When we arrived at her home, Joanna Macy was on the phone trying to raise money for a full page ad in the New York Times urging women to get out and vote for Dukakis for president. “The polls say it’s hopeless but I’ve just got to do something. Then I’ve got to let go, knowing I’ve done what I could . . . that’s really the hard part.”
As teacher, feminist, ecologist and social activist, Joanna Macy’s path is to combine her work on herself with her work in the world. “The organizing principle of everything that I do is the creative interdependence between spiritual awakening and social action.”
Joanna explains that the philosophical grounding of her work is “the Buddha’s central teaching of paticca sammupada or dependent co-arising,” an understanding that all things are interrelated. From that understanding arises the feeling of connection and mutual responsibility with all of life.
Joanna’s interests have led her to Sri Lanka where she worked with Sarvodaya Shramadana, a Buddhist-inspired village self-help movement, which she documents in her book Dharma and Development (Kumarian Press, 1983). In the United States, her involvement in the antinuclear movement awakened Joanna to the psychological obstacles that prevent effective social action, and as a result she began to develop what is now called “Despair and Empowerment Work,” which she describes in her book Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age(New Society Publishers, 1983). More recently, Joanna has become involved in the “deep ecology” movement, and has co-authored a book entitled Thinking Like a Mountain: Toward a Council of All Beings (New Society, 1988).
Joanna is also a Buddhist scholar—she did her doctoral dissertation on Buddhist philosophy and general systems theory—and some of her interpretations of what the Buddha taught are quite different than the traditional Theravada teachings. In our conversation she gives her own fascinating and somewhat controversial explanation of how the commentaries on the Theravada Abhidharma have shifted the meaning of a few of the Buddha’s original ideas.
Joanna now serves as an adjunct professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies, as well as several other schools. She must be an inspiring teacher. At one point, when we were talking about the dharma, Joanna’s eyes lit up and she exclaimed, “Its so beautiful . . . just pick it up anywhere!” We might say the same thing about Joanna Macy’s work, which shines through in the following conversation with her.
Wes Nisker with Barbara Gates
Inquiring Mind: How does your political and social action work contribute to your own spiritual growth? What is the dynamic there?
Joanna Macy: The organizing principle of everything I do is the creative interdependence between spiritual awakening and social action. Just this week, for example, organizing around the presidential election, I am encountering my own fear—and with it a basic issue, a key lesson to learn. I’m beginning to see its shape, and it has to do with what Gandhi talked about and what Krishna says to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita. It is acting without being dependent on the results of the action. Acting, in other words, when there’s no rational basis for hope. You act because that’s the only way to be.
I thought I had that down, and I’ve lectured about it in classes and workshops. But then, as always, you find yourself in the middle of the battle and you realize you’ve got to get it all over again on a deeper, more integrated level. I’d really like to be able to act without having to persuade myself that it will pay off, without asking, “What do the polls say? Is Dukakis going to make it or not?” The presidential election has brought up this issue for me again, in a way that I haven’t felt before. Look, I say to myself, there will be more fear in the future and a good chance of repression; I can’t afford to spend my energy trying to figure out if it “makes sense” to do something, or if it’s “in my interest” to do something, or if it’s “going to work.” I want to get beyond that, partly for selfish reasons, because it wears you out to keep figuring up your chances of success and whether or not your efforts will be worthwhile. There’s some dimension—something like grace—of moving into that space where you just do it. You just do it!
I remember what a Sarvodaya organizer said to me about equanimity, the Fourth Abode of the Buddha. He said, “Oh, Joanna-akka (Big Sister Joanna), you have no idea how much energy you save when you stop caring about the result!” He was always out there, putting himself on the line, a tireless, cheerful worker! In this election—which is a very fierce spiritual teacher—I remember him.
I also try to look at the bigger picture. I mean, who are we to think that our collective karma as a people would allow us to just wash our hands and get “nice” real quick! We committed genocide against the people of this land, we’ve caused enormous suffering in the world, we’ve been lining our pockets while we let our own people go homeless and hungry. So we’ve accumulated this karma. I would prefer to resolve it real quick with a good president, but I don’t think it works that way. Given our cultural history as well as our economic institutions, there is an inevitable playing out of our collective karma.
