Everything becomes sacred when you remember that you are going to die. These days there are a lot of reminders. As a young adult in the midst of an ecological crisis, I have known for a long time that the sixth mass extinction event can welcome the end of the life of the human species, as it has already done for other species on Earth. For much of my life, I found it easier to contain the knowledge of this overwhelming possibility within the confines of my cognitive mind; I made sure that the grief he opened up didn’t spill out into my body too often, lest it drown me. But as we humans dance over this precipice of uncertainty, I, like many, search for a life raft. Coming of age in a world on fire, I found solace and resolution in the Buddhist teachings, often seen as a raft to reach the shore of enlightenment. The teachings on emptiness, connectedness and facing suffering in particular helped me to face, with a deeper sense of openness and presence, the reality of the climate crisis and our announced extinction. They are not “life rafts” in the sense that they promise us lasting life, but teachings that offer an end to suffering in reality as it is.
In the summer of 2021, when many began a hopeful (albeit short-lived) exit from pandemic isolation, I attended a three-week training meditation retreat on a farm in rural southern Vermont. Hosted by the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, the retreat was led by facilitators versed in weaving Buddhist teachings with issues of ecology and ecological justice. Throughout the retreat, we contemplated environmental texts that reminded us, in horrific detail, of the reality of the climate crisis. We participated in meditations and lessons that immersed us in themes of dukkha (Suffering), anatta (not oneself), anicca (impermanence), paticca-samuppada (co-occurring dependent)and Karuna (compassion), engaging in community exercises based on the work of a Buddhist scholar and activist Joanna Macy that led us to embody our grief for the world. Recognize that the path to enlightenment is only accessible by Suffering, Macy elucidates how “as a society we are caught between a sense of impending collapse and a psychic paralysis in recognizing it”, urging human beings to enter into our despair. From a Buddhist perspective, we can allow our suffering to remind us that, as Macy writes, “we care. We are liberated when we realize that at the heart of our despair is our love for the world.
During the retreat I met a girl named Anna who told me she was studying sea turtles. Ever since she encountered one while swimming in the North Pacific, she told me, the creature had become for her a symbol of presence, embodiment, memory and navigation. Getting to know Anna, witnessing her constant presence and lucid compassion, I realized that these were qualities that she herself embodied perhaps more than anyone I had met. We found we shared a love for many things – running, letter writing, veiling a childish sense of humor beneath a somewhat contemplative exterior, Toni Morrison’s books, cats .
We got closer quickly. Between seats at the retreat, we walked together through clouds of mosquitoes, synchronized footsteps through the dense deciduous forest. She told me about her childhood on an island in the South, the herons and crayfish that filled the sky and the water, the smell of seaweed drying in the sun, the mud. I told him about the hemlock forests before they were filled with so many ticks, playing hide and seek there with my brothers, the yellow flowers that grew near my childhood home. Behind our words was the silent recognition that as the world warmed, all those things we loved were changing, many of them – hemlocks and crayfish at least – already dying off. One night before sleeping, one of us (I forget who first) whispered, “I feel like we’ve known each other for a long time.
Sometime after the retreat began, there was a day when it all became too much. It was one of those days when the heat was unavoidable and my body began to unravel – when it suddenly became impossible not to suffocate in the hum of air conditioners that produced fleeting coolness in homes while blowing heat. in the already warm air. It was as if I had reached a point of saturation beyond which I could no longer hold off the suffering we were contemplating; I felt myself internalizing the reality of human extinction in a way that I had never had in my life. Eventually, all of our talk had descended from mind to gut, metabolized into a fear that raced through my veins and liquefied any sense of security I had clung to. It became easy to cry over anything. Everything – every flash of light or quirk of a previously overlooked face – has come into focus and become utterly and tragically breathtaking.
I cried silently during our morning session, during breakfast, during household chores, both overwhelmed with emotion and also timidly aware that everyone around me shared the same predicament, and for the Most of them went about their days and their responsibilities, calmly and presently. take care of the tasks at hand – at least they weren’t crying about it.
