Once a man came to me and spoke for hours about
"His great visions of God" he felt he was having.

He asked me for confirmation, saying,

"Are these wondrous dreams true?"
I replied, "How many goats do you have?"

He looked surprised and said,
"I am speaking of sublime visions
And you ask about goats!"

And I spoke again saying,
"Yes brother-how many do you have?"

"Well, Hafiz, I have sixty-two."

"How many rose bushes in your garden,
How many children,
Are your parents still alive,
Do you feed the birds in winter?"

And to all he answered.

Then I said,
"You asked me if I thought your visions were true,

I would say that they were if they make you become
more human,
More kind to every creature and plant
That you know."


(This poem by 14th century Persian poet, Hafez, concluded Robert Beatty's Dharma talk.)

Garden the Mind,
Live Gently on the Earth

Notes from the 2009 NWDA Annual Meeting


To address the theme of Buddhism and the environment, the Northwest Dharma Association’s 2009 Annual Meeting began with a thoughtful, poetic, and compassionate Dharma talk by Robert Beatty of the Portland Insight Meditation Community.

A longtime Dharma teacher and practicing psychotherapist, Beatty was a student in one of the earliest graduate programs in ecology back in the 1970’s. Concern for the environment—“living gently on the earth”—remains an important part of his teaching and his practice.

Putting it simply, Robert asserts that "the root of the environmental crisis is greed, hatred, and ignorance.”

Assessing the situation of humans and the environment from a biological-historical perspective, he concludes that “we’re too successful.” Our individualistic and tribal survival instincts—fight/flight, eat, reproduce—coupled with our intelligent brains have served us well in populating the earth and exploiting resources but we’ve “filled our petri dish.” The question now is, can we use our powerful minds to “observe and interrupt our primal processes,” the sources of greed and aggression.

Especially powerful, and dangerous, is our delusion of separateness. Like a water drop before it merges with a larger pool of water, we think, “Me, mine, I’m independent! Then, plop! …But what if we are fundamentally the Universe?”

Added to the delusion of “Me” is the anxiety we feel anticipating our individual death. In our suffering we partake of “a new religion that has emerged on the planet and expanded as never before, into every country on earth. It is capitalist, consumerist materialism. It’s a religion because it promises happiness, happiness through the sense doors—leading to a desperate quest. One of the causes of the incredible pillaging of the earth.”

“How can Buddhist teachings inform and strengthen us?” Robert asks.

The Four Noble Truths, the Eight-Fold Path, show us how to see what it is that fuels our suffering. We now have the opportunity to know and practice, to intervene in the formerly unconscious “push-pull thing.” Training the mind, we observe thoughts and impulses that lead toward suffering and then decide whether or not to feed them: “So we get to be gardeners.”

With wisdom and compassion, we open beyond our view of self, beyond our own “family”. The more we are able to “perceive everyone as kinsperson the better we are able to address ‘the giant that is coming’—our own death, the death of human life. And life is at risk.”

Citing the “wonderful aspirations” of the green movement which, he notes, resonate with the admonitions of the suttas “to live gently on the earth,” Robert reminds us that “we leave a trail behind.” The Dharma makes it possible to address issues, provide leadership, with grace—whether we succeed or not.

“Thus we act forcefully, lovingly in a green direction but without attachment to the results. That’s where the practice gets really hot.”

The afternoon portion of the meeting was an open discussion with panel members, Mike O’Brien, green-building specialist with the City of Portland’s Office of Sustainable Development; Ven. Adhisila, a hemp advocate; Satya Vayu, Soto Zen priest and leader of an environmentally alternative community in Portland; and Bill Hirsch, co-founder of EcoSangha Seattle.

Though not a Buddhist, Mike O’Brien offered one of the most coherent illustrations of karma and right intention that many in the audience had ever heard, reminding people to begin seeking answers to green building questions by looking carefully at deeper issues within oneself and without: examining, for example, one’s own real priorities and the upstream and downstream of construction materials over a long time span, including how workers are treated, thus “opening yourself to the consequences of what you do.”

Steven Brook, Portland resident and former “Recycler of the Year”, referred to energy efficiency as a form of “charitable offering.” He advocated reducing consumption of packaged products over “recycling” and offered tips on how to do so. Some practical advice from others included how to cook rice with retained heat and to “break in” a compact fluorescent light bulb.

The centrality of Dharma was reinforced by Susan Giese, who noted the tendency for the illusion of separation to arise between green advocates and the people they perceive as threatening to the environment. Strong as that habitual tendency is, we must refrain from making “them” the enemy.

Several people remarked on the difficulty of making choices between “the lesser of two evils” and the anguish that results. Reminding listeners that from a Dharma point of view “everything is perfect in this moment”, Satya equated a “perfect complete life” with the basic practice of choosing one good thing at a time…

The meeting, held at Ngoc Son Tinh Xa Buddhist Association in Portland, concluded with expressions of gratitude and a dedication of merit in Ngoc Son’s magnificent shrine room.

Audio of Robert Beatty’s Dharma talk is available at:

Contributors: Robert Beatty, Julie Welch.
Photos: Caterina De Re.