Interview about EARTH/DHARMA – Ecology and Buddhism

earth-dharma-v2-outlines-wbleedThe EARTH/DHARMA ecology and Buddhism series starting November 22  is an exploration of our relationship with the earth, our present ecological predicament, and how meditation and other practices can help. Wondering what this is about, I interviewed one of the teachers, Shastri Donna Williams. And during the interview the other teacher Ryan Harvey came by and chimed in. You can read more about them and register here.

Here are some excerpts from the interview.

JP: How did this class come about? It isn’t one of our Way of Shambhala classes, or particularly Shambhala or Buddhist sounding?

DW: I think because I was involved in various spiritual ecology groups. It was timely that we do something here that connects people with how they can be involved as activists and also practice mindfulness, the idea of bringing those two strands together. We’re supposed to take our practice wherever we go and apply it in all these different avenues of our lives, and it seems like that’s an avenue that a few of us are passionately involved in.

JP: So did you just make up this class?

DW: Ryan found this syllabus that was developed by a Shambhala member in the Kootenays.

JP: So there’s a syllabus that has been taught in Shambhala centers before?

DW: Yes, they’ve done a lot of work with local spritual groups. It was developed in British Columbia.

JP: Will this class help me make teeny tiny daily life personal decisions, like for example my friends who have electric air cleaners in every room and encourage me to get some, which is to me kind of pitting my better health against the health of the planet (more damned electrical devices) Also, some Vermont organization sends me a letter each month showing that i use more electricity than my neighbors do. Makes me feel like i should just kill myself.

DW: Yes you probably… but don’t be cremated!!

JP: Is it gonna address those kind of things?

DW: There will be a chance to have that sort of forum and a way for people to articulate those things. Like i for example have a problem with pets, and the money wasted on pets. People freak out when i talk about that.

JP: Most people who choose to live in Vermont and nearby New Hampshire do care about the earth, the environment, plants animals weather — and try to do what they can already. Is this class just going to pile more guilt on us about what more we should be doing and foregoing?

DW: That’s a good point. In Shambhala Buddhism we’d say that turning to guilt as a response to a perceived question or threat is kind of missing the point. There are other ways we can work with emotional responses.  How can we work with all the things that come up? One of them is guilt, and one is powerlessness, hopelessness, depression, all of those things the ecological crisis has posed as to whether we want to wallow in despair or get angry. So hopefully the class will present ways of working with those questions that this crisis has brought on.

JP: So that’s where the connection to meditation comes in. We’re thinking like ok i’m gonna sit on this cushion for 10 minutes every day and that’s going to help the environment, what’s with that? So you’re saying it helps you work with your emotions.

DW: Yes so you aren’t crippled or paralyzed by them. Feelings of powerlessness just lead to inertia. In order to work effectively you have to deal with the feeling.

JP: I come down to martyrdom, should i give up my life and drive out to the Dakotas where they’re protesting the pipeline? I feel like in some ways that’s what needed, but it would be a terrible hardship.

DW: Yes, exactly, so looking at those extreme views and seeing if they are useful or not. If we work with our negative emotions that paralyze us and cause confusion, we can have insight into what can actually be useful.  And see that there might be a middle way to work with.

JP: What makes you and what makes Ryan qualified to teach on this topic?  I like the idea that you are of different generations — yours and mine included the Back to the Land movement, and maybe Ryan, as a homesteader, he is part of a new back to the land idea? Ryan now that you are here too, do you want to jump in?

RH: Well what brought me to Buddhism and the practice of meditation was actually my time spent outside. I spent a lot of time outside hiking and backpacking, not formal meditation, but came to the same insights as Buddhism — and later with Buddhism and meditation I thought Huh! This is close! And i felt that my connection with the natural world has also been a way of studying the ways and traditions of Buddhism. So the part of the practice that is more time spent out in the wilds brought me to meditation.

JP: Donna would you like to say something more?

DW: I got irritated with my propane bill two years ago, so I started investigating solar, and that’s been really successful. Then I got involved with a Buddhist ecology group, and planned an event at Dartmouth. So I’ve just been reading stuff. I feel like I haven’t read 40 books, i haven’t been on the front lines of any particular ecology group, but i can see that my Buddhist practice can inform and be helpful in that arena.

JP: So you actually have studied things about the practicalities, of solar and things like that, and Ryan you actually work with forests. Sounds like you are both bringing a lot to this. Can you tell me what you hope to teach people, what you hope they take away from this series into their lives of work, family, friends, activism?

RH:  This Class may be a contemplation for  students who sometimes get caught in the duality between inside vs outside. This is something that was explained to me by the poet Gary Snyder. I’ve been a huge fan of his for many years.  What we typically call nature is what we see when we are looking and pointing to the outside world outside our houses. I would challenge one to  consider nature as also who we are and of  the ‘built’ environment. Thus this contemplation is on the true nature of the phenomenal world and ourselves! I think this is integral in terms of the ecological healing being done as well as personal and social healing I feel is needed.

Shastri Donna Williams


Jane Philpin


Ryan Harvey