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In December the Bristol Buddhist Centre hosted a practice morning on the theme ‘The Three Jewels Meet the Climate Emergency’. The event offered a space for the Sangha to come together to explore thoughts and feelings around the climate emergency, how Dharma practice helps with facing the reality of the situation, and what ‘taking action’ might look like in this context. This was followed by an action outside Barclays bank in the afternoon with meditation, leafletting and singing ‘climate carols.’
Listen to the guided meditation and talks from this event
Read more about the Triratna Global Emergency Initiative and get involved!
Amrtanadi was one of those involved in this event. Here is an interview with her about her involvement in climate activism, the event that took place in Bristol, and what she thinks the Dharma can bring to the table.
Do you have a background in activism?
One of the strongest guiding principles in my practice of the Dharma is my desire to live from love and to avoid causing harm. Making choices that minimise the harm I cause through contributing to climate change has been important to me for a long time - for example, around transport and where my food comes from.
But I’d never taken that further into collective action or activism - in part, because I didn’t quite know where to put my energy, and perhaps also because of a feeling of powerlessness, not having a clear sense of what I could do that might make a difference beyond my own individual ethical choices. I think this is a common response in the face of such a massive, complex and emotive issue as climate change. I very often hear from other people that there is nothing we can do, it’s all much bigger than us, a kind of collective sense of disempowerment, together I think with the emotional overwhelm that can quite easily arise when we try to take in the enormity of the situation that we face.
Something really changed for me when the latest IPCC report came out in at the beginning of October of last year which stated, in much more urgent terms than I had heard before, the need for us to act now. What really affected me about the report was the almost deafening silence that greeted it in the mainstream media, and life carrying on all around me as usual. I think it really sank in to me at that point just how much we really can’t take in what is happening and what the climate emergency calls on us to do. The group Extinction Rebellion (XR) rose out of this time, calling for mass civil disobedience to try and force the issue more into public consciousness and to make the government take notice and take action, spelling out in black and white the reality of the situation that we are facing: the potential extinction of much life on earth and a real threat to human survival. This felt like a much more real and congruent response to the IPCC report than the business as usual life I saw going on all around me.
I also began reflecting a lot on what it means to be a practicing Buddhist in this time, and what part we, as a Sangha, and as part of the larger faith community might play - and, perhaps, have a responsibility to play - in raising awareness and being part of the collective change that must happen.
I saw clearly that focusing on individual ethical actions is not enough in the face of the urgency of our need to act. It wasn’t that my, and our, individual actions and choices didn’t now matter - they do. But my perspective on my practice of the first precept, my sense of what it means to practice non-harm and take loving action for the benefit of all beings in this age of climate breakdown, expanded and deepened. It felt clear that this must include engagement with collective action directed to raising awareness and to systemic change to try and bring about the dramatic and urgent reductions in carbon emissions now needed.
So, from never having taken part in any activism, apart from a march or two over the years, I quickly found myself involved in many actions and events with Extinction Rebellion and the Dharma Action Network for Climate Engagement (DANCE). It felt so helpful and important for me to make connections with others who are also in touch with the reality of the situation, to have a context to share our feelings, to be able to express them through positive action, and to experience a strong sense of solidarity and empowerment through coming together.
Who organised the ‘The Three Jewels Meet the Climate Emergency’ event in Bristol and what was its purpose?
My friend Dayajoti, who has been involved with Buddhafield for many years, and I were talking about the IPCC report, Extinction Rebellion and activism on the way up to Bhante’s funeral and the idea to run an event at the Bristol Buddhist Centre came out of that conversation. We knew that many people had been affected by the report and wanted to offer a space where the Sangha could come together to share thoughts and feelings around the climate emergency, how our Dharma practice might help us engage and face the reality of the situation, and explore taking action as a part of our practice.
We asked Rowan, who is a Mitra who has asked for ordination with the Oxford Sangha, to join us and give one of the talks. Rowan has been very involved with XR and DANCE and activism around the climate emergency is an integral part of her going for refuge and expression of the Bodhisattva ideal. We also asked Taranita to give one of the talks, who had also been at an XR event I was at in Bristol, Beth, who had also become involved with XR, and Amaragita who has been involved with Buddhafield and activism for a number of years.
This was the first recent Sangha event exploring the issue – though we did run BAM (Buddhist Action Month) at the Bristol Buddhist Centre in 2015 on the theme of climate change. The climate emergency will also be the theme for this year’s BAM. Both Dayajoti and I are away from Bristol for 3 months until the spring so haven’t been able to run any follow on events, but hope to pick up some momentum again with BAM in June and will see if anything more ongoing may emerge from that.
What happened during ‘The Three Jewels Meet the Climate Emergency’ event?
