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Lions Roar : March 2007
SHAMBHALA SUN MARCH 2007 42 you to respond; this is a good way to identify personally mean- ingful work. And yes, that work can be Buddhist practice. Here I offer several approaches based in Buddhist principles that can be applied to any environmental work. Being with the Suffering If you look at the state of the world today, the suffering—of plants and animals, forests and rivers, and local and indigenous peoples—is enormous. Global agriculture, urban sprawl, and industrial development have caused wide-scale loss of habitat, many local-species extinctions, severe land and water degrada- tion, and unstable climate. In the last century, the rate of loss has accelerated significantly, to the point of threatening ecosystem health and the continuity of life. The first noble truth begins with the suffering that arises from the inevitability of change and loss. Facing this suffering and the delusions it generates is where Buddhist practice begins. In the precepts of the Order of Interbeing, Thich Nhat Hanh urges, “Do not avoid contact with suffering or close your eyes before suffering.” He directs students to be present with suffering to understand the nature of existence. This requires patience and equanimity in the face of disturbing realities—a clear-cut for- est reduced to stumps, a once-lush river deadened by chemical waste, a coral reef blasted by dynamite fishing. It is not easy to gaze clear-eyed at these troubling results of human activity Most of the time we would rather not think about the suffer- ing caused by our actions. Yet from a Buddhist perspective, this is the best place to start, for it is grounded in reality, not ideal- ized projection. Mindful awareness is all about direct experience of the actual state of things. The authenticity of such percep- tion is freeing and motivating at the same time. Practices that quiet and focus the mind can provide a stable mental base from which to observe the whole catastrophe of human impact. To be with environmental suffering means being willing to be with the suffering produced by your own cultural conditioning toward other-than-human beings. Those of us in the West have been raised to see forests and rivers as potential resources. Human- centered views are one of the greatest deterrents to being fully present with other living beings. If you see the environment as primarily for human use—whether for food, shelter, recreation, or spiritual development—you may not see how others suffer under the thumb of human dominance. Being with suffering means learning about what is going on in a given environmental conflict. The four noble truths can be applied as a framework for diagnosis by posing four questions, each corresponding to one of the truths: First, what is the en- vironmental problem or suffering? Second, what are the causes of the suffering? Third, what would put an end to the suffering? And fourth, what is the path to realize this goal? This analysis is deceptively simple, yet it can be quite radical if you include all forms of suffering—that of people, animals, trees, species, habitats, and ecosystems. This method of diagnosis pro- vides straightforward guidelines for how to become informed, and therefore more able to bear witness to the suffering involved. It also provides analytical balance to the emotions you inevitably feel when you glimpse another being’s suffering. Cultivating Systems Mind Solving environmental problems almost always requires some understanding of ecological principles, or what I call “systems thinking.” The Buddhist principle of dependent co-arising pro- vides an excellent foundation for systems thinking. According to this perspective, all events and beings are interdependent and mutually co-create each other. Thus the universe is seen as dy- namic in all dimensions and scales of activity, with every action affecting and generating others in turn. You may be familiar with the Chinese Buddhist metaphor known as the Jewel Net of Indra, which expresses this dynamic of interdependence. Imagine a fishnet-like set of linked lines ex- tending ad infinitum across horizontal and vertical dimensions of space. Then add more nets criss-crossing on the diagonals. Imagine an endless number of these nets criss-crossing every plane of space. At each node in every net, there is a multifaceted jewel that reflects every other jewel in the net. There is nothing outside the net and nothing that does not reverberate its pres- ence throughout the net. From an ecological perspective, this metaphor makes obvious sense: ecological systems are exactly such complex sets of rela- tions shaping and being shaped over time by the members of the system. You do not have to study ecological science to un- derstand this; you can easily observe cause and effect in what- ever system is close at hand—your family, your workplace, your backyard. You develop systems-thinking through looking at pat- terns in time and space, such as seasonal cycles or animal paths.