IM: How has your meditation practice and your study of Buddhism been a basis for your action in the world?
JM: The real philosophical grounding of my work comes from the Buddha’s central teaching of paticca samuppada or dependent co-arising, the understanding that everything is intrinsically interrelated. The Buddha said, “He who sees the dharma sees dependent co-arising, and he who sees dependent co-arising sees the dharma.” When I first encountered Buddhism, the teaching of causality was the farthest thing from my interest or inclination. But after I explored it a little, I began to see what the Buddha meant by dependent co-arising, and how radical and profound that insight really was. With it—with his “turning of the wheel of the dharma”—he turned the thinking of his time on its head. And that teaching is central now to our enterprise of living and to our liberation.
Let me go back and start with the Buddha’s idea of change, anicca. That also turned the thought of his age inside out. The philosophical thinking of the Indian subcontinent at the Buddha’s time was similar to what was happening in Greece—I think it might be related to the patriarchal cast of mind. That mindset equated reality with the changeless: What is really real does not change. Now you can’t prove that one way or the other, but once you make that axiomatic move it affects everything else. What it leads you to is a rejection of empirical experience: Since everything I experience by my senses is changing—my face in the mirror gets another wrinkle every day and the weather changes and my hopes change—then this world of my experience is less real. If you’ve made the supposition that what is real is unchanging, as Plato also did, then this world, this changing dimension, becomes illusory in some way. Then the spiritual journey—the project of liberation—is to try to get to the ultimate, unchanging, disembodied reality. We move away from the phenomenal world, seeing it as less real and less valuable. A split is created.
Gautama followed that path for a while; he tried, and excelled in, all the Hindu ascetic practices of denying and mortifying the flesh. The idea was to transcend this changing world of matter and phenomenality, which is less real than something else that doesn’t change, which must be something abstract, purely mental.
IM: That was the prevailing Hindu idea at the time, that there was a moksha or nirvana, a place which was unchanging and different than maya, or samsara, this conditioned reality.
JM: That’s right. That thinking reached its peak of expression in the Upanishads. This idea has been very present in Western thought as well; when you equate the real and the valuable with what is changeless, you get the same mind-matter split. You also get the disastrous split between humans and the rest of nature. Now what the Buddha did was to slip right out of that dichotomy. He said, what is real is change itself: sabbe anicca. Everything is without a permanent, changeless self— including you. You are not separable from your experience. This insight arises in vipassana practice—and it just blows your mind! You’re watching and watching these dharmas—or psychophysical events—come up, and it begins to dawn on you that among the things that are coming up on the screen you never see a little sandwich board saying, “I.” It dawns on you that there’s no experience of self separate from the experience of everything else.
So, the Buddha said that change is what is real. Heraclitus did that too, right? But the Buddha also said that there’s order in that change. Now this is an amazing move, because the previous mindset—you can see it both in Vedic India and in the Greeks—is to assume that order requires stability, that order requires permanence or freezing something in place. But the Buddha turned that inside out, too! He said that the order is in the change. And that is the meaning of dependent co-arising. “This being so, that is.” “When this arises, that arises.” “If this does not arise, that does not arise.” So the change is not chaotic. He made the radical assertion that the change is orderly, that order is intrinsic to change. What that also says is that there’s not some mind up there, some “Big Daddy Mind” that is making this happen and making that happen, imposing order on otherwise random events. Orderliness is simply “how things work.” That is the very meaning of the word dharma. It means, “That’s how things are ordered.”
For generations, most Western scholars of Buddhism didn’t really grasp the teaching of dependent co-arising, because they came to it with unconscious assumptions about linear causality. Now, thanks to modern physics and systems theory and systems cybernetics, we are beginning to move beyond linear causality.
IM: So it’s like the current scientific understanding that each subatomic event is conditioned by every other subatomic event, even if separated by great distances. It’s as if everything is imbedded in this interlocking web of occurrences. There may be no obvious or apparent connection, but everything is affecting everything else.
