Engaged Buddhism, Interview with Thanissara
Spirit Rock: Your new book, Time to Stand Up, is about engaged Buddhism and challenges us to act to stop climate change. Please explain what you mean by “engaged Buddhism.”
Thanissara: I think dharma practice has always had an engaged element to it. It’s a false distinction to imply that there’s some difference between the cultivation of internal freedom and all that goes along with that—the cultivation of the path and the factors of the path—and the expression of that cultivation through engaging with the world around us. Throughout the whole of the foundations of mindfulness, we’re mindful of the internal as well as the external. So there’s this practice of bringing that quality of open, aware, inquiring attention to the so-called “internal” and to the “external” world around us. Ultimately, we start to realize how interconnected and interrelated the internal and external actually are.
Perhaps we wouldn’t really need the term “engaged Buddhism,” if we hadn’t had a preference as the first generation of Westerners transmitting the Dharma for the meditation practice and the retreat form, which has become almost like the pinnacle or fulcrum around which Dharma practice orients itself. In the monastic life that I trained in, which came out of the school of Ajahn Chah, there were daily alms rounds into the society and a certain level of daily interaction with people coming into the monasteries. So there’s always been that precedent.
I think we call it “engaged Buddhism” because it’s going a step further maybe than the natural outcome of dharma practice, with those that are interested in the Dharma actually moving into society. In the last few decades, that engagement has perhaps been more addressing the symptoms of our society, whether it’s ministering to those in prison or suffering through systemic injustices, people who are impoverished or suffering different kinds of illnesses. So there’s that kind of ministering, which is almost like pastoral care. But we are at an interesting juncture collectively where we are challenged as Buddhists to engage by responding to the systemic causes of what is generating the biggest crisis we’ve ever faced, which is climate change. And you can’t really do that without looking at the economic, social and political structures that are perpetuating it.
At first we all tried to live low carbon footprint lives individually. Now we’re awakening to the fact that we can’t do this individually. We have to do it collectively, at speed and with a great sense of power. How we do that is by bringing bring the Dharma into play. So in the last few years, I’ve been involved in networking with other faith groups to explore how the Dharma can inform social activism at a systemic level, which engages not only personal suffering but also the very frameworks that we live with, particularly the economic framework.
Spirit Rock: What specific actions have you undertaken?
Thanissara: Right now, I’m engaged with One Earth Sangha in hosting an EcoSattva training online that has about 600 people and about 40 groups all around the world. We’re looking at what is it to train and to resource ourselves and network to engage activism. So those require a lot of conversations because we’re inviting people from other perspectives within the Dharma.
I’m also engaged in preparing a Buddhist statement for COP21 in Paris to align with the Pope’s encyclical on the environment. We’re getting high-profile signatures from the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh and people like them for a declaration that was originally written in 2009 and has been updated. We’ll have a press release around that so that there’s a Buddhist voice that comes out clearly in support of climate action and meaningful agreements at the Paris meeting.
[ED note: The statement Thanissara mentions was released October 29, 2015, and will be presented at the November 28 UN Climate Conference in Paris under the name, "Global Buddhist Climate Change Collective." You can read the declaration and sign it by visiting One Earth Sangha's website.]
We have a world that’s changing at great speed. Even though in our dharma centers we feel fairly closeted, we can’t escape those changes. We have a precedent in the Buddha in that he responded. He engaged, he changed the society at systemic levels in very powerful ways. So there is a precedent. It’s an interesting time for us as practitioners for how we translate everything we’ve done to this moment into the times we’re in and yet still maintain our inner well-being and inner freedom. And not get so activated that we become overwhelmed and collapsed.
Spirit Rock: Is this your goal in offering EcoSattva training?
Thanissara: Yes. We’re aiming for several outcomes—to help support people to engage, for people not to feel they’re alone and that there is a collective here, to be a body of information and resources, and to use the Dharma to develop resilience and inner strength and a network that can respond.
Spirit Rock: How can someone sign up for EcoSattva training?
Thanissara: This first one is halfway through but there will be more trainings offered online. The website that’s hosting it is One Earth Sangha. There are other groups as well, including Buddhist Climate Action Network that Ayya Santussika and Bhikkhu Bodhi are very involved in. Bhikkhu Bodhi is also very involved in Buddhist Global Relief, which does marvelous work internationally responding to hunger.
Spirit Rock: What gives you hope that we can stop climate change?
Thanissara: The piece that gives me hope is the unexpected. There’s always this quantum leap of the unexpected that happens which has to do with an intelligence that’s deeper than our ordinary consciousness. We don’t know quite how it will play out, but it does. Our minds have already come up with amazing technologies for renewable energy. We could convert globally to renewable energy now. But I don’t think these deep issues are going to be solved from that level. It has to come from a radical re-shaping of how we understand ourselves as a consciousness. And that’s something that’s a bit mysterious.
