Earth/Dharma: Ecology and Buddhism
Using mindfulness practice we can work with environmental problems directly without experiencing the obstacles of anger, powerlessness, burnout, or blaming others.
by Jane Philpin
The EARTH/DHARMA Ecology and Buddhism series currently running at the Shambhala Meditation Center of White River offers an exploration of our relationship with the earth, our present ecological predicament, and how meditation and other practices can help. Wondering what this was all about, I interviewed the teachers: Shastri Donna Williams and Ryan Harvey.
JP: How did this class come about? It isn’t one of our Way of Shambhala classes, or particularly Shambhala or Buddhist sounding.
DW: I think it happened because I was involved in various spiritual ecology groups. It was timely that we do something here at the Shambhala Center that connects people with how they can be involved as activists, and also practice mindfulness — the idea is bringing those two strands together. We’re supposed to take our practice wherever we go and apply it in all these different avenues of our lives, and it seems like ecology is an avenue that a few of us are passionately involved in.
JP: So, did you just make up the content for this class?
DW: Ryan found a syllabus that had been developed by a Shambhala member in the Kootenays.
JP: So there’s a syllabus that has been taught in Shambhala centers before?
DW: Yes, they’ve done a lot of work with local spritual groups. It was developed in British Columbia.
JP: Will this class help me make daily life personal decisions? For example, my friends who have electric air cleaners in every room encourage me to get some, which is to me kind of pitting my better health against the health of the planet (running more electrical devices). Also, a Vermont organization sends me a letter each month showing that I use more electricity than my neighbors do. Makes me feel like the planet would be better off if I just died!
DW: [laughing] First make sure you won’t be cremated!! That would only make things worse!
JP: Is it going to address those kind of things?
DW: There will be a chance to have that sort of forum, and a way for people to articulate those issues. For example, I have a problem with pets, and the money wasted on pets. People really freak out when I talk about that.
JP: Most people who choose to live in Vermont and nearby New Hampshire do care about the earth, the environment, plants, animals, weather — and try to do what they can already. Is this class just going to pile more guilt on us about what more we should be doing and foregoing?
DW: That’s a good point. In Shambhala Buddhism we’d say that turning to guilt as a response to a perceived question or threat is kind of missing the point. There are other ways we can work with emotional responses. How can we work with all the things that come up? One of them is guilt, and others are powerlessness, hopelessness, or depression. The ecological crisis brings up all of that for us, and we have to decide whether we want to wallow in despair or get angry. So the class will present ways of working with the questions that this crisis has brought on.
JP: So that’s where the connection to meditation comes in. We’re thinking, “OK, I’m gonna sit on this cushion for 10 minutes every day — and how is that going to help the environment?” You’re saying it helps you work with your emotions.
DW: Yes, so you aren’t crippled or paralyzed by them. Feelings of powerlessness just lead to inertia. In order to work effectively you have to deal with those feelings.
JP: Sometimes I come down to martyrdom. Should I give up my life and drive out to the Dakotas where they’re protesting the pipeline? I feel like in some ways that’s what needed, but it would be a terrible hardship.
DW: Yes, exactly, so we can look at those extreme views and see if they are useful or not. By working with our negative emotions that paralyze us and cause confusion, we can have insight into what can actually be useful. And see that there might be a middle way.
JP: What makes you and what makes Ryan qualified to teach on this topic? I like the idea that you are of different generations — yours and mine included the Back to the Land movement, and maybe Ryan, as a homesteader, he is part of a new back to the land idea? Ryan, do you want to jump in?
RH: Well, what brought me to Buddhism and the practice of meditation was actually my time spent outdoors. I spent a lot of time hiking and backpacking, not formal meditation, but came to many of the same insights as Buddhism. Later when I was practicing Buddhism and meditation I thought “Huh! This is close!” And I felt that my connection with the natural world has also been a way of studying the path and traditions of Buddhism. So the part of the practice is that time spent out in the wilds brought me to meditation.
JP: Donna, would you like to say something more?
DW: I got irritated with my propane bill two years ago, so I started investigating solar energy, and that’s been really successful. Then I got involved with a Buddhist ecology group, and with planning an event at Dartmouth. So I’ve just been reading stuff. I feel like I haven’t read 40 books, I haven’t been on the front lines of any particular ecology group, but I can see that my Buddhist practice can inform and be helpful in that arena.
JP: So Donna you actually have studied the practicalities of solar and things like that, and Ryan you actually work with forests. Sounds like you are both bringing a lot to this class. Can you tell me what you hope to teach people, what you hope they take away from this series into their lives of work, family, friends, activism?
RH: This class may be a contemplation for students who sometimes get caught in the duality of inside vs. outside. This is something that was explained for me by the poet Gary Snyder. I’ve been a huge fan of his for many years. What we typically call nature is what we see when we are looking and pointing to the outside world outside our houses. I would challenge everyone to consider nature as also being who we are and including the ‘built’ environment. Thus this contemplation is on the true nature of the phenomenal world and ourselves! I think this is integral in terms of the ecological healing being done as well as the personal and social healing I feel is needed.
The EARTH/DHARMA course started November 22, and continues every Tuesday evening through December 20.
Shastri Donna Williams is currently a member of the White River Shambhala Center where she has held various posts over the past 30 or so years, most recently as the Director of Practice and Education. She is a also a member of a group of local (Upper Valley of Vermont and New Hampshire) Buddhist leaders who are planning an ecology/activism/practice program at Dartmouth College for the spring of 2016. They are reaching out to other spiritual and ecological groups in the area to include as many collaborators as possible. For the past eight years she has taught and staffed programs in Chile and continues to study Spanish and maintain a connection to her “other” sangha in Santiago and Copiapo, Chile.
Ryan J. Harvey is a licensed professional forester, land manager, and trails consultant. Ryan is currently the Rusung of the White River Shamabhala Center. He resides with his partner, Bethann Weick, and their dog, Mica, in Dorchester, New Hampshire, where they homestead 28 acres along the South Branch of the Asquamchumauke River.