A Personal Journal about Trying to Do the Right Thing in a Climate Emergency

by Rev. Domyo Burk

I just spent the night in Eugene, Oregon, with a dear friend and Dharma sister, Seido. We’ve been practicing Zen together for over 20 years. Way back in the day, I would travel to the Eugene Zendo with one of my teachers. After he gave the evening talk to the group, Seido and I would stay up until the the wee hours, passionately discussing the Dharma. What did it mean to be fully awake in this life? How did we bring about such awakening in ourselves?

Twenty years later, Seido and I are in the role of teachers. On this visit to Eugene, I gave a talk to the vibrant Sangha Seido started. Then, as we have so many times before, we stayed up late talking, curled up in chairs with mugs of tea balanced on our knees. One topic flowed naturally into the next, and periodically one or the other of us would sit up straight with excitement over a new insight, or a fresh idea cooked up in collaborative conversation. We didn’t quite make it to the wee hours, but then, we’re twenty years older than we were when our conversation started.

This time, one of our main topics was climate change and what to do about it. How can we help our Sangha members and students wake up to the urgency of the crisis? How can we lead our Sanghas out of denial, overwhelm, or despair, into a sustainable practice of facing reality, supporting one another, and taking action? We both agree action can take many different forms, but needs to consider systemic issues and collective karma as well as individual behavior.

Seido has lots of really cool ideas about how to engage Buddhist folks in a conversation about addressing climate change and the larger ecological crisis, but what was most compelling to me – to both of us, I think – was the underlying existential question posed by our current situation: Do Buddhists, like all people, need to address the climate crisis primarily for the sake of survival? Or is addressing the climate crisis an opportunity to challenge and strengthen our Zen practice, and, ultimately, to awaken?

In other words, is our responsibility as Dharma teachers to mobilize our Sanghas into action because everyone is needed in the fight, and we have a certain amount of influence with that group? Or is our responsibility as Dharma teachers to challenge our Sanghas to face the climate crisis because it’s nothing other than – as we Zennies put it – The Great Matter of Life and Death? I believe our climate and ecological crisis presents us with both a need and an opportunity, and our responsibility is both practical and spiritual.

This reminds me of an email exchange I participated in recently, with other Zen teachers, about responding to climate change. One teacher pointed out that it’s important to awaken to, and remind people about, what we call in Zen the “absolute” perspective. He said that although effective action was important, he hoped to “also point to the wholeness, infinite creativity and sacredness of life as it is.” I responded:

“Indeed, and this conviction is a precious thing we can offer not just to our Sangha members but also to activists, many of whom struggle with despair and burnout. We’ll definitely have important roles in the coming years helping people deal with overwhelm, fear, and grief. There is no greater medicine than the taste of suchness, which neither comes no goes, and cannot be destroyed.

“I just get uncomfortable when, as Zen teachers, we spend so much time emphasizing this aspect of reality, which people can, and often do, take as an excuse not to take action. Apathy, paralysis, disconnect, and acceptance of the status quo in the face of the climate crisis seem to me like a bigger problem than too much concern, especially in the white, middle-class, privileged folks that make up the bulk of our western convert Sanghas. I’m not a priest in order to relieve middle-class people of their sense of grief, guilt, and responsibility; I love my Sangha members and wish for them true happiness, but I question my Dharma teaching when they say they’re too busy to find their own, unique way to take action to bring about what they hope for in the world, but they still have time for overseas vacations.

“As Joanna Macy points out, it’s grief that calls us to action. I hope to find a way to help people turn toward their grief for the world and transform it. I haven’t found it yet, but I’ll keep trying, because it’s the bodhisattva vow that saves us from hinayana (self-interested) practice, and it’s not just a metaphor.”

I found the other teacher’s subsequent response deeply inspirational. To me, it offers an interesting take on the question I raised earlier about whether responding to the climate crisis is a practical or a spiritual matter. He said, “In my limited experience indifference has nothing to do with deep acceptance. When we are in accord with the way things are, what is revealed is fearless love; Kindness without boundaries. The basis of our functioning is no longer reactive anger and fear over an imagined future, but fearless engagement with the vital present.”

Well said, brother, well said! The climate crisis is pushing us right up against our materialism, and our tendency to see self-interest as separate from, and even in opposition to, the well-being of all life. It’s challenging us to find a way to work with others instead of simply vilifying them; it’s bringing us face to face with our fear of death, loss, and change. At the most profound level, it demands we reconnect with what matters most – because only that will sustain us.

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