Author Ku San Roshi, Forest Way Zen
A Paper on Zen Buddhism, Ethics and Ecology: One Person’s Look at the World of Change Needed to Find Solutions to Climate Change.
This is a paper on my struggle to find a way out of Climate change, something that will allow me to make my decisions based on facts rather than what I wish will happen. I have looked at history, psychology, political science, the influence of our imperial past, our disconnect with the First Australians. I also looked at our need to find peace with the first people and to begin to feel at home in this great Southern Land. I had a look at what some popular song writers had to say on the matter and used some Buddhist Psychology. This paper came about after my invitation to give a talk at a local Anglican church on Australian day. I noticed that my theme for protecting the country and its ecology was deeply connected with the first Australians and not just on white people.
For the last two years I have been invited to give an address on Australia Day in St. Marks Anglican Church, Buderim. I have mixed views about Australia Day and I always find it difficult to find a neutral way to talk about this day. I am encouraged to see the local First Australians attend and present a great cultural display of dancing and singing. I see the importance of their spiritual life in protecting this Great Southern land. The dancers are from the Gubbi Gubbi people. Most faiths are represented at St. Marks. Participants come from the local Catholic Church, Anglican, Jewish community, Uniting Church, Bahai, and I was the Buddhist representative. Some other community groups also attend. We have about 10-15 minutes each to talk and there are some songs and the national anthem and other anthems.
In my endeavour this year I decided to explore the long culture of the First Australians who have been here for 40,000, 60,000, or maybe 100,000 years. This year I talked about the way our First Australians have looked after the land. And how a British sea, Captain Cook is said to have discovered Australia in 1770 and how the British claimed the Country in 1788 which was later to become known as Australia. How could they discover Australia as the First Australians knew about it as they lived here for thousands of years? The British must have all been blind to other humans living in Australia because they did not see the inhabitants of Australia as human beings. They decided that Australia was terra nullius (no one’s land) when they hoisted the Union Jack at Sydney.
This was the time of imperial European Nations so called, discovering new lands outside Europe and these lands then being annexed by the major European imperial powers of the day. Great Britain needed to find another country to colonize as they were in the process of fighting a war of independence with America. G.B. colonized much of Africa, Asia, some of South America, and most of North America and Oceania. That was our history of Australia and that is what I was taught as a school-boy. That is what happened in the days of Imperialism. In the early days of post colonization in Australia during the Twentieth Century we received little education about the frontier wars with the First Australians.
New South Wales as it was called covered about half of the Australian continent and became a convict settlement, maybe not fit for other free people. Soldiers, and convicts in the early years set about making this convict colony work. One of my ancestors who was sentenced to hang for stealing in 1822 eventually had his sentence commuted to 14 years in New South Wales. It seems that spending 14 years in New South Wales was just as bad as hanging. The British found it difficult to learn anything from the local inhabitants as they were considered non-people. The local first Australian culture was so sophisticated and different that the British of the day could not understand how the local First Australians lived in relative peace and harmony.
The First Australians took care of this land for many thousands of years, maybe for 80,000 and maybe 100,000 years and they knew how to live here. They had strict laws to protect our country and they did a thorough job of keeping it in pristine condition. Ecologically the country was in great shape when the British came to expand their Empire. This land was renamed Australia and because no one lived here could be taken for the British Empire. Australia was considered a place to go forth and take what people wanted. It was easier to ignore the First Australians. Much to our peril we did not notice how the first Australians treated the land.
The 1800’s became a time of taking land for farming and grazing. Cattle and other northern hemisphere farming practices came to Australia. Many of these practices are not suited to topsoil conditions in Australia. But this was a time of pushing into the interior and many areas became quickly eroded and degraded. There were many frontier wars with aboriginal people throughout the countryside. The Sunshine Coast has a local area known as “Murdering Creek Road” where a significant number of First Australians were murdered. Troy Cassar-Daley’s song, “Shadows on the Hill” featured in ABCTV series “Mystery Road” highlights this time of killing and massacres in Australia. He sings,
“I see shadows on the hill up beside the old sawmill…And birds still
Refuse to sing. …Their killers got off scot free.”
