Movies That Matter May 2007
Movies That Matter: The Challenge of Change
THE GIANT BUDDHAS, 2005, Switzerland
95 min.; director: Christian Frei (subtitles)
A sprawling documentary that takes the Giant Buddhas of the Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan as its focus. The narration starts with the thoughts and insights of Toronto-based Afghani writer and actress Nelofer Pazira (Kandahar) and then opens into a wide-ranging journey, loosely structured around the book Journey to the Western Regions by the Chinese monk Xuanzang, who traveled along the Silk Road in the seventh century in search of Buddhist teachings and texts. The stories and the stunning scenery are further enhanced by a wonderful score from Philip Glass, Jan Garbarek, and Steven Kuhn.
Why It Matters: This film will give you an idea of the currents, both past and present, that swirl around the fabled statues. There is the French archaeologist who continues to look for the third “sleeping” Giant Buddha, described by Xuanzang as 300 meters long and reported by local farmers to lie under one of the valley’s fields. There are interviews with the Al-Jazeera reporter who covered the statues’ demolition, and a visit to a lab in Strasbourg, France that is digitizing fifty-year-old photos to build an accurate three-dimensional model. Most touching is the tale of a local family relocated from the cliff caves behind the statues to a grim concrete block on a windy plateau, where they are far from water and always cold.
For the plot-driven, this is a rambling documentary with interesting tidbits, but if you can relax into the currents of change and impermanence, you will learn some interesting things about history and fixation. The Giant Buddhas are gone, and no reconstructions—from the simple to the sophisticated—can bring them back. Nonetheless, societies fixate and cling, producing a wide variety of responses and anomalies—from the Western uproar to the sad statement of the former cave dweller that “the Taliban couldn’t comprehend how he could be Muslim and still be proud of the works of the Buddhist ancestors.”
HELEN’S WAR: PORTRAIT OF A DISSIDENT 2004, Australia/Canada
58 min.; director: Anna Broinowski
An up-close and personal look at Australian physician and author Helen Caldicott, a globally recognized firebrand in the anti-nuclear movement who left her high-profile medical career in 1980 to focus international attention on “the insanity of the world’s increasing supply of nuclear weapons and national stockpiling.”
Why It Matters: In 2003, Caldicott’s skeptical and inquisitive filmmaker niece, Anna Broinowski, asked her Aunt if she would be willing to be the subject of a documentary. Broinowski’s starting point was wondering just how much of a difference one dissident can actually make. To find out, she followed Caldicott on a roller-coaster tour from Baghdad to Washington, via Kabul. In the course of the journey, we discover a humorous, passionate, sometimes vulnerable woman, and learn something of what it costs, in human and emotional terms, to fight for peace.
LOOK BOTH WAYS, 2005, Australia
100 min.; director: Sarah Watt
Packaged as an entertaining story of star-crossed love, it’s really an exploration of how our emotions color our perceptions. Nick, a photojournalist, and Meryl, a painter of seascapes for sympathy cards, meet at the scene of Australia’s most terrible train accident. Shortly before, he has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and she has buried her beloved father. Despite the seemingly inauspicious timing, they are drawn into a relationship in which they quickly find their concepts of how things “ought” to proceed challenged. Their experience is augmented by several subplots, which are artfully interwoven in the manner of Crash or Magnolia.
Why It Matters: Sarah Watt has inadvertently made a quintessentially Buddhist movie: a film about death that is also entertaining. Enjoy how the taboo subject of death is skillfully blended with the filmmaker’s own brand of wry Australian humor. She never shies from the reality that death is everywhere and can come without warning—but she also suggests that this should not stop us from living. It’s a film about how to live in what Tibetans call a bardo, the in-between place that separates one story line from another. It could be actual death or, as is the case here, thinking your life is ending because you’ve been diagnosed with terminal cancer, then discovering you can still fall in love and think about a beginning.
A SIMPLE CURVE, 2005, Canada
94 min.; director: Aubrey Nealon
Caleb is the son of hippie, draft-dodger parents who left the U.S. to go back to the land in British Columbia’s Slocan Valley. His mother has recently died, and he and his father, “Hash Oil” Jim, run a cabinetry business, which is failing because Jim is far better at working with wood than people. Caleb is finding the ever-shrinking parameters of small-town life and the pressures of trying to keep the business afloat a bit more than he signed on for, and he wonders if he should step out on his own. Into this scenario comes Matthew, an old friend and rival of his father’s who returned to the U.S. as soon as the draft dodgers were pardoned and has become rich through eco-tourism. Matt makes Caleb an offer that will save the business, but a small deception changes everything and forces Caleb to finally chart his own path.
Why It Matters: Who will reach maturity first, Caleb or his father? Told with wit and warmth, this film is as meticulously crafted as the chairs Jim labors over in his woodworking shop. (The “simple curve” of the title refers to the lines of a chair Jim is perfecting.) The first-time director admits the film is largely autobiographical, and the witty script has the outrageous edge that comes from the authenticity of firsthand experience. In particular, note how well Nealon captures the blurring of the traditional parent–child relationship that seems to occur when everyone lives as equals. For everyone who remembers the sixties—whether they were there or not—this is a smart, funny, and genuine film that is a personal favorite and deserves a wider audience.
Availability: www.filmmovement.com in the U.S.; www.asimplecurve.com in Canada.
WHO KILLED THE ELECTRIC CAR? 2006, USA
92 min.; director: Chris Paine
An information-packed documentary on efforts to introduce—and keep—electric vehicles on the road in the U.S. Electric cars got a big boost in the 1990s in response to California’s Zero Emissions legislation. GM moved ahead of the pack and created the EV1, an electric vehicle that inspired a dedicated sales team and found devoted drivers who fell for its stylish contours, smooth ride, and eco-friendly credentials. Despite their growing popularity, six years later all the electric cars were gone, recalled, and destroyed. This film tells the story of what happened.
Why It Matters: Note the juxtaposition of automobiles that require little maintenance and offer low noise levels with no emissions, with the underhanded ways the cars were sabotaged: the existence of better batteries allowing more mileage per charge was ignored, the threat the cars posed to the lucrative infrastructure of automotive parts and gas stations was emphasized, and the willful distortion of market demand by the manufacturers undermined both the sales team and consumers. When we had a major opportunity to improve our environment, we seemed to prefer to keep that opportunity firmly in the future. This film will make you weep at our unwillingness to face the challenge of change and our fixation on what we know and are familiar with—even if change would allow our planet and our children to breathe better.
Note: If a specific source isn’t indicated, our recommended DVDs are widely available through Netflix, Amazon, and other major sellers.
Angela Pressburger is a program consultant with the Vancouver International Film Festival and founder of MoonriseMovies.com.
The Big Wakeup Call
The Big Wakeup Call
The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization
Island Press, 2006; 416 pp.; $25.95 (cloth)
Seven years ago Thomas Homer-Dixon wrote The Ingenuity Gap: How Can We Solve the Problems of the Future? It was intended as a wake-up call to the world from an eminent political theorist who had been a frequent visitor to the Clinton White House, an adviser to former vice-president Al Gore (indeed an adviser to governments on both sides of the Atlantic), and whose research had been the primary source for journalist Robert Kaplan’s alarming and controversial 1994 Atlantic Monthly article, “The Coming Anarchy.” The world faced, in Homer-Dixon’s view, a widening gap between the discovery of creative, ingenious solutions to our most serious problems and the arrival of the crippling results of those problems.
