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Lions Roar : September 2019
That’s all. No special powers, except being fully attentive to what’s actually happening and acting accordingly. That’s an easy thing to do in a monastery. When the bell rings, you put on your robe and go to the Buddha Hall for meditation. But what about when one leaves the monastery gates and steps out into a world with many problems, most ominously an ecological crisis that is severely degrading the biosphere. How do we respond appropriately to a climate emer- gency that threatens even the survival of our own species? Some might say that this is not a Buddhist problem, that Buddhism is only about individual awakening and personal transformation. But is the goal to transcend—escape—this world, or to realize our nonduality with it? If the latter, then the Buddhist path involves not only focus- ing on our own meditative practice, but integrating what we realize into how we actually live in the world. Wisdom founders without compassion, and today that involves responding to the greatest challenge that humanity has ever faced. It seems to me that public consciousness has shifted over the last year. More people are aware that our ecological situation has become very precarious, and continues to deteriorate rap- idly. “Business as usual,” along with “politics as usual,” is leading to disaster. In light of this, what should we do? How should we respond appropriately? Today that is our collective koan. Buddhism originated and developed in a very different social and environmental context than today, so unsurprisingly it has little to tell us about what to do. But its teachings say a great deal to say about how to do it. That’s called the bodhisattva path. In fact, I wonder if the bodhisattva (or ecosattva) path is the most important contribution that Buddhism can offer today. Acknowledging the importance of social engagement is a big step for many Buddhists, since we have usually been taught to focus on what is happening in our own minds. On the other side, those committed to social action tend to suffer from frus- tration, anger, and burnout. The engaged bodhisattva path provides what each needs because it involves a double practice, inner and outer, each reinforcing the other. Combining meditation and activism enables deep engage- ment without burnout. Activism also helps meditators avoid self-stultifying preoccupation with their own mental condition and spiritual progress. Insofar as a sense of separate self is the basic problem, compassionate commitment to the well-being of others is an important part of the solution. Engagement with the ecological crisis is therefore not a distraction from our per- sonal contemplative practice but essential to it. Although there are many aspects to the bodhisattva path, the equanimity and insight it cultivates supports what is most distinctive and powerful about spiritual activism: acting without attachment to the results of action. The Buddha said that enlightened people are nirasa: “wishless, desireless, without expectation.” This doesn’t mean inaction or disengagement but what the Bhagavad-Gita calls “karma yoga”: “Your right is to the work, never to the fruits. Be neither moti- vated by the fruits of action, nor inclined to give up action.” Do what is needed, but without attachment to the outcome. Nonattachment to results is easily misunderstood, however. It doesn’t mean our approach to our task or nonchalance. In response to the ongoing devastation of the earth, we are called upon to do the very best we can, not knowing what the consequences will be, not knowing if our efforts will make any difference whatsoever. This is an important aspect of the “don’t-know mind” that Zen practice explicitly cultivates. One of my teachers, Robert Aitken Roshi, liked to say that our task is not to clear up the mystery. It’s to make the mystery clear. The spiritual path isn’t about coming to understand everything but opening up to a sacred and mysterious world that we access not by grasping it but in being taken by it. Bodhisattvas always manifest some- thing greater than their own egos. “You are not Atlas carrying the world on your shoulder,” Vandana Shiva said. “It is good to remember that the planet is carrying you.” We don’t know what is possible, we don’t know what will work, but we do our best. We don’t know if what we do is important, but we know that it’s important for us to do it. Have we already passed ecological tipping points and civilization as we know it is doomed? We don’t know—and that’s okay. Of course we would like our efforts to bear fruit, yet ultimately they are our gift to the earth, gratis, and gifts should be made without any expectation of return. On April 20, I was part of a group of six Extinction Rebel- lion protestors, inspired by the ongoing XR actions in London, who briefly blocked a busy street in downtown Denver. Police detained us and issued a summons; our court cases are pending. Was that the best thing for us to do, inconveniencing many drivers that Saturday afternoon? I don’t know, but it has DAVID LOY (at an Extinction Rebellion protest in Denver) is a Zen teacher, author, and founder of the Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center. His most recent book is Ecodharma: Buddhist Teachings for the Ecological Crisis. PHOTOBYDENVER.CBSLOCAL.COM CELEBRATING YEARS LION’S ROAR | SEPTEMBER 2019 73