Our practical, lived response to our ecological and climate emergency – as individuals, Sanghas, and Dharma teachers – is inseparable from our Dharma practice. As Greta Thunberg has said, “Change is coming whether we like it or not.” Also, as Buddhists we’re morally compelled to act for the welfare of other beings. Finally, the eco-crisis is a profound and difficult koan, whether we choose to engage it that way or not – and therefore, it’s an opportunity to grow in understanding, compassion, and manifestation.
Quicklinks to Content:
Our Climate Emergency as a Koan
A Real-Life Response to the Koan of Our Climate Emergency
An Opportunity to Participate in Civil Disobedience
Occupying the Governor’s Office
Criminal Trespass in the 2nd Degree
A Night in the County Jail for our Climate Emergency
My Actions as a Response to a Koan
I sincerely hope you will embrace this episode of the Zen Studies Podcast even though it talks about our ecological and climate emergency. I’m conscious of the need for us to maintain balance in our lives – so even if we care deeply about issues of environmental and social justice, we should still keep our practice strong in terms of meditation and study. I’m dedicated to sharing the Dharma with you and promise to continue producing episodes that allow you to set aside the practical problems of the world for a time, and absorb yourself in the rich Buddhist tradition.
At the same time, I hope to convince you – if you’re not convinced already – that our practical, lived response to the eco-crisis – as individuals, Sanghas, and Dharma teachers – is inseparable from our Dharma practice. First, as Greta Thunberg has said, “Change is coming whether we like it or not.” Over the next decade we will face many challenges; our Dharma practice and Sanghas must remain relevant to our lives, and able to provide us with strength and guidance. Second, as Buddhists we are morally compelled to act for the welfare of other living beings. Whether you’ve embraced the bodhisattva vows, or you’re purifying your practice with loving-kindness, compassion, or generosity, looking out for numero uno while the rest of the world burns is just not going to cut it.
Our Climate Emergency as a Koan
Third, our response to the eco-crisis is inseparable from our Dharma practice because it is a profound and difficult koan we’re all facing whether we choose to engage it that way or not. What does it mean to engage our ecological and climate emergency as a koan – or, perhaps more appropriately, a whole constellation of koans? It means to recognize in what ways our crisis brings you up against the current limits of your understanding and practice. How do you keep your heart open and avoid seeking escape through denial or distraction? How do you maintain positivity and joy as the world burns? Should you? How do you respond when your instinct for self-preservation is triggered? Humankind has received a terminal diagnosis unless it drastically alters its lifestyle… how does individual responsibility relate to collective responsibility? Where does acceptance and letting go become an abrogation of duty?
In Rinzai Zen lineages, students are assigned classic koans from the Zen literature. “Koan” means “public case,” and classic koans are records of an exchange between a Buddhist teacher and a student, held up as the demonstration of a particular aspect of Dharmic truth or manifestation. In Soto Zen, we say the koan arises in everyday life. In both Soto and Rinzai, a koan presents an obstacle. When we first encounter a koan, it usually seems obscure and impenetrable. We don’t even know what we’re supposed to do with it – move it? Go around it? Awaken to how it’s an illusion? Give up the need to go anywhere else? Jump on top of it? Embrace it? Dismiss it? A response to a koan is enacted with our whole being – body, mind, and heart. An intellectual answer does nothing to budge a koan. Refusing to engage does nothing to budge a koan. The only way to pass a koan is to awaken to a whole new way of being, where it no longer is an obstacle.
In Zen, we identify, engage, and struggle with koans not because we should, or because the ancestors did, or because we’ll impress others. We struggle with koans because, inevitably, there is liberation on the other side of them. A koan points out to us a limitation in our being – and that might be a limitation in our understanding, our compassion, our acceptance, embodiment, skillfulness, equanimity, or freedom. A koan we can’t yet pass points out where we need to grow, and therefore is a precious opportunity.
Our ecological and climate emergency is a massive koan for all of us, forcing us to face our fear of mortality, our resistance to change, our attachment to material comfort and pleasure, our judgments of others, our defensiveness about our personal choices, our fixed sense of ourselves and our society, our ability (or lack thereof) to connect with and cooperate with people who think differently than we do, our conditional optimism, our limited imaginations, our selfishness, our idealism, and our inability to fully appreciate our interdependence with all life. As we face this massive koan, we shouldn’t get waylaid by shame, guilt, judgment, or a sense of inadequacy. I imagine you have done your best up until now, as I have, to be a good, generous, thoughtful, responsible person. This koan just points out our limitations, and therefore our opportunities for growth.
