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Earth Day and Eco-Dharma: Celebration and Somber Reflection


Earth Day, 22 April, is a day to celebrate the glories of the natural world. For those of us who are aware of the ecological crisis our planet is on the brink of, it may also bring up grief, anger, or mourning. As Buddhists, we have the benefit of knowing that it is exactly in the midst of this pain that our practice helps us understand and then skillfully respond to climate crisis.

The great themes of the Buddha-dharma reflect both the causes of and potential solutions to environmental destruction. As we use our practice to meet what comes up in looking at the ecological peril facing the natural world, we see the relevance of the “three characteristics” in this regard. The Buddha perceived dukkha (suffering), anicca (impermanence), and anatta (not-self) as describing the existence of all sentient beings. Looking at these through the lens of eco-Dharma, we see that each quality also offers guidance as to how we might respond appropriately to the threat of climate change.  

Dukkha, or the suffering and unease we experience in life, is driven by our fundamental ignorance about what will truly satisfy us. We act upon our cravings for sense pleasures, mistakenly thinking that indulging them and acquiring more is the path to ensuring happiness. Especially in the wealthy Western world, it has been culturally acceptable to act on such cravings by the continuous consumption of various commodities, insulated from seeing that every purchase is ultimately derived from the finite resources of the Earth.

We may feel dukkha in the sense of personal overwhelm, as we try to keep up within systems of competition and profit. When we aren’t sure how we’re going to pay our rent, it may be difficult to find our voice to express concern for the planet. We may feel powerless when we see corporations lauded for performing well under a paradigm of ever-increasing profitability, regardless of the cost to the environment and the social fabric of the communities they impact. In a sadly ironic twist, the immediate costs of the extraction of material resources from the Earth have been borne by poor countries that will not reap the financial profit from those resources. These same communities have already begun bearing the first brunt of impact with increasing exposure to severe weather patterns as a result. The suffering this entails is vast, and we may feel overwhelmed by the scope and magnitude of the threat.

The Dharma offers us a wise response to these perils, which is the practice of renunciation. Living simply, reducing our consumption of resources, and letting go of our drive to acquire the trappings of material success directly supports and responds to the limited capacity of our planet. We may also benefit from letting go of outcomes orientation in our efforts toward stabilizing the climate, as we cannot have any guarantee of what the final result of this challenge will be. By focusing our path on renunciation, we are empowered to be part of the solution, even if we do not know what it may ultimately look like as we transform toward a life-sustaining social and economic model.

Uncertainty is also reflected for us personally, in the impermanence and groundlessness we face in all aspects of our lives. The Dharma calls this quality anicca, which translates as impermanence, uncertainty. We may feel resistance to this fundamental lack of security, behaving as if it is possible to acquire enough stuff to be safe, secure, and insulated from the unease of a constantly changing experience. With clear-seeing about the ways we are grasping onto a false promise of stability, we become freer to live in the place of not-knowing. We can then engage more full-heartedly with the processes that we hope will have a positive transformative effect, without focusing on outcomes that cannot be guaranteed.

The last characteristic the Buddha ascribed to all sentient beings is that of anatta, or not-self. We labor under the misimpression that we are entirely separate and individual beings. From that belief, we seek to ensure the security of our own selves, regardless of the impact on the finite resources of the Earth. Our fundamental misunderstanding in this regard has led us toward an ecological breaking point. Practices such as loving-kindness and compassion meditation help us move into a sense of connection with other beings. We learn to embody deep care for the impact of our actions on others, as we release the imaginary lines we’ve drawn around “us” and “them.” As our sense of sangha, or community, expands, it becomes an antidote to the disconnection and hopelessness that both cause and contribute to our current environmental challenges. We become caretakers of the Earth rather than callous users of it.

Celebrating our belonging in a greater planetary community is one of the joyful aspects of Earth Day. From that place of belonging, we bring our Dharma practice to the issue of climate crisis, recognizing that transformation must happen first in our own hearts, minds, and ways of living. The Buddha-dharma offers many tools for supporting such transformation. We bring mindful awareness to the extent of the challenge, and to our own responses. We cultivate clear-seeing about the complexity and enormity of it, rather than remaining mired in the false refuge of ignorance. With gratitude and generosity, we directly counteract the conditioned beliefs that we are lacking and must acquire ever more in order to be free from suffering. We explore using wise action and wise speech in appropriate action against toxic systems and institutions that profit financially at the cost of accelerating ecological destruction. This shift toward a life-sustaining society is possible, and it can only come to pass as part of a massive community transformation of values. This possibility is what we come together to catalyze and celebrate on Earth Day.

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