of rainforests and ecosystems that act as carbon ‘sinks’, capable of absorbing huge amounts of CO2. We are still losing an area of rainforest the size of England and Wales each year. In many cases this is to make way for soya bean production, also maize and palm oil, which ironically and tragically are being grown to meet massive new bio-fuel targets. *(1)

Environmental writer and activist George Monbiot at a recent book launch made the point that we are the last generation to have the power to prevent the most devastating impacts of climate change. Although we cannot know exactly what form those effects will take, we know for sure that to pursue our present behaviour patterns unchecked will have a catastrophic impact on life on Earth.

Last week I met an environmentalist who reckons that we probably have less than 5 years to turn the situation around before we hit the ‘tipping point,’ beyond which the whole thing moves completely beyond our control. He is convinced that we still have time, by a hair’s breadth, to avert the worst-case scenario. His view is that as a collection of individuals with a deeper awareness and a world-view not based on materialism, spiritual communities have a vital role to play in embodying and communicating the necessary shift in attitudes. This accords with my own view. Speaking at an earlier time with reference to untrammelled materialism and proliferation of weapons, but not specifically about climate change, Bhante expresses a similar sentiment, quoted in the penultimate chapter of ‘What is the Sangha?: ‘the alternatives before us are, in my opinion, evolution – that is, the higher evolution of the individual – or extinction. That would be my overall diagnosis of the situation facing us.’

James Lovelock is the co-author of the ‘Gaia theory,’ which sees the Earth as a complete, self-balancing eco-system functioning in many respects like a single being. He believes that we have already passed the point of no return, in terms of ‘positive feedback’ effects. That is, the knock-on effects already set in motion by the impact of industrialisation to date. For example, melting ice caps reduce sunlight-reflecting icy regions of the planet, adding to the warming factors that are already occurring. Lovelock, even predicting a massive eight degree temperature rise, believes that human life will, in some form, survive, principally at the poles. His view is that it is civilisation that is at stake.

Personally I prefer to stay with Monbiot and my environmentalist friend and not be one of those people who move directly from denial to the view that it is too late so there’s no point in doing anything, with no creative response in between. We banned CFCs. The Berlin Wall came down. Apartheid ended. Huge shifts happen. Looking back to the Axial Age, it seems that huge shifts in consciousness happen also, if not to the whole populace, enough to have a massive impact on society as a whole.


I’ve heard a few arguments to the effect that there is no point in acting to try to prevent the destruction of our planet as a viable home for ourselves and our fellow beings. One is ‘everything comes to an end anyway’. Well, people die, but we don’t see it as OK to actively participate in their demise! As a rationale for the continuation of an unethical and untenable lifestyle, this is surely a nihilistic and inadequate response.

Another is ‘it’s already too late, so why bother?’ As cited above, expert views differ on this subject. The truth is that we just do not know. Reports from the scientific community state the impossibility of making exact predictions, precisely because so much depends on how we respond, right now and in the coming years.

Another argument is ‘there’s no point in doing anything because China & India won’t’. In fact we still produce massively more CO2 emissions per head in the rich West than either of those countries, and have been doing it for vastly longer. It is to a great extent us, the West, who have got the world to this point. Without ourselves making significant change, we don’t have a negotiating leg to stand on. *(2)


There are now companies offering to ‘offset’ the CO2 emissions of individuals or companies by planting trees or subsidising energy-saving activities. This is certainly better than doing nothing, however planting trees now will not ‘offset’ the impact of emissions produced in the present for many years to come. *(3) Even fast-growing species take several decades to reach maturity. Emissions produced in the present are having impacts right now. It’s later than we think.

Planting trees is an essential thing to be doing for the future. I would encourage anyone thinking of planting some trees to go ahead. Buddhafield are committed to a tree-planting programme. The problem with the whole concept of ‘offsetting’ is that it is too readily used to avoid the ethical conflict that in the absence of legislation or economic necessity is the only prompt for us to change our behaviour. As a justification to go on with a carbon-heavy lifestyle that is having real, measurable effects in the present – for example to go on taking long-haul flights that we would otherwise think twice about, it becomes counterproductive. We need to plant trees AND we most urgently need to change our fossil fuel-hungry ways.

