Buddhist Teachings for the Ecological Crisis

David Loy

Every day I think about something Noam Chomsky said. In an interview recently, he said that this is the most dangerous moment in human history. Right now is the most dangerous time in the history of our species. He said this more than a year ago, so this was in the middle of Covid. But he actually didn't talk about Covid at all. The first thing he mentioned was, of course, the climate crisis.

Actually, I don't like to talk about the climate crisis because it gives a wrong idea. The climate crisis is really just the tip of a much larger ecological iceberg.  If we talk only about climate, it gives the idea that if we can just change quickly enough from fossil fuels to renewables, then our civilization can go on as it has. And I think the problem is much deeper than that, ecologically. It includes loss of biodiversity, the fact that so many plant and animal species are disappearing so quickly. One Harvard biologist, Edward Osborne Wilson, said that by the end of this century, half of all plant and animal species on Earth could go extinct. In addition to that there are so many other ecological issues: pollutants, poisons in the air and the sea and the earth and our bodies, plastics, degradation of agricultural land, topsoil eroding away, et cetera. And probably you can add your own to this list.

What it signifies to me is a civilization that has lost its way. It seems ironic that just or soon after we have attained a truly global civilization, it seems to be self-destructing. Joanna Macy talks about it as kind of unraveling.

When I ask myself when I remember what Chomsky said, I always ask, what does it mean for how I live my life? If this is really the most dangerous moment in human history, what does it mean for the meaning of my life? And what does it mean for our Zen practice, for how we understand Zen teachings and how we practice them?

I am reminded of two little Zen mondo, dialogues. In one of them, the student asked the master, what should we do when difficult times arrive? And the master said, welcome. Our path is not about avoiding difficult times. In fact, we know difficult times are maybe sometimes, often, the times when the deepest transformation occur in our practice. There is another mondo with Zen master Unman. A student asked him, what is the fruit of a lifetime of practice? So, after we have been meditating and practicing for so long, what do we get? What do we learn? What is the benefit? And I love his reply. He just said: “responding appropriately”. In our practice, we learned to respond appropriately in whatever situation we're in. And I think that's wonderful. It reminds us, first of all, that our practice isn't about transcending or escaping this world, but actually experiencing it more immediately, more nondually. But how do we do that? If it's the most dangerous moment in human history, what would it mean? How do we respond appropriately to that? And how does Buddhism help us do it?

One answer to that, I think, is: maybe it doesn't help us. The Buddha lived in a very different time and place, maybe 2400 years ago, in the iron Age, in India. The climate crisis, the ecological crisis wasn't his problem. You can read the Pali Canon. There's nothing in there about it, nothing in there that tell us tells us what to do. And that also applies to all of the other Asian Buddhist traditions, all of which are premodern, none of which was facing the kind of challenge that we are today.
So, it is really important that we cannot turn to any traditional Buddhist text, Zen or otherwise, and find a specific answer about what we should do.

But still, there are lots of important implications in Buddhist teachings which we can develop and draw out to help us. And what I'd like to talk about this evening is the one that I think is definitely the most important of all, and that is very simply the Bodhisattva path. Or as I prefer to call it, the new Bodhisattva path, because I think we need to adapt it. I think we need to add or expand it, broaden it, understand it in a slightly different way to meet our situation. Now, we also talk about the ‘Ecosattva’ path, focusing on Bodhisattvas that are responding to the ecological crisis. Therefore, what I'd like to do is basically talk about three aspects of the new Bodhisattva path, which I think are extremely helpful for those of us who are concerned about the ecological crisis.

The first aspect is something I think we're all familiar with. It's the idea that Bodhisattvas have a double practice or a two-sided practice, like the two sides of a coin or maybe even the two sides of our hand, because they continue to work on their own spiritual dharma development. They continue, for example, to do Zazen, maybe attend sesshins and work in that way. But they also know that that is in itself insufficient, that they also need to be socially engaged in the world. And the point that I want to emphasize is that it is not simply that they have two practices or that they go well together, but I think each practice actually needs the other one if it is to be as successful as we need it to be.

Maybe this is easiest to see from the side of activism. It's a pretty difficult path, often frustrating because you're not successful or as successful as you want to be. It’s tough, and I think it is hard to avoid anger, frustration, and burnout. So how wonderful, therefore, if eco activists can ground this kind of activism in a practice that helps give them equanimity, help them from burning out, or even if they are frustrated, they can return to the practice, and it will, as it were, ground them. So, for example, in Colorado, where I live, we have started what we call an Ecodharma center. We have retreats for activists where we teach them meditation, and they seem to be really happy to learn about it. But it works from the other side as well. I think we Buddhists, we Zen practitioners, also need to be engaged. Even if we look at it from the side of our own practice, our own development. It's still a big issue because there are many practitioners who think that the real practice is zazen for example, and to be engaged is a kind of distraction. Maybe we have to do it, but we don't really like to do it. And I think that misses the point. I think we're at a point now where we need to realize our engagement, ecologically, socially, is just as important a practice for us as what we're doing when we meditate together on the cushion.

