Fifty years ago, Diane Fitzgerald marched in the “very first Earth Day parade in New York City. It was kind of a random occurrence that I happened to be there and joined in as a fourteen year old. That was the start.”
Diane is the founder and resident teacher of Zen DownEast in Pembroke, Maine. That makes it less than two hours from where I live in Island View, New Brunswick, but currently the border between Canada and the US is closed, and, while I would have liked to have been able to visit her, we had to make do with Skype instead. It had been suggested that I should speak to her about the EcoSattva program associated with community.
“The term is the combination of the words ‘ecology’ and ‘bodhisattva,’” she explains, “and it refers to a person who takes compassionate care of the Earth. Part of the practice is an acknowledgement of the importance of environmental ethics. Just like the Buddhist precepts guide our lives because we’re not perfectly realized human beings, so we also have a set of environmental ethics to guide our lives in this particular practice.”
Our conversation naturally turns to the significance of core Buddhist teachings in the current pandemic. It was a topic she had recently discussed with her community.
“The standard teachings in Eco-Dharma is first our practice is to meet reality as it is arising, not turning away. Another is studying the self so that we can learn what our engrained habit patterns are – our blind spots – and seeing the ways we construct the self, which helps us identify the many cognitive biases that we have and the psychological defences we develop individually and communally when we’re faced with a crisis of this magnitude. Another is the teaching of interdependence and non-separation. So at this time we’re very much aware of our bodies and how this tiny virus can invade and rearrange us to produce more of itself. So this teaching on interdependence and non-separation is very apparent from our experience of the virus. And the truth of impermanence. So our whole world seems upside down. We have this great sense of groundlessness, and we keep grasping and trying to find something of the old routines and the old normality. But there is a possibility that this provides an opportunity to recognize that the true reality of our existence is groundless. After all, at some point we will die. We often lead our lives without need to confront that, and this situation brings it front and center to us. So how can we find some freedom in that groundlessness that allow us to be more compassionate, more open, less afraid of uncertainty, less afraid of paradox.
“Something else I think is particular to Eco-Dharma is the practice of what Joanna Macy calls ‘Active Hope,’ where we don’t need to be optimists, but we do envision a goal or values that we adhere to. And our work is to commit ourselves to what we believe to be right and not be attached to what the outcomes may be. So it is in the practicing of what we believe to be right and true that we find our commitment flowering. In times like this, when everything is so unknown and unpredictable, how can we continue to practice Active Hope which is not Pollyannaish? It does not require optimism, it just requires a commitment to these values that we hold dear because of our practice. And it does reference the refuge that we take in sangha [community]. That is one of our vows, right? And how community, even though we’re practicing social distancing – as some people have said, it doesn’t have to be social-isolation – that we really do need each other, and we do need to be aware of the most vulnerable members of our community and the world. How does that taking refuge in sangha allow us to bring forward our natural compassion and empathy for the community that’s ours, the whole of Earth as our community?
“So we meet the reality of what is arising. We see how the conditions of the environment can contribute to viruses, to respiratory problems, to the transfer of disease from animals to human beings. How the work on forests is creating all kinds of ecological complications for us as our world continually expands and expands endlessly. And for us to be able to see the reality of that as well as being able to see the reality – without turning away – of what we, as humans, are doing in response.”
She adds that it is not only meditation centers whose programs have been on hold recently. Ecology conferences and seminars have also been suspended, and she wonders about the impact that will have.
“Right now none of the conferences are going on, none of the research is going on. And is that all going to come to a halt? It’s clearly going to impact the immediate future. So how do we turn what is a response to an immediate problem into how we respond to this longer term problem of the eco-crisis. So that’s what I mean about meeting reality as it is without turning away. The practice of doing that can be so beneficial to individuals and communities. And making clear the truth of interdependence. When we start to see that we are not in control, not totally independent, maybe that’s something too that we can encourage a greater reflection on in our Buddhist communities. Not that we don’t already – but in this kind of ecological sense – and perhaps we can develop new ways of being in the economy, being in the market, that are more communal and less the case where I feel free to take what I want and exclude you whether you are here or somewhere else around the world.”
Zen Conversations: Pp. 123; 164-68.