“A Manifesto for the Future” is the final essay in my forthcoming book, “Our World is Burning: Essays in Mindful Engagement.” As the planet’s life support systems erode due to Climate Change, do we seek guidance from spiritual ethics or are we trying to transcend an unsatisfactory world? The Mindfulness Trainings are there yet social, political and ecological engagements are devalued. Walk the Bodhisattva path not as a separate self but as an engaged self.
A Manifesto for the Future
As a Zen teacher I make a commitment not to cause harm. I am guided by spiritual ethics yet am aware that the current disastrous state of the planet will not bring forth strategic plans of how to fix things. I could go on and on about the terrible things taking place in society and to the planet – and will divert to that in a moment. Yet the bottom line for me is to remember and refine a system of ethical conduct. I go deeper into meditation and mainly fix myself to be steady and insightful. I register with Mindfulness Trainings, as it brings out all that I would like to see in people around the planet.
The bottom line for me is that awakening and mindfulness are active. Activism, on its own, does not have the inner resources to maintain effective social and planetary transformation. I know from personal experience that re-training the wild mind is a necessary ingredient to precede activism. Becoming environmental or political is only one part and cannot be fully effective until the internal side is in place.
We have no alternative but to concentrate on sustainable living, rather than exploiting the spoils of perpetual economic growth. Profit cannot be the sole reason for commerce. There must be responsibility tied into the equation. At present, we are totally out of sync with the earth’s resources. The fragile threads of ecosystems around the globe are severely compromised. We are in the position of either going down the collective sewer or changing our values in the direction of awakening.
Jane Goodall issued a dire warning in 2016 that ‘life is hanging by a thread,’ as all living things will be negatively impacted by rapid climate change. In particular, she advocates the necessity of creating programs that stop tropical deforestation by making rural communities custodians of the forests.
This is difficult when President Trump, an influential leader, has begun to dismantle environmental regulations, setting in motion irreversible consequences around the world. The United States is ignoring climate change, obstructing clean energy and many forms of conservation. Noam Chomsky in 2016 refers to Trump’s priorities as “…racing as rapidly as possible to the destruction of organized human life.”
Stephen Hawking’s thoughtful piece in the Guardian (December 1, 2016) places a focus on elite behavior creating further inequality as he examines Brexit and the Trump presidency. His question is how will the elites change? “We are living in a world of widening, not diminishing, financial inequality and people see only a slim chance at earning a living at all.” Hawking acknowledges this dangerous moment in humanity’s evolution.
Earth is like a giant living cell, all parts are linked symbiotically. Biologist Thomas Lewis created this metaphor with humanity just as one part of a vast system. This is not something that powerful and corporate people have paid much attention to. The reality is that the life support systems of the planet are severely threatened by climate change, aided by accelerating global consumerism. Our ignorance and neglect are destroying Earth, because we do not know how to respect ourselves, others, and the planet. Unless we radically change, there is no possibility of balance, environmentally or socially.
This became clear in my filmed distance course “Ecology and Culture” at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. I wanted to connect the many levels of violence and fear we engage with to the environment, and to the everyday use of harmful speech and mindless consumption. With ethical guidelines rooted in spiritual practice, we do not generate the energy that enables terror and violence to grow. Comparing an everyday situation to an overall climate of fear, hatred and vengeance, I suggest that it is all the same. We just need to learn how to behave differently.
These issues were examined with great clarity by the awakened mind of the Buddha, 2600 years ago. His teachings are timeless, as relevant to the modern world as when first spoken. The Buddha taught the Five Mindfulness Trainings as a design for living. Thich Nhat Hanh reworked them to relate to modern realities. They are non-sectarian and all spiritual traditions have their equivalent. The first training is to protect life, to decrease violence in oneself, family and society. The second training is to practice social justice, generosity and not exploit other beings. The third is responsible sexual behavior for all people, to protect couples, families and children. The fourth is the practice of deep listening and loving speech to restore communication and reconciliation. The fifth is about mindful consumption, which helps us not to bring toxins and poisons into our body or mind.