The vexed subject of air flight, one of the fastest-growing causes of humanity’s carbon footprint, is a cause for ethical conflict for many people. We are part of a global culture that has developed through increasingly cheap and readily available flights. For example it is the norm for leading figures in organisations of all kinds, including ours, to have international responsibilities requiring them to clock up of huge numbers of air miles. Of course, there are undeniable benefits from this freedom of movement. However I would argue that the destructive effects to living beings of our unprecedented energy consumption, of which in the lives of individuals high air miles are in many cases a major component, are now sufficiently profound as to outweigh the benefits in many cases. This is not a simply resolved issue: our whole paradigm needs to change. Nonetheless, two decades ago when I was in my twenties, aviation was more reserved for special occasions. We managed to go about our lives just as productively. Organisations were of necessity more locally based. There are great benefits in that approach as well.


Around 10,000 years ago the agrarian revolution transformed human lifestyles and the face of the planet. Over the centuries the human population steadily grew, and 200 or so years ago the industrial revolution began in England with the substitution of coal for dwindling trees. Rapid change was upon us and lifestyles that had remained broadly unchanged for centuries were swept away. We now live in an Industrial Growth Society. As unlimited growth is not possible on a planet with finite resources, our current society is, as we know, unsustainable. If we fail to creatively adapt, the human and environmental systems on which we depend will collapse. What is needed is a third revolution of equal magnitude to the agrarian and industrial revolutions – a ‘sustainability revolution’, leading us into what could be termed a Life Sustaining Society.


One term current within ‘deep ecology’ circles for this third revolution is the ‘Great Turning’, which has essential three aspects:

1. Holding Actions in defence of life on earth
2. Analysis of structural causes of the problems and creation of alternative, sustainable institutions
3. Shift in perception of reality, both cognitively and spiritually (understanding the interconnectedness of life)

The Great Turning is already underway. There has been a massive shift in public awareness in recent months and years. In fact there are still many people on this planet living at sustainable levels. Even in the most industrialised countries there are numerous eco-communities; renewable technologies; campaigning groups; insightful literature and so. The question is whether it will happen soon enough and broadly enough.

The point about the Great Turning is that people engage with it in very different ways. One group may lobby Parliament. Another might set up sustainable communities. Another might teach the Dharma, countering the views on which materialism is based, making links with how our actions affect other living beings and so on. Others might communicate through song-writing or fiction: the possibilities are endless.


So when it comes to the challenge of climate change, what does the Dharma have to offer by way of guidance? This is a big subject, which I hope will be elaborated on by others in these pages and beyond.


Clearly ethical principles are relevant. Citing the first precept seems almost too obvious to even warrant a mention. One point that may be worth drawing out here is that the consumer society is by no means ethically neutral. The resources that go to make up each and every thing we consume, from food and drink to the electricity required to leave a hall light on, come from somewhere. They have an impact somewhere down the line. This is the nature of things. The first precept is about actively experiencing one’s connection with all of life and living our lives in that awareness. In the Dhammapada the Buddha uses the beautiful imagery of the sage going through town like the butterfly going harmlessly from flower to flower. It is in reality impossible to be ethically active without some level of renunciation.

The second precept is equally relevant. Apparently it would take roughly three whole planets to support the world’s population at the average rate of consumption of people in the UK. Basic maths tells us that we must be taking the not-given.

The third precept, being fundamentally about contentment, likewise has an obvious bearing on this subject. It also brings us into the whole area of child bearing and population. Exponential population growth, especially now in poorer countries where a large family can be one’s only assurance of being supported in old age, is a major factor in the current world picture. This is directly related to the inequalities on a broadly North-South divide, which are such a feature of the current global relationships. Population is a complex issue, which I am not proposing to explore here, beyond one reflection. Countries such as pre-invasion Tibet with wide support for a celibate, monastic community have succeeded not only in enriching the spiritual depth of their culture, but also in maintaining a steady population and therefore, until recently, making substantially less demands on their environment.

Truth telling involves sharing our real feelings about issues that matter to us. My impression is that many of us feel strongly about the levels of destruction we are at present confronted with, however we often hold back from expressing our real feelings, especially those of a painful nature. If we are unable to open up to painful feelings about the state of the world, either within ourselves or to others, we are likely to remain shut down and unable to find the emotional energy to act on these feelings. ‘The work that reconnects’, which has been developed by Joanna Macy and colleagues, is aimed at creating conditions in which we can experience and communicate our deeper emotions in response to the world we live in. In my experience this is an effective and energising process.

