In Praise of an Eco-Spiritual Sangha

by Richard Coon
Dept. Of Sociology
Carroll College

Many young people I know are struggling to form a new ecological identity and as such, are actively seeking to change their own life in terms of deepening their relationship with and understanding of the Earth and Sky - the eco-system. Over the years I have taken many such students on eco spiritual journeys to various parts of the U.S., as well as out of the country, in hopes of expanding their (our) ecological identity. On many occasions the preparations and the journey have had major impacts on the students, yet in most instances, upon returning home to their "normal" life they find it very difficult to hang on to the insights and feelings they were able to experience on the journey.

Many soon find that they are "slipping" back into the consumer mindset that seemed so wrong just a short while before. They don’t know where to turn to maintain this new perspective in the face of the onslaught of mind-shaping cultural pressures to fit in with the present market mentality. Although many come and talk to me, I am not able to act as their support community, partly due to our relationship and partly due to the differences in our ages and concerns. They need an ecological Sangha! One that helps them create and maintain their new ecological identity.

Interestingly, some folks I interact with on an eco-list I’m on have been recently discussing the need for a Sangha for ourselves. It’s not just the young and those new to these insights that need support on this life journey; many of us do. 'Burn-out' is a problem, especially for those of us who seem to live on an 'island' in the midst of the contemporary conservative and consumerist mind set. In the area and city where I teach (a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin) there are few voices who speak the language of deep ecology or eco-feminism, or any forms of ecologically oriented perspective for that matter. Under conditions such as this how does one hold one’s vision? An eco-Sangha can be of great support under these conditions. This Buddhist idea of companions on the path can be a real saving grace in times of uncertainty and stress.

The type of Sangha I am envisioning here would be a group of people who come together on a regular basis to support each other and deepen each others eco-understanding and identity; who seek to support each other in terms of dealing with this experience of living in a culture which seems to be so wrong. There are numerous groups now forming around experiences such as practicing voluntary simplicity. Such groups could (and to some extent probably already do) function as eco-Sanghas. The slight difference between them and an eco-Sangha would be the ground intent of the group. As in a Buddhist Sangha, an eco-Sangha would work from an orientation to help each other 'make it' in the face of the pressures this society can bring to bare. As Thich Nhat Hanh points out, "(w)e need a Sangha to support our practice" (T. N. Hanh, p196). Members of the eco-Sangha would take a vow to help each other not only stay the path, but flower into more beautiful expressions of the Earth and Sky.

Hanh goes on to say "I hope communities of practice will organize themselves in warm, friendly ways, as families. We need to create environments in which people can succeed easily in the practice" (Hanh, p199). This is something we could do in the long term deep ecology movement. We need to create "warm friendly" environments where people can come together in their *differences* and be accepted and nurtured in their (our) growth. We need non-judgmental families or cohorts who grow together and help each other succeed. And we need to make this not just easy, but fun. I have quit trying to convince people they need to change solely because of the negatives involved. I have come to conclude that most (students any way) won’t do it. We need to make this Sangha provide them with something they are not getting from the society at large. This should not be difficult, in as much as our society does a very poor job of nurturing the soul.

In the years of my eco-spiritual journeys with students, the eco-spiritual Sanghas we create for the field experience have always been of great significance to those who participate. However, when they return from the journey there is no where for them to turn. I have been teaching them some meditation techniques to help them find a clear center once they get back and things seem to feel out of control, but that is not enough. I think we could learn something from the Buddhists and their understanding that without support it is very difficult for people to hold to a path that is not upheld by the culture they are in. In my experience this seems to be true, especially for young people who come into contact with ideas (like deep ecology) that they have never heard before. Their old friends and families don’t tend to support them, in fact, I see just the opposite. Hanh points out that without a Sangha the practitioner will not continue practicing for long. Devall has also written of such a need and how an eco-Sangha can function.

As the intentional communities movement seems to be catching on in terms of the creation of more eco-villages, so maybe it is time for the eco-Sangha movement to catch on. Ehrlich feels the answer to our present eco dilemma will be what he calls "quasi-religious" (Suzuki and Knudtson, Maybe this will be part of it; groups of people coming together to support each other form new and deepened eco-identities and to support each other on our life journeys into the 21st century.

Thich Nhat Hnah in Kotler, Arnold ed., 1996, Engaged Buddhist Reader. Berkeley: Parallax Press

Suzuki, David and Peter Knudtson, 1992, Wisdom of the Elders: Sacred Native Stories of Nature. New York: Bantam

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