Monday, August 17, 2015

Thanissara - Time to Stand Up: An Engaged Buddhist Manifesto for Our Earth (A Review)

Thanissara - Time to Stand Up: An Engaged Buddhist Manifesto for Our Earth -- The Buddha's Life and Message through Feminine Eyes

(To be published on August 18, 2015 - Pre-order at the Amazon link above for $7.47)

About the Author
Thanissara and her husband Kittisaro (Harry Randolph Weinberg) are the founders of Dharmagiri Hermitage in South Africa, from where they support several HIV/AIDS Outreach Programs and help guide and fund-raise for Kulungile Care Center for orphaned and vulnerable children and teenagers.  Thanisarra and Kittisaro are authors of Listening to the Heart: A Contemplative Journey to Engaged Buddhism (2014).

Thanissara grew up in an extended Anglo-Irish family in London, attending Southampton College of Art and traveling extensively in Asia in the 1970s. Also inspired by Ajahn Chah, she spent 12 years as a Buddhist nun in Thailand. She holds an MA in Mindfulness-Based Psychotherapy Practice from Middlesex University and the Karuna Institute in the U.K. and co-facilitates the Community Dharma Leader Program at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California.
[NOTE: This book was sent to me by the publisher (free) with the hope that I would review it, favorably. I never make any promises in that regard. When I do review a book sent to me, it's because I think it is a good book.]

The life of the Buddha has been told so many times by so many people, and in so many different ways, from mythic and magical versions to a very secular version (from Stephen Batchelor), but never has it been told in the context of environmental change and from a feminine perspective.

In the Buddha's time, women were included among his followers and students, but in the following centuries, women were often excluded from those schools erected to perpetuate the Buddha's teachings.

From the Introduction:
This is a book I would have preferred not to write. I would have liked to write something lighter, happier, and more innocent. I would have liked to walk you through a serene wooded landscape, but instead I ask you to look with me at a burnt and tortured Earth and its polluted rivers, dying oceans, razed forests, devastated wastelands, and its litany of extinct species.
This is a book about awakening to the reality of the planet we live on, the pain, the suffering, the devastation, and not blinking, not looking away, not putting it off for the next generation to deal with. It is a book about reality.
The journey of awakening is not an incense-scented walk through a bed of roses--it wasn't for the Buddha, and it's not for us. It's a demanding look at reality. The reality we now face is climate chaos and devastation, an edge that is increasingly hard to move back from. (p. 45)
Buddhism has long had a reputation of being little more than navel gazing. Perhaps that has been fair, perhaps it has not been fully accurate. After all, the Bodhisattva Vow promises to save all beings.
Beings are numberless, I vow to save them
Desires are inexhaustible, I vow to end them
Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them
Buddha's way is unsurpassable, I vow to become it.
In our time, we know that animals are also sentient beings, however great or small. For this reason, most Buddhists are vegetarian. In Seven Years in Tibet, we see Tibetan Buddhist Monks breaking ground for a building and they worry about harming the worms. They too are beings.

An engaged Buddhist approach to saving our planet may rightfully claim that vegetarianism is a necessary part of that agenda. Approximately 36 football fields worth of forest is cut down every minute, and we have lost 17% of the Amazonian Rainforest over the last 50 years, primarily to convert the land to cattle farming.

The meat industry, according to a 2006 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), causes more greenhouse gases - carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, nitrous oxide, and the like - to spew into the atmosphere than either transportation or industry. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA),
livestock burping, flatulence and manure was the source of more than 13 million tons of methane gas in 2004, compared with the EPA’s estimate of 9.7 million tons, according to a study published last month in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres

SCIMACHY measurements showed oil and gas industries released 7 million tons of methane gas into the atmosphere, compared to the EPA’s estimate of 9.9 million tons.
Methane gas is the second most common gas that is associated with global warming, after CO2.

