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Essay: An exploration of Engaged Buddhism – By Lisa Siegel

Composed on the occasion of the Buddha Touched the Earth meditation retreat held in Bellingen in 2012.

Buddha touched the earth 2500 years ago and the reverberations are still being felt. In the first week of February 2013, thirty curious people gathered for three days at the welcoming and peaceful North Farm in Bellingen, for an exploration of what it means to be alive in this time of immense challenge for our planet. Some of the participants had been following the path of meditation and Dharma study for many years, some had been part of previous Deep Ecology retreats and workshops, but many were new to both deep ecology and Buddhist philosophy. While the majority of participants were from the Mid North Coast, we had participants from as far north as Currumbin Waters Qld, and as far south as Sydney. The age range too was varied – from 22 years old to 69 years young.

One of the participants said afterwards, “Dharma study and deep ecology – it is such an obvious combination!” But not that obvious … it has apparently not been presented many times before in workshop format. When we thought about why we wanted to combine the two, we came up with three levels of intention. On a personal level: for each individual to explore how the Dharma and deep connection to the planet can be tools for personal sustainability. On a community level: to build connections amongst people who are interested in the study of Engaged Buddhism and in working together towards the healing of the Planet. On a global level: to investigate how the Dharma and deep ecology work can help create the radical shift in consciousness needed in these times of planetary threat. During our three days together, we worked and played together towards these three levels of intention. Much of the workshop was through story telling: Insight Meditation teacher Will James shared the story of “When Buddha Touched the Earth” and spoke to us of dependent arising – how all things “continually change and condition each other in interconnections as real as the spokes in a wheel” (Joanna Macy) .

Deep ecologist John Seed helped us walk the billions of years of the story of the Cosmos, and invited us to a “Council of All Beings” in which only the non-humans were allowed to share their stories of concern, and of joy. Facilitator Lisa Siegel shared the story of the vision of a Great Turning that can guide us towards a life-sustaining planet. We all shared personal stories of connection to Mother Earth, and despair at what is happening to her and all her creatures, and delight at her glory. And we all lived the old/new story of the interconnectedness of all things.”

Deep ecology is a term coined by the late Arne Naess, Emeritus professor of Philosophy from Oslo University. Deep ecology looks at the spiritual disease that underlies the environmental crisis: the illusion of separation between humans and the rest of the natural world. According to deep ecology, this illusion stems from anthropocentrism, the sense that human beings are the centre of everything. Naess saw that this anthropocentrism is so deeply embedded in the human psyche that we’re not going to be able to think our way out of the mess that it has created. He claimed that ecological ideas are not enough to save us; what is needed is ecological identity, ecological self. In order to nourish our ecological identity, Naess called for the development of community therapies “which heal our relations with the widest community, that of all living beings.”

In 1988 “Thinking Like a Mountain – Towards a Council of All Beings” was published (John Seed, Joanna Macy, Pat Fleming & Arne Naess) launching what is now known as “the work that reconnects” experiential deep ecology processes which move us from ecological ideas to ecological identity.

Two of the processes which I offered at “Buddha Touched the Earth” were The Cosmic Walk and The Council of All Beings itself. In the Cosmic Walk, devised by Sister Miriam Therese McGillis in honour of her mentor the late Thomas Berry, we walked through time. A 50m ball of string represented the 13.7 billion year universe story so each meter we walked represented 274 million years. The wool was laid in a spiral on the floor of the meditation hall and along the spiral were placed 23 tealight candles each representing a story, an emergent property of the Universe. In the centre of the spiral was a candle representing the flaring forth of the Universe, celebrating the stunning fact that anything exists at all. As we chanted Theo Simon’s “Child of the Universe”, the youngest of our party lit a taper from the Big Bang at the centre and walked slowly around the spiral, stopping to light each candle as the unfolding story was told.

In the Council of All Beings, each of us found an “ally” from the non-human world, made a mask to represent that being and then met in council to hear what the more-than-human world had to say.

In honor of the co-incidence that the first Cambodian tree ordination (which was being supported with the $2000 we had raised from workshop fees) was taking place on the same weekend, we planted a Michaelia Chamapaca Alba tree, – White Fragrant Himalayan Champaca – and Gai and Jen who had so graciously and generously donated North Farm and their cooking for our event agreed that we would have it ordained, perhaps the first tree to be ordained in Australia, the next time a suitably qualified Buddhist nun or monk was in the valley.

Will James also offered these closing remarks: “For me this has been a remarkable weekend and I’d like to thank you all for supporting and creating this magic, the opportunity to explore and inquire into what is really important in life. The title of this weekend was “An Exploration of Engaged Buddhism”. However, I prefer “Engaged Dharma” as “Buddhism” has associations of religion, you’re a Buddhist or you’re not a Buddhist. Dharma is the truth of things, the truth of how nature unfolds naturally and the interconnection of all things. And Dharma is also the teachings that express that and the way of living in harmony with that truth. These are the deep issues that we’ve been exploring. And there is the Buddha Dharma, which is the Buddha’s way of expressing that truth. And there’s the deep ecology Dharma which is another way of expressing that truth. That truth of this deep interconnection and interdependence of all beings. In Dharma language: there is no “other”.

This coming together of Dharma and deep ecology. Actually they are not separate. Both express the deep understanding and deep realization that we can have within our own being. It’s not an intellectual theory, it’s our own experience. It can transform us and transform the way that we relate to each other and to the environment. That has been the core practice that we’ve been exploring. And it is this transformation that is necessary I feel, that’s going to be meaningful and enduring. The action has to come from the open heart, the heart that has been transformed, the heart that sees that deep connection between all beings. That is not self-absorbed. That is open to the world and to each other.

These exercises that we have done over the weekend, seeing into that remarkable story of the evolution of life and to the wonder and the immensity, the unfathomable beauty as well as restoring the inner world, the silence and the stillness from which all this remarkable creation has emerged. I’ve found it an amazing experience and I thank you all for the honor.”