Buddhist women gathering in Australia
In the old days there were sixteen bodhisattvas. They all got into the bath together and realized the cause of water. They called out, “This subtle touch reveals the light that is in everything. We have reached the place where the sons and daughters of the Buddha live.”
The Blue Cliff Record- Case 78
In the Blue Mountains of Australia 800 bodhisattvas got into the bath together and realized the cause of water. Forged over the past 300 million years by layers of sedimentary rocks and volcanic flows, the Blue Mountains are a sacred site of its indigenous inhabitants. Here, in the hot sun, aboriginal gum trees discharge a fine mist of eucalyptus oil. This mist refracts the light, making the haze look blue from Sydney. At the beginning of an Australian winter in 2019, 800 Buddhist women flew into the blue mist from all over the world to bathe together in the love of dharma. A variety of perspectives from different cultures were presented in papers and workshops. I’d like to share a few of the insights that stayed with me and highlight some of the papers shared.
To the credit of the Sakyadhita organizing committee, perhaps the most pressing challenge of our time, climate change, was addressed in a number of different presentations. Dekila Chungyalpa spoke about how we are living in the Anthropocene era, where fossil fuel dependent economic growth has led to irreversible changes in the Earth’s geology and ecosystems. In her paper, she argues that it is not economic leadership that is best equipped to provide the guidance we need to counter climate change, but religious leadership. Since Buddhist principles address interdependence and non-harming, Buddhism is poised to effectively apply these principles to the fundamental problems that created climate change in the first place. The World Wildlife Fund hired Ms. Chungyalpa as a field conservationist for the Himalayas and Mekong region. In that capacity, she worked with His Holiness the Karmapa to launch an annual five- day sustainability conference. Some of the resulting programs have been reforestation, solar powered kitchens, community clean-ups, organic farming, rooftop water harvesting, nurseries for medicinal plants, and more. In addition to moving towards a carbon neutral future, an effort was initiated to provide disaster management plans and Community Emergency Response Training teams in monasteries and nunneries. This on the ground, hands on, form of service is akin to Mother Teresa’s work with the poorest of the poor. Service fueled by love, paired with spiritual insight.
Like a number of other Australian speakers, Bhikku Sujato, acknowledged the indigenous people whose land we were meeting on. He shaped his paper around the aboriginal myth of Gurrangath and Mirragan, which took place in the Blue Mountain region where the conference was being held. Gurrangath, a rainbow serpent and Mirragan, a tiger cat that inhabits the woods, engage in a struggle. Mirragan is determined to slay the rainbow serpent. A diver bird rips off a piece of the rainbow serpent’s flesh which he and Mirragan then consume, becoming one with Gurrangath. Mirragan is content with this. Bhikku Sujato posits that this Aboriginal myth encourages us to incorporate the old into the new. It highlights that answers to the Earth’s problems are found, not in the sky, but deep down in the Earth’s soil. He goes on to say that the old form of renunciation, simplicity, and contentment, can be applied in new ways to the situation of global warming and the ravaging of the Earth. Since the dire situation we find ourselves in today has been created by greed, renunciation is an antidote. He ends his paper by saying, “This world, this beautiful fragile world, needs you more than you know.”
Joan Halifax, Roshi brought up the distinction between optimism and hope in this time of challenge. With optimism we look forward to a rosy future, with hope we store potatoes in the cellar in preparation for the possibility of another day. We become activists in the midst of seemingly impossible odds. Whether or not we prevail, we continue to advocate for a healthy future for the planet and for all sentient beings. This reminds me of Joan Baez’s answer to the question, “What if you can’t stop the march towards destruction by nuclear war?” Which was (I paraphrase), “Maybe we can’t affect a change and maybe we can, but a life of caring and being part of solutions is a rich and good life.” This is hope. It brings to mind the bodhisattva vow:
Beings are numberless, I vow to save them
Clear eyed about the challenges we are facing and working for the good of all. Serving without attachment to results.
These presentations on climate change might be summed up by the phrase- foster hope, prepare for the challenges to come, and turn compassion into action. As daughters of the Buddha we are well equipped to deal with the challenges that face us in this age of climate change, xenophobia and materialism. There are many tools our practice provides us with that support clarity during challenging times. Buddhist principles, such as not attaching to outcome, make for a more spacious approach to activism. Another tool that is useful to activism is our deepening experience of oneness. During our personal practice we look within and realize that we are not separate units but an essential aspect of one, connected unity. This oneness includes all the children who are torn from their mothers and fathers, but it also includes ICE and the men and women who support separating children from their parents and putting them in sub-standard conditions. Oneness even includes unity with those who selfishly use hate and fear to attain power. How do we continue to love them? That is a challenging, and essential, aspect of our practice- perhaps a subject for the next Sakyadhita conference two years from now.
Since activism has become an important part of my practice, these were the papers that stayed with me. Many other subjects were addressed at the conference as well, too many to mention in this short reflection. You can read the papers in, The Proceedings of the 16th Sakyadhita International Conference on Buddhist Women, to explore the other interesting and informative perspectives.
This was my first Sakyadhita conference. I’ve been sitting at the edge of attending for years and was finally able to join this auspicious gathering. If you’re sitting at the edge of attending I highly recommend you jump in. During our 5 days together we learned from one another during presentations and workshops, we made new friends and enjoyed the company of old friends surrounded by the beauty of the Blue Mountains. As my Jewish mother, who was very much with me in spirit during the conference, used to say, “What could be bad?” I’m a better person for the experience and want to thank all those whose hard work made it possible for women to come together in the dhamma, jump into the tub, and awaken one another.