But I also think there are tipping points in these movements. We’ve seen them historically, like the anti-apartheid struggle which lasted for so many decades. Sometimes it gets worse just before it’s about to crumble. Having lived in South Africa for over 20 years, we were in the heart of the AIDS pandemic. For 10 years government ministers denied that people were dying of AIDS. The government in South Africa was taken to court many times by a non-profit treatment action campaign; pharmaceuticals were taken to court to make anti-retrovirals available for the population. Now nearly three million in South Africa are on anti-retrovirals. When AIDS first hit, people didn’t know what this strange disease was or what condoms were. Now, everyone’s got working knowledge. So within 15 years there was a huge shift. People even in the deepest rural areas now know about AIDS, the symptoms, anti-retrovirals and resource groups. So these changes can happen. And that gives me hope.
Spirit Rock: Much of society seems caught between despair and denial about climate change. What can the Dharma teach us about despair?
Thanissara: When you read the science, an appropriate response is to feel despair, but there’s this lovely saying, “Action absorbs anxiety.” Action generates the hope, generates the fearlessness.
Spirit Rock: Denial seems to be rooted in doubt. How can we overcome doubt?
Thanissara: Well, doubt is one of the Five Hindrances. It’s important to discern between doubt that destabilizes us and leads to anxiety, worry, agitation and self-sabotage, and doubt that can be turned to inquiry. To really know doubt, you have to have a clear relationship to the cognitive process. Once one realizes that doubt is connected with thought which is connected with the mind trying to frame reality and that it’s a fragile base for our well-being because it keeps shifting, then doubt becomes workable. We start to realize the place of non-doubt, which is the movement into satipanna, so that one goes beyond or beneath the cognitive and starts to connect with a different fulcrum, a different refuge. You start to root into intuitive present awareness as your primary fulcrum of reference…not to dismiss the cognitive but knowing that it has its rightful place.
So the cognitive operates, but you’re not taking refuge there as the description of who you are or what the world is. So there’s a difference between knowing there is doubt and then being swept up in it. But there’s also the doubt that can begin to turn that energy into what’s called dhamma vicaya, the investigative aspect. Doubt can then start to be turned into inquiring into what’s happening here, what’s real, what’s true. So it’s one of the factors of awakening and it’s near to doubt, but it has the ability to liberate.
To tolerate doubt is very important because I think what a lot of people do when they feel doubt is try to become certain by thinking again. And then for a while, you feel like, “I got it together. I know where I’m going,” and then something comes along, the world changes, and then you collapse. A big part of practice is realizing that everything is uncertain and we learn to tolerate that without going into massive reactivity.
Spirit Rock: You’ll be teaching in the upcoming Thanksgiving retreat (2015). What will your focus be?
Thanissara: I’m from the EU, so Thanksgiving is not an observance we have. I have a political activist edge, so I think it’s a beautiful observance to consider the roots of where Thanksgiving came from and the indigenous peoples and to consider the power of gratitude. In Pali the word katannuta is usually translated as “gratitude,” but it literally means “to know what’s been done,” to look at what’s beautiful, what’s uplifting, what’s in our own lives, in our family, in our community and in all beings. So it’s a nice time to come together to celebrate, especially in these times when there’s so much difficulty. Hopefully, we can look at what’s been done as the extraordinary evolutionary arc of unfolding that we’re all engaged with.
Spirit Rock: What advice do you have for people for whom the holidays can trigger psycho-emotional trauma?
Thanissara: It’s good to honor those places of sadness and loss and wounding that we all feel and have inherited through the complex relational experience we’ve gone through—missing family, or family experiences that didn’t go well. One of the beauties of being on retreat is it’s an authentic space, and it doesn’t demand that everyone be lovey-dovey and pretend it’s all great, because it’s not. There are considerable pains and wounds and suffering that we carry, and we want to have the space and silence and safety and support of the dharma practice to help us be with that. Some of those wounds and experiences that we carry can be freed through the practice, if we allow that to happen. As one of my teachers, Ajahn Sumedho, used to say, these are the prisoners, the orphans of consciousness. So on retreat, we allow those orphans to come in and help free them.
Thanissara began practicing Vipassana meditation in 1975. She ordained after meeting Ajahn Chah and spent 12 years as a Buddhist nun in the Forest School where she was a founding member of Chithurst and Amaravati monasteries in the UK. Thanissara has facilitated meditation retreats internationally the last 25 years and has a masters degree in Mindfulness-Based Psychotherapy Practice. In 2000 she co-founded Dharmagiri Insight Meditation Centre in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, with her husband and teaching partner, Kittisaro. Thanissara is a cofounder of Chattanooga Insight, Tennessee, a core teacher at Insight Meditation Society, Massachusetts, and a visiting teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. She has written two books of poetry, Garden of the Midnight Rosary and The Heart of the Bitter Almond Hedge Sutra and coauthored Listening to the Heart: A Contemplative Journey to Engaged Buddhism with Kittisaro. Her most recent book is Time to Stand Up: An Engaged Buddhist Manifesto for Our Earth (North Atlantic Books, 2015).