Someway, somehow, something, remains of these many acts of murder and pillage and massacres. We all feel guilty because we have not made a peace with the First Australians. And we have not made peace with our ourselves as a result. We cannot learn how to love this land as we feel guilty about how we appropriated Australia and stole it away from another people. This is a typical process when one land is overpowered by another more powerful country and has happened over time in other parts of the new world. The pillage of Australia continues as we lack connection to the place where we live.
We need to look at how we are treating the land, the water, the climate. Climate change is happening much sooner than anyone thought it would. Climate change is a fact based on scientific evidence. Sea levels are rising, rivers are dying, the topsoil is blowing away and being degraded, cyclones are happening more often, and they are more dangerous and severe. Droughts are spread over Australia and are happening more often, and more severe bush fires are burning large areas of all states followed by floods of epic proportions. The words of Midnight Oil throw light on this dangerous time. The song “Beds are Burning” make it very clear,
“How can we dance when the earth is turning?
How do we sleep while our beds are burning?
The time has come to say fair is fair.
To pay the rent, to pay our share.
The time has come, a fact is a fact.
It belongs to them, let’s give it back.”
I see the words as a metaphor. To give back spiritual ownership of the Land to the First Australians and to begin to hear and see them as owners of this great Southern Land. We have so much to learn from our First Australians about how to work with climate change. It seems to me that we cannot make contact and truly feel we belong to this land until we do this healing. There is a strangeness for people from Europe about this place. We continue to prosecute our European Narrative on this land. Perhaps it is our alienation from this land that allows us to continue to be selfish and careless with this country. We must listen to our First Australians, so we can learn to live here.
We overgraze it, we over cultivate it and grow monocrops and use huge amounts of fertilizers and use up our rivers on irrigation. Evidence suggests we are destroying our topsoil. We are using mining practices which are making our most arable land unproductive. We are mining coal and many other things that are in the ground without environmental care and any checks are just pushed through, so they just satisfy governments who need the money for their budgets. Regional areas in mining states are demanding protections from unemployment which is a huge problem in many regional areas. Short-term employment solutions are used to find short-term solutions. This short-term thinking ensures that we continue our use of fossil fuel and prolongs the time before any useful measures to control climate warming can be put in place. We could look to solar and other alternative ways of producing electricity. We are right to suggest that we are destroying our country like vandals and smashing our future living standards. What will our grandchildren think of this selfish generation?
People in these regional areas have very little chance of finding work without the big infrastructure industries of mining. We continue to attack our resources and dig and cut and trample our way to over a 2c degree rise in temperature. Do we see the song lines of our First Australians abused and bursting and do we feel our country dying? I can understand how regional people feel about finding and keeping their work. It is as though there is no sense of the impending danger. It seems, we are not hearing, not seeing, not smelling, not touching or not knowing what is happening. Australia is in a state of change: the world is in a state of change and danger. People have stopped listening to scientists because there are other personal reasons to ignore pure science.
Australia pushes on in the same old way. Governments ignore the long-term impact of climate change. The short-term political gains of all Governments in Australia are understandable. Will there ever be a political party who will risk being driven out of government by instituting a courageous change in the response to climate change. In the famous English Television show of the 70s called, “Yes Minister”, as a metaphor helped ministers see the problems when making courageous great decisions to improve the country. I wonder if there are any courageous politicians left in Australia who will tackle this climate change. Their advisors tell them, “that is very courageous minister”. Courageous being a word, meaning that people in your electorate will vote you out. Change will only come when Australians demand it at the polling booth. It is understandable that no Australian governments will wittingly commit political suicide to change views about climate change. Governments of all sides play with this idea of political amnesia. It’s not happening if we say it is not happening and so it will go away if we don’t mention it because if we don’t mention it is not happening.
