The Imperative for an Ecological Understanding of Nirvana
Eco-Dharma: Awakening to the Environmental Crisis
by David Loy
Interest in eco-dharma — the ecological implications of Buddhist teachings — is growing after years of apparent indifference and little conversation about it in Buddhist sanghas (communities). The environmental crisis has been in and out of headline news since at least 1992, when the first President Bush attended the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and famously declared that “the American way of life is not negotiable.” So why has it taken so long for Buddhists to wake up to the reality of this crisis? Does their hesitant response point to a deeply rooted ambiguity within Buddhism about whether the goal of practice is to escape this world or harmonize with it? Or something else?
Indifference to eco-dharma is reflective of a larger problem with socially engaged Buddhism in the West. Many American Buddhists now accept that service, such as teaching dharma in prisons, hospice work, and helping the homeless, can be an important part of one’s path. But the underlying issues that create the need for these services are deemed as having nothing to do with Buddhism.
In other words, we are getting better at pulling drowning people out of the river, but we are not much better at asking why so many more people are caught in the river, or who or what is pushing them in upstream. Buddhists who dare to ask why so many are homeless in the world’s wealthiest country or why so many languish in prisons are dismissed as radicals or leftists.
Does the ecological crisis really have nothing to do with Buddhism? Or is the disconnect due to a misunderstanding of the religion? The philosopher Slavoj Zizek argues that this disconnect applies generally to Western Buddhism, which “enables you to fully participate in the frantic pace of the capitalist game while sustaining the perception that you are not really in it; that you are well aware of how worthless this spectacle is; and that what really matters to you is the peace of the inner self to which you know you can always withdraw.” He has a valid point.
When it comes to climate change, Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike tend to focus on personal lifestyle changes such as driving electric cars, installing solar panels on roofs, and eating less meat. While these are important, they are not sufficient responses to our increasingly urgent situation. As Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, wrote in an Orion article, if 10 or even 15 percent of us do everything we can to reduce our own carbon footprint, “the trajectory of our horror remains about the same.” Yet, he adds, if even 10 percent of us also workto change the system, it will be more than enough. Climate change is both structural and personal: it is driven by the way our present economic and political institutions continue to favor fossil fuels and by individual consumerism.
But institutional issues are intimidating. What can you or I do about the fossil fuel industry or “too big to fail” banks and investment firms? Helplessness tempts us to deny or ignore these aspects of our situation. In Buddhism, particularly, we deny these, even though Buddhist teachings urge us to face our suffering rather than try to evade it.
Are there other things in Buddhist teachings that encourage us to dismiss ecological engagement? If so, perhaps the eco-crisis is also a Buddhist crisis, in that it calls upon Buddhists to clarify their basic teachings in order to better address something that threatens the future of us all.
Buddhism is the path of awakening, but what does awakening mean? Each Buddhist tradition understands it differently, or at least emphasizes different aspects of it. The Pali Canon emphasizes nirvana, which signifies the end of rebirth into samsara, liberation from this world of suffering, craving, and delusion. Insofar as we escape it individually, each person’s well-being is independent of everyone else’s. In Buddhist terms this is the same as saying, ‘Yes, I hope that you will awaken too, but nevertheless my enlightenment is separate from yours.’ Such a dualistic understanding of the Buddhist path does not invite us to engage with ecological and social problems. Rather, it can encourage a belief that we should not waste our time trying to reform an ever unsatisfactory world but instead concentrate on transcending it.
How literally should we take nirvana, ‘the end of rebirth?’ Nagarjuna, founder of the Madhyamaka school, famously declared that “there is no distinction at all between samsara and nirvana…. The limit of nirvana is the limit of everyday life.” In other words, while there is only this world, there are different ways of experiencing it. Therefore the Mahayana tradition emphasizes that enlightenment involves realizing the shunyata, ‘emptiness’ of things, including ourselves. Whether or not this teaching encourages social and ecological concern however, depends on our own understanding of emptiness.
