How Buddhism has changed the west for the better

Show caption Buddhist monks take part in the funeral of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Zen Buddhist monk, poet and peace activist who in the 1960s came to prominence as an opponent of the Vietnam war. Photograph: Reuters Opinion How Buddhism has changed the west for the better Rebecca Solnit We are not who we were very long ago. A lot of new ideas have emerged from Buddhism and other traditions emphasizing compassion, equality, nonviolence and critical perspectives on materialism and capitalism Tue 8 Feb 2022 11.31 GMT Share on Facebook

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When news of Thich Nhat Hanh’s death spread around the world, I saw far more people than I’d have expected say how he affected them, through a talk, a book, a retreat, an idea, an example. It was a reminder of the huge impact Buddhism has had in the west as a set of ideas that has flowed far beyond the limits of who belongs to a Buddhist group or has a formal practice. You could think of Buddhism in this context as one tributary of a broad new river of ideas flowing through the west, from which many have drunk without knowing quite where the waters came from.

A Vietnamese monk who founded meditation centers on four continents and published dozens of books, Thich Nhat Hanh was one of the great teachers who came from Asia in the 20th century, along with Zen monks from Japan and Tibetan rinpoches. He stood out because he came to the west as an explicitly political figure, arguing against the war in Vietnam (though the Dalai Lama’s opposition to the Chinese occupation of Tibet is certainly political too). His death seemed to me not an ending but a reminder that something far grander than this great teacher began sometime in the last century and continues to spread.

We are not who we were very long ago. A lot of new ideas have emerged from Buddhism and other traditions emphasizing kindness and compassion, equality and egalitarianism, nonviolence, critical perspectives on materialism and capitalism, and what I once heard the Zen priest Paul Haller at the San Francisco Zen Center call “the practice of awareness”. They constitute a shift in what we ask of ourselves and others as profound as it is subtle. That subtlety consists of its incremental nature and of its realization as personal beliefs and actions in everyday life – that sometimes add up to more concrete changes in laws and institutions.

You have to go back to how widely accepted various forms of cruelty and domination were half a century ago, from corporal punishment in public schools to domestic violence and systemic silencing and exclusion, to recognize how much has changed. A lot of us have had the experience, in recent years, of going back to old novels and films and even songs to find that we no longer overlook or accept their casual cruelty. Of course the new ideas are corruptible, and charismatic leaders, including in Buddhist lineages, have abused their power – but I was amused to find that corporate attempts to co-opt mindfulness sometimes backfire when they make employees less tolerant of harmful policies.

This river of new ideas is a confluence of many other tributaries, of feminism, antiracism and ecological ideas, and it has as one of its key principles a vision that everything is connected. Of course not everyone has changed; Bipoc people in the US are far from achieving equality by most measures; and many of these ideas exist more as aspirations than everyday practices. But none of this means the ideas and ideals don’t matter, and the backlash by the right is a backlash against something they see as transformative and threatening.

I’ve called contemporary conservative thinking “the ideology of isolation”, obsessed with control through separation and segregation, with borders and anti-immigration rhetoric, with policing racial and gender categories, and marriage inequality both as a denial of marital rights to same-sex couples and of male domination within heterosexual marriage. It’s anti-environmental, because the foundational truth of ecological science is that the world is made of pervasive, interconnecting systems, not discrete objects. With that comes a mandate to act with responsibility toward the consequences that is at odds with the conservative ideals of individual freedom and unfettered capitalism.

Hanh died on 22 January. On 25 January, the Save the Redwoods League announced that it had transferred title to a 523-acre stretch of redwood forest to the Intertribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, a coalition of 10 tribal groups on the north-west coast of California. The place that had been dubbed Andersonia West “will again be known as Tc’ih-Léh-Dûñ (pronounced tsih-ih-LEY-duhn), meaning “Fish Run Place” in the Sinkyone language,” the press release notes. You have to know that the Save the Redwoods League was founded 104 years ago by wealthy white men who were both eugenicists and elitists to understand how vast a transformation has taken place.

Most of that transformation has been in the past few decades. I remember reading an academic paper on the scurrilous past of the Save the Redwoods League in the mid-1990s, when the environmental movement tended to ignore or oppose indigenous presence in the lands they sought to conserve and was complacent or oblivious about its own past. The League was co-founded by Madison Grant, who headed the American Eugenics Society, was vice-president of the Immigration Restriction League, and is notorious for the pseudoscientific book The Passing of the Great Race. The other founders held similar views.

The law professor Joyce Alene tweeted a few weeks ago, on Martin Luther King Day: “The moral arc of the universe is not going to bend itself.” People – famous, powerful, unknown, humble – bend it, often in increments or ways too small or subtle to measure. They add up. In the 1990s I watched the environmental movement slowly shift from its fantasies of “virgin wilderness” to the recognition that nearly every place on Earth was or is indigenous homeland and therefore environmental protection and human rights were not separate concerns (and that access to nature and to clean air and water were also racial-justice issues).

The ideas that fed the shift came from indigenous struggles and indigenous intellectuals and allied scholars and activists. Those struggles are far from over, but the premises with which many of us operate are far different than they were. These usually begin as changes in consciousness and new narratives. They end as changes in law, policy, everyday practices and stuff as tangible as land ownership. This year, that includes an old-growth forest under indigenous management, with trees more than eight feet in diameter that “tower among Douglas fir, tan oaks, and Pacific madrones over a vibrant understory of huckleberry, manzanita, and ceanothus”.

Rebecca Solnit is a Guardian US columnist. Her most recent books are Recollections of My Nonexistence and Orwell’s Roses