July 30, 2010

7 Reasons Buddhists don’t give a shiite about the Environment.

Buddhists: Too Busy to Touch the Earth?

Walking the path toward selflessness often means getting really self-absorbed. Sorting yourself out? Practicing meditation, going on Buddhist retreats? Likely means you won’t be spending the best part of your daily energies fighting (peaceably, that is) for a better planet.

I grew up in the Shambhala Buddhist community, and although it’s improved marginally over the years (as has the rest of American society, I should point out) in terms of basic eco-responsibility, our Buddhist “feast” food still generally comes from Safeway or whereever’s cheapest in big plastic trays. We eat meat like there’s no tomorrow, and yes this is holocaust-analogy-appropriate factory-farmed meats, generally. In our daily lives, I can’t think of a Buddhist who goes out of his or her way to bike about, as do many “normal” folks in my hometown. Our BBQs involve plenty of plastic cups, forks, throwaway.

We may be inspired to sort out the suffering in our minds—but creating enlightened society? Nah.

So what’s the deal, you ask?

Here’s 10 reasons (okay, couldn’t think of 10, suggest a few in comments and I”ll add ’em in) why we Buddhists tend to navel-gaze rather than get off the meditation cushion and make some external change:

1. Preventing too many Activities. We’re more interested in meditation—the practice of achieving inner peace. Getting involved in politics, eco-responsible initiatives at school or work…brings up too much klesha.

2. Grant your Blessings that Confusion may dawn as Wisdom. Out of Sight, Out of Mind. Like all Americans, we like reading our books but don’t think about how those books came to us. We like buying statues of Buddhas and brocade and incense and have no idea if they were ripped out of temples or are made out of toxic substances. We have no idea because we don’t care. We don’t care because, fundamentally, Buddhism is for many of us a path that leads us out of confusion and into wisdom—a self-centered, navel-gazing path.

3. Never Forget Hinayana. Activism is often just self-righteous aggression that creates more confusion. As Buddhist Beat poet put it, “aggression begets aggression.” And, even in 2010, much of the environmental movement is caught up in an us vs. them, good vs. evil mentality. From a Buddhist point of  view, we’re all basically good, fundamentally okay. We all just want to be happy. We all want blue skies and green grass for our children. Better to meditate more, and shout less, the thinking goes.

4. There’s no point to fighting samsara. Nihilism runs strong and deep, even in we Buddhists who talk the emptiness and luminosity game. What’s that, you say? Buddhists love to talk about how all things are empty. But the Buddhadharma loves to remind us that just because things are empty doesn’t mean they’re not full and wonderful and important, worth respecting, too.

5. Karma is internal, not external. We Buddhists seem to think that responsibility for our actions is irrelevant, unless it’s emotional, relational actions. In which case we’re all about it: did I cause confusion? Did I upset you? Is my mind troubled? But when it comes to external cause and effect, such as failing to recycle or use biodiesel? Who gives a shiite.

6. We’re busy fighting other battles. You only have so much time to split up—enjoying life here, raising a family there, running a business here, meditating and doing Buddhist retreats there. We’re doing good work, creating peace and compassion internally, and as Margaret Mead said, small groups have the power to change the world. So let other small groups work in more direct ways to help the environment.

7. We don’t connect inner mindfulness with outer mindfulness. We don’t connect our Buddhist practice of joyful discipline with our day-to-day, moment-to-moment actions—turning off a light switch or smoking or eating gmo crap seems to have little connection to meditation practice, Dharma study, the paramitas (virtues).

8. WTF? I’m out of ideas. Really, I’m a bit at a loss. Got a thought? Offer it in comments, and I’ll likely add it in here.

Above left, environmental issues seem far away, fraught with aggression and politics. Above right, the Karmapa, a young Buddhist leader, is passionate about protection our environment. Below, the Dalai Lama has helped lead the way in connecting Buddhism and Environmentalism, even giving up his traditional meat-rich Tibetan diet and asking his students to do the same.


“Peace and the survival of life on earth as we know it are threatened by human activities that lack a commitment to humanitarian values. Destruction of nature and natural resources results from ignorance, greed and lack of respect for the earth’s living things.

“Our ancestors viewed the earth as rich and bountiful, which it is. Many people in the past also saw nature as inexhaustibly sustainable, which we know is the case only if we care for it. It is not difficult to forgive destruction in the past that resulted from ignorance. Today, however, we have access to more information, and it is essential that we re-examine ethically what we have inherited, what we are responsible for, and what we will pass on to coming generations.”

“As people alive today, we must consider future generations: a clean environment is a human right like any other. It is therefore part of our responsibility towards others to ensure that the world we pass on is as healthy, if not healthier, than we found it.”

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