I asked the students in my Ecology and Culture class if anyone would care to read them out to their classmates during my lecture on environmental ethics. There were many volunteers. I did wonder if this borrowing from Buddhism would go over well with students and the viewing audience. Much to my surprise, students and the public viewers wrote in to tell me that this was a wake-up call, the first time they had been presented with specific environmental ethics. Let me be clear, the trainings are not there to judge others. They are an internal guide so that, as individuals, we wake up to love and compassion and take heed of the directions the mindfulness trainings take us in. The trainings are not a coercive design for conformity. They simply assist us to be more aware of what is going on, around and within us. They enable us to distinguish what is good for ourselves, our minds and the world and what is not. It is not necessary to complete the practice perfectly, as that is not possible. It is, however, possible to move in the direction of responsible and ethical living and make a difference to our society and environment. Do we bring to violence, indifference and terror a renewed application of the same or do we step back and consider these teachings?
There is a solution to our present situation. Our leaders have often become trapped by corporate and electoral agendas, following a similar script, seeking justification and in some cases, avocation for the use of violence. Large scale change is difficult to find within this system but the Buddha offers a path. The implications of his Five Mindfulness Trainings apply to the dangerous times we live in. Our world needs guidelines like these.
A flip side to global violence is the growing concern over the absence of love, decency and compassion in daily public life. This preoccupies and worries many citizens and scholars. If there was ever a time to learn anew from these teachings, it is now. When we touch base with the Five Mindfulness Trainings, we are being reminded to wake up. Neglect, terror and fear are states of mind. Therefore, we need tools that reconnect us to a mind state driven by love, decency and positivity.
The Five Mindfulness Trainings are presented as an antidote to the contemporary crises. The ethics of the Five Mindfulness Trainings provide a necessary balance to find our true nature, while caring for all we connect with. In addition to addressing social and environmental crises, the building of inner spiritual strength through meditation and mindfulness is crucial.
However, I must point out that it is critical in the 21st century that necessary re-education also find a place in the Five Mindfulness Trainings. They are indeed a guidance system to encourage us to no longer participate in a non-sustainable economic system driven by greed and distraction. This global ethic is our protector as it helps us to stop, look deeply and throw away our harmful patterns of behavior. Crises such as Climate Change prompt us to refresh and refine the trainings but as we will see there were some awkward disconnects in their creation. This begs the question of how to relate to the trainings without a disconnect to their intentions?
The Buddha was clear about impermanence and new challenges. He created the Five Mindfulness Trainings for the lay community and told Ananda, his faithful attendant, that the minor precepts should be revised according to the culture and the time. But Ananda and the Buddhist elders were confused about which precepts were the minor ones and misunderstood what the Buddha was talking about. And so nothing changed for 2,600 years. There was no preparation or anticipation for modern realities, as monastic precepts have not changed very much and were not equipped to handle issues ranging from internet, terrorism, a world full of refugees, to Climate Change.
The seeds of disconnect are not just with the trainings but with dharma in general. The disconnect reveals itself in terminology. Minor precepts refer to the Five Mindfulness Trainings for lay people while major precepts define monastic ethics. This language creates a divide between lay and monastic with the latter considered as superior, which is certainly not the case. In the modern era it is the lay dharma teachers who are in society, working in the trenches of everyday life, creating transformation in alliance with many other groups of lay people. Whereas the monastic community is secluded, cut off from everyday reality and are not in a position to create transformation in the wider society.
This disconnect is a marker of modern Buddhism in the west and was noted by David Loy in his excellent article in Buddhadharma (Winter 2015.) Loy addresses the current ecological crisis and questions the deep rooted ambivalence within Buddhism towards it. He asks “Does the ecological crisis have nothing to do with Buddhism?” I add a further enquiry, “Where are the Buddhist politicians, CEO’s, entrepreneurs in political, ecological and economic spheres?” There is a wide disconnect in Western Buddhism between playing the capitalist game, yet only being concerned with the so-called peace of the inner self. The latter is the refuge we so readily withdraw to. This can never be satisfactory. Loy points out that the issue is structural as well as personal, making the challenge that of changing the economic and political systems rather than remaining in blissful denial. He identifies the two main obstacles as:
- Changing the mind is where it’s at – self-absorption in the separate self – the deal we fall into.
- Beliefs of Buddhist practitioners that we do not waste time trying to reform the unsatisfactory world, just concentrate on transcending it.
Both obstacles are major dharma mistakes, traps about higher spiritual reality that reflect disconnect in modern times, preventing us from engaging fully with the trainings and the world. Social, political and ecological engagements are devalued as we place our backsides on the cushion, chant, drink tea and avoid the reality around us. Modern Buddhism in the West definitely needs a wake-up call. The basic premise of the Bodhisattva Path is to walk it, not as a separate self, but as an engaged self. Then an authentic sense of awakening naturally extends into political, economic and ecological spheres of potential action. I agree with David Loy that the reconstruction of our mind necessarily involves the reconstruction of our world – economic, political and spiritual.
