Engaged Buddhism: Why engage?

By JOSEPH Mishan


It’s April 15th 2019; my anxiety rises as I approach the London venue where I’m expecting over 40 fellow Buddhists to gather. A few early arrivals are there already and they tell me that they can’t get in. My anxiety obediently notches up a point or two and I press the bell myself as if my status as organiser will surely work magic. It doesn’t. More people arrive, the door remains firmly shut and I remind myself that I am not in charge of the unfolding of life’s mysteries, including where the key to this particular door might be situated. Finally, one of the building staff arrive the door is opened and we file in to the cool interior to arrange the room and prepare for the gathering.

This is Dharma Action Network for Climate Engagement, soon to give birth to Extinction Rebellion Buddhists, at our second major Extinction Rebellion protest. We have Buddhists from across the lineages arriving to take action on this first day of two weeks of protests on the climate crisis. The planning is already done on social media. We will be starting with walking meditation to Marble Arch and then sitting in meditation in the road to block traffic. We have placards to hang around our necks which read ‘Grief and Love for the Earth’; over these words hovers a photograph of Earth from space. An incomparably beautiful blue-green planet, our home, now ravaged and depleted by years of remorseless exploitation.

But before we hit the streets we are meeting to connect with ourselves and each other, to remember why we are here. We meditate together, we speak and we hold silence to make room for the passion and the pain of our ravaged Earth, and of all beings caught up in this destruction. When we file out of the building we move from open hearts, which hold us in the knowledge that although we cannot ever know of the results of our actions, we can be sure of the necessity and the rightness of what we are doing, and the manner in which we are doing it.

Emerging from the underground station we form into a line and in noble silence we slow- walk the quarter of a mile down the length of Edgware Road; a quiet stream of contemplatives moving through the daily mayhem of a busy London street. 

People stop and make way; I like to think they are moved by our message and our dignity.

We arrive at Marble Arch and are greeted by another group of Extinction Rebellion activists who have already blocked the road. After discussion we decide to ask if they will agree to us meditating in front of them. They are more than happy. We take our places on the road and as the singing bowl chimes we close our eyes for an hour meditation on the road. Presence, peace, rootedness. Police come and go, traffic honks support or anger, people shout abuse and encouragement. And we sit. We sit in honour of the Earth, inspired and held by two and half thousand years of our spiritual tradition.

The Buddha’s example

But this is an essay about whether Buddhists should remain apart from direct action on the social and environmental crisis that is facing us, and instead focus on personal growth and enlightenment.  Are not these crises (and many others) merely the playing out of samsara; the arising and passing of forms fundamentally empty and transient? Should the Buddhist contribution not be to cultivate wisdom and clear seeing; to reveal the ultimately delusional nature of reality? Should Buddhists therefore not avoid politics and certainly direct action?

We might start to address this question by looking at the Buddha’s own life. What stance did he take in response to the issues of his day? There is in fact much evidence from the Buddha’s teaching and his life that he challenged the established order of his day quite directly.

The caste system was a dominating and powerful influence on the lives of the population of South Asia at the time of the Buddha. He took a radical stance on this. In the Assalayana Sutta a conversation between the Buddha and the Brahmin caste supremacist Assalayatta is reported in detail. Assalayatta is pretty smart: ‘a master of the Three Vedas with their vocabularies, liturgy, phonology, etymology, & histories; skilled in philology & grammar, fully versed in cosmology’  Nevertheless, the Buddha dismantles the Brahmins claims of his caste’s superiority with impeccable logic: asking for example, how sure the Brahmin is that all his caste is ‘pure’ Brahmin going back into history; and whether his case is subject to the same natural laws both physical and karmic as other castes and so on.  The Brahmin’s claims start to look extremely thin and he is reported to have become rather dejected  ‘When this was said, the  Brahmin student Assalayana sat silent, abashed, his shoulders drooping, his head down, brooding, at a loss for words.’  The Buddha’s position is clear from this conversation: that he holds all four castes to be of equal merit. It is to be noted that the Sanghas which the Buddha set up did not allow any expression of the caste system.

In relation to women we also find the Buddha taking a decisive position. He established a monastic rule that ensured that the testimony of women should be sought if any dispute arose in the community – a radical act for his day. He also made it clear that women had the same potential for awakening as men, and he created a parallel nun’s order about five years after the start of the monk’s order. Within the nuns’ order women had the opportunity to opt out of what was a highly oppressive patriarchal system. His advice to his follower King Pesanadi the King of Kasala also expressed his view of women: he encouraged the king not to be downhearted on the birth of a daughter with these words: ‘Some women are better than men oh King. There are women who are wise and good, who are pure in thought and deed…’

The Buddha was also directly in contact with the kings of his day and gave advice to them – for example about the treatment of prisoners, education and the wisdom of going to war. He also addressed householders with the ’57 mental postures’; a guide for living which included advice on how to deal with lust and greed for example. The Pali literature of the Theravadins reveals the Buddha facing political intrigues and several wars.   He counselled: Victory breeds hatred. The defeated live in pain. Happily the peaceful live, giving up victory and defeat.’

