Singer and songwriter Betsy Rose has been visiting for a few weeks. She is travelling for eight months on a journey that will take her around the world, singing as she goes. Betsy is my sister, so of course it is wonderful to have her here, and in good sisterly fashion she’s given me the opportunity to pick her mind. She is a Buddhist, and I have saved up some questions about compassion.
The term ‘compassionate conservation’ hit me like electricity when I first heard it. How exciting it is to encounter an alternative to the treadmill of killing that claims that the only way to achieve healthy ecosystems is to kill everything that appears to get in the way of a pretty narrow human vision of what belongs and what does not. Compassionate conservation takes us right away from a suite of practices based on suffering and death, inviting us to think and act differently. The convergence of ecology and compassion is a truly significant direction for major change in our world today, but what is compassion, actually?
Betsy’s mode of engaged Buddhism draws inspiration from the Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. He teaches a basic message of mindfulness and peace that is becoming more profoundly urgent as our species’ penchant for violence erupts into an accelerated, global, multispecies rampage. From an ecological point of view, Buddhism offers a particularly significant human response to violence because it links individuals into wider networks of living beings and aims for the well-being of all.
Many Buddhist prayers ask that all beings be free from suffering. There is, of course, no way to eliminate suffering from life – the two go hand in hand, just as joy and life go hand in hand. But we human creatures have it within us to change our own behaviour so as not to cause suffering needlessly, and it is possible to work toward more peaceful, less brutal societal relations between humans and other creatures. The emerging field of compassionate conservation aims to accomplish this manner of social change in the domains of ecological management and conservation. And yet …
the Buddhist idea of well-being goes way beyond welfare.
The provocation to western thought is huge! Welfare can be understood as freedom from suffering, whereas well-being implies that beings are actually capable of experiencing the goodness of life. This is so significant that it can be hard to take in. One has to pause for a moment to consider what the experience of well-being implies. In ecological terms, we would say that all beings have their own life-world, and they experience it subjectively. Creatures, whether large or tiny, are not machines, but rather are subjects: they have ways of life, modes of being, forms of action and interaction. Worlds of subjectivity include time, place, mobility, sustenance and much more.
One effect of the Buddhist commitment to well-being is that it calls for commitment to ways of life. And in this world of connectivities, commitments keep expanding. For example, commitment to a migratory species must surely include the path of their travel, and commitment to species whose strong site fidelity brings them home to reproduce must involve commitment to those home places. We might think with others in terms of their precious well-being and be reminded of salmon running up their specific streams to spawn; or the lovely synchronicity between flowers, nourishing pollen and pollinators as butterflies migrate from Mexico to Canada and back; or turtles returning to specific beaches to lay their eggs.
Buddhist commitment to well-being apparently involves a lively, unlimited recognition of the connected world in which creatures are capable of experiencing joy in their own well-being. A short section of the Buddhist prayer of universal love reveals this:
May all beings everywhere,
Seen and unseen
Dwelling far off or nearby
Being or waiting to become:
May all be filled with lasting joy.
I did a short interview with Betsy (view here), asking about her travels and her activism. We filmed at home with the relentless rain contributing a little hum in the background. Betsy had encountered a multispecies zone of compassion at an elephant sanctuary in Thailand, and she offered a vivid description of the thrill of being in an animal-centric place. There, humans are just visitors, and the focus, organisation and management of the place is dedicated to the well-being of the other (non-human) animals. To close the interview, Betsy sang one of the songs she wrote expressing Thich Nhat Hanh’s Buddhist teachings. It is particularly moving to me because it is about breathing. Breath is immensely inclusive: all the myriad creatures (plants, fungi, animals, many bacteria) breathe in one form or another, and the wind is the breath of the world. Wind, breath, life, well-being: it flows through us all.
© Deborah Bird Rose (2016)
For more about Betsy and her music, visit here. To follow her travels, visit here. Her first posting, from Thailand, tells of how she was honoured with the ‘International Tara Award’. To learn more about the Elephant Nature Reserve, visit here.
The Centre for Compassionate Conservation at UTS has excellent material on this ethical approach to conservation. I have addressed issues involving compassionate conservation in a number of essays, for example, ‘How to Love a Pest’.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s work and teachings are well documented, for example at the site for Plum Village in France.
The west’s understanding that creatures inhabit their own worlds of meaning owes its recent history to the continental biologist Jakob von Uexküll (1864-1944). Brett Buchanan has provided an excellent analysis of Uexküll’s influence in more recent philosophy in his book Onto-Ethologies. Thom van Dooren and I have developed some of this thought in relation to how two types of animals, penguins and flying-foxes, create worlds of meaning that focus on place. Our article is available on the web.