I wonder if many of us have a kind of romanticized idea about enlightenment. For example, Milarepa, the great Tibetan yogi, supposedly lived by himself in a cave for many, many, many years, meditated really hard. His skin turned green because he ate nettles. And according to the Tibetan tradition, he went all the way to Buddhahood in one lifetime.

I wonder about that. I wonder whether it really works like that. And I am reminded of something Joanna Macy said: “The world has a role to play in our practice. The world has a role to play in our enlightenment.” Interesting. And I remember when I started Zen practice a long time ago in Hawaii, I was living in the Maui Zendo, which was a very nice place to practice. And it was unconventional in some ways, but we were very dedicated to practice. And frankly, openings, glimpses what we sometimes call kensho, were not uncommon. But what I think many of us found more challenging was to actually integrate those moments of insight into how we actually lived and related to other people.

Ram Dass said: “So you think you're enlightened, right? Well, go spend the holidays with your family.” We know what he's pointing to, right?

Franz Kafka, the Czech writer, wrote in a letter something that is along this line, and it really moves me deeply. He said, you can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world. That is something you are free to do, but perhaps your holding back is the one suffering you could avoid. Wow. Can I say it again? You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world, but maybe that holding back is the one suffering you could avoid.  

We come to something like Zen practice. Why do we do it? Well, frankly, it's because there's some problem, some dissatisfaction with our life, right? Why would we spend all this time sitting on our butts, with sore legs, sore back? Why would we do it? Except there is something about our lives that isn't quite right. But as we engage in the practice and we begin to get insight into what's going on, what we sooner or later realize is that the fundamental problem is this self-preoccupation in the first place. And that therefore the solution is an engagement that helps us restructure our habits so that we manage to change from self-centered, self-preoccupied habits to habits that are more engaged.

One of my all-time favorite quotations is by the Hindu teacher Nisargadatta. He said: “when I look inside and see that I am nothing, that is wisdom. When I look outside and see that I am everything, that is love. Between these two, my life flows.” Isn't that beautiful? I mean, I think he's got it right there. That is wisdom and love. Or as we usually say in Buddhism, wisdom and compassion. They are the two pillars of the path. And he shows us the relationship between them. That wisdom is this insight into our nonduality, our non-separation, that my well-being isn't separate from yours or from that of the earth. And this love is not a feeling or an emotion, but the love he refers to is a way of embodying that realization, a way of engaging with the world. So that there's been this restructuring in the meaning of our lives, away from this self-preoccupation to: what can I do to make this a better world for everyone.

And in the process of doing that, we are overcoming what I see as the fundamental source of suffering: the delusion of a separate self. So, we not only need to see through that, but we need to learn how to live it. And that is where the whole point about social engagement comes in. In other words, the person who benefits most from the activity of the Bodhisattva is the Bodhisattva herself. As Kōbō-Daishi said, the measure of our enlightenment is how we serve others.

So that is the first point I wanted to make: the connection between our individual transformation and our engagement in the world. It turns out that they work very well together. If we understand that this delusion of a separate self is at the core of our practice, this naturally leads to engagement.

Bob Thurman is a professor of Tibetan Buddhism at Columbia University. He liked to say: “practice, practice, practice. Everyone is always talking about practice. What I want to know is: when is the performance?” And it turns out that, guess what? The performance is part of our practice.

Second point. The reason I like to talk about the new Bodhisattva path is frankly that I think we have a better understanding today, or certainly a broader understanding today, of the fundamental problem that our engagement is addressing. What do I mean by that? The most important term in Buddhism, most obviously in early Buddhism, is Dukkha, and that's the term usually translated into English as suffering. But that only works if we understand it in the broadest possible sense. Not just as physical or mental pain, but as dissatisfaction, frustration, anxiety, dis-ease. The Buddha himself was very clear about that. He said: “all I have to teach is Dukkha and how to end it.”