It is worth adding that many of the radical initiatives that the Buddha introduced were subsequently dropped or ignored after his death, Buddhism has become more patriarchal for example, and more focused on individual awakening rather than the good of the whole, perhaps influenced by the individualistic culture of the modern world. But the historical records do point to a man whose actions and words reflected an uncompromising stance on the importance of compassion and respect for all beings.

The Scriptures

Let us now turn to more faith-based objections to engaged Buddhist action. In my experience perhaps the most common objection to active engagement in the climate crisis is that based on the Heart Sutra’s wisdom teaching that ‘form is not different than emptiness’. If the real world is illusory why would we get engaged with it? Surely the best and most we can offer is the invitation to recognise this – to not get so hung up on the so-called real word? Should we not let go and relax into non-attachment to this illusory world, into the truth of formlessness. But this is to ignore that the Heart Sutra immediately adds: ‘emptiness is not different than form.’  In his book Eco Dharma David Loy, Buddhist activist and author writes: ‘the Buddha did not teach – nor does his life demonstrate – that non-attachment means unconcern about what is happening in the world.’  The exclusive emphasis on emptiness is the route to the ‘spiritual bypass’ which confers a bland un-concern for suffering of any sort as a misunderstanding. In her contribution to ‘Response to the Climate Emergency’ Joanna Macy sees this view of emptiness as a justification of non-action as a ‘spiritual trap that cut the nerve of compassionate action’. To give lived expression to the whole of the Heart Sutra’s teaching, ‘form is not different than emptiness and emptiness is not different than form’, is to find a path of deep compassion for all beings while holding our actions and the results of our actions within a knowledge of the vast emptiness of all things. In practice this confers on even the most decisive activism the qualities of clarity courage and calm.

There is of course a model for this compassionate and wise action in the service of others, which is the bodhisattva ideal of Mahayana Buddhism. This emphasises the combination of wisdom and of compassion and it replaces the focus on personal liberation with the aim of benefit to all beings. It is compassion in action. As the Dalai Lama has said: ‘It is not enough to be compassionate. You must act.’

In a recent interview David Loy is asked  ‘what is Buddhism for?’ He replies: ‘how does our practice empower us to respond appropriately [to the climate crisis]? ‘and he goes on: ‘If Buddhism doesn’t help us to do that maybe Buddhism isn’t what the world needs today’. I believe, along with the growing number of deeply committed practitioners in our movement, that the world desperately needs the qualities and wisdom which Buddhism offers.

Thich Naht Hahn, the father of engaged Buddhism, emphasises the reality of interdependence. He encourages compassionate action based on the recognition that we ‘inter-are’; we are part of a vast web of intricate interdependence and interconnection. This means that work in the world is part of our work on ourselves (and vice versa): and so we do not wait until we are perfectly enlightened to enter the fray. Our activism is an   expression and vehicle of our inner transformation; it is sacred work. This is why XR Buddhists must in my view continue to embrace expressions of activism which convey the power and potency of our faith, as we tread this path of engagement in our beautiful, precious and troubled world.

Joseph Mishan

Joseph Mishan is a mindfulness teacher in the Vipassana tradition, a psychotherapist and the coordinator of Dharma Action Network for Climate Engagement in London and a joint coordinator of XR Buddhists UK. 

Lessons from Covid-19, Urgency, Refuge & Hope

with insights from Patrick Barkham and Julian Hoffman

By Kaspalita Thompson

As I write, temperatures in the Arctic Circle are soaring to around 40o C. What’s happening in response? Very little, as far as I can tell.

A few days ago I was reflecting on how quickly life in the UK had changed in response to Covid-19, and asking what lessons might be drawn from that, when I found myself in the audience of a discussion between nature writers Julian Hoffman and Patrick Barkham, at the online Wonderland festival.

Julian Hoffman’s most recent book Irreplaceable is about how individuals and groups are working hard to save important natural spaces. Patrick Barkham’s latest book is Wild Child: Coming Home to Nature. Inevitably, the theme of the climate and ecological crises and how we respond to those was woven into their conversation.