That afternoon, Anna and I were lying on the grass in the sun, waiting to start a group activity. Eyes closed and face full of sunshine, Anna could hear me sniffling next to her, feeling completely alone in the depths of my fear. She held out her hand.
The feel of his hand finding mine at that moment ushered in an embodied understanding of the Buddhist teachings I had learned those weeks. Reminding me of my bond with another suffering being, the gesture ejected me from the clutches of my ego, which feared to be alone in my suffering, towards a kind of relief, a sense of intimacy found in resounding despair.
I recalled the teachings of paticca samuppadaor dependent co-production. the Samyutta Nikaya tells us: “‘Things’ come into existence, persist according to conditions. When it exists, it happens; with the appearance of this, that appears. When it doesn’t exist, it doesn’t happen; with the cessation of this, that ceases. All that is subject to origin is all subject to cessation. (SN 12.62). At times, the contemplation of interdependence arouses in me a sense of urgency, an insurmountable need to “save the planet”, and therefore myself. However, if one understands the teachings of connectedness, or even suffering, solely as ways to preserve the world as it is or achieve individual tranquility in the face of global crises, one remains confined by delusion and attachment. Buddhism teaches us that everyone suffers, although we would do well to remember that we all suffer differently. This reality is especially highlighted when considering the climate crisis, which has so far disproportionately affected low-income communities and communities of color. Reverend Angel Kyodo Williams, Buddhist teacher and co-author of the book radical dharma, warns us against “accepting ‘softer suffering’ that does not challenge the unhealthy roots of systemic suffering and the structures that hold it in place. What is needed, she tells us, is a “dharma that starves rather than fertilizes the soil of the conditions in which the deep roots of societal suffering grow.” Moral obligation and teaching of Karuna compel us to respond to each other’s calls for justice, which, entangled in Indra’s Net, are also ours. However, our action cannot depend on our success or failure in stemming the climate crisis and avoiding extinction. We must live with compassion not in a way that strives to “save” an elusive future, but in the present – the only place where love and togetherness can ever be actualized.
As David Loy writes in his 2019 book EcoDharma: Buddhist teachings for the ecological crisis, “insofar as there is no such self that is born or dies, there is nothing to fear, because there is nothing to gain or lose… when at the time of dying there is nothing but the process of dying – neither resisting it nor embracing it – so death too is ’empty’. When we seek protection from death, we grasp the illusion, imagining that we exist separately from the processes of life and death, beginning and end, existence and non-existence. In the fact of death lies the wonder that for now, together, we are alive.
As Anna and I lay in silence, I was greeted with a feeling I might call joy – a version of the joy writer Zadie Smith sees within her. writing by this title, where she distinguishes between joy and pleasure, describing joy as the feeling of “moving towards all that makes life intolerable, feeling the only thing worth having” – which was, in the case from Smith as in mine, the current human connection. Or, love.
Later that day, I wrote the following in my journal:
I’m swept up in a grief so vast it drains all the water from my body, pushes me into the canyons of myself, the water rushing in before it dries up. A hundred years can hold too much heat. Almost all species have disappeared, all myself. What is there to say? The whole world is a mandala that will fly away. You who are dying, I cry rivers from your eyes, rivers on your mossy skin, and see the candle go out. There is no canyon. There is no water. There is no skin. We die. There is no death.
From where I was, immersed in Buddhist teachings, my grief could flow and I did not drown.
These teachings have kept me afloat amid waves of despair and joy that echo the intensity of what it means to be alive in the world right now. Gratefully I hold them like a raft, knowing I’ll let them go when it’s time, whether I reach a shore or fall for the first time in the rising sea tides. I will know that this sea is myself, always changing, both wonderful and empty.
In honor of Earth Day 2022, Tricycle is bringing together leading Buddhist teachers, writers and conservationists, including Joanna Macy, Roshi Joan Halifax, David Loy, Paul Hawken and Tara Brach, for a series of virtual events a week-long donation-based exploration of what dharma has to offer in times of environmental crisis. Learn more here.