Engaging the eco-crisis as a koan means we have a positive way to grapple with the issues we’re facing, and have a process for bringing our practice tools to bear. As soon as we identify something as a koan, we ennoble it, and ourselves. We shift our focus from our fear, confusion, resistance, and frustration to curiosity about what we can learn and how we can grow. In addition, unlike classical or personal koans, the eco-crisis koan is one we’re all facing together – all of us bear some measure of responsibility for getting ourselves here, and passing this koan as a species will require participation from each and every one of us. A hundred and fifty years of unbridled individualism in industrialized nations has generated karma that’s clearly bearing poisonous fruit; part of passing this koan – if we manage to pass it – will require humanity to come together in a new, unprecedented way, and reawaken our concern for the common good and appreciation of our dependence on nature.
A Real-Life Response to the Koan of Our Climate Emergency
I’m going to tell you the story of my recent arrest for nonviolent civil disobedience at a climate action. I do this not because I’m hoping you’ll think I’m cool, or brave, or noble, or anything like that. On the contrary, I feel kind of uncomfortable talking about this because I think admiration for others can be a hindrance if we put them in a separate category from ourselves and conclude what they’ve done is beyond us. Nothing is beyond us. Or you. Of course, I’m also aware you may not think much of my actions at all, or even disagree with them. If that’s the case, perhaps you can listen to this story simply as a generic example of someone acting on their conscience, and disregard the details.
What I hope you will get out of my story is how responding to a koan in a fruitful and authentic way is a personal, full-body, real-life activity. As such, it can’t be fully communicated by words, and it evades intellectual understanding or black-and-white moral distinctions. In addition, passing or meeting a koan isn’t the end of anything; as soon as we grow past one limitation, we become aware of how much more growth is called for.
So… Bear with me as I give you a few details for context. I’m not assuming you agree with me in this particular issue, but I will go ahead and be clear about my opinions and positions.
On November 21st, I participated in a sit-in at the governor’s office in the Oregon state capitol. The sit-in followed a large demonstration in front of the capitol building, after which the 750-or-so people at the protest filed peacefully into the rotunda, singing together. Then a group of about 75 of us went upstairs and occupied Governor Brown’s ceremonial office.
The whole protest was about demanding Gov. Brown take a public stand in opposition to a proposed fracked gas pipeline and liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminal in southern Oregon. Oregonians have been fighting this project, called Jordan Cove, for almost 15 years. Pembina, the Canadian company behind the project, makes bold predictions about job creation and positive economic impact in the town of Coos Bay, Oregon. Pembina argues that natural gas is a clean and environmentally-friendly source of energy that’s the wave of the future.
In reality, after a brief construction boom, the Jordan Cove project would not provide all that many jobs and the company would get huge tax breaks. The pipeline and terminal would have many negative environmental impacts and be extremely dangerous for those living anywhere near them in the event of a forest fire, earthquake, tsunami, or terrorist attack. (Natural gas pipelines and ships loaded with LNG don’t leak when damaged, they explode.) Not to mention that the project would become one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the state, because while natural gas burns cleanly as a final product, the process of fracking it, transporting it, and liquefying it produces more greenhouse gasses than it’s worth.
Pembina argues their pursuit of profits by selling gas in Asia is in the “public interest,” and therefore asks to be granted eminent domain and allowed to clearcut a 95-ft-wide swath of land and lay an explosive pipeline across private lands, traditional tribal territories, and public forests. Naturally there are people in southern Oregon hoping for an economic benefit from the Jordan Cove project, but the use of eminent domain has led to an unusually diverse coalition of environmentalists, private landowners, ranchers, and indigenous tribe members opposed to the project.
Gov. Brown has been identified as a climate champion, but, so far, she has remained neutral on Jordan Cove, a massive fossil fuel infrastructure project proposed just when we need to be quickly and radically phasing out fossil fuels entirely. While Gov. Brown couldn’t single-handedly stop the project, she has influence over whether it gets the state permits it needs to proceed, and her voice in opposition would carry a lot of weight.
