BOOK REVIEW: THE BURNING HOUSE
A highly recommended illustration of spirituality in support of political action. In The Burning House: A Buddhist Response to the Climate and Ecological Emergency (1), author Shantigarbha affirms that ‘the ecological crisis is nothing if not a spiritual crisis, a crisis of meaning and direction for our civilisation’. Most Druids would say the same, and see value in his approach.
Shantigarbha (Seed or Womb of Peace) (2) is a teacher of Buddhism and Nonviolent Communication (NVC). He has also trained members of Extinction Rebellion (XR) in nonviolence and de-escalation skills. He believes that we cannot wait to change our lives before we change the world, or to change the world before we change our lives: we have to do the best we can with both, together, now. He sees the climate crisis as primarily one of ’empathy, connection and community’ and says that ‘when we use our energy to cultivate our own vitality, we naturally use the abundance we discover in the service of life’.
The book title The Burning House references a traditional Buddhist story about a father trying to get his children out of a burning house. There is no time to pick them up individually, so he simply commands them to leave. But they are busy playing with their toys and ignore him. He has to find a skilful means of getting them out. In his anguish (but also inspiration) he tells them that there are even more wonderful and exciting toys outside. In the parable the burning house stands for a life of samsara and unawareness. Outside there is the opportunity for awareness and the tools to develop it.
The book looks first at the climate crisis and ways it can be understood. There follow chapters on how Buddhist ethics support environmental ethics, and how compassionate action based on wisdom can enable the transformation we need. There are chapters on aspects of emotional intelligence. How to transform anger is the first – rather than acting out our anger or repressing it, we can identify and mobilise ‘the life in it’. Hatred, by contrast, is characterised as always toxic and self-harming. There are chapters on ecological grief and its potentially heavy weight – and also on gratitude for what we do still have. There is a beautiful quote from Francis Weller: ‘How much sorrow can I hold? That’s how much gratitude I can give. If I carry only grief, I’ll bend toward cynicism and despair. If I have only gratitude, I’ll become saccharine and won’t develop much compassion for other people’s suffering. Grief keeps the heart fluid and soft, which helps make compassion possible’ (3).
Later chapters focus more specifically on nonviolent social change, on being the change, and on the role of nonviolent disruption in the pursuit of climate justice. Practical examples draw on UK experience in 2019, mostly in London and Bristol. Whilst illuminating, they are limited in place and time. The last chapter, Final thoughts: the beauty and terror, summarises what we can do both individually and collectively. It sees some grounds for hope – if we treat the climate and ecological emergency as an emergency. Shantigarbha draws on Sraddha, ‘the Buddhist equivalent of hope’, better translated as confidence or trust. It is not faith or hope in the ordinary sense. ‘Sraddha represents a higher or broader perspective, our connection with vision. It signifies an emotional response to our ideals. In terms of the burning house it represents the father’s cry of inspiration’. We are invited to have the courage and confidence to do what we can, and let the effects ripple out. It is what we can do, and all we can do.
The Burning House offers valuable perspectives both on Buddhist political engagement and on climate action. Each chapter contains a link to a guided meditation, offered as a resource to readers.
(1) Shantigarbha The Burning House: A Buddhist Response to the Climate and Ecological Emergency Cambridge: Windhorse Publications, 2021 (https://www.windhorsepublications.com)
(2) See: https://www.SeedofPeace.org
(3) See: https://www.thesunmagazine.org/issues/478/the-geography-of-sorrow)