Caring for the Earth

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Group practices

As we have seen, the family has become fertile ground for the potential elaboration of spiritual practice in daily life, and environmental concerns are often addressed in this setting. A parent from Colorado treats recycling as a "family ecological ritual," using it "to bring out the meaning of interbeing." At most American Buddhist centers, conservation of resources and reduction of waste is a conscious part of communal practice. The responsibilities of the "ecological officer" at one center include: "educating workers and management about waste, recycling, conservation, etc.; evaluating operational procedures in terms of waste and efficiency; and investigating ecologically correct product lines."

New and diverse group practices focus on the field of caring for the planet.

  • The Zen Center of Rochester, New York, conducts an "Earth relief ceremony" that includes chanting, circumambulation, devotional offerings, prostrations, and monetary donations. Buddhist rituals traditionally end with a chant that "transfers the merit" of the event to a designated recipient. The earth relief ceremony ends with the following invocation:

    Tonight we have offered candles, incense, fruit, and tea,
    Chanted sutras and dharani.
    Whatever merit comes to us from these offerings
    We now return to the earth, sea, and sky.
    May our air be left pure!
    May our waters be clean!
    May our Earth be restored!
    May all beings attain Buddhahood!

  • In northern California the Ring of Bone Zendo has found ways to integrate backpacking, pilgrimage, and sesshin, the intensive meditation retreat that undergirds formal Zen training. First conceived by poet and Zen pioneer Gary Snyder in the 1970s, this "mountains and rivers sesshin" emphasizes long hours of silent, concentrated walking in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains. "The wilderness pilgrim's step-by-step breath-by-breath walk up a trail," writes Snyder, "is so ancient a set of gestures as to bring a profound sense of body-mind joy."

  • Thich Nhat Hanh inaugurated another kind of group practice in a six-day meditation retreat specifically for environmentalists. In his talks, Nhat Hanh stressed the value of "deep, inner peace" for environmental activists: "The best way to take care of the environment is to take care of the environmentalist."

  • The Council of All Beings, begun in 1985 as a collaboration between Joanna Macy and John Seed, helps people to move "from having ecological ideas to having ecological identity, ecological self. . . In the end, what we want to do is to turn people into activists." The Council, a daylong workshop or longer retreat in a setting with access to the outdoors, includes a ritual of shared mourning in which participants are encouraged to express their sense of grief and loss in response to the degradation of the earth. Participants reinforce their sense of connectedness with guided meditations, body movement, drumming, and "sounding"— imitating the voices of animals or other natural sounds.