Homer-Dixon, director of the University of Toronto’s Trudeau Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, warned in The Ingenuity Gap that if a society is unable to deal with the multiplying stresses of population expansion, gaps between rich and poor, resource depletion, and, most of all, ecological degradation, it “will risk entering a downward and self-reinforcing spiral of crisis and decay.” He wrote that the world—particularly the rich world—must focus its attention, its energy, and its creative research on finding smart solutions, on closing the ingenuity gap, lest we “lose control of our destiny and become hapless, frenetic puppets.”
All of which sounds eminently reasonable, but it got him labeled by pundits as a doomsayer, a Jeremiah. The Economist called him “an extreme eco-pessimist.” He was accused of trend-speak and peddling a catchy Big Idea. The former editor of a journal of advanced research wrote only a few months ago that Homer-Dixon’s prognostications were wrong because, hah-hah, “we’re still here.” In the mean time, al-Qaeda flew passenger planes into buildings, and the Greenland ice cap melted at 200 cubic kilometers a year.
Now Homer-Dixon is back with a new book, The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization, in which he takes a further exploratory step into the pit he sees potentially awaiting humankind. His Ingenuity Gap thesis was that humans had to get smarter and more creative to avoid catastrophe. His thesis in The Upside of Down is that the window of opportunity for relatively easy—in hindsight—clever fixes has been slammed shut. The planet’s problems have become so complex, so multifaceted, that humanity and its spaceship earth are now irrevocably heading toward some significant breakdown.
Ecologically? “We’re going to lose some coastline,” he says. Throw out the old maps. Think submerged cities. There’s no time left for a pre-emptive response to the impact of global warming. Geopolitically? He has in mind a possible crisis scenario that goes like this: al-Qaeda detonates a radioactive device in the Abqaiq oil-processing facility in Saudi Arabia that takes five percent of world production off-line and triggers a domino cascade of political, social, and economic shocks owing to a too tightly interconnected global society: riots in poor countries; the assassination of Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf by hard-line Islamic military officers; bank failures; an ugly Sino-Japanese conflict; and Western plans for a massive invasion of the Persian Gulf.
“Yes, there will be some form of breakdown,” he says in an interview. “I feel pretty confident of that. So in some sense you can say I’ve concluded that we can’t close the ingenuity gap, at least in some areas.”
What is happening are what Homer-Dixon identifies as five “tectonic stresses” on humanity and the planet: uneven population growth between rich and poor countries; the impending oil shortage; environmental degradation; global warming; and the growing economic instability and inequality generated by global capitalism.
It is not any one of these stresses that looms as overwhelming. It is rather their combined impact, their convergence that points to breakdown. It is a pattern, says Homer-Dixon, that history, biology, ecology, and economics are familiar with: all systems go through stages of growth, complexification, rigidification, and eventual breakdown. But here he comes to the thesis of his new book: after systemic breakdown there is a reorganization of the components and then regrowth. There is hope. There is “catagenesis”: rebirth and renewal through breakdown, creativity after catastrophe. “If,” he adds, “we’re lucky.” If, that is, breakdown scares the daylights out of us and stimulates truly radical thinking and problem-solving.
Thus what Homer-Dixon is offering is not what he calls a “whacko Doomsday scenario”—or a mirror of U.S. evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond’s 2005 portrait (in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed) of game-over human ruin—but the vision of a door still open. Although getting over the threshold will be tough.
He cites examples of renewal in the wake of destruction, such as the forest that regrows—more healthy than before—after a savagely destructive fire, and the San Francisco earthquake that devastated U.S. financial institutions and led to the creation of the Federal Reserve System and a reformed and stronger American capitalism. He also cites harbingers of coming breakdowns: how quickly civil order disintegrated in the wake of Katrina’s assault on New Orleans; the lightning-speed swiftness with which SARS moved from China to North America; the instant, near-catastrophic impact of the 2003 blackout on North America’s most densely populated urban centers—all illustrative of a world too interconnected with too little built-in resilience and too little capacity for radically creative collective responses to new problems.
Much of what Homer-Dixon proposes for kick-starting creative renewal is pragmatic, which is why politicians are inclined to listen to him. As the journal New Scientist notes, the kites he flies are less prone to crashing than most. I would have liked more specific examples of where he wants to go—something along the lines of what is presented in George Monbiot’s Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning, which Homer-Dixon thinks is brilliant. But he is reluctant to prescribe too precisely, he says, because it’s very difficult to predict precisely which shocks humanity is going to encounter. “All the same, we can prepare for the possibility of major disruptions in the future, even though we don’t know exactly what is going to take place.”
And so he offers an approach: find ways to make human systems more shock-resistant, and devise modes of thinking about problem-solving that will make it more likely humanity goes down the right path. To begin with, he argues that if the principal threat to humanity and the planet is the convergence of multiple stresses, then the principal responses must be multifaceted and not isolated in silos.
He calls on governments to find the courage to legislate rules for the common good—because if they don’t, no one else will. He urges the development of what he calls a “prospective mind” to engage with a new world of surprise, uncertainty, and risk. He wants an inquiry into spiritual values that relate, as he tells me, “to what our position is in the cosmos, what the meaning of life is. You’ll notice in my book that the issue of meaningfulness comes up over and over again.”
Homer-Dixon advocates building more resilience and self-reliance into human systems that have become too rigid, too centralized, and too tightly coupled to withstand shocks. In The Upside of Down, he explores why so many Roman edifices are more or less upright two thousand years after they were built, and concludes it’s in large part because the Romans factored in a risk of failure and therefore overbuilt to compensate. “They built in a lot of buffering capacity,” he says, “and that’s why we go around the Mediterranean and we see the remains of aqueducts and stadia. Because they were built so well, they withstood all the earthquakes. It was just part of their prudent approach to engineering.”
In contrast, much of what the contemporary world creates has had all the slack squeezed out in the interest of efficiency and profitability; thus, there’s far more underbuilding than overbuilding. To overcome these tendencies, he says, “We can introduce the concept of resilience into our technologies, into our social arrangements. It should be part of our common discourse when we think about how we’re going to design everything from buildings to institutions. What will this building or this institution do, how is it going to behave if it’s shocked in some way? That’s what resilience is about, the ability to maintain coherence in the event of some strong external shock.”
If, for example, the 2003 blackout had lasted longer than it did, he says, in apartment buildings without back-up generators to run air conditioners and elevators, elderly people trapped in summer heat on the upper floors of apartment buildings would have been carted out in body bags. That’s not resilience. Consumer cultures in the developed world depending on food trucked and flown in from hundreds and thousands of miles away rather than enhancing their own agricultural capabilities and eating according to the local season—that’s not resilience, says Homer-Dixon.
Our lack of resilience emerges from what we have chosen to value, “People have established as value priorities things that really don’t contribute much to our happiness,” he says, “and they have devalued other things that actually turn out to be very important to our happiness. I’ve spoken to tens of thousands of people in Canada and the United States, and to a certain extent in Europe. Time and time again in question period when we’re talking about this issue, it comes down to values. Questions about existential values are the most important starting point, but people have been told since they were ten that they shouldn’t be asking them. If you go to a religious institution, if you go in the door of your mosque or synagogue or church, you’re not given the space to think. You’re just told what to think; you’re given a creed. The muscle that questions and examines existential values is completely atrophied.”
