Leaning Toward Interdependence

A Conversation with Mary Evelyn Tucker and Demo Rinpoche

By Lauren Griffith

During the Garrison Institute’s recent symposium, Pathways Toward Planetary Health, we explored the intersection of four emerging ideas – Half-Earth, an Ecological Civilization, Regenerative Economics, and Pervasive Altruism. In our fourth follow-up conversation, we sit down with Mary Evelyn Tucker and Demo Rinpoche to discuss the role of pervasive altruism and the value of connecting spirituality, ecology, and the moral life.

Mary Evelyn Tucker is a Senior Lecturer and Research Scholar at Yale University. She teaches in the joint MA program in religion and ecology and directs the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale with her husband, John Grim. Her special area of study is Asian religions. She received her Ph.D. from Columbia University in Japanese Confucianism. Her concern for the growing environmental crisis, especially in Asia, led her to organize with John Grim a series of ten conferences on World Religions and Ecology at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard (1995-1998). Ten books on World Religions and Ecology were published by Harvard from this series.

Demo Rinpoche is a reincarnated Tibetan Lama. The Dalai Lama recognized him as 11th Demo Rinpoche at the age of 5. He entered Drepung Loseling monastery and received his Geshe Lharampa degree from Gelukpa University. In 2012, he joined Gyumey monastery for tantric studies. He is most recently studied Interfaith Engagement at Union Theological Seminary in the United States.

Lauren Griffith: I’d like to start by asking why a discussion on morals, attitudes, and the interior life is important to ecology and what promise you see.

Mary Evelyn Tucker: I think we all know that science has given us the information. Law has given us a legal focus. Economics gives us a business perspective. Technology gives us new sources of energy and so on. But the missing link for some time has been the spiritual transformation, and that is, of course, what the Garrison Institute represents very well. A sense of consciousness and conscience that the great world religions and spiritual practices offer to humans from time immemorial, if you will.

And that particular perspective also has the potential to change people ethically and morally, to take a position from the depths of their reflections, meditation, and practice from contemplation to action.

Lauren Griffith: You’ve spoken a great deal in the past about the problem and promise that religion holds.

Mary Evelyn Tucker: That’s such an important point because I think it’s very honest to say at the beginning, we all know these religions in their institutional forms have their so-called limits, their dark sides, their distortions, and so on. So, by acknowledging that, we say with humility, religions have something to offer in dialogue with science, economics, and policy.

But the promise here is, just as in the civil rights movement, when Martin Luther King, Jr. and other religious leaders came on board and said segregation is a moral evil and we must change this. It changed the landscape of American society by holding segregation up as a moral issue around the dignity of the human. So, we’ve recognized the problems, but we also understand there’s great promise here for the future.

Lauren Griffith: Demo Rinpoche, was there anything in particular that led you to dive deeper into this crossover of ecology and Buddhism in particular? What makes Buddhism a unique wisdom leader in this field?

Demo Rinpoche: I think Buddhism is unique in a few ways. From a Buddhist perspective, all sentient beings are equal, no matter if they are human or non-human beings. So, we see, for example, the Buddha nature in all sentient beings. And even if they are an animal in this life, they could be a human being in the next life. So, we see a similar worth in human beings and non-human beings. So, I think this is one special way Buddhism offers a unique perspective.The other way can be found in the Mahayana tradition. They really see all existing things as interdependent. Nothing is  a single independent thing, so everything links to other beings. So, that means Buddhism is really important in ecological study.

We can also talk about exchanging self and the other, which is based on interdependence. It means that everybody is self, and everybody is the other. There’s not such a big difference between self and others. I think that this is important in order for us to be concerned about future generations. I think we need to understand there is no difference between the people of this generation and the future generation of people.

Mary Evelyn Tucker: I love what you’ve just said, Demo Rinpoche, in three wonderful points. The Buddha nature in all things, both human and natural, is a special gift of Buddhism.

And the sense that there’s a Buddha-nature in plants, and in animals, in rivers, and forests, and clouds, and so on. So, I think that’s a hugely important gift of Buddhism to this discussion. And then, just to pick up on interdependence, which of course your tradition, Tibetan Buddhism, has as well as Huayan Buddhism in China, and with the interdependent notion of Indra’s net where all of reality is reflected through the diamonds that connect the net. And finally, I love your point that there’s no difference between the self now and the self of future generations. I think that is such an important point because we haven’t yet, I think, expanded our consciousness to say the children of all species are now at risk, right, unless we think about that in a more robust and careful way.

Lauren Griffith: Expanding beyond Buddhism, I’m curious to hear from both of you about some of the potential for interfaith dialogue. How can different traditions learn from each other and teach the secular world as they reshape these environmental morals and values?

Mary Evelyn Tucker: This is a very important question. They can learn from each other, clearly, and they can also learn from science. Science is beginning to take this moral and spiritual perspective much more seriously. But it’s always been our view, in the Forum on Religion and Ecology, that one of the best things about this dialogue and mutual learning is that religions can overcome the defense that their tradition is best, that they know best, or they have the way. This creates a humility that can help us to work together for the planetary future.

