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Sunday, Nov. 12, 2000

OUR PLANET EARTH

On taking the eightfold path to environmental awareness


Environmentalists are a hard breed to pin down, much less to classify. They come in all shapes and sizes, and some even reject the name.

Many people continue to see environmentalists as at the edge of normality, even at the best of times. This perception owes much to the media, which are always eager to highlight the strange, the flighty and the extreme; but the media are both using and being used in this equation.

From protestors dressed as turtles and butterflies to activists taking up residence in redwood trees, sometimes the best way to bring attention to your concerns is to make a spectacle of yourself, literally. Unfortunately, because the problems at issue are often too complex to explain in 200 words or a sound bite, the theatrics become the story.

As a result, and because a key component of an environmentalist's work is awareness raising, efforts to disseminate information can lead to repackaged crises and slick PR. Unfortunately, most crises remain the same, only worsening, and the media and public are increasingly callous to spectacle, however well-meaning.

For others, environmentalism is a way of living and working. These individuals call themselves environmentalists because they care about the environment and are making a conscious effort to use less, reuse more and reduce waste.

Still others never call themselves by that name. They simply live lives that protect the natural environment: farmers, fishers, teachers, businesspeople, politicians and parents with lifestyles that conserve resources, avoid waste and promote cooperation and community.

Across this spectrum, whether global activists or home-bound conservationists, most environmentalists seem to share one characteristic: A sense that environmentalism is not just a day job; it is an obligation, a commitment, a belief that what they are doing is right, and needs to be done. A sense that can border on the religious.

Seeing how people react when I explain why I don't have a car or when I stoop, mid-sentence, to pick up garbage in the street, I realize that what I view as inherently, well, natural, is anything but that to others. No doubt this is one of the characteristics that annoys people: Environmentalists seem so certain their values are right.

(The truth is, of course, there are probably as many differences of opinion between me and the next environmentalist as between me and a logger -- though loggers generally prove better drinking companions.)

Science has shown some things to be facts that were once informed hunches. In contrast, environmentalism as a belief system, or philosophy, offers less certainty. Thus, while I have always found considerable overlap between Buddhism and my environmental values, I have never really pursued this despite being both an environmentalist and a practicing Buddhist.

By some karma, the connection found me. Earlier this year one of my editors sent me a review copy of "Dharma Rain: Sources of Buddhist Environmentalism."

The blurb on the back caught my eye: "This unprecedented collection of Buddhist writings on the environment is an essential sourcebook for all those concerned with the philosophical and spiritual basis of a truly ecological worldview."

As the product of an American liberal arts education, I realized that it was time to get myself up to speed on the philosophical and, as a Buddhist, the spiritual.

"The scale of the environmental crisis now goes beyond any individual's capacity to imagine it," begins the introduction. " . . . Governments have yet to demonstrate the intention, much less the ability, to address these multidimensional problems. Religious traditions have been caught similarly unprepared.

"Leading environmentalists have made it clear that the dilemmas we face cannot be solved solely by technological, political or economic means. Spiritual traditions will also have a critical role in collaborative efforts to stem the tide of devastation."

And that is as negative as the book gets. The editors' purpose is clearly not to push environmentalists into becoming Buddhists, or scare Buddhists into adopting environmental activism. Rather, the tone of the book is one of academic eclecticism aimed at informed awareness.

The introduction goes on to raise some questions facing Buddhists today: "What does it mean to practice during a time of environmental crisis? What are the spiritual and moral dimensions of the ecocrisis?"

As with any good koan, no straight answer is promised (no doubt the editors are aware that the stream of their text will not be the same to any two who wade in).

"Dharma Rain" is a collection of writings, not a treatise telling you how to think, act or pray. In fact, it is surprisingly entertaining, and suitable for those who rarely have more than 20 minutes at a stretch to read. Equally, it would make a good text for a course on Buddhist Environmentalism.

The book is divided into seven parts, and the reader can range freely across content, beliefs and interpretations, from traditional teachings to environmental activism and home practice, without losing the thread of exploration that brings all the selections together. Whether seeking environmentalism for Buddhists, Buddhism for environmentalists, or a thoughtful journey through both, "Dharma Rain" offers a joyful and thought-provoking read that raises and answers more questions than you have.

Then again, if all you need is a grace to use before meals, here is one from the book, by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen teacher, poet and peace advocate:

In this food, I see clearly the presence Of the entire universe Supporting my existence

If this crystallizes your awareness, by all means read "Dharma Rain." If not, read the book anyway, and it may.

"Dharma Rain" is edited by Stephanie Kaza and Kenneth Kraft, Shambhala Publications, $24.95. Stephen Hesse welcomes questions and comments at steve@tamacc.chuo-u.ac.jp


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