In the end of his book, Homer-Dixon alludes to the need to strengthen that muscle through open dialogue and engagement with each other. “I see an open-source democratic environment,” he says, “as a way of providing a forum, a sort of an agora, in which we could begin that conversation. Because it’s really late and it’s really desperate.”
This open-source democratic environment—humanity’s “right path” of thinking, according to Homer-Dixon—is what I find perhaps most intriguing about his book. The institutional architecture of decision-making and problem-solving is critically important to what human beings do in the next few years. Existing democratic institutions that took centuries to evolve and worked well for a long time no longer work well, in Homer-Dixon’s view. But an open-source, group effort like Wikipedia—which Homer-Dixon thinks is one of the most interesting and profound social innovations we’ve seen in decades—holds out hope. “If somebody had said ten years ago that you’re going to have an encyclopedia generated by a volunteer process involving tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people, with four million entries in the English language, where any entry can be changed by anybody at any time, that’s going to produce an outcome with scientific entries that, according to the journal Nature, are as good as the Encyclopedia Britannica, people would have considered that ridiculous, impossible. We have been convinced by neoclassical economists that human beings are profoundly egocentric, individualistic, selfish—and what we’re finding in a Wikipedia environment is that lots of people will do the stuff without any name recognition at all. There’s the remarkable willingness of people not only to volunteer, but to collaborate in problem-solving.”
In the end, for Homer-Dixon, the upside of down seems to be that we may discover that we are actually able to work together to overcome the challenges we face. “I’m a fan of individualism,” he says. “I’m a fan of markets. Markets are problem-solving institutions that work very well in certain circumstances. But there’s obviously this other possibility that Wikipedia is demonstrating, something more collaborative and voluntaristic and less egocentric. And I would like to see what we can do with that, take it out for a spin and apply it to some really tough problems. Some of the really desperate ones we’ve got. Here in the world where we’re facing perhaps the biggest challenges the human species has ever faced, we suddenly have this technology, a worldwide-network technology, where we can basically all have a conversation together.”
Michael Valpy is an award-winning Canadian journalist and author. He is
a regular columnist for the Globe and Mail newspaper in Toronto.
2007 May Books in Brief
An Excerpt From:
BOOKS IN BRIEF May 2007
Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn’t
by Stephen Prothero
HarperSanFrancisco, 2007; 304 pp.; $24.95 (cloth)
Take the religious-literacy quiz Stephen Prothero, the popular young chair of the religion department at Boston University, offers in his latest book, and you may be sobered by the results. Prothero has observed that the U.S., which he describes as “one of the most religious countries on earth,” is a nation of religious illiterates. Our ignorance—even about our own religions—has profound implications for domestic and international affairs, he says. The remedy? Religion should be once again on the public school menu, and citizens should have a grasp of the basic tenets of the world’s major religions. In the style of E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy, Prothero offers a dictionary of key stories, doctrines, practices, symbols, scriptures, people, places, phrases, and holidays that will give the reader a solid background so they can participate in “religiously inflected public debates.”
Click here to find out more about this book from the publisher.
Sit Down and Shut Up: Punk Rock Commentaries on Buddha, God, Truth, Sex, Death, and Dogen’s Treasury of the Right Dharma Eye
by Brad Warner
New World Library, 2007; 256 pp.; $14.95 (paper)
In this second offering from the punk-bassist-turned-Zen-priest Brad Warner, the 43-year-old is as feisty as ever, returning with more personal reflections and off-the-beaten-track interpretations of Dogen and Zen. The parallel between punk and Zen as counter-culture movements is already well established, but in the general field of polite spirituality, Warner’s take-no-prisoners style is still fresh. “There might be a few people out there who would be interested in Zen,” he says, “if only it weren’t presented in such a wimpy, nerdy fashion.” While he doesn’t fit the classic Zen master mold, Warner is smart and brash, and the authority of his experience is compelling: “The only way to really understand Buddhism is to do Buddhism. So read books if you must. But when you’re ready to stop farting around and experience real Buddhism, sit down and shut up. That’s where the real Buddhism is at.”
Click here to find out more about this book from the publisher.
by Eileen Borris-Dunchunstang
McGraw Hill, 2006; 268 pp.; $21.95 (cloth)
“Forgiveness is not about letting off the perpetrator of some wrong,” says the Dalai Lama in the foreword to Finding Forgiveness. “It is about freeing the victim.” This focus on how one might shift the mental state of the “victim” is what makes Finding Forgiveness interesting. Eileen Borris-Dunchunstang, a psychologist and educator who is a consultant to the UN and also a Tibetan Buddhist, has worked with people from all over the world who have suffered in the extreme but have still managed to find a way to release themselves from anger, hatred, and fear. She codifies a method to release that pain in seven plain language steps. Forgiveness is one of those soft subjects we don’t talk about or apply ourselves to until absolutely necessary. Finding Forgiveness will help us to better understand what forgiveness is and is not, and why we might practice it. The world would be so much better off if we did.
Click here to find out more about this book from the publisher.
Buddha in Your Rearview Mirror
by Woody Hochswender
Stuart Tabori and Chang, 2007; 255 pp.; $16.95 (paper)
When I’ve read before about Nichiren, a school of Buddhism that originated in Japan in the thirteenth century, I’ve found it difficult to “get.” But in Buddha in Your Rearview Mirror, Woody Hochswender, a former New York Times reporter, goes a long way toward making the practices of this sect—in particular, the daily chanting of the Lotus Sutra—accessible. “Chanting is like priming a pump,” says Hochswender, “with the goal of bringing the Buddha nature welling forth from the depths of life.” Hochswender is a Nichiren enthusiast, and though he never says so, it’s clear that he’s a member of Soka Gakkai International, the popular organization of lay Nichiren Buddhists that has some very famous adherents, among them Herbie Hancock and Orlando Bloom. If I found fault with Buddha in Your Rearview Mirror, it was that Hochswender, in large part, equates Buddhism with SGI, neglecting the larger context of all Buddhist schools. Nevertheless, this popular introduction to Nichiren is helpful and clarifies several important philosophical points, not the least of which is Nichiren’s nontheistic view: “In the end, it all depends on you,” says Hochswender. “There is no guilt in Buddhism. Instead, there is responsibility.”
Click here to find out more about this book from the publisher.
The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret & Science of Happiness
by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche
Harmony Books, 2007; 288 pp.; $24 (cloth)
Happiness and Buddhism have been successfully paired in a number of book offerings lately, but The Joy of Living strikes me as the best of the lot. The Tibetan Buddhist teacher Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, youngest son of the late Dzogchen master Tulku Urgyen, has a strong pedigree. And at thirty-one years old, he has more meditation under his belt than most of us will in this lifetime (he was a research subject in Richard Davidson’s famous brain-imaging experiments measuring the effects of meditation on the brain). Mingyur Rinpoche clearly understands the Western mindset but refrains from psychologizing, simply explaining the logic of meditation through the lens of a well-trained, curious, thoughtful Buddhist monk. Mingyur Rinpoche can be occasionally tough (“Ultimately, happiness comes down to choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of your mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them”), but more often encouraging, so the medicine he prescribes won’t be hard to swallow.