It’s been striking how quickly and easily people, businesses and governments have made dramatic changes in response to the Corona virus:  a Conservative government spending billions of pounds to pay the wages of ordinary workers; people restricting themselves to their houses apart from once a day to exercise; and grounded aeroplanes and unused cars.

Why did we respond so quickly?

At the end of the Wonderland panel I asked a question about what we might learn from lockdown. Patrick Barkham talked about the sense of “imminent danger” that we had in response to coronavirus, and that many people don’t have that sense in response to the climate crisis.

At the beginning of the pandemic there was a real sense of urgency, and of personal risk. There was a sense that I might die, and my loved ones might die – not in some abstract future scenario, but in the next few months, by this disease that I can already see killing thousands of people.

An invitation to urgency

Is it the work of climate activists to create this sense of urgency?

When I think of creating urgency from a Buddhist point of view, I think of that tension between urgency and ease that we find in the Buddha’s teachings and across different Buddhist traditions. I see that in the contrast between exhortations to practice like your hair is on fire and the sense of relaxed confidence that I saw in Theravada monks I met in India, with their deep faith in their practice and in the Buddha.

I also think of my work with psychotherapy clients, and my clear awareness of the danger of overwhelming powerful emotions. I know that powerful emotions can be faced and transformed, and I also know that my job is to support the client into a place where that is possible. There is one state of mind in which we can do that work, and many states of mind in which the healing can’t happen.

As activists can we hold both urgency and safety in mind?

Home, urgency and safety

On the Wonderland panel, Hoffman described the common element he discovered in those groups and individuals working to save and take care of wild spaces: they had all expanded their sense of home to include those natural spaces. The woodlands, the meadows, and the waterscapes became parts of these activists’ homes, and they formed some sense of community with the non-human life in those spaces.

Seeing the landscape as home and facing its destruction brings that same sense of urgency that Covid-19 inspired.

There’s also a connection between home and safety as well. Whilst the threat to these places inspires urgency, I imagine that inhabiting these spaces resources and nourishes the activists.

Buddhism

Our job as Buddhist activists is to both cultivate that sense of urgency, and to support people to experience that urgency without being overwhelmed.

As Buddhists we take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. The word refuge connects to home, and to the safety that homes offer. We can find a similar safety wherever we are through rooting ourselves in the three jewels.

As well as the practices and teachings that can support us and others to be with powerful feelings we can also offer our own ways of being to others.

I went into that panel discussion at the online festival carrying my own doubts and fears, and I caught some of Patrick Barkham and Julian Hoffman’s hope.  Faith, trust, confidence and ease are as infectious as hopelessness.

Hoffman spoke about the changes that have been made in European cities like Milan to accommodate walking and cycling. These changes came out of people’s experience of lockdown and wanting to keep some of the good. “Not enough, but a start.” He said.

Barkham spoke of the hope that arose from looking at young people, both in the climate activist movement and in social justice movements like Black Lives Matter.

Sometimes I am able to ground myself in that hope for the future, and sometimes I am not. Buddhism offers another hope as well: regardless of worldly conditions, liberation is possible.

Anchoring ourselves in the liberation of the Buddhas, we can face and respond to urgency, and take action to mitigate the climate crisis, and we can support each other to tumble gracefully into whatever happens next, whether we are able to mitigate the climate crisis or not.

Acharya Kaspalita Thompson, known as Kaspa, is a Buddhist Teacher, psychotherapist and member of XR Buddhists.


Buddhist Action Month: For The Earth

June is Buddhist Action Month. This year’s theme is For The Earth.

There are lots of events happening in June on the theme of Buddhism and the Climate Crisis and Ecological Emergency. Talks, workshops and guided meditations.

I’ve added the online events that I know of to the XR Buddhists calendar. Check them out.

Buddhist Action Month was created by the Network of Buddhist Organisations. Find out more and how to host your own events here: BAM 2020

#BlackLivesMatter

In the wake of the death of George Floyd, a brutal killing that typifies the institutionalised racism in America and around the world, XR Buddhists would like to convey our deep solidarity with BAME communities in these frightening times. We commit to doing our own work with our conscious and unconscious beliefs and prejudices, and acknowledge the interlinked nature of issues of equality, and environmental work. Some resources follow – the first is a workbook which is especially recommended.

 Illustration by Vectorstock, Malchev, Andrew Glencross, via Lion’s Roar

Connecting across borders

by Brighton XR Meditators

During the enforced isolation of the Coronavirus pandemic Brighton Extinction Rebellion Meditators reached out across borders to rebels in Bogota and sat together in an online vigil to commemorate those killed in defending the earth in Colombia. 

