Interfaith Youth Forum on Environment, Social Justice and Peace

Transcript of a Talk given at the Interfaith Youth Forum on Environment, Social Justice and Peace at The Catholic University, Karen, Nairobi on  30th September 2016



Good Morning. I was a little surprised when I was very kindly requested by my friend Prince of to make a contribution to this forum by saying something from a Buddhist perspective on the ecological predicament and issues of social justice. From this perspective the two, for me, are linked as environmental degradation is inevitably part of human degradation.

So perhaps you are asking Who Am I? I am not a Buddhist monk. Though many years ago I was what is called an upasaka, a lay devotee. I first encountered Buddhism as a living tradition in Sri Lanka in 1981 when I lived for a time on a small Buddhist island retreat on a lagoon in the south. It had no modern conveniences whatever, no electricity, and only three resident monks, and occasional visiting monks. My abode was a simple hut, my bathroom a well frequently visited by a six-foot long monitor lizard and a huge dark green tree snake 9-10 ft. long that occasionally glided noiselessly through the branches above my head while I brushed my teeth.

The island was abundant with fruits of all kinds, varieties of palms, many trees, orchids, flowers and myriad birds. So for me this connection between the teachings and our relations with the natural world has been a key factor in both my understanding of the Dhamma and my approach to the global predicament humanity finds itself in at this time of enormous environmental destruction, when humanity collectively stands at a crucial threshold of either potential catastrophe or a great awakening that will enable a transition to a wholly different way of living on this our only known home. The Buddha himself was apparently born under a tree, had his awakening under a Bodhi tree, and, if we are to believe the myth, died laid between two trees. I am very happy that I practice within a wisdom teaching that so honours trees, so essential to our life and the lives of many species.

So I am still a kind of upasaka but less in the orthodox sense, and more a participant in what has become known as Engaged Buddhism, some of which involves building networks with groups that share the ethical basis and understanding found within the dhamma for co-operative resistance to the hegemony of the corporate state. Corporate capitalism remains committed to an economy of endless expansion that threatens all life on this earth and undermines any genuine possibility of alternative diverse models of sustainable living. It goes without saying that such resistance should be forceful but peaceful.

I have lived here for the last 20 years mainly as a photographer of various kinds, sometimes engaging with environmental issues, as in the case of the Tana River Delta in 2011-12, when the National Museum of Kenya hosted an exhibition on the subject along with some of my photographs. Out of a certain frustration with the lack of public discourse on the urgent question of social transformation in the face of an endangered planet I created a website where the word D E E P stood for DIVERSITY ECOLOGY  ETHICS  PRACTICE. It was a sketch, no more than that, for a framework that would link these three Diversity, Ecology and Ethics with Practice.

What do I mean by Practice? In the Buddhist tradition practice is mainly a form of mindfulness, a practice of meditation for which the man known as Gautama Siddartha, who lived approx. 2,450 years ago, gave a precise methodology.

So the question is what, if anything, can the Dhamma, the teachings of the Buddha, contribute to how we might look at or address the collective predicament we have in the face of ecological breakdown, climate change – or climate chaos as I prefer to call it.

Two thousand four hundred years ago nobody in India had heard of climate change, and they did not have the scientific knowledge we have today that explains what is going on with carbon emissions, ozone layers, global warming, melting ice caps and so on. Presumably, as far as we know, none of these phenomena were occurring then. They had rudimentary sciences, but nothing compared with the detailed knowledge we possess today. So for many today it is the scientists we look to for elucidation of the ecological picture, and for recommendations as to how to address it, what level of threat exists and so on. And there are still pockets of climate deniers! So what does a spiritual teacher wandering the footpaths of India, 2,400 years ago, sleeping under trees in forest groves with his fellow monks, what can he possibly have to say that is relevant to this problem?