Click here to find out more about this book from the publisher.
Jake Fades: A Novel of Impermanence
by David Guy
Trumpeter Books, 2007; 240 pp.; $19.95 (cloth)
One criticism of the developing genre of Buddhist fiction is that it tends to come off as self-consciously Buddhist. But that’s not the case with David Guy’s Jake Fades. Jake is an aging American Zen teacher who is growing frailer and, worse, misplacing his marbles from time to time. As the novel opens, Jake and his long-time assistant/student, Hank, are taking one last meditation program on the road. It’s a scenario that allows Guy to touch on subjects like the teacher-student relationship, succession, and community survival—issues that plainly concern the Western Buddhist world. But he also skillfully weaves in ordinary entanglements, changing relationships, and surprises that make the characters in Jake Fades three-dimensional and, more importantly, human.
Click here to find out more about this book from the publisher.
Pavement: Reflections on Mercy, Activism and Doing “Nothing” for Peace
by Lin Jensen
Wisdom Publications, 2007; 130 pp.; $12.95 (paper)
Two years ago, as an expression of protest against the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Lin Jensen started meditating daily on a sidewalk in Chico, California, a little card propped beside him that identified his activity as a “peace vigil.” In this short book, Jensen reflects on what he has learned, and especially what he has gained from the colorful characters who engaged with him. (With his gaze lowered, Jensen can only see their shoes. He refers to them as “Uprights”). Jensen is a skilled memoirist who articulates well the internal doubts and fears that readers will reluctantly admit are familiar—at least once we see them on paper. For Jensen, the vigil is both necessary and futile, and with that tension, his observations are sharper. This is not a touchy-feely, do-gooder book, but it will make you seriously consider what you are doing for peace. “After all,” asks Jensen, “if I can’t make my own peace, how can I ask it of others?”
Click here to find out more about this book from the publisher.
Yoga Body, Buddha Mind
Yoga Body, Buddha Mind
A complete spiritual practice—or even just a healthy, satisfying life—requires working with both body and mind. Cyndi Lee and David Nichtern explain why yoga practice and Buddhist meditation is the perfect mind-body combination.
Sitting on our veranda at Strawberry Hill, a mountaintop retreat in Jamaica where we are teaching a workshop, it's easy to feel spacious and alive, vast and open, connected to sky and earth. This feeling comes naturally here but just as easily dissolves when we're confronted with the "too many people, too little time, too much to do" syndrome of everyday life back in Manhattan. Maybe if we lived here all the time we'd always feel boundless and accessible…ahhh…that's a trap. All of us tend to look outside of ourselves for the source of contentment, and that's exactly how we create our own discomfort. We forget that what we need to find this kind of well-being is completely available to us all the time. It's our own body and mind.
Strength, stability, and clarity of mind are said to be the fruits of mindfulness meditation. That sounds good, but if your back is sore, your digestion is sluggish, and your nerves are fried, it's tough to stabilize any kind of mental wakefulness or confidence. Yoga is a path to these same fruits, but when your mind is jumpy, sleepy, or full of angry thoughts, your body will reflect that with a tight jaw, saggy shoulders, or a knot in your belly.
The body and mind need to work together in order to fully experience clarity of mind and radiant health. That’s the recipe for experiencing confidence, interest, and friendliness in our lives. “Yoga Body Buddha Mind” is a workshop that we have been teaching around the world for the last six years. It began organically as a synthesis of Cyndi’s Tibetan Buddhist practice with the hatha yoga tradition that she has studied and taught for over twenty-five years. Then we synched it up with David's training in the Shambhala and Buddhist teachings of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.
One of the wonderful aspects of Buddhism is that there is a whole range of meaning to the most basic teachings. The most profound instructions are often concealed in the introductory teachings. Our program on Yoga Body, Buddha Mind breaks the practice into four main sections:
* making friends with yourself (an introduction to mindfulness practice);
* dynamic equilibrium (cultivating balance in mind and body);
* obstacles as path (working with obstacles and resistance);
* opening your heart (developing kindness and compassion)
In our workshops, David presents the basic theme of each section, as well as how it applies to formal and in-the-field meditation practices. Cyndi follows this with a yoga session in which she weaves these ideas into how we work with our body, and elaborates on how to explore these principles in the movements and relationships of our daily lives. We will follow that structure in this article.
1. MAKING FRIENDS WITH YOURSELF: mindfulness meditation
We start with our mind, because doesn't everything really start there? It seems strange but many of us don't know our own mind. Often, without even realizing it, we avoid getting to know ourselves because we think we might not like what we find. Mindfulness provides a way to take a gentle and friendly look at oneself.
Meditation practice teaches us to recognize when our mind and body are dis-integrated: the body is right here but the mind may be far away. We practice bringing mind and body together to develop a more harmonious, efficient, and creative relationship with ourselves and our world.
Since this process involves uncovering layers of discursive thoughts and habitual patterns, an important ingredient is to take an open and nonjudgmental attitude toward whatever we discover. Then that approach can be extended into our yoga practice, where the yogi is encouraged to work with her/his present situation without adding stress and ambition. Whatever body we have, whatever mind we have, we look at it with an open heart and a spirit of exploration.
David: Taking a look at our mind begins with our body—taking a strong and stable seat on our meditation cushion. Generally we take a cross-legged posture, but this can be done in a variety of ways, based on our flexibility and comfort level. One can also take a kneeling posture or even sit upright in a chair, with feet flat on the floor and the back upright and unsupported by the back of the chair. We can simply rest our hands palms down on our knees or on our thighs just above the knees.
Now we can pay attention to the position of our spine, stacking the vertebra one on top of the other so that we have a good upright posture without straining. Our back is strong and stable and our front is soft and open. We can feel uplifted and dignified by sitting this way.
Our chin is tucked in slightly. There is a sense of containment and relaxation at the same time. The jaw is relaxed. The eyes remain open in a soft, downward gaze, focusing three to four feet in front. There is a feeling of relaxed awareness: we are seeing without looking too hard. We are awake and alert, but in a very peaceful and open way.
Having established our posture, we simply continue to breathe normally. There is no attempt made to manipulate the breath. Then we place our attention on our breathing in a very light and uncomplicated way. When our attention wanders, we simply bring it back to the breathing, time and time again. It’s like taking a fresh start over and over again.
Rather than creating an idealized or dreamy state of mind, we start with what we actually have, working with our thoughts and emotions as they arise and accepting the situation as it is. This is why we talk about making friends with ourselves. We start by accepting ourselves as we are, and gradually and peacefully bring our attention and breath together. This practice naturally creates more focus, clarity, and stability in our state of mind.
Cyndi: Yoga is an ideal bridge practice between formal meditation sessions and the rest of our life, when we move through the world, interacting with others. So much of what we fear, love, crave, push away, and ignore is stored in our physical body. Practicing yoga with a sense of alertness and curiosity can offer a complete program for getting familiar with our habits, creating space between stimuli and response, cultivating skillful means such as patience, and doing all this in an environment that includes other people.
But my observation is that this process does not automatically unfold through yoga practice. Without infusing friendly mindfulness into yoga practice, it is typical for overachievers to bring their aggression to the mat, while chronic underachievers wither from the required exertion. Both extremes are framed by a goal-oriented mentality focused on endpoints such as toe-touching. But once these postures are achieved, then what?
