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Maitrisara:

BUDDHAFIELD DHARMA SERIES I: FESTIVAL TALKS 2009-10

Gracing the Earth: Buddhist Reflections on a Damaged Planet


 Buddhafield Dharma Series I: Festival Talks 2009-10 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 (www.freebuddhistaudio.com/browse?p=Buddhafield), they’ve now been edited and published on-line to reach a wider audience. You’ll find the rest of the series online at issuu.com/buddhafield . Buddhafield itself is at www.buddhafield.com or on Facebook - and in a field in the West of England! Thanks to Akasati for most of the work in preparing and editing them for publication. Her essay introducing the series is available at issuu.com/buddhafield/docs/akasati-ecology_buddhism_and_buddhafield

December 2010

MAITRISARA - GRACING THE EARTH: BUDDHIST REFLECTIONS ON A DAMAGED PLANET


 Maitrisara - Gracing the Earth: Buddhist Reflections on a Damaged Planet Humankind is capable of extraordinary resourcefulness and courage. We are also capable of extreme greed, malice and stupidity. Some people have started to talk about humankind in terms of a virus or a parasite, spreading rapidly and damaging our host planet. It’s not hard to draw that conclusion but it is a self view which is likely to increase our difficulties not address them. Leaving ourselves out of the field of compassion in this way is likely to exacerbate our behaviour of excessive consumption, itself based on a sense of lack as we shall see. In this chapter, I want to explore Buddhist perspectives on why we have damaged our relationship with the life of the planet and how we can move towards a human presence which “graces” the Earth. This would mean a sense of community which includes nature, and nature of course includes us. In the word used by Thich Nhat Hanh, we “inter-are”. So how is it that we have damaged our own planet home? We now know that we are drawing on the world’s resources faster than they can be restored and renewed. Thirty years ago the planet was being used at full capacity. By the end of the millennium, we BUDDHAFIELD DHARMA SERIES I: FESTIVAL TALKS 2009-10

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 had increased our overall use of resources by 20%, so by then we needed 1.2 earths to sustain ourselves, using resources at a rate 20% faster than the planet can renew. Some resources, like fossil fuels are non-renewable within a meaningful timeframe. In terms of Buddhist ethics, in living beyond the capacity of the planet we are breaking the second of the five precepts and ‘taking the not given’ on a global scale. We are in a state of overshoot, beyond the capacity of the planet to sustain us. As the new millennium dawned, this kind of debate was typical within green and alternative circles but since then it has made its way into the mainstream galvanised by the alarm that climate change predictions have prompted. How is it that most of us haven’t noticed the severity of this problem? Or if we vaguely knew about it why didn’t it impact on our choices or lifestyles? Partly, this perspective of sustainability runs contrary to the dominant world view of growth and “more is better” or perhaps it is an inconvenient truth we fear and would therefore rather deny. It could also be the nature of exponential growth itself which has a habit of creating situations which sneak up on us. The research states that we have exponential growth in the use of the

MAITRISARA - GRACING THE EARTH: BUDDHIST REFLECTIONS ON A DAMAGED PLANET


 major resources . This story rather beautifully illustrates our dilemma: “French children are told a story in which they imagine having a pond with water lily leaves floating on the surface. The lily population doubles in size every day and if left unchecked will smother the pond in 30 days, killing all the other living things in the water. Day after day the plant seems small and so it is decided to leave it to grow until it half-covers the pond, before cutting it back. They are then asked, on what day that will occur. This is revealed to be the 29th day, and then there will be just one day to save the pond”. The most likely future scenario of this unsustainable demand on the earth’s resources following an exponential pattern, even accounting for technological innovations, is the collapse of our ecosystem resulting in increased pollution, food shortages, industrial decline and falling levels of human welfare. Climate change is an important factor in this but not the only story. Only significant changes in the way we consume and manage resources will make any difference. Deep ecologists go further. It is our attitude to the planet as “our”

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 supply of resources that is the problem, the deep ecology principles suggest that:

