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Jason Tetsuzen Wirth:

Shikantaza during the
Sixth Great Extinction

Ilulissat Glacier in Greenland calved these icebergs into the waters of the Ilulissat Isfjord. It puts more ice into the ocean than any other glacier in the northern hemisphere. The iceberg that sank the 'Titanic' probably originated here (courtesy ). If the Greenland and the Antarctic ice sheets disintegrate there will not be a new stable sea level on any foreseeable time scale. Instead we will have created a situation with continual change, with intermittent calamities at thousands of cities around the world (Hansen). 

Along with Elizabeth Myoen Sikes (Seattle University philosophy department) and Bill XiaoBaiYun Hirsch (White Cloud lineage), I direct the Seattle University EcoSangha. We are affiliated with Eisho-ji and the Bellevue Soto Zen Center through Kosho Itagaki, and with the Northwest Dharma Association. The sangha began six years ago at the request of my Buddhist philosophy students and, in dialogue with Don Castro (Seattle Betsuin Jodo Shinshu temple) and Joe Schwab, evolved into an EcoSangha dedicated to Buddhist ecological vision as part of our practice. We continue to grow through regular zazen, sesshin and Buddhist ecology lectures. In 2010 we hosted a national Buddhist ecology conference, and with Kosho Itagaki we organized a pilgrimage to Japan that included sesshin at Yoko-ji temple.

We cannot deny, as we sit on our meditation cushions, that the degeneration of the Earth is continuing at a disconcerting pace. Prompted by the many unfolding ecological crises, our “EcoSangha” is guided by the conviction that ecological insights in Buddhist practice are not peripheral or niche concerns, something to be applied only when needed. They are fundamental to the Dharma itself. So how does our practice speak when the condition of the Earth has become so dire? What good is Zazen at a time like this? Are we merely sitting around as the Earth deteriorates catastrophically?

Dogen Zenji said that to characterize Zazen as simply “sitting idly” is to be “guilty of maligning the Great Vehicle. It is as profound an illusion as to declare there is no water when you are sitting in the midst of the ocean.” [1] Meditation extends beyond the meditation hall and encompasses all that we do. In this sense the EcoSangha also practices what is now called “engaged Buddhism” and we attempt to act on behalf of the maligned Earth. Still, the situation is so grave that even our most ambitious actions may sometimes feel like those of birds trying to put out a massive conflagration with acorn shells of water.

Sober examination of the problem reveals the unfolding of a cataclysm of staggering proportions. There is a growing consensus among biologists that we are in the midst of a great extinction event, with predictions running as high as the net loss of half of all macroscopic species by the end of the century. Scientists identify at least twenty mass extinction events that have occurred in the past. Five of them are considered so catastrophic as to be collectively deemed  the “Big Five”, during which conditions for life on Earth were cataclysmically altered. There is clear evidence that rapidly rising global temperatures resulting from industrial civilization, widespread destruction of non-human habitats, human overpopulation and general degradation of the biosphere is precipitating a sixth mass extinction.

Unless one is in collusion with the vastly profitable corporate oligarchies and their many agencies (lobbyists, politicians, media, etc.), it seems clear that this global ecological emergency puts at risk the flourishing—perhaps even the survival—of our own species. But it is very difficult to facilitate  lucid debate on this problem and its possible ameliorations, for: “Our mainstream media are contaminated by special interest PR campaigns that reinforce the delusion that fossil fuels remain safe and sustainable.” [2] We continue to precipitate our own downfall, in a perfect storm of media distortion and our own blinding passions.

Humans will likely comprise only a miniscule percentage of this carnage, and collateral damage is already unfolding all around us as the diminishing biodiversity of the Earth. Unlike those great reptiles who in the fifth great extinction succumbed to a cataclysmic climatic accident, the current crisis is not the result of a meteor or volcanoes. It is a symptom of our acquisitive wrath; the astonishing self-perpetuation of a “hungry ghost” mentality. Indeed, we are the natural disaster.

Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin have warned that we “suck our sustenance from the rest of nature in a way never before seen in the world, reducing its bounty as ours grows.” [3] The rise of the human species has become the diminishment of the Earth, and the more we diminish it by such means as clear-cutting rainforests for arable land, the more we increase our numbers, augmenting the pressure for land, in a deadly progression of self-assertion. “Dominant as no other species has been in the history of life on Earth, Homo sapiens is in the throes of causing a major biological crisis, a mass extinction, the sixth such event to have occurred in the past half billion years.” [4]

We might imagine the climate emergency and sixth great extinction are problems primarily because they threaten human flourishing. But this is also an obfuscation due to our anthropocentric karma. Fundamentally self-referential frames mean we do not really engage with the Earth, but project onto it values and preferences that result from underlying greed, delusion and hatred. The ailing of the Earth then reflects this deep-seated inner turmoil of ours.