The Sanskrit word for posture is asana, which can be translated as "seat" or "to sit with what comes up." When yogis are invited to relax their agenda and open to the vibrancy of their immediate experience—lively sensations in hamstrings, inhalations massaging the low back, the shifting textures of the mind—they are finally practicing asana.
Getting curious about our personal experience (and practice isn't really practice unless it's personal), we begin to notice aspects of our process. Am I holding my breath and grasping? Or through full breathing, open eyes, and patient heart, could I slow down and wake up enough to create the conditions for fingers to touch toes? Whatever we notice is fodder for further exploration, both on the mat and after class.
This exploration offers us a non-judgmental method of communication within our most primary relationship—that of our own mind and our own body. Just as we place our attention on our breath in meditation practice, we can do the same thing in yoga. Of course, when we're turning upside down and inside out, our breath shifts, but it shifts in life too, whenever we are challenged, excited, bored, sad. This is how yoga practice becomes fertile ground for cultivating a friendly attitude as we move through our day.
2. DYNAMIC EQUILIBRIUM: not too tight, not too loose
"It seems so easy—just sit and watch my breath. So why am I still having so many thoughts?" "I've been doing yoga for six months and even though I'm trying so hard, I still can't do a full backbend!" "I had a really good meditation—my mind was finally clear!" "I can't do that pose. Never, no way!"
These are all examples of how we can over-exert or under-apply ourselves in these practices. In order to have a balanced approach towards our effort, we need to recognize that equilibrium is dynamic and fluid, not at all a static process.
As we go deeper with our practice, we can begin to let go of what we think we are supposed to experience. Many students can do a full backbend after six months, but others—perfectly happy people—never do a backbend. Every meditation session is going to be different. The key is to cultivate discipline and exertion, and at the same relax our agenda.
David: Once we have started on the path of meditation, there are further refinements to the practice as we go along. In general, the teachings are like a roadmap or guidebook to a journey we have to undertake ourselves.
Beyond making friends with ourselves, we can develop greater stability and equilibrium in our state of being. In many cases our tendency is to think that we can achieve a particular state of mind (or body for that matter) and hold it. I think this is the most common confusion that many meditators experience—that there is some absolute right way to do it, some ideal state of mind that we can achieve and sustain.
Actually, our situation is changing from moment to moment, and there is really nothing to hold on to at all. Impermanence is a fundamental fact of our existence. Whatever we experience seems to morph constantly, and it seems like every event, every perception, every thought, every situation is slipping away just as soon as we feel we are getting a handle on it. Our meditation practice is really a way to attune ourselves to this ever-changing experience of the present moment. It is training in the art of living as our life unfolds from moment to moment, like developing balance while standing on one leg on a windy cliff.
This approach is summed up by the slogan “Not too tight and not too loose.” As we pay attention to our breathing, we use a light touch of awareness rather than a riveted and stiff kind of effort. On the other hand, if our effort is too loose, we simply wander around in a distracted state of mind, without developing any insight or clarity about how our mind works.
Developing equilibrium means that we ride the energy of our mind like a surfer rides the waves. If the surfer holds too tight, she will fall. If she hangs too loose, she will fall. Sometimes she needs to hang ten, sometimes none at all. Likewise, riding the energy of our mind is a dynamic and ongoing process.
Cyndi: Everybody gets "too tight" or "too loose" all the time. This is natural and normal. The yogic approach to balance integrates oppositional forces, the most basic elements being active and receptive. This is what distinguishes yoga as more than a mere exercise program and makes it a natural training ground for cultivating mindfulness.
When I begin teaching students how to do a handstand most can't do it at all. In addition to the fear factor, they simply don't have the strength, coordination, and concentration required. They practice a few inch-high kicks up and leave it at that, a nice balance of reasonable physical effort and then mentally letting it go.
But intermediate yogis, who easily do handstands against the wall, start to crave balancing off the wall. They will jump up and fall back so many times they get in a bad mood. Here's what I say to them to help them shift their process: "If you hear a big boom when your feet hit the wall, you are using too much effort! Find out what is too little. Kick up, but don't touch the wall. Get familiar with the feeling of less. When you learn what is too much and what is too little, you can find just enough.”
This is a revelation! When they were beginners they needed to kick hard to get even slightly airborne. With more strength and courage, their balance will come from tighter mental focus and looser physical effort. Things have changed!
Without waking up to what is happening right now, yogis will literally continue to bang themselves against the wall. With the discovery of a middle path the practice really begins, because that sweet spot of stability is elusive—it won't be the same tomorrow.
It is tempting to want to establish a permanent balance point. But a reliable point of stability, or the amount of effort required to hold a handstand, or fairly manage your employees, or consistently discipline your children, will be different every day. In the Yoga Sutra, Patanajali advises us, "The asanas should be practiced with steadiness and ease." Doesn't that sound like a good recipe for life?
3. OBSTACLES AS PATH: touch and go
Actually, from one point of view there is no such thing as a path. We may have the feeling we are making some kind of journey and that it has shape and direction. We are going from here to there, with some specific idea of where we have been and where we are going. But this approach is based on an idealized version of our experience. In reality, our journey is unfolding as we go along.
Learning to bring our full attention to that journey could be called “path.” So, as many dharma teachers have pointed out, “the path is the goal.” That means that what we experience as “obstacles” along the way is usually just a sense of our own expectations falling apart. These same obstacles can be viewed differently, as the basis for re-engaging our attention and working through whatever arises, whether it is a sense of purpose and satisfaction, or boredom, resistance, or a feeling of futility. Work with whatever arises.
David: Going further on our path, sometimes we will experience resistance to the practice itself. We may encounter strongly entrenched habitual patterns and it might feel difficult to move beyond them. Depression, resentment, anxiety, laziness, frivolity—to name a few—can make us feel there is no point in continuing to cultivate mindfulness and awareness.
A revolutionary approach we can take is to see that the obstacles can actually become the stepping stones of the path. Our irritation, boredom, emotional upheavals, and wandering mind are the basis of the meditation practice itself. Without them, there is no meditation practice, just some kind of gooey, vague, and highly suspicious sense of well-being that lacks any real strength or foundation. We are just trying to pacify our mind in a superficial way, without not working with ourselves as we really are—emotional, speedy, tired, anxious, spaced out, or whatever arises.
By touching in on these difficult aspects of our experience—really tasting them, and then allowing them to exist without judgment or manipulation—we are tuning into a new kind of spaciousness that is refreshing and creative.
Here we can think of another slogan: “Touch and go.” When we are trying to pay attention to our breathing and notice we are off in a daydream, nightmare, or drama of some kind, we simply label that “thinking” and come back to the breath.
There is no need to judge or evaluate the thoughts further. We simply let go, which is actually very profound. We do not need to repress or ignore the thought—that is the touch part. We can touch in on our thoughts and emotions and become more familiar with the patterns and movements of our mind. This exploration will of course include the ripples of “negative” thoughts and emotions that can sometimes grow into a tidal wave of resistance to the practice itself. Whenever our resistance solidifies like this, it can be helpful to remember why we started with the practice in the first place, and simply lean again into our effort.
Cyndi: People are always telling me that they don’t do yoga because they are too stiff. No problem! Stiff bodies are perfect candidates for yoga, as is every other kind of body. No matter who you are or what yoga class you take, you'll find that some postures come naturally and some are beyond the realm of your current capacity or comprehension.
