A Call for Meditation in Action on Climate Change

by Acharya Marty Janowitz

Adelie_Penguins_on_iceberg-1A year ago many of us were looking forward to the Peoples Climate Mobilisation which was timed to coincide with the United Nations Summit on Climate Change. While the New York and global outpouring was monumental, bringing unprecedented attention and hope to the imperative of climate change action, it was also fleeting. In the year since there have been efforts and steps forward on both the most local and international levels although the elements underlying the crisis are little changed. Now, we are on the cusp of the December Paris Climate Conference, at another point where hope meets fear.
Despite the compelling arguments for immediate and deep-seated change there are many obstacles, as dynamic political, social, economic, natural and emotional forces converge around the process. On the one hand we have endured another cycle of painstaking negotiations, forestalling and posturing – in other words, another manifestation of the three poisons of passion/attachment, ignorance and aggression. On the other hand we have been buoyed by Laudito Si’/Praised Be, On Care for our Common Home, Pope Francis’ eloquent imploration for humanity to embody environmental wisdom within a broader commitment to social and spiritual transformation. The Pope’s plea is only the most prominent within a chorus of passionate and compassionate discourses on the spiritual and moral dimensions of the climate crisis. Faith communities of every tradition are bringing an urgent and ever more powerful message to the deliberations articulating a personal and collective sense of love and responsibility for the wellbeing of global humanity and for nature itself. Beyond just an environmental emergency we understand that this is also an impending humanitarian and social tragedy that is already affecting some of the globe’s most vulnerable communities. And we know that in its essence this is also a crisis of the spirit stemming from our loss of connection with the sacred nature and basic goodness of both our world and of our own nature. This is why, as people with a strong spiritual orientation, we understand that climate change is a spiritual and moral issue.
This is unfolding at a moment when our spiritual and temporal values as Buddhists are being sorely challenged as we grapple with being meditators, practitioners and citizens amidst a host of daunting situations from the horrific (sectarian warfare and unconstrained violence of many types) to the ridiculous (the chauvinistic, egoist Trump phenomena). It is enough to make many, including me, simultaneously very sad and angry. And of course this has drawn many of us into a degree of civic activism we might at one time have thought too much of the world of affairs as we join with the vigorous and sometime militant campaigners who are pushing back against these dark forces. Figuring out how to be involved in this, in what we have been called to do is a formidable task. I realize that it’s not so much that we are simply trying to meditate our way out of the problem — even though many of us have tried and keep trying. It is hard to be a meditator and perhaps even harder to be an activist. Rather, the dharmic teachings are talking about working with the fabric and nature of reality and creating a paradigm shift within that by applying inner peace and bravery to develop outer compassionate action. This is particularly important since amidst such emotionally fraught debates it is easy to lose the personal tether to our humanity. Controversial issues tend to breed divisiveness, ideological rigidity and a tendency to harden our hearts by objectifying those we disagree with as enemies. As a more senior student in the dharma, therefore, one of the reasons I am personally motivated to be active in this movement is my abiding conviction that violence and aggression such as has been perpetrated on our environment cannot successfully be countered with further aggression.
As the voice of faith communities we must represent another way – one that simultaneously raises our concern and compassion, highlighting the genuinely human dimension of this predicament. As Buddhists our engagement not only adds impetus to the climate change movement but can add a dharmic perspective that brings the root of underlying causes into visibility and awareness and hopefully affects the course of advocacy. I’d like to explore this dimension further, acknowledging my lens as a practitioner shaped within the Kagyu and Nyingma lineages of Tibetan Buddhism and particularly within the Shambhala stream first articulated by my root guru Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and now transmitted by his lineage heir Sakyong Mipham, Rinpoche.