The well-being and flourishing of human and non-human life on Earth have value in themselves. These values are independent of the usefulness of the non-human world for human purposes. A Sense of Self: The Ultimate Consumer Item? Why do we behave like this? What would the Buddha’s explanation be? One of the principles the Buddha taught was that ultimately, we are insubstantial. We are a process. We do not have an everlasting, enduring existence. There is no fixed “me”. We seem to find this rather threatening to live with and have a craving to be “somebody”, to create our sense of ourselves. But the various methods by which we try to do this do not seem to work. Or, if they do work for a while, it does not seem to last. So then we look to the next thing. There can be a rising feeling after a while that we are losing at our own game. We live with a sense of unease,

MAITRISARA - GRACING THE EARTH: BUDDHIST REFLECTIONS ON A DAMAGED PLANET


 which can be subtle or extreme. In Buddhist terminology this is ‘dukkha’, translated as unsatisfactoriness, or suffering. A favourite way of bolstering our sense of identity is by owning things. At times we even apply it to people, treating them as objects. This is reinforced through the messages we get through popular media: “You’re not good enough unless you own this” and “You’re not good enough if you don’t look like that”. Buddhist activist and teacher Joanna Macy puts its like this: “the dominant message of consumer society which is that you are not good enough, you’re not smart enough … this is one of the cruellest aspects of it….. the curse of taking from people their birthright to be happy in their skin …. infecting people with the virus of acquiring things and putting themselves in debt”. One might argue that other human cultures have been just as concerned with possession and status. That may well be true, however on a practical level our technological development makes us more ‘efficient’ in stripping the planet’s resources than humans

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 of previous eras, creating a further amplification of the impact of our appetites. We have created a society that fuel feelings of inadequacy, in a mutually reinforcing relationship between the individual and the collective. Caught up in a mass delusion, we are looking in the wrong place for contentment. We are overly concerned with appearances, both physical and social, such as our status and our reputation. As a culture, we hunger for money and possessions to make ourselves feel alright. But does that mean that we end up being more concerned with the phone we use than the quality of what we communicate through it? In fact, maybe our whole relationship with money is a delusion. Vishvapani explains the relationship between the Buddha’s teaching and our relationship with money in the light of the 2008 “global financial crisis”, a key feature of which was the collapse of the American bank Lehman Brothers: “When the Buddha left home on a quest for the truth he joined the sramana movement of religious wanderers and found himself in a whirlpool of “speculative views”. His culture was haunted by fear of

MAITRISARA - GRACING THE EARTH: BUDDHIST REFLECTIONS ON A DAMAGED PLANET


 death, which was profoundly threatening whether it meant obliteration or rebirth. The sramanas sought the true Self, or atman, because that alone would survive death, and their philosophies obsessively circled the nature of identity. One of the Buddha’s greatest contributions was the realisation the sramanas’ ideas about identity were based on emotional needs, especially the need to avoid uncomfortable truths. In mistaking their rationalisations for reality, he said, people wove a net and became entangled. Perhaps money is the modern atman – the key way our culture structures reality. Lehman Brothers was worth $15bn at the start of the week and nothing at the end. Shares in the Canadian communications company Nortel were worth $250bn at their height and $150m when it filed for bankruptcy. The value of banks themselves is bound up with the worth of the debt they hold, which no one can calculate. Where has the money gone? The only possible answer is that it was never “really” there in the first place”. So, are we a hopeless case as a species, hell bent on messing things up?

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ď ’ The Buddhist view is that we are like dusty mirrors. The dust of our habitual greed, aversion and ignorance covers the beauty and authenticity of our deeper potential. The essential work of a practicing Buddhist is to clear away these obscurations. We make this heroic attempt with the help of meditation and our efforts to live as skilfully as we can. This means living with awareness, which could be said to be the fundamental Buddhist virtue, from which all other qualities proceed. Some of the fruits of greater awareness are equanimity, contentment with simplicity and the release of energy. Awareness If our existential problem is a feeling of inadequacy and of lack, will Buddhism help us to foster a sense of confidence, adequacy and sufficiency? Is that what we should set about trying to do? Certainly it is helpful to have an idea of the qualities we wish to develop, or to embody more fully. However, having clarified what we want to cultivate, it is not always helpful to be too focused on results. The main effort we need to make, moment-to moment, is to maintain as much mindfulness as possible, without holding too strongly to a desired, short-term outcome. The quality of awareness itself has transformative power. For example, the more aware we MAITRISARA - GRACING THE EARTH: BUDDHIST REFLECTIONS ON A DAMAGED PLANET