Extremes of the right and the left have appeared in the world political structure. Trump in the USA. Right wing political parties in Europe. Brexit and confusion in The United Kingdom and other European countries are uncertain about EU membership. A conservative liberal party in Australia moving further Right. People voting to achieve limited regional imperatives at the cost of other important national issues.
Left wing parties seem to have lost their way and are feared by many ordinary people in the world and yet these left-wing parties are also growing and engendering much fear among the ring wing. And still the right-wing parties are engendering fear in the left voters. People feel they are going to be left behind or they will lose their wealth. Older people are already feeling the loss of spending power with lower pensions. The moderate left and right seem to some, to have no answers and people are taking rigid stands on the left and right. The centre or the “middle way” is a common term given to the “Buddha Way” after the Buddha gained awakening 2500 ago. I mention this as I am a practicing Zen Buddhist. I think that Buddhism has a small part to play in helping the modern world come to grips with climate change. Buddhism encourages personal responsibly to take “Right Action”
Buddhism teaches, “when we clearly realize our true selves, the true nature of the universe, we see there is nothing that is wrong” (Yamada Roshi). The essential nature of the human being is like a pond of clearwater which is covered by thick layers of dirt so when working with those with opposing views we need to realize that we need to concentrate on the fact that everyone is intrinsically perfect. Seeing the Buddha nature in all people will help us find a way to rid our layers of dirt and help others see through their layers of dirt as well. Our job as change agents is to find a new Upaya (skilful means) to work with people so they see the dangerous situation we are in. The Buddha walked the length of the Ganges and lived to see his own land taken away from his family. He taught in a time of great upheaval and had to tread carefully. He ordained many untouchables in his work and made some enemies. He had to develop new skills to negotiate his way through these difficult times.
There is great suffering in the world. I don’t know if the threat of Climate Change is responsible for this fear or if the swing to the right and the swing to the left in the world is causing fear. Is the fear because of the difficulties that people find adjusting to the world of extreme ideas? Are we concerned about the pollution caused by China and India which will dissipate any effort we make in Australia? Change in our psychological and emotional perspective is never easy. People might look for answers to these problems but find it easier not to change. Perhaps it will be too hard to make the changes to their coping strategies and people will try to find hope in the status quo and a return to old values and old ways of seeing the world.
People believe that technology will come with the answers to control climate change. I hope they are right! This is what the West has done in the past. This could account for the swing to the right that seems to be happening to world democracies. Returning to a “father figure” that promises to return to an all-knowing authority who will fix things without us having to do anything. “Leave all that to me and you just get on with your life of consuming.” This way, individual members of society do not have to make any personal sacrifices and don’t have to make any personal decisions about the intending danger to the world. “Big Daddy” is in control and he knows what to do and besides it always worked in the past. But this not the past and I am not sure that any big daddy knows how to find solutions while locked into any political ideology. This problem is far too ordinary and down to earth for ideological decisions. We should look at the detail.
The Buddhist Lotus Sutra uses metaphors to highlight how difficult it is to change our habits of mind. This sutra shows how a wealthy man who owns a mansion must entice his children to leave the burning building with exotic gifts. They are playing with their toys and do not want to leave the house. They don’t see the danger as they are mesmerized by their toys. The father makes the gifts very appealing to each child before they will leave the burning mansion. This metaphor highlights how much we are stuck in our own gratification. Our habits of mind compel us to continue with our behaviour that is making the situation worse. People will not see the need to change until the catastrophe is burning under their feet and that will be too late. It may well be too late now!
What will make people come out of the Burning World and save themselves. “Midnight Oil” says it clearly,
“How can we dance when our earth is turning.
How do we sleep while our beds are burning?
The time has come to say fair is fair
To pay the rent, to pay our share”
In our practice of Zen, we find a way out of our suffering and we begin to see another way of being in the world. We know that we are connected to everything in the universe and we know if we hurt anything in that “universe” we are hurting ourselves. One of my students brought this up during a Dokusan interview. She told me that since beginning Zen meditation about four years ago she began to understand her own suffering and disconnection from people. She said she felt freer and was able to offer more help to people around her. She is a senior professional in the health profession in Queensland. She is using these skills in her work. This listening to other people when you come from a place of oneness and essential unity is badly needed in this Western World and really all the world. Yamada Roshi in Case 48 of the Blue Cliff Record suggests that students of Zen go on to eventually experience this world of essential unity. My student was making the same point during our Dokusan.
