A Buddhist View of Conservation
All images in this article are © Brad Meiklejohn
By Brad Meiklejohn
“Beings are numberless. I vow to save them all.” – Bodhisatva Vow
The Buddha was born 2,600 years ago under a tree, he became enlightened under a tree, he lived and taught under trees and he expired under a tree. The roots of Buddhism, so to speak, are in the trees. In Thailand, forest-dwelling monks still wrap their robes around the eldest trees to keep them from being cut down.
The Buddhist commitment to non-harming is widely known. What else might Buddhism have to teach us about conservation? At a time of great anxiety over the state of the planet, shifting our perspective can clarify our view of the path ahead. We teach what we need to learn, so what follows is as much for me as for the benefit of others.
I have worked in conservation for the past 30 years, often driven by a sense of loss and a determination to check further losses. I am acutely aware of what we have lost from wild America in just the last century – most of our wild salmon, many of our birds, and much of the wild country that shaped the American character. My main drive in conservation has been to leave the world better than I found it, which is darn near impossible anymore!
Like many people who work in conservation, I struggle with overwhelm, with frustration, with despair, and the crushing sense that our best efforts are never enough. Burnout in conservation is almost a tautology. The low pay, endless stress, and relentless bad news drive people to escape into other professions or other lives.
Wild country has always been a refuge for me. Long trips in wild places, to be amongst the wild creatures in the remaining deep forests and vast open places, remind me of why my work matters. These wild pilgrimages are not available to everyone, and, as I age, are less available to me. Fortunately, my deepening exposure to Buddhism provides me with an alternate refuge that is always close at hand.
Before you check out, turned off by what you expect to be either a religious sales pitch or beatific platitudes about loving the oneness, consider this: the Buddha was the original activist devoted to saving all living beings.
The Buddha taught two things: the cause of suffering, and the end of suffering. This is not the depressing message that it seems. In fact, understanding the cause of suffering is the path to the end of suffering.
We suffer when we expect the world to be different from the way it is. “It shouldn’t be this way” is the perennial lament of conservationists. Here in the western world we are trained to be discerning, and we deploy our discernment to pick out all the things that are wrong in the world. And when we start looking, we start finding: climate chaos, species extinction, and the familiar list of worldly woes. It has long been this way, as the Roman historian Tirulean observed in 150 AD:
All parts of the earth are built over, trampled, full of commerce. Farms and fields drive back the forests. Even rocks are cultivated. Swamps are drained. Today’s towns outnumber yesterday’s houses. Everywhere on earth are residences, peoples, governments and human growth so clogs the world it can barely support us. And as our needs increase we struggle with each other for them and nature fails us.
When we hold an idealized view of the how the world should be, our happiness and satisfaction rest on an unattainable perfect future state. “If only we could stop the Pebble mine…if only we could save the Arctic Refuge…if only so-and-so were not president.” But “if only…” is a future that never arrives. Even when our wishes come true, we find something else to despair over, some other “if only” to pin our hopes on. Our default mode of finding faults has a corrosive effect on all aspects of our life.
Yet the world is the way it is. The world will always be imperfect. The world is not here to make us happy nor will it ever be the way we want it to be. How could it be otherwise? There are nearly 8 billion people who want the world to be a certain way, and only one world.
When we don’t accept things as they are, we suffer. This suffering comes in various forms for conservationists: frustration, outrage, anger, disappointment, despair, resentment, and stress are common among us. To be clear, we create this suffering. It is our choice to be frustrated, angry, or resentful, yet these states of mind do nothing to improve the situation and render us less effective. “The world is not coming at you, it is coming from you” as the Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh says. What we think and feel is what we project. “With our thoughts we create the world,” said the Buddha.
The Buddhist way is not a path of resignation, however. It is a path of radical acceptance of things as they are. “It’s like this now” is a helpful refrain that short-circuits anger, frustration and despair. Acceptance can easily lead to indifference, though, unless it is harnessed to a higher purpose, such as the Bodhisatva aspiration “Beings are numberless. I vow to save them all.” The magnitude of this ambition, in full view of reality, takes the pressure off an impossible task. We do the work because it is the right thing to do, not to finish the job. Our path is endless. There is nothing to achieve and nowhere to go.
We cannot control the results of our efforts. The only thing we can truly control is our intention. When our intentions are wholesome, our work will produce wholesome results. If our actions are tinged with greed, hatred or delusion, we will reap the consequences. Dishonesty and deceit will undermine our own work. We can rest in the knowledge that those who pillage the environment will reap their karma, and we will inherit our own.
