Recently I’ve been reading George Monbiot’s Regenesis. It begins by describing problems with our existing global food systems. Problems with how we treat the soil; with how we pollute the earth, rivers and sea; how we use far too much land; and so on.
Reading this first part of the book my spirits dropped. The problems facing the world are so large and complex, and the forces invested in keeping things as they are so great, is there any hope, I wondered?
As I began reading the second half of the book I noticed my spirits lifting. In the second half Monbiot is meeting and talking to people who are coming up with solutions, with alternative ways of farming, and so on. I try to keep in mind what he said about Feral, his book about depleted nature that proposed rewilding as a solution: how at the time rewilding was a concept that was laughed out of the door, and that now, a decade later, it’s now considered a viable option. Things can change.
It’s striking how much my mood and view changes depending on what I’m paying attention to, the bad news or the news of positive change.
In many of the activist spaces I’ve noticed more people moving away from thinking about mitigation and to thinking about deep adaptation. I have noticed a big shift in people’s thinking in this direction since COP26 last year.
When I land in the view that things are definitely going to get worse and there is little I can do I have a mix of reactions. Sometimes, I feel real heartbreak at the suffering that people and other living beings are already experiencing, sometimes I feel such longing for things to be different, and a deep sense of despair at how little power I have in the face of the crisis.
And sometimes when I land in that view I feel relief and empowerment. Relief because there is something true about how awful things are, and coming into relationship with the truth ultimately brings relief, and empowerment because it leaves me with the question how can I live well in the midst of this crisis? (What does deep adaptation look like?) and that brings some energy for building strong communities etc.
“Act without expectations.” Many of you will have heard this teaching before. I heard it again from David Loy at an event on Buddhism and the Climate Crisis last weekend. Think strategically, use your wisdom to choose the best place to put your energy (as far as you can tell) take action, and let go of expecting any particular results. Trust that it’s good to act for goodness sake.
This is sometimes described as acting from hopelessness. Not the hopeless of despair that I can feel when faced with the impossibility of knowing what effective action looks like, but the hopelessness that is a deep coming to terms with that impossibility and leads to the energy to act anyway.
This acting without expectations is often held up as the more enlightened approach to activism. And there’s some truth to this, certainly if we act with expectations of particular results then we are inevitably bound for disappointment, and there is a genuine wisdom in not knowing.
And yet I do want to champion those other reactions as well: fear, despair, anger, even longing and hope. These are all natural responses to the crisis and it’s important to welcome and honour each feeling as they arise. I have lived with myself long enough now to know that they will come and go, and that while I shouldn’t treat any of them as holding the complete truth, there is some wisdom in every kind of response.
Can our Buddhist practice be large enough to encompass the whole breadth of our human experience and all the different kinds of responses to the crisis? I also trust that the more of our feelings we can welcome and meet with compassion, the more likely we are to be able to take up the invitation to act without expectation.
Our Healing Oppression Group have created an ancestor prayer for XR Buddhists.
Before we take our next action we pause to remember our ancestors.
We remember our Indian ancestors, firstly Shakyamuni who was born in Lumbini and enlightened in Bodhgaya and set the dharma wheel turning in this age.
We remember those who came before Shakyamuni and passed their wisdom to him
We remember Mahapajapati who walked one hundred and fifty miles one step after another before becoming the first Buddhist nun.
We remember the monastic and lay disciples of the Buddha, and generations of teachers that spread Buddhism through the East and throughout the world and who refreshed the precious dharma
We remember awakened beings of all spiritual traditions trusting that wisdom appears in the world in many different ways, at many different times, in many different places.
We call to mind the wisdom of marginalised and oppressed groups, much of which has already been lost.
We remember our biological ancestors, our parents and grandparents, known and unknown, generations stretching back through time to the first humans in Africa.
We remember the ancestors of our chosen families.
We remember the ancestors of our own mindstream, the beings of our previous lives who practised dharma and brought light and joy to others.
We remember people across the world who stood against oppression and for human rights and the rights of all living things and for the earth.
We remember those who have oppressed and marginalised and harmed.
We carry the legacies of all of these ancestors, their gifts and their burdens. How wonderful to have the opportunity to work with all that has been handed down to us.
We remember our great ancestor the Earth and her great ancestor the universe itself.
