Last summer, I assisted Joseph Goldstein, founder of Insight Meditation Society and author of One Dharma, on a weeklong vipassana retreat at Vallecitos Mountain Refuge in New Mexico. One of the retreatants was Paul Hawken, the environmentalist, lecturer, entrepreneur, journalist and author. I felt honored both to assist Joseph and to share the dharma with Paul. It suddenly occurred to me that these two men were heroes of the two streams of my own life: the spiritual and political. Together at this retreat, they physically represented for me the synthesis of socially engaged Buddhism. I imagined having the two of them meet in dialogue to discuss this intersection of dharma, ecology, sustainability and the future of our planet. So a few weeks later on a sunny afternoon in Mill Valley, California, the following conversation ensued. —Diana Winston
Diana Winston: Let’s begin with you, Paul. How has your spiritual practice informed your views and your actions in the political-social-business worlds?
Paul Hawken: I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and my father worked with the East Asia Library at the University of California, so it was as though I always had Japan and China in my life. When you’re little you absorb things which later seem natural to your being. In my twenties I lived and practiced in Japan, and again, Buddhism didn’t seem unusual to me. If you ski, you’re going to go to the Rockies and ski in powder. And if you grow up in Berkeley in the ’50s and ’60s reading about Buddhism, you just might end up in Japan.
DW: What were some of the influences on your choice of work and your ideas about society?
PH: E. F. Schumacher had a big influence on my worldview. After working in Burma, he began to look at economics from a values-based perspective, using primarily Buddhist values. His book Small Is Beautiful came out in 1974, and it crystallized what many people were thinking at the time. It was post-Vietnam and people were raising the issues of scale and power and challenging the military-industrial complex and the corruption attendant therein. Schumacher posited a worldview that dealt with practical economics without forsaking values. He was also creating a systemic approach to real issues, which I found compelling. To be honest, I don’t particularly like business any more than I like cars. But just like the car, business is everywhere and has to be understood and transformed.
What I am most interested in is how to create viable economies that meet the needs of all people, but especially the needs of those who suffer greatly from lack, which is to say, the poor around the world. That objective leads to considerations of social justice, individualism, distribution, control, power, financial flows, law, trade. In fact, economics connects to everything else, certainly to spiritual practice, and we can’t really construct a silo somewhere and say we’re addressing a particular need without actually looking at all the other related issues. Sustainability, in the truest sense of the word, is the most multidisciplined subject you can imagine. To pursue it is a lifelong project that guarantees you’ll always be a dilettante.
DW: For you, Joseph, how has political consciousness informed your teaching and your own practice?
Joseph Goldstein: I was really a late bloomer when it comes to political consciousness. I remember going to Europe when I was a junior in college—this was around 1964—and being shocked to meet Europeans who were critical of the Vietnam War. I thought, They just don’t understand. I had totally accepted the U.S. government’s rationale without giving it any critical thought. Then in 1965, I went to Thailand as a Peace Corps volunteer and spent most of the next ten years studying Buddhism in Asia, so during that time I was pretty removed from the political scene in America. My interest in political and social action eventually arose from a spiritual perspective, asking myself how our dharma understanding applies to engaged lives in the world.
It seems to me that the underlying and fundamental cause of our problems is the force of greed, hatred and ignorance in the mind. Here is where meditation and social action overlap. As we purify our minds, our actions become more skillful. And as we better understand the unwholesome tendencies in ourselves, we are able to respond more effectively to those same habit patterns in others. A Buddhist perspective also challenges us to hold our social and economic conflicts in a nondual way. How can we listen to people with opposing points of view, especially when we think they’re wrong? Dharma practice helps us to see beyond the differences and opens up new possibilities of communication.
DW: Joseph, I’ve noticed a transformation in your teaching over the years—a movement in the Mahayana direction, emphasizing that our practice is to benefit all beings. For you it seems that now there’s a powerful link between what happens on the meditation cushion and in the world.
JG: After studying with some Tibetan teachers, cultivating the motivation to live for the benefit of all beings has become an important part of my practice. A similar teaching on motivation exists in the Theravada tradition, but it is not so well articulated or emphasized. One phrase, which has great meaning for me, sums up the importance of this teaching:
Everything rests on the tip of motivation.
The Dalai Lama elaborated on this when he said that the true measure of an act is not its success or failure but the motivation behind it. If our motivation is pure and we act for the benefit of all, then we are doing the best we can in a given situation. If our motivation is selfish or full of anger and aggression, the result is not going to be good, even if there is some immediate gain. This truth has become one of the foundations of my practice.