Not only does the meat industry destroy our environment but, as mentioned above, animals are sentient creatures. Buddhists vow to cause no suffering and, in fact, to alleviate suffering as much as we are able.
The most painful, the very worst of our madness, is the utterly sadistic and callous treatment of billions of animals and sea creatures caught in our consumer machinery. Animals are sentient, feeling beings with family structures, intelligence, emotions, memories, and needs, just like us. (p. 122)
I eat meat. I have struggle from time to time with this practice, but I have rationalized it in light of humans being omnivores. I have also rationalized it in terms of my protein needs as an active male who lifts weights seriously and often. I have tried to switch to grass-fed, organically raised, and locally sourced meat, in an effort to limit the damage my diet produces.

However, having read this book, and in light of who I feel I am becoming in my life, I am seriously questioning my lifestyle. Meat is a lifestyle choice, since there are many ways to get adequate protein without eating meat.

But, then, do I give up cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, eggs, and whey protein? Do I stop consuming all products sourced from animals? This is a much harder choice, but maybe it is the only moral choice.

To be fair, this is a First World problem, in as much as so many others in this world barely get enough food, let alone protein, to survive. It's easy to be blind to our own privilege. 
As practitioners and Sanghas following the great inclusiveness at the heart of the Buddha's Sangha, we must understand, particularly in the U.S. and Europe, how our colonial histories have set the stage for white privilege and class entitlement to permeate our communities and permit us to develop many blind spots. In making the invisible, visible, we can learn how we subtly perpetuate a dynamic that excludes or diminishes participation of people of color and those who are economically marginalized. (p. 156)
Thanisarra outlines four domains in which we must work together as one people to save our planet: (1) Keep carbon in the ground, (2) Sequester the remaining carbon in favor of alternative energy sources, (3) Massive investment in and education about renewable energy sources, and (4) Move toward a plant-based diet (p. 158-159).
We now need a collaborative global movement on a scale never before seen in the history of humankind to ensure these outcomes. We are not only advocating climate action, but also recognizing that this is the moment to actualize a truly more equitable and just society. ... The intensity of our times invites us to shift our way of thinking, the choices we make as "consumers," and the awareness we bring to each part of our personal lives. 

The Buddhist way isn't to tell people what they should do, but to lead by example. (p. 159)
This is a book that forced me to look at my choices, and quite possibly to make profound changes in my life. Perhaps it will do the same for you.

About the Book (from the publisher)

Time to Stand Up retells the story of the historical Buddha, one of the greatest sacred activists of all time, as a practical human being whose teachings of freedom from suffering are more relevant than ever in this time of global peril. Evolving onward from the patriarchal template of spiritual warriors and their quests, former nun Thanissara explores awakening from within a feminine view where the archetypes of lover and nurturer are placed as central and essential for a sustainable world.

Vital is an investigation into the pinnacle of Buddhist practice, the realization of the "liberated heart." Thanissara questions the narrative of "transcendence" and invites us into the lived reality of our deepest heart as it guides our journey of healing, reclamation, and redemption. As the book unfolds, the author examines traditional Buddhism--often fraught with gender discrimination--and asks the important question, "Can Buddhist schools, overly attached to hierarchal power structures, and often divorced from the radical and free inquiry exemplified by the Buddha, truly offer the ground for maturing awakening without undertaking a fundamental review of their own shadows?"

Chapter by chapter, the book relates Siddhartha Gautama's awakening to the sea-change occurring on Earth in present time as we as a civilization become aware of the ethical bankruptcy of the nuclear and fossil fuel industry and the psychopathic corporate and military abuse of power currently terrorizing our planet. Thanissara relates the Buddha's story to real-life individuals who are living through these transitional times, such as Iraq war veterans, First Nation People, and the Dalai Lama. Time to Stand Up gives examples of the Buddha's activism, such as challenging a racist caste system and violence against animals, stopping war, transforming a serial killer, and laying down a nonhierarchical structure of community governance, actions that would seem radical even today.

Thanissara explores ways forward, deepening our understanding of meditation and mindfulness, probing its use to pacify ourselves as the cogs in the corporate world by helping people be more functional in a dysfunctional systems--and shows how these core Buddhist practices can inspire a wake-up call for action for our sick and suffering planet Earth.
This book is part of the Scared Activism series from North Atlantic Books.