A Soto Zen Buddhist Climate Statement

I am a member of the Soto Zen Buddhist Association which has, in conjunction with the Soto Zen Buddhism North American Office released a statement on climate change. Here it is.

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The statement below is a unique collaboration among Soto Zen Buddhists in the west. With roots in China and in the 13th century teachings of Eihei Dogen, Soto Zen is one of the largest of Japan’s Buddhist denominations. This practice tradition was brought to us by teachers like Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, Taizan Maezumi Roshi, Dainin Katagiri Roshi, Jiyu Kennett Roshi, and other spiritual pioneers who established Zen centers across the continent. With an emphasis on zazen, or seated meditation, and a down-to-earth awareness of one’s own mind manifest in all areas of daily life. Zen practitioners and teachers are deeply concerned about the fate of the earth, of our children, of their children, and all beings.

Coming on the heels of the December 2015 United Nations Climate Conference in Paris and Pope Francis’s landmark encyclical Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home, this statement is meant to…

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What’s with the Name?

Broken wooden ladle buddha is a metaphor used by a Japanese zen ancestor to describe the inseparability of the Buddha, you, me and all of creation.  Buddha refers to an enlightened individual, but it also denotes all of reality, the inconceivable, dynamic workings of the universe at this very moment.  Buddhists often use the term thusness to represent this ineffable quality of present moment reality.  Buddhists universally practice meditation to realize and manifest that dynamic unfolding.

The metaphor goes a step further and implies that there’s not a jot of difference between me, you and all of creation.  It’s all simply the unfolding present moment.  That goes against our usual perception of things.  Am I really the magma in the core of the earth as well as the gaseous explosions of the most distant stars to say nothing of all the creatures that have resulted from evolution?  The zen ancestor would say, “Most certainly.  And more.”

For me the metaphor captures the:

  • interconnectedness of all life and all that exists
  • need to squarely face and compassionately embrace our own and the world’s suffering
  • profound futility of demonizing any aspect of our present situation, whether it’s the Koch brothers or Asian carp, Barak Obama or CAFOS, our individual addictions and neuroses, or caucasians, African Americans, Muslims or indigenous nations

I think the point the zen master was making is that you, me and the greater-than-human world are inseparable and, simultaneously, broken and whole.  Buddha is both broken and perfect.

This is how the metaphor works for me:

First, a wooden ladle is a simple and elegant tool.  In the 13th century it was found in every home, shop and temple and on every farm, ship and caravan.  It was used to take a bath, quench a thirst, mix ingredients for a meal and wash clothes.  It was relied on for sacred tasks as well, for instance, to bathe a newborn baby or the body of a parent after death.

Quotidian, ancient and simple, elegant and practical, a wooden ladle provided a means to gracefully move the most precious of gifts, water.

A ladle in some form must have been one of the first human inventions.

Second, wooden ladles functioned even when broken.  Even when the bowl of the ladle was split due to years of expansion and contraction, once soaked it would swell-up and regain its capacity to carry water; with a broken handle it could still function. Sturdy, utilitarian and awesome.  Ask any Finn who has spent time in a sauna.

Third, by adding buddha to the metaphor this simple tool becomes the universal, equivalent to all of reality: the perfect and universal in the most workaday of implements. But here’s the point: the universal and perfect can only manifest in the broken particular of the present moment.

We are broken wooden ladle buddhas: imperfect and run-of-the-mill as well as miraculous and awesome.  The same goes for Homo sapiens as a species.

The earth, by which I mean the planet and the thin sphere of life that envelopes it, is likewise a broken wooden ladle: run-of-the-mill, concrete and everyday as well as inconceivable and miraculous.  It, too, is broken.

From a global perspective it’s very easy to see the brokenness: climate change, species extinction, unimaginable pollution of air, land and oceans, human population explosion beyond the carrying capacity of the planet, today’s slavery and unhealed, centuries-old wounds inflicted by earlier enslavement, seemingly endless wars, social dysfunction, hunger and poverty.  The list goes on and on. Endlessly.

It’s easy to become overwhelmed and depressed.

However, I find strength in broken wooden ladle buddha.

Buddhahood or thusness is inherent in, and inseparable from, the brokenness we all experience.  One and the same.  No duality.  Good guy and bad guy are not two – or, if they are, it is only when viewed in a broken mirror.  It’s delusion to think you can embrace one without embracing the other.   At least, I think that’s what the zen master was trying to convey.

We are called upon at this particular juncture to do something to heal brokenness from a position of brokenness.  We are called upon to cultivate wholeness and unearth holiness.

Scholar and activist Joanna Macy has called this moment The Great Turning, “the essential adventure of our time: the shift from the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization.”

To do that I believe we have to:

  • compassionately embrace our brokenness and humbly accept the world’s suffering – so much of which we, as the greatest of invasive species, have created
  • deeply – deeper than our intellect can penetrate – embrace the inconceivably complex causes that have led to our situation
  • with awareness manifest the astounding awesomeness of the present moment in our every thought and action

There is literally no other time.  There is no other place.  There is no other being.

That’s what’s behind the name Broken Wooden Ladle [Buddha].  That’s what the zen ancestor was saying.  That is, simply, what it means to be human.

Where Bodhidharma and Aldo Leopold Meet

Bodhidharma [483?-540?] is the reputed founder of ch’an buddhism in China, commonly known in the United States by its Japanese name: zen.  I use the image of Bodhidharma to represent zen teachings.

Aldo Leopold [1887-1948] is considered by many to be the father of the modern conservation and environmental movement and the United States’ wilderness system.  Among his best know ideas is the “land ethic,” which calls for an ethical, caring relationship between people and nature.  His writings have been influential to me and here he represents the present day effort to live in harmony with the earth.
For the longest time, I have been curious and passionate about the intersection of buddhism, zen, social activism, justice, the environment and politics.

With this website I hope to explore that intersection.  What does zen buddhism have to do with one’s engagement with the critical social issues that confront us: land, by which I mean soil and everything connected to it, i.e., the ecosphere; social justice; peace and harmony?  There will entries on zen, discussion of social issues, short essays on nature and links.  I hope some of what is here will be provocative.

Since first encountering buddhism and zen I have felt, at my core, that they offer something very, very important to our social discourse – a critically vital perspective as we collectively do our best to address the conflict, pain and suffering that is in-and-all-around-us in the form of poverty, racial domination, environmental destruction, war, hunger and violence.  I have personally tried to find balance and equanimity while effectively engaging in various social change efforts, even in the ego- and conflict-driven settings of a state legislature, a picket line, non-violent direct actions and the hurly-burly world of real estate development.  Sometimes I have been successful, sometimes not.

I’ve been a student of zen for over 25 years and a priest and teacher for the last 15.  I have been involved in peace, social justice and environmental movements for much longer, starting with the lead-up to the first Earth Day in 1972.  Since then I have been an anti-nuclear activist, training college students in nonviolent civil disobedience techniques; Teamster union steward; board member of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and other non-governmental organizations [NGO]; lobbyist for environmental organizations; social worker in the fields of aging and hospice; executive director of a NGO that provided affordable, supportive housing to people living with HIV/AIDS; and meditation teacher in state prisons.

This website is an experiment, a project in progress.

Take care.