XR Meditators are drawn from all faiths and non. We were struck by our privilege and the safety of our activism when a young Colombian who joined us and asked us, with tears in her eyes, to commemorate the Colombians activists murdered. 

The online vigil

Colombia is one of the most dangerous places in the word to be an environmental activist; 50 have been killed this year. The second most biologically diverse country on Earth is vital to the earth’s biosystem. To our economic system, it is an untapped resource with a voracious land grab between mining, Palm Oil, Beef, and Cocao production, while local peoples fight for their lives and livelihoods, we in the UK safely profit from this exploitation.( UK is 2nd largest investor in Colombia.)) 

Bogata XR rebels were surprised and curious about how meditation might fit with civil disobedience and non-violent direct-action. Perhaps the radially quiet approach would attract interest in the usual noise of many strikes and demonstrations in Bogota?

A creative on-line collaboration emerged with a short video.  100 UK and Colombians sat together over zoom, while 100s more watched it live on Facebook . Reaching out across the earth we shared our opposition to the destructive and exploitative systems that kills and dominates the earth, we sat together in grief and love and a deepening awareness of our interconnection and ‘interbeing’

Using the power of social media and meditation to share our presence and our stories across the global XR community at this time of isolation felt important and significant.

Reaching out across the earth we shared our opposition to the destructive and exploitative systems that kills and dominates the earth, we sat together in grief and love and a deepening awareness of our interconnection and ‘interbeing’

Using the power of social media and meditation to share our presence and our stories across the global XR community at this time of isolation felt important and significant, and we hope just the beginning of more connecting across borders. 

XR Brighton Meditators is a group from across denominations that come together and share courageous silent sitting and walking practices in support of our planet and to raise awareness of the climate emergency and mass extinction that is already upon us. We have been involved in actions such as silent vigils in road blockades and public mass meditations. If you’d like to make contact with the group and join us in future activities, email us: BrightonXRMeditation@protonmail.com

BEYOND EXTINCTION

By Andy Wistreich 

Interview with an arya bodhisattva on a distant planet in 150 years’ time from now

Q. It is said that you are an arya bodhisattva. What does this mean?

A. It signifies that my mind has directly realised the nature of reality and is pervaded by uncontrived altruism.

Q. Very good, but how can you sustain those?

A. Because I have achieved samatha, I can sustain these realisations indefinitely when I meditate, so consolidating a regenerative inner resource for helping others.

Q. It’s also said that you can recall your previous lives, and that this is the first time you have been born on our planet. If this is true where were you before you were born here?

A. On a planet called Earth. I was reborn there successively many times, in many different cultures and life forms. It was my home and habitat for many lifetimes.

Q. Why did that all stop?

A. Humans and other species became extinct there, so I couldn’t take a human rebirth again there. Being human is the best form for benefiting others.

Q. How did the extinction come about on Earth?

A. The humans destroyed their planet by excessive buring of fossil fuels, excessive livestock farming and widespread deforesting, thereby heating up the planet beyond the point where food could be produced any more. In such ways they destroyed their planet and its resources. Eventually everyone starved to death.

Q. Didn’t they realise what was happening?

A. By the time enough people took the crisis seriously it was already too late. The facts had been known for some time, but people either didn’t believe the evidence, or were too hooked to short-term goals to make wise decisions. There was a general addiction to consumption and economic growth, generated by a culture that put accumulation of wealth by a few people above the needs of everyone else. This culture generated unsustainable use of resources and human lifestyles.

Q. Why did you decide to become an arya bodhisattva?

A. I learned from my teachers that arya bodhisattvas are best able to help those around them, so I decided to engage in the recommended inner work to become one. It was hard work. You must be very determined and have a lot of conviction. The work involves cultivating renouncing attachment to worldly pleasure, altruistic aspiration for enlightenment, and wisdom realising reality, speeded up by the two stages of tantra. We were amazingly fortunate that these teachings and methods were available at that time, because the lineages were still alive. Few people knew, and even among those that did, laziness often held them back. Not everyone who heard about the path recognised how very precious and meaningful it is.

Q. What sort of help can an arya bodhisattva offer in such a situation?

A. As the climate crisis escalated and food production declined, society fell apart – sometimes this was gradual and sometimes there were sudden shocks. The collapse was actually economic and political disintegration which caused a sort of collective mental breakdown. Many people lost their minds, because they lacked the inner resilience to cope with the crisis. Some individuals, groups and nations used violence to grab and hold onto scarce resources. Some people just died from despair. Regimes of heavy repression fuelled by mob hatred sprang up to prevent the starving millions from the hottest parts of the world from reaching places where life was still possible. In such situations, arya bodhisattvas naturally, calmly maintain inner equilibrium, self-discipline and compassionate motivation. Thus, they guide the people around them to non-violent compassionate actions, away from harming and hardening their hearts towards others. Those of us doing this work were not enough of us to save the planet and people, but still we did what we could.