JM: Right. Take Karl Pribram’s holographic image of the universe. It is close to the Buddha’s understanding that all is intrinsically interrelated, everything occurs in relationship. The psychic corollary is that instead of being condemned to the isolation cell of your individual ego, you can enter into this web of co-arising and know that all of life is flowing through you all the time, you are inseparable from it. Through our action in the world there is a release into our true nature, because our true nature is interactive. We enter into our co-arising as into a dance.
IM: In some sense the dependent co-arising, the idea of everything affecting everything else, can also say to me that my freedom is limited.
JM: This was a burning question for many people who came to the Buddha. Some seekers, as the suttas show, came from schools that were very deterministic—like the Jains, who believed that your karma was cast in concrete, set by previous actions and previous incarnations, and that all you could do was to wear it away, usually by severe ascetic practices. But the Buddha said repeatedly that he taught the dharma—or paticca samuppada—for the sake of freedom. So that you will “have reason for doing this rather than doing that.” In other words, the interdependence, the reciprocal action between the factors that condition us, is such that you can alter it in one place and the house of cards tumbles, pull out one factor here or another there and the structure collapses. Each recognition of an attachment or an aversion frees you from the vicious circle of ignorance and gives you choice.
This recognition can either come in action or in meditation. Shanti Deva, the great eighth-century saint-scholar, tells us that to act for others can be as good a way to discover “no self” as sitting in meditative practice.
IM: This whole interpretation of the Buddha’s teachings seems to undercut the idea of nirvana, the unconditioned state, and along with it the Theravada emphasis on getting off the wheel, reaching a place where there is no longer change.
JM: Theravadan teachings tend to be imbued with the Theravada Abhidharma, and especially the commentaries on this Abhidharma, which evolved several centuries after the Buddha. The Theravada Abhidharma commentaries, like Buddhaghosa’s, altered the earlier presentation of paticca samuppada in significant ways. First, they affirmed that there are unconditioned dharmas, namely nirvana. Prior to that, in the vinaya and the Sutta Nikayas, there is nothing that is seen as unconditioned or arising independently.
IM: What you seem to be saying is that those earliest teachings are closer to Mahayana Buddhism than to the Theravada understanding.
JM: The seeds of the Mahayana, particularly the Madhyamika, are right there in the Pali texts, and that’s why, when the Mahayana actually does break on the scene around the first century, it is called, “the second turning of the wheel.” The turning of the wheel is the perception of dependent co-arising, paticca samuppada. That is the dharma. And the Mahayanist wisdom texts return to that perception and make a very clear statement that there is no nirvana without samsara, and that form and emptiness are one.
What had happened that necessitated that “second turning of the wheel” were assertions by influential Theravada Abhidharma commentaries, which said that there were unconditioned dharmas and an unconditioned state. It was a reification of some place outside of the dharma, outside of experience, outside of the laws of change.
IM: What would be the alternative understanding of nirvana? If it’s not the unconditioned state, what is it?
JM: It is the capacity, moment by moment, to be free. And it’s there right now. You can have it right now by breaking free from the attachments and aversions that bind you to small self. Nirvana is not a place, it’s an event. It’s the experience, as the Buddha said, of “the calming down” of self-strivings and strategies. The experience of it ignites in successive moments, as Sariputra describes when he says, ” . . . just as a jaggot fire is blazing, one flame arises and another flame fades out, so does one perception arise and another fade out. This is nibbana.” Soin the very heart of change, in the very midst of the phenomenal world of samsara, comes the recognition: “I don’t have to be trapped.”
When the Buddha described what happened for him under the bodhi tree, his enlightenment is portrayed in terms of what he saw—and it did not remove him from the world of flux. He beheld paticca samuppada, ” . . . and then brethren, then light arose, vision arose, joy arose, knowledge arose, and I sat there watching the arising and the ceasing.” He was just there with reality without trying to manipulate it and without trying to judge it and without trying to stop it. But when you make nirvana a place to go, a place to be removed from change, then of course, it shapes everything else. Then you start to think of this world as a trap and you are always looking for the exit sign. The whole enterprise shifts from transformation of life to escape from life. And if the world is a trap, it’s easy to feel resentful of it and not care what happens to it.