I like his comment that “Bodhisattvas have a double practice – as they deconstruct and reconstruct, they also work for social and ecological change…….Such concerns are not distractions from our personal practice but deeper manifestations of it.”
Thich Nhat Hanh was able to overcome this awkward divide when he created the Order of Interbeing during the Vietnam War. Socially Engaged Buddhism was renewed in Vietnam by him and then extended to the West. Thich Nhat Hanh ordained the first six members of the Order of Interbeing in February 1966 during the Vietnam War. The Order’s foundation ethics for engaging with the wider society are the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings created by Thich Nhat Hanh. They contain the Five Mindfulness Trainings, the Noble Eightfold Path and are a renewal of the earlier Bodhisattva Precepts. Thich Nhat Hanh was up to date and in tune with our times. He ensured that the Fourteen Trainings of the Order are in step with modern historical, cultural and socio-economic developments yet rest on the foundation provided by the Buddha and 4th century expressions of socially engaged Buddhism.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s book Lotus in a Sea of Fire and the fourteen ethical statements that he carefully sculpted, presented a revolutionary statement of Engaged Buddhism. Since 1966, the revolutionary part has been diluted, particularly in the West where the disconnect noted by Loy is in full swing. The Order of Interbeing established by Thich Nhat Hanh seems in the twenty first century to have morphed into an ineffective bureaucracy.
To emphasize that it is not just me who is way out on a limb here, I refer to a senior Theravada monk and scholar – Bhikkhu Bodhi (Buddhadharma Spring 2017). This respected monk looked at Donald Trump’s “cabinet of bigotry” and at the same time noticed the absence of Buddhists on a petition of objection to it, which was signed by 2,500 religious leaders in America. He asked the obvious question; “why are Buddhists not visible as advocates for peace, sanity and social justice?’ Where are they indeed, given that Buddhism is the pre-eminent religion of peace and compassion? He stated forcibly that not to participate in active engagement with politics, environmental and worldly events runs counter to the Buddha path of enlightenment. He points out that Buddhists fail to realize that the battleground over power and position are ethical contests. Trump’s ascendancy to power shakes every Buddhist Mindfulness Training and this requires a strong push back from Buddhist leaders. So where is our agenda of collective resistance?
Bhikkhu Bodhi urges Buddhist advocacy in alliance with progressive leaders – religious and lay – to defend America’s embattled democracy and leads the charge of relating to the trainings in a way that has no disconnect with present global concerns. That is the point of this essay – for there is nothing wrong with the trainings, apart from some essential rewording. The disconnect lies with contemporary Buddhists in the West who do not engage with the intent of the Trainings laid out by the Buddha and Thich Nhat Hanh. The Trainings are right here! Do we engage with them from the vantage points of self-seeking and separate-self OR engage with them from an open and engaged heart?
Bhikkhu Bhodi struck a chord with Buddhist leaders in the United States. I quote from an article in the May 2017 edition of the Lion’s Roar magazine.
“ Thirteen leading Buddhist teachers, joined by over 200 additional signatories, called on Buddhists and all peoples of faith to take a stand against policies of the new United States administration that will create suffering for the most vulnerable in society……Feeling the reality of this suffering, we remember that peacefulness does not mean passiveness and non-attachment does not mean non-engagement…..The dharma is not an excuse to turn away from the suffering of the world, nor is it a sedative to get us comfortably through painful times. It (the dharma) is a powerful teaching that frees and strengthens us to work diligently for the liberation of beings from suffering…..While Buddhism has traditionally emphasized the personal cause of suffering, today we also discern how the three poisons of greed, aggression, and indifference operate through political, economic and social systems to cause suffering on a vast scale…….
As we resist the heightened threat of many of the new administration’s policies, we also recognize that under-represented and oppressed communities in the United States have long suffered from systemic greed, aggression, aversion and indifference…….While some argue that the principle of non-duality suggests that Buddhists should not engage in or take sides on political or social issues, we believe the opposite is true. It is because we and others are not separate that we must act……..It is true that our numbers are small, yet we can join with others who share our convictions and values. For those who are new to this, please remember that there are many people who have dedicated their lives to the work of social change. They have the useful skills of compassionate organizing and building sustainable movements. Find them, get involved and learn from them.”
