Jun. 5, 2008

Monaticism and the Environment

I recently attended the third Buddhist-Catholic monastic inter-faith conference at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, famous as the home of Thomas Merton. There were forty participants, monks and nuns, Catholic and Buddhist from various orders and schools. The theme of the conference was Monasticism and the Environment. A timely topic, to say the least.

The talks and informal conversations were very fruitful and informative. I could sum up the main themes that developed under four headings, two theoretical and two practical;

Greed is the cause. Coming from various angles, everyone agreed that a culture of materialism and consumerism was the underlying motive force behind the environmental crisis. This is, obviously, a specific application of the Buddhist second noble truth. The rich countries today consume extravagant amounts of energy and resources to provide for an extreme life-style. This is completely unsustainable. The problem is really a spiritual crisis. Our modern culture has a warped value system. Here, the monastic communities provide a good example by demonstrating that it is possible to live happily and fully without indulgence in excessive material consumption. The broader culture needs to rediscover ways and means to happiness that do not require shopping.

The need to view nature as sacred. The concluding statement of the conference has the phrase, "we need to view the earth as a community, and not a commodity." The philosophy of materialism has reduced all of nature to a mechanistic process. This is again a spiritual problem, requiring a spiritual solution. Both religious delegations saw the need to re-sacralize the natural world. For the Christians, this means reverence for God's good creation. For the Buddhists, it could mean a recognition of Buddha-nature in all things (Mahayana) or seeing the world as peopled by tree-devas and river-nagas. On a more philosophical level, it means recognizing the primacy and universality of mind. The materialist-reductionist view is spiritual death and may lead to physical death of the planet.

Recognizing our complicity. On a practical note, we examined ways that our various monasteries may be contributing to the problem. One very obvious example is the amount of travel many of us do. This conference alone consumed a lot of fuel to get the participants together from all over North America.

Looking at the positive contributions. On the other hand, many monasteries of both traditions are moving actively into green technologies like wind-power and energy efficient building. We looked at a video presentation of a study done in France which showed that the carbon foot-print of two monasteries, one Catholic and one Tibetan Buddhist, was very much lower than that of the average French community.

The climate crisis is a grave one. I don't see how we can turn it around without a fundamental paradigm shift; a spiritual revolution in the mass value system on a global scale. Tinkering around the edges will no longer suffice. This is a tall order. It very well may not happen deeply enough or soon enough to stop a massive phase shift in the world's climate system which would devastate our civilization. As James Lovelock says, sustainable development is an oxymoron. We are going to experience a retreat. Our only choice is a managed retreat, or a chaotic one.

It occurs to me that if there is a massive societal collapse, monasteries may serve another crucial role. They might become islands of light conserving the knowledge of the old days until the human race gets on it's feet again. The monasteries of Europe, particularly of Ireland, did this after the Roman Civilization collapsed. We live in interesting times.


Text of the Final Statement of the Conference

Spread with garlands of vines,
Places delighting the mind,
Resounding with elephants,
Those rocky crags
Refresh me.
Theragatha 18: Mahakassapa

The wolf and the lamb shall graze alike
And the lion shall eat hay like the ox.
None shall hurt or destroy
On all my holy mountain, says the Lord
Isaiah 65:25

Simple and Sufficient
Gethsemani III: Monasticism and the Environment
A Buddhist/Catholic Monastic Gathering
May 27-31, 2008

We live in a time of environmental crisis and calamity, but also in a time when more and more people are coming together to respond to the suffering of the world. Our monastic interreligious dialogue has brought us to a new awareness of the social and spiritual relevance of ancient monastic traditions that have been sustained for millennia by Buddhist and Catholic communities.

Together we celebrate our common monastic values of reverence for the sacredness of all things, contemplation, humility, simplicity, compassion and generosity. These virtues contribute to a life of nonviolence, balance, and contentment with sufficiency.

We recognize greed and apathy as the poisons at the heart of ecological damage and unbridled materialism. Throughout the centuries, monastic life has inspired generous personal, social and spiritual effort for the good of others. We give and receive in the spirit of gratitude.

We acknowledge our complicity in damaging the environment and will make a sincere and sustained effort to reduce our negative impact on the planet. We are committed to take more mindful, universal responsibility for the way we use and manage the earth’s resources. We resolve to develop our hearts and minds in ways that will contribute to a sustainable and hopeful future for our planet. We renew our commitment to the sacredness of the earth, relating to it as a community, not a commodity.

May our love for all beings and this world sustain our efforts and may our earth be revitalized. This is our prayer and commitment.



Website of the Third Inter-Monastic Dialogue. Includes audio files of all the formal presentations and video of the concluding ceremony.

Text of the paper I presented, Dependent Origination and Climate Change, a Buddhist look at causes and conditions.



Honsing said...

Dear Venerable,

Thanks for sharing about the event. It sounds like a very meritorious event. I would like to suggest however that instead of jumping to Greed as the root of the problem, identify the factors between greed and the act of damaging the environment as well. It is difficult to "solve" greed. However the factors between greed and the action of damaging the environment could be more "solvable". For example we can practice a bit of asceticism and endure the heat instead of yielding to switching on the air conditioner. We can switch off the lights when we are not using them as well. Hence slight asceticism may be a more viable step towards saving the environment than to eradicate greed directly. Are there other "solvable" intermediate factors between greed and the action of damaging the environment?

I also suggest that it may be too difficult to require thinking of the Earth as sacred. Not many people are capable of thinking in this way. Hence again I suggest to look for intermediate perspectives between "sacred" and "not sacred" that are more easily acceptable to the mass public. Words like "duty" and "responsibility" come to mind. For example it may be easier to convince others that it is our duty to preserve the Earth for our next generation, rather than requiring that they regard the Earth as sacred. Are there other intermediate words between "sacred" and "not sacred" that are more easily acceptable by the mass public?