In order to understand this better we should look at the cultural context in which the Buddha was teaching. All teaching took place “in the forest” and there were a number of forest teachers, each with his own disciples—bands of dropouts who were seeking cultural and spiritual alternatives to the established order. And the norm for these seekers was ascetic. If we were there, we would be going around in robes and shaven heads. This would be the way to unhinge ourselves from the dominant culture and its ways of thinking. In that context the Buddha was accused of being soft and indulgent because he was less ascetic than the other forest teachers. He refused to hate the body or fear it as a source of attachment, delusion and suffering. In fact, he said that it is better to identify with the body than with the mind, because the mind changes even faster than the body. He taught that of the four kinds of grasping only one is after objects of sense desire, all the others are mental.
In order to get perspective on the world-rejecting flavor of the Pali texts, it is also well to remember that they were transmitted through the Theravadins, the most monastic of all the eighteen early schools of Buddhism. Theravadins assigned great value to maintaining the purity of the monks’ practice; hence the ascetic and reclusive flavor of their texts—and also, I would add, their misogyny.
In the later Abhidharma texts of the Theravada, three fundamental shifts occurred that many people erroneously assign to the Buddha himself. One, as I said, was to classify nirvana as an unconditioned dharma. Another was to interpret the wheel of causation as a chronological sequence of three lives, thereby weakening the perception of reciprocity between all the factors. A third was the idea of momentariness or khanika, where the dharmas (units of experience) are taken as occurring so rapidly that they don’t last long enough to affect each other. As with Hume, the British philosopher, what you get then is sequence, not causation. This view can undermine the idea that one might be an effective presence in the world.
You see, in focusing on proving that there is no self, and that you can take the self apart like a chariot until you just have its component parts, the Abhidharmists analyzed and dissected experience into its psychophysical elements or dharmas. They systematically categorized and classified these dharmas, almost as if they were real, discrete entities. The second turning of the wheel at the outset of the Mahayana blew all this apart with the affirmation that not just the self, but the dharmas too, and our concepts as well, are all empty of own-being. It returns to the original import of paticca samuppada.
When I was with the Sarvodaya movement in Sri Lanka, I noticed that in the training of monks to work in village development, they had dropped the Abhidharma. That is pretty amazing, since these are Theravadan monks. I asked the Reverend Nyanaseeha, director of the training school, about this and he said, “the suttas (the earlier texts) are more appropriate.” His own teaching focused less on the annihilation of the self than on the experience of extension into and through other beings, into wider and wider circles.
IM: So you move beyond the self by submerging it, dissolving it in all of life.
JM: In “the second turning of the wheel” that idea comes to the fore in the literature called the Perfection Of Wisdom. That’s when the bodhisattva idea is born, vowing to save all beings, knowing that there are no separate beings. Now let me just say that what we’re having now in our time, I’m convinced, is a third turning of the wheel.* We circle back to the original teachings, with an expanded understanding of the implications of pattica samuppada. Note the emphasis now, in our time, on moving beyond separateness into interconnectedness and interbeing. That is the central thrust of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching.
IM: It is also the approach of the “deep ecology” movement, and seems to fit in with the whole concept of Gaia, the one living organism. These new progressive philosophical movements seem to have that same understanding of conditioned co-arising. It’s the Buddha’s wisdom come around in different form.
JM: Right. So in the third turning of the wheel we’ve got the earliest teachings of the Buddha, picked up again as the wheel just—whooosh!—spins again. And the ecologists are on it and the feminists are on it.
It is the old teaching and also new again, at the same time. We can imagine ourselves released from the squirrel cage of ego, released from the terrible trips we play on and lay on ourselves, released from our own addictions, and from the behavior that devastates the world. For centuries we have focused on the fetters and suffering that we seek release from. Now, with this third turning of the wheel, our eyes are turning to what we’re released into! We’re released into interbeing, into the dance of the holographic universe, where the part contains the whole! We suddenly find that we live and act on behalf of all beings and by virtue of all beings!
And it’s not a moral trip. It’s not some kind of righteous burden that says, “On top of everything else I’ve gotta do I’ve gotta go stand at the polls.” Rather it springs naturally from the ground of being. It is not something more we ask of our self, but rather the release from that self—release through action, and into action.
