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Ecology, Buddhism and Buddhafield: an introduction

Buddhafield Dharma Series I: An introduction These booklets have come out of the Dharma teaching on the Buddhafield Festival , and the wider Buddhafield project. Originally posted as audio talks on FreeBuddhistAudio at , they’ve now been edited and published on-line to reach a wider audience. This essay introduces the series as a whole - you’ll find the rest at . Buddhafield itself is at or on Facebook - and in a field in the West of England! Thanks to Akasati for the bulk of the work in preparing and editing them for publication, plus for the vision that the time had come to produce our first collection of Buddhafield Dharma. December 2010


 Akasati: Ecology, Buddhism and Buddhafield: an introduction This is not primarily about Buddhafield but a collection of Dharma teaching that has emerged from Buddhafield – it is intended to be accessible to anyone interested in ecology and Buddhism, to include people beyond the immediate circles of Buddhafield and Triratna. In the last decades of the 20th Century, two movements of human thought and practice emerged as significant influences in Western society. One was the newly emerging environmental movement, encompassing a broad range of concerns from the wellbeing of indigenous peoples, rainforests and wildlife habitats to community lifestyles, organic farming and ever growing issues about human use of resources. Meanwhile, the 2 500-year-old Buddhist tradition has become an increasingly familiar and respected presence in the cultural landscape of the West, to the extent that it is no longer unusual for its core meditation practices to be routinely used within major organisationsi. The fertile ground of this dialogue between urgent contemporary issues and timeless Buddhist wisdom is the central theme of this volume, which itself has its roots in Buddhafield, a collective running


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a number of outdoor, eco-Buddhist projects including a festival, itinerant vegan cafe, retreats under canvas and organic growing projects. The talks and teachings on which these essays are based were originally given at a Buddhafield festival or retreatii. Although they are not primarily about Buddhafield, as that is the common context which draws the different chapters together, some background may be useful. Buddhist practise on the land In the twenty-first century west, an increasing number of people are drawing inspiration from the teachings of the Buddha. We have an ever-increasing volume of written teachings available in translation, from the Pali texts of early Indian Buddhism to the sutras and commentaries of later schools throughout Asia. However our comfortable, push-button lifestyles are a long way away from the profound simplicity of the Buddha and his early followers’ lives. From the day he left his family home, the man destined to become known as the Buddha lived outdoors: in forest groves, on the banks of rivers and outside the villages and cities of northern India. At times he penetrated deep into the jungle to confront his own fear, or for respite from human society. Apart from taking shelter in huts AKASATI: ECOLOGY, BUDDHISM AND BUDDHAFIELD: AN INTRODUCTION

 during the monsoon, Siddhartha Gautama and his followers slept in the open: at the roots of trees, under the stars, close to the elements and creatures of the non-human world. In keeping with the culture of the time, they perceived the land as alive with meaning, filled with sacred groves inhabited by local deities, spirits of trees and brooks. Some Western Buddhists have wished to explore not only the written teachings of the Buddha but also the example of his pareddown lifestyle, rooted in landscape experienced as alive and sacred. Buddhafield is one expression of this exploration. Buddhafield is what its name suggests: Buddhism in a field. Over the last decade or so Buddhafield has given thousands of people interested in exploring Buddhism the opportunity to experience Dharma practice close to the elements, in a context of material simplicity. Untamed Dharma: Festival Roots Buddhafield’s distinctive style grew out of a network of influences. In the mid 1990s when the seeds of Buddhafield were first emerging, moves towards non-urban, simpler and more sustainable ways of living were being explored by a much more widely and


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festivals such as Glastonbury and the Big Green Gathering were a focus for debate and sharing of ideas. The project that later became Buddhafield began when members of the Western Buddhist Order and friends went to teach meditation at Glastonbury Festival and later the Big Green Gathering, supported by their ‘Green Buddha’ cafeiii. As well as being a new context for connecting with people likely to be interested in meditation and Dharma teaching, for those pioneering the project these events were also a welcome escape from city life and an opportunity to be part of the relaxed, counterculture vibes of the festival scene – a very different environment from the comparatively restrained atmosphere of a city Buddhist centre or retreat, which some people found restrictive. No path is without pitfalls and in Buddhist circles a potential danger has been noted: that the necessary application of restraint in the practice of mindfulness and ethics can slide into a state of alienation, blocked energy and denial of feelings and drives that seem not to fit into the picture of a ‘good Buddhist’iv. Whilst many Buddhist practitioners focussed on cultivating spiritual purity (and sometimes, human nature being what it is, concerns about being seen to do so), others were more interested in opportunities to explore energies that