So, we’ve called the religions out of their small self to their larger self, to cooperate for something that is of great urgency and gaining momentum. And in that sense, we’re also learning that the languages that are used by each of these traditions have to be respected but also enhanced and grown. I think we’re learning how to articulate the ecological dimension of these traditions and also to cooperate in action, moving forward.

Demo Rinpoche: I really like what you said, a small self called to a large self. I think all religions are formed from learning from other traditions. And I don’t think there’s such a religion that formed independently. So, even Buddhism learned a lot of things from all of the Indian traditions. And likewise, the Abrahamic religions, too.

I think religions can learn something from each other because it is wrong to think your religion is totally right and another religion is totally wrong. So, if they’re honest, they should learn from each other.

Mary Evelyn Tucker:  I think we have to keep in mind that interreligious dialogue is fairly new in the human community, even though, of course, it took place historically all throughout Asia, with a great deal of syncretism and mingling of Buddhism and Confucianism and Daoism in China, for example, and so on.

But I think formally, in the modern period, when the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church in the early 1960s said there’s truth in other religions, and we must be dialoguing with them. That set in motion a more formal sense of dialogue trying to understand the traditions, and be respectful, and of course tolerant. And now, we’re at a second stage where it’s not just stating what your religious beliefs and practices are, but it’s about how can we work together for this common good and common future.

So, that’s why I think the question is very important, and I know that in the Himalayan region, a number of the Buddhist monasteries are doing work on climate change, and educating monks and laity on these issues. The Karmapa is doing this in at least 30 monasteries. So, there’s a lot of on-the-ground work being done, and I think more  non-governmental organizations and environmental groups are now cooperating and helping to change not only environmental practices but the values behind them that are so crucial.

Demo Rinpoche: I always think about how religions also need to update, right? What we can learn from science is that science is not set in the abstract. It’s set on what we can see and what’s happening. It’s very practical. I think religious people need to assess and understand what scientists know. We cannot ignore science from the religious perspective. Because if religious people ignore science, then that means they ignore reality. The other point is that religions are really powerful and really [protected] in many countries, even now. So, I think only a religious leader can lead people to care about the environment.

Mary Evelyn Tucker: I think that’s very well said. Thank you. And I wanted to bring that back to what we’re doing. We’re at a school here at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale, and we’ve been teaching here, my husband, John Grim and I for twelve years, and it’s very clear that we need the science, and we need to be in dialogue with science. And, in fact, sometimes those people on the religious side need some humility to work with the scientists who have been way ahead on these issues for several decades now, and religious communities are coming on board more in the last ten and twenty years. But especially in the last five years, I think there’s been a great growth of religiously-based environmentalism and a new opening with science. The American Association for the Advancement of Science is very interested in this perspective. The Ecological Society of America has had, in their annual meetings, panels on religion and ecology.

And I wanted to come back to one of the most promising signs, documents, if you will, that does bring together science and religion, and that is Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si, issued a few years ago. He begins with the science of ecology and says this is where we all need to begin. And then, he brings to bear, as you said so well too, the ethical, spiritual perspectives that need to go forward. And I wanted to underscore that Bill McKibben, one of the great American environmentalists, has said he feels the encyclical is probably the most important document of the 21st century. We might say so far. But I think that’s very important for all of us to keep in mind because Bill has written many books, blurbed many books, read many books. And for him to say that gives a special sense of promise and hope for the religion and ecology movement.

Clearly, that encyclical is addressed not only to Catholics and Christians but people around the planet. And every religious tradition has responded to it. So, if we can keep moving forward with that possibility of transformation of people and the planet, of ecology and justice that Pope Francis puts forward, with a call to all of the world’s religions, I think we have a great possibility, as well as great challenges ahead of us.

Demo Rinpoche: I think the Pope’s letter is really important, and it’s really a remarkable thing in this century for a great religious leader to use science and reality and help to open people’s eyes. His Holiness Dalai Lama, a long time ago, started to talk about the environment as well. But still, I think there are other many religious leaders who also need to assess what is happening right in the front of their eyes. They need to support environmental care.

Mary Evelyn Tucker: I’m so glad that you brought His Holiness the Dalai Lama into the conversation. I think the Dalai Lama was, as you said, one of the very first to understand the critical nature of our environmental crisis, to highlight the role of Buddhism, and to invite other religions onboard. So, in my view, he has been early, central, critical, and consistent on these issues. And a great leader, almost unmatched, especially in the early years. And now, as you’re saying, we need more of that stature, and it’s great to have the Pope and, of course, the Greek Orthodox patriarch Bartholomew, who have been speaking out on these issues for twenty-some years. More leaders are needed, as well as lay people, who can articulate with passion, conviction, and action the transformations that are needed.

Lauren Griffith is a recent graduate of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and the Yale Divinity School. 

Photo by Frances Gunn on Unsplash.

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