“Ancient buddhas and ancestors were as we; we shall come to be buddhas and ancestors. Venerating buddhas and ancestors, we are one with buddhas and ancestors; contemplating awakened mind, we are one with awakened mind.”*
On May 13th Members of XR Buddhists sat in meditation and protest outside Barclays Islington. Here are some images from the action, and our letter to the bank manager.
Letter to the Manager
Members of Extinction Rebellion Buddhists UK will be sitting in protest meditation vigil at your bank today.
We are sitting to bear witness to the suffering and loss being felt by those at the front lines of climate instability being funded by your bank. Barclays has invested almost $167 billion in the last 6 years, into coal oil and gas projects and industries. The evidence is now irrefutable that fossil fuel emissions are causing climate and ecological breakdown. People of the global south, and indigenous communities are bearing the brunt of these impacts whilst having done the least to cause them.
India is now in the grip of a record-breaking heatwave, and the Horn of Africa is facing one of the worst droughts on record. Your bank is also funding projects with direct effects on local and indigenous groups such as:
the Correjon coal mine in Columbia, notorious for human rights abuses
the Enbridge tar sands pipeline in North America which cuts through pristine lands of the Chippewa and Ojibwe tribes
Arctic Oil and gas projects in the fragile Arctic, threatening the lands of the Gwich’in Athabascan peoples
We send our kindness and care to the staff of Barclays bank; their lives will also be disrupted and impoverished by climate impacts funded by their bank. But as a company it is evident that Barclays’ investment policies are complicit in systemic ecocide, injustice and racism.
Sitting in meditation we display placards which bring the unseen faces and the unheard voices of our fellow beings in the global south into the light of compassion and respect. We acknowledge that these peoples; their knowledge and traditions hold essential teachings in our relationship to the Earth which we ignore to our peril.
We urge your bank to immediately disinvest from fossil fuels and to invest in clean energy projects that can offer a future to all the inhabitants of the Earth wherever they may live.
Here’s a recording of our recent event, a conversation on activism between Joe and Katja, two experienced XR Buddhists. (The event was well attended, but an issue with Zoom meant not many people were shown on gallery mode.)
I want to focus on two ways we can respond with positive emotion to the overall situation (of climate change, biodiversity loss, authoritarianism in the world. Ways of responding with positive emotion which can be cultivated. The two ways are to do with playfulness or humour (or what I’m labelling ‘carnival’) — and faith.
Why am I talking about ‘carnival’? I think it has a very useful range of meanings and associations. According to the dictionary: an annual festival, typically during the week before Lent in Roman Catholic countries (which happens to be now), involving processions, music, dancing, and the use of masquerade or dressing up. More generally it can be an exciting or riotous mixture of elements. Historically carnival sometimes involved playful inversion of hierarchy: servants becoming masters.
Carnival and theatre have been influential in how protest is done, especially in the last twenty years or so. At Seattle in 1999 (protests against global trade agreements) the police were sometimes heavy-handed in their response to peaceful speaking out. The police had apparently been trained in the expectation that they would be facing violence. On some occasions they really didn’t know how to respond — when, for example, all the protestors suddenly sat down. And there were also ‘Pink Blocs’ of protestors dressed in tutus armed with feather dusters for tickling the police.
This is an example of something I think is very important — an ethically positive, playful or carnivalesque response to what may seem overwhelmingly difficult situations, and abuses of power. Mikhail Bakhtin once wrote: ‘laughter must liberate the happy truth of the world from the veils of gloomy lies spun by the seriousness of fear, suffering and violence’.
Laughter can be a very strong and deep energy — and of course not all laughter is good laughter. Laughter can be very unskilful, even abusive. But it can be highly skilful (the laughter of enlightenment in the Vajrassatva mantra for example ‘ha ha ha ha ho’). It’s important why we’re laughing, and how.
But play, carnival, laughter can be ethically positive — and maybe loosen us up if our worldviews have got a bit rigid or polarised. I’m going to use Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita as an extended example of what I mean. It’s mainly set some time in the 1930s, and tells the story of what happens when the devil (and his very mischievous cat) visit the rigidly atheistic Soviet Union. It’s a very knowing and witty parody of Soviet society at that time: wildly carnivalesque, full of magic, religion, and the romantic. The satire is against repression of freedom of thought and of speech — against an authoritarian society’s dismissing of the imagination, of religion itself and the mythic dimension. And yet nobody seems responsible for the way things are — the characters in the story don’t come across as particularly bad. Even the devil character doesn’t actually seem bad — far more mischievous and subversive, maybe a symbol of a society’s repressed energy. I’d say the novel itself ultimately celebrates romantic love and people caring for each other — and the energy of the human imagination.