His main concern was with the causes of suffering, and the ending of suffering. He claimed that this was the sole aim of his teaching. For the most part his teaching was aimed primarily at addressing personal suffering. This involved a profound understanding, or insight into the nature of what we call the self.

The problem he said was that we suffer from a form of alienation, a sense of separateness: there is a ME in here, as Alan Watts a Taoist and Zen teacher back in the seventies called “a skin encapsulated ego”, which looks out on a world of separate objects, things and people. There are also collective Egos, I call “Wegos”,  forms of collective identity that compete with each other: the tribal Wego, or the National Wego of Nation States, or cultural linguistic entities: Welsh, Irish, Scots, Berbers, Kurds, Bretons and so on. There are Continental Wegos: Africans, Americans, Russians, Asians. There are also Corporate Wegos – if you work for a big corporation there is a code of conduct you sign up to, your performance is determined by loyalty to the aims and goals and profit motives of the corporation. Your identity to some extent is subsumed under and defined by the corporate culture of this entity to which you must submit.

And you are then in competition with other ‘Corporate Wegos’. And all these entities are competing with each other to grow their economies, or to maintain their so called ‘standard of living’, which it appears has to be raised to ever higher levels, while those still developing have to catch up with the standards set by the so-called developed world, which in many ways from an ecological perspective is an over-developed world. And increasingly the competition becomes more acute for a perceived future scarcity of certain vital resources, which inevitably increases fears, political tensions, and even leads to military threats of confrontation.

In this narrative, based on a kind of social Darwinist paradigm of competition, aggression, and exploitation, we have been curiously blind to the consequences of our actions, of the powers we are unleashing. The original quest of science to understand more deeply how things work, how nature evolved, how the universe came into being, succumbed to an ideology of endless growth and progress, for which scientism, not science, became the rational underpinning, claiming scientific truth as the only reliable knowable truth, and progressively exhibiting an almost compulsive need for complete control over nature for the sole benefit of humanity, regardless of the negative impact on other species, flora and fauna.

The Buddha identified three tendencies in human nature that needed to be addressed. They are known as the Three Poisons: Greed, Delusion and Ill Will.

The dhamma teaches that our task is to transform these  into Generosity, Wisdom and Compassion.

In the Buddha’s time as I mentioned he focused on personal Dukkha, the word he used for suffering, which means much more than the obvious forms such as pain, illness, or grief. Dukkha means the underlying dissatisfaction, the sense of lack or deficiency that we seek to quell by grounding our self in something: money, possessions, role identity, various forms of pleasure seeking. But the other side of attraction is aversion; the other side of pleasure is pain. Since impermanence applies to everything these too are all sources of suffering. The very fact of transiency means that nothing whatsoever is worth grasping and clinging to. That doesn’t mean you cannot enjoy life. The delight of experience is fullest when enjoyed without grasping or clinging. The Buddha’s analysis of the separate self as compounded of sets of psycho-physical events, i.e. it is a mental construct, finds agreement with modern psychology and neuroscience. The self is a psychological-social construct. The problem is not to get rid of the self, for how can you get rid of what never existed? The task is to have insight into the transient nature of phenomena and to awaken to the self as largely a figment, a product of contingency. Likewise as a society our task is not to return to Nature, for we never left nature. We simply have to reawaken our connection with it that urbanization has concreted over.

Can we say then that in the dominant culture that is driven by the powerful vested interests of giant corporations the three poisons Greed, Delusion and Ill Will have become embedded and institutionalized respectively in the Economic System, the Media and the Military?

The largest collective Wego we could say, is the human species. How do we see our predicament in the light of our relation as a human collective to the rest of the biosphere, including all other species that preceded us and who have as much right to life as we do? Again our sense of separation, of alienation from the biosphere, from the natural world, seems the key to our predicament. And this is not something science per se or technology can address. They may aid us in understanding the complex processes, and they may be useful in attempting to reverse some of the effects, but fundamentally the crisis is rooted in what drives our collective behavior, and this is essentially a spiritual crisis.