But Buddhism also talks more specifically about the three poisons. I usually translate them as greed, ill will, and delusion. And traditionally they have mostly been understood on the individual level. What I'm working on is my own greed, ill will and delusion, which when I'm motivated by them creates karma and creates problems for me, but it tends to be on the individual level. And what I think we need to recognize today is that the three poisons have been institutionalized, by which I mean they have taken on a life of their own. They are not simply problems for individuals, they are systemic. And maybe the best example of that is the first one, greed. If greed means that you never have enough, well, it seems to me that's a pretty good definition of consumerism. And to be frank, it really seems to me that the real religion of the modern world is consumerism. But not only consumerism in the sense of you never have enough. Think about corporate capitalism. Corporations are never profitable enough. Their market share is never big enough. Their stock prices are never high enough. And every president, every head of state is preoccupied, often most of all, with gross national product, gross domestic.

Corporate consumer capitalism didn't exist in the Buddhist day. There was a beginning of a kind of market economy, but not like we have today. And let me explain what I mean by institutionalization taking on the life of its own. Suppose that you are the CEO of a fossil fuel corporation, and something happens. Maybe one night you have an enlightenment, and you realize this isn't working. We've got to change as quickly as possible from fossil fuels to renewables. Otherwise, we're going to destroy the climate. So, you have this great realization. What do you do? Well, if what you try to do is going to impact profitability, you'll lose their job and be replaced by somebody else. And that's the CEO at the very top who in a way has more power than anybody else. But even that person is constrained by the way corporations are structured.

Corporations are legal forms of institutionalized greed. They want to grow; they want to be more profitable. And it's the same for politicians, the same for the president of the US. If you happen to be president at a time when there's a serious recession or inflation: good luck, President Biden, it's very hard to get re-elected. People like presidents for whom the economy is booming. But for me, it raises the question: why is more and more always better if it can never be enough?

I think it also points to a real challenge for Zen sangha’s, with regard to the Three Treasures, Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. We have a lot of Buddha teachers. We have a lot of Dharma teachings. But the biggest problem in many Zen groups is Sangha. Most of the time we're being quiet together. And in a sesshin we're not chatting and creating friendships. We're being quiet. Maybe we listen to a talk by the Roshi. Maybe we have a one on one with the teacher and then at the end we have tea, and we chat a little bit to the person next to us and then we go home.
There is real value in sitting together. It does something, but it doesn't really create a strong sense of community. Which I think is going to be necessary in several ways. To be quite frank, and as many of you no doubt suspect, I think we're in for some difficult times. And the most important thing may be, to be part of a loving community where people are there for you, for each other. And I doubt whether the Zen sangha’s have been doing a good enough job on that. The reason I mention it is, because if we have institutionalized greed, which causes institutionalized dukkha, I don't think that is something we can just address individually. It's not like individuals helping other individuals, which is often the way we think about the Bodhisattva path. In the US, in the last generation, we've become a lot better in that individual helping: helping homeless people, teaching prisoners how to meditate, Zen hospices, and so on. But what about addressing the institutionalized forms of greed, ill will and delusion? I think we have become a lot better in pulling individual people out of this river of dukkha. But we also need to ask who or what is pushing them in upstream. Why are there so many more people suffering? We need a kind of Zen perspective and analysis of what's going on here. And we also need to come together and work together in order to respond to it and address it.

When Bill McKibben, the founder of, was in Paris for the climate talks a few years ago, somebody asked him: what can I do as an individual? And he replied: stop being an individual. Individually, we need to think about our own carbon footprint. Fly less, buy solar panels, drive electric cars, et cetera. But I think he's got a really important point that we need to work together on this matter. And that is going to be hard for us because, at least in the US, Zen has plugged all too easily into American individualism. And so Zen practice just becomes another kind of individual pursuit to make my own life better. I have my nice middle-class lifestyle, and now I'm going to meditate, I'll have peace of mind, and I'll enjoy my life even more, and then I'll have my own enlightenment.

But I mean, let's think. Let's remember this tension. On the one hand, if the point of our practice is to see through the delusion of a separate self, to realize our nonduality, that we're interconnected, that our wellbeing is interconnected, how much does this focus on individual equanimity and enlightenment? Which is it? We may start there, but we have to overcome that. So, that's the second point that I wanted to say about what I call it the new Bodhisattva path. I think it involves the realization that the challenges we're facing are institutional, structural, and it's not enough just to think, oh, I'll be a good person and I'll help people, and I'll be a good example. We've got to find ways to work together.

