My husband and I held the first of our weekly “Meditations for the Earth” on Tuesday. We are holding these Buddhist practice sessions outside, in the same spot that I recently finished a year of daily vigils at the top of our town, in full view of Christmas shoppers and next to a busy road. There were six of us for our first session, and after we had finished our 40 minutes in silence a man approached us and asked if we thought what we were doing would make any difference in the world.
It was a good question and one that I often asked myself during my year-long vigil. Was the time and effort I was spending every day worth it? Could I be doing something different that would have more of an impact on the climate and ecological emergency? Even worse, was I simply making people feel more guilt about how they were living their lives, making change even less likely?
I wonder how the Buddha would have answered this question. My main practice is Pure Land Buddhism, and the Pure Land teachings advise caution when it comes to helping others. Because we are bombu—foolish beings of wayward passions. It is difficult for us to know exactly what is helpful for another person and what isn’t. This makes sense to me when I think about my own co-dependent parts. All too often, we think we are doing something helpful but we actually have an agenda; we need the other person to change so that we can feel better or safer about ourselves. Our motivations are often complex and usually include a mix of altruism and selfishness.
Even if we put the question of our motives aside, we can never truly know the whole picture of another person or group that we think needs our help. How can we know whether our “help” is what stopped that person from reaching rock bottom, the necessary precursor to healing? How can we know if our “help” is colluding with a corrupt system that relies on our not calling it out? How can we know if our “help” is simply strengthening the defenses of the other person or group?
I think it is important that we ask ourselves these questions, but I also don’t think we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. The Buddhist teachings offer us the ideal of the bodhisattva: beings who gladly dedicate all their energy to helping others. We can acknowledge that we’re not bodhisattvas ourselves just yet, while also being inspired by their example. We can know that it makes the Buddha happy whenever we make offerings to her, to our fellow beings, or to the Earth. We can know that we won’t make perfect offerings, and that imperfect offerings are also precious and important.
This is the spirit in which we offer these spaces for our weekly Meditations for the Earth. Maybe we would be better off spending our time planting trees or getting into politics, but I can’t imagine how to do that math. And anyway, I don’t have the skills to be a politician—I have the skills to sit in vigil in public places. I know that I am making this offering from a mixture of selfishness and altruism. It certainly helps my mental health to sit in vigil, and that’s okay. I know that our presence will make some people feel less inclined to take action themselves, as they dismiss us as weirdos or as they strengthen their own defenses or denials. I also know that many people are glad that we are doing what we’re doing, because they too are worried about the state of the planet. I know that we will have more conversations like the one we had with the man who asked the question—he said that he might come and join us next week.
We come to activism, or to any offering that we are making to the world, as all-too-human. If we wait until we have devised the “perfect” action or until we have perfected ourselves, we would never do anything. We can continue to reflect on what we are doing and to being open to feedback from others. We can also keep taking our small, imperfect actions. We can trust that the Buddha is accepting our activism like a parent who receives a young child’s painting. Yes, it is messy, and yes, we can’t quite make out what it’s meant to be, but look at those colors! Look at those marvelous splotches! Isn’t it beautiful!
Related features from BDG
The Earth Holder Community, Branching Out
Global Systemic Crisis and Buddhism: Toward a Change of Paradigm
On Being Intentionally Disruptive
Buddhistdoor View: Overcoming Our Denial of Responsibility for Climate Change
System Change, Not Climate Change
Dharma in Action: Tackling the Climate Change Crisis
Truth and Consequences: Capitalism, Climate Change, and the World We Created
Touching the Earth: An Ecodharma Retreat