3 - Introduction
Green Monasticism: A Buddhist-Catholic Response to an Environmental Calamity
Edited by Prof. Donald W. Mitchell, and William Skudlarek, O.S.B.
Why should monks, men and women, think they have something to say about caring for the environment? After all, haven’t they opted to flee the world?
In the West, at least, that common misunderstanding of monastic life comes from a mistaken interpretation of “fuga mundi,” a Latin expression frequently found in medieval monastic literature. Literally translated, those words do, in fact, mean “flight of [i.e., from] the world.” However, the word “world” in this context refers not to our natural surroundings, not even to human society absolutely speaking, but to all that is opposed to goodness and truth.
The history of monasticism—a particular way of living in the world that originated in India some three-thousand years ago and then appeared in the western world about a thousand years later—actually reveals that monks have generally appreciated, even celebrated, their natural environment and have been careful to avoid any action that would damage or disfigure it. Jain and Hindu insistence on not harming (ahimsa), Buddhist teaching on non-attachment (upadana), and Western monasticism’s emphasis on being rooted in one place (stabilitas loci), have insured, each in its own way, that monks treat the natural world with reverence and walk lightly through it. A rich tradition of preserving and beautifying their natural surroundings leads monks to believe their way of life can offer guidance and encouragement to a society that is finally coming to grips with the realization that it will have to treat the world differently if there is to be a world to pass on to future generations. The “Statement of Understanding and Commitment” at the beginning of this book is one expression of their desire to share their values and traditions with all who search for ways to live in harmony with the world they are a part of.
The essays that make up Green Monasticism are, for the most part, edited versions of talks given at a Buddhist/Catholic encounter on “Monasticism and the Environment” held at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky May 27-31, 2008. The conference was the third “Gethsemani Encounter” sponsored by Monastic Interreligious Dialogue (MID), an organization of North American Benedictines and Cistercians dedicated to fostering dialogue between Catholic monastics and spiritual practitioners of various religious traditions.
The first Gethsemani Encounter was held in 1996 and came about in response to a request made by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He had taken part in a Buddhist/Catholic dialogue on “Kenosis and Emptiness” at the Parliament for the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1993. At its conclusion he suggested that there be a sequel in a monastic setting, where he could be “a monk among monks.” He expressed his hope that such a gathering could take place at Gethsemani Abbey, the monastery of Thomas Merton, whom he had met in India in 1968, a little more than a month before Merton’s accidental death in Bangkok on December 10.
The theme of the first Gethsemani Encounter was the spiritual life in the Buddhist and Christian monastic traditions. The meeting brought together an international group of about fifty leading Buddhist and Catholic practitioners and teachers of spirituality, both monastic and lay. The proceedings were published in The Gethsemani Encounter: A Dialogue on the Spiritual Life by Buddhist and Christian Monastics.
The second Gethsemani Encounter took place in 2002. At this gathering North American Buddhist and Christian practitioners who had been in dialogue with each other since the first Gethsemani Encounter addressed the subject of suffering and its transformation from their respective traditions. The proceedings were published under the title Transforming Suffering: Reflections on Finding Peace in Troubled Times.
As MID began planning a Buddhist/Christian dialogue on monasticism and the environment, it was obvious that Gethsemani would be the ideal place to meet. Not only had two major interreligious encounters already taken place in that setting, but Thomas Merton, the abbey’s most well-known monk, had been a pioneer in raising awareness about threats to our environment. He also was one of the first spiritual writers to call attention to the importance—indeed, the necessity—of interreligious dialogue, especially for monks, in addressing the world’s problems.
