David Loy is a Dharma heir of Yamada Koun in the Sanbo Zen tradition. “According to Zen,” he tells me, “we are not fully awake. There is something we need to realize about ourselves and about the world, and the path is to help us wake up.”
I ask what that “something” is.
“There’s a lot of ways to answer that, but for me what stands out is non-duality or non-separation: overcoming the delusion that there’s a me inside that is somehow separate from you and the rest of the world outside, and that therefore my well-being is separate from yours and others’ well-being. The delusion of self. Kensho – ‘opening’ as some people prefer now – is a letting go of that and realizing or experiencing the world at least momentarily in a non-dual way. So that is what I’d say we need to wake up to. And then to integrate the implications of that into how we live.”
David is a co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center where he and Johann Robbins – of the Insight Meditation tradition – offer ten day “ecodharma retreats.”
“Which is mostly meditation – we’re usually outside, somewhere on our 185 acres, or nearby – but it’s partly workshop as well. To some degree we model ourselves upon Joanna Macy’s ‘Work That Reconnects,’ helping people get in touch with their gratitude but also their grief about the global ecological situation, since many of us are closed down emotionally because we can’t cope with our grief. We’re afraid of it, because we don’t know what we can do personally to make a difference. Our approach is we’ve got to get in touch with our grief, to start to face it and work it through together, in which case it can empower us to respond more directly to what’s going on.”
It’s not, he stresses, a Zen retreat as such. “There’s a different kind of meditation we encourage that is more sensory-based, in the sense of not going into your head and reciting Mu or working on a koan, but opening up to the natural world. That’s number one. Number two we encourage gratitude practice. Feeling gratitude, with the realization that gratitude isn’t just something we feel or don’t feel, it’s a practice we cultivate. As Brother Steindl-Rast said, we’re not grateful because we’re happy; we’re happy because we’re grateful.”
For part of the retreat, participants go off by themselves. “Everyone goes off on a solo, with their tent and sleeping bag. People pick their location, and they’re there by themselves for two days and two nights. During that time, we encourage them not to have an agenda but to continue to be open to what’s happening. To notice, what does the land, what do the trees and the meadows and the large and small animals have to offer?”
It reminds me of Bernie Glassman’s Bearing Witness retreats, in which he had said it was not he but the street or Auschwitz which was the teacher.
“That’s our sense too, that the beautiful, unspoiled land where we practice is the real teacher. The whole point of our schedule and program is to enable and maximize that process. But let me make a couple of distinctions here. Bernie was wonderful in the ways he focused on social justice. And that’s a huge question, all the more so today. What’s the relation between ecodharma – which focuses on the ecological crisis – and social oppression such as racism? But whereas Bernie focused on how humans relate with and often oppress other humans, our focus has been on how humans relate to and exploit the rest of the natural world. I’m very concerned to integrate social justice issues into ecological issues, but not to the extent that we ignore the problem of what might be called species-ism. Trees don’t vote, don’t march or protest. Right? The whole point of ecodharma, as I understand it, is realizing that we need to expand the moral sphere of responsibility beyond human beings to the rest of the natural world, not only animals but forests and lakes and ecosystems. That’s a little different from what Bernie was focusing on although I think it fits in quite well.”
I ask about similar work in Asia, and he mentions a group called the “International Network of Engaged Buddhists” based in Bangkok. “It is a pan-Asian organization that works with a lot of different engaged Buddhists, but it’s a minority development, not part of the main institutions.”
“Engaged Buddhism,” I note, “is a phrase that Thich Nhat Hanh coined, and one of the things that he advises his followers to contemplate is that the human species isn’t immune to extinction. We aren’t, as a species, going to last forever.”
“Today I think a growing number of us have that sense. There is an interesting parallel with awareness of own individual mortality. Buddhist practice helps us get in touch with our own impermanence, our own insubstantiality. That’s an important part of it. And part of the challenge of ecodharma, I believe, is that it raises similar questions about the fate of the human species and certainly modern civilization as we know it today.”
I ask what he hopes for people participating in the retreats.
“First, to come to feel a deeper connection with the natural world. And gratitude will normally follow naturally from that. I would also hope that they are able to get in touch with their own grief about what’s happening to the natural world. It’s not that we work through that grief once and for all, but it’s something that shouldn’t be denied when it arises. Painful though it is, opening to our grief is necessary for the transformation – the kind of enlightenment – that we need today. But my most important hope would be that those who undertake this process be empowered and motivated to become ecologically and socially engaged.”
Zen Conversations: 34-36; 50-51; 118-19; 124-26; 155-58