And here's my third and final point. Buddhism doesn't tell us what those ways are. This fits in with what I said earlier. We can't expect Buddhism to tell us what to do because it originated in such a different time and place. But, and here's the really most important thing about the Bodhisattva path. It tells us a great deal about how to do whatever it is that we decide to do.  Certain traits, certain qualities that we should develop in ourselves, and certain kind of perspectives with which we practice. Now, if you know anything about the Bodhisattva path, you've probably heard that Bodhisattvas don't follow the usual eightfold path of the Buddha. Instead, Bodhisattvas are expected to develop six perfections, six character-traits to the highest possible degree. And those are traditionally: generosity, moral behavior, patience or forbearance, persistence, meditation, and prajnaparamita or wisdom. They develop these character traits to the highest possible degree, which is why they're called paramitas or perfections. But what I want to focus on as a way of finishing is actually something a little different.

At least for me, the single most important aspect of bodhisattva activity is that Bodhisattvas act without attachment to the results of their actions. Actually, the Buddha says this in the Pali Canon. He said that the actions of an awakened person are nirasa, which is usually translated as “without expectation” or even sometimes “without hope”. And we also find it in other spiritual traditions. For example, in the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna, the incarnation of God, is teaching Arjuna different paths. And one of them is called Karma Yoga, because Karma literally means action. And Karma Yoga is defined as action without attachment to results. So let me quote it: “Your right is to the work, never to the fruits.” You can see how that would cut through greed. And in a way, that's what it is supposed to do. But also, what does it imply about our ecological engagement?

Actually, I think it is easily misunderstood because it can seem to imply a kind of casual attitude. And this fits in because one of the really important spiritual innovations of the Buddha was that he emphasized intention, motivation. At the time of the Buddha, probably most people already believed in Karma, but they understood it mechanically. Basically, what the Buddha said is, no, what creates karma is intentional action. And so we might think, oh, the only thing that really matters then is the purity of my intention. It doesn't matter if anything gets done or not. And I think that's a really dangerous misunderstanding. So, what I want to do is end my talk by explaining what I think it really means to act without attachment to the results.

First example, please consider the difference between running 100-meter dash and running a marathon. With 100-meter dash, the only thing at all that matters is getting to the other end as quickly as possible. But you can't run the marathon that way. You'll burn yourself up right away. Instead, you have to pace yourself. And as my friends who run marathons say, it's actually better if you don't think about the goal or get preoccupied with the goal. The important point is just this step, because as long as you're running in the right direction, you are going to get there. You don't have to think about the goal. In Japanese, there's a term for it: tada. Just this.

It's not as though you're doing something else. You're definitely doing something. But the focus is on here and now. And of course, that's what our practice has always encouraged. So again, you don't need to think about the results. You're focused on what you need to do right here and now.

But what about a path that has no end, where there's no stopping point? I'm thinking particularly about the four bodhisattva vows, which I assume you also recite here. And the first one is: “living beings are numberless, I vow to save them all”. Which is kind of weird if you think about it. You are promising to do something that cannot be achieved. But of course, that's the point. It's not really a contradiction. What it is talking about is a reorientation in the meaning of one's life, away from what's in it for me, to: what can I do to make this world a better place, what can I do to help people, what can I do to alleviate dukkha. And the point is, there is no attachment to results here, because there is no end to it. You do what you can in a specific situation. Sometimes you're successful. Great. Does that mean, oh, I've done it, now I can go have a holiday? No, there is no end to it. You are successful and there is always more. Or you're not successful and you've got to try to do it in a different way, or adjust in some way. But the point is, you're doing it because it has a certain kind of new orientation to your life, where you are not preoccupied with getting to some final place. It's a new way of being in the world.

I think this has an interesting implication for the ecological crisis, because somebody who has volunteered for a job that is literally unattainable, hopeless, will not be intimidated by difficulties, even an ecological situation that looks really bad. The US Marines have a motto. It says: “the really, really difficult things we do right away, the impossible will take a little longer”.

So again, one of the meanings of ‘non-attachment to results’ is this orientation in terms of where one is headed rather than the goal you're trying to get to. Because there is no such final goal.

But there's a third and last point. This is the last thing I want to say, but I'm going to take a while to say it. It is a response to the fact that the ecological situation is very difficult, as you probably already know. There are scientists who privately and now sometimes publicly say we are in deep trouble and maybe civilization as we know it will not be able to survive.

Actually, that reminds me of the good news and the bad news about civilization. The bad news is that civilization as we know it is coming to an end. The good news is that civilization as we know it is coming to an end.