Do you think this may be a more practical approach towards saving the environment?

Robert said...

I agree that greed is unsolvable on a large scale. The Communists tried to solve it with force, and they just ended up killing millions of people and making others suffer while a small elite class prospered.

Buddhism tries to skillfully address greed, but with only 1% of the US population (for example) being Buddhist it doesn't seem to have much of a chance of doing very much on a grand scale.

I personally don't believe that "sustainable development is an oxymoron." New "clean" technologies could facilitate sustainable development. If it is an oxymoron then we're in serious trouble because people will not stop developing, especially developing countries. In fact, people in developing countries will just accuse the rich westerners of trying to use environmental excuses to stop them from developing.

I've never heard of nature being sacred in Buddhism. Professor Mark Blum and other experts, according to him, were unable to find a concept of nature in Indian Buddhism in some two years of group study. The closest thing they could come up with was loka which in my understanding comprises all of existence.

I personally don't think nature has to be sacred though as brahma-vihara should cover all beings and doing what's beneficial for ourselves and all beings. It doesn't seem to me like sacred ideas about nature or even a belief in tree devas are necessary since humans and animals will be harmed by environmental damage and everyone agrees that these beings exist.

If we are headed for environmental catastrophe then we're probably just going to experience it because almost nobody is really acting like we're heading for a catastrophe, and I doubt most people are going to take climate change seriously until they see undeniable damage from it. Hopefully if the disaster is real then we can pick up the pieces or maybe it will become more obvious before it becomes unavoidable. It's not ideal, but that's just the way the world is. That's not an excuse for laypeople to do nothing, but at some point, what can you do?

Dhamma81 said...

Ajahn Punnadhammo-

I think it's fantastic that Buddhist and Catholic monastics are coming together and having dialogue on a variety of topics.

I remember Ajahn Thanissaro once saying that "if everyone lived like Americans it would be the end of the world." It's not just America, but I think what he was getting at is that the way most of us in the "developed" world live is grossly unsustainable.

Another thing I remember was a talk by Ajahn Panya where he mentioned that the more the outside world develops the worse things get for the mind. In other words, the focus on things "outside" rather then inside tends to dull and agitate the mind more and more.

I totally agree that materialism and consumerism are unhealthy forces in the world today. I also agree that this whole issue is a spiritual problem. The problem with that is the philosophy of materialism and all the nilhilistic, hedonistic, "who cares" views that it brings with it makes it harder to get people to listen when it is framed as a "spiritual problem." When spirituality, virtue and morality are laughed at as being outmoded and uneccessary in todays world then how can this crisis be solved? I would love to see everyone become Buddhist, Christian or whatever and see it in a spiritual light but I don't see that as happening.

I would also agree that "sustainable development" is an oxymoron to a large degree. There is no way that more and more people requiring more and more finite resources is going to be able to be milked forever without dire consequences. I agree with Robert that clean technologies can lead to a sustainable development of sorts but unless we start thinking seriously about consumption, population and the way we view the earth then it will be too little too late.

We certainly shouldn't throw our hands in the air and not try to come up with clean technologies if we are able, but I personally don't think that is going to be enough.

I agree with Robert regarding the "sacredness" of the earth. In today's spiritual black hole, the idea of the earth being sacred would do little but invite ridicule and laughter from people who look at all of that sacred stuff as being outmoded and impractical with the materialist worldview. How do we get people to see nature as being valuable in and of itself when the modern view laughs at the idea of anything being sacred? I don't have an answer for that one.

"If we are headed for environmental catastrophe then we're probably just going to experience it because almost nobody is really acting like we're heading for a catastrophe, and I doubt most people are going to take climate change seriously until they see undeniable damage from it."

Robert's comment hit the nail on the head. I think think an environmental catastrophe is unavoidable in the future. Whether it happens sooner then later is debatable, but it will happen. I look at it like 9/11 when the New Yorkers pulled together. People will probably come together and do what they can, but only after disaster has struck. When things resume some sort of normalacy it will be "business as usual."

I think it's wonderful that there are people out there in the world, whether lay, ordained or secular in their outlook that want to do what they can to work on the environment. I just don't have any real hope that society is really going to come to any great changes. If this is a spiritual problem and the societies that are the biggest contributers to this problem laugh at spirituality and morality as little more then relics from the dark ages of antiquity then we don't have any answers.

I have always been a fan of these inter-faith conferences you have been participating in. It seems like there is a lot of common ground between contemplative communities on certain issues, even if there are great differences in other areas.

tiaral said...

Thank you for the post. It's a very timely reflection, and I'm glad our spiritual community is taking it so seriously.

I'd like to add a thought. I'm living in South Africa and recently participated in a "make our city better" exercise where they handed out postcards and asked people what would make their city better. Amazingly much of the population said they wanted more malls. That prompted the question in me, why?

The apparent answer wasn't that people wanted more places to shop, it's that, besides parks, there is almost no space in modern cities for community recreation, particularly in a way that is sensitive to the cultural needs of young people (hip, interesting, vibey). So by default, when people want to hang out together, they do so at malls. So shopping becomes a social activity in the absence of other, more appropriate or meaningful activities. And it propagates/generates a culture of materialism as a framework for social interaction.

While the spiritual community has a role to play, we can't expect societies just have a profound understanding dawn on them. I think legislation will need to be enacted promoting alternative social interaction spaces, and the use of land and resources. Unfortunately, humans seem to be rather reactive than proactive. Thank you for promoting such discussion.