So I think Bulgakov’s novel was written to some extent against Stalin’s Soviet Union — the authoritarianism, the millions of State-sanctioned murders, the violent repression of free speech and different points of view. And it was written against fear itself. It is deeply serious, but also great fun, a celebration of some of the wilder human energies.
Hard to know what would have happened if Bulgakov had tried to publish this novel (as he intended), since he died of natural causes (in 1940) as he was finishing it. This was the time when writing a satirical poem about Stalin could get you executed — which is pretty much what seems to have happened to the poet Osip Mandelshtam. But The Master and Margerita lived well beyond its creator – secretly passed from hand to hand, it was known and loved by many thousands of Russians decades before it was finally published in the Soviet Union in 1968.
When faced with what can seem an overwhelmingly difficult situation, all the positive human qualities matter. But perhaps this satirical energy and wild, magical but ethically positive vision are particularly valuable in cutting through what might be a repressed, cowed, fearful state of mind. Skilful laughter is so opposite to cowed and fearful.
In our own time, right now, the far-right seems to me scarily influential and close to dominance in the USA and Europe, and we may well be on the unstoppable ride of runaway climate change. In some ways, things are looking even grimmer than in Bulgakov’s lifetime. Hopefully, things politically won’t go too far in that direction. On the other hand it seems worth considering that one day we might need to think in terms of resistance rather than outright opposition – of keeping positive vision alive in covert forms, like bulbs in the ground surviving winter. Which is what Bulgakov’s novel was part of back in the 1930s. Maybe even our Buddhist practice itself will need to be more covert and under the radar.
If we’re going to face the big picture, we’re going to need inspiration and emotional sustenance — to keep our souls and spirits alive. Obviously, we can find inspiration in our friendships and relationships, in our practising the Dharma, in the sangha. But it might be helpful to deliberately cultivate more symbolic, non-rational sources of inspiration (aka the mythic context) – perhaps there are parts of us which can only be reached this way. Maybe all great poetry, art, music by tapping into the mythic, has something of this liberating and inspiring function. By the way I’m sure we are all already doing this, I’m just suggesting that it’s really important at a deep level for long-term emotional resilience. So how might we do this in practice? We all probably have our own ways. We could maybe try something we haven’t done before, which might be a clowning workshop, or action theatre (a very in-the-moment, embodied and self-aware form of improvisation where you come up with stories and maybe respond to other people as they improvise). We can listen to and be inspired by carnival (in the sense I’ve been evoking) as it manifests in the arts: books, films, dance etc.
So that’s a bit about carnival. What about faith?
In fact the Buddhist tradition does have its own wild and playful sides. One of many examples (from the Tibetan Vajrayana in this case) is Vajrayogini. She’s a sort of archetypal Enlightened deity figure. She has the form of a beautiful young woman, naked apart from a few symbolic bone implements. Her skin is red, the colour of unconditional, universal loving-kindness.
She’s ecstatic and free, dancing in the sheer void of ultimate reality – sometimes she’s represented as dancing on (or trampling) bodies representing greed, hatred and delusion.
She takes no prisoners. If we dare to dance with her (perhaps by engaging in years of spiritual practice) she will destroy us utterly – and make us into something far beyond what we were.
Vajrayogini might sound a bit much! Not everyone’s cup of tea maybe. But meditating on Vajrayogini is just one example of a Buddhist faith practice — which can be more of a slow burn, or long fuse. Such an important and deep energy. Our heart-response to our ideals of love and compassion. During meditation I sometimes visualise the Buddha, with golden light radiating from his heart to mine. Very simple and undramatic. But it works — I feel it physically, and in my depths emotionally. If my values or interests have been maybe getting subtly superficial, materialistic, self-centered — then faith practices like this one help remind me, reconnect me with what I really care about at a deep level. And that can feel like a deep relief, and release of positive energy.
There’s the saying that faith can move mountains — and it’s true. It does. It’s what motivated Martin Luther King, the suffragettes — so many heroic people who changed the world for the better. Maybe we aren’t heroic, it’s ok not to be a hero! tho I suspect many of us are in reality more heroic than we think we are. But whatever or whoever we are or think we are — we can all play, we can all harness that deep wild playful energy. We can all draw on deep skilful inspiration, wild energies, and we can all cultivate faith.