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ď ’ become of the extent to which we are driven by feelings of inadequacy, the less hold those feelings actually have in our life. The natural outcome of this is to feel more self-confident. Awareness brings a greater perspective and a new freedom from our unconscious drives. In bringing awareness over and again to this sense of lack and the way that we try to escape from it, we become intimate with it. We become aware that our escape strategies do not really work. In time, that effort of paying attention bears fruit as we come to understand these underlying drives more deeply. If we find that we have become less addicted and more forgiving both to ourselves and others, even in small ways, then the practice is working. When we become too focused on results, we may notice that we are subtly trying to get somewhere else, away from whatever we are experiencing right now. This kind of avoidance is the opposite of true awareness: we may simply be transferring this unconscious feeling of lack to a different sphere. Rather than feeling inadequate that we do not have the right kind of jeans, phone or car, we may feel bad about our lack of contentment or confidence. Feeling bad about ourselves usually means that we have shut down our BUDDHAFIELD DHARMA SERIES I: FESTIVAL TALKS 2009-10

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 awareness in some way. Mindfulness is an art, which requires the ability to consciously stay with all of our experience, however pleasant or unpleasant. Equanimity: Sustaining the Gaze Pain and pleasure come and go. Equanimity is the ability to ride life’s ups and downs without becoming intoxicated or downcast. Equanimity can sometimes be confused with indifference. This is to misunderstand equanimity, at least in the Buddhist sense of the term, which is a manifestation of both compassion and wisdom. The German monk Nyanaponika Thera once wrote that equanimity “is a perfect, unshakable balance of mind, rooted in insight” But what is it a balance between? On one side there is effort, initiative and action. On the other side there is a patient willingness to be with things as they are. When we practice meditation, we need enough effort not to lose awareness. But if we struggle and strive, craving to achieve something and get somewhere, we sabotage our efforts. When the engines of a boat are switched off, the wind can gently take the sails: we just have to turn into the right direction.

MAITRISARA - GRACING THE EARTH: BUDDHIST REFLECTIONS ON A DAMAGED PLANET


 In this way we bring in a healthy practice of non-attachment. This can be a confusing idea initially. It’s really about detaching, or letting go of needy or neurotic attachment, but without disengaging our emotional response, especially to what is painful. Emotional disengagement can sometimes be dressed up in spiritual language, whilst rationalising underlying numbness, denial and cynicism. We have bypassed the heart. To avoid this misunderstanding, we can understand it as 'positive detachment': As Tejananda writes“an emotional engagement which is exclusively positive (not to be confused with some kind of emotional non-involvement or alienation). What we're 'detached' from is our reactions of craving, aversion and indifference which usually get in the way of our full, positive emotional engagement with people” To remain engaged in this way, we crucially need to be able to deal with our own responses to suffering and not turn away. This capacity is sometimes referred to as “sustaining the gaze”. We sustain our gaze towards the troubles of the world, without fixating on a desired result and without needing to be the one who fixes it. It takes a particular kind of courage to stay engaged when we do not know what we can do.

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 This is the basis of a process pioneered by Buddhist activist and scholar Joanna Macy called the Work that Reconnects9. The fundamental principle is that the pain that we feel in witnessing damage – is healthy and natural and above all necessary in the process of healing. “Instead of viewing anger, sadness, fear or a sense of despair as a personal failure, we see our pain for the world as positive evidence of our interconnectedness in the web of life. And if we are consciously interconnected, our actions will naturally become more compassionate, contributing to the healing of the damage that has been done. Sustaining the gaze, experiencing and communicating our heartfelt response is the key to cultivating the equanimity we need, enabling us to call on the energy and creativity required of us. Simplicity Many of us are familiar with the principle that we are going to need to consume less in the future. Simplicity in Buddhism is expressed very positively, not as a grim denial. In fact, the five precepts of