As suggested, the climate change movement has been a multi-decade rollercoaster of hope and fear. As Buddhists, patterns of inflation and deflation, optimism and pessimism, hope and fear should not be a surprise. I daresay that at least sometime all of us on the Noble Eightfold Path resist letting go of our projections and struggle to find the way, caught between moments of openness and multi-moments of believing and reinforcing the cocoons of our self-justifying beliefs. The same patterns manifest on larger scales of community and society in moments of aspiration, optimism and even conviction regarding the potential of realizing a truly decent future contrasted with periods of deep consternation or even despair in the face of sizeable difficulties and negative attitudes dragging us down. Unless I/we can get beyond or more likely work with these extremes on both the personal and collective levels I believe there is little opportunity to move a genuinely transformative path forward.
So how can we forge an authentic and workable path between our aspirations for change and the difficulties of doing so, and between faith in human goodness and distress at the selfishness and parochialism that often seems to dominate social discourse? In my experience, the crux of our challenge is not to avoid these disconnections but to connect them, uniting our high aspirations with what we actually encounter on the ground, energizing the wisdom within both at the very point where they can join – at the heart of awareness. This is to recognize the relationship between our paths as practitioners and as citizens and activists. In this we see that the paths of personal and social transformation are inextricably linked, recognizing that we cannot substantively work to alter the societal paradigm if we are not simultaneously working to alter our own.
From our Buddhist teachings and more vitally our meditative experience we do have means to traverse this seeming abyss. We have learned that the underlying problem is rooted in our mistaken perception that we, and within that our thoughts, are solid, enduring and valid. This is what Trungpa Rinpoche called the ‘basic twist, the belief that we might grasp solid ground by focusing on the bits of thought while ignoring the space in between – first projecting solidity and then believing those projections. But our meditative practice relentlessly reminds us that even our most vivid thoughts, emotions and impulses are ephemeral. ‘Good or bad, happy or sad, all thoughts vanish into emptiness like the imprint of a bird in the sky’. This teaching, contained within a practice liturgy composed by Trungpa Rinpoche, has both infused and confused me since I encountered it in the very week I stumbled into the dharma. In theory I ‘get’ it, but learning how to hold and work with this understanding has been a challenge in both practice and action, especially when most needed. Fortunately the practice ultimately speaks for itself. I’ve learned through decades of intermittent attention to my nature that all thoughts and projections do vanish and all clinging to false concepts of solidity ultimately leads to nothing essentially productive.
Clinging to thoughts is a case of not trusting our nature or not even knowing what it is. When we don’t trust our nature, the world we face just feeds our insecurity and fear, so that the seeming ‘other’ is a threat to the seeming ‘us’. This lack of integration is something like a war within us which is ultimately magnified to the scale of warring ideologies. It is this split and hardening that has resulted in so much of humanity’s difficulty – climate change being merely one of the latest and most devastating in its global implications. As we know such grasping is the root cause of suffering and the origin of attitudes of separation, divisiveness, violence and isolation. Alternatively, if our ‘world’ is not conventionally solid it suggests both unfettered freedom and uncertain groundlessness. Freedom gives a free rein to aspiration or vision – anything is possible in the absence of fixed boundaries or constraints. But groundlessness implies there is nothing certain to rely on.
But the dharma suggests that these attributes of our personal and communal worlds do not inherently lead to disconnection and separation but fluidity and openness. Viewing the world this way – as less than solid – is something we can touch each time we let a thought go and come back to the heart of awareness. This experience sows seeds and wakes up certain aspects of our being, particularly our direct connection to the way things naturally, primordially are. When we open our direct sense attention we touch the energy of this basic nature which is inherently open and curious and we become available to touch the energy of the environment. We recognize this directly and describe it as best we can using terms like bodhicitta and tatagatagharba or in the language of my Shambhala lineage, basic goodness. From this we access the 4th Noble Truth – the Path that frees us from suffering. When we can retain this intimate connection to openness in activity, we are working with what Trungpa Rinpoche called ‘meditation in action’.