The opening presentation at Gethsemani III was therefore devoted to Merton’s analysis of the ecological catastrophe brought about by rapid industrialization and a growing inability to see nature as anything more than a resource to be exploited for economic advantage. In “Paradise Regained Re-lost” Fr. Ezekiel Lotz of Mount Angel Abbey in Oregon argues that Merton’s attraction to monastic life, and in particular to the Trappist form of monastic life which in the 1940s was still founded on a self-sustaining agricultural model, sprang from his longing to regain paradise. Within a few years of his entrance into the monastic community at Gethsemani, however, a centuries’ old way of life changed almost overnight as the monastery modernized its farming methods and started marketing cheeses and fruitcakes in order to increase income and avert impending bankruptcy.
Merton was very critical of the rapid and—to his mind—uncritical way in which this transformation took place. The loss of the bucolic life he had hoped to find in the monastery, coupled with his growing awareness of the imminence of a global ecological catastrophe, brought him to the edge of despair. In one of his last working notebooks, Lotz found this marginal note: “The dreadful fact [is] that I was born into this world at the very moment when the whole thing came to a head; it is precisely in my lifetime that civilization has undergone this massive attack from within itself. My whole life is shaped by this. . . . It presses on the brain with a (near) darkness.”
Merton’s fear that the forces of destruction were too far advanced to be reversed only seemed to heighten his appreciation for the beauty of the world around him. His journal and other writings are filled with evocative descriptions of plants and animals, times and seasons. Just a few years before Gethsemani III a beautiful anthology of his writings on nature had appeared, making it possible to begin each session of the encounter with the reading of an appropriate text from Merton, followed by a time for reflection.
Buddhist practitioner Stephanie Kaza, a professor in the Environmental Program at the University of Vermont and a scholar of Buddhist environmental thought, opened the first full day of the encounter with a PowerPoint presentation on the magnitude, scope, and seriousness of the ecological catastrophe at our doorstep. Her presentation provided observable and scientifically verifiable evidence that the global environmental crisis is extremely grave and multi-faceted, involving species and habitat loss, increasingly unsustainable human populations, the diminishment of food, water and basic, non-renewable resources, the broadening and depleting environmental impact of new technologies, the rapid rise of consumerist economies in China, India, and Southeast Asia, threats to an oil-based global economy, and the widespread impacts of climate change.
One of the major reasons for this multi-faceted crisis is that seventy-four percent of the earth’s biocapacity is consumed by only five countries or regions of the world: India, China, Europe, Japan, and the United States. Using the metaphor of an “ecological footprint” to refer to the load imposed by a given population on nature (more specifically, to refer to the land area necessary to sustain current levels of consumption and waste discharge), Kaza then compared the footprints left by these five regions. As is clearly evident from the following figures, the United States, with only four and a half percent of the world’s population, uses and consumes a vastly disproportionate amount of the world’s resources:
||Percentage of the world’s population
||Ecological footprint, global (acres) per person
||Percentage of biocapacity
|India ||17.1||1.9 ||7
|China ||19.4 ||3.9 ||18
|Europe ||10.8 ||11.6 ||19
|Japan ||1.8 ||11.8 ||5
|United States ||4.5 ||23.9 ||25
The reason for this extraordinarily high level of consumption in the United States is the epidemic of “affluenza,” an insatiable desire to use and possess more and more things. A few random indicators from 2002 show just how serious this disease is: “Our annual production of solid waste would fill a convoy of garbage trucks stretching halfway to the moon. We have twice as many shopping centers as high schools. . . . A CEO now earns 475 times as much as the average worker, a tenfold increase since 1980. Since 1950, we Americans have used up more resources than everyone who ever lived on earth before them.”
Kaza concluded her presentation by emphasizing the important role that faith-based organizations can play in responding to the ever increasing damage being done to the environment. What these religious bodies especially need to do is to raise consciousness and show, in word and deed, that care for the environment is an ethical and spiritual imperative. Their message will be all the more convincing if different religious groups can work together on environmental projects—land restoration or community gardens, for example—or share such physical resources as retreat centers or meeting areas.
