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A Raft to Rising Waters: Buddhist Wisdom on the Climate Crisis

A Raft to Rising Waters: Buddhist Wisdom on the Climate Crisis

Buddhism and Ecology

When you know you’re going to die, everything becomes sacred. There are many reminders these days. As a young adult in the midst a global ecological crisis, I’ve known for a long time that the environment is in serious danger. sixth mass extinctionThis event may bring about the end of human life, as it has done for other species on Earth. For much of my life it has been easiest for me to contain knowledge of this overwhelming possibility within the confines of my cognitive mind; I’ve been careful to ensure that the grief it opened did not spill into my body too frequently, for fear that it would drown me. Like many others, I am looking for a life raft as we humans dance on the edge. Coming of age in a world on fire, I’ve encountered solace and resolve within Buddhist teachings, often said to be like a raft for reaching the shore of enlightenment. Teachings Emptiness, interdependenceI have found that facing suffering and confronting it in particular has helped me to face, with a deeper awareness and presence, the reality and potential extinction of the climate crisis. They’re not “life rafts” in the sense that they promise us lasting life, but teachings that offer an end to suffering amidst reality as it is.

As many began a hopeful (albeit brief-lived) emergence out of the isolation of the pandemic during the summer 2021, I attended a three–week-long Meditation retreatIn rural southern Vermont, on a homestead. Hosted by the Barre Center for Buddhist StudiesThe retreat was led by facilitators who are skilled in combining Buddhist teachings with ecological justice and ecology. We reflected on environmental texts throughout the retreat that brought home the terrible reality of the climate crisis. We were immersed in themes of meditation and learning through lessons. dukkha (suffering), anatta (not self), anicca (impermanence), paticca-samuppada (dependent co-arising), karuna(compassion), participating in communal exercises based upon the work of Buddhist scholar-activist Joanna MacyThis led us to embrace our grief for the world. Recognizing that awakening is possible only when you are willing to accept it. Through suffering, Macy elucidates how “as a society, we are caught between a sense of impending collapse and psychic paralysis in acknowledging it,” urging human beings to enter into our despair. From a Buddhist view, we can allow our suffering to remind us that, as Macy writes, “We care. We are liberated when we realize that at the heart of our despair is our love for the world.” 

Anna, a young girl from the north Pacific, told me that she was a student about sea turtles during the retreat. She told me that the sea turtle has been a symbol of her presence, embodiment, memory and navigation since she first saw it while swimming in the north Pacific. Anna’s steady presence and clear-eyed compassion were two qualities I discovered more about as I got to know her. We found we shared a love for many things—trail running, writing letters, veiling a childlike sense of humor beneath a somewhat contemplative exterior, Toni Morrison’s books, cats.

We grew close quickly. Between our retreat sits, we would walk together in the thick deciduous forest, steps synched by the mosquitoes. She shared stories about her childhood on an island in South Carolina, her memories of her childhood, the herons, crawdads, and the seaweed drying in sunlight, and the muck. I told her all about the hemlock forests that were once so full of ticks, how my brothers and I played hide-and seek there, and the yellow plants that grew near our childhood house. Behind our words was the quiet acknowledgement that as the world grew warmer, all of these things we loved were changing, many of them–the hemlocks and the crawdads at least–already dying. One night before sleeping, one of us (I forget who first) whispered, “I feel like we’ve known each other for a long time.” 

There was a point in the retreat when it became overwhelming. It was one of those days where the heat was inescapable and my body began to unravel–where it suddenly became impossible not to suffocate in the hum of air conditioners churning fleeting coolness into houses while huffing heat into the already-heating air. It was like I had reached a saturation point, where I could no longer keep the suffering we were discussing at bay. I felt myself internalize the reality that human extinction was imminent in a way that I had never experienced before. All our talk had gone from mind to stomach, and I felt a fear that ran through my veins, which liquified any security I had held on to. It was easy to cry at any situation. Everything—each glint of light or quirk of a face previously overlooked—was ushered into focus and became utterly and tragically stunning. 

I wept silently through our morning sit, through breakfast, through chores, both overcome by emotion and also sheepishly aware that everyone around me shared the same predicament, and for the most part, they were carrying on with their days and responsibilities, calmly and presently tending to the tasks at hand–at least they weren’t crying about it.