IM: What role does meditation practice have to play in this third turning of the wheel?
JM: I believe that in this third turning there will be no split between meditation and action in the world. These two dimensions of experience seem to have become polarized. For example, when I was in graduate school in the early 1970s, I wanted to do a tutorial on meditation and revolution, and my department advisor said, “Well, that’s a contradiction in terms, those are polar opposites.” Now that view is beginning to change. You don’t want to lose the distinctions between the two, but instead to see how they are mutually reinforcing—like our friends who are doing meditation out on the railroad tracks at the Concord Naval Weapons Station.
IM: There are some who would say that going and sitting in a cave and meditating is also social action. Purification of your own “self” also helps purify the web. You might say, “They also serve, who only sit.”
JM: I agree and would add that the reach of their practice extends farther than one would think, because the part contains the whole. We’re so interconnected that someone who, let’s say, is on retreat or working alone to restore a tract of wilderness, is actually affecting us all, not just because it’s arithmetically true that one billionth of the world is getting cleaner, but because there’s a co-arising dynamic there. The whole is intrinsically altered, and each of us with it.
IM: That’s the one-hundredth monkey business.
JM: (Laughs) Yes. That’s it. With the third turning of the wheel we see that everything we do impinges on all beings. The way you are with your kid is a political act, and the products you buy and your efforts to recycle are part of it, too. So is meditation. Just trying to stay awake and aware is a tremendous task and of ultimate importance. We’re trying to be present—to ourselves and to each other—in a way that can save our planet.
IM: Saving the planet implies taking responsibility for the future as well.
JM: Well, lately I have been practicing co-dependent arising with beings who aren’t born yet. I evoke them, I see them—they become very real to me. You see, I have been working on the issue of radioactive waste. The reality of it is so overwhelming that it’s easy to give in and think there’s nothing we can do. That is when I feel the presence of the beings who are not born yet. It’s like they say to me, “This is a real important time, and we’re with you. We know you’re working for our sake.” I feel a great love for them, these beings of the future time. Sometimes with workshop groups I’ve tried letting them be present, too—in councils in New Mexico and Massachusetts, where we let the future beings speak through us as to what they want us to do with this radioactive waste. At one point, we talked as if we were the future beings; at another we made a tape recording for them. In doing this I felt heartened by the teaching of paticca samuppada. In the dharma we are here for each other, and to sustain each other, over great distances of space and time.
IM: Do you think it is possible to have that vital insight of dependent co-arising without meditating? Can that understanding be taught or realized in other ways?
JM: I really don’t know. I don’t see how, personally, you can sustain that insight without meditating, but that doesn’t mean that in order for our world to heal we’ve got to get 5.2 billion people sitting on zafus.
JM: I think it will be like what Robinson Jeffers called “falling in love outwards.” That’s our mission, to fall in love with our world. We are made for that, you see, because we are dependently co-arising. It is in the dance with each other that we discover ourselves and lose ourselves over and over.
IM: So in this third turning of the wheel, there is also the building of sangha, the creation of community. Maybe not all five billion of us need to get on zafus, but perhaps in the building of community we can see the dependent co-arising and lose our sense of separate self. You saw how that worked in Sri Lanka and yet it may be more difficult here in this culture where we are so isolated, not only as separate selves but as separate cells in our nuclear family houses. We have very little sense of community.
JM: And that is one of the great sufferings of our time. So, yes, the building of community is a great part of the third turning, because community is where the interdependence is visible, manifest, an agent for healing. There’s a wonderful book called No Contest, by Alfie Kohn. It challenges the great American myth that competition is innate, healthy and productive. In reality, competition distorts and isolates and makes us sick. We’ve been in an insane asylum where we’ve been told that what we are is limited to what’s in this bag of skin. This is a terrible thing we’ve been doing to ourselves!
IM: And that we’re in competition with all the other bags of skin.
JM: Right. And so we need therapy, we need communal forms of therapy. We have to learn a new concept of self—self as all beings, self as planet. We have to be faithful with each other. We have to build ourselves into each others’ lives in new ways, and let structures arise by which we live together . . . and work and play and pray together.