In the book A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency, environmental activist and Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy identifies “spiritual traps” that can hinder us from engaging with the world. First is devaluing the world in comparison to some “higher” spiritual reality. Macy criticizes the view that the phenomenal world is merely an illusion, that being impermanent, its pain and demands are less real than the pleasures and tranquility we find in transcending them. “According to this view,” says Macy, “freedom from suffering is attained by nonattachment to the fate of all beings, rather than nonattachment to matters of the ego.” The Buddha did not teach that nonattachment means indifference to what is happening in and to the world. The Heart Sutra asserts that forms are empty, yet it immediately adds that emptiness is not other than forms. And forms — including the living beings and ecosystems of this world — suffer.
Other spiritual traps are more worldly. Since many modern Buddhists aren’t attracted by the traditional goal of ending rebirth, the path is sometimes understood as a program of psychological development to help us let go of afflictive emotions and resolve personal problems. Today, Buddhist-inspired forms of psychotherapy are providing new perspectives on psychological well-being and practices that promote it by reducing the three poisons, greed, ill will, and delusion. There is much to appreciate about this new development. Nevertheless, difficulties arise if one believes that all problems are due to the way the mind works; the solution, then, is simply to change the mind rather than change the system.
Deconstruction and Reconstruction
While much of traditional Buddhism concerns transcending an unsatisfactory world, much of modern Buddhism is about better adapting to it. In the former, the world is the problem because it is a place of suffering, while in the latter the mind is the problem. Both perspectives of the path can have the effect of devaluing social and ecological engagement. In different ways, each is resigned to the way this world is — or seems to be — and therefore is not concerned about reforming it.
It is not surprising, then, that both perspectives offer the same ‘solution’ to the ecological crisis. When our attention is drawn to what is happening — to the fact that our ecosystems are deteriorating quickly and our collective response to this situation remains woefully inadequate — we can sit on our cushions and meditate, or perhaps chant, and after a while feel better because we have ‘let go’ of our dis-ease about what is happening to the earth.
Fortunately, there is another way to understand the Buddhist path: that it is about deconstructing and reconstructing the self — or, better, the relationship between one’s sense of self and the world. Reconstruction involves transforming our motivations, which is the key to understanding the Buddha’s innovative teaching on karma. In it he emphasized motivation and intention because problems naturally result when we act out of greed, ill will, and delusion.
Yet transforming motivations alone is not sufficient. At the root of our ecological problems is a sense of self that needs to be deconstructed. Because the self is a psychological and social construct, a cluster of impermanent processes, it is inherently insecure and anxious insofar as it feels separate from the rest of the world. We usually experience this insecurity as a sense of lack, which nothing external can ever satisfy. Buddhist meditative practices can help resolve this feeling by revealing our interconnectedness with the world.
Unlike traditional Buddhist practice, transforming motivations does not involve transcending this world but rather coming to experience it in a different way. As we begin to awaken and realize we are not separate from each other or from the earth, we also begin to see that the ways we live together and relate to the environment — our social, political, and economic institutions — need to be reconstructed in order to become more sustainable and socially just.
Buddhism provides a wonderful archetype that can bring individual and social transformation together: the bodhisattva. Bodhisattvas have a double practice: as they deconstruct and reconstruct themselves, they also work for social and ecological change. These are actually two sides of the same practice. Our deep-rooted, self-preoccupied habits don’t suddenly disappear by seeing through the delusion of our separateness. This requires simultaneously developing more compassionate ways of living. How do we do this? By devoting ourselves to the well-being of others, including the health of the earth’s ecosystems. Such concerns are not distractions from our personal practice but deeper manifestations of it.
Bodhisattvas can act in the world with equanimity because they are unattached to the fruits of their actions. This is not the same as detachment from the state of the world. Nonattachment is essential in the face of the inevitable setbacks and frustrations activism involves, but it does not mean that one is unconcerned about the results of one’s efforts. We work as hard as we can and if our efforts do not bear fruit in the ways that we hoped we naturally feel some disappointment, but we do not remain stuck there. Nonattachment involves a different way of responding, beyond the duality of hope and despair.
Will our efforts be in vain? Have we already passed the ecological tipping-point? We cannot be certain. Yet rather than being overwhelmed by the unknown, bodhisattvas embrace “don’t know mind,” because the task of the bodhisattva is to do the best one can without knowing what the consequences will be.
Given the urgency of the ecological and social challenges that face us today, are we not all called to become bodhisattvas?
Header Photo: Marco Crupi, C.c. 2.0 nc nd