I am sure that others representing different faiths at this forum would agree. But I want to probe a bit deeper into what this means: to what extent is the solution to our individual sense of alienation that dhamma practice seeks to address applicable to our collective predicament? The word Buddha means the Awakened One. It simply refers to the world seen after you wake up from the delusion of seeing the world as sets of discrete objects from the viewpoint of an un-awakened separate self.

Gregory Bateson, author of An Ecology of Mind, commented that seeing ourselves as separate autonomous selves is erroneous: 'This false reification of the self is basic to the planetary ecological crisis in which we find ourselves. We have imagined that we are a unit of survival and we have to see to our own survival, and we imagine that the unit of survival is the separate individual or a separate species, whereas in reality, through the history of evolution it is the individual plus the environment, the species plus the environment, for they are essentially symbiotic.' 

Instead what we have been living off is a culture based on what has been called an extractivist economy, that has replaced an earlier reciprocal relationship with the earth, a dialogue replaced by a monologue: a one-way process of extraction that returns to the earth only the toxic byproducts of our efforts, arising from the delusion of separation and dominance, that we can manipulate the world into conforming to our desires, however banal or however monumental, or even threatening. By objectifying the earth into an inanimate realm of separate discrete objects it has become little more than a supplier of resources and a garbage dump.

We inhabit a culture of disavowal, preferring to believe that what we cannot see does not exist: atmospheric carbon, plastic in the oceans, the chemical invasion of our endocrine systems, research into which is relatively recent, and whose consequences remain uncertain.

Our era is being called the Anthropocene, where the sheer impact of humans on the earth’s living systems is equivalent to a major geological event. Or does that sound rather apocalyptic?

What about the Paris Climate Accord? How much of it will be implemented? Then what about the more than 2 million alternative civil activist groups, grass roots organizations, eco communities and many others working outside the mainstream culture across the world that author Paul Hawken identified in his recent book “BLESSED UNREST”? Perhaps we should place more faith in the growth of such small-scale movements, like the Permaculture Institute here in Kenya that has trained over 4,000 people how to create sustainable food forests. Perhaps we need both.

In the West the tradition since at least ancient Greece, and in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, has been very much focused on social justice, on suffering caused by oppressive institutions. So there is, historically, a stronger tradition than in the East towards changing society. Yet today we find that the Buddhist teaching, the Dhamma, has reinvented itself in the West with what I just referred to as Engaged Buddhism.

The question for many practicing Buddhists today is to what extent personal transformation, which the Dhamma invites one to engage with, can contribute to social transformation. It is as though for the first time in history two very different traditions, that of the West and that of the East, are coming together to meet the challenges of the present. This dialogue has been going on for some time, about 100 years. In the West the emphasis on social change and revolution has too often produced upheavals that only left a new set of oppressors to replace the old ones. In the East liberation has been mostly regarded as an inner subjective process, or more commonly the consolations of a hoped-for final release through numerous rebirths.

When we talk of the West in another sense today we have to ask what that means: for the dominant culture and scientific worldview is now a globalizing phenomenon, a universal paradigm for how we live on this earth. We are all educated into this worldview. Within this worldview there is an implicit assumption: namely that it’s view of reality is the only one possible, and that this is how things actually are. And at its centre is the separate self, the individual as an autonomous entity whose self-interest drives what used to be called the economy of mutual benefit, whose latest manifestation is the neo liberal free market economy. Yet it is the product of a particular value system that shaped it, a social imaginary. The strange thing about it, you could say, is that it is an ideology that pretends that it is not an ideology!

The emphasis, or bias, is on competition rather than cooperation, on doing and having rather than on being, on the dominance and control of nature rather than on a symbiotic mutually reciprocal relationship with nature. The consequences of this worldview are also increasingly visible, as well as being felt in a sense of alienation from a more primordial reality, and often in an underlying, and frequently unacknowledged, despair.