 were not so consciously controlled, in an environment which encouraged free expression. Although hard-and-fast distinctions between ‘conformity’ and ‘dissent’ can sometimes lead to unhelpful polarisation, the presence of ‘counter-culture’ alternatives has nonetheless provided many a liberating context for something fresh and creative to be born. So it was for the pioneers of Buddhafield. For dissenters and ‘bad boys’ who felt they did not fit into the Buddhist ‘mainstream’, the festival scene was a gift. Glastonbury in the nineties was a relatively uncontrolled environment, certainly by UK standards, with all the opportunities for creativity and underworld dealings one might expect. The festival scene typically blended Eastern influences with New Age ideas; miscellaneous shamanistic traditions of varying degrees of authenticity and holistic healing methods, creating a potpourri of ritual and spiritual practices – alongside plenty of rock music and recreational drug use. Buddhist meditation, chanting and puja were readily absorbed into the mix, to the extent that many festival goers did not -- and still don’t - distinguish Buddhism from New Age ideas or the various branches of Hindu belief and practice that made their way West via the hippy trail.


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The influence of the festival world went much deeper than opportunities for Buddhists to let their hair down. Glastonbury and the Big Green Gathering were a focus for activists, campaigners and people following alternative, low-impact lifestyles. These people were engaged in a serious critique of mainstream, consumer values. Buddhafield from its inception has been serious about the ethical imperative for low-impact living and has provided a context for dialogue between the ecology movement and Buddhist teachings such as non-violence and interdependence. This dialogue continues to be a fundamental working ground for how all Buddhafield projects are run. A radical critique of contemporary Western values and lifestyles remains at the heart of the project. Challenges and joys: community as practice Buddhafield is a community - or rather a number of interlocking, overlapping communities, from a small group working together year-round in the South West of England to a variety of seasonal communities that come together once a year, whether to put on the festival, join the cafĂŠ team as it journeys through its summer of festivals, or attend an intensive meditation or families retreat. It is an ever-growing community. New enthusiasts get involved each year and some responsibilities for the families retreat are now held AKASATI: ECOLOGY, BUDDHISM AND BUDDHAFIELD: AN INTRODUCTION

 by young people who have been coming on the retreats throughout their childhood. Central to the project are Buddhists who have made an explicit commitment to shared Dharma practice, alongside many people who make these projects possible, providing anything from wind power, a sauna or live music, who would not consider themselves as Buddhists. Differences of values can cause tensions but can also create a live dialogue, not just in theory but in the most hands-on sense, where members of a diverse community have to communicate and negotiate with one another. One case in point is that while festivals are more usually places where alcohol and drugs are consumed in quantity, Buddhafield makes every effort to be drug and alcohol free. Many people attending the Buddhafield Festival have been surprised and delighted by how much enjoyment they can have without recourse to mind-altering substances. In this way they have direct experience of the ‘mindfulness clear and radiant’ described in the positive formulation of the five key Buddhist precepts. Cooperating with other people is always, sooner or later, a challenge. Views and egos bump up against one another. It’s all too easy to talk about the Buddhist virtues of compassion, generosity,


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truthfulness and so on and quite another thing to put them into practice. The closer we live and work together, the more revealing our day to day interactions are likely to be about where we actually stand in relation to these precepts and practices. Like deepening one’s meditation or ethical sensibilities, building sangha (community based on Buddhist values) is a demanding practice, requiring genuine willingness to change and bringing unexpected joys. Many times on Buddhafield events, a deeply satisfying sense of community arises in adversity. On an event dominated by torrential rain, levels of co-operation and mutual helpfulness tend to reach their highest. As well as arising from the obvious ways in which we need one another, difficult conditions can enable us to work together against a ‘common enemy’ – in this case, the weather. The practical demands of living outdoors, away from most of the gadgets that make modern life so comfortable, frequently have other unexpected benefits. It is surprising how satisfying it is to be called upon to use our ingenuity rather than having everything laid on as we have come to expect. I have been repeatedly surprised how empowering it feels to rig up a shower-bucket from a tree or simply chop wood for a fire. The vast majority of people who leave AKASATI: ECOLOGY, BUDDHISM AND BUDDHAFIELD: AN INTRODUCTION