An Opportunity to Participate in Civil Disobedience
When I heard there might be a nonviolent direct action happening in association with the anti-Jordan Cove rally at the capitol, I signed up right away. I’ve always been fascinated by civil disobedience, and by people like Gandhi, Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr, and the many activists in the 20th century who put themselves on the line for women’s suffrage, civil rights, and peace. I feel like I’ve been waiting my whole life for the opportunity to align my body with my beliefs like this. You may question the value of disruptive civil disobedience because of how it may inconvenience or alienate people, but my own heart resonates with this statement from Martin Luther King Jr, composed when he was imprisoned in Birmingham Jail:
“You may well ask: ‘Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?’ You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word ‘tension.’ I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth… The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”
If you participate in well-planned and organized nonviolent direct action, as I did, you will first attend at least one day-long training about how to conduct yourself, the potential risks, and your legal rights. Someone will keep in contact with you about what’s happening, and collect important information from you in order to support you in case of arrest and detainment – emergency contacts, medical needs, etc. There’s usually a support team approaching the potential arrestees in terms of numbers – a police liaison, a media person, someone to make sure protestors have their physical needs met during the action, and many “jail support” people who are present throughout the action and stay nearby during any arrests or detainments, ready to advocate, pick people up upon release, etc. And you are free to change your mind about whether to allow yourself to be arrested up until the last moment, although it’s law enforcement who decides exactly when that “last moment” is.
I was extremely fortunate to have my first experience of civil disobedience planned and supported by experienced, responsible, and incredibly kind and generous people. I had no idea it was so involved. Anyway, I share all of this in case you ever consider participating in nonviolent direct action, but also to let you know I was never scared at any point during this recent experience. Of course, a large part of that is also my privilege as a white person – sadly, if I was a person of color, I think I would have been quite concerned about any encounter with law enforcement. As unfair as that situation is, though, this seemed like a good use of my privilege.
Occupying the Governor’s Office
So… on to my personal, physical experience of this nonviolent direct action, for the sake of illustrating this as one of my personal, physical responses to the koan of the climate emergency.
A little after noon, we were swept elegantly into the governor’s office by the power of 750 voices united in song: “We have got the power… we have got the power… we have got the power… it’s in the hands of us all.” (Click here to listen!) The melody echoed throughout the massive capitol rotunda, urging us on. The office wasn’t large, but around 75 of us managed to squeeze into it. It wasn’t the governor’s working office, it was the ceremonial space where she signs bills and such, but our point was clear. The governor wasn’t in, of course; she was at an appointment hours away, which didn’t strike any of us as coincidence given the Jordan Cove demonstration had been on the calendar for at least a month. We chanted and sang while several state troopers looked on impassively.
The room grew hot and stuffy (another situation that was probably not a coincidence), but we occupied the governor’s office for eight hours. I was amazed that the time flew by quickly and easily; everyone present felt motivated and inspired. Various folks, including affected landowners and tribal members, got up, one by one, to give rousing speeches. We spent well over an hour going around the room hearing from each and every person about where they were from and why they were there. Mysterious benefactors brought sandwiches and pizza, so we took breaks to eat, socialize, and relax. Thankfully, the troopers let us leave the room to use the bathrooms down the hall and then return, even after the capitol building closed at 5:30pm.
Several times, the governor’s chief of staff bravely emerged from the real office – the entrance to which was securely guarded by the troopers – to speak to us. He insisted he had no authority to speak on the governor’s behalf or on policy, but he wanted to listen. We were polite but firm in our response that we would willingly leave with nothing less than the governor taking a public stand against Jordan Cove. At one point, the chief of staff connected us to Gov. Brown by speaker phone. We said our piece, but she explained that it was not her place to take a position, that there were processes in place that needed to be followed, that the people who disagreed with us were voters too, etc. To her credit, the governor appeared in person around 9pm, but only repeated her cautious political message. I didn’t have the opportunity to say anything at the time, but later I reflected on the governor’s response and how women’s suffrage and civil rights would never have been achieved it we’d simply appealed to the usual political processes.