In Mahayana Buddhism, the wisdom understanding emptiness is sometimes referred to as the mother. This is because the beings liberated from samsara – arhats, ārya bodhisattvas and buddhas – are all born from the wisdom realising emptiness. Because emptiness is the ultimate nature of everything, we might call these highly realised beings mother nature’s children, because they have realised directly through meditation the final nature of all things.
Conventionally speaking, mother nature refers to the natural world, the environment, and mother earth. All life on earth is born from this mother, through interaction with space and the sun, thereby producing earth’s atmosphere. Because we are all, along with everything that grows and moves on planet earth, children of mother earth or mother nature, we are siblings of all humans, other species, trees et cetera.
Is there any link or correlation between these two mother natures? Very much so. All evolution is a process of cause and effect. Ecologically every life-form is interdependent with many other life-forms and elemental substrata. Because of cause and effect and interdependence, nothing exists independently. The absence of independent existence is what we buddhists call emptiness.
Generally, people mean the natural environment when they speak about nature. In buddhism we can talk about relative nature, for example the hardness of the earth element, and ultimate nature, the lack of independent existence, or emptiness.
Relative and ultimate natures are sometimes called the two truths, and everything that exists always has both these truths, depending on which way you look at it. So, for example, if you look at a tree, relatively it is a tree and ultimately it is emptiness.
As Buddha said in The Heart Sutra, “Form is empty; emptiness is form; emptiness is not other than form; form also is not other than emptiness.” Realisation of this fundamental non-duality of form and emptiness is what liberates us from suffering, samsara.
With the pandemic, mother nature has brought her human children to their knees. We have collectively been shown that mother nature is more powerful than us. Not surprisingly, people get back up again, and many try to forget that this mother is in charge of her family.
This is unfortunate, because the climate and ecological crisis is much more devastating and powerful than the pandemic, and unless we begin to live by the natural laws, our mother will destroy us.
The natural laws are simply the laws of cause and effect of actions, what we commonly call karma. If you heed the teachings of the buddha and other sages, you will not perform destructive actions. Instead, you will practise non-violence and non-harming towards other living beings and their environments.
The ecology is governed by natural laws of cause and effect, and our happiness and misery are also so governed. If we practise kindness towards our relative mother nature – the environment and living beings – and practise wisdom towards our ultimate mother nature by abandoning false notions of independent existence, all will be well. Thus, we will live harmoniously with everything.
I was inspired to write this by our XR Buddhists retreat. It became increasingly clear to me during the retreat how our problematic relationship with mother earth may be healed through the Dharma – the teachings of the Buddha – if we only take it to heart. I am deeply grateful to XR Buddhists for providing me with this insight.
Kaspa Thompson wrote and read out a dedication of merit prayer to end our recent online retreat with. Here it is:
We call upon all of our ancestors. We call on our birth ancestors and the ancestors of our chosen families.We call upon Shakyamuni Buddha, who set the dharma wheel turning in this age, and upon all of his disciples. We call upon the celestial Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.
We call upon our activist ancestors, those who had courage to act and speak and have gone before us.
We call upon ancestors from oppressed groups across the world, whose wisdom we pray we can honour and appreciate.
We call upon the great sages of all spiritual traditions.
We who are practicing today will become the ancestors of tomorrow. We invite our ancestors to add their merit to our own.
We pray for the well-being of all living creatures. We pray for the well-being of communities in the global south and indigenous communities who are already deeply affected by the climate crisis and ecological emergency. We pray that voices from those communities will be heard both on the world stage and in our own hearts.
We pray that we will become more and more aware of the systems of oppression and control that are around us and inside us, and that we are able to let go of those systems to make way for genuine connection, loving kindness and equity.
We pray that we can build strong communities of activists that include people from all over the world, and that we can find wise and courageous responses to the climate crisis and ecological emergency.
We pray that we will find the courage to tell the truth, to act now and to be the change we want to see. We pray for an immediate end to the use and extraction of fossil fuels.
We dedicate the merit of our time and practice together to living beings throughout the world affected by the climate crisis, and to climate activists from all communities.
May all beings be well. May all beings be happy. May all beings be free from suffering.