Zen and Climate Change: Healing the Earth

Dharma Talk by Deirdre Eisho Peterson

November 2014

Deep concerns about the earth are on the minds of many of us these days. What is happening with climate change? What should we believe? What should we do …. what can we do? I’d like to talk a little about climate change and our earth from a Zen perspective, and see what wisdom Zen Master Dogen might have to offer us. And I’d like to start by giving you a brief report from the big Climate March in NYC last September.

So the People’s Climate March was a major event. You may have seen photographs of it. The Village Zendo, my sangha in NYC, marched in this event, along with other Buddhist groups and a wide range of spiritual groups, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu. Over 1000 different groups from all over the country, and even internationally, converged on Manhattan for the march — schools, environmental groups, social justice groups, unions, and businesses. The march was huge and colorful and had a very good vibe. There was a lot of enthusiasm, of people coming together, organizations coming together in fresh and unexpected ways that open the door to possibilities. One Jewish group had 100 people playing the shofar, the traditional rams horn, an instrument of great spiritual power, as they marched. So it was inspiring and uplifting to participate and to witness. To come out of our own private worry and distress over the state of our earth and to join with other like-minded people working towards solutions was tremendously energizing and empowering.

While the march was focused primarily on the urgency for action around climate change, it also sought to bring attention to issues of environmental justice, in recognition that some communities are already bearing a heavy burden from climate change and the degradation of the earth. That include communities such as those in New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina; it includes low-income neighborhoods near waste disposal facilities where there are high rates of cancer and where children go to school with asthma inhalers; it includes island nations in danger of disappearing as sea levels rise. So we walked in solidarity with these communities.

Did the march make a difference on public opinion and on policy decisions? We don’t know. One of the march leaders, Rabbi Arthur Waslow, says that he believes the march could be a turning point to face and to begin to heal our planet’s climate crisis, and he makes a comparison with the March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs in the summer of 1963, which helped to turn the debate about civil rights into public action.

So how much of an impact the march will make on world leaders and their policy decisions is something we may not know for years to come. But we know that it matters that we walk. David Loy, the author of our study book The World Is Made of Stories, makes the point that the division we may see between our own personal transformation in Buddhist practice and the larger collective social transformation is an artificial division. Those two are not separate. So it’s important that we broaden our vision of what practice is, of the scope and depth of practice.

So how are each of us is experiencing the profound changes related to climate that are going on around us? For me, I have to say that things often feel a little surreal. Like there is a disconnect. A disconnect in that every day there are frightening and shocking news stories about the rise in temperatures and the rise in sea levels, about the melting of ice caps and glaciers, about the destructive weather, floods and droughts and storms, and the appalling rate at which biodiversity is collapsing as plants and animals are disappearing.

-Yet world economists continue to talk calmly about growth rates of the economy and increased oil exploration and production, as though none of this was happening, as though growth could just continue indefinitely.

-Yet our political system continues to be in paralysis, incapable of passing even the most mild and rational legislation, again as though none of this climate catastrophe was happening.

-Yet in some parts of the country the “theory” of climate change can not even be mentioned in school science classes, because it is just considered liberal dogma, a “theory” that is too threatening to states whose economies depends on the production of fossil fuels.

The disconnect is when we see a system that is collapsing under the weight of internal contradiction. That disconnect is why the Climate March was so significant. It was an important step in overcoming the culture of denial that leaves us feeling hopeless and disempowered. Among other things, the march was about taking back our sanity, our power, our ability to care and to speak the truth and to take action.

Things also feel a little surreal to me because of the magnitude of this crisis, the enormity of the change that needs to happen ….. and because it has emerged so suddenly. I feel like I still haven’t fully grasped all of that, of how much the world has changed, of how critical the situation is. The first 2/3 of my life I knew nothing about climate change. It was going on, but none of us realized it. The climate crisis really wasn’t on my radar in a significant way until about 15 years ago. How could something of this magnitude emerge so quickly, when 20 years ago it was not discussed outside a small community of scientists who were just beginning to be concerned?

