How Not to Save the World

Buddhist practice in ecological issues

Nick Scott

Dr. Nick Scott is currently working with the Sangha at Chithurst as project manager. His previous job in conservation gave him the opportunity to use hid Buddhist practice in cleveloping a more skilful approach to ecological issues. Here are some of his reflections

A few years ago I read an interview with a Tibetan lama. In it, he was asked what he felt about the' current global environmental crisis. He simply replied that the Buddha had said that everything that arises passes away, and that went for the planet too. I read the interview when I was still working in conservation and I found that comment very helpful. It helped me to get things into perspective. For the first time I saw that I did not have to needlessly suffer over the environmental crisis. Do what I could yes, but I did not have to Save the World. That had been a difficuIt perspective for me to fnd, despite having tried for a long time to follow the Buddhist teachings.

I remember the pain I used to feel when I first moved to the Cheviot hills in Northumberland. They were planting the moorland with conifers. The government had made it a tax-break for the rich as a way-of rriaking the country less dependent on wood imports. But I loved the wildness of the moorland and every time I saw another piece domesticated by a green furry blanket of conifers, I would suffer. As it was happening in bits and pieces everywhere, I couldn't go for a walk in the hills without gettng upset and angry.

It was the same with the old hammer pond at Chithurst Buddhist Monastery, a reservoir created in the l7th century to drive a hammer wheel for an iron forge. It is set amidst woodland, the trees reflected in its still surface, its water providing fishing for kingfishers. In the early years when I was visiting I could never really appreciate that pond, as I would always get upset about the threat to it. It was filling up with silt from the modern arable farming upstream and slowly but inevitably the pond was being converted to swamp - a line of rushes and willows were advancing a few yards into the pond each year. I felt it would have been prohibitively expensive to do anything about it, but, each time I sat beside it, the nagging need to do something to save it would come into my mind. Then, a few years back, I was sitting there enjoying the way the late afternoon sun's light range the green of the rushes so brilliant, when I again thought how those rushes would take it all away within twenty years. Instead of getting upset this time, there was acceptance - that is just the 'way it is'. With that insight, the pond's transience made it seem even more beautiful! Again it was a relief when I could see the world in that way.

I tried chose insights out on an interfaith meeting I attended, but they didn't go down too well. The people there were looking for a confirmation of hope. I find many people in religious and New Age movements seem to prefer false hope. On the other hand, the people actually working in conservation respond to the problems, when they let themselves look at them, either with despair and pain, or anger - but most of the time they just bury themselves in action. Both perspectives are failing to accept the reality that we are slowly ruining the planet and there is little we can personally do about it. It is more peaceful when we accept the sadness of that. But also, if we can get that right perspective we are actually more able to do something that is useful. Despair and anger get in the way, while some of the 'Save the World' ideas are positively barmy.

So what does one do! Getting upset does little good.

Copy from Indra's Network, Journal of the UK Network of Engaged Buddhist.

Netzwerk engagierter Buddhisten