Two presentations on the different philosophical/theological contexts in which Buddhist and Christian monasticism are rooted precede essays on monastic teachings on nature and monastic practices that guide our relationship with it. Ajahn Punnadhammo, a Theravadin monk of the Thai Forest tradition who lives at the Arrow River Forest Hermitage in Ontario, draws on the Buddhist teaching of dependent origination to address the causes and conditions behind the current climate crisis. He points out that dependent origination, not a deity, is the ultimate cause of the objects and events of the universe. Keeping in mind that the twelve stages of dependent origination are to be seen as a dynamic ongoing process, not as a linear movement through historical time, he traces the cause of climate change back to the desire for pleasures of the senses. Sense desire gives rise to consumerism, consumerism gives rise to commodity production, commodity production gives rise to resource extraction, resource extraction gives rise to greenhouse gas release, and greenhouse gas release gives rise to climate change. He proposes that the reason so many contemporary attempts to solve the crisis—by switching to biofuels, for example—are ineffective, or even counter-productive is that they do not address the root cause of the problem. It is precisely because the monastic virtues of non-greed, contentment, and reconnecting to the interdependent web of life do address the root cause of our ecological crisis that monasticism can make a valuable contribution to the contemporary Green movement.
In his presentation on the Catholic doctrine of creation, James Wiseman of Saint Anselm’s Abbey in Washington, DC, recognizes that a literal interpretation of anthropomorphic descriptions of God creating matter ex nihilo or fashioning human beings out of clay will elicit unbelief and even ridicule. The doctrine of creation attempts to respond to the “why” question of material and sentient existence, rather than the “how” question of the origin of the universe. There continue to be disputed questions in the Christian theology of creation. What is not disputed is that the material world is good, and that the only reason the universe continues to exist is because it is totally dependent on God’s ongoing creative love. This love, Wiseman suggests, generates a “fellowship of creation” with an interdependence of which we are a part. This calls for both loving care and selfless non-attachment for the good of the cosmos as basic to solving our ecological problems today.
These two presentations make clear that while Buddhists and Christians do indeed differ in the way they regard the origin of the world, both believe that mind (Christians might say “spirit”) is primary.7 The principal difference would seem to lie in the Christian doctrine of a personal God. Both Buddhism and Christianity have a sense of the transcendental, but Buddhism is very reluctant to give the transcendental the attributes of a person or the characteristics of a first cause. The difference in our understanding of the material world is at a high level, and quite narrow and subtle. But as Punnadhammo and Wiseman show, and subsequent essays will confirm, the difference in understanding is hardly—if at all—reflected in the practices by which monks over the centuries have expressed their care for the world.
The following two essays explain how the world and our life in it are treated by monastic rules. Rev. Heng Sure discuses the Patimokkha/Pratimoksha (in the Theravada traditions) and the Ten Major and Forty-eight Subsidiary Bodhisattva Precepts (in the Mahayana traditions). Sister Judith Sutera discusses The Rule of Benedict. Heng Sure, a Chan monk from the Berkeley Buddhist Center, admits that Buddhist monastic rules, like their Christian equivalents, contain relatively few specifically environmental references as we would define them today. The reason we can look to the rules for wise guidance on how to live skillfully on the planet is that they are grounded in the principles of no greed, no harm, and interdependence. They reflect, he says, “the wisdom of earth-based peoples who have always known that nature is one texture, one fabric,” and that “humanity is part of, and not apart from, kinship with all creatures . . . knit into and inextricably related to all other species.”
Sister Judith Sutera of Mount Saint Benedict in Atchison, Kansas also notes that Saint Benedict never mentions a specific love for nature or a concern for ecology, nor does he acknowledge the relationship between the monastic community and nature. Certain sections of his Rule, however, read like a description of the way people relate to the world around them when they believe that the kingdom of God is here and now. To demonstrate her point she contextualizes and expands on a couple of brief passages in the Rule: that all things “are to be treated as vessels of the altar” (chapter 31), and that “whoever fails to keep the things belonging to the monastery clean or treats them carelessly should be reproved” (chapter 32). Being mindful that all material things have been given as gift, using them properly, and then giving them back undamaged is the way people act when they believe the good news that the kingdom of God is not to be found in some far-off utopia, but is coming into being in our midst. Benedict’s statement about treating all things “as vessels of the altar” is addressed to the cellarer (manager) to show that in the most mundane work, the smallest of things—tools in this case—should be treated as sacred objects.