Typically, when we hit a yoga glitch, we try to identify an external reason: My arms are too long or too short; I'm too fat, too weak, too old, too short, too tall. Yet somehow those same arms are just the right size for that other easier pose. Hmmm…perhaps these obstacles aren't so solid after all.
I help students explore this through a pose called Utkatasana, nicknamed Awkward Pose. A "perfect" Utkatasana requires quadricep strength, strong, loose shoulders and lower back, long, stretchy Achilles tendons, and cardiovascular stamina. But you don’t need all that to work your way into it. You just need an open mind.
The first time in Utkatasana is fine—for a moment. But when I make the yogis stay longer than they expect, the resistance sparks start flying. Some students try an out-of-body experience—anything to ignore the intensity of this challenging pose. I bring them back with "What are you thinking? Where is your breath?"
Finally, I move them into a flowing sequence where Utkatasana becomes a happily forgotten memory, until I take them right back there again. This time I invite them to find their own way to make this pose workable. "What would it take for you to find ease? Perhaps you could widen your arms, bend your legs less, use less effort, observe your feelings changing."
Of course, the third time they come back to the pose they are ready and somehow it's not so bad. I tell them that utkata means “powerful,” and ask them to figure out for themselves how they can feel power without being effort-full.
This goes on, and with each Utkatasana I can feel their attitude shift. The dreaded feeling of physical struggle transforms from a eyes-rolling-here-we-go-again feeling, to a sense of possibility, to I-can't-believe-she's-doing-this-again, into laughing out loud! What would have happened if we'd only done one miserable Utkatasana?
4. OPENING YOUR HEART: Maitri practice
Our hearts are always fundamentally open. They’re just covered up sometimes by doubt, hesitation, fear, anxiety, and all kinds of self-protective habitual patterns.
The practice of opening the heart is based on exploring and reversing some of these patterns. We cultivate openness while noting and dissolving the habits that obscure our natural sympathy and compassion for others.
At the physical and energetic level, we have an actual heart and surrounding area that can feel shut down and blocked up. So we can work on opening that area, bringing more prana and blood flow and breaking through the constriction and tightness that may have become normal for us.
David: Even though we might feel quite alone in our life and our practice, in the bigger picture we live in an interconnected web with others. The measure of success in our meditation practice is not how much we can transcend the pain and confusion of our own existence, but how much we can truly connect with our lives, and with the others who share it.
After creating a proper ground by training our mind, it is a natural evolution of our practice to develop care and consideration for others. In fact, there are many meditation practices that are intended to develop kindness and compassion toward others as well as ourselves.
One such practice is called maitri. Maitri means loving-kindness or unconditional friendliness. It can be a natural outgrowth of mindfulness and awareness, but it is also a further step into overcoming and transforming our habitual patterns of selfishness and aggression. Maitri is a contemplative practice that encourages us to use our thoughts and imagination creatively. We actually use the thinking mind to help us develop sympathy toward others.
In some sense, we have already trained ourselves to be self-centered, uptight, jealous, and short-tempered. We can also train ourselves to be expansive, open, generous, and patient, because our thoughts are not as solid as we have made them out to be. They actually come and go in a somewhat haphazard fashion, with a tendency to repeat certain patterns that have become comfortable and familiar. It is entirely possible to step out of these patterns altogether, and through contemplation develop more positive habits that benefit of oneself and others.
In maitri practice, we start by tuning into somebody we love and wish well. Then, through the power of directing our thoughts and intentions, we try our best to extend that loving feeling toward our indifferent group, then even to our enemies, and then gradually to all beings everywhere. We recognize that none of these categories of friend, enemy, and don’t-care is really solid anyhow. They are all changing year to year, day by day, and even moment to moment.
The traditional form that our good wishes takes is contained in these four slogans:
May you be safe.
May you be happy.
May you be healthy.
May you be at ease.
We bring our loved one to mind, then ourselves, then the neutral person, and then the “enemy” or irritating person. In each case we simply repeat these slogans or contemplate their meaning. In this way we can deliberately cultivate and direct our goodwill and positive intentions toward ourselves and others.
Cyndi: There's good news right off the bat here for yogis, because just the fact that you've come to yoga class is an act of kindness toward yourself. Asana practice is an unparalleled method for removing energetic obstructions that make it tough to feel good or to have energy for yourself and others.
In yoga the primary activity of the arms is to support the function of the heart and lungs, the heavenly internal organs associated with feelings, vision, and the primary channels of life-force, or prana. When our breath and blood are circulating freely, we feel fully alive and more available to ourselves and others.
Circulate is what we want our emotions to do, too. A sunken chest, slumped shoulders, and drooping chin inhibit energy flow and wholesome feelings. They’re depressing. The opposite is equally true—if your chest, back, and heart muscles are supported, spacious, and mobile, you will breath better and feel cheerful.
Loving-kindness asana practice focuses on heart-opening poses. We rotate our shoulders, open our ribs, and do backbends that release chest muscles and unlock sensation in the heart center. Some of these poses are challenging, but they can be done with curiosity and gentleness. One way I try to make them fun is by creating community.
Partnering exercises such as supported backbends or holding shoulders in a group tree pose teaches us how to support and be supported by others. When everybody falls over we laugh! It’s a clear example that if something doesn't work for everybody, it doesn't work. It's an immediate reminder that our minds and hearts truly extend past the apparent boundary of our body. The sense of "other" starts to dissolve. We can experience interdependence right there on the yoga mat.
Traditional yoga theory emphasizes ahimsa, or non-harming. By applying maitri to how we work with relationships in yoga class, we grow the seed of ahimsa into an active blossoming of seeing others and consciously connecting to them. This shows up in our class etiquette: Can I move my mat over to make more space for a latecomer? Can I pass you a tissue? Yoga class becomes a safe haven for practicing kindness with like-minded seekers and gives us the skills to handle what we meet when we walk out the door.
When we started teaching "Yoga Body Buddha Mind" six years ago, it appeared to be a somewhat unique offering among both the yoga and Buddhist communities. In general, the yoga community in the West was not familiar with Buddhist practice and Buddhists were not particularly interested in hatha yoga practice.
But although yoga is a wonderful method for getting a strong and fluid body, it can also be a way to solidify habits of attachment and aversion. And even though you might be able to sit on your meditation cushion for a month, when you try to get up after thirty days—or thirty minutes—it might take just as long for your legs to start working again. That’s why we find that the practices of yoga and Buddhism complement each other so well.
Yoga and meditation are not ends in and of themselves. You may not ever put your leg behind your head, but you might find yourself having more patience with your children. You may only have ten minutes a day to practice mindfulness meditation, but you might find that wakeful energy and compassionate outlook creeping into your staff meetings at work.
No matter what your job is, who your family is, what country you live in, or what planet you live on, your body and mind will always be with you. Our identities are all tightly linked with how we feel about our body and our mind—Am I fat? Am I smart? Perhaps this integration of meditation and yoga will inspire you to get to know your body and mind better—maybe not the body you had when you were twenty or the mind you had when you got that high score on your SAT—but the good body and mind you have right now.
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First Do No Harm
First Do No Harm
When the Buddha attained enlightenment, he touched the earth. If he touched it now, it would cry out in pain. Environmentalist STEPHANIE KAZA invites us to consider how Buddhist principles can help us nurse the planet back to health.