IM: It seems those communal efforts were happening more in the ’60s and early ’70s than they are now.
JM: A lot of greed and fear are coming up now in our society, and that’s very isolating. It can make you crazy. So now we’ve got to see right through that greed and fear, doggedly and with every breath, refusing to be pitted against each other. Only through all beings and with all beings can we awaken to our joy. Our daily adventure is to realize that.
There is a meditation that I like to do. It is found in The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Verses, a text that appeared with “the second turning of the wheel,” at the outset of the Mahayana. It is called “the meditation of jubilation and transformation.” I offer it frequently in my empowerment workshops, and although it is a training for the bodhisattva, I don’t necessarily tell people that it’s a Buddhist practice. Here is how it goes in the original form:
First the bodhisattva (that’s you) sits there and imagines all beings living now, and all beings who ever lived. Just pretend you can see them in your mind’s eye, extending out into the distance and back through time. All these brother and sister beings, including all species—picture their countless numbers as if on successive waves of mountain ranges, receding into the haze. It’s an enormous vista. Then the bodhisattva sits and thinks that in every single one of those lives there was at least one deed of merit done. At least one. No life was so deprived or so depraved that it did not contain one act of generosity or one moment of caring, one deed of self-sacrifice, of kindness. These are the roots of merit. So the bodhisattva, calling this to mind, proceeds to sweep all these meritorious acts together. Do this with your hands, actually sweep them together into a pile. Now the bodhisattva pats them into a ball. Then the bodhisattva takes the ball and weighs it in his hand and views it with exceeding gladness and jubilation, because he knows that no act of goodness is ever lost. You see, in a dependently co-arising world, no act of merit is ever lost—it continues to be an ever present resource. And knowing that, the bodhisattva takes the ball of merit and turns it over, and turns it over into the healing of the world, for the enlightenment of all beings. That’s the meditation.
So now, you get up in the morning, and you feel bloody-minded and tired, and you think, “Why did I say I’d raise money for this ad campaign or circulate that petition . . . I’ve got other things to do. Besides, I probably can’t do it right, and it’s probably too late, and I don’t care anyway . . . yada yada yada.” Then you remember the bodhisattva’s ball of merit and say, “Well, I don’t need to know how to do it. And I don’t need to be brave enough or wise enough, because whatever is required is all there in the ball.” The courage of a Gandhi or the wisdom of a Martin Luther King, or the wonderful endurance of a Dorothy Day, they’re all in there. So that for me is paticca samuppada, too—that in the co-arising web of life, there are vast resources on which we can draw.
At times, when I am interacting with someone, I ask myself, what can this person add to my ball of merit? What hidden wisdom or secret kindness lurks behind that face? It’s a way of cultivating mudita, joy in the joy of others. In opening to that, we also open to the strengths of others. Then we can let synergy happen and let community happen.
This third turning of the wheel is central, I think, to what Buddhism has to offer to our world in this time, and it is also what we see happening within the Buddhist movement. It is of great depth and great promise, and involves much that we are only now beginning to conceptualize. In this turning of the wheel, as we noted, the spiritual goal is not escape from the world, but transformation of the world. The practice is not for perfection, but for wholeness. As Carl Jung foresaw coming for us at the end of the Piscean age—we let go of the intrinsic dualism of striving to be perfect, and seek instead to restore connection, coming round to a place of vast inclusion.
IM: In this third turning of the wheel we go from personal salvation to planetary salvation, back to the community of all.
JM: Yes! And it all comes back to co-arising again, to reciprocal action. The motto of the Sarvodaya movement was, “We build the road and the road builds us.” Through that which we seek to heal will we be healed.
* Footnote by Joanna Macy:
The metaphor of the Three Turnings of the Wheel of the Dharma (tri-dharma-shakra-pravarttana) has been taken in a variety of ways. For example, Mahayanist historians use it to refer to the Abhidharma, Madyamika and Yogachara schools of thought, while in Tibetan Buddhism it often refers to the Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions. In a similar way, I see these turnings as a spiral, circling back to the original teaching of paticca samuppada and embracing it in a wider, contemporary context.