We began with Dayajoti leading a guided meditative reflection in the shrine room, inviting us to allow the issue into our hearts and notice our response. Myself, Rowan and Taranita then gave short personal talks on the climate emergency. We had space in small groups and then as a whole group to share anything that we wanted to in response, and ended in the shrine room chanting the Bodhicitta mantra together and transferring our merits.
Around 25 people came to the event. I was deeply moved by everyone’s honest sharing of their responses to the climate emergency itself and to the morning’s input. People shared their fears around the situation, sense of overwhelm and not quite knowing what they could do, but also hope, energy and enthusiasm to take action, a sense of empowerment, and a desire to try and stay open to the situation and to support one other in this. It felt that there was a strong sense of solidarity in the simple act of our coming together to engage with the issue with honesty and courage. Something in this that felt very significant, meaningful and necessary for all of us there.
Some of us helped organise a separate action after the morning event at the centre under the DANCE umbrella. DANCE and other groups, including Greenpeace, have been holding actions calling on Barclays Bank to divest from fossil fuel projects and companies for some time. Our action involved a sitting mediation protest outside the main branch of Barclays in Bristol and singing ‘climate carols’, with posters calling on Barclays to wake up to the climate emergency and divest from fossil fuel projects. We gave leaflets and explained the issue to members of the public who were interested in what we were doing. Around 10 of us took part in the action, and there was a collective sense of it being helpful and important to take the energy of our contemplative and discursive morning into action on the streets. I found it particularly meaningful to be involved in helping to raise awareness with members of the public - many people I talked to expressed gratitude and support for what we were doing.
What do you think the Dharma can bring to climate activism?
I think the Dharma can help us to try and make some sense of the climate emergency and our collective inability to really know its truth and take action. The Buddha named the roots of our own personal suffering as greed, hatred and delusion and, as well as manifesting in us individually, these roots will of course manifest in the structures, systems, behaviours and values of the societies and cultures we create collectively.
Delusion at heart is ignorance of our interconnectedness. We are intimately interconnected with the earth, her living systems and the other species and human beings we share this beautiful planet with. Our actions have consequences throughout the web of life, and these consequences are becoming increasingly destructive and dangerous to life on this earth. However, our belief that we are separate, autonomous selves is much more alive and real to us, and individually and collectively, we don’t live from this place of deep interconnectedness.
This not seeing, this ignorance, is, of course, basic Buddhism. It is perpetuated by our tendency to pull towards us that which makes us feel real and secure. This is the same pull that drives the entire, deeply damaging, consumer culture that we are part of, and also leads us to hold on to the normality of business as usual, the belief that ‘perhaps climate change isn’t real after all’, or ‘it won’t affect me and what I love’.
And, we’ll also push away that which threatens us or our sense of self, which in relation to climate change may include the unease and fear that all of us must surely on some level feel, the reality that our way of life must and will radically change, as well as our pain and grief about the situation.
Knowing the depths of the roots of the poisons in myself helps me to understand the very surreal situation of ‘business as usual’ and helps me to avoid falling into judgement, anger and blame around what is happening to our planet and our collective inaction. And I think that the reality of the climate emergency can be an urgent, potent and positive ethical challenge to wake ourselves up more and more to the reality of our own interconnectedness and to our delusions. We are not separate to the collective karma that has created the situation we are in, nor to what we collectively are called to do.
This understanding and perspective is something that the Dharma and we, as practicing Buddhists, can bring into climate conversations and actions to help guard against the danger of polarisation. Hopefully we can also bring awareness of our own motivations and views and a commitment to try to act from loving-kindness and in a way that supports harmony and understanding. It’s so easy to fall into seeing, for example, politicians, fracking or oil company executives, or people who seem to act as if they don’t care about climate change as ‘other’ than us, to see the problem as ‘out there’ and to set ourselves apart, taking ourselves out of the web of interconnectedness; in short re-creating and perpetuating the very tendencies that have led to this situation in the first place.
The Metta Bhavana can be a fantastic tool for helping to guard against this, something we can take into our actions and offer to others. I introduced the practice at a day in London organised by DANCE to support XR activists, including how it can help us to avoid falling into polarisation - as well as helping us to remember self-care - as we try to hold the reality of the situation we are in and take action. The response was very positive and affirming, with people expressing how important they felt it was to have tools to support them in this way.
Our practices and the teachings of the Dharma can help us and others stay open and in touch with the the climate emergency and all the feelings that that may bring up for us, whether that might be grief, anger, fear, despondency, complacency or something else. From my own experience, it can be very hard to stay open, and not to fall into overwhelm or shut down. What we are called on to do, to hold in our hearts and minds, in this era of climate breakdown is huge. I feel an important part of what is needed is to grow our collective capacity to stay open, to stay engaged, to stay in touch with the reality and with each other as we face it. All of the practices that help us stay centred, positive, open-hearted, resilient, in touch with the beauty of life and our gratitude for what we have, and open to a bigger perspective are an essential part of this. And, of course, we need to do this together, in open, supportive communication and solidarity with others.