So much of our lives revolves around the deeply conditioned concept of self, and so many of our actions are born from that view. It’s instructive to watch our minds and see both the “benign self-referencing” that proliferates in the mind as well as the patterns that are really selfish or destructive. Because we are often lost in these old habit-patterns, meditation practice can be a powerful tool for transformation. We need insight into the truth of selflessness (we might call it antinarcissism) and to nurture that understanding until we can truly live for the benefit of all. Of course, this is a lifelong journey that we take one step at a time.
DW: Paul, how does selflessness figure in your work and the larger sustainability questions?
PH: In 1973 I was profoundly influenced by the book Limits to Growth, from a famous study by the Club of Rome. It was sort of like going for your annual check-up, hearing the doctor say, “You have liver cancer,” and responding, “But I feel great.” Well, now you don’t. That study was a shock to the world. For the first time we were told how the biophysical limits of the planet could adversely affect progress as it was understood. In a sense, Joseph, we came face-to-face with the results of our benign self-referencing. Limits to Growth asked those of us in the developed world, What if everybody drove and ate and dressed and lived as we do? What would happen to the Earth? Obviously, there wouldn’t be enough. It raised fundamental questions about justice, fairness and what it might mean to live for the benefit of all beings.
To connect with what Joseph is saying, I think many people from a religious or spiritual background who were somewhat divorced from social issues were affected by the Club of Rome study. People were confronted with questions about intention and motivation in the social and ecological arenas.
DW: Why do you think people were so shocked to hear about the limits to growth? Hadn’t it become fairly obvious?
PH: Well, I guess it hadn’t become obvious. The book was debated endlessly, and the authors were pilloried by cornucopians, people who believe that technology, ingenuity and substitutes can make up for the loss of a specific resource. It reinforced the idea that resources are things, objects out in nature that are available. What emerged from this was a deeper realization that life is a flow, not a stock-pile. Pollination, climatic stability, the hydrologic cycle and migration are not things but services that flow abundantly from nature if the underlying ecosystems are intact. There was a shift from an Aristotelian view of nature to a Heraclitan one, the idea that there is constant flux that is complex and mysterious, and that the more we study nature, the more mysterious it becomes. For example, recently a scientist was quoted as saying that the only way we can understand some of the latest research on the nature of water is to ascribe to water the properties of a living being.
The original “limits to growth” theory was eventually forgotten or spurned. So we are living through a very interesting time as people around the planet realize once again the limits to growth. Activism is desperately needed, but it’s not enough; doing your part by recycling is needed, but it’s not enough; speaking truth to power is desperately needed, but it’s not enough; and challenging corporate hegemony is desperately needed, but it’s not enough. You can go right on down the list.
DW: And self-transformation is not enough, and may be the hardest piece of them all. We know how difficult it is to actually transform one’s own mind and motivations. But can others be convinced? Can they see their happiness as connected to the happiness of others and their own problems as connected to the problems of others?
JG: A major impetus for compassion and empathy is a conscious awareness of one’s own suffering. This awareness helps us open to the suffering of others. Have you ever had the experience of going through a period of illness or injury and then, particularly if you have been somewhat mindful through it, seeing a natural compassion arise for people in similar situations? This is not an intellectual shift but an opening of the heart. Meditation helps us stay open to the full range of our own experience, which results in a greater care and compassion for the suffering of others.
DW: And yet, the levels of systemic greed, violence and delusion are massive in these times. We see them in our minds and we see them mirrored in the world. It can feel hopeless. Still, many of us are compelled to act to alleviate suffering.
JG: At a recent conference on Buddhist-Christian dialogue, a very interesting question arose: Would our response to violence be more effective if we were proceeding from the assumption that violence would or could eventually come to an end or, instead, proceeding from the assumption that violence will never come to an end? I felt that our actions might be more effective if we realized that no matter what we do, we may never come to the end of violence in the world. Rather than dissipating our energies in an endlessly disappointing struggle, if we see more realistically, we might use all that energy and simply apply it to the moment’s situation. In some way, this feels like the impersonal compassionate activity of selflessness, rather than activity based on hope and fear. Can we still act, knowing that samsara is endless?
PH: To bring your comments into the social and political arenas, I think a lot of utopian baggage has been tossed onto the sustainability bus, as if we could just make a few changes and everything will be all right. Actually, sustainability will not eliminate suffering. It alleviates types of suffering, for sure, many of which are unnecessary. When you’ve dug a well for people who need water, they are happier and infant mortality will probably decline in their village; but these people are not suddenly immune to materialism and wanting more. Suffering has not been ended, and it doesn’t help to expect that it will end anytime soon.
