activism books circular economy

Book review: The Burning House, by Shantigarbha

When taking part in Extinction Rebellion protests in London, especially with my friends at Christian Climate Action, I have often found myself among XR Buddhists. They may be meditating, or leading people in a mindfulness exercise, or talking to angry motorists. I appreciate their knack for holding a quiet bubble of space in the chaos. I didn’t realise this when picking up the book, but in reading The Burning House, I realised that I’ve almost certainly met Shantigarbha.

The book recounts experiences with Extinction Rebellion (Shantigarbha leads training in non-violent communication and de-escalation of tension) but you’ll find a broader view of the issues in The Burning House: A Buddhist response to the climate and ecological emergency. Taking its name from a traditional Buddhist story, the book deals with empathy, activism, interconnectedness, anger and grief, and – somewhat unexpectedly – comedy.

“The root of the climate and ecological crisis is how we human beings relate to the environment”, writes Shantigarbha, and the book dips into the grounded-ness of Buddhism, and the environmental ethics based in the stories of the Buddha. There is a recognition of other life that I appreciated here, such as the way that damaging a plant is a confessable offence for Buddhist monks – though the focus is on volition and intention, not rules. The issue in question is what you act from: greed, hatred or ignorance? Or generosity, love and awareness?

This feels like a more flexible and open approach than some of the Western language around environmentalism, which jumps too quickly to moral judgements. (The book How Bad Are Bananas? comes to mind, for example. It’s an excellent book as it happens, but why are bananas being called bad in the title?) The book often talks about living skilfully, rather than being good or bad. You can express anger skillfully, for instance. Whether the emotion is positive or negative depends on what you do with it.

There were several concepts in the book that seemed particularly helpful. One of them is compassion. “According to the Buddhist tradition, compassion is the only sustainable fuel.” But this is an active compassion, karuna as it is called here, and quite different from pity. The book looks at how we build an imaginative empathy, and cultivate compassion for all life.

Another idea I have been mulling over is the difference between the 10 Commandments injunction to ‘not steal’, and its Buddhist equivalent, to “abstain from taking the not-given”. That’s a much broader idea that invites interpretation beyond human ideas about ownership. ‘Not given’ could apply to animal lives or things like using rainfall vs diverting a stream.

There are sections on activism too, drawing on Extinction Rebellion but also looking at historic examples of Buddhist political action. I hadn’t heard of Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, who challenged the caste system and helped to write the Indian constitution. The inclusion of these sorts of stories shows how Buddhism can play a role in social transformation too – “if you want to change the world, change your state of mind”.

Whether or not you have an affinity with Buddhism, there is real wisdom in The Burning House. I suspect that it would be particularly helpful for climate campaigners who spend a lot of time thinking about science and numbers. Stand back, take a look at the issue through the lens of Buddhism, and see what can be learned.

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