Criminal Trespass in the 2nd Degree
After the governor left, the chief of staff and the state troopers emphasized it was time to go. We sorted ourselves into those who were ready to go, and those who were going to stay even if it meant arrest. By that point in the evening there were about 50 people in the room, not including the cops. Those who decided to leave gave hugs and encouragement to those who decided to stay, and then we were given our final warning to exit the building or be charged with criminal trespass. Twenty-one of us joined hands, sat down on the floor, and began to sing. Four fully-armed state troopers stood facing us for the next two hours, impressively impassive given the fact that we were singing, joking, and talking amongst ourselves. One trooper standing slightly behind us for part of the time did have a few exchanges with us, and let us know, in response to our audible speculation, that, yes, indeed, most of the troopers were getting overtime for being there.
Between 9 and 11 pm, we were repeatedly read a formal warning to leave the building. The statement was delivered in a stern, robotic monotone by one of the troopers posted in the office, who at a certain point in the statement would gesture ceremoniously toward the doors, as if he were a scary flight attendant. Each time the statement was read and we refused to respond, a pair of troopers emerged from the hallway, approached one of us, and asked us to stand. They then led their chosen individual into the hall, where we could only assume they were formally arrested. It felt a little like we were a flock of birds being picked off one by one. As each person was being led away, we sang for them: “Sandy… our friend. You do not walk alone. We will… walk with you. And sing your spirit home.” Even now it’s difficult for me to sing this without crying; the solidarity it demonstrated was so moving and beautiful.
Probably because I cut an odd figure with my bald head, priest robes, and gold rakusu, I was the last person to be taken, along with my Buddhist friend Guy. We forgot to sing for one another; it’s pretty distracting being led away by state troopers. I was taken into the hallway and put in zip-tie cuffs. I was read my rights as they walked me slowly and gently down the stairs of the capitol rotunda, which was minimally lit in the night and quite beautiful. As I descended the stairs, it struck me that, at that moment, for the first time in my adult life, I was entirely free from cognitive dissonance – the mental and emotional discomfort we experience when our beliefs and our behavior are out of sync.
At a folding table set up near the back doors of the building, a seated officer wrote my name on a form while the other officers attempted to empty my pockets. My priest’s robe didn’t have pockets, of course; instead it had large, droopy sleeves in which you can carry all kinds of belongings. It took the troopers a while to figure out how to empty my sleeves – I’d give anything for a video of that scene, it would definitely go viral. At that point they took my rakusu and put it in an evidence bag with my ID, some cash, a handkerchief, and a Cliff bar. Then I was led out through the doors and greeted by a whole group of jail support people who had been waiting for hours out in the freezing cold to cheer and sing for each one of us as we were led out. I didn’t expect the whole thing to be so much about human connection and community.
The next stop was a jail bus, parked right outside the building, where we were quickly reunited with all the fellow arrestees for whom we’d sung a sentimental farewell. Many of the folks in the governor’s office had vied for being arrested sooner than later, in the interest of getting it all over with – but an early arrest had only meant they had to sit in the police van in cuffs for an extra long time! The cuffs were definitely the worst part, by far, for me: I have tiny wrists and the cuffs were thick with sharp edges, and my hands and arms started to go numb. Thankfully, once we were driven to the county jail, my fellow arrestees took pity on me and requested that I be one of the first people processed and therefore let out of the cuffs.
A Night in the County Jail for Our Climate Emergency
At the jail we were stripped down to one layer of clothing, not including underwear. Everything we were wearing, including our shoes, was put into a bag and labeled. All twelve women were put in a single cell – an austere room about 10’ by 12’ with yellow concrete walls and five, thin, grimy, plastic-covered pads on the floor. The men were put in with the general jail population, so they had a colorful cast of characters parade throughout their night in jail. In the women’s cell we spent a little time trying to sleep, but mostly it was like a surreal slumber party, with everyone tired but also wired and giddy. At one point we all had to laugh heartily when we sat facing one another, silent, seated on the mattress pads with our backs against the cold concrete walls, and one of the women quietly quoted a line that’s often repeated energetically at protests, “This is what democracy looks like!” The line sounds defiant in the middle of a big rally, but at 3am in a jail cell it was more of an objective observation.