 comfortable lifestyles to spend even a short period camping out in the elements are visibly more alive and ‘present’ within a few days. Unconsciously we realise how dependant for our very survival we are in the modern West on machines most of us don’t understand and complex systems such as global agriculture and trade that are beyond our control. The human capacity for specialisation has created unprecedented wealth for at least some of us on the planet at this time, but at a cost. In addition to the heavy and unsustainable environmental costs of our current lifestyles, an further individual cost is the underlying anxiety of being ill-equipped to fend for oneself in the world. The theme of ‘survival’, explored in Akuppa’s essay ‘Strive On’, seems to be part of our current zeitgeist, on various levelsv. The spiritual benefits of living and working together (at least for periods in our lives) have been much emphasised by Sangharakshita, the founder of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order; a practical teaching which has been intensively followed within the Buddhafield community.

Nature as Teacher Living outdoors, even temporarily, it becomes obvious that community extends beyond the human realm. Camping on a piece BUDDHAFIELD DHARMA SERIES I: FESTIVAL TALKS 2009-10

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of land and actively cultivating awareness, one naturally begins to tune in with the creatures who already live there: insects, birds, badgers, foxes and deer. The presence of elements in the form of trees, a stream or the earth itself, becomes more vivid and alive. Buddhist teachings on the conditioned and therefore interconnected nature of all phenomena reveal themselves in myriad new ways, especially to the great majority of us who have grown up in urban environments, in some degree of disconnection from the natural world. The experience of arriving in a field to set up an event and having to find a source of water (whether from a natural spring or connecting to the mains supply); to deal with one’s own waste through earth toilets and composting can give us new perspectives on some of life’s essentials that we normally take for granted. Eating our own vegetables, we see how elements emerge from the earth, move through the body and back into the earth, ultimately as the rich compost that ‘humanure’, in time, becomes. Food and excrement, those two ‘ends’ of the same process that classically give us occasion for greed and aversion, are fertile ground for reflection on the whole of life as a process of arising and passing away that our own bodies are part of. From this more immediate experience, it is easier to directly appreciate the importance of



ď ’ balancing what we receive and what we put back in relationship to the physical world. In shamanic traditions the world over, the natural world is taken as the great teacher. Qualities of strength, agility and far-sight are learned from animals and birds. Through sustained contact with the non-human world, adherents come to deep understanding of the meaning and nature of life. People coming to live on the land for a week or a month generally notice how deeply they are affected by the presence of the elements. Camping next to a great oak tree or brook and being awoken by the building crescendo of the dawn chorus, our spirits are nourished and regenerated. Of course the elements are always present, whether we are in the remotest wilderness or the greyest corners of the inner city. But when we are inside 4 walls, away from the touch of the breeze or the sound of flowing water, we generally feel less connected to this web of life we are intrinsically part of. We do not need to look far to see what damaging and dangerous consequences this perceived disconnection between human society and the rest of the biosphere is having.


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Unlike many religious and philosophical viewpoints, Buddhism sees the whole of life as a continuum and does not separate human beings into a special category in the way that mainstream Christian and much philosophical thinking in the West have generally done. The traditional Buddhist view does not even place humankind at the ‘top’ of the evolutionary tree, listing ‘devas’ – beings in subtle bodies – as existing in more refined, happier realms than ourselves (though the deva worlds, owing to the de-motivating effects of sustained bliss, are not necessarily advantageous in the business of attaining full liberation). As the Jataka (Birth) storiesvi show, perhaps naively for contemporary tastes, traditional Buddhism sees consciousness as manifesting in a series of rebirths by which an individual (though ever-changing) mind-stream might manifest now as a hare or a monkey and now as a human being, with its nature and tendencies in the present impacting on future manifestations. Buddhist ethics link us humans very firmly in with other species. The first precept of non-harm is towards all beings, not just other people. It is to be applied as much as possible to the whole of life. Thankfully, many people from diverse religious and philosophical backgrounds have been seeking and drawing out grounds for AKASATI: ECOLOGY, BUDDHISM AND BUDDHAFIELD: AN INTRODUCTION

