Buddhists embrace action For the Earth

This year’s Buddhist Action Month, calling for action “for the Earth”, takes place under lockdown yet has the potential to reach far wider than ever before.

June 2020 marks the eighth annual “BAM!”, as it’s known – an initiative of the Network of Buddhist Organisations to allow Buddhists of all traditions to inspire and support social change and care for the environment. This stance challenges common stereotypes of Buddhism as introspective and passive, especially in the ways it has been adopted in the West. In Asia, many strands of Buddhist practice have had a long history of engagement with “worldly” issues. BAM addresses these issues and provides an opportunity for the NBO to pursue its goals of promoting fellowship and dialogue between diverse UK Buddhist traditions. To learn more about this year’s event, Faith for the Climate spoke to BAM coordinator and Pureland Buddhist priest Kaspalita Thompson.

According to its website, BAM invites Buddhists to “take their practice off the cushion and into the world, to exemplify compassion, ethics, meditation, and insight in the real world and in contact with others”. Kaspalita told Faith for the Climate that this means different things to different people. The aim is for participants to “take as little or as much as they want to” from the central theme, and this year, suggested actions range from organising environmental talks for local Buddhist groups, adopting personal behavioural changes or extra precepts, getting involved in local environmental initiatives, or simply taking on a particular focus in meditation. The NBO provides marketing materials for BAM, a newsletter, and a Handbook filled with suggestions and resources.

BAM usually provides an opportunity for Buddhists who are passionate about making a difference to come together. Inevitably, things look different this year under coronavirus lockdown. While meditation and ritual are definitely different done remotely, moving many events online means that there is a possibility to engage with newer and wider audiences.

“It means people all around the world can access this,” says Kaspalita. “And I think because people want their events to be as widely accessed as possible, they’re telling me about them, in a way that perhaps didn’t happen when I was doing it last year.” He has developed a calendar of online events he’s aware of – only a fraction of those taking place – which continues to evolve. With many events being recorded, some may also be shared after BAM 2020 concludes.

So far, online initiatives have included a launch hosted by the NBO, exploring Buddhist action in a post-Covid era; meditations for World Environment Day; ritual reflections on the Earth as our original parent; talks on Buddhist approaches to activism; chanting; and guided metta bhavana (cultivation of loving-kindness) meditations. Some events focus on internal advocacy, making the case for Buddhists who might be hesitant to engage more with environmental issues, while others are centered on “resourcing” those who are already deeply concerned, in a variety of ways. Kaspalita hopes that “when we’re allowed to meet again and gather again, people will be in a place where they’ve got some energy to take action.”

Internal work “vs” external action?

This “resourcing” is important, to ward off the burnout and despair that can affect many climate activists. Buddhist teachings on dissolving the boundary between self and other offer a particular perspective on the relationship between inner and outer work. Many Buddhists get drawn into supporting the more reflective aspects of the environmental movement; Kaspalita has run a “process” group in his local Extinction Rebellion group for over six months, offering emotional check-ins and post-action debriefs.

Satya Robyn during her arrest in October 2019: “I sobbed, beloved Earth, because the grief I felt for you suddenly rose up and crushed me.” (Photo credit: Tom Dorrington)

“For me,” says Kaspalita, “my Buddhist practice generally has always been about the dance between coming close to the Buddha, receiving the blessings of that practice, and all the gifts that go along with that – equanimity, groundedness, my defensiveness relaxing so that my compassion can appear; and then going back out into the world, and doing things; then coming back close to the Buddha; and then going back out into the world, having my ego triggered in various ways; then coming back.”

“There’s things we learn in the world, how to be wise in particular ways; then there’s a different kind of wisdom and compassion that we learn from being in the presence of the Buddha.”

