Roshi Joan Halifax, Upaya Zen Center, Co-moderator of the meeting
This was Mind and Life Institute’s 23rd meeting with His Holiness the Dalai Lama over the past quarter of a century: http://www.mindandlife.org/dialogues/past-conferences/ml23/ The meeting, held in Dharamsala at His Holiness’ residence, included top scientists, ethicists, Buddhist scholars, and activists in an exploration of ecology, ethics, and interdependence. It was also attended by His Holiness the Karmapa, many geshes, monks, nuns, and supporters of Mind and Life’s endeavors. As always with Mind and Life meetings in Dharamsala, His Holiness was very engaged during the entire five days of intensive presentations. His Holiness the Karmapa also gave an exceptional talk on his view of the environmental crisis and shared why he is so deeply committed to environmental sustainability.
The printed introduction of the meeting is as follows: “The slow meltdown of Earth?s capacity to sustain much of life, as we know it, poses an urgent challenge for both spiritual traditions and science. These two ways of knowing have developed distinctive responses, which are potentially synergistic. The goal of the meeting is to provide an opportunity to articulate an engaged environmental ethics. This would include the understanding of interdependence through an examination of the most recent data on the scientific case for effective ecological action. Furthermore, it will be a unique opportunity to meet with other faith traditions that have arrived at a religious basis for motivating environmental activism. A dialogue between contemplative scholars, activists and ecological scientists could enrich the response to our planetary crisis. Insights from the new thrust in ecological science evoke the deep interconnections between individual choice and planetary consequence as well as through cross-fertilization of ideas and meaningful action among activists working within their own spiritual framework. We will explore many dimensions, from the human-caused deterioration in the global systems that sustain life, and the role each of us plays as seen through the lens of industrial ecology, to a view from Buddhist philosophy and other faith traditions, to the on-the-ground realities faced by ecological activists. Our hope is that this conference will be a significant catalyst for the formulation of new research ideas in these fields and solutions to our planetary crisis.”
I felt the arc of the meeting was powerfully conceived and rendered, beginning with a comprehensive introduction by co-moderator Dan Goleman, where we were introduced to a systems and relational view as a base for our deliberations. This was followed by environmental policy maker Dr. Diana Liverman, who did a striking presentation on the unfolding of the Anthropocene and the “great acceleration” of negative human impacts pushing the earth into danger zones and close to the tipping point of planetary viability; then physician and scientist Dr. Jonathon Patz gave a clear presentation on how human health, and especially the health of the so-called poor, (and i would surmise the health of all species) is contingent on our commitment to consume less, and that we can make small changes that have big effects if we are mindful of the potential outcomes of these changes; this was followed by industrial ecologist Greg Norris’ convincing evidence of the interconnected impacts of all products that are manufactured, consumed, and tossed, and that there are huge footprints to deal with, and, as well, handprints that can pull back impacts if we chose to exercise our responsibility through knowing how interdependent we are; ethicist Dr. Clare Palmer’s clear and concise presentation on ethical perspectives and dilemmas led me to realize that no matter what lens we look through, in the end we all have a moral responsibility to live conscientiously and not be blind and avid consumers; Dr. Palmer’s presentation was followed by Vajrayana monk Matthieu Ricard’s presentation of a powerful case in point about the human consumption of animals and the devastating impact of the so-called “livestock” and fishing industry, both in terms of horrific environmental impacts, from an excess of methane to biodiversity loss, and, at the same time, an undeniable call for compassion in the cruel treatment of other species; then theologian Dr. Sallie McFague’s voice rang out with a call for a view of interdependence and self-emptying, what the Christians call kenosis, and the embodiment of principles that move us from belief to action; renowned Buddhist scholar Thupten Jinpa spoke to the Buddhist perspective of view, meditation, and action, and of how Buddhist thinkers have characterized the move from motivation to action, including the role of joy in our practice and service, drawing on the Nalanda tradition and Shantideva in his talk; economic psychologist Dr. Elke Weber shared with His Holiness the current psychological understanding of moving from motivation to action, and she broke important ground as she explored why we don’t take action, touching on the cognitive, attentional, informational, and motivational deficits that render us indifferent, and the positive conditions that can prime effective action; His Holiness then spoke of the relevance of ahimsa, causality and responsibility, the profound importance of education, democracy, and science, and the necessity of being the right kind of “trouble-maker” (!); our final presentation was given by our 21st century representative, environmentalist and an extraordinary Asian woman from Sikkim, Dekila Chungyalpa, who used the World Wildlife Fund as a case in point, when she addressed how we can apply motivation, inspiration, view and ethics to foster dialogue, with participation/engagement being a valuable goal in the transformation and empowerment of all stakeholders in actualizing responsibility for the environment.
