Jun. 6, 2008

World-View and World-Saving

My last post on the inter-monastic environmental conference has already sparked some thoughtful comments. Thanks to those who have posted.

A theme in all the comments is that what I am suggesting is a tall order.

I also suggest that it may be too difficult to require thinking of the Earth as sacred. Not many people are capable of thinking in this way. Hence again I suggest to look for intermediate perspectives between "sacred" and "not sacred" that are more easily acceptable to the mass public. Words like "duty" and "responsibility" come to mind.
I personally don't think nature has to be sacred though as brahma-vihara should cover all beings and doing what's beneficial for ourselves and all beings. It doesn't seem to me like sacred ideas about nature or even a belief in tree devas are necessary since humans and animals will be harmed by environmental damage and everyone agrees that these beings exist.

I agree with Robert regarding the "sacredness" of the earth. In today's spiritual black hole, the idea of the earth being sacred would do little but invite ridicule and laughter from people who look at all of that sacred stuff as being outmoded and impractical with the materialist worldview.
(Paragraphs taken from three different posts)

I take your point, but my problem is that I don't see a real alternative to a major change of world-view. Read Lovelock and other cutting edge hard-science types and you'll see that the problem is way beyond the reach of any tinkering around the edges with new technologies. The whole search for a comfortable techno-fix that would leave our life-styles intact is a major part of the problem at this late date. Read the essay Eco-Junk by George Monbiot for a scathing analysis of green consumerism. I stand by the statement that sustainable development is an oxymoron, a phrase I adopted from Lovelock.

I think that the need to re-sacralize nature is critical. At first glance, this might seem a poor fit with Buddhism. Samsara is the broken place we are trying to escape from. But that way of seeing things is a mis-application of the Dhamma in this case. We Buddhists do see all living things as sentient beings, possessed of conscious awareness and equal to us in the sense that we are all travellers on the wheel of rebirth.

And yes, the recognition of non-human entities like tree-devas and nagas is important too. It can easily be forgotten how rare in the sweep of human history our own culture is in being blind to that level of being. Old Celtic Europe had it's fairy folk and dragons, Native Americans had (and still have!) their little people and thunder-birds. Medieval Europe had angels, and Islam had it's jinn. In rural Thailand, the existence of devas and ghosts is taken for granted. Even the hyper-rational Hellenes had their fauns and satyrs, and let's not forget Socrates' genii.

What happened to the culture of Europe (because that's what the modern world is heir to) that it took a different road? Some major psychic shift seemed to occur at the turn of the 15th-16th century; the Renaissance, the Reformation, later the Scientific Revolution and the so-called Enlightenment. We (and I say we because whatever our nationality we are all of us heirs to that) took a hard turn into investigation of the coarse material level. It gained us mastery, but it cost us our spirit.

There is a theory I encountered once in a Christian book about angels. It suggested that the invention of perspective in Renaissance painting was not the invention of a new technique, but a faithful record of a new way of seeing. By seeing this material plane more acutely, we lost the ability to see other planes at all. Be that as it may, it is only the modern world which seems to have depopulated the spirit realms.

This wouldn't matter, perhaps, if only a belief in fairies or devas was at stake. But the loss of this realm is a symptom of a much deeper malaise. Everything is reduced to a dead mechanism. In the economic application, it is world as commodity. In the spiritual world, it is man as meat-machine; the "selfish gene" and the "computional model of mind." This world-view is spiritual death, and it may bear fruit in physical death, if not of the entire bio-sphere, at least of our civilization.

Having said all this, I don't know how we can open people's eyes to the wonder and miracle of nature if they are blinded by materialism and greed. But I don't see anything else that could turn the current trend around.

Jun. 5, 2008

Monaticism and the Environment

I recently attended the third Buddhist-Catholic monastic inter-faith conference at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, famous as the home of Thomas Merton. There were forty participants, monks and nuns, Catholic and Buddhist from various orders and schools. The theme of the conference was Monasticism and the Environment. A timely topic, to say the least.