In the Vimalakirti Sutra, the Buddha declared “when the mind is pure, the Buddha land will be pure.” A pure mind enables one to live in a pure world. Yet Shariputra wondered—if the pure land can only be attained by first attaining the pure mind, does this not mean that the pure land is at first sullied? How then can it be the pure land? If the Buddha mind is originally pure, why then does it need to be purified? Is this not a fundamental contradiction? The Buddha responded, “Are the sun and the moon impure? Is that why the blind man fails to see them?” [5] We do not fail to see the Buddha lands because they are hiding or in need of purification. Hozan Alan Senauke elaborates: “From the vantage point of engaged Buddhism, with its structural and systemic view of dependent origination, present-day corporate globalization is exactly an expression of how the Buddha’s wheel of dependent origination gives rise to whole nations, peoples, and cultures born and reborn in the realm of hungry ghosts. I live in such a nation. It is called the United States”. [2]

The hungry ghosts (or “pretas”) in Buddhist mythology are doomed to haunt the Earth with ravenous appetites but miniscule mouths and throats. They can never have enough. Their madness recognizes no limits. The etiology of their suffering is not that there is never enough to eat. It concerns their imperious appetite. Spending all their energies in a relentless drive to plug their sense of lack, they experience their condition as a tragic disappointment, because they cannot recognize they are themselves the source of the problem. If I cannot recognize that the way I eat is destroying me (and the life around me), I will blame external factors while being governed by my unconscious drives. For the interrelated ecological web that underlies our being, I will become a disease.

Greed, hatred, and delusion can be so obfuscating that the etiology of real turmoil (dukkha) appears with the force of revelation—as in the famous parable in the Lotus Sutra, where the Buddha tells Shariputra the story of a powerful man who has a large house that is rotting and degenerating. [6] Fire suddenly breaks out. The children of the house are so obsessed with their playthings that they take no notice of the decaying house nor the engulfing flames. They do not even know what fire is. When the father tries to warn the children of imminent danger, his words do not register. All that matters to them are the attachments that do not allow them to see anything else.

Why do we need skillful means (upaya)? Why do we need to sit if we are already in the Buddha lands? The alcoholic believes that the basic problem is that he does not know where to find the next drink. Hidden within the false problem (I need more alcohol) is the real one (I am an alcoholic). Since alcohol sets the terms for solving the problem, he chases the next drink as if it will allow him to flourish. Our pain makes us live in this topsy-turvy fashion, fighting for slavery as if it were freedom, for sickness as if it were health, for suffering as if it were flourishing, for industrial conquest of the Earth as if that constitutes living well on the Earth. When addiction sets the terms we make things worse while imagining we are making them better. Such “bettering” ourselves has unleashed immense destructiveness throughout the planet. Even amidst the sixth great extinction event, many of us remain convinced that industrial growth is the unique sign of our progress and superiority.

So as we at the EcoSangha take our positions on our meditation cushions, we do not imagine that this alone is enough. In fact, the problem is so large that we as a species may not muster the requisite focus and devotion to overcome the nub of the problem: ourselves. This is not an excuse. We must do everything that we possibly can, whether or not it is enough. But given the nature of the problem, the solution demands we follow the path that first runs through ourselves on the way to the coming of the Buddha lands. Thich Nhat Hanh is surely right: “If we continue abusing the Earth this way, there is no doubt that our civilization will be destroyed. This turnaround takes enlightenment, awakening. The Buddha attained individual awakening. Now we need a collective enlightenment to stop this course of destruction” [2]

Firmly in our sitting positions, wagering the Buddha lands against the sixth great extinction and the possibility of the demise of our species, we begin our zazen. As the bell rings, we remember Dogen’s celebrated words from the Genjokoan: “To learn the Buddha Way is to learn one’s self. To learn one’s self is to forget one’s self. To forget one’s self is to be confirmed by all dharmas. To be confirmed by all dharmas is to cast off one’s body and mind and the bodies and minds of others as well. All trace of enlightenment disappears, and this traceless enlightenment continues on without end.” [7]  We remember that we are the Earth and that the Earth is us; to care for the self is to care for all creatures and all things, and to care for all creatures and all things is to care for the self. As John Daido Loori, following Dogen, concluded, “Nothing is hidden. Therefore, everything is always teaching clearly and unceasingly.” [8] It is not that the Earth has been a poor teacher. So many of us have been inadequate students.

1. The Heart of Dogen’s Shobogenzo, tr. N.Waddell & M. Abe (SUNY Press, 2002), 14.
2. A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency, ed. J.Stanley, D.R.Loy & G.Dorje (Wisdom Publications, 2009)  
3. R. Leakey & R.Lewin, The Sixth Extinction: Patterns of Life and the Future of Humankind. (Doubleday, 1995), 233.
4. Ibid., 245.
5. The Vimalakirti Sutra, tr. B.Watson (Columbia University Press, 1997), 29.
6. Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of Fine Dharma tr. L. Hurvitz (Columbia, 1976), 59.
7. The Heart of Dogen’s Shobogenzo, 41.
8. J. D. Loori, Teachings of the Earth: Zen & the Environment (Shambhala, 2007), 41.

Jason Wirth is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Seattle University:  EcoSangha is supported by Seattle University—many members are drawn from its students, staff & faculty. See


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