A surprisingly large percentage of the carbon footprint of industrialised countries is from ‘leisure activities’, which of course make up the thousand and one things we use to distract ourselves, some of which are more wholesome than others. This could be seen as being linked in with the addiction to intoxicants that we all experience to some degree, for example sessions of mindless TV watching. On that subject, it is a little known fact that plasma screen TVs and monitors use on average five times the amount of power as old-style screens.

One of the ethical issues we face in our current global economy is that we are in almost every case removed from the sources of the things we consume. If we actually saw people working in horrific conditions in sweatshops, our appetite for cheap high-street clothes would be dampened. However because we have to take steps to actively inform ourselves about these things, it is only too easy to maintain, at least on a superficial level, a state of ‘blissful ignorance’. If we could actually see great plumes of CO2 issuing from the back of the car or plane, or streaming out of our leaky houses - and with our own senses perceive the connection with dying coral reefs; polar-bears drowning in search of ice, or children drinking polluted water - we would, I trust, act to change our lifestyles. But making these connections requires information and it takes imagination. Ethical choices that would be clear-cut at first hand have to be made in a more abstract context.


Edward Conze uses the term ‘hidden dukkha’ for the suffering that we experience, knowing that our pleasure and good fortune is on the back of someone else’s misery and misfortune. Knowing we are consuming more than our share, unconsciously, we feel bad. I am of the opinion that a lot of the mental suffering in the West is rooted in this. Ultimately, there is no such thing as ‘blissful ignorance’.


The evidence that we cannot separate our lives from the lives of other beings and the eco-system we are part of is incontestable. The rainforests are our lungs, from the point of view of the species as a whole. We are part of nature. We do not exist in a split-off, separate department. As Joanna Macy vividly puts it, we would not need to remonstrate with someone to desist from cutting off their own leg on grounds that it was unethical. Ethical exhortation sadly doesn’t generally work. Making deeper connections does work. Putting the same basic point another way: ‘there is no “away” to throw things’.


From the point of view of emptiness, none of this is real in the way we think it is. In the vast context of kalpas and innumerable world-spheres, the problems facing humanity in the 21st century are relatively insignificant. Yet at the same time our beautiful world, with its miraculous diversity of living creatures, does matter. Compassion says life matters. In this article, I am attempting to say ‘this matters’.


My own reflections have led to a reclaiming of some of the basic methodological principles that Bhante has laid out for us with such clarity, particularly questions of lifestyle. One theme I keep coming back to where I see an overlap between environmental concerns and a Buddhist life is the aspiration to lead a simple life. I rejoice in the extent to which we in this Order and movement are able to demonstrate being happy living relatively simply. Ratnaprabha wrote recently about the pleasures and ecological benefits of living in community and sharing resources. Buddhafield, at its best, demonstrates this for me – a group of people living together on the ground, along with innumerable non-human beings in all their amazing forms, small and large. Getting wet when it rains; getting warm by a fire; sheltering from hot sun under trees: there seems to be a level of alienation and neurosis that drops away in this materially pared-down environment, in virtually every case. I have recently been reflecting on the extent to which I am capable of being easily contented, even joyful. Our culture so strongly reinforces discontent. The forces of greed have never been more pervasive, cunning or well organised. But when I think of the most joyful moments of my life, some flavour of letting go, of renunciation & quiet contentment, has been part of that experience.



It is clear that each of us needs to do what we can to reduce our energy use and therefore our carbon footprint. In spite of giving a lot of attention to this subject, I have found that learning to appreciate the link between my own energy-use and these profound global consequences seems to be a slow business, given what’s at stake. However it feels essential to me that I keep making incremental attempts to change my behaviour. A friend recently illuminated the ethical dimension of life as potentially that dimension in which one can see time as a whole: the actual future consequences of ones actions, clearly laid before one. How am I going to feel, witnessing species, lands and who knows what else disappearing? I know I must at least try.

Personally I feel that as an individual it’s important to ‘walk the talk’. I have managed not to fly for the last 6 years *(4). I have a heart-connection with the ‘Akasa’ element. I feel disturbed that as I look up, wherever I am, whatever the time of day or night, invariably I see contrails relentlessly pouring forth into our overloaded atmosphere. It’s an area I have chosen to try to make real change, even though I am overall still leading a roughly ‘two planet’ lifestyle. However this is a situation that faces the human race as a whole and I’m not under any illusions that my little actions on their own are going to have any meaningful effect - not without being part of some bigger, synergistic trend sweeping the globe. That may not be as fanciful as it sounds. It happens with fashion, of all things! *(5) And where else can that critical mass possibly arise from but individuals?


