ECODHARMA, by David Loy, reviewed

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Ecodharma: Buddhist Teachings for the Ecological Crisis

David Loy

Wisdom Publications, 2019

ISBN 978-1-61429-382-8 ebook ISBN 978-1-61429-398-9

240 pages

sumeru ecodharma book review

Buddhists: we have a problem! The transcendentalists see liberation as escape from this world of dukkha. The mindfulness proponents see liberation as adjusting our perspective to fit in better with this world, without the dukkha. Both views are dualistic mis-interpretations holding us back from engaged practice, because they are both based on an individualistic approach. My enlightenment. My liberation. My suffering.

People all over the planet are waking up to the fact that our current “business as usual” approach to civilization is killing the very biosphere we depend on for life. Our relationship to our planet needs complete deconstruction and reconstruction in a new, sustainable paradigm.

What is less well understood is that our spiritual foundations need an equally radical deconstruction and reconstruction if we (in the broadest, collective sense) are to survive.

That is the premise of David Loy’s new book, and it is a timely one indeed.

As he notes in the beginning of the book, “The most fundamental principle of ecology—the interdependence of living beings and systems—is a subset of the most fundamental principle of Buddhist philosophy, that nothing has ‘self-existence’ because everything is dependent on other things.”

He continues, “Social engagement remains a challenge for many Buddhists, for the traditional teachings have focused on one’s own peace of mind. On the other side, those committed to social action often experience fatigue, anger, depression, and burnout. The engaged bodhisattva/ecosattva path provides what each side needs, because it involves a double practice, inner (e.g., meditation) and outer (activism).

 … Summing up these perspectives—trying to transcend this world or trying to harmonize better with it—we can see that this ambivalence about the nature of awakening is a deep-rooted challenge that contemporary Buddhism can’t keep evading.”

The goal of Ecodharma is not to rehash the scientific basis or current findings on our imminent demise, but to reframe the crisis in Buddhist terms that will energize practitioners to get involved in ways that make sense to them.

Relying extensively on material from the Anguttara Nikaya, Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika, the Daodejing and sundry Zen koans, to important contemporary Buddhist perspectives from environmentally active teachers such as Thich Nhat Hanh and Bhikkhu Bodhi, Loy makes a compelling case for urgent environmental activism, coupled with vigorous support for social justice, as the essential Buddhist praxis today. 

As he puts it, “Buddhism is not only what the Buddha taught but what the Buddha began—and we keep the tradition alive by keeping it relevant to our situation. So what does Buddhism have to offer us now, as we struggle to respond to an unprecedented ecological emergency?”

To put it another way, Buddhism needs to wake up!

David Loy is well-known as for his Bodhisattva/Ecosattva teachings. However, it would be a mistake to turn him into our environmental poster boy. He’s quite clear about the folly of celebrity worship in the Buddhist world and has a few pithy comments on current scandals in that regard. Ecodharma is a wake-up call for every practitioner to get off the meditation cushion and get busy.

It would be tempting to say he has captured the zeitgeist of the moment. I’m writing a book about Engaged Buddhism and sustainable development; one of my friends who is an ecology professor (and a Buddhist) is writing a book about the intersection of Darwinian thought and Buddhism; several books on Buddhist economics have recently been published. However, sadly, we are small subset.

As Robert Thurman says, quoted in Loy’s book, “People are always talking about practice, practice. What I want to know is, when is the performance?”

Of late, I have taken to reading with a highlighter in hand, and Ecodharma has way more yellow hot spots than other recent books. That is a very good sign – the message here is extremely important, well-documented, and persuasively presented.

That is not to say it is the definitive book on the subject of Engaged Buddhism and Environmental Activism! We would be in a sorry state if that were the case. Instead, I hope David Loy’s book will spark many conversations, and become merely one of a growing number of Buddhist books that will provide a path for teachers and practitioners alike to engage with the many other communities, organizations, and leaders who are working for the well-being of our planet and every being in it.

In Ecodharma, Loy makes repeated reference to a 2007 book by Paul Hawken, Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being, and Why No One Saw It Coming. There is a collective awakening underway. Hopefully, Buddhists will be a part of it.

Loy’s book also includes several excellent appendices, including: the 2009 Dharma Teachers Collaborative Statement on Climate Change; Bhikkhu Bodhi’s Sixteen Core Dharma Principles to Address Climate Change; Ecosattva Vows; and some simple and practical steps each one of us can take on the path to planetary healing.

The bottom line: there is no topic of greater importance, and David Loy’s latest book, Ecodharma: Buddhist Teachings for the Ecological Crisis is both a valuable addition to the larger conversation and a much-needed focus for Buddhist action. Even if you don’t read the book, I strongly recommend you at least read the introduction, which is available freely online. Take it up with your sangha. There is a wealth of material here for deep discussion.

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