The talks and informal conversations were very fruitful and informative. I could sum up the main themes that developed under four headings, two theoretical and two practical;

Greed is the cause. Coming from various angles, everyone agreed that a culture of materialism and consumerism was the underlying motive force behind the environmental crisis. This is, obviously, a specific application of the Buddhist second noble truth. The rich countries today consume extravagant amounts of energy and resources to provide for an extreme life-style. This is completely unsustainable. The problem is really a spiritual crisis. Our modern culture has a warped value system. Here, the monastic communities provide a good example by demonstrating that it is possible to live happily and fully without indulgence in excessive material consumption. The broader culture needs to rediscover ways and means to happiness that do not require shopping.

The need to view nature as sacred. The concluding statement of the conference has the phrase, "we need to view the earth as a community, and not a commodity." The philosophy of materialism has reduced all of nature to a mechanistic process. This is again a spiritual problem, requiring a spiritual solution. Both religious delegations saw the need to re-sacralize the natural world. For the Christians, this means reverence for God's good creation. For the Buddhists, it could mean a recognition of Buddha-nature in all things (Mahayana) or seeing the world as peopled by tree-devas and river-nagas. On a more philosophical level, it means recognizing the primacy and universality of mind. The materialist-reductionist view is spiritual death and may lead to physical death of the planet.

Recognizing our complicity. On a practical note, we examined ways that our various monasteries may be contributing to the problem. One very obvious example is the amount of travel many of us do. This conference alone consumed a lot of fuel to get the participants together from all over North America.

Looking at the positive contributions. On the other hand, many monasteries of both traditions are moving actively into green technologies like wind-power and energy efficient building. We looked at a video presentation of a study done in France which showed that the carbon foot-print of two monasteries, one Catholic and one Tibetan Buddhist, was very much lower than that of the average French community.

The climate crisis is a grave one. I don't see how we can turn it around without a fundamental paradigm shift; a spiritual revolution in the mass value system on a global scale. Tinkering around the edges will no longer suffice. This is a tall order. It very well may not happen deeply enough or soon enough to stop a massive phase shift in the world's climate system which would devastate our civilization. As James Lovelock says, sustainable development is an oxymoron. We are going to experience a retreat. Our only choice is a managed retreat, or a chaotic one.

It occurs to me that if there is a massive societal collapse, monasteries may serve another crucial role. They might become islands of light conserving the knowledge of the old days until the human race gets on it's feet again. The monasteries of Europe, particularly of Ireland, did this after the Roman Civilization collapsed. We live in interesting times.


Text of the Final Statement of the Conference

Spread with garlands of vines,
Places delighting the mind,
Resounding with elephants,
Those rocky crags
Refresh me.
Theragatha 18: Mahakassapa

The wolf and the lamb shall graze alike
And the lion shall eat hay like the ox.
None shall hurt or destroy
On all my holy mountain, says the Lord
Isaiah 65:25

Simple and Sufficient
Gethsemani III: Monasticism and the Environment
A Buddhist/Catholic Monastic Gathering
May 27-31, 2008

We live in a time of environmental crisis and calamity, but also in a time when more and more people are coming together to respond to the suffering of the world. Our monastic interreligious dialogue has brought us to a new awareness of the social and spiritual relevance of ancient monastic traditions that have been sustained for millennia by Buddhist and Catholic communities.

Together we celebrate our common monastic values of reverence for the sacredness of all things, contemplation, humility, simplicity, compassion and generosity. These virtues contribute to a life of nonviolence, balance, and contentment with sufficiency.

We recognize greed and apathy as the poisons at the heart of ecological damage and unbridled materialism. Throughout the centuries, monastic life has inspired generous personal, social and spiritual effort for the good of others. We give and receive in the spirit of gratitude.

We acknowledge our complicity in damaging the environment and will make a sincere and sustained effort to reduce our negative impact on the planet. We are committed to take more mindful, universal responsibility for the way we use and manage the earth’s resources. We resolve to develop our hearts and minds in ways that will contribute to a sustainable and hopeful future for our planet. We renew our commitment to the sacredness of the earth, relating to it as a community, not a commodity.

May our love for all beings and this world sustain our efforts and may our earth be revitalized. This is our prayer and commitment.



Website of the Third Inter-Monastic Dialogue. Includes audio files of all the formal presentations and video of the concluding ceremony.

Text of the paper I presented, Dependent Origination and Climate Change, a Buddhist look at causes and conditions.