It is virtually impossible to opt out of the society we’re part of. To have any positive impact on these issues, we need to look at ourselves in the collective. It’s basic Dharma that we all have an effect on the world. But one thing is for sure: ‘the whole is greater than the sum of the parts’. In my view it is time to re-explore the notion of the new society, in which we collectively work together to form a nucleus of something more healthy. The process begins with visioning. What kind of society and world do we really want? Vision without action may be useless, however action without vision is directionless and likely to follow habit and least-resistance tracks of greed, hatred and ignorance. According to systems theorists, vision, when widely shared and kept in sight, does create new systems.

I wonder if some of us have been put off notions of the new society because when we were younger we fell into a spirit of arrogant separation from the rest of the world: ‘We have THE answer!’ Complacent, cynical age is hardly an improvement on arrogant youth! There must be a creative middle path.
Our particular network is the WBO and the FWBO. Moreover we are each part of various other networks too. As with all human beings, we have a sphere of influence. That sphere may be a lot bigger than we realise. As Buddhists, changing consciousness is what we engage with. The shift in consciousness described as the third level of the Great Turning for many of us could be a sphere that interests us, as opposed perhaps to political action. We are accustomed to the idea that sitting with dukkha is essential to spiritual progress. I believe that one essential role Buddhists can take is that of witnessing. I mean holding a steady gaze at the difficult realities of being alive at this time on this planet, without falling into denial, horrified anxiety or whatever. This is a task of heroic dimensions. Difficult, but not to be shrunk from: we can only act appropriately to the extent that we face the truth, no matter how scary or unwelcome. I believe that this process needs to be done in communication with others, not just in the privacy of one’s own mind.


In the big picture, meaningful action on the level of governments and international bodies is necessary if we are to prevent the most catastrophic of the predicted outcomes. The national and international levels are important points of leverage. Some of us need to be campaigning on this level. My environmentalist friend would like to see every one of us give up a few hours a week for the next four years, which he believes are ‘the most important in our 400,000 year history as a species’ to campaign relentlessly and at as high a level as possible on this issue. *(6)

Governments, however, will only make the genuine changes needed if they are getting the message that this is what their voters really want, even at cost to their own material prosperity. To the extent that they sense that the majority of people are not prepared to make any sacrifices over this issue, they will be unwilling to act. This quantum shift has to come from the populace. By working together and changing patterns in our own community, we in turn have all kinds of broader effects. Buddhism is a much respected and growing religion in the Western world. I believe that we can have a huge positive impact if we can work creatively and collectively on this.


The myth of the thousand-armed Avalokitesvara could be seen as the myth of transcending individualism and achieving collective action at the highest level of Bodhicitta. Thinking whether there is a myth that encapsulates the Great Turning, for me this comes close, with each hand extending, offering its own particular gift. On a more popular level, the ‘Lord of the Rings’ encapsulates an archetypal battle to save the world, drawing on the language of archaic European myth. Personally I believe it was no coincidence that the recent films were so spectacularly popular - they tell a story of the spirit of the age.


One of the most interesting authors I’ve read in the last few years is Maledoma Some (pronounced ‘Somay’), a Western-educated West African Shaman and ritualist who has worked with Robert Bly. Some is interesting partly because he spans two cultures and is a translator, a bit like Bhante, but in his case between African indigenous and industrial Western society. I find some of his comments on our society illuminating, particularly when it comes to our relationship with the elements. In ‘The Healing Wisdom of Africa,’ observing that Westerners frequently come to him wanting to do fire rituals, Some expresses reservations, because in his view the negative aspects of the fire element, representing ‘speed, restlessness, radical consumption, and eventually death’ already predominate to such a destructive extent in our society. Some believes that we are much more in need of the calming effects of water:

‘…to the indigenous, challenge or crisis is cosmologically and spiritually symptomatic of a rise in fire. When someone is in crisis, regardless of the nature of that crisis, that person is said to be returning to fire. The distress of a person drifting toward fire is a plea for the radically reconciling introduction of water. When there is no water around, we are vulnerable to crisis. People, especially people in crisis, are naturally attracted to water. Many recognise that when they are agitated about something in their lives, they find peace at the waterfront. Just the sight of a large body of water brings a feeling of quiet and peace, a feeling of home. Water resets a system gone dry in which motion is accelerated beyond what we can bear. African healing wisdom looks at physical illness as a fire moving a person’s energy beyond the limit of what he or she can bear. This suggests that we all need water, and need rituals of water to stay balanced, orientated and reconciled.’

