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A Different Kind of Power

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A Different Kind of Power:

A Challenge to Patriarchal Buddhism in Catastrophic Times

By Thanissara

Without radical change, we are on course to a terrifying future of extreme weather events, mass refugee crises, serial species extinctions, and the likely loss of human civilization. Ultimately a heated biosphere will render the planet unlivable for most forms of life. The task of Time To Stand Up: An Engaged Buddhist Manifesto for Our Earth, published in August 2015 by North Atlantic Books, is to encourage Buddhists to join with other faith groups and activists to reverse the causes of catastrophic climate change. We can’t bring about the changes needed on our own, or as small groups; instead, to ensure a sustainable world for future generations, there has to be massive mobilization to pressure political and social systems in order to catalyze energy, economic, and social revolution.

Time To Stand Up uses the structure of the Buddha’s core teaching, which is the Four Noble Truths. The first truth offers a diagnosis of the problem (suffering), the second explores its cause (ignorance and grasping), the third prescribes a cure (awakening, and the abandonment of craving), and the fourth sets about how to apply that cure (the transformative eightfold path). It is likely that the Buddha based his four truths on the Ayurvedic healing formula of his time, which uses the same fourfold template. The focus is to apply this diagnostic and remedy-based approach to the larger sickness of climate crisis.

Image source:

Image source: One Earth Sangha

While the diagnosis of our dire situation is clearly laid out by 97% of scientists, the cause is not a lack of solutions, but willful ignorance and disinformation in service of rapacious greed fueled by a deeply unethical corporate oligarchy, and fossil fuel industry, that is undermining transparent, democratic procedure, for example through the legal fiction of Citizens United. The Union of Concerned Scientists, in their Climate Deception Dossiers stated: “For nearly three decades, major fossil fuel companies have knowingly worked to distort climate science findings, deceive the public, and block policies designed to hasten our needed transition to a clean energy economy.” As long as political, military, banking, legal, and economic global systems are increasingly beholden to the capitalist god of power through wealth, regardless of its life-threatening consequences, then change is not going to come from within these structures, which now shape the destiny of the Earth. Humans have never before wielded this level of power; but such power, unmoored from ethics and compassion, has to be stopped.

Buddhist practice brings the practitioner into alignment with a different kind of power; one that emerges from directly knowing the indestructible, diamond-like mind-heart that can cut through ignorance, yet not be cut. This mind as awareness knowing consciousness is the same deep subjectivity within all sentient life. It experiences itself as sensitive and empathic once freed from narcissistic fixation. The personal self, with its shifting perceptions, memories, and narratives, is a poor sanctuary; it is ever within the shadow of death. The fear of death keeps us grasping. It is this inability to accept impermanence, and the consequent grasping of the mind, that is at the root of a global hyper-egotistical culture, which has rendered all life in service of a profit driven domain, ruled by the mega wealthy.

However, we can release our tight grip, and for a moment, take a deeper breath, and align with a different refuge, which is the deathless mind-heart, knowing itself as pure consciousness. When pure consciousness distorts, through sensory experience, into the assumption of a subject, “me,” and an object, “it,” then we are caught in craving and aversion, which continually generates an objectified world divorced from empathetic alliance. No more is this true than the racism that underpins the current non-response to climate crisis. In Naomi Klein’s, “Why #BlackLivesMatter Should Transform the Climate Debate,” she points out that white supremacy underlies the push by wealthy nations to accept an already catastrophic two degrees temperature cap. This will inevitably guarantee massive death of citizens, and extreme devastation within non-white Western nations.

 Demonstrators at the Climate Change Conference in Lima, Peru (AP Photo/Juan Karita)

Delegates from different countries hold signs during a protest at the Climate Change Conference in Lima, Peru, Monday, Dec. 8, 2014. One hundred delegates from countries around the world stood together for two minutes of silence to show solidarity with the people of the Philippines who are suffering under the lash of Typhoon Hagupit. (AP Photo/Juan Karita)

When the duality of “me” and “them” collapses, however, then our fundamental nature is freed; we no longer dance with shadows. We understand that the depth of our inter-being means we have only one true path ahead, that of our collective, global, awakening. This awakening is the opposite of splitting the atom. Instead of fragmenting, the universe collapses into one point of cool fire, which is the unfathomable mystery of primordial consciousness: both source and end. To know this, is to trust a refuge that aligns with a deeper intelligence that reveals the truth of our intimacy with all life. This is spiritual power. This power has supported almost all “successful” revolutionary movements such as Anti-Apartheid and Civil Rights, Gandhi’s Satyagraha, and Polish Solidarity.

Instead of allowing the force of corporate greed to turn our magnificent earth into a wasteland, those who hold to the way of love, service, and moral responsibility, offer a healing and redemptive path, one that can be a tremendous force for change. While Buddhism offers such a path, it is questionable whether it can take its place with progressive movements in order to meet the challenge of our times. That is unless it re-evaluates itself, and moves out of its preferred quietism, its distant patriarchal approach with its distaste for the feminine and fear of embodiment, and its tendency to place awakening within a transcendent metaphor that leaves the “world” behind.

Over the centuries, Buddhist transmission, shaped by a patriarchal ethos, has tended to preference an “emptiness” that separates out from form. The world of form is entangling, so freedom is “beyond.” A formless freedom, vaulted by the masculine metaphors within Buddhism, equates form with the feminine, which in turn generates an ambivalent relationship to women. In Buddhism as in our world, patriarchy fixes our masculine and feminine aspects, making women into second-class citizens and rendering unintelligible those who transgress or resist the gender binary.