Sometimes it seems like Buddhism doesn’t have much relevance to environmental problems. Can Buddhist philosophy solve climate change? Can meditation bring back lost species? I think about these things much of the time, trying to find my way in a world of plummeting ecosystem health. Every semester my students say, “But what can one person do?” If I don’t have some good answers, they won’t be able to move forward with the important work of saving the planet.
So when they ask me, “Where should I begin?,” I usually reply, “What do you care about the most?” Since the problems are endless, no one can possibly address all of them. It is important to have a place to actually accomplish something, to be grounded in the physical, political, and economic realities of a specific situation. Because most environmental work is incremental and cumulative, you need a lot of motivation to hang in there over the long haul. I recommend listening for what calls you to respond; this is a good way to identify personally meaningful work. And yes, that work can be Buddhist practice. Here I offer several approaches based in Buddhist principles that can be applied to any environmental work.
Being with the Suffering
If you look at the state of the world today, the suffering—of plants and animals, forests and rivers, and local and indigenous peoples—is enormous. Global agriculture, urban sprawl, and industrial development have caused wide-scale loss of habitat, many local-species extinctions, severe land and water degradation, and unstable climate. In the last century, the rate of loss has accelerated significantly, to the point of threatening ecosystem health and the continuity of life.
The first noble truth begins with the suffering that arises from the inevitability of change and loss. Facing this suffering and the delusions it generates is where Buddhist practice begins. In the precepts of the Order of Interbeing, Thich Nhat Hanh urges, “Do not avoid contact with suffering or close your eyes before suffering.” He directs students to be present with suffering to understand the nature of existence. This requires patience and equanimity in the face of disturbing realities—a clear-cut forest reduced to stumps, a once-lush river deadened by chemical waste, a coral reef blasted by dynamite fishing. It is not easy to gaze clear-eyed at these troubling results of human activity.
Most of the time we would rather not think about the suffering caused by our actions. Yet from a Buddhist perspective, this is the best place to start, for it is grounded in reality, not idealized projection. Mindful awareness is all about direct experience of the actual state of things. The authenticity of such perception is freeing and motivating at the same time. Practices that quiet and focus the mind can provide a stable mental base from which to observe the whole catastrophe of human impact. To be with environmental suffering means being willing to be with the suffering produced by your own cultural conditioning toward other-than-human beings. Those of us in the West have been raised to see forests and rivers as potential resources. Human-centered views are one of the greatest deterrents to being fully present with other living beings. If you see the environment as primarily for human use—whether for food, shelter, recreation, or spiritual development—you may not see how others suffer under the thumb of human dominance.
Being with suffering means learning about what is going on in a given environmental conflict. The four noble truths can be applied as a framework for diagnosis by posing four questions, each question corresponding to one of the truths: First, what is the environmental problem or suffering? Second, what are the causes of the suffering? Third, what would put an end to the suffering? And fourth, what is the path to realize this goal?
This analysis is deceptively simple, yet it can be quite radical if you include all forms of suffering—that of people, animals, trees, species, habitats, and ecosystems. This method of diagnosis provides straightforward guidelines for how to become informed, and therefore more able to bear witness to the suffering involved. It also provides analytical balance to the emotions you inevitably feel when you glimpse another being’s suffering.
Cultivating Systems Mind
Solving environmental problems almost always requires some understanding of ecological principles, or what I call “systems thinking.” The Buddhist principle of dependent co-arising provides an excellent foundation for systems thinking. According to this perspective, all events and beings are interdependent and mutually co-create each other. Thus the universe is seen as dynamic in all dimensions and scales of activity, with every action affecting and generating others in turn.
You may be familiar with the Chinese Buddhist metaphor known as the Jewel Net of Indra, which expresses this dynamic of interdependence. Imagine a fishnet-like set of linked lines extending ad infinitum across horizontal and vertical dimensions of space. Then add more nets criss-crossing on the diagonals. Imagine an endless number of these nets criss-crossing every plane of space. At each node in every net, there is a multifaceted jewel that reflects every other jewel in the net. There is nothing outside the net and nothing that does not reverberate its presence throughout the net.
From an ecological perspective, this metaphor makes obvious sense: ecological systems are exactly such complex sets of relations shaping and being shaped over time by the members of the system. You do not have to study ecological science to understand this; you can easily observe cause and effect in whatever system is close at hand—your family, your workplace, your backyard. You develop systems-thinking through looking at patterns in time and space, such as seasonal cycles or animal paths. For an ecologist, this way of looking is an essential tool. For a mindful citizen, pattern- or systems-thinking can help you raise useful questions in addressing environmental concerns. You can ask about the history of the conflict, the pattern of policy decisions, the economic and social needs of those involved, and the ecological relations at stake.
Astute observers of systems can decipher the patterns of feedback that reflect the dominant shaping forces. Too much heat, the cat seeks shade. Too much cold, the cat finds a warm car hood to sleep on. Systems are shaped by self-regulating mechanisms, such as those that keep your body temperature constant, and by self-organizing patterns that allow the system to adapt when new opportunities arise. Self-regulating (which maintains the stability of the system) and self-organizing (which allows the system to evolve or “learn”) are both happening all the time at all levels of activity. You can practice observing this in your own body/mind to see how such feedback works. How do you respond to rainy days? To sunny days? To being hungry? To eating too much? To getting enough sleep? To not getting enough sleep? You can reflect on which places nourish you and why. This is all good practice for developing a systems mind.
So far I’m talking about fairly straightforward bio-geophysical reality. But the law of interdependence also includes the role of human thought and mental conditioning. In Buddhist philosophy, intention and mental attitudes count; what people think about the environment has a major effect on what they choose to do. The Buddhist systems-thinker involved in environmental controversy would ask as much about the human actors and their attitudes as about the affected trees and wildlife.
This leads to a key aspect of systems thinking, agency, or who is actually doing what? This means determining who is responsible for decisions or actions that impact the planet and the human community. It means tracing the chain of cause and effect back to those who have generated the environmental damage and are in a position to change their course of action. The real world of Indra’s Net is not made up of equal players. Some agents definitely carry more weight than others, as is painfully obvious with the current U.S. administration. Identifying key actors and policy decisions is vital to choosing strategies that can re-orient the system to healthy goals.
Liberty Hyde Bailey, an American naturalist at the turn of the century, said, “The happiest life has the greatest number of points of contact with the world, and it has the deepest feeling and sympathy with everything that is.” He was describing the experience of a soulful systems-thinker, one who brings awareness to everyday relations with all beings. A Buddhist might sense this as a deep understanding of the law of interdependence. My point is that such awareness is available to all and is foundational to doing effective environmental work. If you learn the shape of local rivers and mountains, if you meet the people who grow your food, if you help the world become a more livable place, you can begin to see yourself not only as one who is shaped by but also as one who shapes Indra’s Net.
Taking the Path of Non-Harming
Non-harming, or ahimsa, is a central principle in Buddhist ethics. This first precept informs all other ethical commitments. Understanding how deeply life is conditioned by suffering, the Buddhist aims not to create further suffering and to reduce suffering wherever possible—in other words, to cause minimal harm. In its deepest sense, ahimsa means the absence of even the urge to kill or harm. Such a compassionate response is said to arise naturally out of a broadly felt connection to other beings.