 ecological sustainability that might be suggested, directly or indirectly, within their system. Although the threat of the collapse of ecological systems on a huge scale was not an issue the Buddha’s time and so not addressed directly, it is not difficult to find teachings that are relevant to the predicament we find ourselves in. One of the key aims of Buddhafield and of this book is to explore the relevance of Buddhist teachings to the urgent issues of our time. It is no coincidence that several contributors are involved with the Network of Engaged Buddhists, a group with a specific mission to engage not just with the work of personal development, but also with current social, ecological and political issues. Elemental embodiment Any attempt to bring about real transformation of the individuals who collectively constitute society, however, must be grounded in the self-knowledge that comes from a degree of introspection. Retreats on the land allow people the opportunity to take time out of hectic schedules for meditation and reflection, surrounded by the beauty of nature. Meditating in a tent, seated on the lumps and bumps of the earth beneath and feeling the cool touch of the breeze, is different to meditating in a room. In a camp situation, we BUDDHAFIELD DHARMA SERIES I: FESTIVAL TALKS 2009-10

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use our bodies more than many of us would normally. Tents have to be erected, water carried and wood chopped. We need to take care walking over uneven ground especially on a dark night, far from the glare of street lights. We are less protected from the elements than we would be in a building; more likely to get wet when it rains, hot when the sun comes out and cold when it goes down. Away from our insulated lives and computer screens, we can begin to experience ourselves as more deeply embodied. Barefoot walking meditation, treading directly on the earth and with the expanse of the sky above, we experience directly how connected we are, energetically, to these great elements. Reflection on the six elements (adding space and consciousness to the classic list of four elements) is intended to deepen our insight into the profound continuity between what we experience inside our bodies with what we experience as ‘outside’, as explored by Kamalashila in ‘The Living Elements’ chapter. A capacity to extend our awareness to include not just the contents of our head but the direct, non-discursive sensations of the body, is a pre-requisite for entering more settled, meditative states of mind. The importance of attention to the body has been emphasised since the Buddha’s day when he urged his followers to cultivate sustained



ď ’ mindfulness of the body and its functions: its posture and movements in space; experience of temperature, pleasure, pain and the substances that make it up. In spite of this unmistakable emphasis, many of us have a tendency to disregard and even denigrate our own bodies in our pursuit of spiritual growth. Although we may feel some influence from the Buddha and his teachings in our lives, most of us carry more powerful, less conscious influences from our own culture. According to a Buddhist critique, theistic religions tend towards an eternalistic view whereby the body is regarded as fundamentally separate from the eternal soul, which is seen as our essence: the most important part of our being. From Greek philosophical influences through the JudeoChristian heritage which has dominated Western culture, the kind of split whereby the body, and indeed the whole of nature came to be seen as something separate, inferior and to be subjugated has been a major cultural strand. Serious study of the Dharma by Western students tends to lead back to an examination of our own received views. A vigorous critique to such enduring views and an alternative way of perceiving the world as radically interconnected may turn out to be the most useful contribution Buddhism has to make to the current ecological crisis.


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Mythic realms This book is not intended to cover the main themes and influences of Buddhafield in a comprehensive way. Readers who have been to Buddhafield might miss the presence in this volume of the figures of Padmasambhava, Tara, Amoghasiddhi and the archetypal Buddhas and Bodhisattvas who are the focus of chanting and devotional practice on many events. The practice of ritual, drawing not only on Buddhist but also pagan, Celtic roots, is a vivid experience for many of the people who come to Buddhafield. An exploration of the meaning and power of ritual is not the province of this volume and in any case is perhaps best left to direct experience. Ultimately we can only fully experience the beauty and magic of meditation and Dharma practice on the land, in community, not by reading about it but by actually doing it.


 Appendix i

eg NHS mindfulness courses


This essay introduces the series as a whole - you’ll find the rest at iii

As well as the ‘eco’ inference, ‘Green Buddha’ refers to Amoghasiddhi, the green Buddha of the Tantric mandala who symbolises fearlessness and unstoppable energy. iv

Sangharakshita: ‘Alienated and Integrated Awareness’



A body of canonical and non-canonical stories relating the former lives of the Buddha and his disciples, in some cases as animals


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Akasati: Ecology, Buddhism and Buddhafield: an introduction  
Akasati: Ecology, Buddhism and Buddhafield: an introduction  

Buddhafield Dharma Series I: Festival talks 2009-10 Akasati: Ecology, Buddhism and Buddhafield: an introduction