Thoughts on economics, ethics, gender, climate, language, Zen, and a few other things…
Author: Julie A. Nelson
Julie A. Nelson is a Professor of Economics, Emeritus; a writer on gender, ethics, economics, and ecology; a Dharma Holder and Interim Spiritual Director at the Greater Boston Zen Center; mother of two grown children; and, when energy permits, an avid dancer.
Based on a talk given at Harvard Divinity School, sponsored by the Religions and the Practice of Peace Initiative, on Feb. 18, 2016.
MANY BUDDHISTS—as well as many non-Buddhists!—have raised concern and alarm about the climate crisis and other crises facing our society and our world. Clearly, we need to take urgent action. As Buddhists, we have a pressing moral obligation to do what we can to relieve the suffering of all beings on the planet, both now and in the future. Our hearts yearn to make things better.
And clearly much of the climate change disaster is caused by economic activity. If you graph carbon dioxide emissions and industrial output over a long period of time, the two graphs look pretty much identical. The development of large scale, fossil-fuel burning industries was accompanied, in Western societies, by the rise of large corporations, global markets, and a rising emphasis on consumption as a source of well-being. Great wealth has been created, but this wealth has been very unequally distributed, and has often come at the cost of environmental and social sustainability.
It’s abundantly clear that we can’t go on with “business as usual.” People and other sentient beings are already feeling the disruptive effects of a set of historical and social developments that, as a whole, have taken far too little account of the effects of our production and consumption on the rest of nature. We urgently need to change how our economies work.
To stop the economy’s advance towards greed and destruction, we need new metaphors and images that inspire a radically different alternative.
What do you see in your mind’s eye when you hear the word ‘care’? If you search for images on Google you’ll get lots of pictures of white mothers snuggling with their babies. You’ll also see photos of a female caregiver’s hands intertwined with those of an elderly person, and images that show two hands holding a young plant that symbolizes Earth.
We get to choose between being self-interested, on the one hand, or putting the needs of others first, on the other, right? Or maybe not.
I grew up, as a Lutheran preacher’s kid, hearing a lot of negative things about self-interest, selfishness, and self-centeredness. And I heard a lot of positive things about putting others ahead of oneself, altruism, and even self-sacrifice. When I got older and went to college, I was exposed to a different view. Continue reading “Self-Interest and Other-Interest”
Part 4 of a reflection on birth, death, and the Linji Lu
Fear of the responsibilities that come with birth are only one side of the coin. At other times, I dread the prospect of loss and death. Things are slipping away. Health. Loved ones. Hopes. Abilities. Now my little log-rolling human figure is running backwards at a full tilt, trying to avoid loss, trying to pull things back towards myself.
Last January, I had planned to stay at sesshin for three weeks! But a mysterious illness forced me to return home after two days. Continue reading “Loss”
Part 3 of a reflection on birth, death, and the Linji Lu
Where does that feeling that something more–that too much–is expected from me come from? Many of the dharma talks that I listened to online, being too ill to attend the January sesshin in person, looked into our fundamental and common sense of “lack.” They examined how this drives us to think we need to be someone else other than who we are. Certainly my feelings of fear about under-performing during my sabbatical semester was an instance of that.
Also, more particularly, I could see how these fears were reinforced by being brought up in a Protestant Christian faith tradition that includes teachings about a final judgment day. Continue reading “Judgment day”
Part 2 of a reflection on birth, death, and the Linji Lu
Master Linji said, “Once there is right view, birth and death can no longer touch you……You should … achieve the state of having nothing to do…” At some moments, it is the responsibilities that come with birth that seem overwhelming to me. I was born a human, and feel a responsibility to do something worthwhile with that. What Linji describes sure doesn’t sound like my life! I live by to-do lists, crossing out work and personal tasks as they get accomplished. I feel myself racing ahead, as if log-rolling, trying to get somewhere. I’m doing and doing to keep that log spinning forward, and myself upright. Continue reading “When the responsibilities seem like too much…”
Part 1 of a reflection on birth, death, and the Linji Lu
“Once there is right view, birth and death can no longer touch you. At that point, whether you stay or go, you do so as a free person…You should stop the mind that is always wandering around, running to the neighbor’s house to study Zen…[and] achieve the state of having nothing to do…”
–from the Linji Lu (The Record of Master Linji) Parts 3 and 11, translated by Thich Nhat Hanh in Nothing to Do, Nowhere to Go.
The phrase “being free from birth and death” crops up in many Zen teachings. I first took “birth” and “death” as referring to the bookends of a human lifespan. I tended to associate “being free” from them with metaphysical doctrines that tell us that the cycle of being born and dying is a bad thing. Drawing from Hindu metaphysics, some interpretations of Buddhism tell us that the goal of spiritual practice is to extinguish such reincarnation.
On February 18, 2016, I had the honor to be invited to speak, along with Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, at a colloquium on “Buddhist Responses to Climate Change” at Harvard Divinity School. This is the video of the event. My talk was titled “Beyond ‘Small is Beautiful’: Buddhism and the Economics of Climate Change.”
When I was young, I thought of age as something “out there” somewhere. I had my healthy, active, young self, with all the things it could do. And I knew that some day, if I were lucky enough to live so long, I would have an old self, with a different set of possible activities. I pictured her with snow-white hair, sitting in a chair. That didn’t seem so bad.
But what I hadn’t foreseen was the nickel-and-diming process of loss that marks the transition between being young and being old. This was for some reason a surprise. Continue reading “Neither young nor old”
I wish that, as a child, someone had told me that it’s OK to feel love and resentment at the same time.
I was a child caregiver, my mother having developed rheumatoid arthritis when she was in her twenties. I can barely remember her driving our old red-and-white station wagon. My older siblings can remember her riding a bicycle. Continue reading “Love and Resentment”