The Activism of Dharma

In my last two posts I wrote about a meeting I had with climate activists, one of whom was a monk from an eastern tradition. He suggested that the ecological crisis has its origin in a quality of mind that has lost its connection to age-old wisdom. We left off last week with a young lawyer asking how wisdom principles might stimulate a new quality of thinking that could help solve the environmental problem.

“It’s a very complex problem,” said the monk. “Wisdom traditions teach that solving complex problems requires a deep simplicity. I appreciate that this may sound counter intuitive, but new perspectives are possible when we focus on essentials. Wisdom cultures teach meta-principles that can help us perceive the essence of complicated problems. With this perspective we have a better chance of formulating solutions that address the underlying root cause of the problem, rather than only treating its symptoms.”

“Can you give us an example of a meta-principle?”

“Beauty. When we organise around the creation and preservation of beauty we achieve a finer quality of outcome that benefits us at many levels.”

“Can you be more precise? How would organising around beauty deliver better results? How could aesthetics help us respond to environmental problems?”

“We can start by acknowledging that we are suffering a crisis of beauty. I think we have lost our connection to the meaning and purpose of deep beauty, a beauty that enhances our spirit and preserves us in our finer sentiments. A beauty that guides our choices and actions at every level of our individual and collective being.”

“How do we move from superficial beauty to deep beauty?”

“My years of spiritual practice tell me that we can only do that when we cultivate a beauty of inner spirit — a beauty of the heart by attending to a refinement of the mind.”

“Once again, I think we are at odds with each other in our thinking. I am concerned with a deadline of no return, a line of collective behaviour that is leading to the death of nature, like the one described by Rachel Carson in her book ‘Silent Spring.’”

“I also have the same sense of urgency as you do. But I think we have to deeply understand the problem, before we rush out with quick-fix solutions. For instance we know we need to reduce our carbon footprint. But do we know how to reduce the wants/needs that create them?”

“How would an ‘aesthetics of the heart’, to paraphrase you, result in real solutions?”

“Indigenous and first people cultures design around natural beauty. They are attuned to the intricate web of colour, light, texture, patterns, sound, taste and touch – seeing it all as nature’s heart beat, the vital signs that guide them in their relationship with her. They design their lives around the preservation of that beauty, knowing that their own existence is preserved and bettered when nature’s beauty is deeply honoured.”

“I have some appreciation of this idea, but can you give me a concrete example?”

“The aboriginal people of Australia. They have the Dreamtime in which all creatures have equal importance in the Dreamtime space. In Dreamtime, people are co-creators whose attention helps to preserve the delicate balance, order and beauty of nature.”

“By comparison you might say that our relationship with nature seems rather ugly!” said the lawyer.

“So then, I think you accept the potential value of re-framing the problem by looking at it through a meta-principle like beauty?”

“I do. But it raises other complications. For instance how can the importance of beauty change our collective view of the problem.”

“Attenborough’s ‘Planet Earth’ has had significant impact by making the case for beauty and the trauma of its loss. He has done this artfully and sensitively by being Dharmic in his presentation.”

“How so?”

“My view is that he followed the principle of ahimsa or Respect in sharing his message with us. He was gentle in his approach, presenting us with postcards of nature’s beauty and contrasting them with other postcards of the ugliness of our affects on her beauty. He followed the principle of Satya by being True in his presentation and he followed the principles of Purity (Saucha) and Effort (Tapasya) by describing a more ideal outcome and encouraging us to be passionate about achieving it.”

“It’s generally accepted that we need to educate about the problem. My experience as a lawyer tells me that we need to create awareness and broad agreement that the problem is real if we hope to organise an urgent response.”

“Education is important but we need a new quality of education if we hope to be effective. We can rely on universal wisdom principles to help us be effective. Without those principles there is every chance that our solutions will only add to the problem.”

“Do wisdom principles guarantee better solutions and more effective outcomes?”

“We have to understand the principles if we hope to apply them with successfully. If we do, then we stand a better chance of formulating a new quality of solution. There are of course, no guarantees. I venture to say that we would be in a very different place had we taken guidance from wisdom principles in the first place. We can’t turn back the clock, but we can do our best with where we are at now by relying on universal principles such as those found in the Dharma Diamond. The complexity of the problem can be simplified and the causes made more clear with the help of these principles.”

“In essence, you are saying that wisdom can help us achieve a new quality of mind that can help us re-frame our understanding of the root cause of the problem.”

“Yes, that’s it.”

“This suggests the need for a complete rethink about how we do things. This would mean redesigning with the help of wisdom principles and a reformation of society as a whole — our values, what we hold dear and what we think is beautiful.”

“In nutshell, yes. Ideally that reformation would happen organically as a result of an awakening of consciousness. Ideally any change would be guided by ahimsa, by a mood of deep respect.”

“But change we must, if we want to avoid the worst outcome.”

“Change is inevitable,” the monk said. “We can embrace it consciously or wait for it to be imposed by circumstances.”

“If I understand you correctly, you are saying that taking inspiration from wisdom principles like Dharma and beauty could empower our actions.”

“I am saying that principles like Dharma can give our activism a new quality that can make it more effective in the long run.”

— Michael


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  1. frank withrow

    The wheel of mindfulness is turning in this world this is a 2500-year-old school of thought whose time has come Either we take it seriously or we kiss this planet goodbye

    • Michael Geary

      Hi Frank. Your comment reminded me of this quote attributed to Goethe: “He who cannot draw on three thousand years is living from hand to mouth.” Wisdom is a real resource that can help us rethink our approach to the planet – much needed I think.


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