MAITRISARA - GRACING THE EARTH: BUDDHIST REFLECTIONS ON A DAMAGED PLANET


 Buddhist ethics highlight this in the positive version of the third precept: With stillness, simplicity and contentment, I purify my body. But are we being asked to deprive ourselves of what we need? This reaction is common. What underlying mental states fuel this fear of deprivation? Unless we can work at the level of the underlying energies, we are going to be fobbing ourselves and each other off with excuses. Simplicity practice requires work with our habits and with views we are mostly only partially aware of. I have become more and more aware that it is fear I have to work with directly. Our consumption anaesthetises and distracts us from our fear of not being substantial, fixed and enduring beings. We seek a false meaning in our consumption (and its close relative - busyness) Without our intoxicating pleasures, we are left with fear – a fear that can be quite overwhelming. The simplicity of raw and wild nature is a teacher in this respect and I have observed my own responses and those in others when we are

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 presented with life more or less unmediated by human activity. We feel our insignificance so poignantly, the environment rises up to firmly remind us of our true relationship with the world. The aphorism comes to mind: “Love tells me I am everything, wisdom tells me I am nothing and between these two, my life flows” The simplest things - heat and cold, getting wet, mud, wind, insects – there are just so many things beyond our control. We delight childishly in the little triumphs over it all - “look at my new tent!!”, “this jacket is really waterproof you know” and sometimes we try to convince ourselves that we can conquer it “I climbed all the way to the top of there yesterday” At other times, we pin our anxiety on little things that symbolize our disorientation. I remember a retreat in India where the water had to be switched off for a few hours. I was irrationally anxious, pacing around wondering why nobody else was panicking. On a recent retreat in wilderness, I became obsessed with the possibility of stepping on snakes. Though most of us don’t get the opportunity (or don’t want the opportunity!) to work with the challenges of wild nature, we always have our own bodies to remind us of our simplicity of being, existence stripped down to its naked essentials as it were. And

MAITRISARA - GRACING THE EARTH: BUDDHIST REFLECTIONS ON A DAMAGED PLANET


 alienation and dissatisfaction with the body seems to be ever more common. According to body-centred therapist Christine Caldwell our disassociation with our bodies leads to a loss of the boundaries we need to tell us what it nourishing, what is enough and what is too much. “When we inhabit our bodies and reclaim self-regulation, we find that nourishment consists in having just enough of the right thing” . We can probably all relate to experiences of the relief we feel when we are liberated from our dependencies on those things we thought we needed. Simplicity is the cultivation of a sense of sufficiency, to really inhabit our bodies and the places we are in, to know what nourishes us and to know what is excessive and unnecessary. Abundance is a state of mind more than we ever seem to realise. Gratitude is something we can turn to independent of outer circumstances. Energy, Effectiveness, Strength – and Anger If we want to make a positive difference in the world, we need to draw on that which nourishes us more deeply. Active cultivation of awareness, equanimity and simplicity releases energy. Energy is freed when we stop denying how things really are.

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 Ultimately, energy comes from the recognition that we are not separate from any aspect of life and the expression of our connection gives us energy. In the words of Dilgo Khyentse Rimpoche: “when you recognise the empty nature, the energy to bring about the good of others dawns, uncontrived and effortless.” Effectiveness comes from seeing problems without the shadow of our own self-need getting in the way. For example, when we can take our own point of view a little less seriously, sometimes this is just what is needed to solve an argument or see a problem more creatively. There may be an inner voice as we read this saying “what use is all of this? Awareness, simplicity and equanimity sound kind of quiet. We need energy! We need a call to arms!! We need anger to keep going!” As a culture we are bit confused about this question of anger. Is it healthy and helpful? Is it destructive? One answer is that there is an intelligent and clear kind of anger, where agents of harm need to be

MAITRISARA - GRACING THE EARTH: BUDDHIST REFLECTIONS ON A DAMAGED PLANET


 challenged. Anger can be skilfully transformed into energy and clarity. That is if the destructive kind of anger doesn’t burn us (or someone else) first. Destructive anger can be recognised by the tone of retribution, the target of the anger is a person or people (rather than the action or situation) and for them to suffer, to pay for their wrong doing would feel satisfying. In those who have dedicated their lives to social justice, there is sometimes a fear that if their anger is transformed, is softened, they will lose the energy and motivation they need to act. But as the destructive kind of anger is founded on retribution, on punishment – it usually results in the waste of energy directed towards counterproductive goals and then having to defend yourself against the inevitable counter-attack. The social justice movement is dogged by rifts and conflicts between different ideological positions and whole organisations and sometimes entire social movements can implode with infighting. The anger is spilling everywhere, splitting the movement and alienating those who might otherwise commit themselves to help. The other kind of anger, clear, intelligent and based in loving kindness is maybe symbolised by the swinging sword of the Bodhisattva Manjushri. It is not