We aspire that our commitment to personal openness, gentleness, self-knowing and societal decency will in some ways contribute and encourage wider appreciation of the heart of awake – a ripple effect. That can to some extent be the case, but strategic activism requires more than that. Crucial to a strategic vision is knowledge – especially self-knowledge – and a view of the whole that seeks to bring conflicting views into a larger perspective within which we are discovering and executing activity that generates next steps – a path from where things are, to where we aspire for them to be. Our spiritual credentials or even accomplishment does not necessarily translate into accomplishment on the ground. Just because we may have a compelling philosophy and some ability to connect with awareness or avoid being sucked into passing emotional traps does not mean we will be effective organizers, activists or advocates. How do we bring and empower our view, practice and action together?
Trungpa Rinpoche described this apparent distance between what we aspire to achieve and the constraints we actually encounter as the seeming separation between the fruition of ‘heaven’ and the ground of ‘earth’. Dynamically advancing an energetic path from earth to heaven is our challenge. This teaching points to the missing link and energizing force as ‘humanity’. This is, lo and behold, the same quality of awake or goodness that we touch directly through the practices of mindfulness-awareness but in this context we are expressing our nature and raising our unconditional confidence explicitly to energize the path. In the Shambhala teachings we call such a path oriented approach to practice raising windhorse. Windhorse is the self-existing energy of basic goodness in action. We can contact this energy within ourselves and work with it in concert with others. Doing so is in essence acknowledging the strength within our nature of awake on a concrete, even physical level and applying that strength generously.


This is not theoretical. We can do this by focusing our mindfulness-awareness practice in a more expansive way, simultaneously sensing the solidity of our ‘earth’ and the spaciousness of our ‘heaven’ and joining them through an intentional flash of connection. But this flash of connection is merely the beginning. Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche has pointed out that it is hard and continuing work to feel, appreciate, and embody our nature. In most cases that is neither our training nor our habit as we exist within societies that do not nurture such an attitude. Our modern world promotes a strange combination of speed, sleep and escape magnetized by technologies and now social media. All of this “dulls us to our own brilliance and tenderness”–two essential qualities for workability, much less leadership, on a path.
I believe it is possible to hold or at least return to such a centered (not self centered) attitude – engaging and leading from the heart of awake, moving forward and learning to work with conflict in a more profound and effective way. The basis of such effectiveness will be renewed appreciation of inter-connectedness – where projected barriers were never true barriers to begin with. This is not philosophy – it’s accessible, touchable, recognizable experience. An inter-connected world must inevitably point to an interdependent world or, as Thich Nhat Hahn famously describes, a world that highlights ‘inter-being’.
As modern spiritually oriented activists we sometimes suggest that such thinking points to the world as sacred, as Gaia or as Mother, using words like mandala, ecology, systems thinking, holistic, organismic, energetic or quantum – big ideas with potentially fancy implications. But the essence of sacredness is its fundamental ordinariness. When we participate in practices that allow us to directly experience that sacredness we touch the foundation of what we might consider sacred activism. A sacred activist is someone who is starting to experience the inner joy and outer effectiveness of this force, who knows that the world’s profound crisis is challenging everyone to act from our deepest compassion and wisdom, and who is committed to ‘being’, in the face of growing chaos, suffering, and violence. In Shambhala terminology we call this the way of warriorship.
When there is fear and doubt about human society’s place in nature, social tendencies arise that cut us off from the experience of sacredness. By recognising the inter-connectedness of all life in such a personal way we can move beyond the idea that we are separate selves and have the basis to expand our compassion and love in such a way that we take action to protect the Earth. But from an activist or warrior’s perspective we are not focused on philosophy but on actual change and transformation–a movement, if you will, towards more enlightened societies.
I propose that participation is a choice: first to be open to ourselves and others, then to extend ourselves with unpretentious interest and curiosity, and ultimately to engage, motivated by some combination of shared goodness and responsiveness to needs. Building environmentally awakened society arises from authentic confidence in unconditioned goodness, in community with all beings. This approach to ecology or to any socially oriented action is to actualize sacred world on the spot.
Acharya Marty Janowitz, Shambhala September 10, 2015

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