This guideline is not meant to be an impossible ideal but rather a barometer for making choices about how to act. I believe it applies well as a principle for environmental decisions. The U.S. National Environmental Protection Act was written with this intention; environmental impact statements were mandated to measure how much suffering would be caused by a federal project and to suggest mitigation measures to reduce the impact. Reducing suffering might mean changing harvest methods, for example, or it could mean providing protection for species close to extinction.
The practice of non-harming is idealized in the Mahayana archetype of the bodhisattva, the enlightened being who returns lifetime after lifetime to help all who are suffering. The bodhisattva’s vow is all-encompassing, requiring endless compassion. Green Buddhists have coined the term “ecosattva” to conjure a bodhisattva pledged to ending environmental suffering. Ecosattvas can take their work into any field of environmental concern—agriculture, water pollution, climate stabilization, wilderness protection. The opportunities are endless. Their work carries the strength of the bodhisattva vow to help all who are suffering. Having such a vow as a reference point can relieve our usual anxious pursuit of quick results. Many environmental problems, in fact, are quite intractable and will take lifetimes, maybe even generations, to turn around. A steady intention can provide a grounding point in the midst of what may be a very long battle for environmental stability.
Two places where I hear a lot of discussion about reducing harm are in relation to food and energy. The suffering of modern meat production for animals, workers, and the land has been well documented (see Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, or The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan). Likewise, industrial agriculture has been exposed for its chemical assaults on soil and human health. Many people are choosing ethical principles for eating that reduce harm to animals, plants, soils, and the human body. For some, this means eating food produced organically and, if possible, grown by local farmers, thereby decreasing the energy expense of long-distance shipping. For others, this means choosing fair trade products that reduce the toll on field laborers and producers in a competitive global system. Some reduce the lonely anonymity of food shopping by participating in community-supported agriculture food shares.
I find myself especially concerned about energy choices for the future. My students know that oil production will peak in their lifetimes and that alternative sources of energy must be developed. Biodiesel fuel is quite popular, since it offers a way to recycle used vegetable oil. Wind and solar energy both cause comparatively little harm to the environment, especially compared to coal and oil production. Many people would love to own a hybrid electric vehicle that would allow them to be less dependent on the petroleum economy. While “non-harming” may not be a key word in this conversation, the direction seems clear: why cause any more harm to the environment? Hasn’t there already been enough? Enough Chernobyl meltdowns and Exxon Valdez oil spills? Getting “off-grid” could be seen as a moral ideal, a way to reduce your ecological footprint and be a better neighbor to the rest of the world.
Getting to Peace
In his new book, Getting to Peace, William Ury, an internationally recognized leader in conflict negotiation, has laid out a number of principles for finding solutions that work to stabilize political conflicts at many levels. It seems to me that his work on “getting to peace” applies well to environmental issues, which often involve conflict between different parties and different points of view. Some people have said that we are now fighting World War Three—not the war against terrorism, but the assault against the environment. Pesticides, nuclear waste, toxic chemicals, clear-cutting—all these and more are direct attacks on living beings of many kinds.
In his book, Ury lays out a role for what he calls “the third side,” a party outside the immediate conflict but with a vested interest in a peaceful outcome. This suggests a useful role for Buddhists concerned about the environment. The third side party can clarify differences, provide protection to threatened parties, and educate where knowledge is needed. Someone with Buddhist sensibilities can draw on the practices I’ve suggested—being with the suffering, cultivating systems mind, practicing non-harming—and help to stabilize an ongoing conflict. The third side plays an active part, engaging conflict but not taking sides. Ury describes ten specific third-side roles, all of which apply to environmental situations. I’d like to highlight three that seem particularly well suited for a Buddhist approach.
The bridge-builder works to prevent conflict by strengthening weak relationships in the human and ecological web. Very often environmental problems arise from user conflicts over a resource or a particular area. Round-table discussions that bring all the parties together can help coordinate and regulate user activities. This approach has been effectively applied, for example, in conflicts involving spiritual use of public lands by Native Americans.
Where conflicts have escalated and relations are damaged, a Buddhist practitioner might be drawn to the role of healer. A third-side party with a commitment to compassionate action can be a valuable asset in moving a situation forward to resolution. The Buddhist practitioner skilled in relational thinking can analyze the causes and conditions of the conflict and work to heal brokenness and damage. This may take diplomacy, courage, and patience, depending on the degree of the injury. I can imagine bringing this healer role to your own neighborhood if people are angry over bird-hunting cats or chemical spraying. The healer helps conflicting parties understand each others’ positions and find a better solution to the problems at hand.
When environmental conflict has become entrenched and resolution is not in sight, taking a third-side peacekeeping role requires more courage. I think of the massive gold mining operations in Indonesia, for example, where the military is well paid by the mining company to squelch local conflict. The history of assault on the land and people is so deeply ingrained that it will not be easy to resolve. Here a Buddhist practitioner might serve in the role of witness, making the public aware of what is happening to the plants and animals under attack. Bringing attention to the problem exposes harmful behavior, which can then generate public pressure for change. A Buddhist approach is not necessarily more effective than other approaches, but it may add less antagonism to the situation. Rather than further polarizing an already tense situation, the Buddhist can act compassionately toward all parties, bearing witness without accusation, reporting facts without condemnation.
To carry out such challenging environmental work, it is crucial to think of yourself as an active agent in Indra’s Net. This is a vitally important part of the peacekeeping effort. Thich Nhat Hanh refers to this as “planting seeds of joy and peace.” You actively choose to take up environmental work with a clear intention and joyful heart. Sensory contact with the natural world or quiet meditative practices renew the heart and establish an internal reference point of joy that is independent of changing circumstances. With this stabilized intention, the spiritually grounded environmentalist can be prepared for the long haul. In the ancient tradition of gathas, or meditation poems, Zen teacher Robert Aitken models such intention:
Hearing the crickets at night
I vow with all beings
to find my place in the harmony
crickets enjoy with the stars.
If you recite your own vow of intention, it can be an actual force of renewal in the universe, opening up new possibilities for peaceful relations.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama advocates a policy of kindness no matter how troubling the situation. This is practicing Buddhism with a small “b,” taking up the everyday challenge of getting along peacefully with the environment. A policy of kindness toward trees, rivers, sky, and mountains means paying caring attention to all the relations that make up Indra’s Net. As the Dalai Lama says, “When we talk about preservation of the environment, it is related to many other things. Ultimately, the decision must come from the human heart. The key point is to have a genuine sense of universal responsibility, based on love and compassion, and clear awareness.”
Engaging environmental problems is not easy work. But if you work with these Buddhist principles—being with the suffering, cultivating systems thinking, reducing harm, and generating peace—the task seems more possible.
I haven’t told you whether to get involved with climate protection or waste reduction. I haven’t said whether population or consumption is causing more damage to the earth. There are many fine resources in print and online that take up just these questions. What I hope is that anyone working at any level, as a citizen or professional, as a parent or student, can take up these Buddhist approaches and put them to good use. The Buddha felt the true test of his teachings was whether they were actually helpful in everyday life. Those I’ve offered here are core to my environmental work. I hope they may be of good use to you in whatever piece of the caregiving you take on.
First Do No Harm, Stephanie Kaza, Shambhala Sun, March 2007.
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