How to Be an Ecosattva

How do bodhisattvas respond to the greatest crisis of our time? Appropriately, says Buddhist teacher and activist David Loy.

David Loy
22 October 2020
David Loy at an Extinction Rebellion protest in Denver. Photo by

One of my favorite Zen stories is short and simple. A student asks the master, “What is the constant activity of all the buddhas and bodhisattvas?” In other words, what’s special about the day-to-day lives of awakened people?

The master replies: “Responding appropriately.”

That’s all. No special powers, except being fully attentive to what’s actually happening and acting accordingly.

We don’t know what is possible, we don’t know what will work, but we do our best.

That’s an easy thing to do in a monastery. When the bell rings, you put on your robe and go to the Buddha Hall for meditation. But what about when one leaves the monastery gates and steps out into a world with many problems, most ominously an ecological crisis that is severely degrading the biosphere. How do we respond appropriately to a climate emergency that threatens even the survival of our own species?

Some might say that this is not a Buddhist problem, that Buddhism is only about individual awakening and personal transformation. But is the goal to transcend—escape—this world, or to realize our nonduality with it?

If the latter, then the Buddhist path involves not only focusing on our own meditative practice, but integrating what we realize into how we actually live in the world. Wisdom founders without compassion, and today that involves responding to the greatest challenge that humanity has ever faced.

It seems to me that public consciousness has shifted over the last year. More people are aware that our ecological situation has become very precarious, and continues to deteriorate rapidly. “Business as usual,” along with “politics as usual,” is leading to disaster. In light of this, what should we do? How should we respond appropriately? Today that is our collective koan.

Buddhism originated and developed in a very different social and environmental context than today, so unsurprisingly it has little to tell us about what to do. But its teachings say a great deal to say about how to do it. That’s called the bodhisattva path. In fact, I wonder if the bodhisattva (or ecosattva) path is the most important contribution that Buddhism can offer today.

Acknowledging the importance of social engagement is a big step for many Buddhists, since we have usually been taught to focus on what is happening in our own minds. On the other side, those committed to social action tend to suffer from frustration, anger, and burnout. The engaged bodhisattva path provides what each needs because it involves a double practice, inner and outer, each reinforcing the other.

Combining meditation and activism enables deep engagement without burnout. Activism also helps meditators avoid self-stultifying preoccupation with their own mental condition and spiritual progress. Insofar as a sense of separate self is the basic problem, compassionate commitment to the well-being of others is an important part of the solution. Engagement with the ecological crisis is therefore not a distraction from our personal contemplative practice but essential to it.

Although there are many aspects to the bodhisattva path, the equanimity and insight it cultivates supports what is most distinctive and powerful about spiritual activism: acting without attachment to the results of action.

The Buddha said that enlightened people are nirasa: “wishless, desireless, without expectation.” This doesn’t mean inaction or disengagement but what the Bhagavad-Gita calls “karma yoga”: “Your right is to the work, never to the fruits. Be neither motivated by the fruits of action, nor inclined to give up action.” Do what is needed, but without attachment to the outcome.

Nonattachment to results is easily misunderstood, however. It doesn’t mean our approach to our task or nonchalance. In response to the ongoing devastation of the earth, we are called upon to do the very best we can, not knowing what the consequences will be, not knowing if our efforts will make any difference whatsoever.

This is an important aspect of the “don’t-know mind” that Zen practice explicitly cultivates. One of my teachers, Robert Aitken Roshi, liked to say that our task is not to clear up the mystery. It’s to make the mystery clear. The spiritual path isn’t about coming to understand everything but opening up to a sacred and mysterious world that we access not by grasping it but in being taken by it. Bodhisattvas always manifest something greater than their own egos. “You are not Atlas carrying the world on your shoulder,” Vandana Shiva said. “It is good to remember that the planet is carrying you.”

We don’t know what is possible, we don’t know what will work, but we do our best. We don’t know if what we do is important, but we know that it’s important for us to do it. Have we already passed ecological tipping points and civilization as we know it is doomed? We don’t know—and that’s okay. Of course we would like our efforts to bear fruit, yet ultimately they are our gift to the earth, gratis, and gifts should be made without any expectation of return.

On April 20, I was part of a group of six Extinction Rebellion protestors, inspired by the ongoing XR actions in London, who briefly blocked a busy street in downtown Denver. Police detained us and issued a summons; our court cases are pending.

Was that the best thing for us to do, inconveniencing many drivers that Saturday afternoon? I don’t know, but it has become clear that, without some radical changes, we face much more than inconvenience in the next few years. I don’t know if what Extinction Rebellion is doing is the most appropriate response, but right now I don’t have a better one, and our backs are against the wall. We need to hold politicians’ feet to the fire, for the time for humanity to get its act together is short, and getting shorter every day.

A few days after our action, some of the Denver protestors asked if I would offer a workshop meditation retreat for XR activists up at our new Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center near Boulder. We’re holding it in mid-September, just before another week of XR activities worldwide. Doing the inner and outer practice of ecosattvas, we’ll train to respond appropriately.

David Loy

David Loy

David Loy is a scholar and a Zen teacher in the Sanbo Zen tradition. His latest book is A New Buddhist Path: Enlightenment, Evolution, and Ethics in the Modern World; he is also co-editor of A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency.