Forging the Spirit through Climate Change Practice

From Green Buddhism: Practice and Compassionate Action in Uncertain Times by Stephanie Kaza © 2019 by Stephanie Kaza. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO. 

Master Fa Tsang had been summoned by the empress of China to explain the nature of reality. Though the empress had heard a number of lectures on Buddhist philosophy from the esteemed teacher, she had not yet reached true understanding. Sensing the need to point beyond the limiting nature of words, the master set up a display in one of the royal halls, placing mirrors on the ceiling, floor, and all four walls. In the center he arranged a small Buddha with a candle. When he brought the empress in to see the multiple reflected images, she attained instant enlightenment. Perceiving direct insight, she realized that the Buddha’s energy/mind is infinite in its manifestations throughout space and time.

Indra’s net, a similar teaching metaphor from the seventh century, also points to the multifaceted nature of the universe as core understanding. In the Hua Yen school of Chinese Buddhism, key texts emphasize that the mind of every being is identical with the mind of the Buddha, and that enlightenment depends on this recognition. Spiritual practice is grounded in this insight as the source of all ethics and virtuous action. To picture the net, imagine an enormous web of linked lines stretching horizontally across the vast universe. Now add a second web of similar scope and shape stretching across space vertically. Holding this structure in your mind, add yet another web at each diagonal, observing the clarity and organization of these multiple overlapping nodes. Indra’s net consists of an infinite number of crisscrossing nets, with a jewel at every point of intersection. Each jewel has an infinite number of facets that reflect every other jewel in the net. A truly wondrous conception!

In this metaphor, there is nothing outside the net and nothing that does not reverberate its presence throughout the net. The image communicates in a direct way the interdependent nature of reality, infinitely linked in relationship and infinitely co-creating every being. For modern environmentalists, this image fits well with an ecological worldview, conveying the scale of complexity we can barely perceive. The links can be seen as food webs, carbon pathways, parasitic cycles, soil building. The metaphor easily illustrates human impact: tarnish a jewel with soot or sludge and it shines much less brightly; break critical links through clearcutting and ecological relations suffer. Likewise, we see that each of us is a jewel in the net capable of effective action.

Here I want to take a look at how to practice with this understanding in everyday life, how to see our actions as grounded in such a net of relationship. But first, we need to see the shortcomings of the metaphor so we will not be limited in our true understanding. It does not, in fact, represent the constantly changing nature of reality; these crisscrossing lines and jewels are but a map or model of a single moment in time. To even get close to seeing what is going on, you would need to imagine all the webs in motion — shifting and blowing, jiggling and tearing, growing new threads and repairing broken links. The jewels, too, are changing constantly, expanding and shrinking, moving closer to and farther from other jewels, changing behavior by day and night. In other words, the whole universe is morphing, growing, moving, learning, adapting beyond any human comprehension. No single model can even come close to capturing all that is happening.

Thus it would be impossible to offer a definitive approach to practice that would meet all circumstances. Instead let me explore two arenas as a sample introduction — the physical world of climate change and the emotions that arise in response — a rich practice field, indeed, and one in which we are inescapably involved and impacted, and most certainly way beyond our usual capacities.

Read almost any book on climate change and you are quickly immersed in the dynamics of shifting temperatures, amplifying feedback loops, and potential tipping points. I found The Fate of Greenland by Philip Conkling et al. to be particularly informative, with Gary Comer’s stunning aerial photos of ice phenomena and shifting shorelines. The Indra’s net of climate change is composed of ice floes, jet streams, coal plants, traffic jams, and soil microbes. And of course, much much more. Climate scientists in many countries are working to put the puzzle pieces together that explain and predict the shifting nature of the global ocean/atmosphere/soil system. Climate models take observed patterns and project them into the future. But unexpected combinations of causes and conditions keep adding complexity to the models and demanding a stance of humility.

What, then, does it mean to practice with Indra’s net as we look at climate change? How can such practice help develop a perspective or approach that will develop our true understanding of the nature of the universe? Certainly climate change encompasses most of the major systems drivers that are shaping the physical world today as well as its future. Practicing with climate change requires us to have expanded spatial and also temporal understandings of the dynamic processes at play. We must learn not only about the range of sites and shifting patterns taking place today, but also about the historic precedents and how they set certain global trends in motion. This is more than what most of our minds can handle! Human neural patterns are formed primarily in relation to immediate stimuli and needs in the family, home, and community — a much smaller scale than the immense globe. Learning about climate change processes literally stretches the mind to grander scales than our normal conditioning. The practice part of this learning is to stay the course as our small-scale minds take in the vast complexities and endless flux of climate change.

It is, as you may have already tasted yourself, both enlightening and sobering all at once. Climate studies reveal patterns, such as the oceanic conveyor belts, that cannot be seen by any one individual but are the sum of many data sets. Practicing with Indra’s net requires an active imagination to grasp the full impact of such enormous currents of water on not only global weather but the distribution of marine species. For the climate novice, the patterns can be overwhelming in their implications and complexity. To stay with the practice, then, one focuses on the nature of the dynamics — how they are shaped by amplifying or dampening feedback, how patterns reach tipping points, how cycles interact over long and short periods of time. You become large and nothing all at once. In climate terms, a single human life is relatively insignificant, but this does not mean you subtract yourself from the net. Instead you taste the vastness of mind, one might say, that stretches in all directions and across all eons of time. This standpoint provides quite a contrast to the usual short-term thinking that characterizes most of our politics, economics, and human relations.