Q. Didn’t you get distressed or overwhelmed by the challenges?

A. Of course it was very sad to witness what was happening, and one could only provide a fraction of the help needed, but it was great to be able to offer support, care and good advice amidst so much confusion and anguish. And some people were helped. Those who could hear what we said could create causes for good future rebirths, by practising virtue and avoiding non-virtue. They could help those around them to some extent, with kindness and generosity. Some of those people are here on this planet living happy lives right now.

Q. Do you have any advice for the people of this planet, given what you experienced on Earth?

A. Avoid harming others, and wherever possible, help them. Live life contented with what you have. Find joy in things without needing to possess them. Avoid grasping for stuff you don’t really need. Remember that the natural environment is precious because it sustains life. Don’t believe humans to be superior to other species – every living being has the right to be treated with respect. Don’t eat animals or steal from them. Don’t allow any section of the community to claim supremacy. Create harmonious social structures free from exploitation and oppression. Teach peace and kindness to your children through your example. Ground your culture in knowledge of reality. If you can do these things, all will be well.

Andy has been studying, practising and teaching Buddhism within the Gelug Tibetan tradition for 40 years. He joined XR in 2019, and is active in his local XR group in South Somerset.

How Extinction Rebellion Buddhists happened

By Joe Mishan

XR Buddhists emerged as an active group in the October 2019 Rebellion. Its roots were in Dharma Action Network for Climate Engagement (DANCE). DANCE itself was the brainchild – or more accurately perhaps the heart-child – of a group of dharma teachers based in Gaia House in 2013. The intention was to provide a ‘a forum for the wider sangha to explore bringing Dharma responses to the climate crisis.’ It emphasised a ‘commitment to kindness and compassion, to live from an understanding of our interconnectedness, and interdependence.’ (see DANCE website) There are a number of DANCE groups, but it was London DANCE that initiated the formation of XR Buddhists. DANCE had taken part in the early XR action in November 2018, most notably an occupation of Barclays bank in Piccadilly Circus where we meditated for 3 hours (finally being physically removed, but surprisingly not arrested). Then during the larger rebellion in April 2019 DANCE led protest meditations in the roads, and took a leading part in organising the Regenerative Culture workshops during the uprising.

Members of DANCE occupying a Barclays Bank


The decision to form an XR Buddhist affinity group was made before the October 2019 rebellion. Members of DANCE felt that at the next rebellion we needed to be more recognisably XR and more integrated with the XR organism. (The problem with the DANCE acronym is that it is often confused with the moving about kind of dance which is clearly not a good way to describe sitting quietly with the eyes closed). And so XR Buddhists was born.


Members of DANCE had not really thought through what would happen to the XR Buddhist group after the rebellion; but two weeks of activism on the streets and in a wet tent in Trafalgar Square formed a strong and enduring bond within the group. And so DANCE now remains to provides a wider forum for Buddhists activists who may not want to be identified with XR, but both XR Buddhists and DANCE share a strong belief in the uniqueness and importance of a Buddhist contribution to climate activism – and many folk belong to both.

I am confident that as the climate movement unfolds in the years to come, that the presence of meditators will continue to bring the message of peaceful determination and grounded spirituality to the streets of our towns and cities.

Joe Mishan
April 2020

Buddhist DECLARATION

Written By Joe Mishan, for XR Buddhists, before the October ’19 rebellion

XR Buddhists stand with our fellow Buddhists and all faith groups in Extinction Rebellion at this most momentous of times.

The climate emergency brings both the most terrible of possibilities and the most transformational. The possibility of mass extinction of life on this planet is forcing upon us a truth long forgotten by the so-called developed world: that all things are connected. We have lived too long in a delusion of separation, isolated from the astonishing grace and beauty of the life forms with which we share our world.

This delusional state has paved the way for the mortal damage our economies have visited on the Earth. And in our hearts we have also paid a heavy price: a sense of meaningless, and of personal and spiritual loneliness has become pervasive. The climate crisis demands that we choose between awakening to the truth of interdependence on each other and the non-human world, with all the beauty and gratitude this brings, or face terrible consequences.

Walking meditation at the October Rebellion

And the way to this awakening is love. In Buddhist practice, as in many faith traditions in different forms, we invite this blossoming of a loving heart through meditation, ritual, and our wisdom teachings.

With our dear friends in this emerging and courageous movement, we sit and walk in the light of love and the spirit of the awakened heart.

May wisdom and love prevail