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What Keeps Buddhist Activists Sane?

In January, I co-facilitated a weekend retreat for Buddhists from different traditions who are involved in eco-activism. Various themes and questions emerged during our time together. There were questions about how arising anger could be used in the service of activism, and how this fitted with Buddhist ethics. There was frustration about Buddhist colleagues who were in denial about the climate and ecological crises, and how they might be skilfully influenced. There was a lot of despair and grief.

One of the themes that arose repeatedly was the immensity of the task ahead and the inadequacy of our efforts. One colleague came up with a beautiful metaphor for this. He described himself as a drop of water, surveying a vast lake. The lake had been whipped up into fierce waves and he was trying to decide exactly where to add his drop of water in order to calm the whole thing.

This struck me very deeply as I have been wrestling with a similar dilemma. My life is already quite full. I run a Buddhist temple with my husband, which involves wearing various hats: landlord, celebrant, marketing executive, accountant, gardener. I work as a psychotherapist to earn my living, and I make space for writing books as a way to feed my soul. How can I fit my new role as an eco-activist into this busy schedule without overloading myself and becoming useless as a holder-of-space and as a guide for others. In the precious time I do have available, exactly what should I be doing? The fate we are facing is so terrifying, I also wonder why I don’t just relinquish all of my other roles, as some of my friends have done, and sign up for full-time work with Extinction Rebellion.

We sat with these questions as they swirled inside us. It was helpful to know that others sat with them too. It was also helpful to study a beautiful text by Akuppa* on how to be a Shambhala warrior, with sage advice for Buddhist eco-activists including simplifying our lives, remembering we can’t save the world on our own, and balancing outer activity with inner sustenance. Still, I was left feeling daunted and overwhelmed by the task ahead.

On the second morning I offered a piece of our liturgy to the group. As a Pureland Buddhist, my primary relationship is with Amitabha Buddha, the Buddha of Infinite Light. Amitabha (or Amida) is flanked by two attendant bodhisattvas—Quan Shi Yin, also known as Guanyin, Avalokiteshvara, or Kannon, and Tai Shi Chih, also known as Mahasthamaprapta. The piece I shared was the Tai Shi Chih Prayer, written by our teacher Dharmavidya David Brazier, and set to a very simple melody.**

First, I sang the verse to the group, and then I spoke for a while about the consolation of the bombu paradigm—the Pureland proposition that we are all foolish beings of wayward passions, driven this way and that by our greed, hate, and delusion. What a relief it is to be reminded of this. It is difficult for us to know what we should be doing because we are looking at things from our own limited view points. All we can do is do our best, knowing that our motivations will be mixed and that our actions will be flawed, and trust that the buddhas accept us just as we are.

We finished by singing the hymn as a group—18 voices joined in supplication, joined in our love and grief for the planet, and in our anguish about our insufficiency. Yes, “the ego is insatiable”—yes, our acts have done much harm to our dear Earth. And, “the light will work its own good work, if only we will trust it.” We can rely on Tai Shi Chih to aid us, we can rely on Tai Shi Chih to lighten our hearts and bring us peace. As we sang, he did indeed do these things, and in the hush after singing we sat together feeling peaceful and held.

I very much value the self-power approach of other parts of Buddhism. There was much of this in Akuppa’s text—how we might train in non-violence, how we might strive toward meeting greed with the spirit of sharing, hate with love. We need to find ways of disciplining ourselves—to do the things that we know are good for us, and to practice with our jealousy, impatience, and spitefulness.

Also, I am a person who has lived her life overly reliant on self-power practices. They prop up one of my favourite delusions—that if I do them properly, or for long enough, they will transform me once and for all into the ideal version of satya. Once this has happened then I can live without suffering, achieving the appropriate levels of fame, success, and almost-constant praise. Somehow, I will also be perfectly humble and modest, accepting the luxury graciously but not depending on it, as disciples flock from far and wide to hear my luminous teachings. . . . For this reason, I am prone to misusing self-power teachings. I begin to get excited that these are the ones that will work, and throw myself into performing them with as much energy as I can muster. The inevitable disappointment in myself and in the practices is familiar, but it still stings.

Once I ground myself in Tai Shi Chih’s prayer, or, to put it more accurately, once I let go of doing anything myself and allow Tai Shi Chih to help me, then I find myself in a better place to approach eco-activism. I find myself less prone to the fear-driven fantasy that I can single-handedly save the world. I feel less frightened by the consequences of climate and ecological breakdown, trusting that I can face whatever comes with the support of the buddhas. I feel myself “led” to the right actions—putting my own best ideas to one side and trusting instead in being a part of an unfolding situation much bigger than anything I could understand.  

After chanting Tai Shi Chih’s prayer, I returned to Akuppa’s text and found all the other-power wisdom I’d missed. Ah yes, here is the line that reminds us the Earth’s power will surge through us to help us defend her. Ah, it ends with the advice to let go into the music of life. What a relief!

As we are called to come to dear Earth’s aid, we will need as much support as we can gather around us. As Buddhists, we are lucky to have a long, rich tradition, full of wisdom and heart. If we keep listening to the buddhas, they will show us the practices that will be most helpful for us—whether this is making offerings, azen, chanting sutras, or connecting deeply with our sangha. Tai Shi Chih reminded me of the importance of letting go of my self-power driven delusions, and of the deliciousness of relaxing back into refuge. I came away from the weekend replenished, heartened, and ready to go forward into whatever is required of me next.

The Shambhala warrior mind-training by Akuppa (PDF file)

** Tai Shi Chih Prayer (MP3 file)

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