What have we learned from the movement of the Greens and other groups that are interested in helping people see the danger in climate change? What mistakes are these change agents making and how can we change that rather “finger pointing” style. Jumping in a car or truck or bus convoy and touring places in the North of Queensland looks a good move from the outside but I think from the reaction we got, people felt pushed around and voted in the opposite direction. They did not agree to change their vote for climate change measures but may have become fearful of losing their jobs or not getting jobs if coal mining was stopped and new coal mines did not open. People may have voted for self-interest.
I hope we have learned from that. I wonder if people swinging from the Sydney Harbour Bridge did change many people’s ideas about climate change. Perhaps the only people who have been impressed by these activities are the people who are on side already. Maybe we get gratification from our committed friends who think we are green warriors fighting to save the world. Maybe we are not informed well enough about the sophisticated political world who will use our behaviour for their cause. This suggests that maybe we are naive about our methods.
Do we decide to gather on one side of the road and yell at people on the other side of the road who think they are right and who yell back at us? I think this was happening in the 1920’s and 1930s in most of Europe with the fascists on one side and the communists on the other side. Do we take up arms or throw rocks at them, the opposition? No, no, no, we should not, could we take up another way of talking to people and listening to them. I don’t think we should throw insults at them either.
Perhaps we need to see all other people as being as fearful as us. But for different reasons. They are suffering as well. They are fearful of not having a job and then not having a good life but fearful they will have a very bad life. They don’t see the danger to the world climate and the danger for Australia which will be hit badly by climate change. Perhaps we need ways of talking to people rather than having fingers of right and wrong pocked at them. “We are right, and you are wrong” is not going to get us very far. Can we see our connection to people who have different views? Can we see our non-separation from anything and anyone? We are fearful and frightened just like them. Maybe we should start reviewing our attitude of confrontation? We should be clear what we want and how to get it. Are we, always right? Are we so special that we know all about people’s fears? Are we just doing things to impress our friends to win brownie points and show our commitment to the common cause?
There is certainly great suffering and a need to somehow articulate a way out of this dangerous time. We need to articulate a middle of the road solution: a middle path, that will be easy for people to understand. We need to bring all and those who oppose the idea of climate change. The time has come to stop appointing blame to other people and really start looking for solutions. We all know how to fix this problem. Scientists have been showing us this path for decades. The problem really is that we don’t know how to change ideas and ideology. Our opposition need to come with us, and we need to go with them. If we do not include people with opposing views, they will simply vote against a good solution. The world leaders need to make changes to protect us from further damage but in the end, people will have to make the changes themselves. This will not be an easy decision for any government who wants to stay in power for more than one term (3years). “Good will” and understanding are necessary to bring us closer to those who have a different idea of the world. How do we use our democracy to help find solutions? We need skills and good luck. Is it too late already? What do we need to do if it is too late? How do we Buddhists find ways or how do we use Upaya or skilful means to find the solutions.
After looking at some of the areas that impact on a way of encouraging people to mobilize on climate change, I am was surprised I did not understand why very little has happened in the last 20years. I don’t need to be convinced about climate change. I feel I don’t have the answers, but I think Buddhism could be useful and helpful for encouraging and facilitating people to stand up and work for climate change. I do know we are all in this together. How do we stimulate the current government to tackle these issues? How do we encourage the Labor Party who put their political lives up for grabs again and to do it again at the next election after this beating in 2019? They have been smashed and whipped at the polling booth again on this issue. Will they still endeavour to tackle climate change? I hope so. Will the conservatives start to see the dangers of climate change? I leave all these questions to people who have greater influence, but I will do my share of advocating. One by one, person to person, we will make this change.