For myself, a key element in understanding the climate crisis was to grasp the growth in the world’s population. One hundred years ago, it is estimated that there were about 1 billion people on earth. It took us a long time to reach that point. Now, in 2014, just one hundred years later, we have gone from 1 billion people to over 7 billion people. With that population growth, and with economic development, the world’s consumption of oil and natural resources has soared. Right now our whole civilization is based on fossil fuels — for transportation, for heating, for generating electricity. We put fossil fuels on our crops in the form of fertilizer, we use fossil fuels to transport food to cities and we use fossil fuels to take our trash to landfills. Any time we burn gasoline or coal or heating oil, we’re essentially taking the reserves of fossil fuels under the earth and transferring them into the air, into the atmosphere. We also use fossil fuel to create plastics, which are everywhere in the forms of bags, packaging, bottles, containers — and we need to remember that plastics don’t disappear and don’t biodegrade. However much plastic has been made is all still with us. Every plastic water bottle is estimated to take 500-1,000 years to degrade — but no one really knows.

When we look deeply at this situation, we start to realize that when we say we put the trash out, that there is no “out.” We may burn fossil fuels and transfer them from the ground to the air, we may transfer what we call trash from our particular piece of real estate to another piece of real estate where we don’t have to look at it anymore, but there is no place that is “out.” This is a deep truth of Zen, that we are this One Body, that there is no outside — as well as an environmental fact that becomes more apparent each year.

Our Zen Meal Chant is a profound statement of this. You know how it begins: “72 Labors brought us this food, we should know how it comes to us.” So we should know all the labors and cost to the environment of what comes to us, of what we consume. So much of that is hidden from us. It has been said that the profit from businesses such as animal agriculture, mining, logging, oil production — the profit from these industries is private in that it goes to the companies and shareholders — but the cost is to the commons, to all of us. For example, it has been estimated that every pound of beef in the grocery store required 660 gallons of water to produce. Animal agriculture is killing our planet, some scientists say it is even a bigger threat than the burning of fossil fuels. If we weighed the true cost of that pound of beef, in the cutting down of forests, the degradation of the land and rivers, the methane released into the atmosphere, the suffering of factory farms …. if you factored in the true cost, the pound of beef would be very expensive indeed. Instead the true cost is just taken from the planet, from the commons, from us. Unfortunately much of our food and consumer goods comes to us with a high environmental cost. To make ethical choices about food or transportation or technology such as computers and cell phones, we should know how it comes to us. And we should know the 72 Labors of how it will be disposed of, whether the toxic elements in computers and cell phones or the non-biodegradable plastics.

The French philosopher Voltaire said that no snowflake feels responsible for the avalanche. I’m sure we all do our part to be environmentally responsible to the extent that we can, yet there is the avalanche that each of us is contributing to. This is the lotus in the fire, an image that is often used in Zen — for each of us as practitioners is not up on our own private mountain of enlightenment and repose, but living right here in the midst of the world’s suffering and confusion. How will we respond?

Because we are part of the climate crisis, not separate from it, there is also heartening news. Because we are part of it, the steps we take toward environmental stewardship and care matter. Bill McKibbon, a leading environmentalist, activist and author behind the Climate March, is encouraging. He says, “You can watch the endgame of the fossil fuel era with a certain amount of hope. The pieces are in place for real and swift and sudden change, not just incremental change. Germany on a sunny day can generate half of its power from solar panels. Texas makes a third of its electricity from wind. From this we know that technology isn’t an obstacle anymore. The pieces are in place, but the pieces won’t move themselves. This is where a climate movement comes in.” This is where we come in.

Another climate scientist is hopeful but frames the issue differently, taking a view that is moderate and spacious: “It would help to conceive of global warming less as a problem to be solved immediately and more as a legacy issue to be consistently addressed in the decades ahead. We need to change the psychology of the climate change issue from one of burden to one of opportunity, to change the likely outcome from one of hang-wringing about failure to one of excitement about tangible action to build a better world.”