What then are the principal characteristics of the monastic way of relating to the environment? They can best be summed up as reverence, renunciation, gratitude, and generosity. Abbot Eko Little of Shasta Abbey in Mt. Shasta, California, draws on the deep and far reaching religious vision of Eihei Dogen (1200-1252 CE), the founder of the Soto Zen tradition in Japan, presenting him as a luminary of the monastic view of the environment as well as a prophet of a sacred and sustainable environmental culture. For Dogen it was not enough to say that all beings are endowed with Buddha Nature or have Buddha Nature: everyone is Buddha Nature. And not just every one; every thing is Buddha Nature. The only way, then, to practice the Buddha Nature of every thing and every one is to venerate, revere, cherish and take care of the world and everything in it. Echoing Sutera’s comments about Benedict’s rules for the cellarer to treat all things as sacred “vessels of the altar,” Abbot Little shows how Dogen’s rules for the Chief Cook contain guidance for this type of religious care even for a “cooking pot or grain of rice.”
For Father Charles Cummings from the Holy Trinity Trappist Monastery in Utah, simplicity is the key feature of the monastic way of life, a virtue that many contemporary monks find easier to hold as a spiritual ideal than to put into practice in their daily lives. Materially, simplicity is a life uncluttered by the superfluous and content with the necessary. Spiritually, simplicity is being centered on the one thing necessary, which Christians would identify as the love of God. A concern for simplicity has led monks to reject the superfluous and to discover that less, rather than more, is often more pleasing. But simplicity is a matter of justice, not just aesthetics. Many people—not only monks—choose to live simply so that others may simply live.
The formal presentations at Gethsemani III concluded with four talks on the actual environmental practices of Buddhist and Catholic monasteries in North America today. They begin with an examination of conscience (to use a Catholic expression) on unskillful practices (to use a Buddhist expression), either hidden or justified by ideology. They then conclude on a more positive note with two reports on some of the best practices to be found in North American monastic communities.
Unskillful practices in Buddhist communities, both monastic and lay, that negatively impact the environment are often the result of widespread misinterpretations of Buddhist teaching on equanimity, the relinquishing of desire, karma, and contentment that lead to apathy, indifference and complacency. Another cause is the failure to recognize the meaning and importance of the Buddha’s teaching on right and wise effort, which Ayya Tathaaloka Bhikkhuni of the Aranya Bodhi Awakening Forest Hermitage in Northern California describes as “the most widely unknown and most prevalently misunderstood of all of the basic Buddhist teachings . . . at least in America today, both in the public at large, as well as within the Buddhist community.” She shows how this is the case in certain situations, but also shows how skillful application of correctly understood teachings of the Buddha can give a strong witness today as to how to address contemporary environmental crises.
Within Catholic monasticism, as Father Hugh Feiss of Ascension Monastery in Jerome, Idaho, points out, bad theological arguments are sometimes used to justify bad practices. One example is the rationalization that since God gave us humans dominion over the earth, we are free to do what we want. The main justifications, however, tend to be cultural or psychological. Like the society they are still a part of, monks fall victim to the seduction of marketing and advertising, mistake good intentions for action, and make decisions based on what is most “practical.” As do many of their contemporaries, they too can respond to notices of impending ecological disaster with the psychological mechanisms of denial, repression, or projection. In order to turn toward the earth with reverence and care, confident that they will find its Ground and Goal, monks need to confess and lament their complicity in the illusions that have brought the world to the current crisis.