This May 2017 Manifesto is a major step in relieving the disconnect problem in Buddhism. This brings me to the tricky role of Impermanence.
To change structures of elitism, greed and corporate dominance requires a mass change in consciousness. Mindfulness supports that outcome. The Buddha’s teachings on impermanence also spur such a radical change. Can we grasp the insight of extinction – of ourselves, our civilization – even of the planet? Without the insight of impermanence, we will not be able to change our mindsets. We have to find a way to adjust to our changed political and environmental circumstances. We can no longer hold on to a view of how it once was. Once we can accept that we have created the present global situation, then and only then can we find a respite, discovering insights that bring radical change to our values, habits and mindset.
It is very difficult in our western culture to accept death. The usual response is fear and denial. We have to re-educate our minds to get past these two obstacles. When we can recognize that our present form of civilization is dying, we will recognize that despair and denial will do us no good. We need only find the courage to surrender and rely on our practice of mindfulness to provide a measure of safety. Instead of denial, a space opens in our mind for lucidity and steadiness to enter, which could propel our species to live differently. Such a future on Earth requires a mass awakening of attributes that run counter to the ecology of greed. It requires a candid acceptance that our global civilization in its present form is coming to an end. Such an acceptance of our true reality on the planet can alleviate the course of environmental collapse. The energy and power to avert the disaster facing us rests in our minds and in a new collective choice to live very differently.
Thich Nhat Hanh brings this home to us in a direct and challenging way, making it very clear that any view not based on impermanence is wrong. He shows how the Buddha provided meditations on impermanence for his followers so they could recognize that the only thing that follows death is the fruit of our action and thinking, of our speech and of our acts during our lifetime. Specifically, on climate change he is very blunt:
“If we continue to consume unwisely, if we don’t care about protecting this wonderful planet….the ecosystem will be destroyed to a large extent and we will need millions of years to start a new civilization. Everything is impermanent…. We are our environment, which is in a process of self-destruction.”
This brings a certain peace and clarity to our minds and perhaps we can implement ethics, structures and technology to ensure a niche on this planet. We have a job to do in terms of cultivating a transformation in our consciousness, bringing about a new way of living in harmony with one another and on Earth.
We must deliberately cultivate positive ethical attributes in our minds. We have to shine the light of recognition and mindfulness on our suffering, so that we can become steady and full of resolve to live differently. We have to shift the tide of negativity, change our mindset and not squander our life. The Five and Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings provide us with templates to do that, as we consciously choose to nurture patterns of behavior and habits that are wholesome and generous. In other words, we make mindfulness practice our new habit. It is an internal transformation of consciousness at the core of our being.
I shape all of this into a simple personal mantra – “I refrain from causing harm.” I know that by refraining from one thing that causes harm, I then prevent other harmful things from happening. I arrive at my own insight, which is not imposed by any outside authority. It takes mindfulness to do this and the Five Mindfulness Trainings provide the starting point, a guidance system and a deep well of internal ethics to live by. My commitment is to actualize these trainings in my life, and in the lives of others, to the best of my ability.
I issue a Call to Action and bring Bhikkhu Bodhi back. In Buddhadharma, spring 2017 he urges Buddhist advocacy in alliance with progressive leaders to defend the United States’ embattled democracy from President Trump’s “cabinet of bigotry.”
He states; “We can call in unison for a policy of global generosity in place of rash militarism, for programs that protect the poor and vulnerable, for the advancement of social and racial justice, and for the rapid transition to a clean-energy economy …….and bring the moral weight of the dharma to bear on matters that affect the lives of people anywhere – now and long into the future.” His statement was followed by the stance taken by Buddhist leaders in the May 2017 issue of Lion’s Roar magazine
I also call out the Hopi Elders’ Prophecy in 2000:
“Create your community. Be good to one another. And do not look outside yourself for your leader… See who is there with you and celebrate…. All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
For our part we can work with municipalities, conservationists and River Keepers to clean up our waterways and environment. Ensure that children in schools go with you and prepare them to handle cyberbullying and neglect. We hold politicians and corporations to account. Create coalitions with progressive organizations who share our love of kindness and decency.
Walk upon the Earth – Lightly. Be fully Here and Present – Lightly.