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 compromised, it is not that easy to be around sometimes. But its nobility and courage shines through. This transformation has been commented on by Rita Gross, one of Buddhism’s leading contemporary scholars in the field of gender and equality. “After being involved in serious meditation practice for several years, I began to discover that I simply didn’t find anger so satisfying anymore. Previously, I had always experienced emotional relief through venting verbally, often with extreme sarcasm and cutting intellect … I began to see that .. my fits of aggressive rhetoric only caused mutual entrenchment, rather than any significant change in those whom I confronted. I wanted to do something more helpful”. As she went forward with meditation practice, she describes working with the fear that she would cease to care about the concerns that had been so important to her for so many years. In actual fact, she found that her clarity increased. This made communication more possible – and change more likely. It also avoided exhaustion and resulted in her being able to access “a

MAITRISARA - GRACING THE EARTH: BUDDHIST REFLECTIONS ON A DAMAGED PLANET


 steady self-existing cheerfulness” Her commitment is as strong as ever. An Authentic Heart Response When the anger and fear are transformed, compassion and wisdom arise. And its compassion and wisdom that are the deepest sources of our energy and the touchstones for our meaningful engagement with the world. As a young woman, before I came across Buddhism, I was always very inspired by the statement by Lilla Watson, an aboriginal woman activist: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is tied up with mine, then let us work together.” At the time it suggested a partnership rather than a helping relationship which can so often contains the seeds of condescension. When I became more interested in Buddhism, I found that in the traditional teachings, positive emotions like compassion have their “near enemies”. A near enemy is a reaction

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 which is very similar – in this case to compassion - but in fact it altogether different and less healthy. The near enemy of compassion is horrified anxiety and that is the driving force of much of my actions – then and still. Lilla Watson, like many people experiencing oppression seems to be saying she is all too conscious of condescension and horrified anxiety directed towards her by those who proclaim to want to “help” her. Her statement also begs another question – and one which I have found my Buddhist practice helpful in addressing. What is the path to my own liberation? What am I liberating myself from? A lifetime of conditioning says that I am one of the “lucky ones” and in material terms, that is undoubtedly so. But Buddhist teaching would say that we are all limited by delusion, by greed and aversion – we are all living out the consequences of the deluded actions of our past. Lilla Watson is not saying that my liberation doesn’t matter because her life is less comfortable than mine, she is saying that my awareness of the need for my own liberation is precisely what would enable us to work together. A particular meditation practice I was taught a few years ago helped very much in this respect. It comes from the Tibetan tradition and is MAITRISARA - GRACING THE EARTH: BUDDHIST REFLECTIONS ON A DAMAGED PLANET


 called Tonglen. In this particular form of it, you breath in and purify an awareness of your own suffering. Once purified through your heart, you breath out a healing response, visualised as white light. When you become established with this aspect of your own suffering, you call to mind those who are suffering in the same way. This approach brings an open-heartedness and equanimous compassion very different from the urge to “help” out of horrified anxiety. Successes and Struggles Buddhist practice in our modern world flows against the stream of many of our cultural norms. This can’t be done alone and there have been attempts to create community for people who are interested in the relationship between inner transformation and working for a more just and sustainable society. Groups like the Network of Engaged Buddhists14 in the UK have been active for over 20 years organising retreats, producing publications and co-ordinating a presence at demonstrations and protests. Buddhafield through the festival, vegan cafe and its retreat programme and land projects illustrates the potential of inner and outer manifestations of the Dharma.