This “dance” is necessary: “Even the Buddha went into the forest for personal retreat sometimes. He wasn’t always in the world.” At the same time, Kaspa has been studying an early Cha’an (Zen) text, The Five Ranks of Spiritual Progress, which emphasises that the end goal of the spiritual path is being able to tolerate the difficulties of the world, rather than moving beyond them. “The first time I read it, to me it was about going back into the world and sitting with the suffering of the world; that’s the final stage of practice, being a Buddha in the world. And there’s also something in there about ‘sitting with the ashes’. It’s at that point, you know, it’s like the fire of the passions has gone.” Once these fires of the ego transform into compassionate insight, an appropriate course of action becomes clear.

Origins and growth

BAM originated as just a single “Buddhist Action Day”, part of the Interfaith Year of Service for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012 – inspired in turn by Mitzvah Day. It’s now grown into an international initiative lasting a whole month, with events taking place in continental Europe, Australia and North America.

Initially, BAM invited participants to choose any theme which inspired them, but lately a more honed approach has evolved. This year’s focus reflects the increasing urgency of environmental issues for many Buddhists. Triratna Buddhists adopted “Evolution or Extinction?” for the theme of Buddhafield festival in 2019, and ran an online retreat on “turning towards” climate change to mark Earth Day 2020. The well-established Dharma Action Network for Climate Engagement (DANCE), known for its actions against Barclays Bank among others, has grown in prominence, while a new group of Extinction Rebellion Buddhists came together through meditative actions in the 2019 October Rebellion. Both of these involve Buddhists from a wide range of traditions.

Buddhists meditating “in grief and love for the Earth”, October 2019 (Photo credit: Jeremy Peters)

While DANCE and XR Buddhists focus on protest, action “for the Earth” offers wide opportunities for engagement. In Buddhist teaching, “the earth” is often cited as the immense field of others’ difficulties, with which a practitioner must engage (at least emotionally) in order to move closer to Reality. In the Bodhicaryavatara, the sage Shantideva famously asked how this cosmos of difficulty could be borne:

“Where would I find enough leather to cover the entire surface of the Earth?

But with leather soles beneath my feet, it’s as if the whole world has been covered.”

Transforming our own mental states, in other words, is the first step towards trying to approach the suffering of all beings.

The nurturing and patient aspects of the Earth are also held up as an ideal of compassionate service, as in the Triratna Community’s “transference of merits” practice:

Just as the Earth and other elements are serviceable in many ways to the infinite number of beings inhabiting limitless space, so may I become that which maintains all beings, situated throughout space, so long as all have not attained to peace.

And vividly, the Earth also appears as a female figure in the story of the Buddha’s Awakening, as a “witness” to his worthiness when he was attacked by doubts. “Touching the earth” in Buddhist iconography, therefore, is associated with calling on a deeper wisdom and energy, to get in touch with Reality and to pursue skilful and effective action.

Akshobhya Buddha, Vajrasana Retreat Centre, Suffolk (Photo credit: Kusalanada / Andreas Kähäri)

BAM’s future

Following the success of this year’s online calendar, Kaspalita hopes there will be some way to log events centrally next year. There’s no obligation for groups to tell NBO about their activities, although a Facebook group and Twitter hashtag aim to help join people up with local initiatives.

With the increasing interest in environmental issues in UK Buddhism, the NBO has also created a year-round Eco Dharma Network, which is also a partner in Faith for the Climate’s capacity-building work, to strengthen capacity for climate action. This was launched with an event in February with talks from Gaia House’s Yanai Postelnik, Pureland priest Satya Robyn, and NBO Chair Juliet Hackney. The emergence of the Eco Dharma Network may mean that BAM once again opens up to any theme responding to the world’s suffering. As Kaspalita notes, from Covid-19 to Black Lives Matter and beyond, there are plenty of problems demanding compassionate action.

While individual actions and the internal work is important, for Kaspalita, campaigning more explicitly for system change must remain part of the picture. “For me it’s really important to hold a mirror up to the complexity of the situation, and the fact that there’s a small number of people in powerful positions, and their actions have bigger impacts than my actions do.”

May BAM 2020 have far-reaching effects, deepening our understanding of Buddhist action for the Earth, and everything on it.