The eco-crisis is so enormous and intimidating that we don’t know where to start. We know that the collective decisions we make in the next few years will set the course of events for generations to come. And yet the more we learn about climate breakdown, species extinction, the global economic system, corporate domination of government, and overpopulation, the less we feel able to act. Our conviction in our own powerlessness overwhelms us.
The Buddhist tradition of bodhisattva activism offers a lifeline out of this downward spiral of paralysis. The model of Bodhisattva activism speaks to our current situation because the bodhisattva’s job is to do the best one can, without knowing what the consequences will be—without knowing whether anything one does makes any difference whatsoever.
According to one definition, a bodhisattva is “any person who, motivated by compassion, wishes to attain Buddhahood for the sake of all living beings.” Traditionally, the bodhisattva chooses not to enter the realm of nirvana (the state of perfect peace), but instead remains in samsara (this world of cyclic existence) to help all sentient beings end their suffering and reach enlightenment. Instead of asking, “What can I get out of this situation” or “How can I get out of this situation?” the bodhisattva asks, “What can I contribute to make this situation better?” Today we can understand the bodhisattva path as a spiritual archetype that offers a new vision of human possibility.
A Vow to Liberate All Beings
Bodhisattva activism has some distinctive characteristics. Buddhism emphasizes interdependence (“We’re all in this together”) and delusion (rather than evil). This implies not only nonviolence (violence is usually self-defeating anyway), but also a politics based on love (more non-dual) rather than reactive anger (which separates us from them).
The basic problem in our society is not rich and powerful bad people, but rather institutionalized structures of collective greed, aggression, and delusion. Moreover, the bodhisattva’s pragmatism and non-dogmatism can help cut through the ideological quarrels that have weakened so many progressive groups. And Buddhism’s emphasis on upaya (skillful means) cultivates the creative imagination, a necessary attribute if we are to collaboratively construct a healthier, more sustainable way of living together on this earth.
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