Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
Time To Stand Up: An Engaged Buddhist Manifesto for Our Earth by Thanissara. (2015, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley California).
I read this book with great anticipation that it might hold the answers to what is needed to connect Buddhism to a wider social movement to alter the path of global environmental destruction and climate change, and to create a livable planet. Though overall it was a thorough and passionate effort, as a “Buddhist Manifesto for Our Earth” I was somewhat disappointed.
First, let me say what the book does well: it certainly explains what is wrong with Buddhism, particularly Buddhism in the West in the 21st century. With every page and chapter, Thanissara elucidates the numerous problems with institutional Buddhism; patriarchy; blind deference to hierarchy; spiritual bypassing; erasure of the sacred feminine and the oppression of women ordinands and teachers; denial of the body, emotions, passions; avoidance of conflict, anger and critical thinking; capitulation to the dominant capitalist, colonialist, racist and misogynst regimes; an emphasis on transcendence toward the spiritual away from the material, embodied and immanent; an unwillingness to confront the monumental social and ecological crises of our day; and the tendency to limit the practice of Buddhism to a form individual self-care and spiritual escapism.
Wow, that says a lot, and Thanissara is brilliant and relentless in her critique. You may often find yourself nodding your head in agreement, saying “So that’s what’s wrong with Buddhism.” I was glad that Thanissara had the guts to put into print what I have sensed all along—and got it published. Thanissara lays out in no uncertain terms what’s wrong with modern Buddhism and how we might transform it into a practice that has the capacity to be cognizant of issues like global climate change.
But the weakness of the book is that Thanissara, like so many other Buddhist authors, assumes that ecological destruction is caused by a spiritual problem which requires a spiritual solution. In other words, she assumes that what’s wrong with Buddhism is essentially the same as what’s wrong with our society as a whole, and that by fixing Buddhism, and similar problems in other religions, we will have made the necessary changes that will stop the catastrophic destruction of our biosphere. The problem is that it’s an inadequate solution because what’s wrong with our society isn’t just spiritual, it is also material: economic, social, political and technological.
Like so many Buddhist authors, she does not adequately address the centrality of capitalism as the main driver of global climate change and ecological degradation. Capitalism is not addressed directly until “The End of Consumption” section in Chapter 6, the last chapter. This section contains one of the best lines in the book: “The term ‘consumer’ says a lot about how human beings have been reduced to mere functions within a profit-based system.” (p. 160). It’s a good section but too late in the book and not fully explored in terms of both critiquing capitalism and a Buddhist response to capitalism. For example, not much is said about the centrality of private property to the capitalist system, or that early Buddhism clearly called for a renunciation of private property and for sharing property in common. Monastic Buddhism called for a refusal to use money, for communal sharing and for generosity as the quintessential Buddhist practice. Buddhist communalism could provide a justification for abolishing private property and instituting a co-operative, sharing economy of “the commons”, challenging the capitalist finance economy that turns social and biological resources into private profit.
Moreover, the Buddhist teaching on non-self is a serious challenge to individualism and the neoliberal subject, to a culture that maximizes personal aggrandizement. Non-self points toward an orientation toward others, toward mutual co-emergence, being-in-relationship. Buddhist virtues such as compassion, appreciative joy and loving-kindness foster other-orientation. Non-self combined with a proscription against private property could seriously undermine the legal, economic and cultural foundations of capitalism.
But the biggest weakness of the book is to equate the care of the planet with the elevation of “the sacred feminine”, in particular, the equality of women monastics. In chapter 2, “The Great Struggle”, Thanissara devotes more than ten pages to the history of the movement for women’s ordination in Theravadin and Tibetan traditions of Buddhism. While I deeply sympathize with the struggle for women’s ordination, and for reclaiming the sacred feminine, it’s not a sufficient course of action for creating a society that does not ravage the natural and human world. Later in the book, in “The Four-Fold Sangha: A Democracy of Awakening for Our Times”, she makes this argument again: “With the clock ticking down on our capacity to secure a sustainable world, it is irrational and churlish to block the full ordination for women.” (p. 154).Well, ok, but really, what does this have to do with climate change? In Thanissara’s mind, these two causes are absolutely fused. But to the non-monastic reader like myself, it doesn’t make much sense. One could give full ordination to women monastics and never do a thing to stop climate change. Or have a society that is based entirely on renewable energy and excellent stewardship of the earth’s resources, and still not ordain women.
That said, there are many more ways that this book convincingly frames ecological destruction as a spiritual problem, and what means we could take to provide a spiritual solution from a Buddhist perspective, and these are all excellent claims. One of her strongest claims is that that climate change is caused by both fossil fuel regimes and animal agriculture, such that becoming a vegetarian and eliminating animal agriculture becomes a viable solution to climate change. (Except that Buddhism doesn’t universally advocate for vegetarianism.)
My issue with this whole approach is that to alter the course of climate change and environmental destruction, we need to build the broadest possible social movement that includes Buddhism and all faith traditions but goes beyond faith, to include science, politics, economics, technology and secular culture. There is little than can be accomplished within Buddhism itself; Buddhist activists have to learn to work within a broad-based secular movement.
Time to Stand Up speaks largely to a Buddhist audience. What I would like to see is a Buddhist manifesto on the ecological crisis that extracts secular principles from Buddhist practice that can be generalized to support a broad-based secular movement. And I would like to see a manifesto on the same subject that places the critique of capitalism and materialist culture at the starting point of the analysis of the causes of ecological degradation and solutions to the problem. A similar book by Vandana Shiva, Earth Democracy, makes a far more rigorous critique of capitalism with its colonialist and ecological exploitation. Shiva presents the problems and the alternatives to capitalist exploitation from both a secular standpoint as a scientist and a feminist, and her faith as a Hindu.