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ď‚‚

ď ’ Engaged Buddhism views the transformation of self and the transformation of the world as indivisible. And it covers a spectrum. One end of the spectrum focuses on social change and includes the work that could be described as political, trying to bring about a more systemic shift towards a more compassionate, life affirming society. At the other end of the spectrum there are the actions which offer healing for the pain of the world, trying to alleviate the damage - work in caring, service including health and social care, prison work and so on. Other areas - in education for example fall somewhere in between. Buddhist wisdom offers the greater likelihood of effectiveness in social change and healing work. How many times have decisions that have adversely affected our communities and our planet been based on rage, revenge and the egotistical craving to be noticed and to make a mark on the world? To understand our deeper motivations and to be realistic about the motivations of others, Buddhist teachings and practice help us to get to grips with the action which would really make a difference. Perhaps one contribution we can make is a loosening around the ideological debates that sometimes rage within social justice and MAITRISARA - GRACING THE EARTH: BUDDHIST REFLECTIONS ON A DAMAGED PLANET


 ecological movements. There is often a strong identification, the tendency to build a false sense of “me” and of “us” around a particular set of ideas. Terribly well researched righteousness is a common affliction. Rather than weighing in on the “good” side of the “good” versus “evil” argument - the underlying principle of so many conflicts, past and present, the Dharma offers the understanding that we are all subject to greed, hatred and delusion, which manifests in countless ways in our minds and in our societies. All of us need to work to purify these tendencies of the mind. There is no place of righteousness on which to stand and no blame to heap. We can simply come to trust that, to whatever extent that we are acting from qualities such as awareness and equanimity, we will tend to have a beneficial effect, in whatever context we find ourselves in. Action, where needed, is done for its own sake and without being overly attached (or entirely justified) by results. The teaching of karma in that sense is an act of faith. What is done in the spirit of love yields positive results whether they are evident or not. In Buddhist activism, the phrase “what I do doesn’t make any difference” is a wrong view as everything has an effect. What is a BUDDHAFIELD DHARMA SERIES I: FESTIVAL TALKS 2009-10

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 strategic use of effort is another question and a topic of much discussion at engaged Buddhist gatherings. Intervene, Exemplify, Ignore, and Make Magic If, to the best of our abilities, we try to embrace this path of purification, how are we to respond to people who seem to be rapidly proceeding the other way – mindlessly or sometimes even wilfully harming? Reflecting on what the Buddha did when faced with the unskilful actions of others, his responses can be seen to fall into four categories. He intervened, for example with the bandit Angulimala who had murdered 999 people and was aiming to murder the 1000th to add the final finger to his necklace of dead people’s digits. The Buddha went looking for him, to communicate with him, to teach him. He went to interact, to stop him murdering people. He exemplified what he was trying to communicate. Calm, kind and courageous – it’s interesting to recognise that so many people seem to have become enlightened through meeting the Buddha, the living embodiment of the teaching. Another occasion was when Ananda and the Buddha came across a monk who had dysentery and was

MAITRISARA - GRACING THE EARTH: BUDDHIST REFLECTIONS ON A DAMAGED PLANET


 not being cared for by the other monks. The Buddha ensured that the monk was taken care of and then went to discuss it with the monks who had neglected him. Sometimes he simply ignored unskilful behaviour, as in the case of some of the tricks his jealous cousin Devadatta got up to – trying to murder the Buddha three times. There were also instances when the monks were quarrelling when he simply walked away. At other times, he used a bit of magic, as when he strolled peacefully ahead of Angulimala , who was unable to catch up with him, no matter how fast he ran. Another occasion was when he calmed a mad (and drunk) bull elephant, through the power of his loving kindness. The elephant came to stand quietly in front of him. Maybe we can draw on this repertoire at our own level, including the magic! These practices demand much of us and we can’t do it alone. Practising with others mean that we can try to apply compassion and wisdom to the contemporary ethical issues of our time. We

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 need to avoid doing this with self righteousness. Spiritually justified self righteousness is particular irritating and alienating!! Finally, in everything we do, we can cultivate our commitment and faith in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. From that faith we can be confident that actions based on compassion and wisdom will have a beneficial effect.

MAITRISARA - GRACING THE EARTH: BUDDHIST REFLECTIONS ON A DAMAGED PLANET


 Appendix

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Maitrisara - Gracing the Earth: Buddhist Reflections on a Damaged Planet  

From the Buddhafield Dharma Series I: Festival Talks 2009-10

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