The other thing that encourages me are the many actions happening all around us that people take because of a deep caring for the earth. Cleaning up parks and rivers, organizing recycling, or constructing community gardens. And then there are the extraordinary efforts that people make to save endangered wildlife, such as protecting elephants and rhinos in Africa, or organizations such as Greenpeace that try to protect whales. And here’s a remarkable example of what people are capable of: the rescue of the California condor. Condors were once common, and are often considered one of the icons of the American West. In the 1980s there were only 22 individual condors left alive. 22. All the others had been killed by various human activities. But thanks to a remarkable effort, the condor did not go extinct. It was brought back from the brink.

The condor is not a pretty songbird — it is black and prehistoric-looking. But it is also magnificent, with a wingspan of 9 feet. It is comfortable soaring up to 15,000 feet, and its preferred environment is the rugged rocky cliffs of the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park. The condor is still one of the rarest birds and most endangered species on the planet. But it now numbers in the hundreds. Condors are still raised in a captive-breeding program, and about once a year there is a release date on the south rim of the Grand Canyon that is open to the public, when a handful of young condors are released into the wild. It is very inspiring to me to see the extraordinary effort to save these birds, to create conditions so they can mate and raise their young, and that these young birds are put back into the wild which is their home. We have so many, many examples of humans at their worst with regard to animals — this shows the best of our human capacity. This shows what can be done.

Zen Master Dogen offers some wisdom and inspiration on this matter of the great earth. I want to look at some of his teachings in a fascicle that is a favorite of mine, Keisei SanShoku, The Sounds of the Valley Stream.

Dogen writes: “It is a pity that from ancient times up to the present, people do not realize that the universe is proclaiming the actual body of Buddha.” The earth, the universe is proclaiming the body of Buddha. It is a body that we have to take care of.

In the fascicle, Dogen recounts the story of Laymen Toba. While on a visit to Mount Ro, Toba was struck by the sound of the valley stream rippling through the night and was awakened to the Way. He composed a verse which he presented to his teacher:

The sound of the valley stream is the eloquent tongue of Buddha

The form of the mountain is his very body.

With the coming of night, I heard the myriad sutras

But with the rising of the sun, how am I to offer them to you?

His teacher replied, “Just so!”

So the sounds of the valley stream, the forms of the mountain. Dogen is talking about how we can awaken, how we can experience BuddhaNature, through the sense gates. How we can perceive sights, sensation and sound with great intimacy.

And he laments how often we miss it. “How sad that so many countless times the voicing of the Dharma by the manifest body of the Buddha has escaped your notice. What a pity that Its sounds and forms lie within the landscape, unseen. And yet how glad we will be for the occasion and conditions when It reveals Itself in the landscape! When it comes into sight, we learn how very near It has always been.”

So the sounds and forms of the manifest body of Buddha lie within the landscape. When we walk on the earth and sense the truth of this body manifesting, we can not help but feel a deep intimacy, a reverence, and gratitude. Gratitude that whatever difficulty our life has in it, that we are part of this.

So we are very fortunate to be here in Sedona, in a landscape that has much spiritual power. When you take a walk in the red rocks, you might want to walk with this verse of Layman Toba in your heart. Or perhaps this Sedona variation of Toba’s poem:

The sounds of Oak Creek are Buddha’s speech

The scent of autumn leaves is her own fragrance

Courthouse and Cathedral Rock are not other than Buddha’s great body.

To enter the mind of Layman Toba, when he wrote his awakening poem, means that we are not looking at the landscape the way we do when we drive by it in a car. It means that we do not separate ourselves from the earth. That we walk with great intimacy, with open mind and heart, so this great voice of the land is our voice, or is just the One Voice. This is not a permanent state of mind that we will one day achieve. It is something that is always available to us when we slow down, quiet the mind, and allow ourselves to experience our deep connection with the earth, with this great non-dual reality that is our true home. Then, as Master Dogen says, we will learn how very near it has always been.