Professor of Buddhism, Jim Blumenthal, recollects his early days as an activist for the environmental non-profit Greenpeace and considers the Buddhist philosophical imperatives to bringing witness to injustice …
Let me begin with a confession. Though I was quite active in the environmental movement in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s (I worked full-time for the international environmental group, Greenpeace, for four and a half years, and was arrested more than ten times for non-violent acts of civil disobedience in defense of the planet), other than conscious living, I have not done a whole lot recently. The inner-activist in me feels guilty.
I was already a Buddhist during my environmental activist days. I saw environmental activism as Dharma activity. After all, the Buddhist notion of dependent-origination, the idea that all phenomena arise in dependence on an interwoven web of causes and conditions resonates quite well with the basic tenets of deep ecology. When we harm one living being, we – directly or indirectly – harm all living beings. As a Buddhist practicing in the Mahayana tradition, had I not committed to care and work for the well-being of all living beings? Is that not the responsibility that one training to become a bodhisattva accepts?
I found that this Buddhist sense of personal responsibility resonated also with a tenet put forth in the Quaker faith – that we have a responsibility to bear witness, and help to bring the witness of our community to the injustices that we are aware of that are harming living beings. The more people in society who are aware of an injustice, the less likely it is that society as a whole will allow it to continue. There is a profound democratic sentiment underlying this idea….
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James Blumenthal is an Associate Professor of Buddhist Philosophy at Oregon State University and a Professor of Buddhist History and Tibetan Language at Maitripa Institute in Portland, Oregon.