Perhaps already you are feeling some of the emotions that swirl around climate change — fear, discouragement, helplessness, despair, frustration. These are all part of the web, too, and therefore part of the practice field. The practice mind aims first to observe and be aware of what is happening, to stay alert in the present moment and engage what is at hand. To practice with the web of emotions is to observe dynamics, nuance, flavor, the shape of what arises and what passes away. This may be one’s own internal and personal response to climate change or social patterns of emotional response. Often these are influenced by personal and shared history, beliefs and values, and long-standing emotional habits. To see clearly can be very challenging.

From quite an unexpected source, I came upon a set of Japanese terms related to emotional states, but described in terms of their contribution to art practice. Emotional sensitivity is highly valued in Japanese arts for expressing the ineffable while also acknowledging the fragility of human experience. Feeling tone is seen as a reflection of the dynamic universe, the ever-changing Indra’s net. Mono no aware points to the sense of poignancy from the fleeting and impermanent nature of the world and the tinge of sadness that comes with this recognition. Being with this feeling stimulates an appreciation for things as they are right now, even as we know they will pass away. The acceleration of climate change can evoke this feeling on an almost daily basis as shorelines erode and sea levels rise. Taking this up as a practice opportunity, you engage the nature of impermanence, including your own fleeting existence.

Climate change raises issues of attachment: we yearn to decelerate the rates of change, to protect the vanishing species, to stop the escalating damage. The quality of furyu, or “flowing wind,” is a sense of energy moving through life that touches everything fully while clinging to nothing. This supports appreciation for all we are part of, but also detachment. This is not about giving up to emotional defeat, but rather realizing that we too are transient. Embracing this means wasting less energy in resistance and accepting how deeply aligned we are with the patterns of nature. We may even be able to attain a state of mui, deep calmness in harmony with nature, that allows us to “do nothing” until the time is right, a very Taoist approach to conserving personal energy.

Responses to climate change can tend to overemphasize the dark and sometimes destructive emotions of depression, anger, and grief. In Japanese arts practice such as the Way of Tea or flower arranging, the emotional tone leans more toward myo, the mysterious. By practicing alertness to the pace, the timing, the frame of mind for a given activity, the practitioner expresses the unique aspects of a single moment. Some of this is revealed in the actions of the practice, but much points to yugen, the cloudy and unfathomable state beyond words and intellectual activity. This quality may not seem at all related to climate change, but it can provide a deeper emotional perspective as an alternative to the passing states of anxiety and anger.

Working with Indra’s net is a practice that develops character and builds capacity and resilience. Japanese teachers speak of seishin tanren, or “spirit forging.” Practicing tea ceremony and practicing with climate change both purify and strengthen the spirit, through facing repeated challenges and committing to the discipline that is required. Just as forging a fine sword develops its strength and stability, so, too, does Indra’s net practice build spiritual capacity to meet the challenges of climate change yet to come. Rather than resisting the frustrations and setbacks of climate policy, one simply keeps going, leaning into the commitment of the practice. With this orientation, all elements of climate change are part of the practice field — damaging hurricanes, political trade-offs, denial campaigns, climate refugees. You keep working with what is arising, both physically and emotionally.

The Japanese arts thus offer some helpful supports for practicing in the various Dos or Ways of art practice. It seems to me that they can be applied to a broader practice approach with Indra’s net and are certainly worth exploring. Shoshin, or beginner’s mind, is the ability to bring a fresh perspective to any situation, free of the clutter of opinions or history. You approach the situation at hand as if you are seeing it for the first time. To such a mind, in even the most entrenched circumstances, there are always untapped possibilities. Beginner’s mind is sometimes called “don’t-know mind.” This helps us remember that we actually can’t know all the factors at play and that the situation may shift in a way not yet apparent to us. To sense even these small beginnings, we might develop kan, or intuitive perception, through strengthening our capacities for observation and our trust in direct experience.

The Japanese arts are passed down from one person to another across generations, depending very much on those who have mastered the disciplines and techniques. In every tradition, the kobai (those of less experience) are expected to learn from sempai (those of greater experience). You know where you stand on the scale of experience and there is always someone with more wisdom and skill to turn to for support. While climate change practice may not be organized that clearly, it can help to situate yourself in relation to others who have more skill in this practice terrain. We can ask those with more experience to be mentors for those of us with less. And no matter how little we think we know or have mastered in this territory, we can always provide support to others with still less confidence.

In the contentious context of today’s climate debates, it can be very helpful to take up the practice of reigi, or respect for self and other, especially in group settings. Sometimes this is narrowly interpreted to mean “bowing,” but the more important focus is on one’s attitude. Respecting one’s self means not dividing the mind and body, thoughts and actions. If you are able to act with integrity from a place of alignment, it will reflect your own self-knowledge and discipline in the practice. Remembering that others, too, are jewels in Indra’s net can help mitigate against disrespectful judgments and acting out.

None of this is easy. Practicing with Indra’s net offers many opportunities to develop mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual discipline. Taking up climate change work or any other difficult environmental or social justice work as a life project requires resilience and stability that can carry you through the failures and setbacks. Seeing the work as a practice can shift the frame to a longer view and provide guiding principles that deepen your capacities. The good news is that many people are very interested in this approach, and there are sempai out there leading the way. We have just this life, this moment to take up the practice. Ichi-go, Ichi-e — “one encounter, one meeting”— every moment offers a unique chance to be fully present. When we are aligned completely with that moment and all that is arising in Indra’s net, our practice can be very effective indeed.