Having navigated for so many years by the maps of my mentors, I now steer my own course – infusing the old with wisdom appropriate to the new issues of our changing times. The ancient monastic code that I honour remains the cornerstone of my life but I will not grow wise adhering to it blindly or literally. Just being able to keep a set of rules is no barometer of spiritual integrity.
Core to my training has been self-inquiry. I must apply rigorous and unremitting introspection, weighing the karma of every choice I make and its effects on others as well as myself. To be morally accountable, I constantly ask, “Am I living with awareness? Gratitude? Commitment? Compassion?”
But these questions now fall short. It is no longer enough to be aware, grateful, committed, and compassionate – sitting under a tree meditating to purify my mind – when the trees, earth, air, and water are endangered. I may have let go worldly aims and values, but I cannot abdicate my individual responsibility to humankind nor ignore the imminent danger of global warming to our planet. Threatened with a tipping point of unprecedented ecological collapse, it is incomprehensible that I should pursue my spiritual goals as if all were well.
Some Buddhists speaking to me about climate change preach impermanence, “We’re all going to die anyway,” – a logic true, but also spurious and unthinking. What it really suggests is that “It’s not my problem.” But it is. Today this is not someone else’s problem. Our moral imperative is not only to be aware of the karma of our personal choices but of our undeniable connection to a shared human predicament. When illness strikes we seek medical help immediately; when our home is on fire, we rush to put it out: we have to engage.
As a nun, I live simply and ethically by rules that prescribe and proscribe every last detail of my life – not just the practice of mendicancy, wearing the robe, and being bald but down to shaving my eyebrows. This contrasts with contemporary society’s vigorous celebration of personal freedom – at great cost: the breakdown of family leading to a constellation of social illnesses as well as soaring material excess and self-indulgence.
Caught as I am in the net of so strict a code, still I have the freedom to choose well – and also, to deal with the repercussions when I fail to do so. Though my Rule separates me from current affairs and politics and bars me from voting, I have a voice. And the power to make changes in my own life, however small – aware that, as much as I am intrinsically part of this problem – I also have an active role in its remedy.
I question choices that until now seemed harmless – like air travel. How do I reconcile flying half way around the world to lead retreats for a few dozen meditators when other teachers are available in the same city? My core precepts have to be the ground for ethical as well as socially responsible decisions. What is not killing, not stealing, and not misusing our senses if in keeping precepts literally I fail to protect life? Not just that of the wretched mosquito whining in my ear – but also the very ecosystems upon which we all depend.
In seemingly insignificant ways, our mere existence encroaches and creates pressure on the environment: driving vehicles, heating or cooling our homes, purchasing over-packaged and disposable goods, even the foods we choose to eat. Already, the bees are disappearing. How will our crops be pollinated and sufficient food grown for a burgeoning population? What changes can I adopt in my own life to counter the momentum of greed, aggression, ignorance, and waste that have led us to this crisis?
We take the first step by realising the need to live more simply. This means not only getting rid of material things but also modifying our own – as well as our children’s – habits and expectations, reining back some of our comforts to reverse the heedless destruction of our habitat.
Can we consume and demand less? Filter our own and give up buying bottled water? Eat local produce in season without importing from every part of the world? Not replace our cars, computers, digital cameras, and mobile phones every year just to sport the latest model? Can we begin to understand the difference between what we want and what we truly need?
Our own health and wellbeing are inextricably linked to the social and ecological health of the world. We can bring healing but not without initiating personal changes that require sacrifice and scrupulous attention to the smallest details of our lives. We start with signs that we care for our community – as simple as fixing a broken window.*
One sustainable project, consistently attended to, declares an honest commitment to repair the world. It restores us to wholeness, to what is noble in our hearts. And offers a palpable example and catalyst for others to do the same – not out of idealism nor just to impress or feel good – but because that is our only hope.
What legacy can we possibly leave our children as we casually continue to exhaust the planet’s resources? We have the freedom to choose well and safeguard our survival – but little time left to do so. It may already be too late to pull ourselves back from the brink. Still we must do all we can – for if not now, when?
© Ayyā Medhānandī