Going on to talk about balancing the water element, Some moves on to the subject of emotion, and the profound importance of expressing our grief, individually and collectively.

‘Until grief is restored in the West as the starting place where modern man and woman might find peace, the culture will continue to abuse and ignore the power of water and in turn be fascinated with fire…From the point of view of my people, the growth, expansion, and progress by which the modern world measures success is a conflagration, a fire burning out of control and consuming everything it touches. It is essential that the modern world stop burning itself and the rest of the planet and to learn to see the aspects of fire that can lead to transformation, healing and a renewed connection to…our [life] purpose’

Some is not saying there is something wrong with fire, he’s saying that the water/fire balance is out of kilter. One small thing I have noticed over the years is that although we still universally light candles on our shrines, the seven offering bowls filled with water, which used to be pretty universal, are no longer in evidence on many of our shrines. Is this an unconscious expression of our fascination with fire and non-valuing of water?


However we approach this issue, it is clear that we members of the human race are being called upon to work together. The consequences of not doing so are unthinkable – and real. This could be a time of breakthrough. The co-authors of ‘The Limits to Growth’, drawing on 30 years of analysis of current data and computer modelling exploring potential future scenarios, cite several different ‘mental models’ or views that we can choose for our working hypothesis. Each of these has a different logical outcome.

One view, widely held by people who have not given much thought to these questions, is the assumption that there are no actual limits to economic growth or to our current consumption habits. Scientists have indicated that to run with this view and to carry on with ‘business as usual’ will result in the destruction of life on this planet as we know it.

Many better-informed people hold the underlying view that there are severe problems already, worse problems to come, and no hope of solving them. This is liable to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

A third view hold that the limits are real and close, but there is - just - enough time, energy, environmental resilience, human virtue and adaptability to bring about a planned reduction in the ecological footprint of the human race – a sustainability revolution resulting in a better world. Forecasts suggest that this is still possible, if we act now. The only way to find out if this view can be made true is to try it.


*(1) It costs £25 to buy half an acre of rainforest through ‘Rainforest Concern’

*(2) According to the world development movement, by the 9th February 2007 the average UK citizen had already emitted as much CO2 as the average Indian will in the whole year. If the whole world emitted at the same rate as India, there would be no climate change problem.

*(3) According to the UK Forestry Commission: 'the rate of carbon accumulation is relatively low in [the trees’] establishment phase (and may even be negative as a result of carbon loss from vegetation and soil associated with ground preparation). This is followed by the full-vigour phase, a period of relatively rapid uptake, which levels off as the stand reaches its mature phase, then falls'.

*(4) For example it is possible to travel overland within Europe by coach or train, producing half or less emissions than by air flight. (See Eurolines for coach travel and Eurorail for trains)

*(5) see ‘The Tipping Point’ by Malcolm Gladwell

*(6) Two key areas are global reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and protection of ‘carbon sinks’ especially old-growth rainforest. A good question to ask your MP is what emissions target (if any) they support and what they are doing to help ensure these targets are met. Organisations such as Friends of the Earth conduct well-organised lobbying campaigns.


Robert Henson ‘The Rough Guide to Climate Change‘
George Monbiot ‘Heat: how to stop the planet burning’
Joanna Macy ‘Coming Back to Life: practices to reconnect our lives, our world’
Akuppa ‘Touching Earth: a Buddhist Guide to Saving the Planet’
Meadows, Randers and Meadows ‘The Limits to Growth’
Andrew Harvey ‘The Way of Passion’ Chapter 2
Maledoma Some ‘The Healing Wisdom of Africa: finding life purpose through Nature, Ritual and Community’


Al Gore’s excellent film ‘An Inconvenient Truth,’ documents the evidence for climate change in an accessible, even entertaining manner. gives up to date press clippings from around the world is a coalition of concerned groups
Check out the Royal Society website for a more scientific viewpoint

Or just do your own internet search, however be wary of anything connected to the website or the associated ‘Advancement of Sound Science Coalition’ which are proved to have received £30,000 from the oil company Exxon for the express purpose of spreading confusion about this issue).

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