Can Buddhism help us understand the ecological crisis?
A reflection on practice by David Loy
We are here to overcome the illusion of our separation. – Thich Nhat Hanh
I came to realize clearly that mind is nothing other than mountains and rivers and the great wide earth, the sun and the moon and the stars. — Dogen
Is the ecological crisis a larger version of our usual individual predicament, according to Buddhism?
The Buddha emphasized the connection between dukkha – “suffering” in the broadest sense – and the delusion of a self that feels separate from others and from the natural world. Because this self isn’t real, it is always insecure, haunted by a sense of lack. We usually misunderstand the source of this lack and try to fill it up by grasping at things outside ourselves: if only I had enough money, consumer toys, fame, etc…
I can’t get rid of this separate self, because it doesn’t exist, yet I can “let go” of myself and realize my interdependence with everyone and everything else. “I” am not behind my eyes, somewhere between the ears, but one of the countless ways the world is manifesting, right here and now. The meaning of my life changes from self-preoccupation (“What can I get out of this situation?”) to compassion (“What can I do to make this situation better for everyone?”).
We also have a collective sense of self, which today feels separates from the earth. This too involves an uncomfortable sense of lack: how can we secure ourselves? Again, we misunderstand the source of the problem and have become obsessed with never-ending economic growth and exploitation of the world’s resources. But why is more and more always better if it can never be enough?
We can’t “return to nature” because we’ve never left it. The earth is not only our home but our mother, and we never cut the umbilical cord. Our bodies don’t end at our feet: their need to breathe, drink and eat reminds us that each of us is a microcosm of the great macrocosm, one of the countless manifestations of a biosphere that includes many millions of other species.
Today the path of awakening includes realizing our nonduality with the earth, and living according to that realization. That means healing what we have damaged – which will heal us too.
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