As conservationists we spend a lot of time communicating. I have often heard it said that we are conversationalists more than conservationists. But how are we communicating? Many conservationists come across as shrill, pedantic and righteous — not particularly attractive traits. What is the intention of our communication? Are we aiming to win, to convince, to belittle, to impress, to gain attention or are we merely stating what we know to be true? We must clearly set our intention before we communicate.
The Buddha placed particular importance on right speech, which for our purposes encompasses all forms of communication, including texts, tweets, phone calls, emails, grant applications, memos and letters. The Buddha defined right speech as speech that is true, timely, beneficial, endearing and agreeable. He placed special emphasis on truthfulness: “For the person who lies, there is no evil he might not do.” The German philosopher Nietzche said: “It’s not that you lied that bothers me. It’s that now I can never trust you.” Is all of our speech impeccably true, or do we exaggerate or shade the truth to bolster our side of the story? Is our speech harsh or divisive, or is our speech pleasing and intended to bring others together? Gossip, idle chatter, useless talk and speculation, all forms of wrong speech, were encompassed by the onomatopoetic term “sampapalapa” in the Pali language of the Buddha’s time.
Conservationists often divide the world into “us” and “them.” “They” are the problem and “we” have the solution. “If only they weren’t so greedy…so selfish…so ignorant…so lazy.” But there is no them, just us. We are all 99.99% the same. We all have the same impulses, emotions, and desires. We all want what is best for us and we all have our own answers to what is best for us. The Buddha identified the delusion of a separate self as a root problem, and today we are witnessing an epidemic of self that manifests in widespread anxiety, depression, drug addiction, and suicide. Our actions as conservationists should be selfless not selfish. By acting from compassion and generosity we transcend the polarization of “us” and “them.”
David Brower, a legend in conservation said, “All our victories are temporary and all of our defeats are permanent.” We know that conservation work requires (to borrow from another conservation legend, Brock Evans) relentless pressure, relentlessly applied, as we often fight the same battles over and over. The Buddha observed that impermanence is one of the three immutable characteristics of life. Change is constant; nothing lasts. “It is a bold thing for a human being who lives on the earth but a few score years at the most to presume upon the Eternal and covet perpetuity for any of his undertakings,” said wilderness warrior Howard Zahnhiser. We cannot ever achieve a permanent state of perfection or protection, and even the most devastating defeats give rise to future opportunities.
Conservation is a relay race, not a sprint, with the baton of obligation passed from one generation to the next. We cannot save all there is to save in our lifetimes. Trying to do too much too fast and too often brings on the dis-ease of “busy-ness.” Ask a fellow conservationist how they are and, more often than not, you get back the response: “Busy.” Busy has become the modern badge of self-worth, as if by proclaiming our busy-ness we fend off the nagging worry that we are not doing enough.
I would prescribe three things for modern conservationists: gratitude, immersion in nature, and meditation. Like a border collie that needs a job, we can give our discerning minds the task of finding what is right with the world, rather than all that is wrong. A daily gratitude practice of, say, making a list of five things you are grateful for, will bring benefits to your work and your life.
“Save it because you love it,” says western Dharma teacher Jack Kornfield. But you have to know it before you love it. I am always dismayed by how little time modern conservationists spend in wild nature. Every person working in conservation should take at least one 10-day trip into wild nature each year. And get paid to do it. Shorter trips just don’t cut it because it takes several days just to disconnect from the buzz of the modern world and reconnect with the slower, deeper rhythms of nature.
Deep time in the wildness will ground you in reality and will defuse the hecticity that renders most of us too distracted to be effective. Meditation provides the same grounding, and is a portable refuge that will make you more patient, more caring, more present, less angry, less stressed and less prone to burnout. If that is not enough, the Buddha also assured that mediation would improve your complexion, help you sleep better and draw rare, shy animals near! Don’t just take my word, or the Buddha’s. See for yourself.
Caring for the planet is a noble profession, meeting the definition of right livelihood as espoused by the Buddha. Professions such as ours that are based in generosity, honesty and ethical conduct, that are performed for the well-being of others, are practices of right livelihood. We are privileged to work for the benefit of the planet, and we have much in common with the monks who wrap cherished trees with their robes. “So long as they venerate their elders, assemble in harmony, respect their women, and protect their sacred places, only growth is to be expected for them, not decline” said the Buddha.
May it be so.
Brad Meiklejohn directed The Conservation Fund’s work in Alaska for a quarter century, saving hundreds of thousands of acres of wildlife habitat. He still works part-time with The Conservation Fund but is taking extra time to pack-raft remote rivers and explore wild country. Brad’s previous articles in Rewilding Earth addressed the need for a wildlife crossing at Bowman Divide in northern New Hampshire, dangers to Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and the successful story of dam removal on the Eklutna River. Brad is a member of our Rewilding Leadership Council.