Kuan-yin. Image sourced from correspondence with author

Kuan-yin. Image sourced from correspondence with author

Ironically, the primary attribute of the feminine is inner formlessness through which forms are born. In Buddhist understanding, the highest wisdom emerges from emptiness, or from the depth feminine, which is known as tathagarbha, or the womb of all Buddhas. In other words, without the intelligence of the feminine that is life giving, dynamic, and nurturing, Buddhism, tends to be overly formulaic and conservative, focused on introverted empire building, and hindered by an inability to effectively engage the zeitgeist of the times in order to protect a sustainable world.

Emptiness, the central premise of Buddhist understanding, is the insight that nothing exists as an independent entity in its own right. In as much as things exist, on investigation, they reveal a lack of any substantial stable core. Things both exist and yet do not, or at least not in the way we assume. The quintessential Buddhist text, the Heart Sutra, sums up this paradox in the statement, Form is Emptiness; Emptiness is Form. If, as the depth of Buddhist insight reveals, form is in fact emptiness, how then, have we arrived at the idea that “liberation” is apart from this world of form? This is a vital inquiry for Buddhists, because so much time and energy is spent on trying to “get out” of this “world” when in fact “this world” is suffused with, and manifesting, reality all the time.

The revolution we now need has to shift us from a life denying, fear driven patriarchy that has divorced itself from the nurturing and loving wisdom of the life giving feminine, which is a vibrant energy within all of us, regardless of gender.

We are no longer children of this Earth; instead we are parenting a new geological reality, one that currently reflects the divided consciousness within each of us which, when we abdicate responsibility, unwittingly colludes with the violent, greed driven recklessness that has been let loose upon the world by an unaccountable plutocracy.

Time to Stand Up explores the reclamation of the lost feminine, and the healing the wounded masculine, within us all, so we can know inner completion and return to the state of grace and humility needed in order to midwife a beloved world, for the sake of all sentient beings. It does this by referencing the precedent set by the Buddha, who was one of the greatest spiritual activists the world has ever seen.

Time To Stand Up, An Engaged Buddhist Manifesto for Our Earth, The Buddha’s Life and Message Through Feminine Eyes, is available through all major outlets

About the author
Thanissara is Anglo-Irish, and originally from London. She trained in the Burmese Vipassana School of meditation for three years, and as a Buddhist nun in the Thai Forest School of Ajahn Chah for twelve years. She has taught Buddhist meditation internationally for thirty years, and has an MA in Mindfulness Based Psychotherapy Practice from the Karuna Institute and Middlesex University, London. She is co-founder and guiding teacher of Dharmagiri Meditation Centre, South Africa and Chattanooga Insight, TN USA, core teacher at Insight Meditation Society, MA USA and affiliated teacher of Spirit Rock Meditation Center, CA USA. She lives between South Africa and the USA. She is co-author, with her husband and teaching partner Kittisaro, of Listening to the Heart, A Contemplative Journey to Engaged Buddhism, (North Atlantic Books) of two poetry books, Garden of the Midnight Rosary, The Heart of the Bitter Almond Hedge Sutra, and recently published, Time To Stand Up, An Engaged Buddhist Manifesto for the Earth, (NAB).

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Comments (4)

  • Murray Reiss

    I like where you’re going with this but here’s what I find confusing: When you say “When pure consciousness distorts, through sensory experience, into the assumption of a subject, “me,” and an object, “it,” then we are caught in craving and aversion, which continually generates an objectified world divorced from empathetic alliance,” how is this different from the preference for an emptiness that separates out from form? Unless I’m mistaken in equating pure consciousness with emptiness and sensory experience with form? What am I missing?

  • Milanos

    Another way could be to shine light on deeply corrupt powerbases like private elite men’s club like Bohemian Grove in California, Skull and Bones men at Yale University, Connecticut, and the Capitalists Bilderberg Group and many others. ;

  • Lorna Reay

    I agree with what you say here, but we cannot talk about climate change without also mentioning the number one threat to our planet: our species’ insistence on eating meat and dairy products. Animal husbandry is driving the cutting down of the Amazon rainforest at the rate of one football field per second. It is polluting our oceans with animal sewage on a scale to alter the ocean’s chemistry. It is using billions of gallons of water which could otherwise be used directly by humans or used to grow vegetables. The methane gases produced by cattle are more damaging to our atmosphere than CO2 emissions. Why has all this been overlooked by our media and by our activists? Is it because the aggro business is so powerful? (1100 murders in Brazil of activists to date). Is it because politicians and NGOs believe they would be onto a losing cause to suggest that all humans turn vegetarian? If everyone turned vegetarian, it would take only an estimated ten years to turn our environment back from the brink of runaway climate change, regardless of whether fossil fuels are still in use. THIS is the challenge of our times, to persuade our species that we can never feed the world’s growing population on meat. We do not have the land mass to grow enough corn to feed the animals we eat. We HAVE to simply eat the corn! Come on fellow Buddhists, spread the word. If we want a sustainable future, is HAS to be vegetarian.

  • Rob Wisoff

    I think that using the Four Noble Truths to analyze world climate problems and deal with them is a great idea. The cause of suffering goes beyond greedy corporations and extends to us. What are we holding on to? Do we drive our cars to often? Can we walk or bike instead? Do we recycle properly? Do we conserve water in our use of water? Etc. Etc. At the same time, I agree that it’s vital to alert the world to the problems that are present and growing in our abused ecosystem. If we can break down the dualism of “me” and “I” as this article suggests, then we, as humans, can better tend to the climactic problems that this world faces because we will see the commonalities between ourselves and others, rather than the differences. This will motivate us to work more for the benefit of each other, as human beings. As far as feminine energy is concerned, I definitely think that the world needs more of it. We, as a culture, need to learn how to heal and nurture each other better. Only if we do this, can we more effectively solve the world’s problems.

© 2017 Buddhist Peace Fellowship

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