This sense of a spiritual desert, of a life driven by the horizontal trajectory of acquisition, personal wealth, status, and ambition for power or influence, has left many hungering for what used to be called soul, or what we might call the vertical dimension of being, the immersion in sheer being-ness.

The popularity of the Buddhist teaching in the West, and elsewhere, owes much to the fact that it is a teaching that, in its essence, does not require anyone to believe in anything specific, or to submit to any rigid doctrine, or to be obedient to commandments from above, or to conform to any specific rituals – there are rituals, but these vary, being the products of historically determined cultures. A key notion in the teaching is impermanence: that everything changes, that all phenomena are transient, which must of course, to be consistent, apply to Buddhism itself.

So the question in such a time of crisis becomes how this practice can contribute to making a positive change in the dominant structures of society, thus combining the eastern approach to transforming consciousness with the western tradition of social change or transformation.

In other words Practice becomes something not limited to the private realm of personal well-being, but to awaken fully to the implications of the conditions of life for so many, the growing inequalities, the social injustices, the exploitation, and environmental destruction of an endangered earth, and to engage fully with these.

If you look deeply into these teachings, at the heart of which there is a particular notion of mutual causality, of how things dependently arise, how a complexity of causes and conditions gives rise to suffering, and how everything is inextricably interconnected, there is inevitably an implied view that everything that is going on out there, in the world, is a reflection of what is going on inside each of us. They mirror each other. You are the world and the world is You.

And so by bringing attention to focus on how, or in what ways, personal transformation can contribute to social transformation, we can create strategies towards a transition to a life-sustaining model that would take us beyond the fragmenting forms of the fossil fuel age of industrial growth society, and the cultural forms embedded in the narrative of separation and dominance, forms that have now passed their sell-by date.

It is not that we don’t know what is happening, but many of us prefer not to know, or we acknowledge it, while simultaneously at some level we are increasingly aware of the dark side to our dreams of acquisition and self-fulfillment.  In one sense we are aware that we live within a world of interconnectedness, yet we are still hypnotized by linear narratives of infinite growth, and that somehow we will always find more places to dump waste, more resources to satisfy our ever proliferating wants, more places to outsource cheap labour, more humans to abuse.

Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Zen master, poet and peace activist, who was nominated by Martin Luther King Jr. for the Nobel Peace Prize, when asked What do we most need to do to save our world, replied not with some expected strategies, but said simply “What we most need to do is to hear within ourselves the sounds of the Earth crying.”

But too often we look away unwilling to acknowledge the pain we feel at what we are witnessing. To create a different world we have to acknowledge fully the world as it is, not to turn away from or be in denial of the things we see that distress us, and not to feel that the odds are stacked against us.

This denial of our pain for the world is part of the culture that sees grief, vulnerability, acknowledgment of pain, as a sign of weakness, haunted as we often are by shame in a culture that prefers to work through manipulating feeling through systems of reward and punishment, advocating positive thinking rather than appropriate action based on deep insight into our actual condition, where we confront ourselves as we actually are.

And so to honour our pain for the world, to acknowledge it, indeed to embrace it, is the door that opens us to reconnect with the vibrant web of life within which we are deeply embedded. For our pain arises precisely because we are deeply interconnected with all of life. The meaning of the word Compassion is to suffer with.

The poet Khalil Gibran put it like this:

Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.

Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so you must know pain.

And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy.

How did we get into such a mess? We are the story-telling species par excellence. We will probably always end up with some kind of story, or narrative. The Big Bang Theory is currently Science’s dominant creation myth of the modern era.

For the last 2,000 years or so there have been two key narratives, both arising from a Cosmological Dualism:

1. The World as Made by an omnipotent Maker, where notions of good and evil create a battleground for supremacy. Gregory Bateson put it like this: “If you put God outside and set him vis-à-vis his creation and if you have the idea that you are created in his image, you will logically and naturally see yourself as outside and against the things around you. As you arrogate all mind to yourself, you will see the world as mindless and therefore not entitled to moral or ethical consideration. The environment will seem to be yours to exploit. Your survival unit will be you and your folks or conspecifics against….other social units, other races, and the brutes and vegetables.If this is your estimate of your relation to nature and you have an advanced technology, your likelihood of survival will be that of a snowball in hell.”