Anna and I were waiting for a group activity to start that afternoon. We sat on the grass in the sun that afternoon. Anna was closed-eyed, with her face full of bright sunlight. She could hear me sniffling next to her, feeling completely alone in my fear. She reached out. 

The sensation of her hand touching mine brought me into a deeper understanding of the Buddhist teachings that I had been studying for weeks. Reminding me of my connection to another suffering being, the gesture flung me from the clutches of my ego, who feared I was alone in my suffering, into a kind of relief—a feeling of withness found inside resounding despair. 

I remembered the teachings paticca samuppadaOr dependent co-arising. The Samyutta Nikaya tells us, “‘Things’ come into being, persist dependent on conditions. When this exists, it becomes reality. This does not exist if it does not exist. It ceases when this happens. Whatever is subject to origination is all subject to cessation.” (SN 12.62). In certain moments, contemplating interdependence fosters a feeling of urgency within me—an insurmountable urge to “save the planet,” and thus myself. If one views interdependence or suffering as a means to preserve the world as it is, or to achieve individual tranquility in the face global crises, then one remains trapped by illusion and attachment. Buddhism teaches us that all suffer, but we need to remember that every person is different. This reality is especially apparent when we look at the climate crisis, which has so far disproportionately affected low-income communities and communities of colour. Reverend Angel Kyodo Williams (Buddhist teacher and co-author) Radical Dharma, warns us against “the acceptance of a ‘kinder, gentler suffering’ that does not question the unwholesome roots of systemic suffering and the structures that hold it in place. What is required,” she tells us, is a “dharma that starves rather than fertilizes the soil of the conditions that the deep roots of societal suffering grow in.” Moral obligation and the teaching of karuna compel us to answer each other’s calls for justice, which, entangled in Indra’s netThey are also ours. But, our actions cannot be dependent on whether or otherwise we will be able to stop the climate crisis from causing extinction. We must live compassionately not in a way that strives to “save” an elusive future, but in the present—the only place where love and solidarity can ever be actualized.

As David LoyIn his 2019 book, he writes EcoDharma: Buddhist Teachings to the Ecological Crisis “in so far as there is no such self that is born or dies, there is nothing to fear, because there is nothing to gain or lose… when at the time for dying there is nothing but the process of dying–neither resisting it nor embracing it–then death too is ‘empty.’” When we seek safety from death, we are grasping at illusion, imagining that we exist separately from the processes of living and dying, beginning and ending, existence and nonexistence. The beauty of death is that we are all alive for now.

As Anna and I lay there in silence, I was welcomed into a feeling I might call joy–a version of joy that writer Zadie Smith contemplates in her Essay by that title, where she distinguishes between joy and pleasure, describing joy as the feeling of “heading toward all that makes life intolerable, feeling the only thing that makes it worthwhile”—which was, in Smith’s case as in mine, present human connection. Or, love. 

Later that day I wrote the following in my notebook:

I  am pulled into a grief so vast it runs all the water from my body, pushes me down into the canyons of myself, water rushing before it dries. One hundred years might hold too much heat. Nearly all species are gone, all me. What else can I say? All of the world is a sandbox that will crumble. I weep rivers of tears from your eyes, rivers onto the mossy skin of those who are dying, and then see the candle being snuffed. There is no canyon. There is no water. There is no skin. We are all dying. There is no death.

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My grief could flow from where I was, as I was immersed in Buddhist teachings. I didn’t drown.

These teachings have kept me afloat in the midst of the despair and joy that echo the intensity it is to be alive right now. I am grateful for them and hold on to them as a raft. I know I will let go when it is time, no matter if I reach a shore or fall into the rising sea. I will recognize that the sea is me, always-changing, wondrous, and empty.

In honor of Earth Day 2022, Tricycle is bringing together leading Buddhist teachers, writers, and environmentalists—including Joanna Macy, Roshi Joan Halifax, David Loy, Paul Hawken and Tara Brach—for a donation-based weeklong virtual event series exploring what the dharma has to offer in a time of environmental crisis. Find out more.

Buddhism and Ecology

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