For me, Buddhism is a spiritual path in which we recognise the fundamental wholeness of everything that is, and also the relative suffering that arises out of that, both human and non-human.
The first of the four bodhisattva vows that are chanted daily at most Zen Buddhist temples and monasteries is:
Shujō muhen sei gan do (衆生無邊誓願度) To save all sentient beings, though beings numberless
This means different things to different people but, for me, living at a time when we are facing a climate catastrophe, threats to many important global ecosystems (such as the rainforest and arctic regions) and a loss of species estimated at 1000x higher than it should be without the presence of humanity (WWF), saving all sentient beings is very much intertwined with environmental education and activism.
The interweaving of Buddhism and what might be called political action does not sit well with everyone, and I appreciate that. However, Zen has a history of being connected with nature, and also of standing up against war and violence (whether against people or the environment). In the last half decade, some of the pivotal figures spearheading this movement have been the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh (1926-2022), whose Interbeing tradition remains incredibly engaged with political issues; the American Zen teacher Bernie Glassman (1939-2018), head of the Zen Peacemakers Order that teaches us to bear witness to suffering and act to prevent it where we can; the environmentalist, poet and Rinzai Zen practitioner Gary Snyder (1930- ); and the author and environmental activist Joanna Macy (1929- ).
(from left to right: Thich Nhat Hanh, Bernie Glassman, Joanna Macy and Gary Snyder)
The notion of Ecodharma, or ecologically-minded dharma has been with us for some time now, and is the title of a book by David Loy. Buddhism has also been part of Deep Ecology, which is the belief in the right of nature to exist for itself rather than any utilitarian reasons, and often based in spiritual philosophy. This year saw the second Ecology and Buddhism summit run by Tricycle Buddhist magazine, of which I took part in, and there are now many books on the subject such as Active Hope by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, Green Buddhism by Stephanie Kaza and Dharma Gaia edited by Allan Hunt Badiner.
Buddhist organisations exist that explicitly address what we as dharma practitioners can do when facing such stark environmental challenges, and foremost among these is One Earth Sangha. Extinction Rebellion also has a Buddhist group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/2166143550304582). If you wish to become involved, I would recommend one or more of those organisations as a place to start, and also to engage with broader environmental activism groups such as Greenpeace.
Speaking for myself, I find it hard to separate my concern for the planet and its human and non-human inhabitants (including the plants and fungi) from my Buddhist practice, but I don’t expect that to be the case for everyone.
Gary Snyder’s poetry speaks better that I can, so I will end this section with his 1974 poem For The Children, from his Pulitzer Prize winning book, Turtle Island:
The rising hills, the slopes,
lie before us.
the steep climb
of everything, going up,
up, as we all
In the next century
or the one beyond that,
are valleys, pastures,
we can meet there in peace
if we make it.
To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children:
learn the flowers