I find it most interesting if we look at our current situation from a 10,000-year perspective, starting with the invention of agriculture. Then we realize that we are living through an extraordinary period, this “Kali Yuga” or whatever you want to call it. The fact is that we’re having a once-in-a-billion-year blowout of consumption. No offer refused! Get it while you can! Just use it all up! What proceeds from this time will be another kind of epic, unnamed and unknown.
I remember being astounded while reading a book on the history of the British Empire: Damn, there’ve been a lot of wars! It’s war, war, war all the time—many I’d never heard of before. I went back and looked at what these wars were all about, and not one of them had anything to do with values, principles, standards. Not a single one. They were all about economic gain. It was stunning to realize the intensity of this suffering that has been going on forever.
DW: In the face of endless war, not to mention other planetary atrocities, I notice the part of me that wants to numb out. I can feel so ineffectual and tiny in light of the forces of greed and hatred. At times, meditation seems like a drop in the bucket.
JG: You might consider the impact of meditation as tiny, but then you realize that it’s only been about thirty years since the first big wave of Buddhist teaching arrived in the West—and it’s already pretty widely accepted in the culture.
PH: Besides, you just have to keep doing what you do. You never know which seeds will grow where and how. I got an e-mail from a CEO who said that my book Ecology of Commerce changed his whole life. He transformed his company and became the cochairman of the President’s Council on Sustainable Development. Now he gives sixty to eighty speeches a year, and he’s changed countless lives. He’s the hero of that wonderful documentary The Corporation. He has such depth, credibility and compassion.
Who knows who’s going to be sitting on the cushion at the next retreat? It could be someone who will affect thousands of other lives. I think we have to expand our sense of time, because it may be thirty years before that person appears. Nelson Mandela was in jail for twenty-seven years. We have no idea how any of our efforts are going to play out.
DW: Climate change keeps making news, and many people still don’t seem to believe that the scenario is real or serious. Is that a collective form of delusion?
PH: From everything I’ve read, climate change is happening and is going to have a powerful impact, so the question is not so much what is going to happen as who we are going to be when it happens. I recently heard that the Pentagon has been making contingency plans for climate change for a couple of years now, trying to figure out what to do about it. Its assumption is that it will be every nation for itself, that all alliances will break down, and that we will be Fortress America against Fortress Mexico, etc.
There’s nothing we can do to stop a lot of ecological forces that are already in play. The question is: Are we going to react like the Pentagon or like the Dalai Lama? It may take two Category 5 hurricanes marching up the Atlantic coast within a month of each other before people realize that the SUV does have an effect and is connected to everything else.* But it will happen, and probably sooner than we expect. It’s going to bring us back to the question of who we are. And who we are to each other.
JG: I can envision a natural disaster being a catalyst for more sharing and compassion. There’s no one to hate, and we’re all at the mercy of the same impersonal forces.
PH: As somebody who has worked as a firefighter in the forests and done flood relief, I’m stunned by what happens to people when they wake up. About six years ago, Vermont had a massive freeze. It rained and then froze, and nearly every electrical utility line in the state went down. Power was out for a week. I haven’t met a single person who doesn’t consider that one of the finest weeks in their life. They talk about how it was the time of care, of compassion, of concern. It was a time of nonself.
When there is no ego or selfishness, there is nothing that will destroy nature, nothing that will exploit and abuse nature.—Ajahn Buddhadasa, from Conserving the Inner Ecology
DW: Maybe the response had something to do with what Joseph said about people facing their own suffering, which opened them to the suffering of others. So the sooner the catastrophe, the sooner the transformation. Bring it on! [Laughter] Seriously, when this time comes, what if the population doesn’t respond with care and compassion? How do we train ourselves? How do we develop compassion and fearlessness for when the stakes are higher?
JG: I think it’s important to recognize that no one person or approach is going to provide the whole solution. Everybody plays a part, depending on his or her skills and passion and interest. I think the answer is to find what we can do best to help and then act on it.
PH: To quote Thomas Merton,
“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence.”
Instead of trying to be responsible for all the problems in the world, we should take on what we love and care about. Then we honor both our inner world and the outer world at the same time. There’s no separation between the two, and there is no hesitation, no self-doubt. This will help us develop great faith that others are taking care of their piece. People who don’t know the details about climate change may care deeply about the forests, the animals and the children. It is very important that we share, not only our merit, but also the responsibilities. Somehow we have to relieve ourselves of the burden of enormity, which is so deadening.
*This interview took place a year prior to 2005’s disastrous category-5 hurricanes Katrina and Rita.