Cultivating insight and equanimity supports what is most distinctive and powerful about spiritual activism: the bodhisattva acts without attachment to the results of action. Aphorism 28 of the Tibetan lojong training offers a classic formulation: “Abandon any hope of fruition. Don’t get caught up in how you will be in the future; stay in the present moment.”
I refer to “spiritual activism” rather than Buddhist activism because this principle is also an essential aspect of karma yoga in the most important Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita: “Your right is to the work, never to the fruits. Be neither motivated by the fruits of action nor inclined to give up action” (2:47).
"The bodhisattva acts without attachment to the results of action."
Yet acting without attachment is easily misunderstood, suggesting a casual attitude. “Yes, our local power company needs to convert from coal to renewables. We organized and protested for a while, but there was a lot of resistance. It just didn’t work. But that’s okay, because what’s important are the intentions behind our actions, not the results.” That approach will never bring about the changes that are necessary, because it misses the point about what nonattachment really means.
To begin with, consider the difference between a marathon and a 100-meter dash. When you run a 100-meter race, the only thing that matters is sprinting to the goal as quickly as possible. You don’t have time to think about anything else. But you can’t run a marathon that way, because you’ll soon exhaust yourself. Instead, you follow the course without fixating on the goal line somewhere far ahead. If you run in the right direction you will eventually get there, but in the process you need to focus on being here and now, just this step, just this step . . . There is a Japanese term for it: tada, “just this!”
"In the process you need to focus on being here and now, just this step, just this step..."
Dharma friends who do marathons tell me that this attitude can lead to a “runner’s high,” when the running becomes effortless. This is a taste of what Daoists call wei wu wei—literally, “the action of nonaction.” When the (sense of) self temporarily merges or becomes one with what the physical body is doing, one’s usual sense of dualistic effort disappears: the mind is no longer willing or pushing the body.
This type of nonaction does not mean doing nothing. The runner does not give up and sit by the side of the road in the belief that there’s really no need to go anywhere. Instead, the running is a kind of “nonrunning” inasmuch as one is not rejecting the present moment in favor of a goal that will be achieved sometime in the future. Nonetheless, one is approaching the goal because one is doing what is needed right now: just this!
"One is approaching the goal because one is doing what is needed right now: just this!"
That is one aspect of nonattachment to the results of action, but there is more involved. Although a marathon is a long race, sooner or later one reaches the end and stops. What about a path with no end, with a task so difficult that it is difficult not to become discouraged?
In Japanese Zen temples, practitioners daily recite the four “bodhisattva vows.” The first is to help all living beings awaken: “Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to liberate them all.” If we really understand what this commitment involves, how can we avoid feeling overwhelmed? We are vowing to do something that cannot possibly be accomplished. Is that just crazy—or what?
That the vow cannot be fulfilled is not the problem but the very point. Since it can’t be achieved, what the vow really calls for is reorienting the meaning of one’s life, from our usual self-preoccupation to primary concern for the well-being of everyone. On a day-to-day level, what becomes important is not the unattainable goal but the direction of one’s efforts—a direction that in this case orients us without providing any endpoint. What does that imply about how we respond to the eco-crisis? Someone who has already volunteered for a job that is literally impossible is not going to be intimidated by challenges because they sometimes appear hopeless!
"That the vow cannot be fulfilled is not the problem but the very point."
No matter how momentous the task of working with others to try to save global civilization from destroying itself, that is nonetheless a small subset of what the bodhisattva has committed to doing. No matter what happens, we are not discouraged—well, not for long, at least. We may need a few mindful breaths first, but then we dust ourselves off and get on with it. That’s because this vow goes beyond any attachment to any particular accomplishment—or defeat. When our efforts are successful, it’s time to move on to the next thing. When they’re not successful, we keep trying—indefinitely. Once we realize our nonduality with other people and with this magnificent planet that takes care of us all, we don’t want to do anything else. It becomes our passion and our joy
"No matter what happens, we are not discouraged—well, not for long, at least."
This article is an excerpt from Ecodharma: Buddhist Teachings for the Ecological Crisis by David Loy.
This landmark work is simultaneously a manifesto, a blueprint, a call to action, and a deep comfort for troubling times. David R. Loy masterfully lays out the principles and perspectives of Ecodharma—the Buddhist response to our ecological predicament, a new term for a new development of the Buddhist tradition.
This book emphasizes the three aspects of Ecodharma:
- practicing in the natural world,
- exploring the ecological implications of Buddhist teachings,
- and embodying that understanding in the eco-activism that is needed today.
Offering a compelling framework and practical spiritual resources, Loy outlines the Ecosattva Path, a path of liberation and salvation for all beings and the world itself.
Prepare to be inspired, motivated, and encouraged.
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