Ven. Thubten Semkye of Sravasti Abbey in Newport, Washington, and Sister Renée Branigan of Sacred Heart Monastery in Richardton, North Dakota, offer specific examples of environmentally sound practices in North American Buddhist and Catholic monasteries, practices that reflect fundamental monastic values coupled with an awareness of the seriousness of the contemporary environmental crisis. Buddhist monastic communities are relatively new in the North America and often follow environmentally friendly practices for using resources and for care of the land. The monasteries provide guidance by teaching and example for lay Buddhist practitioners. Catholic monastic communities, on the other hand, began forming in the mid-nineteenth century. Most of them had early days of poverty ranging from dire to not-so-bad, and then, from the early to the mid-twentieth century, experienced a period of explosive growth, both in numbers and in material resources. Looking back over the past 150 years of Catholic monastic life in North America, Sister Renée observes that most Catholic monastic communities started out environmentally friendly by necessity, strayed as they became more established and comfortable, and now are trying to act responsibly out of a tight blend of fiscal necessity and good ecological intentions. But they are finding that making ecologically sound decisions and then implementing them is more costly and more complicated than they had imagined.
Following the presentations that were given at Gethsemani III, there are two essays, one by a Buddhist, the other by a Catholic participant in the encounter, that address some of the challenges of living a Green spirituality. In his essay, Ajahn Sona from the Buddhist community at Birken Forest Monastery points out that Buddhism creates a helpful context for environmentalism by providing practices to rid oneself of the self-polluting emotions that sometimes fuel well-meaning environmentalists. Fueled by a healthy, positive, and natural attitude, his community has made a number of decisions concerning its mode of living that have made it a model for a green monasticism of simplicity and sufficiency. Sr. Anne McCarthy of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie reflects on how the prophetic dimension of monasticism can, and indeed must be, expressed by action that responds to both the cry of nature and the cry of the poor. The devastation of our environment hurts us all, but it is those who are already impoverished who suffer the most. By linking their concern for the protection of the environment to compassionate action that alleviates the suffering and recognizes the dignity of the poor of the world—especially those in their own back yards—monastic men and women give powerful witness that, ultimately, it is love that changes everything.
Following the epilogue is an appendix with the English translation of an article by Fabrice Blée entitled “La spiritualité chrétienne du dialogue, creuset d’une nouvelle conscience écologique,” literally, “The Christian Spirituality of Dialogue, Crucible of a new Ecological Consciousness.” It was originally published in the April 2008 issue of La Chair et le Soufle. The author, a Regular Professor on the Faculty of Theology of the University of Saint Paul, Ottawa, where he teaches in the areas of the interreligious dialogue and Christian spirituality, wrote his doctoral dissertation on the history of the North American Commission of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue. Drawing on Buddhist and Christian sources in his essay, he makes the case that a Christian spirituality of dialogue favors the adoption of a new way of thinking about nature and of entering into a faith-inspired relationship with it. It provides a fitting conclusion to this collection of essays by Buddhist and Christian monks who hope the way of life they have received from their forebears may offer guidance and inspiration to all who are dedicated to saving a world that is teetering on the brink of disaster.
Guidance and inspiration are the key words here. Gethsemani III was an encounter on monastic practice and monastic spirituality in relation to the current ecological crisis. Rather than intentionally setting out to come up with specific proposals to solve the crisis caused by global warming, the destruction of species, and the poisoning of our land and water, the Buddhist and Christian monks who came together at the home of Thomas Merton wanted to arrive at a deeper understanding of the connections between the way of life they had committed themselves to and the environment in which they live it out. They came to Gethsemani believing that monastic teachings and traditions continue to offer a valuable guide for living at peace with one another and with all beings. Their hope is that by dedicating themselves to their monastic calling with renewed generosity and greater focus on the environmental crisis, they will model a way of life that will be attractive and compelling to those who are not monks in the formal sense of the word, and that the world will be a healthier place for it.
William Skudlarek OSB
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