2. The World as Mechanism that gave birth to the modern age and the industrial growth society.

As these narratives begin to collapse from their own inner contradictions, contradictions rooted in Duality, a Cosmological Dualism, perhaps we can begin to see the outlines of a new nascent narrative, still incomplete, that can supplant the story of separation and dominance, that can retrieve the best wisdom from indigenous cultures and from the heart of post-Axial wisdom teachings that tell us this earth is neither a battlefield nor a machine to be manipulated, but a home of natural abundance and life-giving energies, and that we, her latest child, still in the infancy of our understanding, must mature into a new dramatic story of the dynamic inter-relationship between world and consciousness as we grow into the new awareness that we are not isolated in an indifferent universe, but that we are both subject and object, that science and spirituality tell us that we are our own world coming to know itself through this greater awareness. 

3. I call this the World as Manifestation.

What might this world look like? It might be one that opens into a possible future without any neat closure, without a Day of Judgment or a final Theory of Everything, but an unfolding dynamic and essentially creative world devoted to healing the earth and its biosphere, to healing the wounds of separation and dominance, which can accommodate a wide diversity of life-sustaining communities, that embraces a social ecology, a post-capitalist world of low-tech innovation, renewable energy, low consumption but rich in new forms of creativity, in new possibilities of diverse ways of living, of local economies, of de-centralized governance, a world that requires no less than a re-enchantment of the cosmos, and a world where everyone matters, where everyone’s contribution however small is valued.

I believe we already have the outlines of this new form, in the sense that through us, through this awakening of human consciousness, it is as though individual minds are no longer conceived as something situated within us, behind our eyes, inside our heads, but rather are situated within a larger Mind that embraces and encompasses this myriad diversity of interconnected and interdependent events. As the 13th century Zen Master Dogen said: “I came to realize that Mind is nothing other than the mountains and rivers and the great wide earth, the sun and the moon and the stars.”

Our day to day lives are so pressured by goals and routines that we rarely live in the totality of the present moment, and therefore we are cut off to a great extent from the pulse of life, from the extraordinary fact of being in the world in the fullness of the present. It is time to open our hearts to the vitality of the life around us, and to come alive to the shifting moods and sensorial contact with our surroundings, the seasonal breaths of wind, the flowing waters, the sun’s firelit leaves and the moist rain fed earth, and to appreciate the depths of wind-sculpted rock forms, or the dark majesty of ancient forests, the ones that still remain, which nourish the imagination and flood our neural pathways with a rich and potent mix of colours, sounds, scents and shapes awakening an attentiveness to the myriad particularities of the living universe.

At this juncture in our history to acknowledge our pain at witnessing such destruction, to embrace the suffering that we daily witness, and not to recoil from our complicity in it, is to open ourselves to experience the joy that is our natural birthright, that arises from that deeper connection with all sentient life, that primordial contact with our organic origins, the mystery of our dark genesis out of the abyss of deep time, and our profound responsibility, which means the ability to respond, to challenge the forces that still cling fiercely to an outmoded narrative, and to do all this while knowing there is no inevitability about the outcome, no Utopian expectation, no final closure, but a creative dynamic within the boundless spaciousness of open minds.

Perhaps through the best of our scientific knowledge and through a new collective awakening to the transforming power of consciousness it is as though the cosmos is becoming aware of itself in a new creative partnership, where the liberation we have long sought is not an individual concern of more or less freedom for the individual self, but a new participation as co-creators in the manifestation of life itself through our natural gifts of generosity and creativity that we might call an Ecology of Love.

David Beatty 2016