Today humanity faces its greatest challenge ever: an ecological crisis, inseparable from underlying socio-economic crisis, that threatens civilization as we know it, and perhaps even our survival as a species. How can Buddhist and other spiritual teachings help us understand and respond to our current situation? And what does this ongoing socio-ecological crisis imply about how we understand and practice these teachings?
The ecological and social crises we face now go far beyond the ordinary personal suffering that Buddhism has usually been concerned with. Traditional Buddhist teachings help us to wake up individually and experience our non-separation from the world. Today we must ask whether those teachings also apply to group delusions of a collective self: namely a civilization that collectively acts as if separate and above the natural processes of the Earth. Isn’t our collective ecological predicament a larger and parallel version of the perennial individual predicament: the notion that I am a self “inside” separate from a world that is “outside”? Is our species really separate from the natural world, or an intrinsic part of it?
The practical issue then becomes whether we can use our spiritual practices to investigate the root causes of our present situation. On one level we have human hearts and minds that have difficulty restraining the drive for immediate gratification and pleasure, regardless of the harmful consequences to ourselves and to others. On another level, we have a civilization that has institutionalized greed and exploitation, resulting in unrestrained growth of consumption and population, and the burning of fossil fuels that propels it all, with little effective consideration of the environmental costs.
A powerful avenue for investigating our personal and collective separation is silent meditation retreats in wild nature. With deep, mindful observation we can see through the illusion of a self that is separate and realize that in order to live harmoniously we must give up both the illusion of being above or beyond the more-than-human world (or less privileged members of our society) and the illusion of control that technology and society have so deeply ingrained in us.
Workshops and other activities in a natural environment that focus on these complex issues are also important. Practitioners can reflect and learn together about how to integrate social engagement with their contemplative practices, realizing that such engagement is not separate from spirituality, but an essential aspect of a spiritual path. Activists can learn to ground activism in practice, going beyond self-righteousness, fear, anger, and frustration and opening up to their own natural wisdom, compassion and courage.
Since the natural world, including its innumerable species and processes as well as the most vulnerable human members of our planetary ecosystem, is unable to protect itself from our formidable systems and technologies, the ultimate question is how we can realize our non-duality with it, to love it and be loved by it, and in that way come to embrace responsibility for the wellbeing of the whole biosphere. Our intention is that in working for the healing of the earth, we are empowered, healed, and awakened.