Around 3:30 or 4am they started processing us one at a time – taking our fingerprints and mug shots, and getting details for our paperwork. At 5am they gave us our stuff back, let us get dressed, and released us on our own recognizance into the freezing cold. Notably, the only reason they released us before 8am was because we had people committed to picking us up. We took a triumphant picture together outside the jail, and then divided up into waiting cars to be ferried to hotels or to our own vehicles, which we had parked in a residential area near the capitol. It all felt strangely anticlimactic, but we looked forward to a reunion at our communal court date of Dec. 20th, when we’d all have to come back to the county court house and find out what was going to happen next.
It turns out we didn’t end up meeting again on Dec. 20th, however, because the county DA dropped the criminal charges against all 21 of us, ostensibly to avoid wasting public resources on our prosecution, but also probably to minimize bad press for the governor. The charges being dropped is good news in a way, but I would have liked to be reunited with the people I shared this incredible experience with. There were so many of us, I didn’t even manage to memorize everyone’s name. To refresh my memory, a few dates after the action I reviewed the county jail’s inmate roster for Nov 21st and 22nd, picking out the mug shots and names of my collaborators from the rest of the folks in jail that night, making sure I found all 21 of us.
My Actions as a Response to a Koan
How was all of this my response to a koan? For me, this was about following up on my aspirations and ideals with action. Ideals are one thing, actualizing them is quite another. Compassion, selflessness, generosity, sacrifice, bravery, equanimity – all of these things are relatively easy and pure when we sit in our armchair – or on our meditation cushion – and enshrine them in our mind! Putting these lovely aspirations into action is challenging, messy, awkward, slow, ambiguous, and inevitably involves other human beings, who always have their own ideas about how things should go. Things never turn out the way we think they will. Actions undertaken with the best of intentions may or may not end up being of benefit, and even if they are beneficial, that benefit is usually difficult to measure or define. For example, as glad as we were to have stood up for what we believe in by occupying Gov. Brown’s office, what did it actually achieve? Maybe some consciousness raising through the media? Maybe Gov. Brown will be a tiny bit more likely to take behind-the-scenes measures to thwart Jordan Cove?
In some sense, our ideals and aspirations reflect the absolute aspect of reality. By this, I don’t mean our particular views about right and wrong, good and bad. Instead, I mean the way our convictions of oneness and interdependence and self-transcendence and beauty and truth inspire us to set aside our self-concern in order to serve the greater good. Sometimes it can feel like the absolute aspect of reality is beautiful and pure, while the relative aspect of reality – flesh-and-blood, everyday manifestation – is a necessary evil. Why do so many noble, sincere, and selfless actions taken to change the world for the better barely register in the grand scheme of things? The scale of our love and aspiration can feel infinite, but so often, despite our best intentions, the repercussions of our actions seem to amount to little more than a whimper.
And yet… as the Zen teachings emphasize, absolute and relative are not opposed to one another. Reality is not a pure and ethereal realm of ideals that ends up compromised or defiled upon manifestation. Reality is a dynamic unfolding that can be seen as having two complimentary aspects. Our disembodied ideals of compassion and selflessness aren’t real apart from manifestation, and actualization of those ideals isn’t separate from their pure and inspiring beauty. In other words, the rewards of being fully alive require us to throw ourselves into the place of tension between absolute and relative, ideal and actual.
Until I actually enacted my life-long dream of participating in civil disobedience for a cause I truly believe in, my love for the Earth and her wondrous beings remained, to some extent, two-dimensional. My willingness to sacrifice my own comfort for the sake of what I see as the greater good remained largely theoretical. Having acted at least once, my sense of the world and the role I can play in it is richer, three-dimensional, more complex and nuanced. Alongside my enshrined ideals are the memory of real, live people who waited in the cold to sing for me, spent the night in jail with me, and gently rolled my fingers back and forth on the digital touchpad that captured my prints in jail. My moments of doubt are no longer spent alone in a deserted library of opinions, but are challenged by the auditory memory of hundreds of people singing in the capitol rotunda.
All of this was just one response to the koan of our ecological and climate emergency. It won’t, and can’t, be my last. This podcast episode is another response. We don’t know whether our responses are beneficial until we enact them and see how the world responds, but we can know when they are utterly sincere expressions of our inmost being. We can know when we have faced a challenge with courage. We will know when we have grown.
 King, Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” 1963. https://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/documents/Letter_Birmingham_Jail.pdf