Some people talk about collapse. Joanna Macy likes to talk about unraveling. But the Roman Empire took hundreds of years to unravel. At the time, people didn't know that it was declining. There's definitely this ‘don't know’ quality. We don't know what's happening. We don't know whether we might already be past tipping points. We just don't know.  Often in everyday parlance this would be considered a problem. But in Zen, actually it is something we embrace. It's part of our path. I remember one of my teachers, Robert Aiken. He liked to say that our path is not about clearing up the mystery, it is making the mystery clear. It is about letting go and opening up to this great ‘don't know’, this mystery. We don't grasp the mystery. The mystery, in a way, takes us. We open up to that. ‘Don't know mind’ is, I think, absolutely essential here. It involves a certain kind of flexibility. We do the best we can on the basis of what we know, but with a certain kind of openness of mind that we're ready to change as the situation or our understanding of the situation changes.

The non-attachment to results, that is so important on the Bodhisattva path, has really important implications for the future and how we think about it. In other words, it is not about optimism or pessimism. And it is interesting how those two are always a pair. As I like to say: a pessimist is someone who has had to live with an optimist. It is the same thing with hope and despair. They, too, are a dualistic pair, and you never have one without the other. Hope is a denial, even repression of the possibility of despair. Our path is not about hope and despair. Joanna Macy says: “I find that assuring people there is hope, including myself, is not all that useful. In Buddhism, there is no word for hope.” Hope is a distraction from what is at hand. It takes you out of the present moment and into conjecture. I think all we can really affirm is where we want to put our attention. I have a choice. Do I want to give up and surrender to the great unraveling? Or do I want to join those working for a livable future? Since the outcome is uncertain, we have to enjoy doing something exhilarating and useful without knowing for sure if it is going to work out. Our path isn't about hope and despair.
Especially this problem with despair. I think it is really important to distinguish between despair and grief. Despair is this head trip, about what is going to happen or what may happen in the future. Grief is something we feel right here now. It's more bodily. I remember when I was in London once, I came across a little memorial to the victims of 9/11, and all it said was: “grief is the price we pay for love”.

Grief is the price we pay for love. So grief, too, is part of a pair, grief and love. And if we don't grieve, and I think many of us are afraid to grieve, if we don't grieve because we're afraid it's going to blow us away or something, we lose touch with our love. One of the really important things we do at our Ecodharma center, in our Ecosattva retreats after we've been practicing together for some days, we actually share our grief, our fears, our angers. And it's so powerful. We help each other feel and express what we're feeling. And it's very empowering. The more I think about it, the more I think that sharing our grief is an essential ritual practice, a sacrament, in Ecodharma. A ritual that has to be an essential part of our Ecosattva practice because it is not as though you feel it and then it is gone. I mean, there is grief anyway, and sometimes we are going to feel it more than others. We have to be open to that.

When we really get it, when we are really feeling our grief and it is going beyond our ego, I don't think that it is just our own grief. It is the grief of the earth. We are expressing something deeper. We are getting in touch with something deeper than our own egos. Do you know that story about the Buddha when he was challenged by Mara after his awakening? Mara challenged him and said, well, you think you're enlightened? Who authorizes this? Maybe it's just your fantasy. Remember what the Buddha did? He touched the earth and he said, the earth is my witness. Wow, it's interesting. What does that really mean? But one of the implications is that it reminds us we are not beings that just happen to live on the earth. We are manifestations, we are forms that the biosphere takes.

Wendell Berry is one of my favorite American writers. He said, we don't have the right to ask whether we are going to succeed or not. The only question we have the right to ask is: what is the right thing to do? What does the earth require of us if we want to continue to live on it? And I think that points to the deepest meaning of non-attachment to results. And frankly, to me, this is the most important thing of all. That our task, our job is to do the very best we can without knowing whether anything we do makes any difference whatsoever.

That is important, that what we do is our gift to the earth. And as we know, when you give a gift, if you expect something in return, it's not really a gift. Gift is given freely. I will do the best, we will do the best we can. Does it make any difference? We don't know. Is it too late because we are already past turning points and civilization is doomed? We don't know. But it's okay that we don't know.

We do not know if what we do is important, but it is very important that we do it.

Now. Of course, that's setting the bar really high. It is an ideal, not something that we are always going to achieve. But that's the point of our practice. The fact that, okay, we really try hard to do something, it doesn't quite work out, we're disappointed, we feel sad about it. But then we have this practice, we have this wonderful practice, zazen, and we return to that and that helps us cope with it. And the important thing is, we don't use that practice as a way of evading our responsibility, but to respond in the best way that we can. And frankly, I think if we get in touch, if we really open up, I think the Earth is calling upon all of us to become ecosattvas these days. What I've tried to offer is some of the ways in which I think Zen and Buddhism in general really does have something to offer us that can really make a difference, that this understanding of the Bodhisattva path might be maybe the most critical thing that our tradition has to offer at this most dangerous moment in human history.

Dharmatalk by David Loy at Zen Center Amsterdam, June 1, 2022