Thus we went from science to ethics to action, with the final afternoon being a session with our presenters and three moderators, including Drs. Dan Goleman, John Dunne, and me, exploring how to actualize this vision of interdependence and moral responsibility; during the afternoon, we explored through a vital discussion strategies and visions of the way through this crisis. Clearly, we have to act on the policy as well as the personal level to move out of the danger zones we have created in the Anthropocene, and increase the human handprint of compassion, while reducing the human footprint of consumerism.
At the end of the meeting, after our departure from Dharamsala and the ride to Amritsar, where we were unwittingly witness to a case in point of environmental devastation from unbridled human impacts, I taught a daylong in Delhi to His Holiness’ Foundation for Human Responsibility, where most of the participants were people who served the poorest cancer patients in Delhi. It was Diwale, the festival of lights, and the courage I encountered in our Indian friends was in a way a light in the darkness of the Delhi smog and noise. I then made my way to Bodhgaya and the INEB conference, as well as the revered stupa and Bodhi tree that mark the place of Buddha’s enlightenment. Again, the air, water and sound pollution were another clear illustration of how we humans have taken our privilege and as well our inner poverty to prime outer poverty, indeed taken our consumerism to the edge of environmental as well as human tolerance. The three meetings and teachings I was engaged in during my time in India hung in my heart and mind like a scrim of wisdom, as i passed through the worlds of Dharamsala, Delhi, and Bodhgaya.
These days have been impactful for me personally. For many years, I was a vegetarian, but with travel and forgetfulness, I shifted unconsciously away from this practice. Matthieu Ricard’s presentation sent an arrow to the heart. We have to walk our talk, be the change, live the vows. I also felt a terrible pang getting on another airplane, and am hoping that my work in Asia, including the service in Mustang, Nepal, and the teachings in Chaing Mai with HIV leaders, clinicians, NGO workers, and those who care for the dying has some merit. I felt the same about the Dharmasala meeting and its carbon footprint. May there be upstream and downstream outcomes of value for all the carbon we have released into our atmosphere in the course of our travels and our deliberations.
About the Mind and Life meeting, I was grateful that His Holiness was so deeply engaged, that the meetings were streamed, that they (all but the last one) are on you tube now: http://www.mindandlife.org/dialogues/past-conferences/ml23/. I feel that whether we have a human centered or system centered view, we are all in this situation together, and need to feel and act on the vision of deep moral responsibility for “future people”, future generations, and, truly, all species; and after hearing Diana Liverman’s presentation, i see we need to do this NOW.
it was a great joy being with good friends and new friends in Dharamsala, as we created a cohesive community together. This is one of the most special features about the Mind and Life process, that we become a sangha. All this in the precious atmosphere that is generated by His Holiness as he listens and inquires so vividly into our presentations and shares his joy and concern equally. And I was grateful to teach for CanSupport: http://www.cansupport.org/newcansupport/ and His Holiness’ Foundation for Human Responsibility http://furhhdl.org/, as well as present Upaya’s work at the International Meeting of Engaged Buddhists: http://www.inebnetwork.org/. These endeavors indeed seem to be of the same cloth: gatherings of deeply committed, intelligent and compassionate men and women who are acutely aware that compassion and wisdom are called for in the 21st century and who act of what they perceive.